Lately I've been cleaning out my study. I've had this same study for ten years, and I have packrat tendencies, so the cleaning-out is long overdue. The cleaning and reorganizing has been deeply satisfying. It's allowed me to rid the world of a lot of dust bunnies, and to throw things away, which can be pleasantly cathartic. More than that, it's allowed me a chance to rediscover and sort my books (poetry over here, rabbinic texts over there) and to excavate my memories and hold each one up to the light for a while.
During one day of cleaning, I spent a solid hour immersed a pile of notebooks from my years at Bennington. They're plain narrow-ruled spiral-bound notebooks, which were also my journals of choice for a number of years; they doubled as a place to take workshop notes, so now they offer a record of the experience on two levels at once.
I don't write much about Bennington here, but it was pretty formative for me. Next month will mark ten years since I graduated. I can't imagine when I'll ever wear my master's hood again, not being the sort of academic who routinely marches in commencement ceremonies, but Bennington was an amazing experience. It was an apprenticeship in learning to take myself seriously as a writer. If there is good in the poems I'm writing now, ten years later, credit is surely due to the writers with whom I studied there.
There's something powerful about immersing in old journals. It's amazing how quickly the old emotional dynamics come spinning back. One of the first scribblings I read was "Vortex: a radiant node or cluster," which was written on a blackboard the day my cohort arrived at Bennington. That was the phrase that Liam Rector, of blessed memory, used to describe the Bennington experience. A vortex, in Ezra Pound's locution, was something "from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." Bennington was a vortex, for sure.
Reading these journals feels like stepping back into that vortex. The emotional ups and downs of having my work critiqued. The interpersonal politics of the residency experience: when I felt securely-planted and when I felt peripheral. And, of course, the rushing waters of my ordinary life, within which the residencies were contained. From being newly-engaged, down the long road to becoming married. The ups and downs as my parents and I began to navigate new ways to relate. Buying our first house, in which we still reside.
I couldn't have imagined, then, that I would be in my fourth year of rabbinic school now. My relationship with Judaism was complicated in those years. But many of my best poems from those years were my Judaic poems. I had an advisor who counseled me to try writing prayers or psalms -- advice I wasn't ready to take then, but have long since taken to heart.
An oft-mentioned statistic at Bennington during my years there was that ten years after graduation, most MFA-holders are no longer writing regularly. Though the poem a week I'm committed to now (sometimes I write more, but sometimes not) is scant output compared with the times at Bennington when I wrote a poem a day, I'm grateful that poetry is still one of the primary ways I interact with the world. And I'm grateful to have created a place at Velveteen Rabbi where I don't entirely have to separate my Judaic interests from my literary ones.
I think the dual passions feed and inform each other. Those years of intensive immersion in poetry will, I hope, make me a better rabbi... and these years of intensive immersion in Judaic studies and rabbinics are, I hope, making me a better poet. As I re-shelve my books, there are well-defined sections of the library for Judaic subjects (liturgy, Talmud, Zohar, Hasidut) and for poetry -- but there are also shelves where the two interrelate and intertwine. That's the kind of integration I aspire to now: to read (and write) Jewish texts with an eye to their poetry, and to read (and write) poetry with the Jewish sensibility that's central to who I am and what I do.