Four Questions for Poetry Month

Seven Contemporary Poets Talk About Their Practice

By Jake Marmer

Published April 13, 2011, issue of April 22, 2011.
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As part of the Poetry Month celebration hosted by the Forward, we asked a number of poets about their practice. Today we’re featuring the highlights of the responses received. These are the highlights, but elsewhere on the Forward’s website, we’ve put the more detailed interview scripts. And, as part of its ongoing poem a day celebration of National Poetry Month, The Arty Semite blog will be hosting various works by these poets, among diverse and provoking others.

Meet the Poets

To what extent is your poetic practice shaped by your Jewish background?

MATTHUE ROTH: Besides that I don’t slam on Shabbos? I think it’s experiential. Sometimes I write about explicitly Jewish stuff, like my first novel, and sometimes I don’t talk about it at all, at least not explicitly, like my second novel. In a Chuck Norris movie, you don’t think, “I wonder if that guy’s going to walk away or fight” — because it’s not about the character he’s playing in that particular movie, it’s about the character that is Chuck Norris. You know he’s going to react a certain way. But even within that, he’ll surprise you every time. Or you hope he will, at least.

ADEENA KARASICK: I grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Vancouver, but by the time I was 18 I was studying at a Hasidic women’s yeshiva in the mountains of Sefad. Most of my work is very Jew focused, foregrounded-ly so. Whatever it is, it’s usually all dark ’n’ Jewey, impassioned, engaged, shticky and playful. But, often what’s Jewish about it is not necessarily about what’s being said, but how language is being manipulated; how “meaning” is determined through an experience of letters — through a direct connection with them, their physical makeup and their interconnections, substitutions, combinations — and all the while questioning how this affects the foundations of thinking.

KAREN ALKALAY-GUT: In a real sense my character is almost entirely shaped by my Jewish background, education and being Jewish in the world. I went to a Jewish day school, a Yiddish Arbeter Ring school after that, and studied with rabbis with great joy for much of my childhood. When I was choosing a university, my parents and my rabbi made great efforts to convince me to go to a yeshiva for women, but I was adamant that I wanted to be a part of the big world. But when I arrived in Israel for the first time a few years later, I knew I was home, and moved as soon as I could. Since my early 20s I’ve lived in Israel, and almost everything in my existence is framed by my Jewish environment.

MAYA PINDYCK: I was raised in an intellectual, secular household; we only observed High Holidays, and loosely. Though my family is very much Jewish, we never identified as religious. My Jewish background is cultural and historical. It is rooted in ancestry, humor, food, language, neurosis, Tel Aviv, Syria and Poland. My spiritual practice comes from art, from poetry. It is not tethered to any one background or foreground.

ALMOG BEHAR: Judaism takes a central place in my life, thoughts, memory and words, and I cannot think of writing in a disconnected way to Judaism. In this sense, I can’t understand the figure of speech “Jewish background,” because it’s not a background. Judaism writes us, and we write Judaism anew. Maybe this feeling is connected to the two Jewish languages I use: Hebrew and Arabic. The words themselves, and their connotations, are Jewish.

EMMANUEL MOSES: The Bible has certainly shaped my poetic world: images, scenes, rhythms. It has given me a sense of ethics, too, from which literature is, in my opinion, inseparable. Jewish history — that is, the thousand-years persecutions, culminating in the Shoah — is a stock, a forest from which I draw my food and wood. Maybe the fact I write is my way of repairing the imperfection of the world — history as a nightmare, in the words of Joyce. Poetry being then, for me, a tikkun [repair] and a solace.

STANLEY MOSS: 100%. But then there was the foreground. About 50% by silence, another 50% by music, another 50% by trees, another 50% by dogs and clouds. Then there are the laws of the universe, 33.3%. I’m also to no small degree self-made. Once, I saw two rainbows over the Roman Forum when it was snowing (very influential). My background is mostly a blessing, but also a curse.

As poetry is a notoriously non-lucrative calling, most poets have other lives, fronts and day jobs. If this is true for you, what conflicts and inspirations have emerged out of the split?

A.K.: Well I am also a professor of poetry and poetics. So, in the classroom there isn’t much of a conflict, as I am continuously revisiting issues of language and writing and conceptual thinking; learning and listening and reshaping what it means to live in language. So, I feel very fortunate that I can be in an environment that isn’t really at odds with but fosters my work. But though we know from the Hagaddah itself, “The day includes the day and the night,” sometimes there just are not enough hours.

M.R.: I’m really lucky. My two day jobs, at MyJewishLearning.com and G-dcast.com, let me be creative within the framework of mind-numbing institutional desk-job life. So I’m very grateful. But I sometimes have to force myself to remember these aren’t my dreams — that I still want to write books and perform and be a rock star when I grow up. I have to take lunch and go outside, get away from my desk and write a quick poem, just to remind myself that this isn’t all I am.

M.P.: I’m really interested in this question and how it positions poetry to “other lives.” I have struggled with this kind of question for many years when I felt this split in myself. Am I a teacher or a poet? Or, even within the realm of art — am I a visual artist or a writer? This split feels maddening and dangerous.

For me, being a poet is not about whether or not I write. There could be more poetry in the plunge of a sparrow than in four carefully executed stanzas. Poetry is about listening to what calls, and responding to it. It is the political act of moving the self aside to allow poetry to happen — on the page, between two people, in the world.

In this sense, I long for poetry. I try to do my job — whatever that job is — the same way I would sit down to write a poem: with as much creativity, openness and precision as possible. For the past five years, my “day job” has been teaching. Teaching has tested my patience, my ability to stay present and compassionate, and my awareness of what I say and how I say it. It demands poetry!

Is there really a split between poetry and our “other lives”? I can’t help but think that we create that split ourselves.

Do you have any poetic rituals and/or superstitions?

M.R.: While I’m writing, I tell myself that I’ll never show it to anyone. And as soon as I finish, I show it to everyone in the universe. My most important ritual is regarding everything I write as if somebody else wrote it, once I’m finished. That way, I don’t feel immodest saying to my agent or friends, “You need to read this!” but I also feel pretty fine looking at something and saying, “Did I really write that piece of crap?”

K.A.: There are enough rituals and superstitions in the world — I want to get as far away as possible from them when I’m writing. Sometimes I wind up writing little chants of my own, little exorcisms, or poems that protect people from evil, but they emerge from the situation. One poem of mine, for example, asks for the protection of the potential audience. It goes: “Cover me / I’m going out / To write a poem. / Keep firing over my head.” It got produced as a T-shirt in Canada over a decade ago, and every once in a while I hear from people who say they still wear the shirt when they’re uncertain about the reception of their creative efforts!

But there is so much stimulation for a poem if you are not thinking about invoking it. Just being in the world and being receptive to it is enough.

M.P.: I’m not sure if this counts as a ritual or superstition, but I always handwrite my poems before typing them. I also record my dreams each morning that I remember them, and many of my poems begin from this dream language. Finally, I test each poem by reading it out loud to myself. If it flows and moves me when spoken, then I know it’s in good shape. If it’s dead in my mouth, then it’s also probably dead on the page.

A.B.: An interesting question. I write mostly into a notebook and then type it on the computer and then print it, show it to my wife and change it again. I don’t show it to anyone else sometimes for years, or at least a few months.

E.M.: That is a strictly private matter. Like sex :)

S.M.: I am fascinated by most religious rituals and superstitions, including those of birds, lizards, trees and oceans. I try to steal them and use them to serve my purposes. The trick is to learn something about human beings and the universe — sometimes called nature, visible and invisible, great and small — useful to myself and others, life-giving. Mallarmé kept a little smoke between himself and the world. I keep myself surrounded by three dogs.

Are you celebrating Passover this year? If so, how are your poetic sensibilities incorporated into the celebration?

A.K.: I am getting everyone to dress up in bondage outfits… (kidding)! So much of my poetic sensibility is concerned with exodus with exile; navigating borders, frames, laws; breaking boundaries, pushing parameters, and this definitely plays into any Seder I am a part of.

K. A.-G..: Since we like to follow the Haggadah but also like to eat, and then eat too much for all of us to continue, I’m hoping this year we’ll introduce more visual entertainment for the children following the blessing after the meal. The idea of dramatizing the story of the Exodus is always a winner — and it gives the children something to keep them busy after they’ve found the afikoman. One thing you don’t need in this situation is more text. So a poet should try to be silent at the Seder.

A.B.: I am celebrating Passover with my family. Before the holiday, I read the Haggadah in its Iraqi Jewish-Arabic translation, which gives new meaning to many of the parts of the Haggadah. I am also reading the Jewish Iraqi piyutim — liturgical poetry — of the holiday, in Hebrew and Arabic. I work at kehilot sharot (singing communities), where we learn before the holiday to sing different piyutim from different communities. This year, from Morocco. For me, writing poetry is connected very much to the piyutim, to the tradition of liturgical poetry and the idea that poetry belongs to a community, and to a singing community.

E.M.: I sure am. As every year. The Haggadah is profoundly mysterious. I mean, not only on a superficial literary level. It contains and irradiates a deep metaphysical mystery touching matters as fundamental as death and the human condition. This universal aspect of the Passover liturgy, more than the Epos [epic poetry] per se, and the religious obligation of questioning the text, of delving on it, of letting the intellect and the imagination dwell on it and uplift it, is a powerful catalyst and has a magical power to renew every year the dialogue between my attention and the text. Ma Nishtana [the Four Questions] has, in that perspective, to be understood not only as a difference between the Seder night and the other nights of the Jewish calendar, but between every Passover meal and all other Sdarim. As a poem is not only different from other literary forms, but radically new and revolutionary, even within the corpus of poems already written.

S.M.: Yes, I am celebrating Passover. I’ve been doing so with the same good friends for 10 years or so, with my wife (born Catholic) and with my son, if he is in this country. (He is Italian. The host, who is Orthodox, teaches tenderly.) At the supper I read [my poem] “Passover, Easter.” [sic] Perhaps this year I will also read “Bright Day,” an answer to St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Ávila (two ex-Jews who wrote of the “dark night of the soul” and “I die because I cannot die,” i.e., aching for heaven).

Jake Marmer writes about the life of poetry for the Forward.


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