Welcome to Belles-Lettres, where we invite poets and writers to contribute to Tikkun Olam. Tikkun Olam, the healing of the world: that is what you help to create each time you speak from the heart. Poetry and stories flow from a sacred river, the river of our spirits, our courage, our collective bearing of witness.In the pages of Belles Lettres, I warmly invite you to bear witness to the bonds we share with all beings and with every cell of the earth. Kindly submit your poetry and stories to:
I also encourage you to visit the fine Jewish poetry and fine arts publication, Poetica, at www.freewebs.com/poeticamagazine . A lovely magazine. - JW
Edition#2 - April 29, 2008
A special spotlight...
THE SUBLIME GARDENS OF POET LYNN SAUL
It is a pleasure to spotlight the work of poet Lynn Saul, whose compassionate and deeply thoughtful world view inspire and move the reader. Savor her poetry, and then read on to glean insights from her life and experience in the interview that follows. THE GARDENS
In Poroskó my ancestors were tenant farmers
hired other laborers to work the fields
which Jews were not allowed to own
Wheat, cabbages, corn perhaps
They had orchards of plums
Always the flowers
in well-kept rows
the green effusion
of grape leaves
Along the river and in every yard
Even on the gravestones
watered like the Tree of Life
promised a rooted soul.
The “Paschal Yam” sits on the tray
instead of a shankbone
(although my mother served sweet potatoes in orange cups
At sunset we gather
to celebrate freedom
drink four cups of wine
eat four kinds of charoses:
Moroccan date balls wrapped in romaine,
Yemenite, apricots and pistachios,
a pyramid of dates from Iran.
(I still prefer
the traditional apples, walnuts, raisins, wine).
Shleime the Patriarch, my uncle’s father,
who led my childhood Seders
making magic with his strong voice
so I could stay awake till two in the morning
as we raced through “Echad Mi Yodea,”
still stands behind me,
but tonight we read, mostly, in English.
Joann and I sing “Avadim Hayenu”
and I sing the Hallel, mostly, alone,
but there’s always the young child
to sing the Four Questions
while Aiyana signs them, her fingers
dancing to the beat
as we all move
from slavery to freedom
and each year there’s someone
new at the table
to bring with us
across the Red Sea.
(every winter I grow Tohono O'Odham Peas, an heirloom variety marketed by Native Seeds/Search, Tucson)
On this first hot day of spring I am picking the rest of the peas
so I can turn over the ground for potatoes.
Endless pairs of plump pods go into a plastic bag, always
more hiding behind thin flat leaves. Another bag
holds the dry brown seeds from the bottom of the vines,
next year's crop. These peas
are descendents of seeds the priests
and the secret leftovers of my own people
brought to the O'Odham 450 years ago
from their mothers' gardens in Toledo. These peas
hold into the warm desert spring, grow thick
and tall and bear thousands of mealy seeds
that taste like history.
Slowly I step along the row, pulling off ripe swollen pods,
leaving the thin ones never to grow to harvest.
There are still a few white flowers, too, along the top
but I will pull them all out, later. These decisions
must be made. When I think I have harvested
everything ready in this section, I yank the vines
from their roots, as the Conversos were yanked
from theirs, and find
more full pods dangling, ones I would have missed
and think about all the other things I miss
because I need to replace everything
before its time. Fearing
that the last plump pod I miss will be the one
that by genetic miracle is the sweet one, cross-bred,
I could love the most.
FARM REPORT, JUNE 2001
A few tomatoes are ripe
and I’ve shaded the rest, hoping
they’ll make it through the heat.
There’s lots of chard
and I’m cooking with it every night:
stuffed potatoes, pasta,
and the other night, thin slices of red onion
for gardenburgers on homemade buns.
I’ve had one pepper, and more chiles
will be ready soon. I’ll let you know
what we do with them, and when the eggplants
are ripe. Flowers
are more of a problem this year. The snaps are done
and the marigolds seem to have dried up.
The zinnias and sunflowers never got started--
I think the birds got them. The squash
have flowers but, so far, no fruit.
I think how you’ll remember me for all the farm reports
I’ve sent since college, although
we’ve had plenty to say to each other all these years.
We send each other books, read them, and smile.
But when I tell you what really matter
it’s in the farm report.
THE WORDS OF THE PROPHET
And they shall plant vineyards and drink the wine thereof;
They shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them.
And I will plant them upon their land,
And they shall no more be plucked up
Out of their land which I have given them...
In our suburban yard my mother grew
strawberries and green beans,
enough to freeze
There was a sour cherry tree for pies
and a sweet cherry that, planted alone,
could not bear fruit.
When he came home from work, my father
would take my mother by the arm,
"check out the back forty,"
strolling the twenty steps
to the arbor of Concord grapes
at the property line
overlooking the hollow of Cedar Creek
where I could pick wild raspberries
and swing on monkey vines
and in his volume of the prophet Amos
my father would only scribble
"We're all dreamers"
Q: Lynn, you invoke the tender beauty of our earth and the earth's inhabitants in such a way that the sacred is palpably imminent. Your poems, to me, are prayers as well as poems - descendants of the psalms. Could you talk about the origins of "Seder"?
A: The poem “Seder” came out of a prewriting exercise we did at the Creative Writing Workshop I facilitate at my synagogue: we created a word list by people in the group alternating words and phrases about Passover to contribute to the list, and then each person wrote a draft using at least 10 words from the list. I find word lists—especially when a number of people contribute to them—a wonderful way to free-associate and to drag hidden thoughts out of the depths of our brains and hearts.
So the setting was at least potentially sacred. But beyond that, I do view all of life as sacred, and I am always looking for the connections between things I experience in my life and in the world, and to me, those connections are what our connection with God is really about.
The “Paschal Yam” came to me right away, because it’s a way that my Seder is a little different than the traditional Seder that uses a roasted bone for zeroah, God’s outstretched arm. Originally, I believe the “paschal yam” idea came from the Haggadah for the Liberated Lamb. Many years ago, I attended a Seder my daughter gave in her San Francisco home—a completely vegetarian Seder that featured a paschal yam and vegetable-stock matzo ball soup and a 45-page creative Haggadah culled from many sources—and about 30 guests who called all day and said “I hear you’re having a Seder—can I come?” It was one of the most wonderful Seders I’ve ever attended, and I adopted many of its features for my own Seders after that. But as I started to write, I remembered that my mother always served mashed sweet potatoes stuffed decoratively into orange halves—so the yam wasn’t a totally new feature of my Seders! And the Seders of my childhood, led by my uncle’s patriarchal father, have always been my model, and literally, Schleime the Patriarch always seems to be standing next to me as I conduct a Seder.
So my own life is very full of rich Jewish experiences, and the psalms are, in fact, models of poetry for me. I love chanting them in Hebrew during prayer, but in addition I like to study the psalms for their poetry and I think I learn a lot every day from David! I’m not conscious of it when I write, but I know that they have influenced me strongly.
At the same time that I am deeply influenced by and love traditional Jewish practice, I have always been open to acknowledging change in Jewish life and the need to accommodate an entire spectrum of people—Jews and non-Jews, and myself included—who are part of my life and come to Passover and other Jewish observance from many different angles. So that came out in “Seder” as well. And I name names—because I really wanted to specifically honor some of the people who have made my Seders special over the years. (I don’t name them all—but the ones named came up in my process of drafting the poem. Everyone else—wait, who knows what may happen in the future!)
Q: You seem to be writing as much about the harvesting of love as the harvesting of gardens; as you see it, what goes into creating a world where love is nurtured?
A: I see the garden as a metaphor for everything creative and positive in life. Nurturing love is like a garden in so many ways—including that it doesn’t always work out the way we had hoped. It’s always a struggle. In “Picking Peas,” I was literally writing about difficulties in my relationship with my partner, who is Tohono O’Odham, the Native American nation that cultivated the pea—originally from Spain, where they were grown by Jews before the expulsion, which resulted in many “conversos” coming to Mexico and the American Southwest—as I waited for that last pea to ripen before pulling out the plants so that the next crop could be planted. (In southern Arizona, we can plant 3 crops per year in succession, but it’s always a challenge to decide when to pull out the end-of-season crop.) I’m glad I held on—despite many difficulties over many years, Joe and I are still together. I was a divorce lawyer for 30 years, and I am divorced, and I think sometimes relationships just can’t make it and people need to separate and move on—a position, by the way, that Judaism supports—but I think we need sometimes to look for the best and overlook some of the difficulties with another person in order to make any relationship work.
Creating a world where love is nurtured takes that kind of work—always focusing on creating something, and sustaining something, but always recognizing that sometimes it’s just time to move on. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I try hard to focus on the positive.
Q: I understand that you have labored much of your life for social justice, for social progress, particularly in the lives of women. The reverence for life in your writing implicitly connects all beings and rouses the reader to a finer consciousness. Do you see a strong connection between violence towards women and violence towards animals?
A: I do see a connection, but I have to admit that I’m not a total vegetarian even though intellectually I am inclined that way. I’m against violence against any and all people and animals, but I am willing to draw a distinction between violence against women (and men, and children) and some animal harvesting for food. I also try to honor emotional relationships with friends and family who are not vegetarians but with whom I share meals, so sometimes that means eating meat. And I basically accept the kashrut definition of fish as “neutral.”
Maybe part of the difference for me is that my concern for social justice involves the appreciation of human beings’ capability of exercising free will and wanting to make sure that each person has the opportunity to live her or his life in a positive way. Violence—physical and emotional—against women takes away a woman’s ability to choose how to live her life. The idea that any human being thinks that he or she can or should control another person has always been very disturbing to me. Maybe this is related to my “other career” of teaching writing: I want each person to be able to use his or her own voice.
Q: How would you describe your relationship with Judaism? Are there Jewish texts or Jewish writers with whom you feel particularly close?
A: Judaism has always just been the context of my life. I am the great-great-granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Litvak rabbis. Based on that tradition, my father raised me to ask questions and to answer questions with my own ideas. He introduced me to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work while I was in high school, and Heschel has always been a major influence on me, and a writer I love to teach. My father discussed Torah and current events in the same conversations all of his life, so maybe that’s why I don’t really divide up aspects of my own life into “religious” and “secular.”
My relationship with a regular practice of Judaism, though, was strengthened, perhaps ironically, while I lived for twelve years on the Tohono O’Odham Nation. People there left work regularly to participate in various religious and cultural events such as funerals, death anniversaries, and saints’ day festivals. I kept reading criticisms of this by (WASP) scholars and “progress”-based anthropologists who thought the O’Odham people needed to stop all this observing their culture and get into the practice of going to work on a regular schedule. I had always taken off school and work for the High Holy Days but not for other holidays, and I was still attending professional meetings on Saturdays. I realized that it was as important for me as it was for the O’Odham to prioritize my own religious practice. I became (Conservative) Shomer Shabbas and became much more active with my synagogue, eventually becoming a service leader and learning to chant Haftarah. (I was raised when women—even in the Reform Temple I attended as a child and teenager—were not allowed to read Torah, have a Bat Mitzvah, etc.—all of us girls were kicked out of Hebrew class at age 12 because we “wouldn’t need it.”) So the liturgy and the Torah and Haftarah texts are particularly meaningful for me because, for the most part, they weren’t really available to me until I was an adult.
Another major Jewish writing influence for me was Anne Frank; I read her diary when I was in junior high school and began keeping a journal myself. In English-language Jewish writing, I have been especially influenced by Alicia Ostriker, Marge Piercy, Grace Paley, and Irena Klepfisz. And I love to read the bilingual editions of Yehuda Amichai.
I’ve included a poem “The Words of the Prophet” which I wrote after inheriting my father’s volume of the prophet Amos and finding my father’s marginal notes relating his own garden to the prophet’s metaphor. I also have a wonderful volume of the Psalms that was my father’s. I think my personal emotions connected with such Biblical books combine with their literary and spiritual value as influences on my life.
Q: What is it like teaching poetry?
A: I’ve taught poetry to college students who really wanted to be poets and in writing groups where no one even knew what poetry is. I always try to teach poetry on a lot of different levels—the content, both emotional and intellectual, the rhythm and music, the delight of imagery. Above all, I want to help people write something they can share with others that will allow them to share their ideas and experiences in an effective way. It’s very rewarding.
The creative writing group I lead at my synagogue has been an especially wonderful experience for me. The group has produced several chapbooks of poetry and prose to be read at High Holy Day services and Passover seders. It’s wonderful to see the response of the congregation. And it’s wonderful to see how the writers have grown in so many ways by doing this work—personally, they’ve become more confident; as writers, they’ve produced work that makes a real difference to other people; spiritually, they’ve discovered an important connection to their tradition.
One of my favorite experiences teaching poetry to non-writers is when I show films from Bill Moyers’ PBS series The Language of Life in my college classes. When students hear writers—especially minority writers—reading and discussing their work, the students realize that they too are entitled to their own voices and become much more engaged in their own writing work.
Q: How can readers read more of your work? Books in the making?
A: Unfortunately, all my chapbooks are now out of print. One of the anthologies I’m in—Sarah’s Daughters Sing—is still available from amazon.com. I’m working on two books now—a mixed-genre book of poems, fiction, non-fiction and photographs about my Hungarian family, and a “collected works” of poems. Readers can also find some of my poems on my website, and when the books are ready, they’ll be listed there: http://members.cox.net/lynnsaul/.
Lynn Saul teaches writing and humanities at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, and also teaches a creative writing workshop and other adult education classes at her synagogue, Congregation Bet Shalom in Tucson. She grows most of the vegetables she eats, as well as limes, and grapefruits, in her garden. Her publications include poems and prose in many literary magazines and anthologies, including Sarah’s Daughters Sing, The Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, SandScript, and others. She has published several chapbooks; her chapbook Nashim B’Midbar/Desert Women was published with an award from the Tucson Jewish Artists’ Alliance, of which Lynn is a member. She received an international travel award from the Tucson/Pima Arts Council to support her 2004 artist’s residency in Hungary with the Hungarian Multicultural Center. She is working on a book based on her Hungarian family as well as a collected works.