Talmud and Poetry, United

Jake Marmer is an innovative voice in the world of Jewish American poetry with his music project called Jazz Talmud. Jazz Talmud, Marmer’s first collection of poetry, was recently published by Sheep Meadow Press and has gained much attention, receiving positive reviews from leading figures in Jewish American poetry such as Jerome Rothenberg, who said of it, “Jake Marmer’s Jazz Talmud is a work true to its title and an extraordinary and delightful yoking together of what might seem like disparate and irreconcilable worlds. It is also a small triumph of the Fancy in full flight, comic and serious by turns, and written by a practitioner who knows whereof he speaks and from where he comes.” Recently, I had the opportunity of interviewing Jake Marmer and speaking with him about his background, his influences, and his Jazz Talmud project.

I noticed on your website (jakemarmer.wordpress.com) that you are from Ukraine. How would you say your Ukrainian roots have affected your poetry? Was English your second language, and if so, how has that influenced or enriched your writing in English?

I came to the States when I was 15 from a small town in the middle of Ukraine. A writer I really admire, Andre Aciman (a Jewish emigre from Egypt), has spoken and written about the experience of being a writer in a language one isn’t born into and a certain heightened sensitivity that comes with that. It is the need to obsess and question what you’re going to say, and how – but also get to be a connoisseur.

My “roots” factored into my writing in a major way. Because the Soviet Union was such a secular society, and religion or anything remotely resembling religion was not an option, I think literature was how a great deal of folks there got their spiritual kicks. Not just a select elite – I mean the masses too. The whole process of procuring books (which was not easy), reading, sharing, discussing – there was a cult of reading and reverence for poetry in particular was immense.

The other thing is that in school, as kids, we had to memorize a lot of poetry – real poetry, not nursery rhymes, from early on. In my current poetic practice, orality is hugely important. I write with the goal of performing – often with musicians – and in performance, I try to get as far away from the written page as I can. With some poems, I try not to look at the page at all. I improvise, riff, etc., and in general try to never read a piece the same way twice.

You have received positive reviews from well-known Jewish American writers such as Jerome Rothenberg, Gerald Stern, and Alicia Ostriker. How would you describe the influence of these and other Jewish American poets on your work?

The Jewish American poets you’re mentioning were huge for me. Particularly Jerry Rothenberg – his anthology “A Big Jewish Book,” where he brought together contemporary Jewish poetry but also sections of Talmud, Zohar, etc., was very instructive. His whole project is to push poetry out of certain expected forms, and to find poetry where people aren’t necessarily looking for it.

Another very important poet for me was Samuel Menashe, who passed away just a bit over a year ago. He was a titan, virtually unknown for the first 70-something years of his life. Only in his last decade was he recognized. His work is intensely spiritual, these short poems that unfold endlessly. I was lucky enough to know him personally; we had many conversations. He was a real sage.

Finally, the work of Allen Ginsberg, another American Jew, was absolutely formative for me – his notions of poetry-as-prophecy, the way he used jazz, ecstasy, revelation, beat – I think I’ve absorbed and assimilated his writing and ideas more than any other poet’s.

Your first poetry collection, Jazz Talmud, was recently published by Sheep Meadow Press. Could you tell us a bit about the inspiration for the poems in this book and the overall vision behind this collection of poetry?

I was a Dorot Fellow in 2008-2009 – my wife and I lived in Jerusalem that year. For the first time in ages, I had time to think about my writing and experiment, and one day, as I was writing, I began playing with Talmudic forms of discourse – the back and forth, tangents, multiplicity of discordant opinions, and orality of it all – and I began writing poems inspired by these Talmudic elements. It then occurred to me that in some way, Talmudic paradigm was very close to that of jazz. What’s fundamental to jazz is this thing called “call and response.” Plus, there’s that same chaotic whirlwind of voices, layering of traditions – there’s something cacophonous in both the Talmud & jazz that appealed to me. And I started blending the two – rhythms and lingo, content and imagery. That’s how it started. Then, I began performing some of these poems with musicians. There are videos of this material on my website.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing writing careers?

One thing for sure: go hang out with older poets. Many of them, even the greats, are quite accessible. If you live in New York, there are so many. It’s not necessarily about “mentorship” as such or showing your work to someone; it’s really even just hanging out with them, getting ideas, asking questions, hearing stories, immersing yourself in that whole atmosphere. And also – essential – reading a lot of very different poetry and going to readings. Finally, there are many conflicted things to say about the balance of writing and everything else – I personally have a family, I’m working full-time on a job that has nothing to do with my poetry, and I’m doing a Ph.D. Some people do poetry full-time to the exclusion of everything else. They’re the ones who really get some writing and thinking done. But, they’re missing out on some quintessential experience – I mean, for example, experiencing fatherhood opened a whole realm of feelings in me I didn’t know I had.

To learn more about Jake Marmer and to see his performance videos, visit his website (http://jakemarmer.wordpress.com). Additionally, come attend a special reading and performance by Jake Marmer in Stern College for Women’s Yagoda Commons (215 Lexington Avenue, NYC) on December 10th at 7 PM. This event is free and open to the public.