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
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.