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BOOKS Leslea Newman gets personal with 'I Carry My Mother'
by Sarah Toce
2015-02-04

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Out lesbian-feminist author and poet Leslea Newman didn't plan to pen a formal book of poetry, but sometimes in life the things left unplanned are the most rewarding.

"In my old age I have become a formalist, which is very surprising to many people especially me, because I studied with The Beats, Allen Ginsberg was my mentor, and we really didn't talk about formal poetry at all during my education," Newman said. "I went to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute. But later in life I found that I seemed to write a lot of poetry books in this form, which is a full-length collection that has a narrative arc—a beginning, a middle, and an end. I did that with October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard and I did it with Still Life with Buddy, which is a book of poems about the friendship between a lesbian and a gay man living with AIDS."

I Carry My Mother is a new project for Newman coming out in 2015. The book concept developed from an extremely personal place, much like the remaining body of her work.

"I was taking care of my mother, who was battling actually two diseases, COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder] and cancer. It's a very profound experience to nurse one's parent toward her death and then beyond it," Newman reflected. "My first love is poetry; I started writing it when I was eight and it's always been a haven for me, and interestingly enough, I found myself back in that same childhood bedroom where I started writing poetry, again, literally half a century later, writing poetry, this time about my mom. And it's funny, because 50 years ago I was writing kind of sad poems, lonely poems, then as a teenager in that bedroom I wrote a lot of rebellious poems, some directed toward my mom, and this book is really an homage to her and even though it's different poems, I think of it as one long poem as a tribute to her and to our relationship."

Newman wrote descriptively about her sometimes rocky relationship with her mother in the 2008 book The Reluctant Daughter and how a tragic event unexpectedly began to mend their hearts.

"My mom had a very close brush with death 10 years before she died. She collapsed on a cruise ship and had to be put on life support and airlifted to a hospital in California, and I flew out there and stayed by her side for 10 days, and she credits me with saving her life. I don't know if that's true or not, but we had had a pretty contentious relationship up to that point and then after that everything changed," Newman explained. "I think we had both matured, and I realized how precious it was to have a mother when I was sitting for hours at her bedside when she was very ill. I realized that everything that had happened between us really didn't matter; what mattered was the present moment. And that really just cleared the way for us to have the loving relationship I always wanted to have."

From that moment forward, Newman and her matriarch were in the clear.

"From that point on we did have a really magnificent relationship. I spoke to her every day, visited her as often as I could, and then when she really got ill with her cancer, I really took a very active role in her care," she said. "I know many people for whom that never happened. I think if somebody dies that you have unresolved issues with, it's much harder. I felt really purely sad when my mom died, you know, I didn't feel, I don't know, whatever else you might feel, guilt or turmoil or unrest. I just felt like I was very sad."

Newman's struggle for an intimate relationship with her mother is a story many others have experienced, and she is aware that her new book of poetry may help them—or at least allow them to feel less alone.

"Probably everybody on the planet at one time or another has lost a beloved person, whether it's a parent or a friend or a spouse or, god forbid, a child, a grandmother. So I hope that the poems will offer some comfort, because the reader and I have the shared experience, whether it's somebody reading the book who has lost a mother or somebody else," Newman said. "I hope that the reader comes away with a feeling of hope, especially with the epilogue, the poem 'I Carry My Mother,' which shows that even though a person is gone physically from the planet, that person is always with you."

Newman said she finds sharing personal details about her life through her work a nonthreatening process.

"It's my choice to do it. Nobody's forcing me to do this; I don't have to do this. I am compelled, for whatever reason, to do this. So I think with that comes a little bit of responsibility. Every time someone picks up a piece of my writing and spends precious moments of his or her life reading it that's a gift to me," Newman said. "So if someone stops me on the street or sends me an email to communicate however they feel about my writing, I feel honored and I feel like I can respect them by responding."

A newly illustrated edition of her book Heather Has Two Mommies will be published in March 2015 by Candlewick Press. As an out lesbian herself, Newman writes about what she feels is important.

"I write what is in my heart, what affects me profoundly. I hope to make some kind of impact with my writing. Every time I write a book I think, 'Is this the book I would want to leave behind if the next day I was going to ascend to Nirvana?' If the answer is no, then there's no point in writing it," Newman shared. "I mean, I know I have written some children's books that are not serious, that are fun, but I think there's a place for that, too. But I really feel that my writing is my passion and if I don't feel passionately about what I'm writing about, I'm really not doing my job."

One cannot help but notice the recurring motherly subjects in her work.

"I am not a mother, though I have had a mother. I have written so much about motherhood; I mean, Heather Has Two Mommies, Mommy, Mama, and Me, The Reluctant Daughter, Nobody's Mother, and I Carry My Mother. … Just the word 'mother' or some version of it is in so many book titles of mine. I find that rather astonishing," Newman ruminated.

Has it crossed Newman's mind that this reoccurrence of theme could possibly have something to do with mothering herself through her work?

"Oh that is a great observation. I think you could be right. That makes a lot of sense, because I actually do have a poem in one of my books that talks about the fact that I am the last daughter, because I have two brothers and neither of them had biological daughters," Newman said. "I talk about in that poem that I hope my mother and her mother and her mother before her, etc. will be proud of all that I have done, because I am the last daughter. And one of the things that I have done, which I talk about in that poem, is mothering myself."

Would her mother be proud of her daughter now?

"My mother was my biggest fan, and she would go to the library where she lived and make sure they had my books; she would go to bookstores and put them face-out on the shelves," Newman said. "The lesbian novels were a little tough for her, but the picture books she would buy multiple copies for her friends who all had children and then grandchildren and she was very, very, very proud of me."

Find out more about Lesléa Newman and I Carry My Mother, visit www.lesleanewman.com/newbks.htm .


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