Saturday, November 20, 2010

Author Joan Leegant: Novelist of the wandering Jew in search of connection...

Author Joan Leegant: A novelist of the wandering Jew in search of connection...

With Doug Holder

Joan Leegant is the author of WHEREVER YOU GO, published July 2010, and AN HOUR IN PARADISE, for which she won the PEN/New England Book Award, the Wallant Award for Jewish Fiction, and was a Finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Formerly an attorney, she taught at Harvard University for eight years. Since 2007, she has lived half the year in Tel Aviv, where she is the visiting writer at Bar-Ilan University and lectures for the U.S. State Department. When not in Israel she lives in Newton, Massachusetts. Her latest book WHEREVER YOU GO portrays three lost souls in the Israel--each in their own way trying to find themselves. I interviewed Leegant on my Somerville Community Access TV Show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”

Doug Holder : I heard you once shared a pastrami sandwich with Allen Ginsberg, the iconic Beat Generation poet?

Joan Leegant: What I recollect of it—I was a teenager, but I was in awe. This was in the mid 60’s. And he had just completed a performance—he was sort of in his guru stage. He was chanting, etc... So I was sort of surprised when he asked my father Bernie, who was a cousin of his, to get him a pastrami sandwich. This was a serious disconnect for me. I didn’t expect him to be so down-to-earth. He was a very regular guy. He asked how the family was, etc... He was an object of curiosity of course for the family. He hadn’t the huge reputation he would make later on. By-the-way the pastrami was excellent--it was N.Y. pastrami of course!

DH: When did you first go to Israel?

JL: My first trip to Israel was in the 1970’s. I was 27. I stayed for a few years and I was enamored with the country. I really admired its spunk and its community at the time. In the late 70’s I had come out of an anti-war period. Israel had just been involved in two wars in 1967 and 1973, and I was used to the sight of soldiers. I speak the language and have Israeli friends—so I am quite comfortable there.

DH: The three young protagonists in "Wherever You Go" seem like lost souls--they are looking to define themselves. They come to Israel. Is Israel a good place for this?

JL: That basically is the theme of the work. People are seeking to connect to the divine or something larger than themselves. They want to find one little corner of happiness. So people do come to Israel seeking something...and sometimes they find it is available--whether it is religious, political activity, or a sense of belonging.

DH: There are two sisters in the novel Dena and Yona. Dena is a staunch ideologue living in a settlement in the desert. Yona lives in New York (and travels to Israel), is an adulteress, and is trying to reconcile with her estranged sister. Who are you more sympathetic to?

JL: Yona is the character who has a lot more compassion, and she is far more vulnerable. I have more compassion for her.

I do admire but I don't agree with the politics at all of the sister Dena. She is a very principled person. There is a part of me that really admires people who want to live by their principles, and are passionate about that. But this can turn into fundamentalism. And that is the point of the book.

DH: There is a lot of hostility in the book towards American Jews. Do you feel that when you are in Israel?

JL: I don't feel it. But I have observed it. I think there is a level in which they are more cynical. The people portrayed in the book are fundraisers for the right wing settlements. And they are aware that the American Jews who financially support the settlements are not going to live there or send their children there. They are not prepared to make the sacrifice to live there. But they will offer their financial support. The people who are willing to accept the money are cynical and that's who I am portraying. One of them says that the Americans come here and help them out but go back to live in their affluent communities and big houses. I guess some Israelis feel that Jews in the diaspora are not living their destiny in Israel.

DH: You teach writing in Israel at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv. You have also taught writing at Harvard University Extension. How do the students differ--what are the writing about? How do your courses unfold?

JL: I do two things. We do alot of reading and discuss other authors work. Then we have workshops. Students work is discussed.

Like the Extension School my students in Israel are of an older population. I teach in an Master's program in Israel--most of the students are native English speakers who are either in the country for the program or live there. This is a program in the English Department of an Israeli University. They are often from South Africa, the United States, Great Britian, etc... Like Harvard Extension they come from diverse backgrounds.

The subject matter they write about is different. Some of my Israeli students come from the army and write about their army experience. Some people have lived in the country for twenty-five years or more and write about their immigration experience. There is a Jewish women in my class from India, and she writes evocatively about the Jewish community in her native country. So often people write about immigration--the tapestry of the immigrant experience, the Jewish experience, Jewish identity, etc...

For more information about MS. LEEGANT go to

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dosha, Flight of the Russian Gypsies by Sonia Meyer

Dosha, Flight of the Russian Gypsies
Sonia Meyer
Wilderness House Press

The atrocities inflicted upon cultural groups have existed for centuries. Roma have been hard hit by the full impact of prejudice and persecution. From pre-Third-Reich Germany to Stalin’s reign of terror, to the illusion of Kruschev’s thaw, Rom and Romni have been captured, tortured, left for dead or murdered. Still today, Roma are faced with torment. Sonia Meyer, author of “Dosha: Flight of the Russian Gyspies,” knows the threat of persecution first-hand. At the young age of two, Sonia fled with her parents from the Nazi regime, taking refuge with partisans and Gypsies. By the age of 7 she knew no other life beyond that of war and death. Sonia grew up reassured by the howl of the wolf, for at that moment she knew that she was safe, that the forest could, once again, awaken to its own sounds, following the cacophony of bomb droppings and the crack of gunfire.

From the memories of the nomadic life Meyer was forced to live hiding out in forests, abandoned houses, inns and barns during and post World War II, the story of Dosha, Russian Gypsy, has been given Roma wings to fly. And “Dosha: Flight of the Russian Gypsies,” does soar from its pages, each of its three parts a mixture of action, intrigue, and romance blended seamlessly into harmonious balance.

While the story of Dosha as a Lovari woman is fictional, the historical perspective of Russian Gypsies on the run from the Nazis, from Stalin, and from Kruschev’s Roma round-ups has been successfully and accurately woven through the book with a deftness that slips around factual ennui as silently and mysteriously as the Roma navigate their beloved woods. This is the beauty of Meyer’s ability to bring to life the way of the Roma amidst war and post-war oppression.

In 1941 Dosha is a small child facing life in a war-ravaged country. Days, months, years lived on the move, sharing family around campfires, sleeping soundly in caravans, and becoming one with her horse courses through her veins. It is a life that captivity can never truly separate her from. Later, drafted by the Soviet government as a horsewoman, she and her stallion are trained in Russian dressage. Employed by the State behind the Iron Curtain, Dosha knows the constant pull of longing to be free again, the ever-present threat of death, the inevitable entanglement of lives ordered into service, frightened into silence.

Meyer has put pen to the page in a lyrical movement of literature with a European flair. Her personal knowledge of gypsy life and the time spent in historical research have served this story well. There is richness to her images, depth in her characters, and fluidity in her narration. The swish of a Gypsy skirt, the camaraderie of the Gypsy men, the laughter of their children, and the Roma’s ability to understand and intuit the hidden forces of this world will stay with you long after the last word of this story offers its hush to your soul.
Rene Schwiesow is a Massachusetts poet and writer, co-host of Plymouth’s Art of Words, she thrives on bringing words to life behind an open mic.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Endicott Students at the Somerville News Writers Festival, Nov. 13, 2010

Endicott Students at the Somerville News Writers Festival Nov. 13, 2010

As you know Endicott College ( Beverly, Mass.) is now affiliated with the Ibbetson Street Press. So a bunch of creative writing students lead by professor Dan Sklar attended the festival.

Below the students are with Boston Poet Laureate Sam Cornish, and poet Ifeanyi Menkiti( Wellesley Professor of Philosophy, poet, and owner of the Grolier Poetry Bookshop).

(click on pic to enlarge)

(Sam Cornish center/ Ifeanyi Menkiti far right)

(click on pic to enlarge)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review of BEYOND THE STRAITS by Marine Robert Warden


Review of BEYOND THE STRAITS by Marine Robert Warden, Presa :S: Press, PO Box 792. Rockford, MI 49341,, $13.95, November 2010 (reprinted from 1980, Momentum Press)

By Barbara Bialick

Last year I had the good fortune to review Dr. Warden’s previous of ten books, FINDING BEAUTY (Bellowing Ark Press, 2009). He must have agreed, for I found my own review quoted on the back of this current, worthwhile reprint from 1980, BEYOND THE STRAITS. This book takes us from the straits of Seattle to the open seas to Asia, and back to the U.S. with wide lyrical lines in lower case, no punctuation, with subtle hints of Whitman but visiting many more places than did the bard of New York.

As Eric Greinke remarks in the introduction, “The search for (Warden’s) voice was something like ten days.” Certainly this book is just as broadly painted, and experienced in viewpoint as the previous one, possibly because he didn’t become a poet until he was 48 years old, and had already experienced the military, marriage, and the practice of medicine, but with a poet’s vision.

In Kansas, he declared, he sensed how out of a “great ground swell off the coast of Asia” our country could emerge, as his wife emerged to him. In the poem “The Great Ground Swell”, he wanted America to experience “what the land could mean for us…a healing process, a rebirth out of rocks with the blades of grass that bend their endless moan across the prairies…” At the same, this sea man looks beyond that which we daily experience: “the continents are merely rock extrusions of the sea’s bed.”

In “Thanksgiving Day 1946”, he writes “today the rain falls over all our land/it falls on the ships in “Frisco Bay…/it rains into the eyes of our dead at sea…” But the men marching by “still don’t realize/there’s a generation waiting for birth/that expects them to make a new land/out of dreams they hatched across the ocean…”

I’d say Dr. Warden deserves to be noticed along with the more widely known poets of the modern and contemporary periods. I will end by quoting the last poem, “Taking Leave”, which speaks for itself: “animals know nothing of this/the real meaning of flowers or love/beyond the crushed petals that excite their senses/…how the industrial city that was destroyed/became a garden of flowers/how my ship pulled away from that harbor/with its cargo of haunted faces/how we floated outward like slow glass/over a sea of fire”. This book deserves its reprint status, and should be read by people today who are watching our country in distress and need a historical context for hope and action, which seems so hard to come by.