We offer our first and exclusive Q&A Interview with Barbara Harris Leonhard, a writer whose literary works have been featured on our Spillwords pages as well as being Author of the Month of October 2021.
What does it mean to be selected as Author of The Month?
This honor means a great deal to me. This year my writing has received recognition, showing that I am developing as a poet and reaching more readers. There is also no denying the power of networking and visibility on social media when it comes to promoting a book. This year, I wrote a collection of poems about me and my mother. Like many mothers and daughters, we developed a codependence with its ups and downs, but I was still there for her as she battled Alzheimer’s and passed away in my arms. Composing this book has helped me to understand our deep mother-daughter connection and the unresolved pain of our mother wounds. Spillwords published one of my memoir poems from this collection this past August (2021), Cooking a Life with a Wire Spine was nominated for Publication of the Month. Because I am eager to share this book once I find a publisher, I am indebted to the Spillwords community for the ongoing support. Over the years, whenever I read about the Author of the Month, I never suspected I would qualify. How could I possibly compete with those writers? It’s gratifying to attain a new level in my writing career. It’s affirming to know that I have something of value to say. I am so grateful and joyous to have a spot on the right sidebar at Spillwords.
How have your friends and/or family influenced your writing?
I started writing early in life, and my parents always praised me and asked me to read my work to their dinner guests before my bedtime. Because I had 6 siblings, I enjoyed that extra attention. My siblings are supportive of writing even though some of them do not read poetry. It’s been exciting to share my poems and news about awards and honors with them. Also, my father, a college English professor, always coached me on my writing, and he was a poet. He won a poetry prize one year. I still have that poem. My friends are not only a wonderful fan base but also great reviewers of my poetry. I had my own poetry peer review group at one point, and now I am able to meet with a number of accomplished writers who are teaching me how to refine my poems.
What inspires you to write?
Life, the dark side, the shadows. What drives interesting poetry, fiction, and memoir is the messy stuff. Who are we? Why do we suffer? How do we heal? My writing took a powerful turn when I finally decided to just tell the truth, my truth as I see it. To dig into the heart and soul, to excavate and reveal, to heal the wounds. Silence cannot repair the damage of the human condition.
What was your writing catalyst?
When I was 6 going on 7 in 1958, before there was a measles vaccine, I fell ill with measles encephalitis. One day, my legs gave out, and I became unable to stretch out my arms, eat solids, and speak coherently. I knew the words I wanted to say, but all I could do was mumble sounds. I went into a coma and believe I had a near-death experience. Once I awoke from the month-long coma, I was able to speak and eat but not to walk. In those days, there was no physical therapy, and I was told I would never walk again. Nevertheless, at the age of 7, I was determined to teach myself how to walk again. This experience profoundly changed me. And it was at age 8 I felt compelled to put words on paper. I used those small flip-cover memo pads. Of course, the stories and poems were not good as I didn’t know how to write, and I had a brain injury. Mom said I loved hearing stories read to me and could recite them word-for-word before I got sick. I think I started writing to recapture those words.
Tell us a little bit about your writing process?
I am inspired by a thought that crosses my mind, a news story, a phrase, an image, a scene, and other writers’ works. Concepts, images, and stories weave together into a poem. The incubation period may be short or long, so some poems seem to write themselves, while others cling to my bones and emerge when they are ready. Also, I keep notes on concepts in my journals, which are a complete mess, by the way, because my notes are not dated and I just grab the closest notebook when I sense muse is calling. My notes include research if needed, and possible vocabulary and images. I play with some lines, and when I feel ready, I handwrite or type the poem. Sometimes I use my Notes app on my iPad for rough drafts and mail myself the poem so that I can create a Word document on my Dell computer. Revision is often very time consuming. I could spend hours wordsmithing, playing with format, line lengths and breaks, and deleting and adding content. I also vet some poems with the peer review groups I am in. I would say that I am not prolific. I go for quality not quantity. I hear of some poets who can write 5 to 10 poems a day and send them out and win awards. Perhaps I am too caught up in the dynamics of my poems to produce them quickly. To me, a poem is a being of my intuition, and I want to understand it.
What would you say is most fulfilling about writing?
I am fulfilled when someone tells me how a poem that I wrote made a difference in their life, resonated with them, lifted them, or taught them about the human condition. I’ve been told that my poetry is honest, raw, moving, and haunting. This tells me that the words I share impact readers. Poetry is an invaluable art form, especially at uncertain times, when people need the written and spoken word to lift them up.
Does the addition of imagery help to tell your story?
The use of imagery in poetry is crucial to poets and writers, and I am no exception. Anne Sexton said, ‘Images are the heart of poetry…. You are not a poet without imagery.” Well-chosen images in a poem or story can reveal layers of meaning and elicit a variety of interpretations as readers approach a work from various perspectives. Images act as anchors, keeping the reader grounded in verses and stories with complex themes. Also, images are lenses through which readers can understand abstractions; images reflect truth just as cameras reflect light to bring things into focus.
What is your favorite reading genre?
I’m an eclectic reader, so I read various styles of poetry, fiction, nonfiction/ memoir, general science/ Quantum Physics, New Age/ spiritual, self-help/ healing. When I was in the 10th grade, I read The Theory of Relativity by Einstein, and my English teacher asked me if I understood it. I lied and said I did. I understood some general concepts but certainly not the equations. I find that exposure to the vocabulary and styles of various genres lends depth to my poetry and teaches me to view our world and our collective mind in different ways. That said, I like to read writers from different countries, as well. Diversity enhances my creative flow and provides me various ways to weave together disparate elements to explore a universal truth.
What human being has inspired you the most?
It is not easy to pick just one person. My father coached me and gave me journals for personal writing and books about writing to inspire me. I remember many conversations with him after dinner. I had numerous professors in college and grad school who encouraged me. At Lake Superior State College (now a university) in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Peter Thomas, editor of The Woodsrunner, our literary magazine (now defunct), first published me. He also allowed me to write poetry instead of essays in his classes. He and another professor of mine, David Blair, a Scottish poet, introduced me to another visiting Scottish poet Alastair Reid (1926-2014), who read my poems, made encouraging comments, and gave me an autographed copy of one of his books. I am also inspired by reading good poetry, and I have many favorites: Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Rumi, Rilke, Mary Oliver, David Whyte, and many more. Whenever I read good poetry, I have to pick up the pen.
What message would you have for the Spillwords Press community that voted for you?
I am so grateful to those who follow my work and who voted for me. I am also overwhelmed by the many people who are congratulating me on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and Instagram, where I have connected with many writers who are equally capable or better qualified for this honor.
What would you like your legacy as a writer to be?
I would like to show others that there is joy in writing, whether it be poetry, fiction, memoir, or any other genre. You do it for the love of it. It isn’t work. I know many writers struggle to get published but give up too soon. I’ve learned there is a reader for every poem. Maybe one journal returns a poem, but another will pick it up. Notice I say “returned” not “rejected”, which feels punitive and demoralizing. I would also say, take both good and bad criticism with equal measure. Each critic is just one reader. One may rejoice with you, and the other may pick your work apart. You can learn from both. I have found humility, gratitude and joy to be catalysts for success. Mainly, practice ART: Allow, Relax, and Trust in the process of writing and publishing.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
All writing is soul work. I have a podcast on Podbean I call ‘Poetry: The Memoir of the Soul’. Powerful writing reveals what is rising for healing – grief, suffering, pain, fear, anger, anxiety, jealousy, longing, and so on. All the great works explore our inner turmoil, misfortunes, and misery. Poetry is no exception. But poetry goes one step further and acts as a healer. Poetry is used as therapy in many cases. Why is Mary Oliver so popular? Her words are comforting. Writing and reading poetry are spiritual endeavors. By spiritual, I mean that writing poetry involves reaching into the heart for nonphysical truth which can lift people up and into a new light.
OCTOBER 2021 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Barbara is an internationally known prize-winning poet and Pushcart nominee. She is especially indebted to Spillwords for past honors. Her debut poetry collection, Three-Penny Memories: A Poetic Memoir (Experiments in Fiction, 2022), which is about her relationship with her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, is a best seller on the Amazon. Barbara is also Editor for MasticadoresUSA.