Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Barbara Leonhard

Barbara Leonhards website

-Barbara Leonhard’s

work appears in Spillwords, Anti-Heroin Chic, Free Verse Revolution, October Hill Magazine, Vita Brevis, Silver Birch Press, Amethyst Review, anthologies Well-Versed, Prometheus Amok and Wounds I Healed: The Poetry of Strong Women. Her poetry collection, Three-Penny Memories: A Poetic Memoir, will be published in October 2022 by IEF (Experiments in Fiction). Barbara enjoys bringing writers together and has been sponsoring open mics and readings on Zoom during the pandemic. You can follow her on https://www.extraordinarysunshineweaver.blog.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I was 8 years old and living in Great Falls, Montana. For some reason, I felt compelled to write little stories with no endings and some poetry, which my parents would have me read to friends. I wanted to share my personal thoughts, especially after surviving measles encephalitis at age 6 going on 7. The encephalitis caused brain damage, making it difficult to recall things and communicate. I believe creative writing helped create new neuron connections over time.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I think my parents probably read poetry to me, or I read poems in school at that young age. I wrote poems on and off for years. In college, I had wonderful professors in the English Department. A British poet, Peter Thomas, edited the department’s literary magazine, The Woodsrunner (long ago out of print), where I was first published. Also, I was able to meet the poet Alastair Reid, who was visiting the college, Lake Superior State College (now University) in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. He read my poetry and was encouraging.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

I would say in my undergraduate and graduate studies, I was more aware of the traditional and modern poets than contemporary poets. I really enjoyed studying the Romantics and 18th Century poets. Also, I had to translate Beowulf in my Old English class. I enjoyed the poets in the Middle English period as well. Most courses were surveys of poets, but I delved into contemporary poets, like Plath, Merril, Bly, Wright, Sexton, Oliver, Simic, Pinsky, Olds, Harjo, and so many others. 

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I write or revise daily. Sometimes poems begin on note pads, in a very disorganized journal, or on my Notes app on my iPad. I think the revision stage is the most important one, which is why I don’t consider myself prolific. I always spend too much time conversing with a poem. What is my point? How do I employ imagery? Is the poem unified, impactful, well formatted, and so on. When I think a poem is finished (if that’s possible), I consider places to submit it. I also get feedback on some of my poems in my writing groups. Another writing activity is research depending on the topic and of course reading poetry.

5. What subjects motivate you to write?

People’s stories, nature, my inner world. My poems arise out of an inspired moment that has an emotional trigger. Sometimes, the trigger is a political topic. In an anthology Well Versed (2021), one of my poems on the insurrection at the US Capitol, “Picasso Dreams Broken Glass” won third place. And in the same anthology, “From Your Son”, which was a letter from George Floyd to his mother, won honorary mention. Other emotional triggers are more personal. Recently I earned recognition with two poems in Spillwords. My poem “Cooking a Life with a Wire Spine” was nominated for Publication of the Month of August 2021, and “Marie Kondo Cleans My Purse at Starbucks” won Publication of the Month for January and February 2022. These poems, which are in my new collection coming out in October, are about my mother and me. The first one uses a cookbook to contain our mother-daughter dynamic. Mom was the wire spine, and her life lessons are described in terms of food preparation. In the second poem, Marie Kondo helps me let go of the past after Mom dies. My grief and loss are laid out on tables for the public to see. I feel that the more truthful a poem is, the more powerful it is.

6. What is your work ethic?

I’ve always been a workaholic. I gave a great deal to both school and my career. Now that I’m retired, I’ve put that creative energy into my writing. I believe my work should be authentic, genuine, and honest. This requires having a balanced and strong center. Writing is lonely work at times because decisions about the work are personal. Whenever I get feedback, I apply what resonates with the poem. But when feedback isn’t available, I may struggle with direction. Also, if I’m in a dry spell, I feel my strong center, the wire spine I inherited from my mother, which has helped me maintain a balanced mind. When poetry is “rejected”, I say it’s “returned”. I wish for my creative drive to arise from emotion and spirit, but not anxiety and despair. To relieve writing blocks, I do Qigong, Tai Chi, and neurographica, which is art therapy that restructures the neurons.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

As a child, I enjoyed poetry with meter, rhyme and rhythm. I use these features today more internally in my free verse poems, but sometimes, a poem wants to have end rhymes and adherence to iambic pentameter. In a course in graduate school, I had a month to read all the works of George Herbert and compile an annotated bibliography. I now see influences of his poetry in my own reflective poems. Another influence is Emily Dickinson. I mostly dabble and have eclectic taste. I’ve read works by the Confessional Poets, especially Sylvia Plath. My personal poetry reflects elements of their works. I also enjoy the poetry of Robert Frost, Rumi, Rilke, Mary Oliver, John O’Donahue, David Whyte, and other modern and contemporary poets who write in free verse, and I love reflective poetry. Lately because I’m writing a poetic memoir. I’ve been reading poetic memoirs. Ghost of (Diana Khoi Nguyen), My Other Mother’s Red Mercedes (Walter Bargen), How to Disappear (Claudia M. Reder), The Low Passions (Anders Carlson-Wee), Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes (Kerrin McCadden)! Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson), Post Colonial Poems (Natalie Diaz), Late Wife (Claudia Emerson), Poet Warrior (Joy Harjo, prose and poetry), Rift Zone (Tess Taylor). 

8. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I appreciate Ocean Vuong’s raw and authentic words in his memoir poems as he lays bare his soul and sexuality so profoundly. Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry, especially her poem on kindness, is moving, and I appreciate that she is the Poet Laureate for Children. I’ve mentioned Mary Oliver. I’ve read her books on the art of poetry writing as well as volumes of poems, such as Devotions. I’ve enjoyed Sharon Old’s odes, which are memoir, and I’ve mentioned other poetic memoirists. Joy Harjo is compiling an anthology of Native American Poets, which is a monumental contribution to poetic history. Robert Bly’s work with the Minnesota Men’s Conferences was significant. He helped compile the anthology, Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart with Michael Meade and James Hillman, which was intended to help men resolve anger, but the poetry can appeal to women as well, as can Blys’ A Little Book on the Human Shadow. I also enjoy the poetry of contemporary US Midwest poets, such as Walter Bargen, Ted Kooser, and others.

9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

My college English professors all kept to the theme of the journey within. This exploration is mystical, magical, and metaphorical. For years because I channeled my creative energy into my job, I failed to undertake the journey within, except to buy the tickets, which may be one reason why I suffered depression a few years ago. Now that I’m retired, I can finally do that exploration. Writing poetry and some fantasy pieces, I am able to travel inward and excavate my soul, mainly for healing myself but also others. Whatever is going on in my subconscious is projected out to the world, as Carl Jung writes. Writing is a healing process not just for the poet but for the world. Reveal to heal. 

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

First, you accept the invitation to write. It comes from inside you. Then you practice by both reading to feed your mind with inspiring ideas and vocabulary and writing down ideas which may or may not take shape into poems, stories, articles, and the like. You can imitate others to study style and form. However, you want to nurture your own voice. Above all, avoid self-judgment and despair. If you are not inspired to write for a period of time, it may mean a work is incubating. Keep reading and jotting down ideas. Writing can be a lonely occupation, so connect with other writers for support. Realize, too, that there is a reader for every written work.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I am happy to announce that my poetry collection about me and my mother has found a home with Ingrid Wilson at EIF (Experiments in Fiction). She recently published the #! best-selling anthology Wounds I Healed: The Poetry of Strong Women, in which I have two poems. My poetry collection, Three-Penny Memories: A Poetic Memoir will be out in October (2022). I

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