Jake Marmer is the author of Jazz Tal­mud. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

About a decade ago I read a Bil­ly Collins poem called Advice to Writ­ers,” where this for­mer U.S. Poet Lau­re­ate sug­gests:

wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before com­pos­ing a syl­la­ble.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spot­less­ness is the niece of inspi­ra­tion.

There’s wis­dom there: it feels good to write with an unclut­tered mind, unbur­dened by oth­er con­cerns.

But tak­ing Ajax to your lit­er­al and metaphor­i­cal sur­round­ings could bor­der on ster­il­iz­ing. And also, silenc­ing. Sure, Collins is at least in part jok­ing — it’s a fun­ny poem — but I’m sure he means it, too. The poet­ic voice he is sug­gest­ing his read­ers to sum­mon, in a clean-pris­tine room, is very much a solo. Peo­ple, things — out of the way! The poet is talk­ing! (to him­self, and being fun­ny — don’t miss out!). A room with scrubbed floors, how­ev­er tempt­ing, is not where a soul lives, at least I don’t think so.

My wife and I spent 2008 – 2009 in Jerusalem, where I was a Dorot Fel­low. It was unfor­get­table year, the time when, more so than ever before, I had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to write. Loca­tion was an open ques­tion. Our apart­ment was neater beyond any­thing I’ve ever encoun­tered. We have just got­ten mar­ried, and my wife Shoshana put up a valiant and edi­fy­ing effort to keep it sane — despite the com­bi­na­tion of me, guests, our belong­ings, and Jerusalem dust who would gang up and dai­ly raise a mighty paw of offense. How­ev­er close to Collins-com­pli­ance state, our place was too small, too removed from puls­ing, yelling life that sur­round­ed us. I had to get out.

And so, most often I’d go to a lit­tle cafe, called Noc­turno, a few min­utes away from the apart­ment. It was a tiny duplex with a wind­ing met­al stair­case that at its peak man­aged to host as many as three dozen peo­ple, which was kind of unbe­liev­able. Tal­mud, describ­ing the mirac­u­lous occur­rences of the Tem­ple, says: peo­ple stood close togeth­er, yet when they wor­shipped there was enough room for all.” It was that sort of a thing. All the space got used up: tables out­side, bar stools, lon­ers were dou­bled up into joint tables, and even the cement ledge that’s tech­ni­cal­ly out­side the perime­ter had a few peo­ple sit­ting on it. The menu ranged from soup to cig­a­rettes, but most impor­tant­ly, they brewed great cof­fee. And the crowd was very col­or­ful. With Beza­lel Art School near­by stu­dents came out in droves; but there were also heavy grad school folks buried in their books; a few hip reli­gious Jews; sec­u­lar pop­u­la­tion of Jerusalem (a won­der­ful and under­ex­plored breed of their own!); lots of for­eign­ers. A few times I spot­ted Israeli Arabs — a fact that, in the city where divide lines run at their deep­est, says a lot about the cafe and its vibe.

I sat upstairs, with my note­books, big mugs of cof­fee, and watched the noise. It was vis­i­ble. The noise, like the cafe itself, seemed lay­ered, there were floors to it, and wind­ing noise-stairs. The noise-steam rose from cups of noise-sip­ping noise-mas­ters. Bring­ing around plates, wait­ers, served noise-sand­wich­es. It was nei­ther grat­ing nor even unpleas­ant. It was a struc­ture. An organ­ic struc­ture. It felt great.

This is where my Jazz Tal­mud project was born. I was play­ing around on the page, free-asso­ci­at­ing, and with­in a span of a week I wrote a core of poems that became a book. The idea was to use the Tal­mu­dic rhetoric, talk the way Tal­mu­dic rab­bis talked — but address things rel­e­vant to me and my life. Tal­mud is not what Collins would pine after, nor cer­tain­ly what Joyce’d call a clean well-light­ed place.” Because there is nev­er a sin­gle voice cut­ting through it. It’s like a body; it’s also like a uni­verse. Every­body is talk­ing to every­one — across cen­turies, back­wards and for­ward, mov­ing, chat­ting, chat­ter­ing, agree­ing and vehe­ment­ly dis­prov­ing, rem­i­nisc­ing, rec­on­cil­ing, recoil­ing, try­ing to bring the house down — you get the idea. The same is true for jazz. I once heard a great Amer­i­can poet, David Meltzer, say that jazz is the clos­est we’ve come to utopia. Because it is incred­i­bly com­mu­nal and peo­ple who may have nev­er met each oth­er before, or maybe can’t stand each oth­er’s guts, will know how to speak to each oth­er in the lan­guage much more real than any words we know. Peo­ple are lis­ten­ing to each oth­er and com­pos­ing on the spot, respond­ing not mere­ly to one anoth­er, but also to the ghosts who’ve inspired the music they’re play­ing: be it their teach­ers, or jazz greats who’ve laid down gen­re’s foun­da­tions, or even peo­ple in their actu­al lives — because of the impro­vi­sa­tion­al fac­tor, jazz is vis­cer­al and per­son­al, reveal­ing even.

So then what I begun to con­struct is poems with many voic­es. With noise-struc­tures and argu­ments. Here’s an exam­ple.

Jazz Tal­mud

said Rab­bi Zusha: my moth­er named me Sasha but I fell into a seraph­ic orches­tra pit, and things have not been the same” his stu­dents asked him: what did you see in the pit?” he answered: behold, four ser­aphs held a cel­lo, like a naked, new­ly-formed body, and eight pushed the bow” whose cel­lo? Adam’s whose bow? Mordechai’s, the refused bow that makes cel­los of heav­en sing the soul-spilling human heav­i­ness — the essence he also said: in every horn, their lives a fam­i­ly of shadadademons, a fam­i­ly of three or four, on the aver­age angel Gabriel comes to blow his hot breath to let them loose into the world, their clothes flut­ter, their hearts beat against the four brass bars of domes­ti­ca­tion, both break­ing as a result” there­fore, every sax­o­phone is a ripped cage: no, a rib cage: of an ancient being that de-com­posed long before names of god became the star-tallis in which hearts are wrapped/​rapt taught Rab­bi Aki­va: behold there are names of god that got fil­tered by moth-screens oth­ers got lost in the loss of the hiss of the vinyl some stuck in Karl Marx’s beard some stuck between the boards of the fam­i­ly-table and can only be extract­ed with a big fam­i­ly knife some spilled on the mama-apron in the deep-fry-meta­phys­i­cal back-kitchen but these are the 32 revealed names of god: jehwaep. shadai-doo­dah woop elo­hadip dip papadoo dap. stra­ta doo dampa flip clip dedam pam pa dered­eredere strip tzuris dega­tee goat boom dupa goat rata­ta rata­ta what? you askin? out­er bank, jehwaep shadai doo­dah wap” New Orleans funk band the Meters inher­it­ed twen­ty crumbs of the god-name from the voodoo grand­moth­er who plucked them at the foot of the great phal­lic Ethiopi­an Euca­lyp­tus but some say she birthed these crumbs, each in deep pain, each deep in time, each under the bril­liant lamp-lights which are the eyes of Mes­si­ah him­self

Jake Marmer is a Ph.D. can­di­date in Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture at CUNY and works for Ran­dom House. His first book, Jazz Tal­mud, comes out this week.

Jake Marmer is a poet, per­former, and edu­ca­tor. He is the author of three poet­ry col­lec­tions: Cos­mic Dias­po­ra (Sta­tion Hill Press, 2020), as well as The Neigh­bor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Tal­mud (2012), both from The Sheep Mead­ow Press. He also released two klez-jazz-poet­ry records: Pur­ple Ten­ta­cles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cos­mic Dias­po­ra Trio), and Hermeneu­tic Stomp (Blue Fringe Music, 2013). Jake is the poet­ry crit­ic for Tablet Mag­a­zine. Born in the provin­cial steppes of Ukraine, in a city that was renamed four times in the past 100 years, Jake lives in the Bay Area.