This is part II of the Poetry & Belief Series. In this interview, Rosebud Ben-Oni and I discuss how her work directly interacts with faith and culture. She also offers a new poem.
Check out the Poetry & Belief series opener here.
Lisa Marie Basile: Your work deals largely with God and culture. I loved these poems, and thought there was a lot to unpack here. How do you approach writing about belief? Was this something you always knew you'd examine, or does it fall out naturally?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: I’ve been drawn to conflict for as long as I can recall. I struggle with the weight of the various histories I’ve inherited. Perhaps it’s also the nature of being mixed, and the experiences of living in places like Jerusalem and the U.S.-Mexican border, that I must respond to these histories and places in order to be of them.
Since I am not of one thing (and really, few of us are), I must create places and memories in verse to give myself origins as a writer. Recently, I guest edited an Imaginary Homelands feature for Winter Tangerine Review, and wrote this introduction to the series in which I proposed that hybridity has its own purity, and the idea that origins evolve and have more than one story.
Rarely is anything static, so why should our literary and religious canons be? Around a decade or so ago, I stopped attending Shabbat services regularly; I felt something was stuck. I wanted to move forward, to something greater. I can’t do this with Judaism as it is now. I do still recite prayers like the V'ahavta because otherwise I wonder, what is a Jew without practice? (For me that question mirrors this one: what is a writer who doesn’t write?) Even though I no longer belong to a synagogue, I stay bound to the idea of inherited history by praying. But it is in poetry that I engage with the cosmos, as a living thing beyond being alive, as a force that stretches towards something beyond limits. That is what I mean by moving forward.
Lisa Marie Basile: Your new poem All The Wild Beasts I Have Been is an intense examination of religious belief and family acceptance in a time of war. I sense a deep struggle in this poem, and want to know more. After all this darkness and grief - is the writing cathartic?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: I have to fight for that kind of catharsis, and it never fully comes because I’m old enough to know better. I don’t just mean peace in the Middle East; I mean admitting all the beliefs that make me a poet. Living in Jerusalem brought out something very brutal and raw that I cannot destroy. That kind of candidness that reveals the division between the soul and the brain, the secular from the spiritual, all the contradictions that make life difficult. Jerusalem, as sacred as it is held, is very provincial at the same time. While I will always love the city and at times long for its winding roads and diverse landscapes, for its place in history, it wasn’t until I left Jerusalem that I could move forward as a poet and write about it.
Lisa Marie Basile: You come from a very multicultural background and it has definitely made a beautiful impact on your work - a Jewish father, and a Mexican mother. This is a lot to ask, but did you ever figure that poetry would help you unravel, make sense of, and define the many facets of your personhood? Or do you find poetry creates more questions?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: When I was younger, I used to struggle with some Jews who didn’t consider me a “real” Jew because my mother is Mexican of Indian/Spanish heritage and a convert. Just this year I’ve finally began to explore the uglier side of faith, when I’ve brandished my teeth, when I’ve failed, when I broke from any hope for the stellar and fell deeply into the dark provincial. I recently saw Under the Skin, and it reminded me of my years in Jerusalem— the alienation, the wanting to be human when I could not be. When I listen to the movie’s soundtrack, especially to this song “Love,” to all those drawn-out, contorted, synthetic notes, I remember the fumbling, the unbearable solitude, the days closing in as I realized I could not make a life for myself in Jerusalem.
This year was a turning point in both my writing and my life. My husband and I married in two different ceremonies: a Chinese tea ceremony and dinner to honor his side, in which his 80-something grandmother flew all the way from Hong Kong to attend, and then a Jewish ceremony, which was completely in Hebrew with English translation, performed by a female rabbi, surrounded by my mother’s family on the shores of South Padre. No one from my father’s family came to either wedding.
Like my father had been embraced by my mother’s family, so was I embraced by my husband’s family. At the second cereomony on Padre Island, I was overwhelmed that so many people we loved were in one room. Some had crossed great physical distances to be with us that weekend. While I did feel sadness for the absence of my Jewish family, the unknown—will I ever see them again— rests, though uncomfortable, within me, and I give it that space. I found I could only do that when which the poet self finally connected, completely, to the human part of me.
Lisa Marie Basile: Whose poetry explores faith in a way that you've found really inspiring?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: I absolutely love the Donald Revell translation of “Zone” by Apollinaire; it is one of the reasons I decided to write poetry of faith. Of course Adrienne Rich’s “Yom Kippur 1984” inspired me when I was younger as well as Yehuda Amichai’s bilingual Hebrew and English translated collection Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems. I cannot know and love Jerusalem without reading Arab Israeli, Palestinian and Druze poets either; I recommend Samih al-Qasim (check out Sadder than Water, translated by Nazih Kassis) and Dana Dajani’s spoken word piece “Love Letter from Palestine.” Naomi Shihab Nye, of course— her poem “San Antonio” was read for our wedding. Recently, Lisa Katz named a number of new Jewish poets in her essay “Beyond Amichai.” Rattle has just published an issue on Poets on Faith(#45) that is worth checking out.
Speaking of faith, did you see this performance of Jessica Lange in American Horror Story? It’s camp, but you don’t have to see past the camp to understand the world Jessica Lange is creating as Elsa Mars. Everything is off about the performance: the blue eye shadow, the oversized powder blue suit, her off-key performance in Lange’s slightly off German accent. The glitter raining down on her as she spins, arms outstretched as if seeking some cosmic embrace. Elsa Mars really in the power of her cardboard world, as she bears something more pure than she is herself, on her threepenny stage until the end of the performance— and we are left with her bewildered, terrified expression, that world so quickly gone, as if she is alone, as if no one has heard her.
Watching this, I was reminded that my own faith is as evanescent as it is eternal. It is such a powerful performance.Lisa Marie Basile: (That is one of my favorite scenes from AHS! I love when camp & kitsch is used to sort of play with the actually quite serious implications of faith, isolation and meaning. But that's a whole different conversation!)
So what are you working on now? What would you share with our readers?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: My next collection explores conflicts of all sorts, including a series where I reimagine both Biblical and pop culture figures as “the younger sister.” It started with a poem called “If Cain the Younger Sister”, which was reprinted in this interview; I’ve always had great sympathy for Cain and felt that he has often been misunderstood.
I’d like to share a new one that I’ve dedicated to poet J. Michael Martinez; it’s called “If Delilah the Younger Sister.” It’s a response to Amichai’s “Wildpeace,” and pays homage to Delilah from the Book of Judges, as well as the film Roadhouse and heavy metal, especially Guns N Roses. I am the bride after all who sampled Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam” in her vows under a chupa between Hebrew prayers.
I suppose this poem, like others in the series, is a prayer in which the poet poses the questions to her faith, for the sake of uncertainty and not in spite of it, because one of the greatest questions ever asked was: where do we go/where do we go now?
If Delilah the Younger Sister
You say peace won’t come from one person
Or poems it isn’t
Wildflowers and plowing wilderness
No it wouldn’t come if we let it
Piety isn’t a bright blue sky but its absence
The other side the same
Seven days and seven nights you say grinding
In the prison house no where do we go
Where do we go now
Where do we go
String skipping I’m making faces
With j michael martinez conjuring
The bands the wrong times those glam
In the grunge era
where we exit
The ramones catch it on j michael late night
Arsenio there’s a revival kip winger headlines twisted sister
Skipping rope on torn j michael
Halos there’s a revival my dear dear dead ones hanging out
In the roadhouse is that you samson here’s one last fight
Sweep the leg ehud the left-handed BE NICE until it’s time
Converse and gideon
Pluck from your bowl and wool this
I I I I I
Reborn a mercedes on feeder roads I’m the big man
Filling vacancy I’ve possessed patrick swayze
Shaved heads and brass fettered the monster
Trucks driven to this j michael
Eat world where all the boys and girls
Belong to a j mötley michael crüe
The last tour last exit to the wake raving raving
Where do we go where do we go now
Marilyn j michael manson of mine yes
Drunk in heart-shaped burlesque yes
The mosh pit oh the accidents
A cracked skull a copped feel fickle hands
Carrying us off if not a busted strobe
If not a ring-ripped nose if cracked
Concrete beneath now where do we go
The hills are alive with michael van
J halen where do we go now
The rattail in hand
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, ROSEBUD BEN-ONI is a CantoMundo Fellow and the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013). She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned her MFA in Poetry, and a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her work is forthcoming or appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. In Fall 2014, she will be a visiting writer at the University of Texas at Brownsville’s Writers Live Series. Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (vidaweb.org). Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org
LISA MARIE BASILE is the author of APOCRYPHAL (Noctuary Press, October 2014), and the chapbooks Andalucia and Triste. Her poetry and other work can be seen in PANK Magazine, Tin House, The Nervous Breakdown, Johns Hopkin’s The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Huffington Post and Prick of the Spindle, among others. She is the editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine and a co-curator for Diorama, a NYC-based collaborative poetry/music salon. She is a graduate of the New School’s MFA in Writing program, and works as a content director. Find out more about Lisa here, read a review of APOCRYPHAL here, and follow her on twitter @lisamariebasile