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?

JMI 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? 

JMI 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?

JMBoth 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?

JMThese 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.