In honor of National Poetry Month, we continue in our series of interviews with poets of Jewish content. This week The Whole Megillah talks to prolific author and poet, Rich Michelson.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): How do you get your ideas for your poems?
Rich Michelson (RM): While writing for children I generally have an idea, subject or question in mind before I begin, and then I search for the words that will best bring it to life. In writing poetry for adults I most often start with a word or phrase, and only slowly discover the idea or theme as I write. It is the love of language that fuels my poetry, though I am drawn toward narrative, and I am deeply engaged with my cultural and political surroundings, so the words naturally lead me to reflect on subjects I have been reading, conversing or thinking about. If I sit down to write with an idea in mind, it almost never works as poetry; I am better off writing an essay.
TWM: How much does your Jewish culture figure into your poetry? Your submissions?
RM: I have been blessed to see my books valued and shared within the Jewish community. I’ve had poems published in many of the journals (on paper and on-line) I read—Moment, Tikkun, Tablet, Jewish Currents. I am involved with Jewish culture and so I naturally submit to publication I check out on a regular basis; but I submit as often to poetry and general magazines I read. I don’t send work out scattershot; if I do not value a journal enough to subscribe, I have no interest in joining their conversation.
Jewish culture and history figures greatly in my poetry, because that seems to be the lens through which I view the world. Which is strange, as I grew up without a Jewish education of any kind; I never attended Hebrew school and was not “bar-mitzvahed.” My parents were anti-religious and didn’t attend services or socialize with any organized Jewish groups. My mother wondered where she went wrong when I began to accept invitations to speak at various synagogues (though in hindsight, I guess we can call that a typical Jewish mother response!). But when my wife, Jennifer, converted – against my wishes – I began to read the books she was studying and decided it was about time to learn something about my heritage (Jennifer has since become an interfaith minister, so you never know what paths people will travel).
TWM: How do you find time to write since you run a gallery and also write picture books?
RM: If you want something done ask a busy person! I am a full-time gallery owner, a full-time poet, a full-time kids’ book writer and these days it seems every writer needs to be their own full-time publicist. But I do find time to bike, exercise, go to the theater, and I love traveling and spending time with my wife and grown children. Yes, I do sleep. But I tend not to watch TV and I don’t see many movies or play computer games. Not because I wouldn’t love to do all those things but there isn’t time and I’d rather be reading or writing.
TWM: What poem do you wish you had written?
RM: Open any book by Yehuda Amichai. Randomly put your finger down. I wish I had written that poem.
TWM: What characterizes a good poem to you?
RM: A poem that appeals to the heart, the ear, and the mind equally.
TWM: When did you start writing poetry? Who inspires you?
RM: I started writing comparatively late. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer and I spent the majority of my school years as “class clown” until my 12th grade teacher, Mr. Ketchum inspired a love of literature. I began writing seriously in my 20s. To paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel: I used to be inspired by clever people but the older I get the more I am inspired by kind people. I am also inspired by people who strive to make a difference in the world; people who reach for the stars, but always remember where they came from. I’ve written a number of children’s books about individuals who have inspired me including Heschel (As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom), Leonard Nimoy (Fascinating), Lipman Pike (Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King), and William Powell (Twice as Good).
TWM: You recently gave an awesome workshop and reading at the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey with Mark Doty. What did you two talk about in the car ride back and forth to Massachusetts?
RM: Well, thank you. I was pleased to visit PCCC and I thought the audience was engaged and receptive, and that is always half the equation, so give yourself a pat on the back also.
Mark Doty is an amazing poet and all-around good guy. Of course, we discussed philosophy, ethics, and the nature of the universe during the car ride to and from. OK. Kidding. Mostly we talked about our feet, since Mark broke his distal phalanx two days prior and I’d just fractured a metatarsal bone. 🙂 Sorry to disappoint you, but I am sure you noticed we both hobbled our way onto the stage. Then we caught up on old times and gossiped about former schoolmates (we were in the same MFA class at Goddard*). We did get around to discussing Whitman for a bit, so maybe I should have just written that.
TWM: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
RM: I hate to repeat myself but I’d give the same advice I gave to aspiring children’s book writers on your blog previously: read, read, read—and see what the best of your elders and contemporaries are doing. And more importantly, sit down and write. I mean right now. Still here? We all have a million reasons why we don’t have time “right now.” Since this is the last question and you are done with the interview, instead of scrolling back to Facebook, and checking your email: WRITE!!!. Now. Still here?