Lesléa Newman is a beloved author of books for children and adults. Her recent book of poetry for adults, I WISH MY FATHER (a companion to I CARRY MY MOTHER) is a deeply moving exploration of love and loss. An excerpt from I WISH MY FATHER (my favorite poem in the collection) can be found at the bottom of this post.
I am a huge fan of Lesléa’s work and delighted to have the opportunity to chat with her about writing for different audiences.
What are the similarities and differences between writing for a young audience (picture books) and writing poetry for adults, as in your new book, I WISH MY FATHER?
Poetry and picture books (whether written in verse or in prose) are very similar in that both forms tend to be short, which means every single word has to earn its space on the page. Sound is very important in both these forms. Poetry is an oral tradition. Picture books are often read aloud. Literary techniques such as repetition and alliteration are commonly used in both forms. Rhythm is very important in both forms, again because they are typically read aloud. Poetry is all about imagery, creating pictures in the reader’s mind. Picture books of course have imagery right there on the page. In a picture book, the page turn works in the same way as a stanza break; it gives the reader a chance to pause and take a breath, it can also build suspense. I recommend that everyone who writes picture books read poetry on a regular basis and also try writing it. You may surprise yourself with your own creative genius! And even if you never write a poem, reading poetry will teach you a ton about language.
It seems like getting to the heart of your story or poem is important to you in all genres you write. Can you talk a bit about how you create these heartful moments in your work?
That is a very kind thing of you to say. My writing business is called “Write from the Heart” and that’s the place I always start. I have a friend who never says, “What’s on your mind?” She always says, “What’s on your heart?” So that is what I ask myself. What is tugging at my heartstrings? That’s what I need to be writing about. I try very hard to write from a place of compassion: compassion for others, compassion for myself, compassion for the world. One of the “jobs” of a piece of writing is to inspire empathy in the reader. I had a writing professor in college who once wrote at the end of one of my poems, “So what?” I was devastated at the time, but now I am actually very grateful because I put all my work through the “So what?” test. Meaning that my work has to matter in some ways. And by matter, I mean it has to come from my heart and touch the heart of others.
How do you decide if something that inspires you is going to be a piece for kids or adults? For example, did you ever consider writing a different version of I WISH MY FATHER for a younger audience?
I don’t really decide. The work decides. I am at its mercy. I start scribbling words on a piece of paper (yep, I still write the good old-fashioned way with a pen and notebook) and see where the writing leads. Since I’ve put in my 10,000 hours and then some, I can count on my intuition to tell me what form the material needs to take. In the case of I WISH MY FATHER, the protagonist is in her 60’s and her father is in his 80’s, so it was clear to me that this book was going to be for an adult audience. However, I have written children’s books about my dad. DADDY’S SONG was published by Holt in 2007 and WHAT DADDIES DO is forthcoming from Abrams. I “double-dip” a lot. My book I CARRY MY MOTHER is also a book of poems for adults. My book, JUST LIKE MAMA (Abrams, 2010) is a picture book. As Flannery O’Connor so famously said, “If you survived your childhood, you have enough to write about to last the rest of your life.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Yes. While it is important for a book to do well, it is more important for a book to do good. To that end, in loving memory of my dad, who was very fond of animals and was always comforted by the therapy dogs that stopped by his hospital bed, I will make a donation for each book ordered through my website to Bright Spot Therapy Dogs. Information can be found here: https://lesleanewman.com/books-for-adults/poetry/i-wish-my-father/
I am honored to share a poem from From I WISH MY FATHER by Lesléa Newman:
MY MOTHER IS AT THE BRIDGE
table with Loretta, Gert
and Pearl, when my father
finds his way to Heaven.
“Sit down, dear,” she says
patting the seat beside her
barely looking up from the hand
she’s been dealt. “The game is
almost through.” But my father is
too overcome to sit. He stands
and stares at his beloved, free
of wheelchair and oxygen tank
happily puffing away
on a Chesterfield King
held between two perfectly
manicured fingers, sipping
a cup of Instant Maxwell
House, leaving a bright red
lip print on the white china cup
her hair the lovely chestnut brown
it was the day they met,
her face free of worry
lines, the diamond pendant
he bought her on their first trip
to Europe glittering
against her ivory throat.
She looks like the star
of an old black-and-white movie
who would never give him
the time of day but somehow
spent 63 years by his side.
“I missed you,” my father
tells my mother, leaning down
to kiss her offered cheek.
“Of course you did,”
says my mother, who always
She plays her cards
right, and after Loretta and Pearl
and Gert fold, she stands to let
my father take her in his arms
and in their heavenly bodies
“My Mother Is At The Bridge” copyright ©2021 Lesléa Newman from I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA). Used by permission of the author.
Thank you, Lesléa! As always, your insights are illuminating and inspiring.