finding myself between the lines

One poet’s journey with the writing of a commissioned poem.

In the Fall of 2002 I was commissioned by Temple Emek Shalom (Ashland, Oregon) to write a poem for the dedication of their new sanctuary. In fact, the congregation was building an entirely new campus from the ground up: offices, library, chapel, classrooms, sanctuary and gathering spaces. The dedication would culminate a 5-year planning, design and building process. 

As any artist will tell you, working on a commissioned piece slightly alters the creative process, which is, in many ways singular, even insular. At the same time, we strive to share our vision with others and find no greater joy than that of knowing we have touched another’s heart in a profound way, that we have spoken to the universality of the human condition.

When I took this commission, a friend wondered if the fact that I was not exactly a “practicing” Jew might make it a difficult task. But my spiritual life, which is rich and eclectic — if not traditional — informs much of my poetry, and I was confident it would serve me here. 

So I re-immersed myself in Judaic biblical history and became intimately familiar with the religious community for whom I was working. Thus began an enlightening creative — and personal — journey. 

The rabbi, as well as others at the temple, sent notes and photos. They shared with me their feelings and the feelings of congregants who toured the site during the building process. Many of the photos were striking. I could almost feel the crisp air of Oregon’s Rogue River Valley in the sweeping shots of the building against blue, nearly cloudless sky. The interior spaces were bathed in light. The warm, burnished wood of the ark nearly sang the shemah in full baritone. The renderings and website updates from the stained glass artists illustrated a phenomenal marriage of Judaica and abstract art. Even I, sitting at a desk some 400 miles to the north, could feel the power of all that was being created.

My task then, was to take this power, this unnamable sense of God’s presence in every unfinished corner, unpaned window frame, mound of sod shoring up the tiny cedar and cypress trees surrounding the building, and craft stanzas to capture not just this moment or this dedication, but the all of this sacred place for every reader, every time my words were visited, giving to them not what I, the poet wishes, but what each reader seeks even as what s/he searches for remains unknown until that singular moment of discovery.

There were related rabbinical essays to read, transliterations to find and define, prayers and meditations during which I let my fingers reach what keys they would to piece together words, and those words other words, until there were lines and stanzas; a stream of consciousness wrapping itself around images and aspirations; a weaving together of a people’s journey, my people’s journey, spanning 5,000-plus years of struggle, oppression, revelation and redemption, enduring the horrors of man, finally to arrive, in faith, at a sacred house of worship nestled in the shadow of the Siskious.

There was a point when I was certain I’d tinkered with it too long. Pages upon pages of iterations spit from my computer, lines written and rewritten, stanzas moved and moved again. Of course, any poem worth writing (or, more to the point, worth reading) must be finely crafted. But this was no typical crafting process. I faced myself each day, poet and Jew, asking had I said enough, had I said too much, would my readers be able to make the transition from ancient history to the present? 

I longed to workshop the piece with colleagues. At the same time, I didn’t even have a version I could comfortably call the piece. And then, suddenly I did. With the deadline looming, just one person reviewed the poem prior to my reading it to the congregation at the dedication service. My brother Martin is not a poet. He is a reader, a literate man, and, as an ardent fan of my poetry, surely biased. But I knew he could help me see if I’d been true to my task. His comments were few but valuable; I knew I had the poem. 

In the end, many images went unused, while others were left folded deep within the pleats of the poem’s structure (not so different perhaps from the midrash of Torah). 

Just days before I traveled south for the dedication, I received a fax with the temple’s Shabbat service schedule, listing each Torah topic. Ironically, I found that the poem’s title and the Torah portion to be read at the service were one and the same, makom. Some poem titles come early, some late, some mid-process, some not at all. The title of this poem was the first word of it I wrote; it served as its anchor. This happy coincidence delighted me. I chose to look upon it as a sign.

I have been honored to read my work at college and university campuses, poetry festivals, community events, on the radio and at intimate community poetry readings. The opportunity to share one’s artistic vision is always satisfying, but none before has been for me as life-altering an experience. This shared journey with the congregation of Temple Emek Shalom reminded me again of who I am and from whom I come: A people with rich traditions, a people who have been forced to adapt, to find ways to observe their faith despite the risk that doing so might create, a people who have endured some of modern history’s darkest moments. 

Writing this poem, I revisited my roots, traveled back to the conservative Jewish home in which I was raised, where we welcomed each Sabbath with prayer and blessings. I remembered the bedroom where I said the shemah each night before bed, my Sundays in Hebrew school, and my Bat Mitzvah. I remembered leaving home at 17. And perhaps the fact that the religious community in which I grew up never provided refuge from my troubled home, I left Judaism behind as well. 

Three years later, on the eve of the Munich Olympic games, eleven Israeli Olympians were taken hostage and killed. My response was visceral and unexpected. Suddenly thousands of years of collective consciousness surfaced within me. I was part of this. I felt this grief. But even then I did not fully reclaim my roots.

The defining moment came three years later, with the naming of my son. Mixing letters from his paternal grandmother’s and my maternal grandmother’s names, he is Iafay. Only later did I discover its Hebrew origins. The fact that I had turned away from my own faith and culture didn’t matter. In the deepest reaches of my subconscious it was there, available. I realized then that it was part of me even if I was not part of it and that the rich spiritual path I walk is made richer for this. 

All this I brought to the writing of this poem. In turn, I gained a deeper understanding of Torah, Haftorah, and Talmud; I learned about midrash and mishnah (both concepts I adore), and discovered aspects of the rich history of my faith that no Hebrew school ever taught me. And although, this particular poem is about the Jewish experience, others with whom I have shared it have found something that speaks to them as well. 

The congregation of Temple Emek Shalom was deeply moved when I read this poem, more so than any audience for whom I have read in the past. Over and over they thanked me — and continue to thank me — for this profound gift. But I tell you it was I to whom the gift was given, for in the journey of this poem I rediscovered my makom.

Read the poem makom (click the link)

framed print of the poem “makom”

duvall poetry

On June 5, i was the featured poet at the Duvall Library’s monthly event. Not far from Seattle miles-wise, but a good hour away (more when driving in late afternoon/rush hour traffic), i discovered a place i’d never been, very much like the countryside in some parts. i’d met the host of the reading, Mary Crane, nearly three years before when i featured at The Creekside, a retirement center. After my reading Mary asked if i’d be interested in reading in Duvall (and willing to make the trek). i gave her my card. As time went on we found ourselves co-featuring at Greenlake Library and at Tsunga Fine Art & Framing. We were well matched. Fast forward to getting booked. 

Having never been there before, i had no idea what to expect. The poetry room was full of attendees. i took a seat in the back and listened to the open mic readers. Then it was my time. The audience was incredibly receptive to my work. i was inspired by their enthusiasm. After my reading there was time for a bit more open mic. Then the ride home – easier than getting there.

i will fondly remember that reading and those who attended. i am always grateful to share my poetry though i rarely encounter an audience so welcoming. Below is the email i received the following day from Pamela Denchfield, Curator, Duvall Poetry Readings:

“Thank you for an outstanding reading last night at the Duvall Library! You truly mesmerized the audience as you shared your work with us. Here’s to more poetry!”

umbra

night and day i speak to the sky
crows line telephone wires
as if witness to this,
this reaching past cumulus clouds
this wish to be carried past pain
past the past pressed upon each day

at the shore of my pacific
sand shifts under my feet like fickle hearts
ever moving toward something new 
like you lost to me now
mere ripples of sound and motion
abacus beads
adding subtractions

bowed limbs
like question marks
punctuate the air
cleave the mystery of
paths harder to forge this 
muddied season

despair falls upon me like rain

• • • •

Published in San Diego Poetry Anthology, 2019-20

uncharted

he walks under the bridge   destination uncharted

a strapped and zippered keeper of possessions
hunch his shoulders, yet it’s his gait
that speaks the weight he carries

come night he knows cold concrete
freedom in borderless dreams

until the cacophony
of morning traffic wakes him
& he walks another day   another day…

would that he stay in those dreams

• • • •

Part of Seattle Poetry Grid, a project developed by Washington State Poet Laureate, Claudia Castro Luna, 2018-2021

maybe god rides a harley

for iafay

across night i travel to sterile rooms 
where crises play out under harsh fluorescence. 
where the aftermath of a single moment
is a staccato of scissors 
cutting clothes from torsos,
medics working in orchestrated chaos —
the stuff of late-night news.

a clock on the wall ticks
each moment a lifetime.

i pretend to read yesterday’s headlines 
set my shallow breath to sounds around me: 
knitting needles   coin-fed phones
street traffic dissected by automatic doors

a doctor’s footsteps…
i look up to read your fate on his face. 

• • • •

Published in Magee Park Poets Anthology, 2017

looking back

for joan simmons

we shared a Southern California sky from opposite sides of the city
the lies of our lives hidden beneath play

i wonder now if our reverie didn’t meet
in that place no one dare name

if you saw my wicked dance with death
too his seduction as your own

i ask myself
what did we talk about how did we meet why did we drift apart
how did i come to learn of your fate so long past?

we splashed about in the same fickle currents
yet i emerged and you went under

i imagine you like Woolf, slowly and with purpose
walking into the water

but i know you chose a gun instead 
leaving others to pick up the pieces

no doubt about their trigger fingers

• • • •

Published in Magee Park Poets Anthology, 2015

inside out

come spring, you abandon the garden
cling to reasons for moving past this breath.

my gaze wanders to a cobweb in the corner —
i can’t say how long it has been there.

outside, the wind is a frantic heart.
inside, the air, still as death.

• • • •

Published in So Luminous the Wildflowers, An Anthology of California Poets 2003

revision, revision, revision

Revision, revision, revision. The mantra of poets worldwide. i’ve been doing my share of it lately. The unfinished manuscript hollering at me from my nightstand. With this in mind, i recently looked through some of my published work and i came across circular breathing, in a 2002 edition of The Comstock Review. Re-reading that version i realized i liked it better than the current, oft-revised one.

Sometimes we can be our worst editors, yet i still believe in revision. It’s a commitment to the language, to reaching higher for that more profound image, metaphor, word. At times it’s just that – one word – that will carry the piece – and your reader – right where you intended.

Which brings me to another thought. The reader and the poet. i recall a visual artist friend of mine being asked, at an exhibition of his work, about the meaning of a particular piece. He wouldn’t say, but instead encouraged the person to find their meaning in his work, to let it speak to them as it would, regardless of his, the artist’s, intent. i liked this.

There is always something in particular that hurtles me toward writing a poem, and i want my reader to be similarly moved. At the same time, everyone gleans something different from a poem. If that were not the case it wouldn’t be that one editor rejects a piece while another can’t wait to publish it. As poets we must allow that creative river to wash over us, spin us in its eddies, carry us to the sea. And with any luck, the results will speak to those who find our words.
10 oct 10

weaving words

As we enter the decade of ailing parents, swapping stories, wondering what’s next, some of us find ourselves less prolific with the pen. But the muse lives on, waiting to place her hands gently on our shoulders, be it from a favorite book of poetry, music we’ve too long not heard, or the joy of seeing a poet pal come to town to share his words at a local reading (thank you, Brandon).

Speaking of readings, i often think of Claire de Lune and the amazing Tuesday nights we had there hearing (and hanging with) some of the best poets around, some from across the country (or across the pond), some from our own community. Several of you have connected with me recently on Facebook (a world i have mixed feelings about), many of you i long to find again. There are times i imagine myself returning to Claire’s and bringing poets together once again. But that would mean leaving the Northwest and i do love this place. And besides, what’s that they say? You can’t go home again? So for now i simply dream, slowly weaving together new words that will one day become a tapestry i can share with you.
24 aug 10

don’t blame the ugly mug

don’t blame the ugly mug is the title of a poetry anthology featuring the work of poets from SoCal and across the country who have graced the stage of the Ugly Mug Café (Orange, California). Ugly Mug Café is home of a 10-year weekly poetry reading hosted by Steve Ramirez and Ben Trigg (who call themselves ‘two idiots peddling poetry’). It’s a major achievement, this anthology, a labor of love, and yours truly is honored to be one of more than 200 poets included in the collection. Thanks to Steve and Ben for all their hard work!