Some Things for the New Year

Of all the things I worried about while writing and submitting In the Absence, it was never that the book would come into the world when the world seems to be on the verge of collapse.

It feels wrong to celebrate, to even think about anything else, to do anything but be afraid. I carry around this sense of guilt that I should be doing more, whatever that is. That what has always been my personal form of political engagement – teaching and writing – isn’t enough.

At times it’s paralyzing, like watching a giant car crash.

In spite of this, In the Absence has become an actual book that deserves attention.

All of a sudden I worry that I’m not doing enough for the book. I should be sending it to journals to inquire about reviews or organizing a ton of readings. I don’t know.

But after a full day of teaching I’m tired. There’s so much going on that’s difficult, stressful. So much pain and suffering.

So when I have a minute free I don’t rush to make lists of places to send the book, I binge watch Reign, this show about Mary, Queen of Scots, where everyone poisons each other.

I also feel guilty spending a couple of months away from the Whitman poems, although they will survive. The larger issue is that I start to lose perspective when I’m not writing.

The hands down good that has come from the present situation is a reminder that I’m not alone. People have ordered the book. The book has been celebrated in an intimate ceremony (thank you Yosefa Raz!)

There is a book launch at the university this coming week, Wednesday, January 4th, with friends, colleagues, and teachers who have supported my book and I from early, early days. Thank you Karen Alkalay-Gut, Sabine Huynh, Gili Haimovich, Sarah Wetzel, and Rivka Rass.

There are readings set for February, including a book launch in New York on February 16th (hosted by Sarah Wetzel!) , a reading in San Francisco on the 18th (thank you Vanessa Hua!), and a reading in Brooklyn on the 23rd (thanks Diana M. Delgado!).

I guess, like anything, it’s a matter of what finding what works, and being comfortable going at your own pace. Not comparing, but being alright doing what you do, even if sometimes that’s nothing.

And not being afraid. Happy New Year.

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In the Absence

And here is the book that was always meant to be.


And here is where it can be found.



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To Life

Forward a year. I’m not sure why, but mybookandi has felt more like an obligation than something I needed. Maybe mybookandi was a more essential outlet as I was wading into the book, not knowing how (or if) I’d emerge.

Now In the Absence is coming out in a few short months – November. It has an actual cover(!) provided by Elizabeth Terhune, an amazing artist ( A couple of people asked what I wanted for the cover. I’d been vaguely envisioning something at once abstract, evocative, colorful, yet appropriate for a book about loss. Seemed like a tall order, but then I came across a series of Elizabeth’s on Pintrest. I wrote to her, crossed my fingers, and she graciously agreed for one of the pieces from the series to appear on In the Absence. Her watercolor could not have been closer to what I had in mind.

Over the course of the year I’ve also eked out a draft of the manuscript based on “Song of Myself.” Responding to the 52 sections provided a useful sense of structure. The manuscript even has working title:
Be Unafraid to Walk in the Light of Nothing.

The first two poems are being published in the fall issue of Poet Lore!

I recently answered interview questions for The Writer’s Center blog about the poems, the manuscript, and my relationship to Walt Whitman:

I’m in the process of getting to know these poems and the manuscript as a whole. There is thematic overlap with In the Absence (life and death, the usual suspects), although stylistically the poems have changed.

Somehow this second manuscript, though not easy, has been easier; maybe because I made one book already, and in spite of the hardship I believe I can make another. Maybe I haven’t been putting as much pressure on these poems, so they have space to emerge. Maybe I’ve learned that no matter what I need to write a little every day, so I do. (So much thanks to The Grind). The pages, they add up.

Though mybookandi might not serve exactly the same purpose as in the beginning, it can become important in new ways.




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Some Stronger

I keep on writing from “Song of Myself,” and it’s become a kind of ritual, one section per week, new lines chosen on Fridays. I guess it would be more logical to choose lines at the beginning of the week, but for some reason I prefer to close the week with them.

I haven’t been writing on weekends, which gives the lines a chance to turn around in my mind.

I used these lines from section four:

Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering
           at it.


Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or
       lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valvèd voice.


The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.

For this week, nine:

I jump from the cross-beams and seize the clover and timothy,
And roll head over heels and tangle my hair full of wisps.

Some of the drafts I’ve been writing are clearly stronger than others. I could probably get stuck on one or two of them FOREVER. The process of moving through the sections each week, though, forces me to go on. When I go back to the poems, it will hopefully be with more objectivity.

There are terrible things happening in the world right now. Or always. It’s odd to have to respond to a section where Whitman does cartwheels. “And roll head over heels…”. Maybe someday I will have more to say about that.

Also: A poem called “Records,” which comprises the middle section of In the Absence, now appears in The Pharos. I am grateful for the beautiful job they did with the poem. The graphic designer used a real family photograph.

“Records” was also translated to French by Sabine Huynh for Taut, Invisible Threads.


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Song of Myself

I’m very happy that In the Absence is coming out at the end of next year. I look forward to readings and other events for the book.

The question is, what’s next for my poems? I’ve tended to be the kind of writer that needs the structure of a specific project.

A while back I thought – and wrote on mybookandi – that my next project would be focused on “happiness.” I did write some poems that explored this idea, like “At Least Forward Now,” which appeared in Ha’aretz.

Then life completely took over, with all of its highs and lows.

I did work on essays, like this review of Rachel Tzvia Back’s translations of Tuvia Ruebner:

Or this conversation I did with Marge Piercy about her collection of poems Made in Detroit:

Or this one I did with Tomas Q. Morin about his translation of Neruda’s The Heights of Maccu Piccu:

Translations of some of Gili Haimovich’s poems are also in various stages of submission.

As much as I thoroughly enjoy working on these essays and translations, my poems were majorly lacking attention.

Then spring semester ended. Over the summer I only teach a couple of classes. I decided not to work on anything except my own poems. However, when I sat down to write, I had absolutely nothing to say about happiness. I spent most of the time tinkering with poems I wrote previously.

I wanted write about happiness, but it wasn’t going to be enough to propel a book project.

One day in class I gave a brief lesson on Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a poem that I not only love, but probably taught me the most about what I understand poetry to be.

We started discussing how the last edition of the poem has 52 sections, the number of weeks in a year. I thought, someone should write a book of poems based on the 52 sections of “Song of Myself.”

And maybe someone has, but the following morning, I was like, I’m going to give it a try.

When I opened section one, these lines stood out to me:

I, now thirty-seven years in perfect health begin,
         Hoping to cease not till death.

Something about these lines at this moment in my life made me suddenly draft a poem. The process was emotional. I had deep sense that I’d found the right project.

Actually, I don’t know if it’s “right,” but what I’m going to do is choose lines from each section of “Song of Myself” (in order) for a year and let them inspire me to write.

These are the ones I used for section two:

The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple
       boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the
      fields and hillsides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me
       rising from bed and meeting the sun.

And section three:

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk
       of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

The lines gave me me energy and air to breathe. I realize that I will be writing about happiness, but that I will continue to write about themes from In the Absence, including grief and my father.

I don’t know where this project will lead, but it’s nice to have one to blog about again.

Anyway, writing’s in the doing.

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And Then…

And then I started mybookandi for a book.

And then there were poems, but not enough for a book.

And then there were enough poems for a book.

And then the book was The Name of the Father.

And then the book was Late Kaddish.

And then the book was Late Reckoning.

And then years went by on mybookandi.

And then I never wrote any of these titles on mybookandi, because they weren’t RIGHT.

And then the book was a finalist in a few contests as Late Kaddish and Late Reckoning, but wasn’t chosen.

And then I knew I hadn’t found the book’s title yet, but I had nothing else.

And then a few months ago, I wrote a poem that was not meant for the book.

And then this poem seemed to belong there.

And then the title of this poem seemed to be the title of the book.

And then I typed this title onto the first page of the manuscript.

And then the book was ready to be named.

And then I kept revising.

And then the book began to feel whole and complete.

And then I had this feeling that IF the book was ever published, it would be with the new title.

And then I made a list of places where I would submit the book this year.

And then I kept worrying that the book wouldn’t find a home.

And then I started submitting the book with the new title.

And then not very much time went by.

And then I got an email whose subject line said “ACCEPTANCE OF.”

And then I opened the email and saw THE NEW TITLE OF THE BOOK.

And then the book was In the Absence.

And then this really happened!!!!

In the Absence is being published by WordTech/Turning Point in December 2016!!!!

The book of mybookandi was In the Absence all along.


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At Least Forward Now

Sometimes the world forces us to stop for a moment, to be still, reflect. Maybe it’s the holidays. Maybe it’s being sick in bed. Today, for me, it’s both.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking about my very early attempts at writing. The first time a teacher vaguely complimented a poem I wrote was in high school. Mr. Larry Scanlon. The poem was about a tree that had been cut down outside our house. He told me I should keep writing, but I didn’t, not for years.

I took a creative writing class during undergrad, but it wasn’t my time. I barely did the assignments, and might have slipped away with a B. I’m sure the teacher wouldn’t have guessed that I would keep writing, let alone make a life of it. I wouldn’t have guessed that, either.

Only a few years later, during my MA, did I start to feel a calling towards poetry, reading it, studying it, writing it. It was in this period that I took another workshop, and the teacher, Rivka, in a typical blunt, Israeli way, told me that most of the poems I’d written were “not really poems.”

I remember feeling stung and confused, but as a teacher myself now, I know it’s crucial to tell students the truth about where they’re at. It’s easy to give out As, but then the students who will turn that criticism over a hundred times, and use it to improve, won’t have the chance to do so.

However, Rivka did say that one of the pieces was a poem, or at least, more like a poem.

A Brilliant Fish

We must choose each other
again and again.

The feeling is a brilliant fish
you catch a thousand times.

We must carry each other
like smooth stones
in the palms of our hands –

a familiar feel,
a roundness.

I took this piece home and studied it. What made it different? Though it’s far from perfect, she probably saw a general cohesion, and that the language and meaning reinforced one another better than in the others.

The poem continues to ring true in my life, I think.

Here is “A Brilliant Fish” translated to Hebrew by Gili Haimovich in YNET.,7340,L-3907908,00.html

Here is the poem translated to French in the “Taut” collection by Sabine Huynh.

Un poisson moiré

Se choisir l’un l’autre, s’y reprendre
à plusieurs fois.

Cet émoi ressenti face à un poisson moiré
qu’on pourrait attraper des milliers de fois.

tels des galets lisses
dans le creux de la paume –

toucher familier,

So I’ve been writing new poems, with some (yay) forthcoming in the Yew Journal.

I’ve been wondering if these poems are going to end up part of THE BOOK. Perhaps I’ve been writing them for the book without even realizing it. That can be an effective way of working – avoiding the pressure of setting goals.

I have review essays in the works, which will hopefully be appearing over the next few months.

I received proofs for a research article on Muriel Rukeyser and Walt Whitman, which is forthcoming in Studies in American Jewish Literature.

On Gili Haimovich’s new Poetry International site, her work is featured and my translations are up there as well.

Gili is now choosing some poems of mine to translate into Hebrew.

There are other projects, as usual, on the horizon.

I don’t know why I’m feeling nostalgic. I suppose, in this moment of forced stillness, with the new year days away, I’m putting some love out there for this work I do, for the privilege of being part of a dialogue with poets and writers, along with all the successes and disappointments. The work has been a tremendous blessing in my life. I’m grateful to Rivka for telling it like it was.

What is anyone to do? Just keep on.

I recently had a poem, “At Least Forward Now,” in Ha’aretz English. With many thanks to Vivian Eden, who selected it, brought up an important edit, and gave it context with her commentary. And to the writers in my workshop who helped me fix it!

Subway Photo


At Least Forward Now

                 A human being can bear almost everything
                and no one knows when and where
                happiness will overcome him.

               – From “Wonder,” by Tuvia Ruebner

I’m on the subway,
and everyone is staring at the gray floor,

as if in mourning
for what’s lost under the tracks.

I’m reading a poem that’s insisting
on happiness, grasping for it,

saying happiness finds you,
despite wars, illness,

and the world’s unforgivingness.

I don’t believe the poem, because we’ve stopped
at a station that seems to be no one’s.

Then the doors are inches from closing,
and a man makes it through,

turns his face upward, moving
towards a destination,

below ground, yes, but not beneath
the ground, at least
forward now,

at least in motion.


* Translation of Tuvia Ruebner by Rachel Tzvia Back


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