Poet’s Notebook | Joan Seliger Sidney

I first met Joan at the 2010 Jewish Children’s Writing workshop at the Highlights Foundation in Pennsylvania. I found her writing to be strong and lyrical. Turned out she’s been writing poetry for the adult market for some time. After seeing an article about her in the Hartford Courant, I thought it was high time you all met her.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to start writing poetry?
Joan Seliger Sidney (JSS): I wrote my first poem—long since lost—for an assignment in my high school English class senior year. It was about my mother’s younger brother, living in Israel so I didn’t know him, who had been killed by a jealous husband, my American uncle’s brother, a terrible tragedy. I remember that my teacher wrote, “Fascinating,” on my paper. But it wasn’t till twenty-two years later that I audited a poetry course at the University of Connecticut, started a writers’ group, and began writing poems.

TWM: What inspires your poetry? Do you find your topics or do they find you?
JSS: For many years my mother’s stories of growing up in Zurawno, then her three months of adventures escaping the Holocaust became my serious topics: she really was my muse as well as helping me bear witness. Living with MS, my chronic illness, has also been an important topic, my family—husband and four kids, too. These days my poems speak out against Trump and bigotry. I find these political poems online, they’re really “found poems.”

TWM: Who is your favorite poet? What is your favorite poem—and why?
JSS: This is a very difficult question because I like many poets for different reasons. If we’re talking contemporary poets, my favorites are Carolyn Forché, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, major political poets, and Robert Cording, who transforms the everyday into exquisite poetry.

Ever since I heard Carolyn read “The Colonel,” I’ve been in awe of how she bears witness. The poem has an inescapable immediacy. The details bring me to the dinner table with the murderous Nicaraguan colonel as, after the elaborate meal, he spills the sack of human ears on the table.

“They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.”

TWM: Are you particularly proud of any one poem?
JSS: I like “Pantoum for My Grandparents,” the way it connects me to my maternal grandparents, also “On Turning Seventy,” which connects three generations.

Pantoum for My Grandparents

On Yom Kippur I wrote my first Holocaust poem
instead of returning to synagogue to pray.
The grandmother I never knew put her
hands on my shoulders and told me her story.

Instead of returning to synagogue to pray,
back to Zurawno I journeyed with Grandma.
Hands on my shoulders, she told me her story:
“Germans, so cultured, won’t hurt us old Jews.”

Back to Zurawno I journeyed with Grandma.
We watched the road darken with soldiers.
“Germans, so cultured, won’t hurt us old Jews.
From us, our Ukrainian neighbors rent.”

We watched the road darken with soldiers.
Grandpa wore his Silver Cross from World War I.
“From us, our Ukrainian neighbors rent.”
If, only instead of listening, I’d whisked them away.

Grandpa wore his Silver Cross from World War I.
Grandma braided challah and slid it in the oven.
If, only instead of listening, I’d whisked them away
before the betrayal by their Ukrainian neighbors.

Grandma braided challah and slid it in the oven.
She braised brisket and potatoes, my mouth watered
before the betrayal by her Ukrainian neighbors.
They beat and bloodied Grandma and Grandpa.

She braised brisket and potatoes, my mouth watered.
Granddaughter from the future, what could I do?
Neighbors beat and bloodied Grandma and Grandpa,
threw their still-breathing bodies into a pit for Jews.

On Approaching Seventy

Watching the hands of my son
kneading challah dough
on the maple cutting board
in my kitchen, a memory
rises of my mother
bending over our kitchen table
in Flatbush, pressing, stretching,
folding flour, water, eggs
into a living elastic.
Sometimes in my dreams, Mom
appears, whispers of her mother
in her kitchen in Zurawno
in the pre-dawn dark,
by the light of the kerosene
lamp, pulling and pushing
the yeasty challah dough
until my son covers it
with a clean white cloth
and leaves it in the warm
electric oven to rise.

TWM: How does writing poetry affect your writing in other genres?
JSS: It makes me more aware of word choice, image, rhythm, rhyme.

TWM: You received your MFA from what is now the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Would you recommend an MFA? Why/why not?
JSS: Absolutely! Working with outstanding writers and peers transformed my writing, reading, and teaching.

TWM: How important is it to write Jewish-themed poems? Holocaust-related poems?
JSS: I guess Jewish-themed poems are in my blood. As I’ve said, my mission to bear witness to injustice began with Holocaust-related poems.

TWM: Is there any craft book you’d recommend?
JSS: I’ve used and taught from several good ones. For anyone interested in writing in form, I recommend The Making of a Poem by Strand and Boland.

For more about Joan Seliger Sidney and her work, please visit her website.

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About Barbara Krasner

History writer and award-winning author Barbara Krasner writes Jewish-themed poetry, articles, nonfiction books, and novels for children and adults.
This entry was posted in Authors, Poets and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Poet’s Notebook | Joan Seliger Sidney

  1. Joan’s poems are amazing and brilliant. Thanks for the introduction. I will be looking for her book.

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