Mbizo Chirasha: How are your poetry and writings linked to the spirits of your land, or spirituality?
Michael Dickel: I have lived in two lands. A third “ghost” land of my grandparents haunts me. These influence me together. However, my poetry comes from observation, readings and ideas – and the two lived-in lands most directly link to my writing. One, the United States, dwarfs the other, Israel. Yet, Israel probably influences my writing more. I am a Jew living in Israel where Judaism began.
Many of my poems arise from geologies, geographies, archaeologies, and ecologies where I have spent time and which touch me deeply. In this Time of Coronavirus borders and nationalities become unusually solidified to keep COVID19 from spreading. I do not know how this will go, but I see two broad trends – a very non-spiritual reifying of boundaries including quarantines of citizens. This reification repeats fractally as cities, neighborhoods, and our homes “lock down”.
Meanwhile a sense of togetherness resists. We share similar experiences. Those of us with access to technologies use them to cross the hard walls of isolation. We use technology to “keep in touch”, even when we cannot touch each other, a spiritual dimension. Some sing from balconies. This could flower into spiritual renewal – sharing who we are, our ideas, and mutual caring could lead us back to humane values.
Similarly, my experience of belonging to two lands – born in one; living in another with an historic, ancestral connection (imagined and recalled). Israel connects people outside of it, especially of the three Abrahamic faiths. And it separates many of us, as a contested site.
This stream in my writing was absent earlier in my life. After I first visited Israel in the 1990s, it emerged as I wrote about this land that I had imagined but now recalled. One of my early manuscripts started as “Jerusalem Imagined and Recalled.” It became two books, with most of the Jerusalem material in Midwest / Mid-East. In it I explore my sense of two lands, my spiritual attachment to both – using them literally and figuratively through imagery and metaphor.
A series of poems has these themes – “Shekinah”, itself part of a large series, “Continuing the Song”, written as a modern extension of The Song of Songs. Here is the third poem from “Shekinah”:
Shekinah III: My beloved whispers in my ear
And these words, which I command thee with this day, shall be upon thy heart…And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets before thine eyes.
(Deut. VI:6, 8)
My beloved whispers in my ear; she reveals herself to me—
her Words, jewels upon my breast, upon my hand, upon my forehead.
When my beloved walks in the field, the heron flies up with cackling praise;
she inspires the crane to laugh as it rises into the sky; the swallows dance for
I have come and gone with uncertainty and doubt; but my beloved inspires constancy:
Though in times of drought the hill dries out, the hollows hide some mud, remembering.
My beloved brings rain into the high, parched fields that have forgotten her;
she walks among the swaths and sheds her tears for each cut stalk.
The hollows swell with water to quench the beasts and grow the iris;
my beloved reflects their grace as they mirror the sky among the grasses.
The storm was terrible: the thunder rumbled long in the night; the lightning terrified;
a wind blew through the window of the house and tapped upon the walls.
Yet, my beloved whispered in my ear and I wore her words like jewels.
In her arms I rested as the fields drank deeply, the dry holes filled with sweet
In the dark I am drawn to my beloved; she is even more glorious in the light:
She is a stand of gentian unexpectedly found near the edge of the willow.
An eagle flies above the goldenrod and pines; I know my beloved thinks of me.
The thought of my beloved eases my burden as I toil on the road to her house:
Her kisses, sweeter than blueberries freshly picked, inspire acorns to rise toward the sky;
her caresses provide strength to the birch, the aspen, the maple, the oak, but also to grasses.
I hold my love; she holds me. I have studied her in the willow, the iris, the thistle:
finches, warblers, and wrens feed and live in her shelter, so my love feeds and shelters me.
The oats have been cut, the hay rolled and stored for the winter.
My love comes to me and whispers in my ear; she reveals herself to me.
The geese gather and call, flying over the trees, landing in the pond:
my love sighs and the grasses bend; the aspens sigh and my love bends to me.
Her kisses build the temple; her love holds me and I heal:
My beloved is mine, I am hers. She points to the flowers off the path:
small white bells, tiny blue trumpets, vetches, paintbrush; I don’t know all the names.
My beloved knows the Names of the Flowers; she whispers them to me: I embrace her.
—written between Shabbat Ekev and Re’eh, 25-27.Ab.5760; 1999 CE
Heron and cranes both fly in Israel and the US, as iris, oaks, pines, willows, thistles, and eagles root in both. There are not maples, birches, or aspens in Israel though. The cut oats and rolled hay fit my Midwest upbringing, also fields of these can be seen in Israel. I have seen geese here, but not wild or flying in flocks.
The temple in this poem is both The Temple destroyed twice in Jerusalem, and the spiritual temple within us all. I see flowers I cannot name in both countries, but also in myself. The beloved in this poem, as in The Song of Songs, suggests God. The Shekinah is an aspect of God, a grammatically feminine word, and an important aspect in making the connection between the world we live in day to day and the higher spiritual emanations of God-energy according to Kabbala.
Since living in Israel, the balance certainly has shifted away from Midwestern U.S. imagery toward Israeli imagery. This makes sense as I’ve lived here a bit more than a baker’s dozen of years. My most recent collection, Nothing Remembers, contains images from the lands of Italy, the U.S., and Israel. By far, the spiritual vibes and the landscapes of Israel come through the strongest. The other two places add several dimensions, but the whole explores memory, forgetting, death, and mourning through my experiences since immigrating.
Mbizo Chirasha: What is the significance of you as a Jewish poet who moved to Jerusalem, the Biblical and Historical homeland of the Jewish people, which also carries significance for Christians and Muslims?
Michael Dickel: I live a long walk “down the road” from Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. Often my drive will yield beautiful views of the Old City. This edition of the stone walls is “merely” 500 years old. Standing in Jerusalem, at the 2,000 year-old Western Wall of the Temple Mount. The City of David goes back further. And the flint ridge I live on along with nearby springs have attracted human beings, and our neolithic ancestors over a timeline on which my life would be a speck.
I do not feel significant in this deep time context. I don’t think my work holds significance.
However, Jerusalem is significant to me, symbolically and literally. It is where I live. It is to Jerusalem that my religion looks while praying. In Judaism, we speak of “Jerusalem above and below.” Above is the Jerusalem of the symbolic realm, the spiritual Jerusalem that inspired three faiths from Abraham and Sarah. Not far from here, by tradition Abraham brought Isaac to sacrifice and was stopped by a Messenger from God—which resonates in the spiritual realm and in the physical world we live in. Creation as we experience it, this physical world, is Jerusalem “below”. The ideal, in the spiritual world, is Jerusalem “above”.
Jerusalem imagined. Jerusalem recalled. Jerusalem speaks. Julia Vinograd, a San Francisco poet, says in a poem: Jerusalem weeps. Jerusalem as the subject of the sentence…
All of this lives in me, revolves around – above, below. Three distinct strands braided in one spiritual rope of Abrahamic Faith may well hold strong above. Here below they rub together and fray. The friction of the strands repeatedly breaks the rope leading to wars.
And I return to the question: Is my writing significant in all of this?
My book War Surrounds Us (Is a Rose Press) comes from observations during the 2014 Hamas-Israel war. A poem from War Surrounds Us tries to capture conflict mixing (up) spiritual and quotidian life:
A humanitarian ceasefire brought quiet
for a couple of hours, at least, although
a few rockets just flew out of Gaza.
These things happen—unfortunately.
In a few hours the short ceasefire
retires but what happens next depends
on people in separate rooms of a Cairo
hotel and mediators running between.
Like most days, my son went to preschool.
My daughter plays in her daycare. My wife
has gone to work. Papers wait for me
to read them and students wait to hear
their grades. Clouds watch indifferently.
Only my mind seems restless,
impatient, listening for the cracks,
the siren call, the singing voice
that will seduce me with rage, until
I crash against an ideological cliff.
A large half-moon shone in the morning’s
bright-cerulean sky. Yellow roses passed
their prime along the walk, but the crimson
bud—no, perhaps more a claret color—
tightly wraps its future, which is ready to burst
out and declare a moment’s respite
like a five-hour ceasefire, or like a truce
without resolution of all the injustices
on both sides, without grief for all the dead
on both sides, without a care in the world
except to bloom beautifully under a
clear sky and a setting moon.
Perhaps this is a good thing, I don’t know.
Who am I to judge a flower? Perhaps
I should go to the beach and watch waves
to learn about the futility of words and ideas.
Maybe it would be better to rest, take a nap,
dream. Instead, I write this poem, this fantasy
of connecting to you, my enemy across
the border, and finding a common ground
where we might plant our gardens together.
Will you hear the boom of this poem
the next time a jet drops a bomb near you?
And your poetry, will I recognize it as it
flies toward me and explodes? Will you
write it gently, so that I might catch it?
Mbizo Chirasha: What does poetry mean to you, is it a diet for continuity, is it a learning process, is it food for your soul or is poetry your religion?
Michael Dickel: Poetry plays with language, exciting meaning to quantum states that jump between understandings and beyond understanding. Robert Duncan writes in a poem:
“…Why, even in the room where we are,
reading to ourselves, or I am reading aloud,
sounding the music,
the stuff vanishes upon the air,
line after line thrown.…”
(“At the Loom. Passages 2”, Bending the Bow, 12–13)
And with a poetics quantum leap to page thirty-six of the same book in “Structure of Rime XXIV,” Duncan writes:
In the joy of the new work he raises horns of sublime sound
into the heat surrounding the sheets of crystalline water to make
walls in the music.
And in every repeat majestic sequences of avenues branch
into halls where lovers and workers, fathers, mothers and
children gather, in a life, a life- work, the grand opus of their
humanity, the old alchemist’s dream.…
This quantum-poetics provides an idea of poetry for me. Poetic language is revolutionary, as Julia Kristeva argues in Revolution in Poetic Language – revolutionary philosophically and politically. Poetry turns inside out: linguistics, ontologies, and epistemologies. It breathes alive – vibrating with emanations beyond what any poet or reader could explain. Thus it resonates, a powerful energy of revolutionary thinking, and moves people to escape from calcified thoughts into new understanding at the edges of our expressive ability.
I quote literary critic Joshua Clover in “Circulating Language Manifesto”, from my forthcoming collection Necropolis. Earlier in an article, he cites a quote from Christian Marazzi which opens the poem: “…the New Economy as convention is language itself, language as means of production and circulation of goods”. Later, Clover writes this, which with the Marazzi quote, bookends the poem:
Rather, there is before us the flight to a new capital, the brutal work of tearing apart and reassembling the great gears of accumulation and setting them in motion once again—if such a thing is still possible…Or there is the flight to something else entirely. (“Value | Theory | Crisis.” Publication of the Modern Language Association of America. 127.1, 107–114)
Here is the whole poem:
Circulating Language Manifesto
…the New Economy as convention is language itself, language as means of production and circulation of goods.
—Christian Marazzi, qtd. by Joshua Clover
An unrealized hunger chews against ribcages of ravens in flight
as flash floods erode history in the Wadi, flushing it to the Salt Sea.
There is no food on the table and the poet goes unpaid.
These words fill an empty plate, overflowing commerce,
an exchange rated for evaporation and condensation, loss
and replacement. This moment transforms nothing into labor.
Rising water drives thirstiness to drought even as it races forward
to parched bitterness that holds ordered tourists on its surfaces.
Order falls away with things, things lost in dreams, dreams
foretelling futures past. Electrons drove the Philosopher’s Stone
into golden silicone, so bits and bytes fly past geographies of things,
flowing with subject, seeking object, absent verb.
What is it we pay for in this life?
Red anemones contradict drenched grasses. A small blue iris sways.
Hot dust-storms coat the machinery that has frozen to our city streets
as the poet peels potatoes and pauses to reevaluate golden hues.
Sentences collapse under the weight of real prisons, unfolding
the crusty earth’s constant over-turning—geological composting
as surfaces rise up and bury themselves back into the hot mantel.
Potato skins skim vodka from decay; hungers twist into shadows.
Too many dimensions in set space reduce everything again.
Orbits drop toward gravity, the strength of the iron fist clamping
down on tomorrow. Poets remain unpaid; still words overflow
into nothingness with no value placed upon added desire or its
lack. Well-written banknotes are not poems;
Poems are not without a price.
Rather, there is before us the flight to a new capital, the brutal work of tearing apart and reassembling the great gears of accumulation and setting them in motion once again – if such a thing is still possible…Or there is the flight to something else entirely. —Joshua Clover
(Originally published in Diogen pro kultura magazin / pro culture magazine. No. 32. Print and Online, 96. http://www.diogenpro.com/2-seeking-for-a-poem-international-poetry-competition-2012.html )
Mbizo Chirasha: How has poetry changed you and your community, do you see some healing elements in poetry?
Michael Dickel: I wrote my first poems in elementary school. I wrote my first recognized poems in Junior High School, when I won a school prize. My high school had a “literary magazine” which published some of my poems when I was in 9th grade, and for which I was in the “editorial triumvirate” during 11th grade. So poetry has been integral to my sense of identity – reading and writing it – for so long that I would have difficulty describing how it has changed me. If it is true that we construct ourselves along with our culture using language then poetry has constructed who I am.
Most of the people I would call community also read or write poetry (of course, those who write also read , and those who read might well write but keep hidden). If you mean in Israel, I would say that poetry is important. Newspapers here include Hebrew poems. The English-language newspapers include English poems or translations of Hebrew or Arabic poems, most written by Israelis. I have been honored to have a poem in a national newspaper’s online English edition, I am speaking of Haaretz. People talk about and know contemporary and past poets. My children have participated in a celebration in their elementary school of Bialik, a famous Israeli Hebrew poet, reciting from his poetry, singing songs composed by others with his poems as lyrics, even doing a dance. Poetry in this way is celebrated by Israel.
In the Hebrew language song and poem are the same word, shir(s) / shirim(pl) (שיר / שירים). Here we see songs and poems united in Jewish and Israeli culture. No walls exist between the music of language and the music of voices or instruments in Hebrew.
For Jews, poetry goes back to the Bible and Biblical songs. “Song at the Sea” (Ex. 15:1-21) stands out as one example. The Song of Songs – a masterwork of poetry – influences my writing, as in Shekinah III. I recommend Marcia Falk’s translation as wonderful English poetry (Harper Collins). Much of Jewish liturgy comes from both Biblical songs and poetry written around 500 years ago in Tzfat, Israel. It might be said that the Bible also created the Jewish religion and people in language and that it continues to shape us and our poetries with its poetry.
Probably poetry has healing elements. Some poetry for some people may heal in its writing or reading – possibly both in a given poem. I don’t think that healing is poetry’s “essence”, anymore than the essence of certain plants is healing. Yes, if prepared and used for healing purposes, the plant may heal. Also, if prepared and used for another purpose the same plant might poison.What is made as a poem may heal a reader, even if the poet did not intend it. And what healed the poet perhaps could prove injurious to a reader. What I discussed earlier, the quantum-poetics ramble in answer to your earlier question – that’s what I would say – it beats as poetry’s essential heart.
Mbizo Chirasha: For how long have you been writing poetry and other literatures, who are your most inspiring poets in your country and beyond?
Michael Dickel: I remember sitting down when I was 8 or 9 to write a story. I wrote poems at that age, too. Neither story nor poems were likely any good, or what anyone would call “literature”. I have been writing for more than half a century now.
Besides those quoted in other answers, Leonard Cohen, influences me tremendously – both his print poems and his songs (שירים—poems / songs—shirim). I sing some of his songs while playing guitar, too. He is a Jewish-American who has visited and performed in Israel – I have listened to his music from his first album; later I found his poetry books and a novel.
Even though I have now lived in Israel for over a dozen years, as an American-Israeli English-language writer in Israel I remain mostly inspired by American writers: Walt Whitman’s American vernacular, sweeping descriptions, political engagement, and warmth towards humanity and nature; Emily Dickinson with her spiritual awareness within the everyday; e e cummings and his visual play with language on the page; William Carlos Williams and his “no idea but in things”, imagism, American vernacular, and close observation of the quotidian; Langston Hughes (who was born on the same month and day as I was, but different years) and his direct address to political issues, racial inequity, “real life,” also his using American vernaculars – including African-American dialect, blues, and jazz; Lawrence Ferlinghetti inspired me during the anti-War days of the 1970s, but continues in both his writing, his painting, his bookstore, and his other support of writing on the “margins”; Anne Sexton who brought darker issues of abuse to disrupt cultural frameworks (such as fairy tales); and Robert Duncan, whose erudite poetry also touched the everyday, his mystical references, and deep mythological roots. There are two poems I wrote in my most recent published collection, Nothing Remembers, directly inspired from reading Duncan’s Bending the Bow (book quoted above).
Allen Ginsberg, z’’l, was hugely inspiring both for his writing and his performance of his work. In 9th grade, I worked at our public library branch re-shelving returned books. I happened across a record of him reading Kaddish there and took it home. Hearing him changed me – it was the first time I heard a poet reading their own work. The sound woke me up to the vocality and sound of poetry (as e e cummings woke me to the visuality of print). I met Ginsberg when he taught a poetry workshop where I took an improvisational music workshop. In the afternoon, he held some open workshop sessions I attended.
The workshops were held at a former Jewish family summer-camp in the Hudson Valley. Participants camped or stayed in cabins and students hung out in the evenings at a cafe on site. Some of the music students would play. Ginsberg would show up, one of the few “faculty” who did. I had the pleasure of sitting at a table with him and a group of others during the week, just shooting the breeze. He truly was a mensch.
Back to sound – I have a Langston Hughes recording with jazz musicians joining in, and I have a YouTube playlist of poets performing their work. PENN Sound is a great archival resource for recordings of poets reading and talking about poetry, too. I receive good feedback for my performative readings. I even have one or two “fans” who return for more such abuse.
Sharon Olds, Joy Harjo, Ann Waldman, and Robert Bly visited my graduate program while I was working on my masters in creative writing. All of them are excellent readers / performers of their work (Harjo has released CDs with her band, where she sings or chants poems and plays saxophone). Their writing generates ideas and poems when I read it..
As Bly lived in the same city as my university, he dropped in more than once. I would also see him at events around town, and we had a passing acquaintance in this way. I wrote a review of his prose book. Iron John, and he handed me an autographed copy of it when I delivered the “tear sheets” to him. I have read almost everything of his I could find in print. His ideas about shadow and leaping poetry have informed my poetics. Readers of this interview who are familiar with his leaping poetry concept will no doubt recognize its connection to my quantum-poetics above.
Charles Bernstein and Adeena Karasick, also tremendous performers of their work, have been supportive of my work and inspiring. They are both contemporary Jewish writers who have come to Israel (as has Harjo), when I had the privilege of visiting with them. Adeena is a good friend, and we have read together in New York City on a few occasions. I visited her poetry class recently. Maria Damon and Michael Dennis Browne both influenced me in very different ways as teachers, friends, and poets. Maria connected me with Adeena, in fact. The last time I saw them both was in a cafe in Brooklyn.
The American-Israeli poet Karen Alkalay-Gut has been a great friend. I had read her before immigrating and she continues to inspire. We’ve worked together on several projects. Dara Barnet is another friend whose poetry I respect. Mike Stone, as well – we have found similar themes in our mutual works. I respect Michael Stone’s (not related to Mike) and Gili Haimovich’s poetry. Gili writes in Hebrew and English and has translated Midwest / Mid-East. A famous Hebrew poet that I have read extensively (in translation) is Yehuda Amichai.
Mbizo Chirasha: During this COVID-19 savaging and ravaging time, how do your current projects and writings touch the spirituality, the faiths, and lives of people?
Michael Dickel: This takes us back to my first answer. I hope we will find a common ground, a desire for peace, a longing for connectedness from this Time of Coronavirus—despite that we continue to build walls that coronavirus reinforce. Corona, a circle or crown. Virus, a microscopic organism causing illness. We have crowned an illness. I hope that we will find the spiritual “technology” to connect us and together find the revolutionary poetics-poetry to overthrow this despot ruler.
In March, I wrote a Wednesday poetry prompt as a guest on The Poet by Day (https://jamiededes.com/2020/03/11/at-the-beginning-of-a-pandemic-your-next-wednesday-writing-prompt-hosted-this-week-by-michael-dickel/).As co-managing editor with Jamie Dedes of The BeZine (https://thebezine.com), I have helped with our April project for International Poetry Month—Pandemic. We published poetry each day in April in our blog. The June issue of The BeZine will be on the theme of SustainABILITY, and we will have a focus on the relationship between pandemics and environmental destruction.
Two of my poems appear in The BeZine April blog-project – one written recently, one earlier but related to both COVID19 and SustainABILITY. The recent poem has an accompanying photograph I took from a “restricted” walk during lockdown. I have other writing projects in progress. Michael Dennis Browne, my university mentor in creative writing, would say (or quote?): “It takes a year for a poem to be born”. However, Allen Ginsberg offered: “First thought, best thought.” I will see what arrives.
Interview ©2020 Mbizo Chirasha and Michael Dickel MONK