Months ago, I stumbled upon “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” In each episode, Jerry Seinfeld drives a notable car to pick up a comedian. He drives them to a coffee shop, and they drink their coffee and talk. In the episode with David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld drives a 1995 Volvo station wagon with a racing engine installed by Paul Newman. A Volvo with a racing engine? Even Paul Newman has a sense of humor.
Since this blog post is not sponsored by a luxury car maker, I was not able to procure a Lamborghini—or even a Vespa for that matter—for my coffee date with poet Kim Roberts. To meet her, I took Metro, which has provided me many free lessons regarding self-defense during rush hour.
I am not sure what car she drove.
Our meeting point: The Wydown Coffee Bar, 1320 U St NW, Washington, DC 20009.
Our plan: To have coffee and talk poetry.
Reason: I interviewed her for this week of blogging about Jewish poetry, because we published her work in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry.
About Kim: Kim Roberts is the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly and the anthology Full Moon On K Street: Poems About Washington DC (Plan B Press, 2010), and she has written three books of poems. She’s received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the DC Commission on the Arts, and the Humanities Council of Washington.
Her research on Walt Whitman’s ten years as a resident of Washington, DC has been published in The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, as well as being featured in articles in The Washington Post and The Washington Times, on radio programs on WAMU and WFPW, and in panel presentations at Rutgers University, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and at the annual Washington Historical Studies Conference. She coordinated a citywide festival in 2005, "DC Celebrates Whitman: 150 Years of Leaves of Grass."
We both drank tea from large white cups. The coffee shop worker kept opening the front door, and we withstood blasts of icy air while discussing the significance of Jewish last names.
Kim pointed out her last name doesn’t sound Jewish, because her family changed it upon coming to the U.S.
“I was left without a Jewish name and with a record of antisemitism in the family,” she said.
I asked her to explain.
“They came to the U.S. and pretended not to be Jewish,” she said. “As a result, I did not practice Judaism until college.”
“Which branch did you join?”
“Conservative, because I wanted to learn the ropes.”
I wrote her an email a few days after our conversation to ask her to expand on what we’d discussed during our conversation. She replied:
Although both my parents are Jewish, I was not raised with any strong religious identity. My parents were atheists who saw religion as a kind of personal weakness–a crutch…I came to Judaism late–it wasn't until I was in college that I started reading books about Jewish history and celebrating holidays. My last name was changed by my grandparents when they immigrated to the US–both sides changed their names. At various times I actually considered changing it back since “Roberts” strikes me as nothing less than a record of my family's internalized antisemitism. But in the end I couldn't change it–it's the name I've always been known by, and anything else feels fake. I guess I'm stuck with it.
Immigrants, already outsiders, had their names removed and modified for convenience. The name, whether kept or changed, labeled those immigrants as outsiders due to the fact that the keeping or changing of a name was raised at all. In an essay about American Jewish poetry, John Hollander suggests the idea that both poets and Jews are outsiders while, at the same time, carrying a greater burden: “It is not merely that modern poets and Jews are outsiders, it is more that both carry the burden of an absolutely inexplicable sense of their own identity and history.”
It’s the burden of every artist to carry a sense of identity and history. Have you felt that burden before? Identity and history weigh a lot. They take time. They are not the sorts of suitcase with rollers. They have to be dragged through crowds at the airport. The relationship to them is physical and often involves struggle. I have wrestled with them and asked them to go away. In the end, I am glad they have not disappeared. I’m drawn to them. What would I do without them and their burden? I, like all writers, have carried them so long that I do not know another way.
With American Jewish poetry, the poet balances art and non-art lives, Jewish and American identities and histories, geographical dysphoria between where they are and Israel. To be a Jewish poet is to carry all of this and still have the ability to document, to witness, and to explore.