It was a perfect place to meet author Naton Leslie: a coffeehouse in a renovated building, where you sit in secondhand chairs, drink out of paper cups, and are surrounded by aged black-and-white photographs of Ballston Spa, New York. Our view looked into the kitchen, where people were washing dishes and making sandwiches. It could have been the location of so many of Leslie’s stories, essays, and poems.
Leslie has been called “the poet of a forgotten America,” and a “poet of the working class.” Through five collections of poetry, a short story collection and a nonfiction book, the author has celebrated the overlooked, the commonplace, the tossed-aside.
“I love old things because they contain stories,” he says, picking up a decorative blue saucer on a nearby windowsill. “Like this old saucer. It’s hand-painted in Japan. See this insignia on the back—Nippon—that means it was made post-World War II, when Japan was occupied and struggling to get back on its feet. It was hand-producing stuff for the West. The Japanese were trying to reinvent themselves. There are many stories in this one object. There’s the story of Japan, and the person who made it, and how this saucer found its way to a coffeehouse in Ballston Spa.”
“Too often, we live our lives just walking by things and not noticing,” says Leslie, which was one of the reasons he wrote That Might Be Useful: Exploring America’s Secondhand Culture, his 2005 chronicle of flea markets, tag sales, auctions, and antique shops. “I decided years ago to buy only secondhand goods when I needed something, and in that book I explored an America that shared my love for old, used things,” he says. “It’s an America that hasn’t been bought, sold, and advertised.”
Leslie’s interest in used things began out of economic necessity, but continues for philosophical reasons. “It was also my rejection of the rampant materialism of this country,” he says, and the impersonal style of commerce it fosters. It’s a point he emphasizes in That Might Be Useful:
“Entranceway greeters notwithstanding, new retailing is faceless: for the most part, customers serve themselves, aided by overhead signs and well-organized merchandise. Soon, if the trend toward a cashless society continues, we will not even get a ‘thank you’ when paying our money. Clerkless debit-lines are appearing, and the personal touch is going the way of the bank teller or gas pump attendant. Buying used goods, in contrast, is a gregarious enterprise. From haggling to appraising the flaws and virtues of an item for sale, used buying and selling is more akin to the traditional bazaar; it’s no wonder flea markets or swap meets thrive in areas with large numbers of new immigrants from cultures that still have vibrant and personal markets. Whether in the antique trade or holding a once-a-year yard sale, most of the sellers I have met agree that meeting people is part of the attraction.”
“Buying secondhand is also a bit of a rebellion against my parents and their generation,” admits Leslie, who was born in 1955. “They came of age after World War II. They grew up with rationing and then along came the 1950s and the economic boom. Everything was new and improved. My parents fell right into that. If they bought something that was of inferior quality they’d say, ‘Well, at least it’s new.’ ”
Despite his instinct for rebellion, Leslie embraces his past, which is solidly blue collar. His father was a factory worker, and his mother worked as a bank teller. Many of his stories take place in working-class factory towns, with characters who are decent men and women struggling to find happiness. “But I don’t idealize the working class,” says Leslie. “There’s an anti-intellectual belief that is very prevalent in that world. I’ve always been confronted by people in my hometown of Athens, Ohio, who have said ‘I’d rather have common sense than an education.’ My response to them is that a person who would prefer one or the other is usually lacking in both.”
America is a place where it’s still possible for a working-class kid to study literature and become, as Leslie did, both an honored author and an academic (he teaches English and creative writing at Siena College in Loudonville, New York). But movin’ on up is also fraught with emotional baggage. “I once told a friend, ‘Don’t pull out your roots or your roots will pull back,’ ” Leslie recalls. “I was the first generation of my family to go to college. I worked as an auto mechanic in college, and now I’m a professor and a writer. I’ve always struggled with living in these two different worlds.”
He knew as a young boy he wanted to escape the working class. His love of books beckoned him to college. “The thing that helped me become a writer was our lack of day care,” he says. “My mom had to work late at the bank on Tuesday and Friday nights because that’s when the factories would issue their checks. My father was always out at the bars, which meant there was nobody home to watch me, so she took me to the library where I’d read books for three hours till the bank closed and then we’d go home.”
Growing up in a struggling working-class family also gave him the toughness to face rejection as a writer. “I studied with some excellent writers in undergraduate and graduate school,” says Leslie. “I thought many of them would go on to publish and make a name for themselves, but most have completely given it up and walked away because they couldn’t take so much rejection. My short story collection was rejected by 90 publishers, and then it went on to win the George Garrett Fiction Award.” The 2001 award, given by the Texas Review Press, was for stories in Leslie’s book, Marconi’s Dream.
Despite his literary success, Leslie’s parents are more impressed that he is a college professor than by anything he’s done in publishing. “My father’s response when I told him I wanted to write fiction was, ‘What’s fiction?’ I told him it was making up stories, and he said, ‘It’s sort of like lying, isn’t it? You were raised better than that.’ ”
To this day he doubts his parents have read anything he’s written. “It bothered me more when I was younger than it does now,” he says. “I’m reconciled to the fact that it’s just outside of who they are. But I don’t write for their approval or for anyone else’s approval. I write because I like getting up in the morning and putting down one sentence after another. If you want to write to become famous or to make lots of money you’ll never survive.”
Leslie’s parents may be more interested in his most recent work, Emma Saves Her Life, his sixth collection of poems. The book, which will be published this month, is based on letters his grandmother wrote him when he was in college at Ohio University.
“It’s a book I’ve been working on for about 12 years,” says Leslie. Emma Margaret Foster, the author’s paternal grandmother, was born in 1907 and lived in the hills and hollows of western Pennsylvania. “She was an Appalachian farm woman, from the generation that if you had a family member who moved away you owed it to them to write letters to stay in touch,” he explains. “Letters were the way to keep families together.” His grandmother’s writing was, he says, “accidentally poetic,” and resonant of history and values he shares. His poems are meant to be “an oral history of her life in her voice.” He is currently in the process of turning her words into a 45-minute, one-woman dramatic monologue.
Among his grandmother’s letters, as with the Japanese saucer and other items he cherishes, Leslie works the familiar territory of things that are old but not used up. “She saved stories by the dozens, and kept them alive by telling them to anyone who would listen,” he writes in Emma Saves Her Life. “[N]ow that I have grown old enough to see the world transformed ... from the days of my youth, I understand some of the urgency she must have felt in wanting to save what she knew, to have her say, as she would put it. Now I know why she put such stock in remembering things. Forgetting is all too easy.”
If you want strong hands,
try wringing out your laundry
until you can’t get another drop.
It’s too long between times when
I see my family. My great-grandson
is growing up and out-of-sight.
I want to get another woman to help
me clean, but I’ll have to find one
who can do it and take my bossing.
When I try to write on my lap,
my hand turns to chicken scratch.
Planting too early is all for naught.
My husband Will should learn that.
If you want a cat to catch vermin
in the barn, it has to stay in the barn.
Our cat Smokey would just disappear
but Will closes the hole he goes out.
When you’re real sick like mother,
and you pass on, you’re still
better off in the long run.
Getting old is a slowing up,
while dying is a letting go. You can’t
do the first without the second.
I don’t like tv. I can’t follow
the stories while I sew. I get lost
in one or the other, and I’d rather
get lost in making something.
If you speak your mind you’ll never
have to let anything fester
and get to you. But you’ll find,
after a while, there’s no one
left who’ll listen to you.
First published in Kerf (College of the Redwoods), Crescent City, CA, 2004. Reprinted in Emma Saves Her Life, Turning Point Editions, Word Tech Communications, Cincinnati, OH, 2007.
- Jennifer May
- Naton Leslie.
- Jennifer May
- Naton Leslie.