Transcript: Yetzirah’s Big Question: 2022 Reader Responses

View the video of Yetzirah’s Big Question: 2022 Reader Responses” here.

Introduction: [00:00:01] Because we at Yetzirah believe that Jewish poets write Jewish poetry, no matter a poem’s subject or style, all of our readers begin by answering the same question: “What is the relationship between Judaism or Jewish culture and your poetry?”

Dan Alter: [00:00:25] On the one hand, there are poems I write where there’s an organic flow between those—sort of that outer and inner sense of things—because the poems are just unfolding around Jewish contexts. There are poems where I’m writing about living in Israel or I’m arguing and speaking with Jewish texts that mean a lot to me. There’s another kind of poem that I write where I set out to write towards something about Jewish experience. And those poems are often inspired for me by models of poets of color. I have a set of poems that are about talking back to Ezra Pound about his anti-Semitism that that arose from me being inspired and awed and jealous of Terrance Hayes’ poem “Snow for Wallace Stevens.” Which, if you haven’t read that poem, you should read it. It’s an amazing poem. And then there’s a third hand, there’s a third kind of poem that happens for me where there’s none of that in play in any way that’s visible to me, and I don’t know what would be visible to a reader, where in those poems I’m grappling with something about being human. And sometimes it doesn’t seem like that Jewishness, Jewish culture, is in play.

Rosebud Ben-Oni: [00:02:34] I would actually say it is a very strong connection through doubt. And I mean that as a good thing, that through poetry I’m allowed to freely and openly explore doubt in my work as a poet and in my life as a person. I think it’s really important that when you’re at a trying time in your life or questioning time in your life when frameworks fall away—whether the framework is of family or health or religion itself,or in this case Judaism—that doubt can actually lead you through these incredible revelations. And I won’t say what those are because they’re very many. But I also think curiosity has played a large role in my work and the connections between Judaism and poetry. I am mixed. My mother converted from Catholicism to Judaism to marry my father before I was born, and when I was born, I was raised an observant Jew. But when we visited my mother’s family, and we were quite close with them, they’re Mexican and they don’t keep kosher. And even though we kept a very observant household, when we go visit my tías, my father would say to me, “You privilege love above all else. You will eat whatever your aunt serves you.” So we ate menudo, we ate pork, when we were in their presence. I also think that while my father truly does privilege love over all else, he also is an insanely curious person and just wanted to eat the pork; I apologize in advance, Abba (laughs). But those are the connections that drive me forward–through Judaism, through poetry–are doubt and curiosity. Thank you.

Joy Ladin: [00:04:25] From the time that I started writing poetry as a child, I remember thinking of myself as a Jewish poet in a way. Really, it was just that writing poetry and Jewishness went together. And I worried about the degree to which non-Jewish people would be able to relate to the poems that were explicitly Jewish. When I grew up as a poet, I stopped worrying so much about that and started worrying about something different, which was that my interest in poetry had to do with Judaism and poetry that was umbilically connected to Judaism as a religious tradition, as a living religious tradition. And the problem that I had was that I knew very few Jews who experienced it that way. The Jews who were traditionally religious didn’t see Judaism as something you would make poetry out of. It was the canon was fixed, and the Jews who were not traditionally religious often saw the liturgical texts and biblical texts that inspired me as dead and gone—like things you had to survive, not things that were inspiring. So a lot of my work has been about creating a living intersection between Judaism as a religious tradition and poetry and using each of them to hopefully fructify the other. I know Judaism has given life to a lot of my poems, but my goal is also that the ways that I deploy it in poetry will help give life to Judaism as a spiritual tradition, a religious tradition.

Sean Singer: [00:06:41] Hi, I’m Sean Singer. Poems are a truth about a person, not the poet, but the poet as a representative of the person. Whether a poet has readers or not, their responsibility is the same. It’s the poet’s responsibility to not turn away from what’s real. It’s risky enough to be on a high enough wire in your life to be in a place where you can truthfully transform yourself into language. Then you have to stay healthy enough to get through it, and then be able to tell others what happened and how. It’s a responsibility to convert feelings into language, to remake language, to make new ways of thinking. One of the tenets of Judaism is uncertainty or questioning, and I believe poems try to present situations described as questions above everything else. In my book Today in the Taxi, the relationship between the speaker and the subject of the poems is one of questions, and these are often not resolved or answered definitively. The Lord is one of my main characters, and in the book she has a female voice and appears alongside the real passengers. And her voice serves as a guide or ethical GPS to allow the reader to bear witness, along with the speaker or the driver. The period I was writing these poems was a time of considerable upheaval in life in this country. A rise of autocracy and totalitarianism, and also a time of loss in my personal life. So the poems reflect my thinking through of these problems at this time. What it means to work in the gig economy and a time of intensifying income inequality. Watching New York City transform through time in history and understanding my relationship to Jewish experience during a time of rising antisemitism.

Judith Baumel: [00:08:54] The answer to the question about “How is my Judaism related to my poetry?” is two parts. One is, um I’m a cultural Jew and so this—the culture, the traditions of observance are very important to me. The admonition to live in a just world, and make the world just is very important to me. And I’m also a Jew of The Book, so even when I don’t realize it, there are lines from, from Jewish writing, from the Tanakh, from other texts, other important Jewish texts. So, sometimes I think I’m writing about one thing—I’ll be reading a poem about the early Christians in Sicily soon—and fundamentally, there are the early scenes from the Torah. And I think that that’s what I want to say for now. I think we might have a good conversation later about what it means to be a Jewish poet. But for me, it’s text and language and the recycling of language, the way that prayer recycles what’s in the books, and the way contemporary poetry can be prayer.

David Ebenbach: [00:10:27] It’s a really tricky thing for me to even try to disentangle Judaism from poetry. It’s more that, that’s difficult than for me to relate them together. For me, they’re both really kind of fundamental bone level stuff for me, and it’s sometimes hard to tell where one bone stops and the other one starts. So, you know, when I’m in the synagogue, things are striking me as sound and imagery and powerful things that I’m already writing poems while I’m sitting there. And when I’m out writing, I’m thinking very much about the spiritual significance of every word that goes on the page. So, they’re kind of right on top of each other. I think Judaism is a language, and I think poetry is a language. And I think not only is it possible to speak both simultaneously, I think if you’re a certain kind of person, it’s hard to speak just one of them at any given time. And that’s the kind of conundrum I find myself in.

Erika Meitner: [00:11:25] So, I think one thing about my poems, which you’ll see in the next few, is a lot of them are political. And so I think of poetry as a way that we can enact tikkun olam in certain ways and social justice. Also, my family background comes through my poems a lot. So I’m 3G; my grandparents survived five concentration camps between them on my maternal grandparents side, and my mother was born in a DP camp, which Judy mentioned in one of her poems. So, I’m first-generation American and I’m the daughter of a refugee and an immigrant. My father was born in 1947 in Israel, after my family on that side fled Czechoslovakia. So I’m a little bit of a throwback Jew for my generation. I also summered in the Catskills, in a bungalow colony. And all of those things work their way into my poems. I’ve been writing a lot lately about just this feeling that we’re in the Eschaton, and a lot of that is born out of my family’s hypervigilance that they raised us with. My parents’ lived experiences were that everyone was literally trying to kill them. And so, to not bring that forward in some way in my work would feel weird. And also to bring it forward in my work feels deeply weird.

Victoria Redel: [00:12:46] How does the work connect to Judaism or my Jewish culture? Both my parents came here in different ways during the Second World War. Both of them came from families who had fled their countries or left their countries during other wars. And all of the moving, all of the leaving, all of the migration and displacement was based on Judaism. And so I grew up in a household where the job was to assimilate. And yet at every step of the way, I was being told, “You’re not American, you’re a Jew.” So it was that complicated message. I also grew up in a household where multiple languages were being spoken, and they were all kind of secret languages. You weren’t supposed to learn them, but you were supposed to know them. And it was all that confusing piece of being a first-generation Jewish-American. And so I think initially a lot of the work was in flight from that, because my job was to assimilate. And and yet it crept in and crept in because the stories inside my family crept in and crept in.

Katherine Smith: [00:14:10] I find my poetry tends to explore all the things that matter to me, and my Judaism is one of them. So, it’s a way of exploring and connecting with the past and tradition, and also poetry is a way of grounding my Judaism in my own life and finding ways to kind of fill in the gaps of what is not already out there. So I grew up in the South, in Tennessee, and so I had— I’m sure as many of you did— an experience of Judaism, which was a little bit …I don’t want to say isolated, but a little bit outside the community. And so a lot of my poems have to do with that theme.

Amy Small-McKinney: [00:15:22] Hello. Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here. I don’t use the word honored frequently, but I honestly feel honored. And being here means more to me than just—I mean, the poetry is obviously essential. But to answer your question about how my Judaism, how my Jewish culture, impacts my poetry, I think being here with all of you is one part of the answer. I’m part of a community, finally. I’ve been very separate from my Judaism, I’ve been very angry. I just, for many reasons, rejected it. And yet my poems were so smart. They kept bringing up Judaism in my lines. They kept it up until I heard them. And I realized that being Jewish, identifying as a Jewish woman is so crucial to me, it’s almost like another limb. So I’m grateful to my poems for helping me find that. And I was bat mitzvahed in April!

Alan Michael Parker: [00:16:44] So I think by way of my Judaism— I’m really a kind of bad Jew. I mean, like I guess I have to start there. And I’ve become more Jewish in extremis because I moved to the South 25 years ago, more Jewish because I teach at a Presbyterian college, more Jewish because my comedy has begun to out me as I’ve gotten older, which has led to cartooning. And I think that my identity, which perhaps—I mean, I have not been bat mitzvahed in April—but which perhaps I ran from for a while, is maybe with age coming to haunt me or at least to shake a finger at me. So, you’ll hear it in the work. You’ll hear it in the return to liturgical forms. You’ll hear it in the way in which I’m wrestling with, especially with history in terms of this first poem, but also with the comedy.

Jeffrey Levine: [00:17:56] I’m a doubter. And sometimes when it gets me down to be a doubter, I remember that nothing could be more quintessentially Jewish than being a doubter. It’s never… Being a doubter has never stopped my participation in one way or another in ceremony, and in being a practicing Jew—or at least I like to think of myself more as a semi-pro. I got very involved in a small synagogue, and the rabbi would call on me to give lay sermons, which I just loved. And then we had a heart to heart. And I said, “You know what? Rabbi Borodowski,” I said, “I think I’d like to go to the seminary.” And he said, “Well, that would be a great idea. You would make a great Rabbi, except for one thing.” And I said,”Well,” I set myself up, “What’s that?” And he said, “Well, you’re not actually a believer.” I said, “Well, that might or might not be true. But what’s even more Jewish is that I’m a doubter, and so are you Rabbi. So are you.”

Matthew E. Silverman: [00:18:56]  I too, am a doubter. And I’m so far away from synagogues, in such a rural area of Georgia, that I don’t feel Jewish at all sometimes. And what is great about poetry, even when I sit down to write a collection of prose poems about a father with a disorder and his son. And when I’m using the themes of space and magical realism, the Jewish themes still creep in and you’re going to hear three of them in just a second. And I think that’s sort of the way it is. It kind of reminds me of like when I was a kid and, you know there’s nothing under your bed, but you kind of want to still check anyway. And I feel like sometimes—maybe I’m overdoing this metaphor here—but that the bed is just Judaism, and it’s there for you. But you still want to check, and you still want to doubt, and see what’s under the bed, so to speak.

Nancy Naomi Carlson: [00:20:03] I feel honored to be in the presence of these poems and these readers. So, I am a doubter, and I’m a bad Jew, and I feel like it’s Yom Kippur and we’re beating ourselves up for all of our sins. And I’m a rebellious Jew, and when you have a mother who says, “Never marry anyone who is not Jewish,” you go and you marry everybody who’s not Jewish. But, because I’m Jewish, I feel guilty at things. And so I find myself in places where I’m the only Jew, and I have to say, “No, I don’t want red and green together in this decoration. And, doesn’t anyone care in this whole university that it’s Yom Kippur? Why are we having a training that day?” And so that nudges me to be even more Jewish. And now more than ever, the Judaism is sneaking into the poetry. Sometimes that’s the subject of the poem, but so often it just comes in, or a Yiddish word will come in, or even the way I look at things comes in.

Gratitude to our readers and Jehanne Dubrow, Yetzirah’s reading series curator.

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Find the schedule for our Spring 2023 Readings here