If you travel to Coffee Planet this spring, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter poet Naton Leslie.
“This is my office,” Leslie joked on a recent blustery day as he ushered a Gazette reporter to a small table tucked in the corner of the Ballston Spa cafe.
While he does his writing at home, the Siena College professor who is best known as “Nate” often walks to the cozy cafe to “get out and be in the world.” At Coffee Planet, “I’m surrounded by voices and noise . . . it actually gives me ideas,” he says.
In the past 25 years, Leslie has been turning his ideas into literature, with more 300 poems, stories and essays published in literary magazines and reviews.
The 54-year-old writer has been honored with fellowships from National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. His collection of short fiction, “Marconi’s Dream and Other Short Stories,” won the George Garrett Fiction Prize.
A tireless explorer of antiques shops and yard sales, Leslie wrote a nonfiction book, “That Might Be Useful: Exploring America’s Secondhand Culture,” and he has a regular byline in Saratoga Living magazine.
Last month, “Small Cathedrals,” a 10-year-long gathering of more than 60 poems on the theme of mothers and children, was published by David Roberts Books.
But while “Small Cathedrals,” his seventh book of poetry, was becoming reality, Leslie was catapulted into the surreal world of cancer. In May 2010, he was diagnosed with late-stage adenomacarcinoma of the lung. He took medical leave from Siena and underwent seven grueling but successful months of chemotherapy and radiation.
This semester, as he recovers his strength, he’s on a writing sabbatical, and in September he’ll return to Siena, where he has taught English and creative writing for more than 20 years.
A Youngstown, Ohio, native, Leslie holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Youngstown State University and master’s and doctorate degrees in creative writing from Ohio University.
He and his wife, Susan, live in Ballston Spa’s historic Knickerbocker House, which was built by relatives of the Knickerbockers who owned shirt and collar factories in Troy.
Q: How did “Small Cathedrals” evolve?
A: I started getting interested in writing sonnets about a dozen years ago, just playing around with the form, and I started looking at the traditional sonnet. Traditional sonneteers used the form in ways that suited them. I thought I could create a form that approximates sort of what a sonnet is supposed to do and serve my own purposes. And I noticed that other poets were doing similar things with formal poetry. At that same time, I had an idea to do a cycle of poems on women and children for a very long time. It was just an idea that was on a note and stuck to a bulletin board. And I looked at that and recognized that the two went together very well.
Q: Why, as a man without children, were you compelled to write poems about mothers and children?
A: I’ve always been attracted to the image of the madonna and child. I am also struck by the humanness of those artistic renderings. The artist who chose to represent a mother and a child, be it the Virgin Mary or just a mother and child, is very aware of the bond, the essential nature of it. In literature, we’ve kind of had an overabundance of writing about fathers and sons. I think this stems back to “The Odyssey” with Odysseus. And I don’t think as much has been done with mothers and children. I thought it would make a nice counterpoint to the tradition of son-in-search-of-his-father kind of theme.
Q: The poems are written in blank verse sonnet. What does that mean?
A: I use a 10-syllable line, which is largely iambic pentameter. English naturally breaks into iambic pentameter, that’s why Shakespeare used it in his plays, because it sounds very natural and yet it’s very rhythmic. I decided that I wanted two sextets, followed by a couplet, which sort of comments on the previous two stanzas. In the sonnet world, they call that “the turn.” The traditional sonnet has three quatrains followed by a couplet.
Q: Who is the woman holding an infant on the cover of the book?
A: I do not know who the mother and child is. I found the photograph at an auction, and just loved it.
Q: Did you write during your cancer treatments?
A: I did write all through the treatments. Mostly poetry, some journalism. Poetry was still accessible to me while I was obviously very distracted by life and by medical treatment. It helped center me every morning.
Q: What are you writing now?
A: I’m working on a new collection of stories. I’ve got a new collection of essays that were all published in magazines, but I’m putting them together in a book. And I’ve got a collection of poems that I’m working on, too.
Q: Have you written about cancer?
A: I didn’t write directly about the cancer. I think it will take me some time to digest that before it really becomes something. I have just finished a short story about a guy who is up all night, watching documentaries on television because he’s doing chemo and can’t sleep. It’s sort of absurd and comic. I am starting to write about it a little, in a very distant way.
Q: You grew up in a working-class family in Ohio. Your parents did not read books. How did you get interested in literature?
A: When I was a kid there wasn’t anything even remotely approaching day care. My father worked in a steel mill and my mother worked in a bank as a bank teller. And particularly on Friday nights, she had to work late because that’s when all the paychecks were issued to all the mill workers. My father would have cashed his check and he was out shooting pool somewhere, and so she didn’t know what to do with me. She dropped me off at the local library. She had a deal with the librarians. I had one or two nights a week where all I did was hang out in the library, so I got quite a reading habit. I grew to love books. That dedicated time in a library really made a writer out of me. I’m a huge supporter of public libraries. I think they are integral to the life of a community.
Q: You once worked as an auto mechanic?
A: That was during college. I worked at a Chevy dealership. I did a lot of blue-collar jobs like that when I was in college, to put myself through college. I worked as a construction worker, I did restaurant work. But probably the longest stint I did was as an auto mechanic. The people at the dealership were very nice. They used me in the hours that I didn’t need to be at class. During finals week, they would let me take the week off to study. I learned auto mechanics in my backyard because I was always driving old, beat-up cars. What you didn’t know, your neighbor knew, and you taught each other. And then I learned on the job.
Q: What are your writing habits?
A: I write every morning, and I write in my study at home. And I usually set myself up the night before with a distinct task I want to accomplish. Many, many stories and essays, I’ve written a page a day. Just one page and then put it aside. Then another page. Within two weeks, you’ve got a story or an essay drafted. No matter what’s going on in your life, you’ve got it done.
Q: If you are in the grocery store and you get an idea, what do you do?
A: To be honest, I hope I remember it. I don’t carry a pen and pad with me. It would be smart if I did. But I try to recall it and write it on a note when I get home and stick it on my bulletin board.
Q: The April issue of Oprah Winfrey’s “O” magazine is devoted to poetry. Is poetry becoming more popular?
A: I don’t know, I don’t think so. Every so often, something like that happens. For a while, MTV had poetry readings, and everyone said, “Oh, poetry is finally being noticed.” And then it goes back to being the art form that it’s been for the last 150 years. It is a quietly thriving art form that has its followers.
Q: Dr. Maya Angelou has said that everyone has a poet inside them. Do you think that’s true? And if it is, how do we get the poet out?
A: I think everyone does have a poet inside them. I’m just not sure how many poems an individual has that he or she may be able to write. But I do certainly feel that everybody has at some point in their life the opportunity to use that art form in a way that would be most expressive. How you get there? I guess the best way that most writers get familiar with the art form is to read. Just have language in your head. If language is important to you, it will express itself.
Q: April is National Poetry Month. Is there an event at Siena?
A: Yes, we’re hosting poet Gary Soto on campus. He’s a Mexican-American poet and he’s coming here from California. His first trip out east in many, many years. We’re excited to have him. [Soto’s poetry reading is scheduled at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 14 in West Room, Serra Hall at Siena College in Loudonville. Admission is free.]