BY ERIKA JO BROWN
My Jewish question is more of an answer to a question that needn’t be asked.
One of my co-editors is especially keen on soliciting and publishing poetry in translation. Another person, who presents as an ally, once told me, straight in the face, that the reason for this poetic proclivity can be explained away by the fact that said co-editor is a bleeding heart from South Africa.
This is not because of the diversity of languages regularly spoken there. Of which, by the way, there are 11, officially—Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.
I was left to infer something about Apartheid and white guilt, I suppose, an inference that insults my co-editor’s agency over his own preferences, and emits acrid wafts of tokenism towards the works we’d accepted. It was tacitly saying that, had a different editor been chosen, with a different background, the journal would be taking other pieces, more “mainstream” or “normal” poems maybe.
Again, “normal” is to be inferred from this verbal legerdemain. As an academic in 23rd grade, I’ve been trained that “mainstream” poets are defined as those who win awards, are white males, and operate in a lyrical or narrative mode.
I’m not sure I agree with that estimate entirely, but I was left to fill the negative space, so I did the best I could. I’ve seen plenty of terrible award-winning experimental poetry by white people. In fact, I’ve seen all kinds of poetry in many permutations. My ear and presumably other body parts lead me in my own taste.
Must there be a reason for the work we choose as editors? If one doesn’t have a stated ethos, evidently one will be named for you.
Here is where I place an enormous hedge of neighborly privacy. I’m a poet, and while I devour think-pieces and all manner of nonfiction on this and others topics, I’m uncomfortable staking a claim that reflects my own preferences and that of the journal generally. Yes, I’m in the academy, which coaches students to make a claim. As a comp teacher, I coach my students to make a claim. Maybe I’m a wuss, hiding beyond the ambiguity and velocity of my poems. So be it.
But I understand that editing is a public practice. It’s an act of gatekeeping. Furthermore, it is one way to consider literary activism, not necessarily as an overt gesture, but with a stake in institutionalized power. We are experiencing tumult in this country—the indiscriminate slaying of people of color by the police, weapons essentially invited to college campuses, hijab-ophobia, reckless legislature on women’s healthcare, the astounding privilege of a so-called liberal activist referring to HRC as a “bucket of vomit” and propagating reasons to vote for you-know-who instead.
I’m not saying these will be solved by literature. But a journal can present a collective of differences. And not just the much maligned, 1980’s, culture war idea of diverse “voices.” I think the LANGUAGE vs lyric debate has tidily been put to bed by now. A journal can provide different representations of meditations, outside the clamor of social media.
I decided to embark on a thought experiment. As an editor, I prioritize diversity—aesthetically, linguistically, and culturally—and energy, and an Altmanesque overlapping of voices. If pressed to make an analogy, I would explain that I typically choose poems that sound like a stroll down a street in New York, which is where I’m from and which I consider the best city in the world. It has shaped my poetic sensibilities, through its music and sense of performance.
Compelled to dig even deeper, I hit against the root of my Judaism. My Judaism indeed, because it is a very old religion, subject to waves of diaspora, and espoused idiosyncratically—and often secularly—across the world. Many tribe members cannot read our formative texts in their original languages, and, because of that and other natural progressions, have wandered entirely from its practices and rituals.
Because we can’t read the original language, some feel disenfranchised from accessing the text. The religion seems stewarded by other people. But the culture, or the sense that I identify with it, is politically vibrant, radical, full of longing.
See saudade: Portuguese for profound nostalgia for a permanent absence; tizita: Ethiopian for a blend of memory and mourning, loss and longing, an apostrophized personification; or Sehnsucht: German for intense pining mixed with the knowledge of unattainability.
I’ve wrestled (cue Jacob and the angel) with my love for certain literary underdogs. Think Dorothy Parker, Kenneth Koch, and Grace Paley, who I didn’t know when I was reading then, but know now, identified in some way as Jewish. Parker, especially, a renowned wit, highly responsive to her time, generous in her melancholy. I was not shocked, but moved that a man named Abel Meeropol wrote the song “Strange Fruit.”
When I spent a week at the Yiddish Book Center last June, it dawned on me that that gallows’ humor, that survivor’s dirge, that balls-out, ironic twisty wistfulness might be an answer to my Jewish question.
The disclaimer hardly seems necessary: I’m not suggesting that there is a Jewish-American aesthetic. Adrienne Rich’s essay about her crypto-Jewish identity, “Split at the Root,” bears no resemblance to stand-up bits of borsht belt humor. Furthermore, there are different definitions of a Jew, which stretch from secular Israeli solders to Hassids, cultish, anachronistic, soldiers of a different order.
Nor am I saying, by negation, that goyim are locked outside of the magical wit factory for life, by pain of conversion. (A Jewish conversion seems like a particularly painfully searching experience.) Edna St. Vincent Millay’s candle burning at both ends is one of my favorite economically charming and bittersweet quatrains.
As a contemporary sanctioned poetry aesthetic, humor is in a minority position. I don’t mean the diffused third-generation New York School frenzy of the unexpected, but real wit. It is often overlooked, excluded by the canon, dismissed and mislabeled as light verse.
I’m not often made aware of my own religious minority status. Racially, I am coded within the dominant culture and I benefit from this privileged position. (Let’s revisit the hows and whys of the strong Jewish-American presence in certain literary and entertainment industries in a different essay. I’ll say briefly that the most convincing theory of Jews flocking to these particular creative industries, for me, is the idea of creating parallel universes in fantasy.)
I’m reminded of my otherness in ways that catch my breath. The almost-twee cuteness in my gut response of mazel tov in response to announcements of pregnancies, promotions, moves, and marriages. My abhorrence when U.S. presidential candidates perform their Christian faith by design, as if it’s an authentic testament to character. (See Donald Trump’s reverence to “two Corinthians,” and beyond.) I find liturgical passages at weddings boring beyond belief, and not infrequently unsettling.
On a read trip last summer, my husband and I had to stop at a filling station in northern Alabama. It was plastered with red, white, and blue bumper stickers, pro-gun and anti-Muslim, and I was triggered with a Semitic ancestral fear.
I used the bathroom, bought peanut m&m’s as deliberate compensation for this service, and tried not to talk, for fear that my Jewishness might somehow surface and endanger me. It is irrational, but so are most feelings, especially ancestral ones.
Jews are a diasporatic people but “pass.” Consequently, there is a certain self-othering that occurs, bordering at times on xenophilia or a creepy automatic affinity for other others. How much relational attachments can one be expected to feel? Are American Jews distinctly intersectional?
Aren’t I personally proud of the Jewish traditions of socialism, sexual liberties, the hundred year-odd books written in Yiddish about Buddhist theology? What sort of interventions are asked of us by Hashem?
But these questions smack of exceptionalism. There are revolutionaries in China, Muslim feminists, dark humor in Chile, the ambiguity between nation, culture, and religion in desperate places, like Kashmir and South Sudan. Furthermore, literary activism is poorly defined, somewhere closer to the armchair than a downtown protest.
Which circles back to my first scruple. The personal does not dictate reader response, nor does politics. Consider the contrasting notions of essentialist representative voice and the supposed democracy of experimental writing. I’m not saying that age, gender, geography, sexual orientation, educational background, nationality, class, etc, etc, do not bear any relevance in the engagement of literature or aesthetic affiliations. I’m saying that it seems to me to be a dystopian nightmare if there’s a one-to-one relationship, barring any empathy through imagination. The infrastructure as it stands would just spawn more of the same—and that is unacceptable.
Sitting on religious-themed panel once, Leonard Cohen let out his own barbaric yawp, exhorting people who identify as Jews to abandon empty practices and instead “break their minds on the universe.” That is the task of the editor. Not paternalism, not reciprocity or anything of the sort. Just a mind, breaking through a patch of the darkness that surrounds us.
Erika Jo Brown is the author of the poetry collection I’m Your Huckleberry (Brooklyn Arts Press). A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she’s currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Houston where she’s the reading series curator and poetry editor for Gulf Coast.