In the annual Forward Fives selection we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in music, performance, exhibitions, books and film. Here we present five of our favorite works of poetry of 2012. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
This year, among the Forward’s five notable poetry books, there are two memorable retrospective collections by Alicia Ostriker and Michael Heller, as well as three books of brand new poetry from Adeena Karasick, Hank Lazer and Rachel Tzvia Back.
It is particularly curious to juxtapose Lazer’s “N18” and Karasick’s “This Poem,” as both books engage with the timely question of the poetic medium: What does poetry look like, and how might it be read in a time when the very process of reading — and the existence of a book — is a blinking question mark. Lazer’s hand-written “shape poems” move against the current of the reflowable text trend, hearkening to poetry’s hand-written past, and also pointing to what might become a hallmark of poetry’s future — multiple points of entry into the non-linear ocean of text. Karasick’s book, however, speeds right along with the media overload, incorporating its methods and lingo, laughing with and at it, both critiquing and poeticizing. Please note that the books are arranged in alphabetic order, based on authors’ last names.
When we think of great New York poets — Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and Laurie Anderson, among others — what they’ve immortalized and exalted have been the streets and energies of Manhattan or, on rare and less transcendent occasions, Brooklyn. The Bronx, when it did appear, has always been something of the old country — where immigrant parents and grandparents lived, a remote, provincial satellite. And certainly Riverdale, Bronx’s sleepy neighborhood with a large Jewish population, would appear to have nothing to offer to poetic imagination. Judith Baumel, featured on The Arty Semite last year, seem to have been the only exception.
And yet, Sarah Stern’s recent collection of poems, “Another Word for Love,” is profoundly grounded in Riverdale — in its subway stations and parks, buildings and streets. The first of the two poems featured today, “Morning Prayer,” takes place on the streets of the neighborhood, and features a curious juxtaposition of spiritual experiences, genders and visions. The second piece, “Reentry,” is an homage to exceptional character, evoked so vividly that he practically walks (or rather, waddles) off the lines of the poem.
Shanir Blumenkranz’s extensive contribution to the world of radical Jewish music can only be compared to Robbie Shakespeare’s formative influence on reggae. Blumenkranz plays on numerous projects issued by the Tzadik label — so many of them, in fact, that his recognizable style of bass playing is virtually inseparable from the sound has come to define so many of Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Music projects, including Pharaoh’s Daughter, Pitom, Edom, Rashanim and Kef, among others. He has closely collaborated with label’s producer, John Zorn.
So it is particularly exciting to see Blumenkranz in the role of band leader. With guitarists Eyal Maoz and Aram Bajakian, as well as Kenny Grohowski on drums, Blumenkranz has released “Abraxas: Book of Angels 19,” a set of compositions penned by Zorn. Exchanging his usual electric bass for gimbri — an acoustic African instrument with three strings made of goat skin — Blumenkranz propels his ensemble with raw and intricate rhythms.
In contrast with the previous “Book of Angels” rendition by David Krakauer — a darkly whimsical, phantasmagoric record defined by its androgynous plasticity — Blumenkranz’s album is an all-male, three-guitar-and-drums, no-nonsense affair. Most of the tunes apply a jazz approach to the hard rocking, heavy metal sound. Many tracks are danceable, and yet the impulse towards rocking out goes hand in hand with abstraction, a collision of textures and colors.
Unlike their pudgy, cherubic, church-tending counterparts, in Jewish mythology angels are not what you’d call angelic. Ominous and conflicted, with a penchant for irony and obscure turns of phrase, they are messages from the personal and collective subconscious for us to wrestle with. These angels create the parameters of our formative and deformative moments. Perhaps it is in such a context that one might understand “The Book of Angels,” a collection of scores penned by avant-garde composer and saxophonist John Zorn. A number of musical groups have tackled these compositions; the latest encounter is David Krakauer’s “Pruflas: The Book of Angels Vol. 18,” released on Tzadik Records earlier this year.
David Krakauer is among the world’s foremost klezmer clarinetists. He has worked with diverse collaborators, from the neo-classical Kronos Quartet to legendary funk trombonist Fred Wesley. What he brings to this date, in addition to a virtuosic treatment of the score, is the ability to extract from his clarinet sounds one indeed associates with dark corners of the subconscious.
The irony of Pesach lies in the juxtaposition of the formative freedom narrative with the fraught mythic lore that goes along with its celebration. Today on The Arty Semite we’re featuring two poems by Talia Lavin that address this very juxtaposition through the lens of the contemporary Israel.
The first poem tackles the subject head-on: “we’ll sing the story of a book,/ a river of blood.” The second does not mention the holiday, but references the time of year that Pesach falls out on. This spring has less to do with symbols of rejuvenation and rebirth than with the sentiment of T.S. Eliot’s line, “April is the cruelest month.” In this piece, Lavin rethinks another formative myth and imbues it with gritty reality.
Jamie Saft is far from the only musician who questions and complicates notions of cultural, musical and ethnic identity. That’s bread and butter for many of the artists featured on the Tzadik label, which has now put out six of Saft’s albums, including his latest, “Borscht Belt Studies.” Neither, on this release, does Saft clash, counterpoise, or remix musical styles. Fluid movement in and out musical paradigms and approaches, an approach already familiar to his fans, is not the point. Rather, the album appears to be, indeed, a study — an exploration or rethinking.
Personnel on the date is minimal. Four tracks are solo, with Saft on piano or Fender Rhodes. Six tracks are duos with Ben Goldberg on the clarinet; the last composition is a trio with drums and bass. On the duo tracks, while Goldberg plays klezmer-flavored lines, Saft delves into something that hardly even resembles klezmer. Surrounding the plaintive clarinet solos, the piano work is more than mere comping, or rhythmic background textures. I would venture to say that Saft is exploring the emotional and psychological roots of klezmer, the music’s darker underside, or perhaps even the underside of the people who brought this music to American shores. Whatever the sonic textures may represent — and that is always an elusive question with instrumental music — one can overhear modern and experimental jazz, deep blues, folk, and classical music, all wrapped around a gothic, darkly mysterious feeling.
Across the centuries, Jewish hermeneutists — interpreters of the holy texts — have had radically different agendas: illuminating and whitewashing, edifying and indoctrinating. A poetic impulse, if not outright poetry, was occasionally part of the picture, too. And how could it not? Dealing with poetic texts of our national and religious mythos, imaginative responses only seemed natural.
Laurie Patton’s recent collection “Angel’s Task: Poems in Biblical Time” presents poems, named for and arranged by the weekly Torah portion. Today we’re featuring two works from this wonderful collection.
“Shemot” is a riff, a meditation on the theme of names and naming, that builds up, like a musical composition, resulting in a mighty metaphysical insight. “Vayechi,” referring to last week’s parsha, is more in the tradition of the dvar Torah — a miniature hermeneutic sermon. Connecting a personal story with the textual insight, it is a profound psychological commentary of the biblical figure of Joseph, and the bearing this figure has on the national Jewish consciousness.
“Shemot” was originally published as “Drawn Out” in Studio One, St. John’s University Journal of the Arts.
On Tuesday, Jake Marmer wrote about poems as a noisy Mediterranean duplex. His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
Reputedly, Rachmaninoff once said: “There’s no such thing as inspiration. You sit down and do the work.” There’s so much to like about the quote! I think the maestro must have seen art — in his case, music — as something of a daily practice; a certain anti-climatic quality of his pronouncement is also a promise for consistency. He would probably agree that the intentional seeking or digging isn’t called inspiration — curiosity maybe — so, just start talking. Or humming, whatever.
Working on the last stages of my new book, “Jazz Talmud,” I was lucky to have the mentorship of Stanley Moss, my editor, publisher and also a really excellent poet. I’ve never agreed with anyone offering me editorial advice as much as I did with Stanley. Except for this one thing.
Jake Marmer is the author of “Jazz Talmud.” His blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
About a decade ago I read a Billy Collins poem called “Advice to Writers,” where this former U.S. Poet Laureate suggests:
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
There’s wisdom there: it feels good to write with an uncluttered mind, unburdened by other concerns.
But taking Ajax to your literal and metaphorical surroundings could border on sterilizing. And also, silencing. Sure, Collins is at least in part joking — it’s a funny poem — but I’m sure he means it, too. The poetic voice he is suggesting his readers to summon, in a clean-pristine room, is very much a solo. People, things — out of the way! The poet is talking! (to himself, and being funny - don’t miss out!). A room with scrubbed floors, however tempting, is not where a soul lives, at least I don’t think so.
One of the most compelling themes, and even triggers, in contemporary Jewish poetic discourse is the question of otherness — our own otherness.
There’s no better time to contemplate this idea than during the winter holidays, when cultural differences come into stark relief and questions of identity resurface, as do millennia-old grudges and dilemmas.
Ivan Klein, who was previously featured on The Arty Semite about a year ago, is here again with a brand new piece, “Christmas Note.” Combining prose poetry with expository writing, reminiscing and rambling, Klein’s style is unique. In a way, it is a conversation with his higher self, and we’re lucky to listen in.
In this, the third annual Forward Fives selection, we celebrate the year’s cultural output with a series of deliberately eclectic choices in music, performance, exhibitions, books and film. Here we present five of the most important poetry books of 2011. Feel free to argue with and add to our selections in the comments.
2011 has been a memorable year for poetry. We managed to highlight some of the great recent books both in the arts and culture section of the Forward and on The Arty Semite. Here are the five that resonated most intensely. Because this isn’t a hit parade, the list is not arranged hierarchically, but chronologically, in order of publication. Along with these triumphs, it also seems appropriate to mention the loss the world of poetry suffered with the passing of the great and largely unrecognized American master, Samuel Menashe.
“Coming To Life”
By Joy Ladin
In her poetry, Ladin does not merely recount her story of being a transgender Jewish poet, professor and father of two, with all of the tangled emotional and physiological complexities that involves, but opens, to the reader, the metaphysical depth of the experience. I would recommend reading this collection side by side with Ladin’s previous book, “Transmigration Poems,” published in 2009 — there’s a fascinating continuity between the two.
Read the Forward’s review of ‘Coming to Life’ here.
Sitting down with Israeli poet Admiel Kosman and his translator Lisa Katz (who is a poet in her own right) in the Forward’s podcast studio felt less like a formal interview than a conversation in a dimly lit cafe, extending for hours into the night. And it likely would have extended — if the producer didn’t start waving frantically after the allotted half-hour was up. Indeed, Kosman’s new book, “Addressing You In English,” is so layered and multidimensional that it is prone to a vast number of discussions — not merely about poetry, but about language, love, Jewishness, prayer and more.
Spiritual seekers and philosophers who have grown up in a religious environment but who have chosen to transcend it are forever in a league of their own. While rituals peel away with time, what remains is a sense of addiction to meaning and purpose. And so Kosman, who grew up in a traditional Jewish environment, continues his intense spiritual and intellectual search, an internal debate characterized by his wonderful power of observation. As he explains in the interview, poetry as such is never his goal. Rather, it is something that erupts out of his contemplations — and thus is more organic, conflicted and emotionally rich.
Kosman now lives in Berlin where he is a professor of Religious and Jewish Studies at Potsdam University and the academic director of the Abraham Geiger rabbinical seminary. His poems and columns appear regularly in the Friday literary supplement of Israel’s leading newspaper, Haaretz.
Listen to an interview with Admiel Kosman, and read the six poems that he discusses:
“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” Walter Pater famously wrote. While this statement is usually understood in terms of an author’s subconscious intentions, and an artwork’s ability to transcend its form and content, there are some artists who purposefully make their works musical.
This is certainly true of Steve Dalachinsky, and not merely because he is a poet-performer with great jazz chops who often collaborates with musicians. There’s something intrinsically musical about his work: the language, the images, and the structures these images add up to.
Dalachinsky’s best known foray into this methodology is the PEN Award-winning book “The Final Nite & Other Poems: The Complete Notes from a Charles Gayle Notebook 1987-2006” (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2006), a compendium of poetry written while watching saxophonist Charles Gayle perform throughout New York City. He’s explored the genre from other angles since, most recently in two chapbooks, “Mantis: Complete Poems for Cecil Taylor” (Iniquity Press) and “Long Play E.P.: The Complete Evan Parker Poems” (Corrupt Press).
Admittedly, not everyone sitting down to their Thanksgiving dinner is going to be recalling Yiddish-speaking immigrant ancestors, ranting about social injustice, or invoking Allen Ginsberg — and doing all of that using an ancient Arabic poetic form. That’s why we need Alicia Ostriker, a great American poet and thinker who was awarded the Jewish Book Award in 2009.
Using the “ghazal” form of Arabic poetry, which strings together pithy two-line meditations with a common refrain, she covers the vast territory of what America means to her. Curiously, Allen Ginsberg’s poem “America,” mentioned here in the fourth verse, also uses the poem’s title as a refrain, but Ginsberg’s approach is Whitmanesque, perhaps biblical. Ostriker ventures further out of the Western world. However, a certain comic strain is common to both poets. Happy Thanksgiving!
“In the ruin, history has physically merged into the setting. And in this guise history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible decay.”
So in “Allegory and Trauerspiel” Walter Benjamin explained the complex, romantic appeal ruins hold for us. New York poet Pinny Bulman, dreaming and reminiscing in a decaying shul he’s known since childhood, finds himself in nothing other than a temple of imagination and prayer. Only more spiritual and beautiful in its decline, the shul sheds its concrete features, merging its history with that of its inhabitants, as it too becomes somehow human.
Pinny Bulman has published a poems in Mimaamakim and co-edited “a man in a room with a tallis on: selected poems” by Aaron Bulman (Flannel Press). Pinny works at a nonprofit mental health agency and lives with his wife, two children, and memories of growing up in pre-gentrified Washington Heights.
Photo courtesy of Murray Silverstein
One of my greatest poetic discoveries this year has been the work of Murray Silverstein, which I first encountered in the recently published book “Chapter & Verse: Poems of Jewish Identity.”
Silverstein’s daytime gig is in architecture; he has written and co-written a number of books on the subject, including the prosaically titled “Dorms at Berkeley: An Environmental Analysis.” In his poetry, however, Silverstein’s architectural expertise takes an entirely different angle. He still deals with structures, but metaphysical rather than concrete ones.
Bob Holman is one of New York’s poetry legends. He pioneered the performance poetry scene a few decades ago, opened and is still running his world-renowned Bowery Poetry Club, is a professor, publisher, lecturer and much more.
Today, in the spirit of the upcoming holidays, The Arty Semite is featuring Holman’s 1994 poem “A Jew in New York.” The author points to a wonderful connection between the mood of the High Holy Days and the New York weather: “Moody and gray, with dashes of absolute / Clarity.”
There’s also something quintessentially New York about the way Holman’s meditation on his Jewishness is intertwined with references to other identities — a Latina friend, the Chinese new year, and his own “coalminer” lineage. Holman’s mode of introspection, in the spirit of the upcoming holidays, lies in the openness and receptivity to his own history and the free-associations that come as he recounts it.
Bob Holman’s most recent book is “Picasso in Barcelona” (Paper Kite Press).
Contemporary avant-garde poets have done a great deal to question and redefine the concept of good poetry; new styles, approaches and whole movements emerge constantly. It does not happen often, however, that the notion of a “book of poetry” gets challenged. Ammiel Alcalay’s “‘neither wit nor gold’ (from then),” published this year by Ugly Duckling Presse, is precisely this sort of experiment. It contains not just poems, but also a collection of photographs, newspaper cut-outs and posters, as well as, most crucially, scans of handwritten drafts and sketches from the author’s archives of the early-to-mid 1970s. These elements aren’t linked in an easy logical manner or sequenced in any discernible way. Yet, their ordering appears entirely organic. In fact, having experienced it, a regular poetry book feels contrived by comparison.
Alcalay explains in the afterword: “I was very dissatisfied with some idea of ‘selecting’ poems since it precluded or sidestepped the very fundamental and instructive (at least for me) process of composition… working through these materials is in itself a statement about the present and how a body of work might be made not only to cohere but become the carrier of messages no longer so readily available.”
The recent protest movement in Israel is something of a mystery not only to us, across the ocean, but even to many Israelis. Today The Arty Semite is featuring a glimpse into the heart of this phenomenon through a poem-invitation, composed by a promising young Israeli poet, Anat Levin.
One can endlessly argue about the merits of art imbued with political purposes, and the danger of it edging into propaganda. But, with Anat’s “Reasons,” such reservations simply fall by the wayside. The work is, in a way, anti-political. Instead it is strictly social, heart-breaking, beseeching — as perhaps the movement is itself. What is most fascinating about piece is how it gradually moves and develops, its stark realism becoming increasingly — and intensely — more poetic with each line, culminating in a penultimate stanza which is not only lyrical, but also wonderfully personal, evoking the poet’s own presence.
In addition to the translation by Shoshana London-Sappir, we’re also including the original in Hebrew. And for contrast’s sake, we have one of Anat’s older poems, which she composed in English as an undergraduate at Hunter College in New York City.
The niche narrows
Hones one thin
Until his bones
So wrote poet and sage Samuel Menashe in one of his numerous works addressing death, Menashe’s first Muse and greatest obsession. As he often mentioned in conversation, he became a poet at the age of 19, having survived the notoriously dangerous World War II offensive, the Battle of the Bulge. Although his death on Monday, August 22, at the age of 85, is a loss for the poetry world, it is also a reason to celebrate his encounter with his second love, death’s other side: eternity.
The poem “Niche” is more than just self-reflection, and is almost a prophesy, albeit the kind laced with wit and sarcasm. Menashe himself has been a niche: a poet with the absolutely distinct style, defined by terse, perfectly honed lines. Often half-rhymed, they are reminiscent of folklore or ancient wisdom literature. Moreover, niche is exactly where the poet has resided almost through his whole poetic career. For, while he began writing as a young man and has seen a number of publications both in America and overseas, wider exposure and recognition eluded him until 2004, when, at the age of 78 he became the first recipient of the “Neglected Master’s Award,” given by the Poetry magazine and the Poetry Foundation. Since then, a few editions of his collected poems followed, as well as publications in many of the major literary journals, as well as in the New York Times, the Guardian and on NPR.