On Jewish Poetry

bloomsbury jq

While putting together Bloomsbury’s Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry with Deborah Ager, I was often faced with the question of Jewish identity and Jewish poetry in America today. Obviously, Jewish poetry is not just about being Jewish as our lives in America extend beyond religion and religious activities. With American Jewish poetry as in any contemporary poetry in America, the poet walks the fine line between their writing and non-writing lives and sometimes between their religious views (even if it be atheism) and their individual identity as American coming from all variant locations within the United States of America. But these poets and their poems are so much more than that. Ultimately, contemporary Jewish American poetry is about every human thing.

We discovered this during the process of collecting poems from 110 contemporary Jewish American poets. In fact, many poems are simply about an experience or an emotion and not “Jewish” at all, making the anthology more universal and not limiting. Part of the process to any anthology is organisation. There already exists a concept within any anthology but does an editor or editors break it down into smaller themes or should it be presented in some other way? While there is no wrong or right way, Deborah Ager and I purposely chose alphabetical order to highlight the overall concept behind the anthology: there is no singular Jewish experience and we are each individualistic, having the common denominator of Judaism.

Despite this, we also know part of any grouping would automatically make many try to construct a commonality that can be neatly boxed together. We thought it would be interesting to take the time to see what the contributors thought of the very questions readers may ponder as they read Bloomsbury’s Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry.

 1. How is contemporary Jewish American poetry defined?

I imagine that a reader expects to find Jewishness (when prompted) in a poem’s content. She tends to anticipate something like: Moses, a mikvah, Israel, tikkun olam, or Kristallnacht, or for the poem to wrestle with god, or somehow to reflect the Jewish American experience — being joined together and sometimes apart from or having lost (a country, a way of being, a way of thinking, say). I don’t think it’s a much different expectation than the one a reader might have upon opening an anthology of contemporary black poetry, for example, or Palestinian or Asian or Asian American poetry, or queer poetry. But my initial idea here is hasty and reductive. I shouldn’t expect a poem to be legibly “Jewish” any more than I should expect a poem to be legibly black, or trans, or Palestinian, or disabled. What does it even mean for a poem to be any of those things? What does it mean for a poem to be Jewish, or Jewish American? That’s an exciting question. In this anthology, Charles Bernstein’s and Joanna Fuhrman’s poems beg that question by the pressure you can see on their very forms. They broaden ideas of Jewish American poetry by showing that “Jewish experience” is not necessarily the same as “Jewish content.” But! — the Jewish content in these poems is incredibly varied and rich: look at the range in poems by Stephen Burt, Alan Shapiro, Rachel Zucker, and Lisa Olstein, just for starters. Jewish American poetry is everything: sexy, crazy, meditative, reverent, irreverent…. For example, in Marcela Sulak’s poem, being Jewish is Audrey Hepburnish: “It’s so nice to be pretty on Eli Cohen Street / in Katamon, Jerusalem and wearing polka dots / on a swinging dress with a small cinched waist.” – Joy Katz

 2. How are issues raised in contemporary Jewish American poetry applicable to a multi-cultural modern society?

Judaism, some could argue, teaches us that to live is to suffer. We’re constantly reminded of human suffering throughout the Torah and every year at the Passover Seder. But, it also teaches us that one can be “brought forth out of” suffering. Personally, my Jewish cultural background taught me to champion against suppression & discrimination. And, yet, if we Jews allow ourselves self-introspection, we often find that we too discriminate. So, I suppose I could say that Judaism teaches me that life is a system of opposing realities. I think much of the poetry I read by Jewish authors represents this dichotomy. Ira Sadoff’s poem Meditation symbolises this beautifully with such lines as, “the day someone left…This affected my sight,” and “certain contradictions recurred: a streetlight glowing at sunrise/ the moon rising in the afternoon.” This kind of illumination of life’s crazy dualities allows us all to feel part of the largest cultural race called human. The best poems show us what it means to be human, the best poems say what language cannot. – Joy Gaines-Friedler

One of my favourite aspects of Judaism is that by definition, we are a multi-cultural people comprised of several tribes. During the last twenty years, I’ve worked in countries as diverse as Bosnia and South Africa, Colombia and the Irish Republic, and in each country, I experienced a slightly different take on what it means to be Jewish. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, I saw the Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest Sephardic prayer books in the world. At a Sabbath meal in Cape Town, South Africa I was exposed to new interpretations of familiar songs and prayers. So I come to poetry with that same sense of openness. My poems are lyric and narrative; some are confessional and others, postmodern. I’m not too worried about labels. – Susan Rich

 3. What challenges do you perceive in engaging readers in poems that address the Jewish experience?

My experience with how readers respond to poems that address the Jewish experience tells me that when a reader has some engagement with faith, she/he does not find it difficult to engage with poems about the Jewish experience. When said reader is struggling with issues of faith, there are still points of connection, as my work often discusses struggle, doubt, and some of the more idiosyncratic aspects, characters and scenes from our tradition. When a reader has no interest in faith, mine or theirs, I find resistance to poems of Jewish content. Whether the idea of such a conversation simply holds no interest or in some way challenges or aggravates the reader’s position, I do not know. To be colloquial — religion is sensitive stuff. Risky business. Ideally, a strong poem and a open-minded reader make a good combination, whatever the subject-matter. All I can do (my mouth to God’s ears) is provide that poem. – Patty Seyburn

When I write an overtly Jewish poem, I worry that it will be incomprehensible for people who aren’t Jewish. Like other Jewish poets, I wonder how many Hebrew or Yiddish words I will need to translate in some non-obtrusive way, and at a deeper level, if a few footnotes will be enough to fit non-Jews into a garment woven of thousands of years of ancestral experience that is not their own. But though I am suspicious of the idea of universal experience, and though I frequently feel like a weirdo, I find that other people relate to my work surprisingly often. For example, I first read my poem “Taschlikh” to an all-gentile audience. Of course I began with a simple definition of the ritual. Still, how would they judge a poem about throwing lint into a creek? It turns out you don’t have to perform a Jewish ritual to understand the sorrow of letting go of a beautiful sin. Did my audience experience the poem the same way Jews would? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure it was a lesser experience for them. At the end of the poem, I heard in the way they sighed: they too were touched by some beloved, personal regret. – Colleen McKee

 4. With the role of modern poetry today the way it is, how does Jewish American poetry fit into this?

Contemporary Jewish American poetry is simply contemporary human poetry; if such poems address Jewish experiences, then they offer that particular window into being human. The poem is the most sensitive activation engine, reminding us — through the sensorium its language evokes — that we are alive: salt and forests and air and ache and walking along in our (or at least in my case) cowboy boots. And what if a Shofar is the catalyst for that activation in a poem, on a day of awe, which is made ritually singular? And what if the catalyst is a bell, or the moon, or a blackberry, or an ancient tablet? What one must seek is a way in. This is the joy of a poem as a uniqueness that tumbles from a lifeworld and yes, must be read by anyone, everyone; the poem at its best, then, ultimately claims a human in-common space rather than a purely communitarian one. – Nomi Stone

Every writer’s work reflects a worldview formed from some specific cultural perspective, whether it’s rural America or Jewish culture, or in my case the horribleness of growing up Jewish in rural America. Great writing comes from specificity.  But for the depiction of that specific culture to resonate with a wider audience it has to transcend that perspective.  The writing has to address some of the universal questions and conflicts we all are reckoning with on our ever more populated planet. In the dying Appalachian town where I grew up, I was always aware of what was being said about Raul Rodriguez, the lone Mexican kid in my class, and he was aware of what was said about me and Josh Stein and the few other Jewish kids in my grade.  I started counting down the days to graduation my sophomore year but those bewildering years have made me keenly aware of what all minority cultures are up against in mainstream conversations.  I don’t have to write specifically about rural Jews in order to write about social isolation or the desire for escape.  Poems can transcend a specific experience and still be true to it. – Idra Novey


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