- Poetry:Music, Patience and Form
How did you come to connect your Judaism with your writing? Were the two always intertwined?
I started teaching creative writing based on Tanach [Hebrew scriptures: Torah, Prophets, Writings] to high school kids in an after school program, but it took years before I incorporated the process I taught them into my writing. At first, I thought poetry was coming from a different spiritual energy and Judaism would dry it up, especially the brand of Judaism I began to find myself more and more involved in. And yes, being in an Orthodox Jewish environment, before I was grounded in who I was, did stop the poetry. I tried to write but garble came out, words that couldn't describe what I was feeling or communicate it to anyone. However, I still had the yearning to persevere in the writing. I entered an MFA program and eventually was able to write poems that connected my Judaism profoundly to my feelings. Bridges published a few of these poems, inclusing "The Ritual Bath." As I wrote that poem, I discovered spiritual meaning out of difficult emotions I felt during the process of immersing in the mikvah.
You have also studied the Sephardic Muwashshah. I know that you have taught this Andalusian Hebrew-Arabic form. Can you describe it for us? [End Page 77]
The Muwashshah, or girdle poem, was originally a rhythmic, rhyming Arabic poetry form. Dunash Ben Labrat, a Sephardic poet from the early 11th century, adapted the Muwashshah form into Hebrew, which restored Jewish Hebrew poetry in the Iberian Peninsula. Before this, Hebrew poetry followed the Biblical forms using parallelism instead of rhyme.
Here is an example of the form based on a few verses from a new poem I am working on in the imagined voice of the Biblical Leah:
When he looked up, clouds followed her like sheep.When he opened his mouth to speak,he slid off a heavy stone from the deepand kissed her, so I fled.
She used to follow me and borrow my clothes.Now she has the man, I chose.I had hoped she would be given to another of thosemen who have broken bread....
I can see You had thought us even.You gave her one; You gave me seven.Children aren't enough to keep love from leaving.Why keep us on this seesaw, when she is light and I am lead?
She stole our father's idols to take away his power.She could give them as dolls to her first daughter.Jacob didn't know his words condemned her.Soon, she will be gone from his bed.
The final quatrain, or kharja, often employed a change in tone. In many of the Hebrew poems, the poets actually changed languages and wrote the last two lines of the kharja in Arabic. This was part of their bilingual culture. Often the line would be a quote from an Arabic poem familiar to the readers of Al- Andalus (Islamic Spain), written in the voice of a character presented in the Hebrew poem.
Can you expound upon your beautiful poem "By the Well with Camels?"
Part of the poem's language was influenced by Robert Creeley's "I Know a Man."
As I sd to myfriend, because I amalways talking,—John, I
sd, which was not hisname, the darkness sur- rounds us,... [End Page 78]
Here is an excerpt of "By the Well with Camels"
...There is a vacancy, she fits. Hereare some gold bracelets, a ringfor your nose, hesays to me.
Pack all that belongsto you. I've outgrown...my folded bedding.I won't bring dolls.Just the oldest thing,an empty chestthat can hold all thatis given.
This particular poem is one of my essential poems, like "The Ritual Bath," because the spiritual meaning in it of leaving behind and starting again speaks to me. On a formal level, I always have connected to the double entendre in poetry and "By the Well with Camels" makes use of layered meaning. These...