Poet Q, Poet A: Six Poets Talk Topography & Landscape in Their Poetry

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November 14, 2014


I’ve been talking to a few very different poets — of various ages and backgrounds — asking questions about Jewish identity and poetry. I recently answered some question about poetry and faith on The Best American Poetry Blog, and how I no longer belong to a synagogue, pray in solitude and connect to my faith through poetry. Community has been a buzzword in the last couple of years in poetry, and this is a word I’ve always known first in a Jewish context. That’s what prompted me to start this ZEEK conversation.

—Rosebud Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni: One of the biggest influences on my own work is the Israeli poet Rachel (Rahel Bluwstein Sel), one of the first Modern Hebrew poets — as well as one of the few female poets in that period. The landscapes she constructs out of longing and isolation in her lyrical poems — especially those about sex — have preserved a side of Eretz Israel now lost. Tell me about your landscapes: What is the sweep of the most defining poems you’ve written? What are their outlooks and topography? How have they changed?

Erika Meitner: When I first started writing poems seriously as an adult, I was living in Brooklyn and teaching public middle school in Sunset Park. The neighborhood has subsequently gentrified, but back then — in the late ’90s — it was pretty impoverished and somewhat industrial. As an urban pedestrian, I spent a lot of time collecting images in and around very bleak cityscapes, which mimicked much of the landscape of my 1970s and ‘80s childhood, in Queens.

When I left New York, I bounced around — from rural Virginia, to Wisconsin, to coastal California, to DC, and back to rural Virginia. I felt, and still feel, very placeless.

My mother and my maternal grandparents were refugees. My mother was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after my grandparents got out of various concentration camps, but my grandparents were originally Polish. My father was born in Israel in 1947, when it was still Palestine, as my paternal grandparents fled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and settled in Haifa. Both my parents came to America as children, and settled in New York City. Shifting out of New York — leaving the city — was perhaps the hardest exile for me, spiritually, geographically, culturally, bodily, religiously. If my people have any place, it feels like that place is New York. That being said, I am definitely no longer a poet who lives in a city of any kind. I’ve written a lot over the last 10 years about rural Virginia — its mountains, and Walmarts, and interstates, and parking lots. I’ve written equally as much about the human geography of cities like DC and Detroit, but right now I feel very keyed in to the idea that narrative — that life — can happen just as hard and as interestingly in places that are generic, consumer-oriented, ex-urban, or even abandoned.

Eduardo Gabrieloff: My poems all seem to be set in Colorado, regardless of where I am when I write them. Even poems about Colombia, which has higher mountains than Colorado, still reserves the aridness and threat of deadly weather any time of year. I wouldn’t describe the landscape in my poems as hostile, however. More like a dog, you understand, can be triggered to anger. You approach respectfully, prepared, and enjoy. Or survive.

When I moved to Illinois, where I lived for nine years, my poems began to shift slightly away from the mountains into the city. Chicago was a swamp before a city, and since that was drained, it is nothing but buildings. Five feet of elevation change, as opposed to 6,000 feet in Colorado, and houses, apartment buildings, condos, skyscrapers, museums. Taking the train or my bike past all of them every morning on my way to work, knowing I was passing literally millions of people, was an awe-inspiring and terrifying thing. After spending so long in a town of 1,500 in the Colorado mountains, even small cities seemed huge. My first job in Chicago was in the Loop, about seven stories up in a small skyscraper. From my window, I would look out at an empty landscape of rooftops. There were pigeons, HVAC machines, vents steaming white steam into the cold air, and maybe once a month, two workers servicing machines. It was so quiet and empty and serene. I would sometimes stare at the emptiness, then stand for a view of the clogged sidewalks below. I loved that disparity, the ability to feel alone in such an expanse of people. That contrast inspired a lot of poems, but then, the absence of mountains did a lot more to influence my work. Isolation, even surrounded by people, still plays into my work. And being back in Colorado just cements the mountains in my poems.

Hila Ratzabi: My landscapes, on the literal level, have been limited to the cities I’ve lived in: most of my life New York, and now Philadelphia, and few other places I’ve traveled to. But I was born in Israel and used to spend time there in the summers with my family. Israel is a mythical, symbolic landscape, and my memories of the real place are all bathed in light. And yet I’ve written very little about that landscape, now especially fraught with so much pain and bloodshed. The only poem in which I directly write about Israel is called “The First Day,” and in it I recall that spiritual light seen from the window of my childhood bedroom in Israel, which leads me to the revelation: “There is too much God in this room.” Maybe the landscapes my poetry inhabits are defined by how much God is or isn’t in them? That has certainly changed over time. I later have a poem called “Aubade” where I state, “Light becomes more light-like, less God-like…” I never noticed the thread between those two poems until now.

Jason Schneiderman: If I have a landscape, it’s urban, suburban, or historical — which is to say, I have no landscape. No defining oceans or mountains or flora or fauna. Growing up in a peripatetic family, my idea of the United States and Judaism is intellectual rather than geographical. I feel defined by a linguistic and intellectual archive, rather than a spatial one. When I was living in Russia, I found myself incredibly nostalgic at the sight of the American West — the Grand Canyon, etc. But I’ve never lived there — only driven through — it was only the metonym of America that I loved. If anything, I wish I could have seen gay bathhouses in their heyday of the 1970s. But my historical landscapes — shtiebels, concentration camps, etc. — I feel lucky never to have known. I’m at home in my library, which is what I was taught is the way to be Jewish.

Emily Jaeger: A product of Jewish day school, I was raised in the landscape of Jerusalem and Israel shel ma’alah. Jerusalem shel ma’alah, of above, was the protagonist of biblical stories, kibbutz nostalgia, and pre-Zionist prayers. When I finally moved there, a queer Jewish woman stepping into the sweltering July heat, I found myself in Jerusalem shel matah. Jerusalem shel matah, the earthly Jerusalem, sweated under the white heat of a desert sun; left me shoved between religious and secular, between nations barely on speaking terms all elbowing for space in the ancient city center.

I found sanctuary in water: the hidden spring Hezekiah channeled into the city, a watering hole in the middle of the Negev, the first winter rain. Water and its echoes — the cerulean blue of the saints graves and window frames on older houses — became the landscape of my poetry. The water meant protection and survival in a bone-dry desert. It was my Jerusalem shel ma’alah: a thread of human and spiritual connection woven through chaos. A year later, when I joined the Peace Corps, the hidden oasis remained a central, Jewish landscape in my poetry. As my poems explored womanhood in the context of rural Paraguay, I found my oasis in the northern wind that brought in the rain and the aquifer that connected the entire community like the backside of embroidery.

This is the first installment of Rosebud Ben-Oni’s series of poet-poet conversations in ZEEK about Jewish identity, poetry, and more. Featuring poets Erika Meitner, Eduardo Gabrieloff, Hila Ratzabi, Jason Schneiderman and Emily Jaeger. Future installments – which will appear here biweekly — include discussions about mapping rituals, authenticity, whiteness, and privilege, shifting Jewish identity and humor. We start, here, with this roundtable on location and topography.

On December 10, Hila Ratzabi and Jason Schneiderman will be reading for the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry in Philadelphia, as part of “Words Off the Page: An Evening with Jewish American Poets.”

About the Poets

Rosebud Ben-Oni is a CantoMundo Fellow and the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013). Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, she was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned her MFA in Poetry, and was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her work appears or is forthcoming in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. In Fall 2014, she will be a visiting writer at the University of Texas at Brownsville’s Writers Live Series. Rosebud is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

Erika Meitner is the author of three books of poems — most recently, Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (Anhinga Press, 2011), and Ideal Cities (Harper Perennial, 2010), which was a 2009 National Poetry Series winner. Her poems have appeared in publications including Best American Poetry 2011, Tin House, jubilat, VQR, and The New Republic. Her newest book, Copia, was just released by BOA Editions in September 2014. Meitner holds an MFA in Creative Writing, as well as an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia, where she was the Morgenstern Fellow in Judaic Studies. She’s currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA program.

Eduardo Gabrieloff was born in Cali, Colombia. His Colombian mother converted to Judaism when she married his Jewish father, who had come to Colombia after his Uzbek Jewish father married a Syrian Jewish woman he met on a business trip in Brooklyn. Eduardo has been writing poetry since he was 17. His work has been published or is forthcoming from The Journal of Ordinary Thought, Ninth Letter, [PANK], Leaf Litter, and Bluestem. He obtained his MFA from the University of Illinois. He is a Calallo Fellow, a Signal Fire Fellow, and a Canto Mundo Fellow. Eduardo has worked in the nonprofit sector for over a decade and is currently working at the Denver Public Library Friends Foundation.

Hila Ratzabi was selected by Adrienne Rich as a recipient of a National Writers Union Poetry Prize. She is the author of the chapbook The Apparatus of Visible Things (Finishing Line Press). Her poetry is published or forthcoming in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, Narrative, Alaska Quarterly Review, Drunken Boat, About Place, The Normal School, H_NGM_N, Cortland Review, and others. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and lives in Philadelphia, where she founded the Red Sofa Salon & Poetry Workshop.

Jason Schneiderman is the author of Sublimation Point, winner of the Richard Snyder Prize from Ashland Poetry Press, and Striking Surface, a Stahlecker selection*from Four Way Books. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, Poetry London, Grand Street, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, Story Quarterly, and Tin House. Jason has received fellowships from Yaddo, The Fine Arts Work Center, and The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was the recipient of the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America in 2004, and a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award in 2011. He is the Poetry Editor of the Bellevue Literary Review, and an Associate Editor at Painted Bride Quarterly. Jason Schneiderman is an Assistant Professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, part of the City University of New York.

Emily Jaeger is a Jewish curly-top poet, returned Peace Corps volunteer, and backyard organic farmer who dreams in four languages. Emily served for two years as an agricultural extensionist in rural Paraguay, teaching local farmers sustainable growing practices and leading organic gardening projects. Currently an MFA student at UMASS Boston, she is co-editor and co-founder of the Window Cat Press, a new zine and Tumblr for young, emerging artists. Having completed her undergraduate studies in Bible and Ancient Near Studies at Brandeis University, Emily’s poems draw on Jewish liturgy as well as biblical and ancient Syrian verse. Her current projects include a poetic rendering of informal interviews with rural Paraguayan women. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cecile’s Writers Magazine, Broadzine, and the Jewish Journal.

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