by Grace Stans­bery

Howard Schwartz, three time win­ner of a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, has recent­ly pub­lished his fifth vol­ume of poet­ry, The Library of Dreams.

There is so much good work here. Howard Schwartz has done the work, and his poems rise out of Jew­ish learn­ing and of course from his heart, a heart schooled and matured in all that amaz­ing lore.” –Philip Levine

Grace Stans­bery: Through­out the book, you devel­op rela­tion­ships with long dead authors, specif­i­cal­ly Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kaf­ka. Ignor­ing the obvi­ous ice-break­er ques­tion, If you could have din­ner with any­one from his­to­ry…” I won­der which two authors you would set up to observe hav­ing din­ner together. 

Howard Schwartz: I’ve come to real­ize that I’m one of those peo­ple who has heroes. When I was a child, it was Alexan­der the Great. As an ado­les­cent, I was obsessed with J. D. Salinger. Since my twen­ties, I’ve focused on Kaf­ka and Borges. As I men­tion in the notes to The Library of Dreams, Borges has become, like Franz Kaf­ka, a myth­ic fig­ure in our time, and a pres­ence in my dreams.” Borges has acknowl­edged his immense debt to Kaf­ka, say­ing that if not for Kaf­ka he couldn’t have writ­ten any­thing. One of the thrills of my life was spend­ing time with Borges when he came through St. Louis, Mis­souri in 1967. I also have poet heroes, of course, espe­cial­ly Theodore Roethke and James Wright. When I was in New York in the late 70s I called up James Wright and he invit­ed me to vis­it him. That was tru­ly a won­der­ful, mem­o­rable visit. 

GS: The poems in The Library of Dreams seem to be derived from very dif­fer­ent places the­mat­i­cal­ly and styl­is­ti­cal­ly; For exam­ple, Before You Were Born” comes from one of your children’s books. Do you find that your poet­ry lends itself bet­ter to one audi­ence over anoth­er? Have you encoun­tered unex­pect­ed suc­cess writ­ing for cer­tain groups or in cer­tain genres? 

HS: Keep in mind that The Library of Dreams cov­ers 48 years — I changed, of course, and so did my style. My friend Michael Cas­tro teased me by say­ing, It took you forty years to fig­ure out how to write a poem, but you final­ly did!” I start­ed out con­vinced that images are the build­ing blocks of poems. I still believe that, but now my lan­guage is clos­er to my voice and my poems don’t con­sist entire­ly of images, as they did in my first book, Ves­sels. Con­sid­er this poem, Reck­on­ing”:

For every dark cloud, a red warn­ing.
For every blade brighter than the sun,
an ani­mal claw­ing
the dark­ness.
For every wound­ed tree,
a dark sun drop­ping out of the sky. 

I want­ed to write poems that appealed direct­ly to the emo­tions, gut to gut. Lat­er I came to appre­ci­ate retain­ing the human con­text out of which they emerged. Take, for exam­ple, Weigh­ing Gold”: 

Know­ing my father
wouldn’t live long enough
to see my first book,
I showed him a book
of the same size,
and he closed his eyes,
weigh­ing it in his hand,
the way he weighed gold.
I nev­er felt clos­er to him. 

You asked about audi­ences. In 1983 I pub­lished Elijah’s Vio­lin & Oth­er Jew­ish Fairy Tales. I had always loved fairy tales, and I felt strong­ly about my Jew­ish tra­di­tion. I loved work­ing on that book. The response to it and I decid­ed to write sto­ries intend­ed for chil­dren. I’ve now pub­lished a dozen children’s books, and many read­ers aren’t aware that I also write for adults! But the truth is that I didn’t have to make a lot of changes in my approach to write for chil­dren. I just tried to tell the sto­ries as clear­ly and sim­ply as I could, and that worked.

GS: I have always believed in the nobil­i­ty of lit­er­ary ded­i­ca­tions, of which you have many. Can you talk a lit­tle bit about the deci­sions you make when ded­i­cat­ing a work of art to anoth­er per­son? Do you write with the indi­vid­ual in mind or ded­i­cate once the poem is fin­ished? How have the peo­ple in your life react­ed to such dedications?

HS: Well, some­times the poems start­ed out to be ele­gies for close friends, such as Don Finkel, my teacher, (“The Last Read­ing”) or Yehu­da Amichai, a friend for 25 years (“Yehu­dah Amichai in the Heav­en­ly Jerusalem”). In oth­er cas­es, the poem came first, and then I real­ized that it was real­ly intend­ed for one of my friends, such as A Palace of Bird Beaks.” That’s ded­i­cat­ed to my good friend and fel­low poet Dan Jaffe, who was one of the first to sup­port my poet­ry. He was thrilled with the poem, and under­stood com­plete­ly that it was not only an Ars Poet­i­ca, but also my gift of thanks to him.

GS: Your poem Peo­ple of the Sto­ries” empha­sizes the tra­di­tion of sto­ry­telling with­in the Jew­ish reli­gion and cul­ture — what is more is that many of the poems in The Library of Dreams depict sto­ries from the Bible and the Tal­mud. What is the impor­tance of sto­ry­telling in spir­i­tu­al cul­tures? Does the same sto­ry­telling con­tin­ue to fill a unique void in glob­al cul­ture today?

HS: It seems indis­putable that the most mem­o­rable por­tions of the Bible are the sto­ries — of the cre­ation, the Gar­den of Eden, Cain and Able, Noah and the ark, Abra­ham and the bind­ing of Isaac, Jacob’s dream, Joseph’s rise to pow­er in Egypt, the whole incred­i­ble Exo­dus nar­ra­tive, etc. Because it was believed that there were two Torahs, a writ­ten one God dic­tat­ed to Moses dur­ing the day, and an oral one God gave him at night, explain­ing the writ­ten one, the flood­gates of Jew­ish sto­ries were opened. Thou­sands of sto­ries emerged, claim­ing to be part of that oral tra­di­tion. I spent a year in Israel in 1977- 1978 study­ing these post-bib­li­cal texts — the Tal­mud, the midrashic col­lec­tions, the kab­bal­is­tic and Hasidic texts, and I’ve been draw­ing on those won­der­ful resources ever since. They’re part of me. Lat­er I came to focus on Jew­ish folk­lore, inspired by Pro­fes­sor Dov Noy of Hebrew uni­ver­si­ty, the world’s fore­most Jew­ish folk­lorist, and that turned out to be my des­tiny. I fol­lowed Elijah’s Vio­lin with three oth­er large col­lec­tions of Jew­ish folk­tales, each focused on a sep­a­rate genre — fairy tales, folk­tales, super­nat­ur­al tales and mys­ti­cal tales. Final­ly I felt I knew enough to take on my biggest chal­lenge, prov­ing that there is a Jew­ish mythol­o­gy. Twelve years lat­er I fin­ished Tree of Souls: The Mythol­o­gy of Judaism, almost cer­tain­ly my most impor­tant book. It was after I fin­ished this book that I turned back to writ­ing poet­ry full time, and the past few years have been the most pro­duc­tive of my life.

GS: I have heard that the more often a per­son focus­es on his or her dreams, the more vivid they become. How has your dream jour­nal changed over time? Was it inter­rupt­ed or strength­ened by this par­tic­u­lar book of poetry?

HS: I’ve kept a dream jour­nal since 1967. New Let­ters pub­lished a chunk of it a few years back. Now it’s a file on my com­put­er 200 pages long. I guess I’m for­tu­nate that my muse likes to express her­self in my dreams. It fits my view that we must be in touch with our uncon­scious, which is a source of great inspi­ra­tion. I found con­fir­ma­tion of this view years ago, when I stud­ied Jung, and I still con­sid­er myself a Jun­gian. The images and nar­ra­tives I drew from my dreams res­onat­ed with me, even if I didn’t ful­ly under­stand them. So it’s true that many of the poems in The Library of Dreams start­ed out as dreams, or I drew on dream images in writ­ing them. Take, for exam­ple, Lis­ten­ing”:

In the dream
I watched her
as she lis­tened to Coltrane—
eyes closed,
lips part­ed, descend­ing
into the music
and fur­ther,
into the one cre­at­ing it.
There was a moment
when they took a breath
even though he was no longer

GS: One motif in par­tic­u­lar caught my atten­tion. Lilith floats in and out of your poet­ry in Library of Dreams—I find, though, that you don’t write about a Queen of Demons, rather some­thing much less evil. Do you care to explain this decision?

HS: I some­times think I owe my career to Lilith. Jew­ish fem­i­nists sought to make her a role mod­el in the 60s, because of her inde­pen­dence and espe­cial­ly her sex­u­al inde­pen­dence. But I knew from my stud­ies that in Jew­ish folk­lore she was a dan­ger­ous demoness, the incar­na­tion of lust and a child-stran­gling witch. I had sev­er­al enjoy­able debates with Jew­ish fem­i­nists about Lilith, and I’ve recount­ed her sto­ry about how she was Adam’s first wife, fought with him and escaped from the Gar­den of Eden and became the Queen of Demons dozens of times. I was aston­ished at what a pow­er­ful impact her sto­ry made, espe­cial­ly on women. When I was a stu­dent in the 60’s I met three young women who believed, for a few months, that they were Lilith. I saw how pow­er­ful a myth­ic fig­ure could be, and lat­er this con­vinced me that there was, indeed, a Jew­ish mythol­o­gy. So I’m grate­ful to Lilith and it’s no sur­prise that she turns up in my poet­ry. She has been a vivid fig­ure in my life. 

GS: How often does your writ­ing process rely on your respons­es to oth­er types of art (whether it is a quote from a reli­gious text or a solo vio­lin sonata)? Does your writ­ing attempt to cap­ture the themes of these works or react to them?

HS: Well, I think that most every­thing I write is a response to some­thing — a per­son, a tree, a dream, a book, a piece of music. Isn’t respond­ing to the world what poets do?

Grace Stans­bery is an Eng­lish grad­u­ate from Tru­man State Uni­ver­si­ty and lives in St. Louis, MO.

Grace Stans­bery is an Eng­lish grad­u­ate from Tru­man State Uni­ver­si­ty and lives in St. Louis, MO.