A Conversation with Leslie Anne Mcilroy
Leslie Anne Mcilroy won the 1997 Slipstream Poetry Chapbook Prize for Gravel, the 2001 Word Press Poetry Prize for her full-length collection Rare Space and the 1997 Chicago Literary Awards. Her second book, Liquid Like This, was published by Word Press in 2008 and Slag by Main Street Rag Publishing Company in December, 2014 as runner-up to their 2014 Poetry Book Prize. Leslie’s poems have appeared in Bacopa Literary Review (“Big Bang” — 2nd place for the 2016 Bacopa Literary Review Prize), Grist, Jubilat, The Mississippi Review, PANK, Pearl, Poetry Magazine, the New Ohio Review, The Chiron Review and more. She is co-founder and Development Director of HEArt — Human Equity through Art. Leslie works as a copywriter in Pittsburgh where she lives with her daughter Silas.
Her Poem Take Two appears after the interview.
The conception of ideas usually has interesting histories. Could you walk us through those untold stories of setting up HEArt (Human Equity through Art) in 1997?
I love this story. Somewhere in 1996, Daniel Morrow, who cofounded HEArt with me, and I were having a conversation about art—how it was one of the only things that affected us in a visceral/mental/emotional way. Made us think differently; changed us. The power of it. Back then, there was no Split the Rock or the Offing, but there were poets like Terrance Hayes, Jan Beatty, Martîn Espada, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, Tim Seibles, Sapphire, Marilyn Hacker, Timothy Liu (and the list goes on), who were witnessing social justice/injustice with powerful craft and voice.
The role of art and activism was a niche we felt purposeful about. I was a poet/copywriter; Danny was an editor/grant writer. We decided to pull our collective abilities and launch HEArt—Human Equity through Art, the nation’s only (now premiere) journal of art and literature devoted to fighting discrimination and promoting social justice.
It was a huge learning curve. We harnessed relationships with artists and local activists, we got my then boss, Greg Yost, to design the logo. Danny took on the funding (and put a lot of his own money in—a fierce believer) and we launched the print journal at a stunning event in Pittsburgh with Jan Beatty, Terrance Hayes, Jim Daniels, Albert French, Karl Mullen and it was a glorious night.
The next years were a battle. It cost a lot to print a journal and distribute, to receive/read submissions and design/edit quarterly. We didn’t pay ourselves. We simply believed and persisted. It was hard. At the time, it was not easy to fund a journal who published minority and gay artists. We had amazing fundraising events (one that featured Sapphire), Allison Joseph, Sonia Sanchez, etc. We brought them to Pittsburgh—they were voices that needed to be heard. I am so proud of that journal. It lasted five (5) years before we were worn down with the struggle of fundraising and promoting—and publication.
In 2002, I had a baby and told Danny I didn’t think I could do it anymore. We sadly closed the doors on one of the most purposeful things we had ever done in our lives.
In 2013, my daughter Silas was eleven (11) and I was feeling a void. I had an opportunity to talk to Germaine Williams, then at the Pittsburgh Foundation about a project I wasn’t really into, but was helping with. And he said, “what do you want to do”? I immediately told him about HEArt and how I thought it would be so much more cost-effective to publish online. I had great ideas about now being able to get paid advertising, etc. He said “we could fund that. BUT it had to be tied to Pittsburgh in some way and you need to show you can get funding from somewhere else.”
So, back to a Pittsburgh reading series, which we then went to Justin Laing at the Heinz Endowment for. And it came together. Two grants—the first I had ever written, with Danny helping me more than he will ever admit. We asked for 25K and got 15K to launch the online journal and reading series, which of course, meant again, not funding for ourselves.
For the last four years, and with the help of many loyal HEArt supporters, we have published monthly online, and during the first year, held a poetry series that featured Saeed Jones, Terrance Hayes. Tim Seibles, Martîn Espada and Vanessa German. Now, we have more than one thousand (1000) subscribers and have published incredible current artists like Fatimah Asghar, Sam Sax, Tiana Clark, Franny Choi, Danez Smith, Patricia Smith (who we should have been publishing in 1997)—the work coming from today’s young writers in terms of social justice is OUTSTANDING. I can hardly breathe sometimes when I am reading submission. Such clarity and craft and bravery.
HEArt Online now has a new crop of editors. I find it a significant move, as I see that they are particularly younger poets of colour. What do you envision?
So, after 4 years of publishing in a very dynamic, changing cultural environment, it has become clear to me that as a white, CIS, middle-class woman, I am not the person that is going to make HEArt fulfill its mission/journey. We need to expand the reach and voice of what HEArt means to the transforming world. I have already made some bad mistakes as an editor unaware of the many cultures we mean to authentically represent. For instance, the first time (maybe two years ago), when I got a bio from someone who referred to themselves as “they,” I thought it was a typo. It was not. It was a change that said some people don’t want a pronoun referring to gender. I always want to learn and grow and understand, but HEArt might be better served by an editorial staff that understands “they” as a given.
I don’t want to be in the way of HEArt’s reach. I believe in its mission and its devotion to the world that is becoming. Given that, I have reached out to poets/editors that are younger and more diverse in culture and race to keep HEArt moving forward. This is a big step—giving up the thing I started to others who believe in the mission but have a much more salient/contemporary vision of what that means. I called Casey Rocheteau after she broke from The Offing and asked her if she might consider HEArt as a vehicle that already has equity in the publication of work peaking to social injustice as something she might want to undertake. She responded positively. But she also responded with today’s economical circumstances. We can’t ask editors to work for free, as I have been doing for years. Authors deserve payment for their work (and yes, dear God, they do). So, we are now trying to transform HEArt into a journal that pays its editors and contributors. To this end we are now seeking grants and establishing a fundraising campaign to raise monies to pay our new editorial board and contributors.
I have also done the work to make HEArt a 501c3 so that we can apply for grants, but the grant submission availability is limited and the requirements intimidating (I don’t have a history as a grant writer and it is daunting). Where am I going to find the time to write the grants/budget/evaluation/etc.? I am just one person, at this point, and I want HEArt to succeed. I think we are fulfilling a need. I think we are cultivating art that needs to be heard, but it is a struggle—always has been. But I feel like the world is ready for it. It needs it.
I welcome editors Casey Rocheteau, Shira Erilichman, Cameron Rich-Awkward, Fatimah Asghar and Hanif Willis-Abdurraquib as partners in this effort. They are the today of activist poetry. They will be HEArt’s legacy.
HEArt has come a long way, and this is commendable. I find it interesting also that you talk about your mistakes. Since I started my editorship at Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, I have come to deeply appreciate the genuine efforts of editors and writers to create and publish. Editors are humans themselves and, undoubtedly, they fall short of intended targets.
Let’s talk about your writing: you’ve published three full-length poetry collections, should we be expecting something new from you soon?
No, is the sad answer. I don’t have a lot of time for my own writing right now with HEArt Online, the volunteering I do for CISV, my daughter’s global citizenship program, as well as working full-time and raising my daughter (which boils down to a lot of concerts—Patti Smith, Nick Cave, U2, Catfish & the Bottlemen, New Politics etc.) and of chauffeuring—HA! But, I do have a chapbook out there waiting to find a home, some local readings for Planned Parenthood, etc., and a proposal for a conference panel on exactly this: what it means to be a successful working mother poet as opposed to an academic poet.
As my mother says, you will always be a poet; now is the time to raise your daughter and focus on nurturing. Silas (my daughter) is truly the best poem I have ever started. I love that she writes and digs poetry as much as I do, as well as being a great musician. (Done bragging.) In just three years, she will be off on her own. Now it feels important to spend my time baking fresh bread and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. : )
Anyway, that said, I still write when I find time and submit, but I am finding it difficult to write in the current literary zeitgeist. The poetry I am drawn to usually speaks to the human condition in terms of social injustice and profound insight in what it means to survive/endure/witness/tell truths. I feel like though my poetry tackles humanity, it is not as good/fresh/risk-taking/brave as what I am seeing out there and publishing. That to say that I think now is the time for poetry of a revolutionary voice and I am not sure that that is mine. Still, I will send you a new poem, if you like, and would be pleased for you to publish as part of this conversation. It’s ok if that is not the plan.
Cheers to Silas, I wish her all the best. As a parent, do you suffer any impulse to want your daughter to follow in your career path?
I don’t have to. I told her from the time she was born, she could be/do anything she wanted to be/do except be/do Republican. HA! I am fortunate that my daughter is very creative in the literary, visual arts and music realms. She has written some poems/flash fiction pieces that have blown me away, she plays guitar and clarinet and her favorite art expression is spray painting. I don’t need her to be a writer, just to know the importance of words—their beauty and their power—in art and discourse. She is amazingly articulate and insightful; her song lyrics and expression when she plays just about kills me. Whether writing/music/art a “hobby” or a life, it is most important that she looks to art as a place where humanity is expressed. I have taken her to tons of poetry readings/concerts where together, we have experienced the power of art to change/evoke/explode the human psyche. I am grateful that surrounding her with artistic expression has brought her own creative power to the world. It is a joy to witness.
I read somewhere that you tend a garden that inevitably fails each year, and I laughed. I remember those days my dad made it enjoyable for us to touch flowers and be proud of their scents. What effect does gardening produce in you? Something therapeutic or your effort to nurture the ecospace around you?
I am no gardener, that’s for damn sure. But I love flowers so very much that I plant boxes and boxes each spring to line my deck for the summer (I have long given up on vegetables). I actually hate gardening and dirt. An old lover used to say to me that I think of nature as a big waste of space—ha. But that is not true. I write outside on my deck a lot in the summer and love looking up to see petunias and daisies, dianthus and marigolds makes me happy.
But everything I grow has to be self-reliant. Hardy, tough stuff that comes back (I am a big fan of the perennial). I have fiddlehead ferns, an imperialistic patch of oregano, some daisies and mint that actually return each year and I honor their self-sufficiency. I start out buying organic things, but by the end of the summer, have used so much Miracle Grow that I have defeated the whole purpose. Much like writing, I am not interested to the process, but the product.
According to your preference, what books will become classics of the 21st century?
This is the hardest question yet. I mostly read poetry. When I read fiction, I tend to read authors like Edwidge Dandicat, James Baldwin, Jeanette Winterson, and actually, I am very drawn to 1920-40 writing by Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams and Carson McCuller, who amaze me. As far as poetry goes, I am in love with so many contemporary poets now, that it is hard to parse. Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead, Danez Smith’s [Insert] Boy, Jan Beatty’s ANYTHING, Sapphires’ American Dreams, Tim Seibles’ Fast Animal, Martín Espada’s EVERYTHING, Ocean Voung’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Fatimah Asghar’s After, Zeina Hashem Beck’s 3arabi Song, Megan Falley’s After the Witch Hunt, and yesterday I received and read Olivia Gatwood’s New American Best Friend, and I am in love. Classics—I don’t know. The very word speaks to the masses, but I am more interested in the bravery of the personal, the risk-taking, the craft of poetry itself. I feel a wealth of new voices that are taking me to places I have never been before. That is where I want to be.
I am a prime candidate for a second life.
Don’t feel sorry for me, but do. Do listen.
You can’t possibly know my horror like yours.
I am a good diabetic, except when I’m not.
It has to do with math, a body’s rejection
of things it doesn’t understand, like keep
your blood sugar between 80 and 120
or ugly will happen. Go high, high, high
and lose a kidney, a leg. Go low,
and dance with demons: Pee in the dog food
dish, pee on yourself. Crawl to the phone,
but this leg won’t move and this arm
is spasm and the sweat and the cold
and banshees in your head. You see
walls melt all Dali, crash cars, fall down
steps, crack your pretty head open bloody
on Halloween. And your friends all carry sugar,
waiting for the next disaster. You hate them
for watching so close. So close. But you try.
Lancets, injections, infusion sets, infections.
Every day you fucking try so you don’t die.
80-120. 80-120. 80-120. Stay here. Stay here.
I’ve seen that relieved look on my lovers’ faces
when they leave. I’ve learned to drink just enough
to make it hurt less. It might be my best friend
killed by her father, the car he left running—
killing himself, too—while her mom
was out shopping. It might be my stepfather
dying and the way my mother went to his grave
with him for a long time. It might be binging
and throwing up. It might be Molly’s suicide,
the pills. It might be that bus driver who wouldn’t
let me off the bus. There is something that keeps me
from opening my eyes when I make love, keeps me
from opening my lips when I kiss. Keeps me from
lying still too long. That man in the backyard
by the swing. The empty house. The smoke/
mold/silence. It might be my father dying
of diabetes/complications, but I doubt that.
I’ve learned sacrifice, which is nothing
like sacrifice when it is for your daughter.
I’ve learned patience, which is far more
than patient when it is for your daughter.
I’ve learned art can save nearly everyone
and those it can’t, are sadder than I.
I’ve learned humility (see verse 1).
I’ve learned that anger feels good,
but it will keep you right here, wishing
for another life, building your case.
And in the end, you won’t get a second chance.
You will have to forgive someone.