Monday, December 22, 2008
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Two rather different but equally interesting books that have come my way recently are The Jewish Graphic Novel, edited by Samantha Baskind and Ranen Omer-Sherman, and Marie Syrkin: Values Beyond the Self, by Carole Kessner. I'll be reviewing the latter for The American Jewish Archive Journal, and the former, well, at a publication to be announced. The Jewish Graphic Novel makes a strong case for the tremendous importance of the genre to the exploration of modern Jewish history and the modern Jewish psyche. The Syrkin biography is a welcome addition to the small but growing body of work on this brilliant, mercurial woman, whose career as journalist, poet, educator and Zionist activist is paradigmatic of her time, place and cultural milieu. So, as they say, just in time for Hannukah...
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Started with my own rabbi's blog, Shalom Rav, which has been tracking his trip to Iran. Sounds like quite a journey for him, and one that makes me proud (again) to be at JRC. When I picked up my daughter last night, he motioned me over, wanted to talk Hafiz & Persian Poetry. Can we swap in some of that for the Marge Piercy & Rami Shapiro in the next edition of Kol Haneshama? No offense to MP and RS, but Hafiz is world-class work.
Ah, but what translation? That's the kicker, in't? Take a look here--the "Songs of Hafiz" website --and tell me if any of them strike you as liturgy-ready. My hunch is no, alas, so we're back to square one.
I spent a fair while over at the the Velveteen Rabbi, whose detailed account of the Rabbis for Human Rights conference was both fascinating and encouraging. (Note to self: do NOT read comments on Ha'aretz articles. They depress you, cut you off at the pass. The comments, not the articles. When tempted, read VR instead.)
Josh Corey, a youngish Jewish American poet (i.e., younger than I am) is in a slough of sorts, at least according to his blog:
Caught in the feedback loop of silence. Wanting to write—there's no more futile emotion. You have to want to write something. And I am writing, here and there, but it never seems like the thing. But wanting it to be "the thing" is what defeats me.He goes on to quote an "astonishing passage" from Louis Hyde's introduction to a collection of essays by Thoreau:
A Thoreauvian prophetic essay leads us on a redemptive journey... but there is a redemption of the valley as well, one that comes from abandoning all hope of getting it together. If you need to come apart, you do not need to listen to the prophetic voice. Stop trying to be a hero. There is a time to fall to pieces, to identify with the confusion of your life as it is, confined absolutely to the present November sunset and your present apartment. (Emphasis added.)And responds:
This is exactly what I needed to hear, exactly the cure for the itch of objectless ambition, or more simply the desire to "get it together": to seamlessly synthesize a life that, in its multiple spheres—writing, new fatherhood, marriage, teaching—resists all my efforts to be glued into a whole. If I can take Hyde's advice and be an upended Thoreau, who goes not into the woods but deeper into his own messy life, maybe I'll find my way back to the writing that matters to me, without letting everything else go any more to pieces than it already is.Good luck & God speed, Josh, as they say. If you read this, and have some ideas, send them his way.
More catching up tomorrow, I hope, and slowly--ever so slowly--I'll make my way back to poetry per se. (If you're reading, say hello! I could use the Shamu'ing.)
Eine kleine exit music, please!
Monday, December 08, 2008
Dear ---,A teaching moment for my kids, at least. I had a blast, on the way to school, talking my daughter through the things we'd have to cut from holidays in order to make them "purely" Jewish. (First step, scrap the Passover seder. Symposia are echt goyisch, non?)Thank you for your message about "Chrismakah." The decision of which holiday to celebrate, and how, and when, is a very sensitive and difficult question for interfaith families. Certainly Eric and I have gone through plenty of arguments and unhappiness over this, and most of the other mixed couples we know have had similar difficulties.I feel fortunate that Eric is now willing to celebrate Christmas with me. We have been married for 20 years, and there was a time when any expression of Christmas was very uncomfortable for him. For some couples, celebrating a Christian holiday at all is simply not an option because it would make the Jewish partner extremely unhappy. Eric, for example, was raised with a deep-seated aversion to anything related to Christmas, and it has taken him decades of marriage to get past that.This aversion is much more common than you might think. For couples who face it, a "Chrismakah" celebration may be the only way to find a middle ground. It defuses what would otherwise be an explosive conflict in the house, and can be a very helpful step towards having an actual celebration of both holidays.This year, Chanukah and Christmas fall on the same day, and in our household we plan to celebrate them both at the same time by observing Christmas according to my Catholic faith, and by lighting Chanukah candles for the Jewish members of the family. We agree with you that this is the best way to celebrate in a mixed family. But if other interfaith households find that having a "Chrismakah" celebration lets them avoid quarreling over what to do for the holidays, Eric and I--and our children--think that this may actually be a very good thing indeed.With appreciation for your dedication to the kids at the religious school,---
Syncretism gets a bad rap, says I. Or, to quote the poet (Ogden Nash): "Purity / is obscurity."
Sunday, December 07, 2008
It's about three months away, and I must confess, the thought fills me, not with joy, but with deep disappointment. Anger, even.
Clearly I'm going to have to get over this by the time March rolls around, and indeed much sooner. But as long as I'm blogging, I might as well tell the truth.
My own Bar Mitzvah was a joke of epic proportions. I went into it eager to write a D'var; the rabbi, a pompous wretch, explained that he, not the boy, wrote the commentary. All I had to do was deliver it. I had no idea what the words coming out of my mouth meant; the service meant nothing; even the presents, aside from my first guitar (thanks, Uncle Fred!) were a disappointment. Coffee table books about Hawai'i, where we lived at the time. A few bonds. (Can you tell I'm still bitter?)
One good anecdote: guests from the mainland, at the Sunday brunch after, heaping their plates with sashimi, thinking it was lox. Not a bad metaphor for the whole process, I'd say, but I like sashimi too much to insult it that way.
But it's not the memory of my own Bar Mitzvah that sours me on my son's. What does? First off, I'd say it's disappointment. For years I tried to improve the religious school at my synagogue. I worked on the school committee; I wrote curricula; I intervened when my son got bored. None of it, I am sorry to say, made any lasting difference. Things are as bad now as they were six years ago, at least as my children report it to me. The religious school director who got sacked two years ago never managed to get buy-in from the teachers for the most interesting changes, which means that they've just kept chugging along doing what they've always done. And that's just not good enough.
One year, one of seven, was different. Last year he came home excited, wishing the classes were longer. He stopped doing the pullout extra Hebrew, joined the main class, loved the discussions (ethics, Jewish American history, etc.) . I helped one of his teachers write a curriculum unit on Jews and the counterculture in America, which he loved.
That experience sent him into this year's class eager to pick up where that left off. Oops. New teacher, oversized class, no classroom management, dull topics, no focus, complete disaster. "Looks like they've totally given up teaching us Hebrew," says he--this when, two years ago, he was starting to work with a college level textbook in pullout sessions.
It took me years to get over my own wasted time in supplementary school. I really thought I could spare my children that, but I haven't been able to, and that galls me.
Day school? Don't make me cry. I'm in an interfaith marriage, and I'm not sending my kids to a school where they'll be taught--directly or by implication--that their parents' marriage is a bad thing.
This means that I have to be my children's primary Jewish teacher. Which was fine with me, and I happily did, for many years. Then something happened. What? And how do I get it back in the next three months?
I'll post on that as this series goes on. Need to talk myself out of, back into something, and I don't have a whole lot of time.
Oh--here, to keep this relevant, a poem. Leonard Cohen, from Book of Mercy:
All my life is broken unto you, and all my glory soiled unto you. Do not let the spark of my soul go out in the even sadness. Let me raise the brokenness to you, to the world where the breaking is for love. Do not let the words be mine, but change them into truth. With these lips instruct my heart, and let fall into the world what is broken in the world. Lift me up to the wrestling of faith. Do not leave me where the sparks go out, and the jokes are told in the dark, and new things are called forth and appraised in the scale of the terror. Face me to the rays of love, O source of light, or face me to the majesty of your darkness, but not here, do not leave me here, where death is forgotten, and the new thing grins.
Friday, December 05, 2008
Dinah writes: "I look forward to hearing more from you about prayers and poems -- especially how verse form affects the use and meaning of prayers, and about the inner poetic structure of the Psalms."
Gosh, I don't know much about either of these, Dinah.
The closest I can come on the former ("how verse form...") is to say that when I was a boy, the Mourner's Kaddish had such complete authority of sound that I didn't care what it meant, phrase by phrase. I knew the general sense from the English version on the facing page, and that was enough to tether my flight. This became the model for how I read Cummings, then "Prufrock," then Pablo Neruda's Versos del Capitan and the Residencia poems, my first loves in the art.
For me it's not the verse form that's significant in connecting poetry & prayer, but the imaginative projection that one does in reading verse. Take the poem, I tell my students, as a script for you to say; the same holds true for the siddur. This is why I sometimes flinch at my rabbi's suggestion that we ignore the words of, say, the Amidah & "pray what's in our hearts." The script can be used to unlock things "in our hearts" that we didn't know were there--associations, emphases, sudden insights--and as a means of self-transformation. Pouring out the heart can do the same, but it also can stay entirely superficial, just as rote as any fixed prayer-form. Especially when everyone's watching their minyan-mate from the corner of their eye, trying not to be the last one standing:
Shacharit is going fastAs the boys of Green Day sing, or would.
But that guy wants to make it last
Wake me up
When the Amidah ends...
(I'd like that even more as a Yom Kippur parody. "Wake Me Up When Neilah Ends.")
--Time to wake the kids. More anon.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
If you missed Mark Scroggins' fine lecture on Zukofsky as a Jewish modernist at the Spertus Institute--and you know you did!--you can find it on line, now, thanks to the kind archivists of the Poetry Foundation. Take a gander, or a listen anyway, here. (Bouzouki, alas, not included).
Monday, November 24, 2008
Spent too much of the afternoon working on lyrics for a couple of new Alte Rockers songs. Counting down to Purim; "Good Jews Don't" and "(Talkin' 'bout) My Congregation" in the works right now. Oh, and "Bright Jews," the old Bob Seger fave.
Here are the next two poems from the JRF session last weekend, by Amichai and Milosz.
Amichai, "God’s Fate"Comments always welcome--and questions.
is now like the fate
of trees and stones, sun and moon,
in whom people stopped believing
when they began to believe in him.
But he must stay with us:
at least like the trees, at least like the stones
and like the sun and the moon and the stars.
Milosz, "On Prayer"
You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word 'is'
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
Notice: I say we; there, every one, separately,
Feels compassion for others entangled in the flesh
And knows that if there is no other shore
We will walk that aerial bridge all the same.
Friday, November 21, 2008
I'm not even going to try and explain why this blog has been silent for so long. Maybe I should simply have retired it when the going got tough--it seems that blogs have a life-cycle, although writing that phrase instantly brings to mind the idea of blog life-cycle events (brit milah, Bar Mitzvah, etc.), and I really don't want to go there.
Anyway, now that fall quarter is more or less done, I might as well give this another go, and it just so happens that I have some material to post. Last weekend, you see, I was off at the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation's biannual convention in Boston, on a panel called "Why Do We Pray? Continuing the Conversation about Reconstructionist Liturgy." My colleagues on the panel were Rabbi Eric Caplan (author of From Ideology to Liturgy: Reconstructionist Worship and American Liberal Judaism) and Catherine Madsen, whose book The Bones Reassemble: Reconstituting Liturgical Speech you need to know if you have any interest in liturgy as a language-art. (She also writes the best parodies of progressive liturgy I've ever seen, which is an art in its own right.) Dan Cedarbaum, past president of the JRF, was the convener and chair.
My contribution? A sheaf of poems, by Jews and others, that struck me as useful in thinking about what prayer is and what poetry can teach us about it. I read a few out loud and talked about them, and I figure I can post those up here, a little at a time, to get myself back in the habit of blogging again.
The first ones I spoke about come from the Amichai sequence "Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever," in Karen Alkalay-Gut's translation, which I found on line in The Drunken Boat. I used numbers 1, 3, and 9, but really only talked about 3, and the core insight (Amichai's and others') that prayer precedes theology, and that poems about prayer remind us of the need--at once vulnerability and desire--that lies behind, or comes before, the rituals and creeds and other products of the God-making imagination.
("Out of deep need," as Zukofsky says somewhere. Yes?)
Anyway, here are the Amichai poems that were in that little handout. The rest you can now click over to, and if you have any thoughts (about these or about the Hebrew originals, what's lost in translation, whatever), let me know!
On the street, one summer evening,
I saw a woman writing words
on paper unfolded on a locked wooden door.
And she folded it and put it between the door and the mezuzah and went away.
And I didn't see her face nor the face of the person
who would read the note,
and I didn't see the words.
A stone rests on my desk with the word "Amen" written on it.
It is a piece of a tomb, a vestige from a Jewish cemetery
destroyed a thousand years ago, in the city where I was born.
One word, "Amen," is cut deep into the stone—
A hard and final Amen for all that is past and will not return,
a soft and melodious amen like a prayer.
Amen and amen, and may it be His will.
Tombstones break, words pass, words are forgotten,
lips that uttered them turn to dust,
languages die like people,
and other languages are resurrected,
gods in the heavens change, gods come and go.
Prayers remain forever.
I say with perfect faith
that prayers precede God.
Prayers created God.
God created man,
And man creates prayers
that create God who creates man.
The Jewish people read the Torah to God
all year long, a chapter a week,
like Sheherezade who told stories to save her life,
and by the time the Celebration of the Torah comes around,
He forgets and we may begin again.
Translated by Karen Alkalay-Gut
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Jewish Hip-hop poet Kevin Coval, a former student and first-class mensch, has a book-launch party for his new Everyday People at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater on July 31 and August 1, at 7:30 pm each night. The theater is at 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.; you can find their website with more info here.
Tickets are $15 (includes a free CD of poetry); $25 gets you the CD and the book. Buy them online at the Victory Gardens website or call 773.871.3000.
Special Guest performers will appear from Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival. There will be a "talk back" after the show, hosted by Natalie Moore of Chicago Public Radio (on the 31st) and by Rick Kogan of the Tribune (on the 1st). Reception to follow, with music by The Tim Lincoln Trio.
Here's a Kevin Coval Promo Video I found on YouTube; it takes a minute to load, but give it time, and if you're in town, come to the show!
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
If you're reading this and live in the Chicago area, there's a poetry event coming up this Sunday, June 1, that will be more than worth your time.
Poet / critic / blogger / biographer Mark Scroggins, whose "splendid" biography of the modernist poet Louis Zukofsky got a rave review from Michael Dirda in the Washington Post (and cudos from the New York Times, etc., etc.), will be speaking at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies on "Louis Zukofsky: The Modernist Poet as Jew."
I helped put this event together, and a good turnout will do a lot to help me bring more poetry events to this gorgeous new space. I hope that you'll be able to come--and, in addition, that you'll help me spread the word about the talk!
Here are the details:
Louis Zukofsky: The Modernist Poet as Jew
Mark Scroggins, author of "The Poem of a Life: A Biography of Louis Zukofsky"
Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies, 610 Michigan Ave.
Sunday, June 1 at 2 pm
Tickets are $20 | $15 for Spertus members, and $10 for students.
As the unbelieving child of immigrants, Louis Zukofsky (1904 – 1978) sought to study his way out of his father’s Lower East Side sweatshop and to write his way into Western literary history. He did so by placing himself among the "high modernist" poets, whose conception of culture was often covertly or explicitly anti-Semitic. Dr. Mark Scroggins’ new book explores Zukofsky’s growth into one of his century’s most fascinating and complex poets, growth paralleled by his navigation of poetry and Jewishness, and his discovery of Jewish-inflected modernist poetics, which continue to influence and inspire contemporary poets.
Mark Scroggins holds an MFA and PhD from Cornell University and teaches literature and creative writing at Florida Atlantic University. A widely published author of poetry, essays and reviews, he has written on a broad range of writers, including extensive writing on poet Louis Zukofsky.
"terrific new biography"
—The New York Times
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
“The Sixties” in Jewish American Literature: Assimilation & Rebellion
The decade of the 1960s was a period in which Jews entered the mainstream of American society and contributed to American culture to an unprecedented extent. At the same time, Jewish Americans were also instrumental in the formation of the counter-culture which stood as a critique of mainstream American values. Torn between assimilation and rebellion, the generation of Jewish American writers which came of age during this period reflect their historical situation in a great range of literary genres and styles. This generation, largely the children of hard-working first and second generation Jews who anxiously sought to fit into American life, both acknowledge and reject the drama of their parents’ struggle for middle-class status and social acceptance. They seek to redefine their Jewishness in relation to the turmoil and promise of the sixties. This course will consider a variety of texts and authors of the sixties (give or take a few years), and attempt to situate them in terms of their Jewish identity and cultural impact. Authors will include Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Bernard Malamud, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan.
As you can see, it's going to be quite a mix. I'll be starting with Goodbye, Columbus and moving on to Ginsberg's Kaddish, including the various responses of other Jewish poets to that poem (most notably Allen Grossman's great review). The Malamud stories will probably include "The Angel Levine" and "Black Is My Favorite Color," for a consideration of Jewish / African-American relations during that period. Paley's feminist perspective is likewise crucial, and Dylan, well, it's a no-brainer, especially given "Highway 61" ("God said to Abraham / Kill me a son..."). Does anyone have any other suggestions? I'd really like to show a good film...
Monday, April 21, 2008
I've been meaning to post something here about why I haven't been posting here, which would lead me into a whole long riff about Jewishness and middle age and eating BLTs during Pesach. To be honest, though, I've been preoccupied most recently with a different sort of ethnic issue.
A couple of weeks ago, you see, the Latino Poetry Review went live on line. In its inaugural issue, my big essay from Parnassus: "Gringo with a Baedeker, Cortez in Kevlar." Just go to the main page and click "essays"; you'll find it. After you do--or maybe before--click on "Letters to the Editor." There you'll find a long response by Javier Huerta, a poet and graduate student who was deeply offended by my dismissal (on aesthetic grounds) of the seminal Chicano poem I am Joaquin by Rudolfo "Corky" Gonzales. Huerta's letter began as a post to his blog, which you can find here, followed by 20+ comments. He's since posted another meditation sparked by the piece; more blog responses to the essay-review show up at the Blog of Many Names by C. S. Perez, and I've gathered them for you (the ones so far) here.
[PS: just found this, another blog response, considerably more pissed off. "Save your empty gestures," this poet says of my apologies. Sorry, Mr. Corral--still a few of those to go.]
Now, as you'll see in the comments on each of those posts, as well as in the Letters page and over at Romancing the Blog, I've responded several times to the controversy, each time with an apology. Huerta, you see, has me dead to rights: I did a lousy job writing about the Gonzales poem, failing not only to question my own first impressions of it, but also to be the sort of "chameleon critic" that I've always tried to be. (I have some quotes from him, and comments on them, over at Say Something Wonderful.)
What I can't help but wonder, though, is how much of this fracas might stem from my bringing a particularly Jewish (secular, resistant, sketpical) sensibility to bear on some of these poems. Is my hesitation before, and my impulse to scoff at, certain kinds of identity poems rooted in my embrace of a certain version of goyish aesthetics? Or does it blossom from a "Debate with the Rabbi" impulse that assumes all group identities to be problematic, ripe for unsettling or complication?
Reading white? Or reading Jewish?
Eccovi! Judge ye! I'm all ears.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
"Recovering 'Yiddishland': Threshold Moments in American Literature" (2008).
If any of you have a chance to look at it, I'd love to hear your response.
Best to you all,
Saturday, February 02, 2008
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Monday, January 21, 2008
They are (modesty aside) a brilliant group. Note the discount if you order with code ZEEK.
8:oo PM Thursday Jan 31
Praise, Grumble, Shmooze, Lament: The Voices of 21st Century Jewish Poetry
Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street
Cost: $26.00 / $12.00 with discount code "ZEEK"
Co-presented with Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. Hear some of today's most eloquent, provocative and meaningful Jewish poets. The program features readings by established and emerging poets, including Alicia Ostriker, Rodger Kamenetz, Robin Becker, Jacqueline Osherow, Dan Bellm, Patty Seyburn, Philip Terman, Scott Cairns, Jay Michaelson and Richard Chess. Reception follows. Get your tickets NOW at 92y.org or 212-415-5500.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Henry Weinfield's Without Mythologies: New & Selected Poems & Translations has just been published by Dos Madres Press. Readers of this blog who are familiar with Henry's poetry, criticism and translations will understand the significance of this book. It contains work from 1967 to 2006, including most of The Sorrows of Eros (1999) and a generous gathering of earlier work, including poems from In the Sweetness of the New Time (1980) from the press I ran long ago, House of Keys. Henry is one of my oldest friends and it would be a bit redundant of me to sing his praises, but for those interested in my thoughts on his work, I wrote a substantial review of The Sorrows of Eros which appeared in Denver Quarterly 35.2 (Summer 2000). Henry's new work has turned increasingly toward contemporary political events, and as I have noted here, such pieces as "Praise and Lamentation" are some of the most important and provocative Jewish poems to come along in some time. As usual, Robert and Elizabeth Murphy of Dos Madres have produced a beautiful book, a perfect complement to Henry's inimitable lyricism. This book is a must.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
“The Poem of a Life,” Mark Scroggins’s terrific new biography, never strays far from Zukofsky the poet. Though he treats all of Zukofsky’s writing respectfully, Scroggins, who teaches literature at Florida Atlantic University, keeps his focus on “A,” the first seven parts of which were published in 1932. Free of megalomania, touchingly invested in his wife’s work as a composer and in the care of his son, Paul, now a pre-eminent violinist (both of whom contributed, Celia substantially, to “A”), Zukofsky nevertheless uncompromisingly devoted himself to the composition of his enormous poem. His reputation rests today partly in the hands of the so-called Language poets, who find in Zukofsky’s brilliant subversions of syntax, word games and indeterminacy (his poem, after all, is called “A,” not “The”) an augury of their own methods. But “A” is not about anything as simple as “language” or “life”: it is a poem about working on “A” — about the daily elations and impediments of an artist who sought, over the course of decades, to make something really hard really good. Since it takes its own composition as the measure of living, it is a more personal poem, and often a more moving one, than either of its main models, Pound’s “Cantos” or William Carlos Williams’s “Paterson."A lot to be talked about in the piece--we're at a third reception-moment for Zukofsky (a fourth, maybe? A new one, anyway), and it's quite fascinating to watch the terms of debate laid out here. (Ain't it good to know, for example, that language and life are "simple"?)
Still, hats off to Mark, to Zuk, and to Chiasson for his praise of them both!