Janet Ruth Heller is president of the Michigan College English Association. She has a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago. She has published three poetry books: Exodus (WordTech Communications, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012) and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011). Her scholarly book, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama, was published in 1990 by the University of Missouri Press. Her fiction picture book about bullying for children, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006), has won four national awards. For more information, please see her website.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to put this collection together?
Janet Ruth Heller (JRH): I have always found the stories in the Jewish Bible fascinating, and I often compare my own experiences to those of the matriarchs, patriarchs, and other people in the Bible. I have been writing modern midrashim (reinterpretations of Biblical characters and events) since the 1970s. This impulse to create poems and stories that revisit the Bible is a long tradition in Jewish literature. When I chant Torah and haftarah portions at my synagogue, I frequently write a poem about the passages. I have read midrashic poetry by Israeli writers Chaim Gouri, Rachel Bluwstein, Amir Gilboa, Yehudah Amichai, Chaim Nachman Bialik, etc., that has influenced me. After four decades of writing my Biblical poems, I finally had enough for a complete book of poetry. The central theme in Exodus is the departure from Egypt, which represents the journeys that people take: trying new experiences, leaving a bad relationship, finding a new job, taking risks.
TWM: How long have you been writing poetry? What attracts you to this genre?
JRH: I have been writing poems since first grade. My wonderful first grade teacher did a unit on poetry and dittoed for the class a poem that I wrote about flying a kite with my father. This was my first “publication.” I had supportive teachers throughout elementary school and high school who nurtured my writing. I like wordplay and the challenge of condensing ideas into poetic lines. My mind tends to compare and contrast everything, and this generates metaphors, similes, and analogies. Also, I love music, and poetry is the form of literature that is closest to music. In Hebrew, shira means both poem and song.
TWM: What sparked your interest in writing poems about Biblical characters?
JRH: When I was an undergraduate, I minored in Hebrew language and literature at Oberlin College and at the University of Wisconsin. When I went to the University of Chicago for my doctorate in English, I studied modern Hebrew poetry with Rabbi Daniel Leifer (may his memory be a blessing) at the Hillel Foundation. Danny was especially interested in Israeli poems that presented midrashim. I particularly liked the poem “His Mother” by Haim Gouri, which reflects on the Biblical conflict between the Jews and the Arabs with much sympathy for Sisera’s mother, who waits in vain for her son to return from battle and then dies shortly after mourning her son’s death.
TWM: In many poems, you weave in contemporary themes. Frankly, those are my favorites, such as “Vacation Cruise.” Please say a few words about these poems.
JRH: Most of the poems in Exodus deal with contemporary themes, especially women’s issues. For example, in “Leah,” I portray the matriarch as a modern woman with children whose husband is cheating on her. Similarly, “Peninnah” presents the conflict between women like Peninnah who focus on their families and career women who work outside the home. The contemporary reference in “Sarah and Abraham Consult a Fertility Specialist” is obvious. “A Job Interview with Mr. Isaacs” concerns a woman having a job interview with a biased male employer. “Jana” is about a modern female Jonah whose boyfriend has just dumped her. Because I know women who suffered rape and I co-founded the Rape Crisis Center in Madison, Wisconsin, several poems depict women who were threatened with (“Yael”) or who endured rape (“Dinah,” “Rahav”) and the rapist himself (“Amnon”). I volunteered for a while at a shelter for battered women, and “Sins of the Fathers” concerns one child I babysat for there. “David” is about a caring rabbi I knew who committed suicide. In “Sunday School Lesson,” I recount what I learned about custody battles from a six-year-old student. “Abraham” is about a man who lost his son to leukemia. Other poems emphasize a humorous perspective on a Bible passage, such as “Vacation Cruise” (Noah’s ark) and “An Ultimatum” (a passage from Psalms).
TWM: Sometimes you take on the voice of the Biblical characters as in “Isaac.” Please say a few words about these poems.
JRH: Many poems in Exodus are dramatic monologues from the perspective of a character in the Scriptures. I try to empathize with each character and find some aspect of his or her life or personality that I can identify with. I also fill in gaps in the Biblical narrative. For example, we don’t really know much about young Isaac’s perspective in Genesis. My “Isaac” poem presents a modern youngster’s view of his dysfunctional family. Similarly, Genesis does not tell us anything about the relationship between Rebekah and Rachel. In “Rachel, to Rebekah,” I have Rachel speaking to her mother-in-law while in labor with Joseph.
TWM: Your list of acknowledgments for individual poem publication is impressive. How do you know when a poem is ready to send out?
JRH: I revise most poems at least three times before I show them to my writers’ group. After getting my fellow poets’ reactions, I often revise again. If I’m pleased with a poem’s structure, conciseness, imagery, and development of my ideas, I will send the piece out to editors. If not, I will keep reworking it. As time passes, I may get new insights on how to improve a poem. For example, the four sections in “Haiku for Yom Kippur” were originally separate poems, but I later realized that they all refer thematically to the Days of Awe, so I combined them.
TWM: Who are your favorite poets? Who inspires you?
JRH: My favorite poets are British writers William Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, W. B. Yeats; American writers Edna St. Vincent Millay, T. S. Eliot, Lisel Mueller, Maxine Kumin, Alicia Ostriker, Adrienne Rich, Judith Minty, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jim Daniels, Marge Piercy; Israeli writers Chaim Nachman Bialik, Yehudah Amichai, Rachel Bluwstein, Chaim Gouri; and Hispanic writers Sor Juana, Federico García Lorca, Rubén Darío, Antonio Machado, Jorge Guillén, Pedro Salinas, and Dámaso Alonso.
TWM: What’s next for you?
JRH: I’m working on a memoir, a book of nature poems, and a book of secular poems. I’m also trying to publish more stories for children.