I had the pleasure of getting to know Yermiyahu Ahron Taub through his collaboration with Ellen Cassedy. I was thrilled to meet up with him at AWP this past February in Washington, DC. His new poetry collection, The Education of a Daffodil, was hot off the press.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): When did you start writing poetry?
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub (YAT): Poetry came to me as a life force while I was adrift in a graduate program in history. Reading three or four monographs in addition to numerous scholarly articles every week was both satisfying and satisfying. The satisfaction resulted from “mastering” the dense arguments of various historical texts and historiographical schools, a kind of determined slogging through the epochs and their loquacious interpreters. And yet that satisfaction proved fleeing. I invariably had the sense that there was just another text waiting for me—that to be an expert truly, I had to read yet another book or at least one more article. Rather than sifting through mountains of photocopies and scholarly tomes, I encountered in poetry a means of reaching (for)—in a few pointed lines and images—a different kind of truth. The anxiety I felt in preparation for my history seminars and papers fell away. Instead of being a yoke, poetic writing provided solace and renewal.
And yet, that academic training in history has held me in good stead. Prominent historical figures—Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, the poet Rahel—as well as imagined activists and various characters placed in history, appear in my poetry. And more broadly stated, historical concerns such as the Yiddish culture movement, labor movements, and the Holocaust also figure in my work.
TWM: Who inspires you?
YAT: The sources of my inspiration are widespread. I read widely in fiction and poetry and have been an avid library patron since childhood. I read for pleasure, insight, vision. Some of my favorite poets, to name but a small few, are Anna Akhmatova, Nina Cassian, Rosario Castellanos, C.P. Cavafy, Jane Kenyon, Irena Klepfisz, and Minnie Bruce Pratt. There are a number of poets in the Yiddish literary tradition whose work speaks to me, including Rokhl Fishman, Rokhl Korn, Anna Margolin, and Kadya Molodowsky. Some of my favorite fiction writers include Pat Barker, Anita Brookner, Michelle Cliff, Janet Hobhouse, Brian Moore, James Purdy, Jean Rhys, Marilynne Robinson, Sinclair Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, and Colm Tóibín. I am drawn to the arts generally and find that engaging visual art, listening to live musical performances, and seeing films help free my creative process.
I am inspired by those who work to make the world a better place through their words, actions, and presence—who fight for social justice globally and locally, who seek bridges or initiate dialogue across culture and interpersonal and familial divides. Similarly, I am inspired by those who fight to overcome adversity in their own life, who find dignity and meaning on a small scale, in the every day.
TWM: What poem do you wish you’d written?
YAT: I don’t know if I’d say I wish I’d written them, but there are certainly poems that shimmer brightly in my consciousness. They’re ones I return to regularly. To name but a few, they include:
- “The Last Toast” by Anna Akhmatova; translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward
- “Lady of Miracles” by Nina Cassian; translated by Laura Schiff
- “Ajedrez/Chess” by Rosario Castellanos; translated by Magda Bogin
- “The Afternoon Sun” by C.P. Cavafy; translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrand
- “Frying Trout while Drunk” by Lynn Emanuel
- “Yo No Quiero Más Luz Que Tu Cuerpo Ante El Mío/I Want No More Light Than Your Body Facing Mine” by Miguel Hernández; translated by Michael Smith
- “In Time of Plague” by Thom Gunn
- “Having It Out with Melancholy” by Jane Kenyon
- “Bashert” by Irena Klepfisz
- “Leyve/Crazy Levi” by Rokhl Korn; translated by Seymour Levitan
- “Coal” by Audre Lorde
- “Metai/My Dead” by Rahel; translated by Robert Friend
- “Just Once” by Anne Sexton
TWM: That’s some list! Your latest collection, The Education of a Daffodil, was published by Hadassa Word Press. How did you find them and what inspired this collection?
YAT: I received an invitation to submit work from Elena Djima, an acquisitions editor at Hadassa Word Press. I submitted this collection, and it was accepted for publication. Incorporating Yiddish text into a manuscript is never without challenges and some of these poems are quite long, but Ms. Djima was supportive and flexible throughout the publication process.
My work moves from jotted down ideas to individual poems to full collections. The bulk of this book was written during a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). During the initial writing phase of a new project, I allow myself the freedom to create individual poems on whatever comes to me, to allow the words to flow freely and without interruption. As the writing continues and certain themes predominate, the focus of the collection emerges and a manuscript begins to take shape.
This particular collection was the result of an examination of emotional trauma long buried and my own work to understand better the toll that trauma was having on my body and my being in the world. It then moved from that personal experience outwardly to fictionalized form. It was also inspired by English literature. The title character engages with the William Wordsworth poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” and the rhythms of the book play with the rhythms and cadences of English from a different time. Certain English-language slang words for homosexual male, including “daffodil,” were also crucial sources of inspiration.
TWM: You’ve been nominated for a Pushcart award four times. What has that meant to you?
YAT: I’m honored to have my work recognized by various editors and publishers by those nominations and to know that my work speaks to others, that what I have written has touched a reader in some way. Isn’t that what all writers seek? And I am especially gladdened when I receive letters to that effect, knowing that someone has taken the time to write such a letter.
TWM: Is there one poem among those you’ve written that stands out above all others?
YAT: This is where I respond along the lines of “Could a parent name a favorite child?” This question is a difficult one, obviously. All of my poems have to pass some kind of internal test. Do they work? Are they complete? Do they say what I’d like them to? That said, some of my current favorites from The Education of a Daffodil include “Clarissa’s Convocation of Muses,” “The Problem of Cacophony,” “Varieties of Light,” “Before Dusk in the Herb Garden,” “Portrait of a Predecessor,” and “Movement in Black and White.”
TWM: What advice would you give aspiring poets?
- Clear out the noise in your head, whether that’s self-doubt, or the doubts and naysaying of others, or simply the many endless distractions of modern life.
- Find a way into quiet. Make time to write regularly. There are very few writers who have the means to write literary work full-time. Don’t let exhaustion deplete your spirit. Let your creativity sustain and strengthen you. Seek out activities that help bring your creativity to the surface. Be open to the mus(e)ic when it comes, and foster the conditions so that it can flourish when it does arrive.
- Read widely. There can be no effective writing without reading the work of others.
- Never let rejection discourage or stop you. All artists have to face rejection. In fact, all human beings do. As a poet, one has to be “sensitive” to the world, but one also needs to be steely and determined. Remember you can’t expect your work to speak to every reader. Allow yourself time to recover from the sting of rejection and then return to the rejected manuscript after a period of time. Re-examine it with a fresh, critical eye. Can it be improved? Or does it stand up well? You’ll know.
- Don’t focus too much on the career paths of other writers. Yes, it can look like everyone else is giving many readings, receiving the awards and prizes and grants and residencies, and having their work accepted into the most “prestigious” journals. Know that they too have struggled and been rejected. Every one’s path is their own. Your work will find a home.
- Hone your voice and your project. While it’s essential to read the works of others, it’s equally crucial to develop your own voice. What are your concerns? What motivates you? How do you see the world? What is your urgency? How can those concerns be developed in textual form?
- Be involved in literary community. Organize and participate in panel discussions, readings, and, conferences. And, again, engage with the work of other writers. Celebrate the recognition of writers whose work you believe in. Do what you can to get your work out, “network” to the extent possible, but cut yourself some slack, too. Work on that balance between the solitude needed for creativity and the connectivity needed to bring your work out to the world.
- Find the joy in writing, maximize its pleasure. Writing is hard work, but it also brings immense personal fulfillment.
About Yermiyahu Ahron Taub
Yermiyahu Ahron Taub is the author of five books of poetry, including most recently The Education of a Daffodil/Di bildung fun a geln nartstis (2017). Tsugreytndik zikh tsu tantsn: naye Yidishe lider/Preparing to Dance: New Yiddish songs, a CD of nine of his Yiddish poems set to music, was released in 2014. He was honored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage as one of New York’s best emerging Jewish artists and has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and twice for a Best of the Net award. His short stories have appeared in Jewish Fiction .net, The Jewish Literary Journal, Jewrotica, and Second Hand Stories Podcast. With Ellen Cassedy, he was the winner of the 2012 Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize for Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (Mandel Vilar Press and Dryad Press, 2016). Please visit his website at www.yataub.net.