Interview with: Leslie Heywood
By Chelsey van der Munnik, SR Fall 2015 Editorial Assistant
Leslie Heywood is an English Professor at SUNY Binghamton. She has written eight books including two books of poetry and a memoir. She read her work at SUNY Plattsburgh on Thursday, October 1st in the 3rd floor reading room of Feinberg Library. This event is part of a series called Words on Fire. I had the opportunity to read some of my poetry before Leslie that night.
I also had the chance to ask Leslie Heywood some questions about her incredibly dynamic life.
How do sports and the physical world influence your writing? Which piqued your interest first?
Being part of the physical world has obsessed me since I was very small, but that happened at about the same time as I discovered words.
My mother used to go running in the mornings and I would try to tag along with her as soon as I could walk - just like the way as soon as I could disappear inside a book that’s what I’d do. I grew up in a tiny town outside of Albany where we had acres of forest, ponds, and fields all around us. If I wasn’t reading a book I was swimming, ice skating, climbing a tree, or getting lost on a path in the woods.
Words and physical movement were always conjoined for me somehow - the space where my muscles stretched and my lungs breathed (were) as protective and welcoming as the enchanted caves words made where I could just be still and escape from myself for hours. Both places were a fundamental grounding and at the same time a reaching out beyond myself.
From Bodymakers in 1998 to now, how do you think bodybuilding and women and feminism in general have changed in the world and for you?
The world I wrote about in Pretty Good for a Girl and in Bodymakers has undergone a fundamental shift in that women as athletes are an everyday part of our visible world now, rather than some kind of freakish exception. It is completely normal now for girls to be in sports from day 1. I have two daughters - one is a runner, one a gymnast - and they and their friends have been athletes since they were very small.
Strong women are more a norm than an anomaly. I own a CrossFit gym, and probably 60% of our athletes are women, and the numbers are roughly like that in most CrossFit gyms nationwide. But other related issues still persist: sexual harassment in sport is still a big issue, as it is more broadly, and women’s sports still receive much less media coverage and attention than do men’s.
I did just read something though about the development of sports channels for so-called “niche” sports like gymnastics, CrossFit, bodybuilding, and track, sports that usually only get coverage at the Olympics or national championships. I think this would be wonderful—the so-called “marquee” sports of baseball, football, and basketball are such a small, small part of the enormously diverse world of sports and all its possibilities. There are so many more different kinds of athletes, different things!
What is your favorite of the poems/books that you have written?
I guess I would have to say Pretty Good for a Girl. Memoir/creative non-fiction is my favorite genre. It’s what I teach every semester, and I think it’s by far the most challenging to write. It incorporates every aspect of your being: emotional, analytical, artistic, critical. In this genre you have to confront and reflect on truths about yourself in the world that other genres don’t require—it’s the genre where it is a requirement to “figure shit out.” You need to be able to understand and reveal the deeper subject under the apparent subject, and say something about it.
When I wrote Pretty Good for a Girl creative non-fiction and memoir were just emerging as a genre, and I feel like I did so many things wrong in that book that I would know so much better how to do now. Still, it’s my favorite—it’s the work I put the most of myself into.
With lives that are so busy and hectic it is hard to make the time to sit down and summon the kind of concentration and temporary removal from the world that you need in order to write book-length creative non-fiction, but it is what I want to do next. I need to find a way to make that kind of writing more a part of my everyday life.
Now, training myself (I compete in yoga of all things now, and was 7th in last year’s USA Yoga Master’s Nationals) and training others (I train people with Parkinson’s disease in CrossFit to help them maintain their mobility and focus) as well as teaching, writing and reading poetry, and spending time with my daughters and supporting them in their sports lives all takes so much time. So, I’ve got to juggle something so I can do more creative non-fiction. Poetry doesn’t take as much time.
What would be your best words of advice for young women aspiring to publish their work, become competitive athletes, or whatever else they may want to be?
To be fearless, and just throw yourself into it without worrying about what anyone else might think. Just extending yourself, putting yourself out there is the first step for everything, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes. We hold ourselves back with our fears, and the only way to change that is to face them, and act.
Discuss the differences you’ve found between writing poetry and writing prose in terms of process, research, and feeling.
I answered a little bit about this earlier—prose takes more time. I’d say there is more of a difference between the process of writing creatively—whether it’s CNF or poetry or fiction—and writing academically, like I have had to do for some of my books. To write creatively you have to use your whole being, your whole brain. You have to access unmediated emotions, and then you have to cognitively process them to give them a frame. You put everything you have into creative writing.
Academic writing requires less. It is much more formulaic—you come up with an argument/central premise that you situate within the other academic conversation about that topic, and then you set about developing your own take on it. You only use your prefrontal cortex, your rational mind. Creative writing takes prefrontal cortex, thalamus, brain stem (and the tertiary process cognitions and primary and secondary affective/emotional processes that proceed from these regions)—the whole package. Mind and body, emotion, experience, memory, thought. Academic writing is pretty much just thought. That’s why it’s so much less fun to read!
Was there someone who inspired you, changed your course, or believed in you and your goal and who was ultimately a big reason why you’re where you are today?
My dear friend the poet Maria Gillan was instrumental in bringing me back to poetry. I was a creative writing major as an undergrad and got my MFA in poetry before I got my PhD in critical theory, but once I was in that academic world the poetry slipped away.
I found creative non-fiction myself, but it was Maria who made me sit down and write poetry. For Maria, poetry is a vocation, calling, almost life itself. It is the translation of life into meaning. It is capturing the transience of life’s moments and giving them artistic shape, thus preserving and transforming those moments into something that stays. She reminded me of this and made it conscious and real for me. When I had written poetry earlier, I sensed these things, but more unconsciously.
She made it concrete and real for me through her own work and through her insistence that I could and must write poetry because it is so fundamental to crafting a meaningful life. We also both paint, and she has a book with both poems and paintings and I have a book coming out that is the same thing. We’ve both encouraged each other to do this.
Maria is the one who helped me not to fear and go forward like I was mentioning it was so important to do above. I owe her everything, for she believed in the side of me I most valued but didn’t think the world did. She taught me it didn’t matter, that for writers and artists our art is like breathing and what anyone thinks about it is really not the point.
If you’re in our area, you can find the following Heywood books on the shelves of the SUNY Plattsburgh Feinberg Library:
The Women's Movement Today: An Encyclopedia of Third Wave Feminism,
Built To Win: The Rise of the Female Athlete as Cultural Icon,
Bodymakers: A Cultural Anatomy of Women’s Bodybuilding
*Photo from the Internet