Poets share Jewish life anthologies
Focused on Judaism, gender and the confluence between the two, poetry reading “Spiritual Sisters” demonstrated issues close to the values of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute’s heart on Tuesday.
The visiting readers, Lesléa Newman and Joy Ladin, are each acclaimed authors and poets. Newman is best known for the landmark “Heather Has Two Mommies” and has published dozens of other acclaimed titles for children, young adults and adults, with awards ranging from American Library Association Stonewall Honors to the Massachusetts Book Award.
Ladin, a professor of English at Stern College, is a National Jewish Book Award Finalist and Forward Fives Award winner. Her works include “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between the Genders,” about coming out as a transgender woman, and “Coming to Life.”
Ladin chose to read from her upcoming anthology, “The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something,” as well as from past collections. The themes ranged from dying and growth to love and faith. She explained that she began the book a few summers ago, in the midst of a premonition that she would die that summer. She wasn’t discomforted — she knew her premonitions were always wrong — but she chose to take it as a writing assignment: “What does life look like when you think it’s your last summer?”
The poems Ladin read included “Now and Then,” written on a Subway car in New York, it recounts seeing a man reading from a Gemara (a part of the Talmud)and remembering once being that kippah-clad scholar. The reading also included “Amelioration of A Dream” — a scrambled translation of a post-nightmare prayer — and “Answers to the Name Lucky,” in which she proclaims, “I’m nothing more than a draft of what I’m becoming.” She ended with “Make America Great Again,” a lament to this country and the ways it has needed to heal since long before the election.
Newman read from two books: “I Carry My Mother,” written after her mother’s passing, and “Lovely,” about her childhood.
Among Newman’s readings from “I Carry My Mother” was “A Daughter is a Daughter,” a poem about having a lifelong relationship with her mother. She explained that the poem was inspired by “a daughter is a daughter for all of her life,” a common saying for girls of her generation.
The title poem, “I Carry My Mother,” is about carrying her mother through their shared features — when Newman looks in the mirror, her mother looks back. She explained that when writing about her mother, she gets to bring her back for a bit, which “gives [me] joy.”
From “Lovely,” Newman read “1955-2001: A Hair Odyssey,” “Ode to a Knish Shop,” and “To Have and To Hold,” a love poem to Massachusetts on the day it declared same-sex marriage legal.
Newman’s selections from “Lovely” were generally lighter in tone; “1955-2001: A Hair Odyssey” explores her struggle with her locks, while “Ode to a Knish Shop” is exactly what the title suggests.
During a question-and-answer session, both poets were asked about their writing processes and journeys.
Newman learned from Grace Paley and Allen Ginsberg. Paley once advised Newman to write in her language — English with Yiddish sprinkled in — because that’s what she grew up hearing. Now, Newman thinks of writing as “kvetching on paper.” She explained that she won’t force herself to write, but once the urge gets too strong to resist, she sits down and scribbles words until the poem “comes up from the page.” Her longest period without writing was only three months, after 9/11.
For Ladin, learning to write poetry was about finding a style that worked for her.
Her work has always been “plagued by abstraction” because American poetry is based on the premise that the writer is the narrator. Before coming out, she wasn’t able to write as herself, so she was briefly drawn to Russian poetry. The style involves several filters of distancing and depersonalization, which were attractive at the time, she explained. Now, however, she’s “trying to get to a self,” rather than trying to destroy one. The journey led to her questioning the purpose of poetry — why we write it the way we do and what assumptions we bring to the process.
“Spiritual Sisters” began as a conversation between Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, interim director of HBI, and Penina Weinberg, president of Congregation Ruach HaYam in Cambridge. The event was sponsored by Ruach HaYam, the Jewish Women’s Archive, HBI, Keshet and the Jewish Feminist Association at Brandeis.
—Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported Newman's first name as "Lenea." It is corrected to Lesléa.