The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did this collection come about?
Steven Pollack (SP): During a career as engineer and administrator, writing focused my thoughts and I developed skills to advocate and manage projects or report status. Upon retirement in 2009, I set a goal to write more creatively. These took short story form, narratives about places and events in my life, portraits of people I love, but despite months of revision were not completely satisfying. My path to writing poems and the longer journey to this collection is more improbable. I first found poetry by chance, on internet sites, where I could read, comment and post my own work and later, at Philly area readings and open mics. I was amazed to discover a diverse network of poets, across cyberspace and at the library close to home. Your Whole Megillah introduced me to Poetica Magazine and Michal Mahgerefteh, who published my first poem, “Poppy,” in 2014. Acceptance boosted my confidence, so I wrote more poems and submitted to more anthologies, not with easy success. The idea for this collection came several years later, at a full-day workshop I attended at Bucks County Community College. Chris Bursk, Professor of Language and Literature, energetic cheerleader for poets and poetry, grabbed my attention with his observation that poems “talk to one another.” I looked back through notebooks and hard drives, at hundreds of raw poems I had drafted, seeing themes repeat, key words and images connect. I started a list, a preliminary table of contents, and noted gaps that begged for new poems. My project had begun in earnest, but that was just the beginning.
TWM: What moves you to write about your Jewish heritage?
SP: I grew up in a multi-generational household, maternal grandfather my roommate. My parents were founding members of Beth Emeth congregation in their NE Philly neighborhood, where my father served as gabbai and bar/bat-mitzvah teacher. We were observant, not with the old world Orthodoxy of my immigrant grandparents, but an American approach respectful of tradition, while accepting of change. From a very young age, I sang in the High Holiday choir with my father, as he and his brothers had sung with their father, a Cantor in small South Philly shuls. The Passover Seder he led, one of my earliest memories, is reflected in the poem titled by his Hebrew name,“Chanina.” Today, I continue to sing with Nashirah: the Jewish Chorale of Greater Philadelphia. My wife and I have chosen to be called Bubbie and Zayda, appreciating these honored names stand for people of blessed memory. I write to treasure our shared heritage, to pass stories forward, to create compositions as bridges, a collected memory for our grandchildren and their children, not yet born, those who may never meet us. As this manuscript took shape, “L’dor Vador – From Generation to Generation” became the clear choice for a title. Ubiquitous in Biblical liturgy, common in contemporary use, a phrase so deeply meaningful and so beautifully melodic when spoken in Hebrew.
TWM: I noticed you incorporated a variety of poetic forms in this collection. What drives you to write a prose poem? Couplets?
SP: Thanks for noticing. I wanted that variety threaded through this collection as one way to sustain the reader’s interest. I rarely begin with a fixed idea how a poem will finally appear on the page. An exception is “Believe,” a poem for grandchildren, where I set a rhyme scheme in metered lines. Prose poems and free verse feel more liberating, especially in early drafts. But the creative discipline required to write in uniformly ordered forms is very good practice. Schooled in math and science, I like to experiment with poetic structures and styles. I can suggest no formula or definitive explanation. My revision process dissects, reorders stanzas and lines, alters syntax, until the words and white spaces look right on the page, until the rhythm flows when read aloud. “How Do I Know You?”, about my Dad’s struggle with dementia, took years of such editing, his Yahrzeit calling me to revisit. If I am listening carefully, the poem speaks and leads me to recognize the form that serves the content. It can be magical, like “December 26, 1960,” a list poem that remained so from the opening lines, but more often trial and error, reluctant machete, constructive feedback, the tangible reward of work.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge with this collection?
SP: Given my affinity for narrative, to internalize the most basic mantra of poets, “to show not to tell.” To articulate emotional moments and close relationships without being trapped like a dinosaur in the sticky tar pit of sentiment. To express both joy and tsuris in resonant details, metaphor and other poetic techniques. Even a fairy tale needs a wolf and a surprising turn.
TWM: Your greatest satisfaction?
SP: To finally hold my book in hand fills me with a sense of achievement, that joy diminished by losses due to virus and violence, diminished like drops of wine from a Seder cup symbolize ancient plagues. Perhaps, my greatest satisfaction has been the comments received from readers, the connections they discover to their memories from my stories. It is not surprising that cousins and the broader Jewish community were a receptive audience. It is remarkable and affirming that people whose parents or grandparents speak in different accents or favor different tastes, find our shared humanity in love, faith and details of everyday.
TWM: Do you belong to writers’ groups? Poetry groups? Please tell us about them.
SP: I am active in two poetry groups in neighboring counties, Mad Poets and Forgotten Voices. Each has met for decades, monthly (or did until March 2020). Recently, readings have resumed on Zoom. Mad Poets, coordinated by Sibelan Forrester, features two invited poets, previously in a gallery space at Wallingford Community Arts Center, followed by an open mic. Forgotten Voices circles with Joanne Leva at the Indian Valley Public Library, and includes a guest poet who talks about his/her writing life, reads and then, leads an exercise allowing each of us to share our rough work. The results after only 15 minutes are often a striking start to something good. Each group also runs separate workshops (presently suspended) for poems in progress. These collegial sessions exposed me to many poems, fresh perspectives and immediate response that sharpened my work.
TWM: Who inspires you?
SP: Facts revealed by DNA or ancestral searches leave me wanting more. Artifacts in museums or heirlooms on shelves arouse my interest, but also fall short. Emma Lazarus and Marge Piercy, poets of different eras, each illuminate Jewish experience with emotional depth and personality. Well told stories inspire me, the precision and beauty of language. Memories are re-cognized from our own experience sifted through time, from personal relationships, but also from photographs, from family lore spoken by parents, uncles and aunts, from details only older cousins remember. Comparing memories with my sister, and with cousins both younger and older, a few years made a dramatic difference. Studies indicate that “childhood amnesia” starts at age seven. Near that age, earliest memories fade gradually, almost entirely by adulthood. As previous generations passed away, and life’s next decade approached, I was more urgently inspired to save portraits, especially of immigrant grandparents, who younger cousins do not remember, who my grandchildren never met.
TWM: What’s next for you?
SP: Our grandaughter’s bat-mitzvah is coming in November. She is so beautifully prepared, and we are all very proud of her. I am practicing to chant a few verses of Torah, whether on the bimah or virtual. Covid has interrupted routines, cancelled events and separated us. I am looking forward to scheduling readings from my chapbook, when it is safe. Poetica Magazine has accepted a new poem, “An Evening Hour,” to be published in their 2020 Mizmor Anthology, “spirituality” the theme. I have ideas for other book length projects, content to let simmer for now.