Thursday, May 14, 2009

Joy Leftow: Dare to be Different

I like Joy Leftow's iconoclastic ways and writing so much that I wanted to feature an inteview with her on this blog. Enjoy!

Please tell us about the genesis of your book.
Spot of Bleach is an organic mix of sensibility and growth up until the time book was printed in 2006, dating back to poetry first written in 1980 when I wrote the sestina “Twisted, A Sestina of Love” at a writing class at Columbia University. As I put the book together, it seemed to choose its own subjects from which I named chapters.

The placement of the chapters took some time to figure out. I took the book apart and put it together several times before being sure the fit was right. Finally it made sense that the very risqué love story should go at the end. I wrote that story in 2001 when I attended the creative writing program at CCNY, where I earned my second masters.

From the very beginning, my creative writings caused a riff in every writing class. Other members became angry about my style and very often argued about my characters complaining that the characters didn’t make them feel empathy. Most professors pointed out that the very thing that the other students didn’t like about my characters, are the things that make the characters alive and real.

What's the one thing you most want people to know about your book?
The book evolved out life experience, creativity, and my powers of observation. There are many stories to tell and within this volume I tell many. You may hate what I write about or how I write, but I promise this book won’t bore you.

I need writing like air and this book is what I breathed out. I call my poems “my offspring” because I have given them life. In that regard, the book is a parallel expression of the years from which the works are collected, an assortment of articles, stories, philosophical meanderings or what may now be called flash fiction along with narrative poetry.

Please tell us a little about the photographs that are included in your collection and how you see them as complementing the poems.

Years ago after I purchased my first digital, people said I had a good eye for showing things in a different perspective. Since the book is very personal, the photos add to this view by showing more about how I see things. For example, the cover section Philosophy has a photo I took while in Thailand visiting the Golden Buddha. The cover for the chapter forms is a famous rock form in Los Cabos. The cover pic came to me in a dream, and although the pic was ten years old, it was an urban pic of me in Central Park with my favorite statue, the Lewis Carroll Statue of Alice in Wonderland.

A Barbara Walters question: If you were a poem by any writer, which poem would you be and why?
I would be “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. Since childhood, I have loved that poem and trees have always appealed to me. I watch the moon and stars through stark branches. I watch the trees change season-to-season and sometimes fall into ill health or get blown over in a storm. Living in a big city as I do, trees are my opportunity to commune with nature. I’m lucky my building is in the northern tip of Manhattan Island where there are many parks. My apartment overlooks an extended spot of nature near the highway. I have several poems inspired by nature and trees.

Why do you write poetry?
I write because I have to; I don’t have a choice. Writing is my first love. I need writing to survive. My poetry has evolved along with me to do more than only share stories. Sometimes there’s a story within, but it will only be one facet of the entire poem which has taken on existential and surreal elements, especially in my newer bluetry series and other writing which can be seen on my blog.

Do you think the Internet is a good complement to writing—or does it just get in the way?
The internet is made for networking and research or maybe just made for me. I can surf all day and network endlessly and it seems to fit my style. It works for me. Look at all the things I’ve done on Facebook alone; first I made a fan club for someone else then for myself, then for a magazine which published my work. Then I promoted several other groups and people. Afterwards I became an editor for The Cartier Street Review and another editor took note of all this activity and asked me to edit an anthology with her. The internet helps move things along.

The only problem I see with this is for a solitary person like me, it encourages me to stay in the house and remain solitary. Why go out when I can accomplish so much sitting in front of a computer?

Do you believe all poetry is political—or just some poems?
I think all poetry is political to the extent that life is political. Every time we make a statement or write a sentence it has wider implications, unless all you say is pass the butter, and even something like that can be made political. Why not get up and get the butter yourself? So much is a mechanism of social behavior we learn. And why must we follow norms? Who is it who decides what norms to follow?

I have always rebelled against norms. For example, I love to eat with my hands instead of a fork, I love to bring up subjects that could be embarrassing. I often write about relationships based on power structures. Work relationships and the structure of work are also political so if you write about work then, in essence, it’s political. Some poetry is blatantly political, concerning the presidency or human rights. More subtle poetry is about relationships or written from a woman’s or man’s view. Sometimes people don’t consider my work political in spite of the fact that I often address social issues in my writing.

Please share with us one poem from the collection, and then riff a little about the journey the poem takes the reader on.


I’m close with this nurse who works at Presbyterian Hospital. One day she told me this story about this baby who’d been born at the hospital and was so tiny because he’d been born addicted to crack. This woman could not have her own children and had considered adoption but finally gave up on the idea. You know how couples are sometimes, they have so much for each other and there’s no more to go around, and her husband thrived under all her attention. This newborn called out to her in a way that made her move like she’d never moved before. As if suddenly without learning she’d gotten up and could tango. She told me a story and we both had tears in our eyes because I felt her pain and the pain of this infant.

Professional caregivers often suffer and burn out because of our pain. It’s a difficult job to keep giving with no payback in sight except to know you’ve done right by someone, so I related. That night, I said I’m going to write a poem about this baby and JoAnne said, Please do, it would help me to deal with it.
I wrote this poem back in 1994 and it’s as apt today as it was then because the problem still exists. I have friends on the scene who tell me each time they hear the poem they hear different things. People cry when I read this poem. They get it! Sometimes people get angry and tell me my poetry isn’t real poetry. There’s been a lot of controversy around that. I actually have a piece on my blog about this which got a great many responses.

Others who have heard me read this before will request it at readings. I'm actually quite bad at attending readings which is kind of strange because there's this dichotomy; I'm very friendly and outgoing while simultaneously reclusive and shy. The other thing to remember is that when blues first emerged, they said it wasn’t “real” music and the same with jazz. Dare to be different, I’ve lived my life by that code.

What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a series of bluetry poems. I labeled them bluetry (yes I made it up) because this series concerns the common themes of blues. This year has been a year for the blues for me. I was compelled to write these. The first bluetry I wrote invokes Billie Holiday—one of my all-time favorites—and is called “I sing the blues for you today.” This poem took me three months before I knew where I was.

I threw Billie’s lines in the bluetry and they took off. I also have a bluetry poem about a dog rescue and canned hunts, another passion of mine. What I see happening in my poetry and writing is that I mix more elements together and take risks. I take a pinch of surreal, mix with equal parts enthusiasm and passion, add existentialism and observations, throw in some reality and voilà!


Anything else you'd like to add?
The most frequent comment about my work usually concerns its honesty and openness or something about my passion. Absolutely, I write with passion, the way I live. People often write me about my poetry and comment on my life being so sad. I don’t know what to do about that really but passion is evoked from intensity. That is the way I am and the way I was born. Perhaps artists become artists because they do feel things more intensely.

From way back I always have a pen in my hand. Now I mostly sit in front of the computer but if I'm forced to go out, I've always got pen and paper at hand and most often use it. Now, I have very little time, being totally involved with two current projects, editor at The Cartier Street Review, and also for The Smoking Book, an anthology concerning smoke, fire, fog, or anything that concerns smoke. I also write interviews for Street Literature Review, the paper mag. It’s also time to return to that unfinished 186 page novel and just spit it out! I love writing and love reading. Being busy with passion is what I live for.