Kernels of Truth: An Interview with Dawn Leas (by Curtis Smith)

Daw LeasDawn Leas is the author of a full-length collection, Take Something When You Go (Winter Goose Publishing, 2016), which addresses the myriad of intersections found in relationships as life unfolds and transitions, and a chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet (Finishing Line Press, 2010). A collection of her poems can be found in Everyday Escape Poems, an anthology released by SwanDive Publishing (2014), and her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Southern Women’s Review, San Pedro River Review, The Pedestal Magazine and elsewhere.  She won an honorable mention in the 2005 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In past lives she was a copywriter, freelance writer, independent-school admissions director and middle-school English teacher. She has served as the associate director of the Wilkes University M.A./M.F.A. Creative Writing programs. Currently, she is the assistant to the president at Wilkes University. Please visit her at www.dawnleas.com, on Twitter @DawnLeas, or http://wintergoosepublishing.com/.


Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the new book. Can you take us on the journey that brought you and the collection to Winter Goose?

Dawn Leas: I was introduced to Winter Goose Publishing  through The Dark Cage Between My Ribs by Loren Kleinman, which was released in 2014.  I met Loren through the writing community grapevine, and she worked with me on the editing of my manuscript. When I started to send out the completed collection, she graciously offered to forward my manuscript to Jessica Kristie, the editor at Winter Goose, and Jessica graciously offered to publish it. I feel like I have found another writing home at Winter Goose. The editors and authors are an engaging, energetic and supportive clan.

CS: This is no slim volume of poetry. At over one hundred pages and sixty poems, it carries more heft than many collections. Was there a conscious reasoning behind putting out a volume this size—or did it just come about with the work you had in-hand?

DL: This collection has been many years in the making, but as I was writing I didn’t have a specific page number or poem count aside from knowing that I wanted it to be a full-length rather than a chapbook.  When the time came to sit down and decide which poems to include, certain topics and themes jumped from the page to link this group of poems, so I moved forward with that instinct leading me.

CS: Your epigraph is an Emily Dickinson quote—and it made me wonder what role she played in your writing life. When did you realize writing would be your art form? Was there a pivotal teacher or book or relationship in your past that set you on this journey?

DL:  I love the quote, and it seemed like the best epigraph for this collection. I think people often approach poetry as if it is all completely factual. Many times mine is based on a kernel (or grapefruit) of truth; a scene or memory that did actually occur, but then I twist and turn it into the story of the individual poem. Both my chapbook and this collection have narrative arcs that span them, and to get that to work, I sometimes had to “tell it slant.”

I started writing stories when I was about 10. I didn’t really start writing poetry until my mid-twenties. I was also one of those kids who always carried a book, who preferred to sit in the shade reading on a summer afternoon rather than being the fray of the action. I loved fiction and biographies. I was often in my head thinking “what if…” and liked being able to free fall into a story and its imagery.

In my senior year of high school, I took my first creative writing course taught by Mr. Vincent Vanston, who was a part-time teacher and full-time funeral director. Throughout the year, we read and wrote fiction, poetry and plays. Honestly, the poetry section was my least favorite, but that class has always stayed with me. Mr. Vanston passed away earlier this year, and several of us who were in that class started sharing stories and memories about that class. One of my high school friends shared that she had stayed in touch with him through family connections, and that he had told her he was proud of my career. That meant the world to me.

CS: You’re a graduate of the Wilkes MFA program. What role did that experience play in your development? How did the low-residency model work for you?

DL: The Wilkes MFA program gave me a literary community; a second home of writing friends; time to delve deeper into studying craft that I missed as a communications undergraduate. It gave me talented and patient mentors with whom I am still friends and who guided me through writing I Know When to Keep Quiet.

CS: I’m always interested in a writer’s process. Can you discuss yours?

DL: I wish I could say that I get up at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. each day to write before work, but I don’t. I am not a morning person. I primarily write at night and on the weekends with my computer on my lap in my family room. I’ve been known to ask my son to take notes for me in the car (this was years ago when he was still at home in high school) and for writing on my phone at red lights, or pulling over in a mini-mart parking lot.

CS: As I read through the poems, I found myself gravitating toward certain reoccurring themes—things such as home, place (we both share Pennsylvania roots, so I recognized the landscape), and spirituality. Am I on target here? If so, what attracts you to these things? How do you see them shaping your work?

DL: You are definitely on target. Home and place and spirituality have played significant roles in my life so exploring them in my writing comes naturally. I want to continue to learn more about how these inform a person’s life and influence choices; how people move toward and embrace them; or run away and shun them. Even though I spent part of my childhood moving between New Jersey, New Orleans, Texas and Pennsylvania, my roots were deeply planted in my extended family, which included a strong sense of faith and spirituality. These places – their landscapes, the experiences they gave me, the people they brought into my life – have stayed with me.  They have all to varying degrees shaped my personality, my beliefs, my choices. I still write about them because I think I still have more to learn from them; more of them to uncover.

CS: I enjoyed your previous collection—and I was happy to find the same vibe I appreciated there continued in this collection. You have a real control of tone—a kind of calm that radiates from the page. Do you feel this as well? If so, how important is this aspect of your work? What might feel easy to a reader is often difficult for an author to wrestle onto the page.

DL:  I want to first talk about the last part because it is often something I recognize  when I am reading (whether it be prose or poetry), and my writer friends and I often talk about it. While I have had a few poems come to life quickly, often times that’s not the route my writing follows. I think many writers would agree that what looks so fluid and easy on the page is often the result of layers of editing and doubt and angst, and walking away and coming back to the page. The wrestling. And then, more editing.

Thank you for seeing that control of tone in my writing. It is something I struggle with – is it too much? Sould I loosen the cords on the words and let them meander more? If I give them more control, where will they take me? I do strive to keep the vibrations under the calm as alive as possible –  a tremor of sorts that adds to meaning, and hopefully, takes the reader to interesting, and sometimes, unexpected places.

CS: What’s next?

DL: I have a chapbook manuscript titled A Person Worth Knowing out looking for a home. A few years ago, I started writing poems about people that I passed on the way to work or had brief encounters with. This project grew into this chapbook. The theme is based on the fact that we really don’t know the back story of each person we meet and that opinions formed based on first or brief encounters may be drastically different than the truth. Also, I’ve never met some of the people in the chapbook, but  simply passed by them on the street. It has been an interesting exercise in spinning their stories without really knowing their truth. I am also working on new poems and have the first chapter of a novel written that I would love to spend some time with.


Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarker, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five.

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