Every anthologist thinks about how to organize the book. When Matthew and I organized The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, we chose alphabetical order. The purpose of this decision was twofold. We wanted to present the poems as individual responses to the world and Judaism instead of grouping them in themes (think Passover, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, high holidays). We wanted to make the book “usability friendly” as they say in the ecommerce world. In this book, a reader may simply look up the poet they want to read by last name. It never made sense to me why I’d have to flip to the index to find a poem by a poet and then flip to the page with the poem.
Given that we left it to the reader to conclude what it means to experience the world as a contemporary Jewish American poet, we decided it would complement the book to ask contributors what they thought of the very questions that might arise as you read it. Think of this as a companion piece to the book and as the finale to a week of blogging about Jewish American poetry.
Below, you'll find Matthew Silverman's questions and the responses from the contributors to the book.
How are issues raised in contemporary Jewish American poetry applicable to a multi-cultural modern society?
Judaism is a historical religion—we are people of the book—that sometimes conflicts with the currencies of American life. As Americans, we like to think that we make ourselves up. We dwell in a perpetual present, in a hurry, on the move. But there is also something else working inside of us, something related to our ancestries, which often links us to the past, to those who have come before us. We dwell in the present, but we also feel something alien working inside of us that we don’t entirely understand—an exiled longing from some other country, a vague memory of wandering in the desert, an anguished quest for freedom. The American Jewish poet models this divide, this dual heritage; we are always moving forward while looking back.
Many of the issues faced by the Jewish Community are relevant to other religious and ethnic groups. Assimilation and intermarriage are two issues that affect each religious and ethnic group in the United States. The issues of immigration are universal themes, as are the loss of customs and beliefs from one's country of origin. So are the inevitable tensions between parents born in the "old country" and children who are born or raised in the United States. Jewish American poets can educate readers about the unique aspects of Jewish culture while touching readers about the universality of many of the issues that affect Jewish American poets. I have found non-Jewish readers to be open to poetry about Jewish themes, beliefs and rituals which have had a profound impact on my life or the Jewish community as a whole. Poetry plays a unique role in creating a bond between poet and reader, particularly at a poetry reading. Given the power of good poetry, poems can build bridges that polemics cannot.
I organized an annual Community of Jewish Writers event in the Capital Region of Upstate New York. It has been well received by both Jews and non-Jews. This past year one of our poets was the child of an intermarriage. Her father had come from a secular Jewish family and she had not received any education on Judaism. The issue of her father's Jewishness came up rarely but when it did, it fascinated her. Her writing on the subject and the choices she subsequently made in her own intermarriage resulted in a very lively discussion.
For me, issues raised in Jewish American poetry have everything to do with participation in national and international dialogues exploring cultural/religious/personal identities histories, narratives, politics, outside and insider stories, and traditions. Jewish American literary issues and Jewish American writers and their works are for me always part of that larger, complicated, rich, ever evolving landscape.
I began a presentation at a recent AWP on something like this topic by pointing out that no less mainstream an American than Henry Adams – related to not one but two American presidents – begins his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams this way:
Under the shadow of the Boston State House, turning its back on the house of John Hancock, the little passage called Hancock Avenue runs, or ran, from Beacon Street, skirting the State House grounds, to Mount Vernon Street on the summit of Becaon Hill; and there, in the third house below Mount Vernon Place, February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Books Adams.
Had he been born in Jerusalem, under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would scarcely have been more distinctly branded, and not much more severely handicapped in the races of the as the coming century, in running for such stakes as the century was to offer.
What could be more astonishing? In order to write his own American autobiography, this inheritor of American tradition, this Henry Brooks Adams, had to liken himself to Israel Cohen! A half-century later, Robert Lowell – again, the scion of one of the first families of Boston, a man related to two important American poetic predecessors – James Russell Lowell and Amy Lowell –makes sure his readers of Life Studies know that Mordecai Myers, Jewish hero of the Was of 1812, was his ancestor. I’d always assumed that Myers – or at least Lowell’s connection to him, was invented, but the New York State Council on the Humanities tells me otherwise, identifies Myers, in fact, as Lowell’s great-great-grandfather. But whether it’s true or not, the interesting fact for me, is how anxious yet another Boston Brahmin writer was to establish himself as having some sort of Jewish credential. I suppose it’s their way of describing the fundamental placelessness of any literary person – but particularly a poet -- in our utterly practical country.
But it also has to do with the hybrid quality of the American experience. Take Thanksgiving, since it’s coming up. In my house, we always had chopped liver, chicken soup and turkey with cranberry sauce. In an Italian friend’s house, they always had lasagna and turkey with cranberry sauce. A Chinese friend: dumplings, wonton soup and then turkey with cranberry sauce. And so on. To be American is to have at least one foot or hand (the writing hand?) in another culture. I gave my kids’ holocaust-survivor great-aunt an Amy Tan novel to read. She loved it and felt like she was reading about herself. If Jewish-American poetry is doing its job, it is quintessentially American poetry. At least, I’m always writing on that assumption.
Cheryl J. Fish:
Jews may be of any race; there is not one type of Jewish-American experience. Just like any other group of hyphenated-Americans (African-American, Latina-American, Italian-American, etc); we have varied backgrounds and affiliations, and our Jewish identity or experience probably overlaps with that of our other identities, like gender, social class, sexuality identity, and being American. But in terms of persecution, in Nazi Germany, if you had any Jewish background, you'd be classified a Jew, so we have that connection with each other, and when someone is against us they don't really care about our nuances. Many of us probably relate to the persecution of other oppressed groups; Some Jews in history have been outspoken radical activists who supported the rights of other minorities. Others did not.
Jewish American poetry raises all kinds of issues that apply to our multi-cultural modern society, like what it means to feel or not feel Jewish, to draw on a rich history and culture,express faith and identity, connect to music and art, clothing and language, romance and death, holidays and family relations. Jewish-American poetry can challenge or revisit stereotypes, make political statements or address nature and community. You cannot pin it down, nor would you want to. We should be included in the mulit-cultural conversation.
What is the role of Jews in contemporary American poetry?
The role of Jews in contemporary American poetry simply underscores the role of all poets-- to speak the unspoken and the unspeakable, as beautifully as possible. As perpetual outsiders, Jewish poets may be especially well suited to the task. It seems so to me, based on the work in this anthology.
My answer to this question is very simple. The “role” of all poets is to produce beautiful poetry—that is, poetry that achieves “excellence” in some way (and granted that what we mean by “excellence” is not always clear and that taste enters into our judgments). “American” poets, for the most part, are poets who write in English; but whether it is English, Spanish, or some other language, the task of the poet is to produce poetry that is excellent in and of itself. The role of the Jewish poet, in this respect, is no different from that of the Catholic or Muslim poet: all poets have as their responsibility the task of producing poetry that matters, first and foremost, as poetry. But the Jewish poet, whether or not he defines himself as such, has certain experiences and has inherited certain traditions that may be different from the experiences and traditions of non-Jewish poets; and so these will necessarily come into play in his work on the level of its content (not necessarily of its form). An American poet writing in English, no matter how much he may want to distinguish himself in national or regional terms, is still in a certain sense an “English poet”; his work falls under the purview (and history) of English poetry. Similarly, a Jewish poet writing in English is an “English poet.” If poetry is an art, the language in which it is written is primary; national, regional, religious, or ethnic distinctions must then be seen as secondary. “Jewish-American poetry” is simply poetry written by Jewish Americans; the category has no ontological or metaphysical reality or validity; it is not a genre unto itself; it is merely a description of who the individual poet happens to be. It may be pleasant or consoling to think otherwise, because to think otherwise lends credence to the category and gives it heightened importance; but in my view, this is mere ideology and has nothing to do with poetry as an art form.
What challenges do you perceive in engaging readers in poems that address the Jewish experience?
The glib response first. Some folks think the poetry world and publishing is run by a Jewish Mafia, just as a different set of bigots think poetry is run by a Gay Mafia. I don't think there's much a Jewish writer can do for these readers. But more seriously I think about questions any minority writer entertains: what's the scale of his or her suffering (or for that matter joy?) We don't want to get in the business of comparative suffering, comparing the holocaust to slavery, and so on. That's a challenge we have to rise to for our readership. And I think it's any writer's job to write authentically, not to commodify his or her religion or ethnicity for acknowledgment or celebrity. I think sensitive readers look for this scale and balk at work that appears whiny or smug.
Beyond that, I balk at generalization. I'm completely secular: my Jewishness is urban, intellectual, ironic, playful, concerned, either interms of rage or compassion, with justice. So for me there's a voice, it's almost familial, a syntax I first heard in Brooklyn, a vulgarity I often find expressive, that I want in my poems. That may be hard for more civilized folks, who feel attached to a more traditional canon (truth is beauty), to hear. Then there are practicing Jews -- reformed, conservative,or orthodox -- whose whole centers of being are mostly foreign to me. Whose sense of otherness or history or of the bible is core for them. There are midwestern Jews who seem generally more gentile to me in their manners. If they're from the upper-middle class they seem more reserved than New York Jews (or New Yorkers in general). How are we all absorbed by readers of American poetry? I'd say differently from one another. I think someone from a city has a better shot at inhabiting my poems than someone who's history is rural or small townish. Ditto someone who comes from a similar social class. These issues inform my challenges to readers every bit as much as my ethnicity, proud as I am of being a Jew.