Monday, November 14, 2005

Interview with Naomi Chase: A poet in search of the messiah

Naomi Feigelson Chase is a poet, journalist, fiction writer and a former resident of Somerville, who has written three books of poetry including: “The Messiah Comes to Somerville,” and most recently: “Gittel: The Would be Messiah.” She has written for the “New York Times,” the “Village Voice,” and other publications. She has penned numerous short stories and her poetry has appeared in such journals as: “Sojourner,” “Ploughshares,” and the “Cream City Review.”

Doug Holder: What was going on in your life when you penned the collection: “Waiting For The Messiah in Somerville.”

Naomi Chase: I moved to Somerville after my husband died. So I was in a very depressed state. With the poem “”Waiting For The Messiah in Somerville,” I worked on it for years until I finally got it right. I was struck by the whole feeling in Somerville. I don’t know if it is the same today. I bought a two family house in Somerville with another woman and I think everyone felt we were whores. No one had ever seen this before. Somerville, in the 70’s, had no condominiums. People were very unfriendly. If you hadn’t lived there forever then you just didn’t fit in. It was not a creative time. I could barely get out of bed. It eventually spurred me to write a lot of things about it, like this title poem. It was sort of a “coming back to life poem.”

DH: The concept of the “Messiah” comes up in your work a lot. Can you talk about your interest with this concept?

NC: I really don’t know where this interest came from. The title of my new book is “Gittel: The-Would -Be Messiah” It is about a young woman who is told by God that she is going to be the Messiah. She eventually turns him down. She feels he has caused evil in the world by giving man power over all creatures and other men. I am very taken by the idea that people are sitting around waiting for the Messiah. This seems to be a constant recurring theme not only in Judaism, but in other religions. I grew up not as a religious Jew. My grandfather was a Hebrew teacher. He was a compelling person. But I don’t think he believed in God. For me, my writing has been one way that I dealt with what all this meant to me.

DH: Do you think the Messiah will actually come?

NC: No. I don’t think so. I think he would have come already and knocked out George Bush. (laughs)

DH: You were involved with the Cambridge, Mass. small press “Garden Street.”
Can you talk about your involvement with the press and how it got its start?

NC: I started the press with Jean Flanagan and Marilyn Zuckerman.. I really didn’t start writing poetry until I was an adult in my 40’s. I had a book of poems, as did Jean. I met Jean at MIT, as well as Marilyn Zuckerman. The three of us decided to start a press. We thought this was the only way to get published. The press is no longer around. After we published a book by each of us, I moved to the Cape, and Marilyn moved to Seattle. It was hard to stay in touch. Running a small press is a money-loser, and requires a tremendous amount of work. After awhile I wanted to concentrate on my own work. The press produced about ten titles. Each of us had two books we published, plus about 3 or 4 other titles from other poets.

DH: In your collection “One Blue Thread,” you have a character named: “Gittel,” a Jewish girl, living in the “pale of settlement,” who has an ongoing conversation with God.
Where did you get the idea for this?

NC: I was taking a train from Boston, and passing through Connecticut, when I noticed a church spire. I thought: ‘What would happen if the Messiah landed on a church spire?” And that’s the way it started. Once this idea captured me I started writing about this young woman who was constantly asking questions of God about the meaning of life. I started reading a lot about mysticism, and I discovered that all religions have this mystic bent. So I tried to sort it out.

DH: Do you think God is a feminist?

NC: Gittel is a feminist, and she is angry with God. She tells him that the myth of “Adam and Eve,” has done terrible things to the idea of woman. So God is not a feminist. No male God is.

DH: Can you tell me about your experience writing for “The Village Voice/’

NC: I started in the 70’s. I started writing for them because I was living in a building with Jules Feiffer. I ran into him in the elevator. I had written for the “Herald Tribune,” and he said if I wrote for them I could write for the “Voice.” He had me call Dan Wilson, and soon after I was writing about politics, and also children’s issues. I was paid $25 an article, which I used to pay for 25 copies of the “Voice,” so I could see my name in print. But it was really something to write from the ‘Voice.’

DH: Can you make a living as a writer or poet?

NC: It is very hard to make a living as a writer. I always worked in PR and Journalism. You compromise your work if you depend on your writing as your living. You usually live on nothing. I didn’t want to do that.

Doug Holder. “Gittle” The Would-Be Messiah” can be purchased at the “Grolier Book Shop” in Harvard Square, or through AMAZON.COM

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