Earlier this month, I attended the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writers Programs in Chicago. There, I had the privilege of participating in two workshops about Jewish poetry. I met Elana Bell on Shabbos afternoon at a session called “Not Your Bubbe’s Poetry.” Elana is the author of an award-winning book of poetry, Eyes, Stones. She took time from her busy schedule to answer a few questions for The Whole Megillah readers.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What got you started in writing poetry?
Elana Bell (EB): I first started writing poetry for a high school English class. I was really focused on the performing arts, so I saw poetry more as a hobby. It wasn’t until I took a poetry class my senior year in college, with Suzanne Gardenier that I really started feeling passionate. After college, I went to a slam at a venue called LouderARTS in NYC. I was so moved by the energy and passion of these poets. Although I never really got into slam, this place became my poetry home and I met and amazing group of poets and human beings who continue to inspire and challenge me.
TWM: What poets, if any, inspire(d) you?
EB: Anne Sexton was an early inspiration of mine. I read her in college. She was the first poet I read where I thought “Aha…there is a poetry out there for me. Later, I found many poets whose work did/does that for that for me, but I needed someone who could anchor me like that. With the poems in Eyes, Stones, I was influenced by Caroyn Forche, Nazim Hikmet, and many others, both in terms of form and content.
TWM: Are you attracted to any particular form?
EB: I tend to write free verse but occasionally I experiment with forms, the ghazal and the pantoum being among my favorites. I also play with litany or list poems a lot.
TWM: Where do the ideas for your poems come from?
EB: The ideas for my poems come from many places. I am inspired by the experiences of things I see every day, especially in New York City, which is full of unexpected beauty and grace, usually rubbing up against grit and struggle. I am also impacted and influenced by what I am reading, sometimes poetry, often news or history. Often images, either paintings or photographs, bring out ideas for poems.
TWM: What’s been the importance of grants and fellowships to your work?
EB: I received a grant from the Jerome Foundation which allowed me to travel to Israel and Palestine to do a lot of my research for the book. I also received a residency from the Edward Albee Foundation which gave me time and space to do a lot of the editing and shaping of the final manuscript. I think more than anything, these grants and fellowships were little sparks of encouragement along the LONG journey of making this book and seeking publication.
TWM: Please tell us about your writing process for Eyes, Stones.
EB: The writing process for Eyes, Stones was quite varied. I began writing the poems as a kind of conversation between my grandmother, a holocaust survivor, and the land of Israel (not the nation state, but that actual physical land). During her time in Poland before the war, she always wanted to go to Israel (then Palestine) because she believed it was a place she could live in as a free Jew, unlike Poland, where conditions were oppressive for Jews. She attributes her survival of the concentration camps to her hope for a homeland in Israel. Of course, once she actually got there, Israel was full of difficulties and complications and eventually she and my grandfather had to leave after four years. As I began to write these poems, I became more and more curious how the idea of this place, which she had never been to, could sustain her through such horrific conditions. And I started to examine other people’s relationship to this land—not just Jews of course. This land has meant so much to so many people. I started to look at historical figures, biblical figures, and then I started interviewing contemporary Israelis and Palestinians who had a deep connection to the land. I was able to pull certain threads and weave them into poems. At the same time I was examining my own relationship to the land and my hugely conflicted feelings about it. In addition to interviews and history, I used my personal experiences—journal entries, photographs, people’s stories—from my travels as the seeds for poems.
TWM: How did you go about finding a publisher?
EB: I submitted to several contests over two cycles. After I got rejected or wait listed after the first round, I took the manuscript back and did a lot of work on it and sent it out again. It was chosen for the Walt Whitman award from the Academy of American poets and they chose the publisher, LSU Press.
TWM: At AWP, panelists shared that they find publication opportunities for their Jewish-themed work in “mainstream” journals. Could you expand on that?
EB: Absolutely. With the exception of one poem, “Refugee,” which was published in a Jewish literary journal, all of the other journal publications were in “mainstream” journals.
TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring poets of Jewish-themed content?
EB: I think that you should write the content that finds you, that you are obsessed by. If that is Jewish content, great. I did not decide that I was going to sit down and write a book of poems about Palestine and Israel. Rather, I was in a place of my life where I was exploring those questions and poetry is the place I go to examine my obsessions.