Leslie Heywood is an accomplished woman by anyone’s standards. She’s an English professor, a painter, a mother of two young children and a serious athlete who finds time to practice yoga most mornings.
But that doesn’t stop her from railing against the uniquely American culture of achievement. In fact, she made it one of the central themes of her first book of poetry, The Proving Grounds.
“The book is about that continual pressure to be perfect in all these different contexts and the cost of that in people’s lives,” Heywood said.
She knows that the issues she and her family struggle with are parallel to those faced by many others. She also knows it’s easier to recognize the problems that go along with this culture of achievement than it is to exempt yourself from it.
In writing about these issues, Heywood created accessible, down-to-earth poems that speak to universal as well as particular situations.
“I really believe that it’s a writer’s responsibility to be honest and actually communicate something to the reader and not just be playing with language,” she said. “If you read something and you can’t understand it, why should you care?”
That’s a question Heywood constantly asks her students: So what?
In that way, she said, her own writing benefits from her teaching. “It forces you to be thinking all the time about what really works,” she said. Heywood sees poetry as a real, vibrant part of her life. For her, it’s a way of taking a break from modern consumer culture. Poetry encourages the reader to take time to think and reflect, she said, and classes can give students and faculty alike the permission they need to carve out that time.
Most of the poems in this book had their genesis in a weekend workshop run by Maria Gillan, a professor of English and director of Binghamton’s Creative Writing Program. About 25 writers would work from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. Gillan gave “prompts” to get them started and then 20 minutes to work on a poem.
Heywood said the deadlines — and the honest, yet affirmative environment — made the workshops a creative refuge for her. Although the poems went through many more drafts, those exercises are at the core of The Proving Grounds.
Heywood said she understands the urge to collapse in front of the television at the end of the day and just not think too much. But she hopes the poems will provoke an emotional response and encourage readers to tune in to themselves, however briefly. They can help people start asking questions about how they feel about their family and their daily life and what really matters to them.
“I want to give people the chance,” Heywood said, “to take a time out from their busyness and have a space where they can think and feel.”