The ProsenPeople

An Interview with Jake Marmer

Tuesday, October 23, 2018 | Permalink

by Lucy Biederman
I recently spoke with Jake Marmer about his excellent new volume of poetry, The Neighbor Out of Sound.  We talked about form, his immigration experience, poetic and linguistic inspirations, and working life.

Lucy Biederman: There are so many different forms in this book—the opening section plays on the idea of the nigun (“a traditional Hasidic chant, usually wordless,” as you explain). There are prose poems, very short poems, long poems, prayers, sermons . . . Do you think of yourself as a formal poet? How does form operate in your poetics?

Jake Marmer: I think of poetic forms as alternative dimensions, or mind-spaces. Spaces to go into and listen to the language echoing within. I am a somewhat different person when I sing a nigun. A different person when I listen to my kids talk. A new state of emotional attention and concentration gets activated, and with it, its own vocabulary. A poet I admire, Hank Lazer, once called it “inhabiting a form”, and that really speaks to me. The word “Shekhinah," a Jewish name for the feminine Divine Presence, etymologically has something to do with “dwelling” or “inhabiting,” and I think the urge to discern forms, to dwell within them, is a spiritual urge.

Modernist poets thought of form as fluid and intuitive, and that tradition is important to me, and so I don’t think of myself as a “formal poet.” On the other hand, reading various contemporary experimental poets really helped me see how poetic practice can lurk in all these different discourse forms. I’ve been writing riddle-poems lately, tongue-twisters, and poems in which I try to translate a single word. Those are forms, too, and I’ve learned to seek them out and linger in them.

LB: In the prose passages at the beginning of each section, you write about immigrating, working, parenting in ways that both foreground the ensuing poems and give your readers a richer sense of your world. Have you written longer works in prose? Have you considered, or attempted—or written—a memoir?

JM: I owe a debt of gratitude to Jerome Rothenberg for those prose pieces. I wrote to him some years ago about my nigun poems you’ve mentioned, and asked if he thought I should footnote to explain what nigunim are. I needed some contextual explanation, but thought that footnoting my own poems was too boring and self-important. Jerry suggested writing a preface note that would also “serve as a kind of poetics.” I loved that. His own prefaces are often statements of poetics and are gorgeous poetry that look like prose. They’ve been really formative to my own thinking and writing.

As far as memoirs go, the odd thing is that I always have trouble getting at my own memories directly. It's only when I start writing about literature or music of others that I can then broach my own life—as it exists in the encounter with the work of others. As if I am most alive, most provoked in these encounters. For me, this kind of writing takes the shape of essays, usually for Tablet Magazine, and I recently had a piece in the Jewish Review of Books that was very autobiographical, even if it was, on the surface, about the new Isaac Babel translations.

LB: As you explain in the book, you didn’t know you were Jewish until you were eight years old, after your father heard you singing an anti-Semitic song you picked up at the school you attended in Russia. When you immigrated to America as a teenager, you wrote, “Yiddishkeit became alive to me as a poetics.” Can you talk about your relationship with Jewishness? How has it influenced and affected your understanding of language?

JM: I once asked a similar question while interviewing David Meltzer and he said: “What are you doing for the next six hours?” It’s a big question, the answer to which will necessitate many tactical evasions, hand gestures, tangents, self-contradictions, and swallowing of printed text, so I think we should save it for a different occasion.

I’ll just say that I see poetry and mythology as intertwined, and that Judaism’s mythology is the one I chose to live with and within, a lot of the time, and I find myself embodying it, whether intentionally or not. That, too, can be seen as a form of poetics, no?

LB: Despite the variety of the three epigraphs to your book (poet Emily Dickinson, experimentalist Jerome Rothenberg, philosopher Jacques Derrida), they seem to speak in concert, and quite directly, about your themes. Who are some other writers and thinkers who have inspired your work?

JM: Both of my grandmothers. One of them was a teacher of Russian language and literature, and she really encouraged me to memorize and recite poems. The other grandmother, to help me memorize poems, would invent these weird hand gestures that went along with specific images. Like semi-raised drooping hands to signify snow on the branch, or something like that. I think this alive and wonky and performative and old-school approach to poetry influenced me a lot.

Also, my wife, Shoshana Olidort, is definitely a writer and thinker who inspires me a great deal. I read nearly everything she writes, and vice versa. A lot of pontification and brainstorming happens on our couch at home. There’s nourishment in that.

In general, I find myself most profoundly affected by the artistic presence—the actual people, in conjunction with their art—rather than art alone. I’m lucky to be connected to, deeply, to a dozen of musicians and poets whose art inspires me in a way that’s very intense and direct.

And then there’s free jazz—music itself and the discourse around it, big deal Russian writers, experimental sci-fi, Yiddish writers and poets, the Talmud, Transcendentalists, Kafka, Gertrude Stein. And, always, Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg.

LB: The final section of your book focuses on office life, its isolation, and its weird (infrequent) beauty. You write lyrically, heartbreakingly, about other peoples’ desks, doing nothing all day long, eavesdropping on coworkers without meaning or wanting to. I think some readers might be surprised to see office poems alongside poems about spiritual and family life, language, country, and self. But having worked in offices myself for many years, I’m delighted to see these poems about what the mind feels like at work—“the boredom and the horror and the glory,” as Eliot wrote; it’s all there in the workplace! Can you talk about writing about office life? What made you decide to include these poems in this volume?

JM: These jobs are very much a part of my story, my immigrant story. I was fifteen when I came to the U.S., without my parents, and from sixteen and onward I lived on my own and supported myself in every way. I didn’t have a leisurely liberal arts education, didn’t intern for hip literary publications. I worked, often a few jobs at once, and though I was cognizant of the privilege of having these jobs, I also saw them as onerous dues an immigrant has to pay to be a part of this society. My corporate desk jobs were soul-crushing at times, and I wrote the poems you’re referring to so as to redeem that experience, in an almost mystical kind of way.

Four and a half years ago, I finally took a leap and started working as a high school teacher—I now teach poetry, and also Jewish Studies. It’s a profoundly fulfilling, and bank-breaking experience I would both recommend and counsel people away from. I haven’t written a whole lot about it—perhaps because I’m in the thick of the experience. But also because my goal is for teaching itself to be a form of poetic performance, a spontaneous composition threaded between me and the students. When it’s like that, it’s a really good day.

Lucy Biederman is an assistant professor of creative writing at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. Her first book, The Walmart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

Author photo credit: Cookie Segelstein

Book Cover of the Week: Poetry Will Save Your Life

Tuesday, May 23, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Yes it will.

Poetry Will Save Your Life is New York Times bestselling author and poet Jill Bialosky's memoir of her upbringing and career, organizing her experiences around 43 life-changing poems from Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and others. Really looking forward to hearing Jill talk about her book live today at the 2017 JBC Network Conference!

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The Poet of Thompson Street

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joseph Helmreich wrote about writing what you know—and what you don’t. With the release of his debut novel, The Return, Joseph is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Photo: Martin Duffy

In the summer of 2006, fresh from a brief stint at Hebrew University, I took an internship as a script-reader for a New York film studio, hoping to jumpstart a career in the “pictures.”

To my surprise, life at the studio turned out to be fairly mellow. Sure, at any moment you could be asked to read a novel, screen the upcoming film based on that novel, and turn in “coverage” of both by morning. But by and large, it was a far cry from the hustle and bustle glamorized in shows like Entourage. Mostly, interns read scripts and books at our leisure, dreamily escaping into other writers’ fantasies while marveling at how their hotshot agents had let the material loose with multiple typos and incorrect formatting.

When it came time for lunch, though, I’d indulge in a different sort of escapism. Since kosher food in the neighborhood was scarce, I would make my way to NYU’s Weinstein cafeteria where, dining amongst students and professors alike, I would live out the cosmopolitan NYU experience I never had. On the walk there and back, I would soak up the bars and cafes of MacDougal Street, the crowds and buskers of Washington Square Park, the famed, past-their-prime rock clubs of Bleecker Street.

I always paid particular attention to coffee shops, eager to spot any of the distinguished philosophers I’d studied in college (NYU has the highest-ranked philosophy program in the world). Once, glancing into a café window on University Place, I thought I’d finally found one. When I took a second look, I realized it was actually the poet, Samuel Menashe.

Menashe, who lived much of his life in a small railroad flat on Thompson Street, was a paradoxical figure, famously obscure. Although revered by a select group of critics and peers, he somehow never achieved the wider audience he deserved and in 2003, at the age of 79, he became the first-ever recipient of the Poetry Foundation's "Neglected Masters Award."

I had seen him recite at the Bowery Poetry Club once. His poems were powerful, concise works with spiritual themes and evocative titles like “All My Friends are Homeless” and “No Jerusalem But This.” When another poet later remarked from the stage that she didn't memorize her poetry like Menashe did, he’d called out from the crowd, in a genteel voice that reminded me of Jimmy Stewart and Pete Seeger, "I don't memorize my poems—I know them because I wrote them!"

Menashe had just finished lunch at the cafe and as he stepped out onto the sidewalk, I approached and expressed my admiration for his work. He was friendly and gracious. But when he asked about my vocation and I explained that I evaluated screenplays for a movie studio, he suddenly looked aghast.

"You mean you decide whose work will be considered and whose won’t? My God, what an awful responsibility!"

Well, I explained, trying not to stammer, I did my best not to discard anything of quality,

"But how can you know?"

In his 2011 New York Times obituary of Menashe, William Grimes would quote Stephen Spender’s assessment that Menashe’s poetry “compresses thoughts and sensations into language intense and clear as diamonds” and would remark that though his work often appeared in important journals, “he wrote and lived as a bohemian, and throughout his career encountered difficulties in finding a book publisher.”

He had of course been right that day in Greenwich Village. I couldn’t truly know that I wasn’t passing over richly deserving work. Surely, there was no one who better understood why that mattered than Samuel Menashe, the poet of Thompson Street, the great Neglected Master.

Joseph Helmreich is the author of The Return and co-author of Warring Parents, Wounded Children and the Wretched World of Child Custody. In addition to his writing, he is a member of the alternative folk duo Honeybrick. He lives in New York City and works in film distribution.

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Back into the Beyond

Wednesday, August 03, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Leigh Stein talked about domestic abuse in the Jewish community with Sarah Rothe, direct services coordinator at Shalom Bayit of the Bay Area. Leigh is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

My memoir, Land of Enchantment, is about an abusive relationship I experienced in my early twenties, and the death of my ex-boyfriend Jason in a motorcycle accident, just a few weeks after I saw him for the last time and finally felt strong enough to stop answering his phone calls. From 2007 to 2008, we lived together in New Mexico, whose state nickname is the “Land of Enchantment.” This is a poem I wrote in 2009. I was on vacation in New Mexico, by myself, and Jason called out of the blue, as if he knew I was there, though there’s no way he could have known. Our lives always seemed destined to collide; I couldn’t see then how, and if, I would ever really be free of him.

My favorite thing to do in New Mexico is drive by
the places where we were once in love with each other.

Most animals would never do this. If you gave a chihuahua
the keys to your car and said, Go, it would not drive

along to its memory, that broken record, that cheap
date. Chihuahuas do not build shrines to mistakes.

They do not gauge their success based on what they said
they would be doing in five years five years ago. Last night

I read that three chihuahuas saved a three-year-old
girl from a mountain lion, and there's yet another

trait that differentiates me from said animal.
I read about the women buried in a mass grave

on the West Mesa, how a dog discovered the bones
of Michelle Valdez, and now the people who call

the police hotline can only offer premonitions.
Whenever I read anything, I'm sure it is about me.

I'm also sure the worst things to happen are those
we could never imagine, and so it is unlikely I will be

threatened by a mountain lion tonight, or thrown
in an unmarked grave by a man who has hired me for sex.

My favorite thing to do in New Mexico is drive
and try to describe the landscape in my mind,

so if some day I go blind, I'll still be able to visit
the terrain by chanting terra cotta yonder yonder

like a spell cast by a magic student who has no
idea what she's doing. Like a prayer to the party

responsible. The only thing we ever had in common
was making the choices that would net the best stories and

when you called, I was back where we started, watching
the sun crown the hills. I was going to ask if for the past

two years you've been living in your memory, too, but you
interrupted to say you'd enlisted, and here it was, the unimaginable

I'd never imagined, a premonition of violence, a reason
to drive until I was out of range, off the map.

Leigh Stein’s work has appeared in Allure, Buzzfeed, Gawker, The Hairpin, Poets & Writers, Slate, The Toast, and xoJane. Leigh is currently on tour with her new book, Land of Enchantment, for the 2016 – 2017 season through the JBC Network.

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National Poetry Month 2016

Friday, April 01, 2016 | Permalink
In honor of National Poetry Month, the Jewish Book Council will be highlighting some of our favorite Jewish poems, both old and new, on our twitter account. Click below to see the books where these poems live.

Cain and Maples: The Villain’s Villanelle

Wednesday, February 04, 2015 | Permalink

by Dan Ornstein

Launching on Tu B'shvat of 5775, the Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish original works of poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction in partnership with the Jewish Literary Journal.

Then God said, “What have you done? Hark! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)
Abel’s blood was dashed all over the trees and stones. (Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a)

The horror: brother’s blood on stones and trees,
Though Cain’s one thought is clearing evidence.
He turns away with timeless cruelty.

Their God laments that He has made him free
To cry, “I’m not his keeper”, his defense.
The horror: brother’s blood on stones and trees.

Our God, appalled, for He can plainly see
Cain doesn’t hear the plaint at his offense
And turns away with timeless cruelty.

“From earth your brother’s blood cries out to Me.
From this first murder will you learn to sense
The horror: brother’s blood on stones and trees?”

Now, in the Fall, the ruddy maple trees
Recall Cain’s mark and our inheritance:
We turn away with timeless cruelty.

The crimson leaves, they wave Cain’s tale at me.
First crime and all its brutal consequence.
The horror: brother’s blood on stones and trees.
We turn away with timeless cruelty.

Originally published by the Jewish Literary Journal, December 2014.

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Draper and the Jewess

Tuesday, April 08, 2014 | Permalink

Leah Umansky is the author of the Mad-Men inspired chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream (Kattywompus Press 2014) and Domestic Uncertainties (Blazevox 2013). She curates the COUPLET Reading Series and has been published in such places as POETRY, Poetry Review, and The Brooklyn Rail. Today, in honor of National Poetry Month, she writes about and shares one of her poems from Don Dreams and I Dream.

In the first season of "Mad Men," we’re introduced to Rachel Menken, head of a popular Jewish department store named Menken’s in Manhattan, and one of my favorite characters of the past six seasons.

Sterling Cooper, the firm, is trying to land Menken’s as a client, and Don and Rachel find themselves in love. I was drawn to Rachel, the Jewess, being Jewish myself, but I was also drawn to Don and the way Don sees her: exotic, othered and alluring.

Don and Rachel get each other. Their affair is sweet and near-innocent. They discover one another based on their instincts and their passions. Their love is fierce and he’s intrigued by her because she’s a strong woman.

She’s a hustler.

They are good for one another, but Don is married and surely, Rachel’s father would want her to find a nice Jewish man. But Don is drawn to Rachel.

Could it be the fact that both of their mother’s died in childbirth?

Maybe. Both are looking to fully belong to someone.

In Rachel, Don sees an equal and someone who understands him. They have both been on the outskirts. She’s a Jew, forget about being a female Jew, and therefore she’s an outsider in the big, bad, manly world of Sterling Cooper. But Don, Don’s a wealthy ad man, with the heart of a small, poverty-stricken, country boy. I want Rachel to runaway with Don, but she doesn’t need him. And in turning him down, we not only see another strong female character on "Mad Men," but a strong female Jewess.

Draper and the Jewess

You’ll like this poem, because you should. Because we all fight for the underdog. It has a nice ring to it, jewess. Draper invents their dichotomy, but I, I imagine their kiss is sweet, like an apple halved. Fresh, yet sour, and of course, verdant. Very verdant.

[which is close to virgin].

She reminds him of ofofof something pure, and of value and charm. An antique. A throw-back to a day of glory and grain, a day of the humble and pain. She is something unseeming, or appears to be so, until he lays his paws on her. She wants to love him, but he grows clingy and pale, recoiling from what she is: jewess. Her kiss is both a mother and a smother. Her wild heathenness beckons and stirs, beckons and purrs, and then, look what the cat drags in:

In her, he sees nostalgia. He sees what is sundogged, dawned and near-death. He sees pennies and scrapes and his scraping-by but also sees clarity and calm. In him, she sees his goishe Americanways. They are Napoleonic, bionic, and myopic. They could take over the world, but, she, she is a businesswoman. Her guards [and garters] rise to his touch. If he wants to invest, he will need to earn his shares just like everyone else. She is the Empress of Fifth Avenue. A rose, and he is a hornet.

[ Now, who’s the one with horns?]

He abandons his life. In her, he sees how the other side lives, but he forgets she is a proprietor. She knows what she values and manhood is golden. The Jewess does not get what she wants, but either does the Don. He’s got nothing. Zilch.

Read more about Leah Umansky and her work here.

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A Poem: The Quantum Rabbi

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 | Permalink

A poem from the recently published To Sing Away the Darkest Days: Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs (Holland Park Press), a new poetry collection from Norbert Hirschhorn:

The Quantum Rabbi

Nu, Einstein, with your ferret’s brain,
come sit at our Rebbe’s table and learn
a thing or two. So you made a rocket

to shoot at the stars? Which makes you 
a wonder? Ha! Our Rebbe opens his 
umbrella and he’s dancing on Mars.

You discovered relativity? Our Rebbe can fly
faster than light to greet the shabbos bride
from the previous night, returns looking younger.

Don’t beat the kettle about your Big Bang!
Who do you think was virtually there when G-d,
Master of the Universe, created time, heaven, earth!

And when the moshiyekh, the Anointed One,
comes to rebuild our Temple, our Rebbe will be
alongside – sanctifying, cantillating, praying.

© Norbert Hirschhorn 2013

From Norbert Hirschhorn’s poetry collection To Sing Away the Darkest Days: Poems Re-imagined from Yiddish Folksongs, published by Holland Park Press

To Sing Away the Darkest Days is the culmination of a five-year project which saw Norbert Hirschhorn source more than one thousand Yiddish songs. The songs helped Norbert to rediscover and trace his own Jewish cultural history. However, some of the songs ‘spoke’ to him as a poet and begged for a new translation, or ‘re-imagining’ as he calls it, into English poems. The resulting collection tells the story of the emigrant, the Jew in the Diaspora. Norbert Hirschhorn is a physician specializing in international public health, commended in 1993 by President Bill Clinton as an ‘American Health Hero.’ His poems have been published in over three dozen journals and won a number of prizes in the US and UK. To Sing Away the Darkest Days is his fourth full collection.

National Poetry Month

Friday, March 30, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Learn more about National Poetry Month here and check out more Jewish-interest poets here.