Earlier this week, I mentioned that Jerry Seinfeld’s series called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” inspired my coffee interview series with poets. Each episode shows Jerry Seinfeld driving a notable car to pick up a comedian. He drives them to a coffee shop, and they drink their coffee and chat. Today's post includes an interview with Josh Weiner, who is one of the poets we included in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemorary Jewish American Poetry. By the way, we have a full list of events related to the book. We'd love to see you!
Poets, of course, don’t just drink coffee.
Josh Weiner ordered carrot juice.
Let me be clear here. The carrot juice order gives the person craving chocolate some pause. Does one proceed with the hot chocolate order (yes to whipped cream) or select one of the organic herbal teas made by extremely happy people in another country?
If not for Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, I may well have fallen into ordering something similar to show solidarity. In his book, psychologist and behavioral economist Ariely explains one should be the first to order in a restaurant. Ordering first prevents one from the desire to express individuality by ordering something they do not like in order to be “different” or by expressing solidarity by ordering what someone else orders. The result is often ordering something you don’t like—and being “irrational.” Order first, and these challenges are avoided, my friend.
Despite Josh’s good example—and thanks to Dan Ariely—I kept my original order of hot chocolate with whipped cream. It came with a hair (at no additional charge). Josh said he would not blame me for not wanting to drink bacteria, so I sent it back and got coffee. I ended up with something slightly healthier after all, but the caffeine made me talk a lot.
Our Meeting Place: Busboys and Poets, Hyattsville, MD
Side note: Busboys and Poets is a restaurant named for Langston Hughes. Hughes, if you recall, was a busboy at the Wardman Park (now called the Marriott Wardman Park and a favorite of the AWP and MLA conferences for you English professor/writer types) in Washington, DC. When Vachel Lindsay dined there, Hughes placed his poems in front of the great poet. Lindsay was annoyed, but he picked up the papers and read them. He liked “The Weary Blues" and helped Hughes with his career.
Let’s get to the cars.
Cars Involved: Josh drove a Mini Cooper. I drove a Corolla.
Joshua Weiner is the author of three books of poetry—The World’s Room (2001), From the Book of Giants (2006), and The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (2013)—published by the University of Chicago. He’s received a Whiting Writers Award, the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters, and the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship. In 2014, he’ll be a fellow of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park and is poetry editor at Tikkun. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, the novelist Sarah Blake, and their children.
We started off our conversation talking about topics I was writing about for this week of blogging—Jewish last names, identity, the definition of a Jewish poet or poem.
“I’m not not a Jewish writer,” Josh replied as we talked about Jewish identity. In this, he echoes a number of poets I’ve spoken to about identity. Writers may not use a Jewish label to define themselves, yet their background ends up seeping into their work.
Josh and his family lived in Berlin for a year after he won the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, which awards funds to poets to live outside of the United States for a year.
I mentioned knowing two families who moved to Germany. A third family has expressed interest and might move. I asked him what was the allure of Germany and did he notice a lot of non-Germans living in Berlin?
“A lot of Israelis are buying property in Berlin. Jews are returning to Germany and the “synagogues are reopening,” he said.
I could not help but notice that the synagogues are reopening only now, seventy or so years after the Holocaust. We have so little idea of the full impact of that time in history. Josh pointed out the Holocaust is front and center in Germany, which he says has become a “country of conscience.”
"In Berlin, I sometimes felt like I was living inside a giant Holocaust memorial that turned into a rave party at night," he said.
“If you live in Germany, you can’t escape what the country did to Jews. It’s at the front of everything.”
It’s even in the stones.
A poet I know who moved to Germany posted photos of Holocaust memorial stones on Facebook, so I was slightly familiar with them. Bronze stones have been placed outside the houses and apartments from which people were taken and killed.
“The stones indicate who they were, when they were taken and when they were killed. Might be one person or twelve,” Josh said.
He pointed out the difference between how the United States views slavery and how Germany views the Holocaust: “The US went to war against itself. The Germans had to be defeated by the world, or it would not have stopped. They owe their reformation to the rest of the world. That comes up all the time in Germany.”
In Germany, Josh and his family lived in a prewar walkup, a building with a number of elderly residents. “You walk around and wonder what they [the older people] did [for a living] between 1937 and 1978.”
That gave me a creepy feeling. I get that same creepy feeling driving through Northern Virginia (the land of some creepy spy movies). I wonder how this conscience, how hiding from the past in plain sight, and the guilt of what their country did could affect art.
“What is the poetry like in Germany?” I asked.
“The poetry is forceful. There’s no creative writing industry.”
Josh pointed out that Germans are interested in the idea of workshops and what is done inside one. I joked we could create a million-dollar poetry industry in Germany by offering workshops. (I’m such an American!) Having grown up in a “workshop world” in the U.S., I have trouble imagining a culture and a country where “the workshop” doesn’t exist and, in fact, is a mystery to people.
Using the word “industry” in reference to creative writing programs is an interesting choice, so I asked him about it. Josh has taught at the University of Maryland for twelve years, and he taught before that too. He points out that creative writing programs can help people who want to try to be a writer.
"A program can give aspiring writers access to the expertise of more experienced writers. That's why they are popular. It’s more confusing because more are trying, but that doesn't make it bad," he says.
Right before we left, I asked someone at the hostess stand to take our photo for this blog post. She had us stand in several different places because she found the lighting unsatisfactory. I admired her desire for perfection. Josh and I stood next to each other like people who had just met, because we just had.
“Aren’t you going to put your arms around each other?” she asked. She thought we were a couple, and I had to smile to myself at how hard she was working to make this a good photo. I was amused.
“This is professional!” Josh said with a laugh.
“Our spouses wouldn’t like it,” I added.