Paul Corman-Roberts on Lenore Weiss: Bay Area poet, essayist, fiction editor at The November 3rd Club. She is the author of “Sh’ma Yis’rael” published by Pudding House, and has an extensive list of publication credits both online and off with her most recent work in “Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal,” and in “Women in Judaism” from Canada. Lenore also produced “The CellPhone Poems” with composer Paul Kirk and she is currently working on a collection of “Tkhine,” modeled on prayers by Jewish women, which were first published in 1648. She serves as Web Master for a transit company and as the chair of the political action committee of AFSCME Local 3916.
“Long ago I looked
at sky and saw
it was all morning glories,
the top of my head
and climbing along
an invisible thread
the way Jack’s
grazed the window
of a giant’s palace.
Now, I’m no longer
a young girl
who can turn
during my morning watch,
but, even so,
beneath a dormer
by winter rain
into curves of light.
Once I learned how,
I’ll never forget.
“Brit Shalom: Covenant of Peace”
Lenore Weiss’ opening piece in her most recent collection of poems, Sh’ma Yis’rael (Pudding House Press, 2007) illustrates perfectly the haunting optimism that permeates so much of her work.
That may seem like a strange description, but it is just this quality that distinguishes Weiss’ work. Between her every day gig as a web designer and fiction editor for the politically savvy online journal, The November 3rd Club, it is not surprising to find a prose poet and essayist who volleys and serves comfortably on the courts of technology and politics. More importantly, she is an emerging writer of serious style and content who is comfortable being an “internet writer” while transcending the “indie/small press/outlaw” ghetto mentality that permeates much of the net.
Her strongest quality on this front is how she captures what some would call “the ghost in the machine,” that is, her ability to find, distill and ultimately craft what is essentially the human spirit bleeding between the cacophony of noises and spectacle.
As a young recruit at the communist party convention in late summer New York, Weiss was “getting tired of speeches…I wanted to be in the company of worldwide revolutionary artists who had caught my attention: Neruda, Casals, Picasso, all Pablos – Berthold Brecht, Paul Robeson, Ben Shahn, the Hollywood 10 and many others who’d been called to testify in front of the witch-hunting McCarthy Committee…” Before the convention was over though, she would be flagged down by one such artist and intellectual who asked “are you Lenore?”
The radical poet and publisher Walter Lowenfels would become a mentor to Weiss and encouraged his young charge to go on and explore the boundaries between human language, technology and communication. This resulted in her being an early 80’s convert to the digital age, rare amongst the boomer generation of that time (though residing in Northern California undoubtedly helped in this regard.) This aesthetic of a growing role of technology and its unique relationship with human emotion and perception is particularly well reflected in a short story published in Andrei Codrescu’s Exquisite Corpse in 2005 entitled “Tech Notes.”
“I can sense that I’m getting close. Now the tech directs me to place the door to the computer chips over the board, and to turn the computer right side up. I turn on the power and carefully listen for some sound of life stirring inside the shell of my desecrated computer.
I have completed the autopsy. Nothing.
She orders a technician to come to my house to replace the motherboard. I may hear from him within a day.
I hang up.
I am bathed in a warm light that falls through the window, and makes a circle around me on the burgundy rug. I am encased in a glow, for some reason enfolded in a calm. Somewhere I hear a gentle whirring and it is at this precise moment I know that light is the breath of my parents.
Today I saw you near the BART station
where Chinatown’s elderly practice aikido
everyone dressed in jeans and loose shirts, on tip-toe
dissecting the air into equal rations.
But where did you come from? Former patients
in hospital gowns, maybe on tour from a distant do-jo
facing each other, repeating each form in slo-mo
without the help of medication.
I couldn’t believe it, there under the blue sky
tumbling on the plaza like two kids
who’ve never needed to stop and ask why
life bounces us back and forth in a fine sieve
grinding our edges until we give;
I saw you so quickly, I didn’t have a chance to cry.”
From “Tech Notes” Exquisite Corpse, 2004-2008
The mix of narrative and poetry wrapped around a core theme of a broken piece of computer in this daring prose piece point the way toward future experimentation in voice (and even in some cases negative capability such as “Reincarnated Lenny Bruce Speaks of the Jewish Problem”; “Oslo according to Nina” in Sh’ma Yis’rael) which are reminiscent of dramatic “call and response” structures in Anne Carson’s work. Not surprisingly, Weiss was a theater minor at San Francisco State during the 70’s, around the time she was studying with William Dickey.
After the appearance of Tech Notes, She joined the staff of the newly formed November 3rd Club, as fiction editor; the magazine being a literary response, both conservative and liberal, to the political absurdity the Bush administration was orchestrating as nightly theater. This was quickly followed by the release of her collaborative CD with Paul Kirk, The CellPhone Poems.
These influences give us a book like Sh’ma Y’srael, which, while one might say is “merely” a chapbook, manages to be the document of a very “wired” and engaged artist digging into the core of the inner self and finding an archetype rife with meaning, yet resonant with even casual readers.
“We grow loquat and Meyer lemon in Oakland
glossy fig and yellow and red plum that give
children in the flatlands something to do with summer
climb trees, have fruit-wars in the backyard
where they don’t eat pulp, but smash it.
Children inhale spores through pipelines
salt-spray of oceans,
even if they didn’t grow up in refugee camps
waiting for food packages,
they’ve watched parents fall in the street.
Women, could we,
living in caves and hills, in rubble of cities,
detained at border and checkpoint lines, rise up like a forest-
displace politics, religion, drugs, oil—
turn everything on its crown, deliver our children?
“Spores of Hope”, Lenore Weiss
Paul Corman-Roberts: What does the title of your book, Sh’ma Yis’real mean?
Lenore Weiss: Sh’ma Yisrael is the name of the basic prayer of Judaism. Almost every Jew, even those who have dismissed their faith know the Sh’ma, the call to prayer, one of the oldest calls to prayer which means quite literally “Listen.” It’s a call to listen. I was not raised religiously but I’ve found a home through Kehilla, particularly since becoming an empty nest parent, I really had a need to find a community, and Kehilla is where I came. The title really grew out of the high holidays this year, the preparation, the rituals and the Sh’ma which are of course, a big part of the holidays.
PCR: How defined do you think is the line between technology connecting people and alternately alienating them?
LW: I’m on the side of connection because you know technology is just a tool after all, which like anything else, can be used or not used for enlightened purposes – bombs over Baghdad or solar roofs over Miami. Similar questions were asked about television and I think the real danger, or the real question is: who controls those tools? When the internet first came on the scene a lot of people from the 60’s really gravitated toward that, particularly because the idea of communicating…the potential of that type of communicating…I can remember for the first time talking in real time over a monitor to someone across town and that just blew me away.
PCR: But how do you manage to keep technology in service of the human without the lapsing
of the human into the service of the technology? Or is a little bit of both needed to balance out the process?
LW: Walter (Lowenfels) wrote a little book called, “The Revolution is to be Human.” In the final analysis, I believe that’s the real revolution. Unless we can continue to evolve our consciousness, humankind may very well be doomed to destroy ourselves and this planet. But I’m an optimist.
PCR: In your essay “The Empty Nestrance,” your initial meeting with Lowenfels makes it sounds like he flagged you down on the edges of a seminar hall while you prowled the grounds impatiently. How was it that he became aware of you? It seems he had a notion of who you were.
LW: My anti(Vietnam) war poem had appeared in “Dialog” magazine which was published under the auspices of the CPUSA’s Cultural Commission. This is how Walter first became aware of me. He was an expatriate who had been in Europe around the same times as Hemingway and Stein. When he came back, he put together this anthology about the war in Vietnam (The Writing on the Wall: 108 American Poems of Protest Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969) and he wrote extensively about the “White Poetry Mafia” because at that time, black poets were getting no exposure. Walter would take authors like Ishmael Reed and Clarence Major under his wing, and I was going to visit him and his wife Lillian every weekend and he was the first person to publish a poem of mine.
I have a long history of wonderful teachers in how I came to writing. My father was born in Hungary and my mother was born in the US of Hungarian immigrants, and they both loved poetry. My mother would read poetry to us every evening. She loved Longfellow, and my father really enjoyed the work of Sandor Petofi who was one of the truly great national Hungarian poets; Petofi in particular because he wrote of the need for Hungarian liberation from the Hapsburg empire in the mid 19th Century. Those were some of my very first influences. My father was in the Communist Party, not when he was raising us, so I was not a red diaper baby in that sense, but those influences were very much around me. I’m a 60’s person, so I grew up with my ears open to what was happening in the U.S. at that time.
When I got my masters at SF State I became very friendly with William Dickey. At the time he was the head of the Department and also charged with setting up the school’s computer lab. Bill worked with me on my Master’s Thesis, and then we’d hang out at his house and he would read my tarot, and we’d have a drink and such. He was my daughters godfather, we were quite close. He, like myself and Lowenfels, had a great interest in the relationship between language and technology, and its impact on writing. This is where he and I really connected. We corresponded across the Bay about this subject for years. We both felt that as writers it would be a mistake to ignore the enormous impact that technology was and continues to have on language, and how we relate to each other through that electronic stratosphere. I’ve been involved with technology all my working life, and I think it has impacted our generation and our age more than anything else, and thus our communications and our relationships.
Now after years of sitting behind a computer screen, I’m becoming increasingly bombarded by information via these low-resolution screens that are unable to communicate the richness and complexity of experience. I’m hoping to write about that subject more. But it’s still a part of my paying attention to the relationship between technology and language.
“I have a carry-on with a singing noise
that goes wherever I go,
it goes eeee-eeyah!
I’m waiting to board
so I can get back home
waiting in the airport
with a toothbrush and a comb.
It goes boop boop, boop da dee boop!
There’s a man next to me
reading a newspaper;
someone’s sitting next to him,
but he doesn’t want to face her.
It goes oh oh, bodie oh!
She’s wearing a shirt
stenciled with Marilyn Monroe
but whatever girlfriend’s feeling
she doesn’t want it to show.
It goes donna wap wappa woedie!
“Ticketholders are now boarding
in aisles one through 18,”
I’m over 21 and I still can’t think
what I’m going to do in that empty apartment.
It goes rrrr rrrr rrrr rrrr rrrr!
I’ll get in the car and drive back home,
I’ll wash up, eat something, and check the telephone
that never goes eeee-eeyah!
It goes, blah blah bloddie blah.
I have a carry- on with a singing noise
that goes wherever I go
Wherever I go
it goes eeee-eeyah!
“Airport Song” from Sh’ma Yis’rael
PCR: In your prose story Tech Notes, which was published by Exquisite Corpse, you portray the ordeal of going through the dehumanizing process of trying to repair a failed computer, which was reminiscent of the perseverance that might be required in an emotional or intimate relationship with a human being; requiring incredible levels of patience and focus to get through it. In that story, at least to me, you brought an element of the paranormal into technology when a display light becomes the presence of your parents, kind of a ghost in the machine effect.
LW: That’s right.
PCR: Do you believe in the paranormal?
LW: Yeah, I do. I see signs out there in the Oakland Hills when I take walks along the fire trails, and I frequently ask for guidance. I believe there is another level of reality beyond the one that you and I are currently occupying.
PCR: Do you ever strive for magical realism in your literary work?
LW: I think I do. There’s another manuscript that I’ve started working on again from when I was a young mother, and I really tried to get it published at that time. It was initially called Tulips In The Dark, but then it changed to being just called Lulu, and I’ve only recently just returned to it. But I’m amazed…I mean…I don’t like my writing that much, because we’re all our own worst critics after all, because we have to be. But because so many years have interceded I’ve been able to bring a more objective criticism to this manuscript from a distance and I really like the work a lot. It ties together a lot of the themes of being Jewish and the Holocaust. The protagonist, Lulu is half Puerto Rican and half Jewish, and her grandmother is raising her but also a survivor of the camps, and is trying to distance herself from being Jewish. The fact that this girl is only half Jewish then makes it easier for her grandmother to raise her. It’s a story about their relationship and so the magic realism in that comes from Lulu’s fantasy life that she develops in order to survive her grandmother, who is not a very nice person, because she was so very warped by her experience in the camps. So I’ve had to say to myself, “wow, maybe this work has just been waiting for me until I could reach a point where I could work on it more thoroughly.”
It’s funny that you mention the Tech Notes poem. I was really happy with that because at the time, and as someone who is a writer and who works as a webmaster I’m always living with deadlines, and I had reached a point where it was all too much and I needed to back off and take some time, particularly because I hadn’t really dealt with the issue of my parents death in a way that I needed to. They died when I was in my early twenties and I grieved deeply in the background of my psyche and creativity, but not so much in the forefront where I needed to. Around the time that piece developed I was taking a class from Diane DiPrima on forms and I really just wanted to write a sonnet sequence as it turned out, and combine that with what was happening in my life, which was demanding so much of my consciousness. So, the way those two worlds came together, it was a profound and satisfying experience.
PCR: How would you react if I were to suggest your writing is a combination of Futurism and Magical Realism; that in essence, you’re something of a “Magical Futurist”?
LW: I like that moniker.
A woman walks down a path in early spring
a firetrail that runs along a creek
bloated with the excess of winter
But today golden poppies are arched to the sun,
as the woman spots a brown snake, new in length,
stretched across the road, its tongue
begging for hand outs from every rustle.
She bends down to see the solicitor.
But seeing happens so quickly,
even if with her own two eyes,
as dragonflies piggyback around her,
she touches the string of snake with an outstretched finger.
Her act is an instinctual thing,
while observing is an acquired art.
Never mind. She’s in the thick of it now,
follows the snake through the water, to the other side
of the water’s bank, until she turns into snake,
and twining around him, even his cold blood feels warm.
“String Theory” from Sh’ma Yis’rael
PCR: What is the project specifically you and Sharon Doubiago have discussed doing with Kehilla Synagogue at Esalen? Is this designed to be a collaborative effort with and among students?
LW: Well, the project specifically is through Kehilla synagogue, the first one in the country to recognize the two state solution. The project is working within the Jewish community to develop these literary pieces that are then brought to a larger stage. Broadly speaking there aren’t a lot of venues to hear the many different opinions or the struggles about Israel and Palestine and the occupation which has been going all of our lives. It’s helping people develop this material and then bringing out on a larger stage within the Jewish community for starters; to have readings, put together selections of material for possible publication, buy you know, one step at a time, that’s my larger vision. Alas, I have not heard back from Esalen who has a policy of “Don’t call us; we’ll call you if we’re interested.”
PCR: With increased instability becoming a hard and disturbing reality in the middle-east, do you think the 2 state solution is further away than ever (that is, not possible without a serious upgrade in bloodshed) or possibly closer than anyone thinks?
LW: I can and do have an opinion regarding the possibility of a two-state solution, but in the long and short run, it doesn’t matter what I think. I’m not living there. Having said that, here’s my opinion: unless a two-state solution offers real access to roads and the ability for Palestinians to move within any designated area, there can be no real equality. The settlements have carved up the West Bank and further isolated Palestinians into restricted areas where they are unable to conduct business and raise their families. Many Palestinians feel that the Israeli government is pursuing a path to eliminate or force all Palestinians to leave.
For many, a two-state solution is the probable political outcome, but I’ve also heard discussions that real equality can only come when Israel is not a singularly Jewish state, but equally recognizes the legal rights of both Palestinians and Israelis together. Do I think any of this will come to pass without more bloodshed? I hope not. Do I think a solution is closer than anyone thinks? Don’t know. Ireland and England reached an accord after years of bloodletting. Eventually, both countries and their peoples tired of the violence, loss of lives, and condemning future generations to more of the same. The Middle East is further complicated by its pivotal location for the U.S. geopolitical machine. In my opinion, the peace movement within both countries is crucial to edging their respective governments (Israeli and Palestinian) toward a settlement. We don’t get substantive news here in the U.S. about the peace movement, but it is alive and well, the true soldiers of this horrible war. Outside of Israel, I think it’s important to continually win the hearts and minds of older and influential American Jews who’ve in some ways become shell shocked by the Holocaust into believing that Israel can do no wrong.
PCR: It’s fair to say the progressive Jewish community has been fighting to get a larger and more open debate on the subject, and that’s been hard to come by.
LW: Absolutely. My experience in reading selections from Sh’ma Yis’rael is overwhelming. People haven’t heard this kind of material which is an alternative view from the established Jewish voice, regarding the whole issue. The response has been tremendous. My challenge, now that my daughter has moved to college is to schedule more readings and get these views out much more publicly.
Hear O Israel
from your daughter
who can only read the alliterative text of Hebrew
with glasses that need a new prescription
and a mouth that gets filled with saliva
from a tongue that knows not how to deliver
two dotted vowels-
Hear O Israel,
from a daughter
who was born in the same year
you were created,
after World War II had folded
its charred arms around
the only hope that was left-
Israel, the land of milk and honey-
You were the voice of my parent’s generation
who planted trees along new boulevards
and carried ashes sewed
inside the hem of their clothing
to cry along the wadis of your limestone beds,
hugging Exodus by Leon Uris.
You gave them a bright torch
to carry every high holyday
for all their days
raising money and donating shoes-
a reason to drink tea
in a glass mug with a lump of sugar
coating their tongues with sweetness
as they stamped letters,
made phone calls,
argued with each other in the accent
of wherever they’d come from.
Israel, my heart is heavy
with the dreams of my parents
their second generation daughter
who wanted a lasting peace
to fill the crevices
of your Wailing Wall
with a light of its own creation.
Instead, only war and massacre,
dairy farms and steel plants
laid to rubble.
Twisted iron stabbing the earth.
And the sighs of the six million
each time another official
invokes their name.