By: Rebecca Guzman  | 

Arts & Culture: A Jewish Poet in Our Time: An Interview with Yehoshua November

Editor’s Note: This article was edited for clarity and length with the approval of Yehoshua November. 

It is very rare to find an Orthodox Jewish author who masterfully infuses their work with teachings of Jewish tradition. The poet Yehoshua November does this so beautifully and radically in each of his works. After receiving his BA from Binghamton University and his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, November attended Chabad yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey. For two years, he ceased to write. Eventually, November decided to return to poetry. He is the author of the poetry collections “God’s Optimism” (2010) — a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize — and “Two Worlds Exist” (2016) — a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and Paterson Poetry Prize. November’s poems have appeared in Cider Press Review, The Sun Magazine and The New York Times Magazine, amongst others. November has taught at Touro College and Rutgers University. He lives with his wife and children in New Jersey. 

Rebecca Guzman: How did you become interested in writing poetry?

Yehoshua November: My father played a lot of music in our home, lots of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel, Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins. There was always that constant backdrop of music, and it was poetic. My father also paid [myself and my siblings] ten dollars for each book we read, since as kids we resisted reading. My grandmother, my father’s mother, was a poet. My older brother, Baruch, is a poet, and he was writing stories and poems when we were younger as well. My younger sister, Deena, is also a poet. Out of four siblings, three of us became poets. 

In college, I was an English major. When my professors — who were established writers themselves — supported and encouraged the work I was producing in their classes, I started to take myself seriously as a writer. I think I also turned to poetry because it conveys so much in such a small space. Young people have a great need for communicating with the world and poetry offers that. Poetry provides a poignant and compressed means of conveying your identity and sharing your stories and pressing concerns. I’m not sure other art forms can match poetry in this regard.

RG: Who are your strongest poetic influences?

YN: Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet who recently passed away, is definitely one of my strongest poetic influences. He was born in Lvov, Poland, right after the Holocaust. His family was displaced by the Russian forces. [Zagajewski] writes of the city of his birth, Lvov — it’s a mythic city for him. Often, his poems start off in the mundane but then lift off and reach transcendence.

My other poetic influences include Yehuda Amichai, Louis Simpson, Marie Howe, Philip Terman and the family-oriented poems of Sharon Olds. These poets’ works are accessible and, therefore, especially good to teach. Many students have been trained to think of poems as riddles, as if the harder the poems are to understand, the better. Marie Howe’s work — for example, her poem “What the Living Do” — undermines that approach. Her work is a good introduction to contemporary poetry, demonstrating that a poem can tell a clear and moving story.

I’ve also been influenced by the writers I studied under: Liz Rosenberg, Tony Hoagland and Maria Gillan. Gillan encouraged me to write about Judaism and familial life. In college, like many young writers, I tried to write universal poems. She taught me that “the universal is in the particular.” Meaning, when you get particular about your religion, culture, life experience, etc., then your work is more likely to resonate with a large readership and have universal impact.

RG: Could you walk us through your writing process? 

YN: The process changes over time. Now, I find it difficult to sit down and write a poem that works as a complete piece unto itself . Instead, I tend to write poems comprised of sections, almost like creating a collage. I’ll see an interesting image or come up with a phrase and then write it down. When I have a collection of these related images, I’ll put them together, separating them into numbered sections, and they can bounce off of each other and work as a larger piece. 

But the poems I’m most satisfied with usually come more effortlessly, often in one sitting. For example, my poem “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah” was written in pretty much one draft. I saw an image that was striking — a baal teshuva with tattoos at the mikvah — and I had the sense that I would write a poem about it. 

RG: How does someone translate Jewish experience into something that speaks to a broader audience?

YN: When you speak about what you know and what touches you, you can’t really worry too much about the audience’s prior knowledge. If you worry too much, you won’t write the poem you need to write. You’ll lose the culture and richness of the poem — and, often, that’s what defines and empowers the poem. 

RG: The number of young Orthodox Jews pursuing careers in the humanities is seemingly dwindling. There is, in most communities, the fearful sense that a career in the humanities would be antithetical to an Orthodox lifestyle. Where do you think this fear comes from, and how can we combat it?

YN: Of course, there is a practical concern of how to support one’s family — I don’t think we can change that. A lot of people who aren’t inclined to opulent, luxurious lifestyles will go into studying or teaching Torah. This is also a poetic encounter, I think. When I was studying under the poet Tony Hoagland in graduate school, he asked if he could accompany me to the Chassidic shul I attended. On our walk back, I asked him if he could ever give up poetry. To my surprise, he said, “I could stop writing if I had the same spiritual imagination as those men in shul.” 

If you look at other groups, aside from the Jewish population, and ask what percentage of that group pursues poetry and the humanities — the answer would be “not a high number.” Jewish communities steering away from the humanities is part of a larger trend. We are also fortunate to have a rich spiritual tradition that nourishes us. At the same time, we would do well to give that spiritual tradition full artistic expression through poetry and other art forms. 

RG: You took a two-year break from poetry in order to study chassidus. In an interview with The Jewish Standard, you explained, “The whole time I was in Morristown I wasn’t writing anything. I wanted to immerse myself in gemara and chassidus.” What made you start writing again? 

YN: My career launched at the time that I was learning chassidus seriously. When I finished my MFA (Master of Fine Arts) at the University of Pittsburgh, I went to a Chabad yeshiva in Morristown, New Jersey. I didn’t write…I don’t think I even read an English book for two years. And then I had to choose what I wanted to do after yeshiva. I was at a crossroads; I had to make a decision about how I would support my family. Surprisingly, I felt compelled to teach in university and go back to poetry. I felt like I wouldn’t be true to myself if I gave that up and became a rabbi. I took out the manuscript I had written to complete my MFA program, and I started adding new poems. About half of the poems in that manuscript — which became my first collection, “God’s Optimism” — were written before I went to yeshiva in Morristown, and half of them came after. There’s a teaching in the eighth chapter of the Tanya — an eighteenth century work of Hasidic philosophy — that explains how Maimonides and Nahmanides used secular wisdom to serve Hashem. With the help of a spiritual mentor who knew me well, I came to understand that Judaism is a lot larger than I had imagined, and I, too, might use the “secular” means of poetry to serve Hashem. 

RG: How has Jewish theology come to influence your work over time?

YN: Chassidus is a touchstone in my writing. When you study Torah and Chassidus, you encounter biblical idealism. Judaism sets a high bar for us, and then we live our actual lives, where we struggle to reach that bar. A lot of my poetry concerns the tension between that idealism and the human struggle to reach it. I also see overlap between Chassidic theology and the contemporary poetic insistence that profundity resides in mundane encounters. The notion that Hashem actively recreates the world out of nothingness each moment—and, therefore, the everyday, minute by minute, holds unprecedented Divine energy—is central to Chassidus. In a similar spirit, many of today’s poets try to mine ordinary experiences for deep meaning; poetry aims to slow readers down and show them the miraculous nature of the present moment.

RG: In your poem “Two Worlds Exist,” you write, “Everything that occurs in this life / flows down from the hidden world.” The theme of that poem, as it appears to me, is about how to grapple with incredibly difficult life experiences. As the Jewish nation reflects on the immense tragedy of the last two months, how can poetry itself help us cope with darkness? 

YN: This is a very good question. I think poetry can poignantly express profound truths in a compressed space, as I said earlier. People can overlook truth or be numb to truth, especially the truth of other people’s suffering, but a poem can shock readers back to life. Contemporary poetry emphasizes imagery over abstraction; it largely aims to “show” rather than “tell” the author’s experience or truth. It, therefore, affords a reader a direct experience of the author's reality rather than a conceptual or indirect rendering of it.

Many are displaying antisemitism unashamedly now, but some don’t realize the Jewish nation’s pain. They are numb to our anguish. Capturing our sense of alienation and abandonment in a poem — capturing the painful experience via images, metaphors, and idiosyncratic particulars, as perhaps only poetry can do–may help sensitize readers to our predicament. Literature is — and always has been — so powerful in combating hate because, in rendering human suffering so vividly, it humanizes victims who are otherwise seen as “other.” Perhaps, to some extent, poetry can do the same to help combat antisemitism and restore a measure of normalcy to Jewish life in these troubling times.


Photo Caption: “Poetry conveys so much in such a small space, and young people have a great need for communicating with the world and poetry offers that.”

Photo Credit: Yehoshua November