Richard Chess on the influence of religion on his poetry

BIG INFLUENCE: "Judaism and Jewish culture stimulate me imaginatively, intellectually, spiritually, even physically," says local poet Richard Chess. Photo courtesy of Chess

If things had gone according to his original plan, it’s likely Richard Chess would not be discussing his poetry with Xpress. 

“I started out as an art major, studying with conceptual artists,” he explains. At the time, he was enrolled at the University of Colorado. But after his first year, he moved back home to southern New Jersey, where his friends struggled to understand the art he was crafting. Discouraged, Chess quit.

But within a short period, he continues, he felt the need to create. “I also started my first serious relationship,” the poet continues. “Some words started coming. I didn’t know where they were coming from. I didn’t know what they meant. I was maybe 19. That, I think, was the beginning of work in poetry.”

Since then, Chess has published several collections, including 2017’s Love Nailed to the Doorpost.

In this month’s poetry feature, Chess — a professor emeritus of English at UNC Asheville, where he served as the director of the Center for Jewish Studies for 30 years — discusses the influence Judaism has had on his writing and the role poetry plays in the present day. Along with the conversation is Chess’ poem “Tashlikh 5773.”


Tashlikh 5773

“And you will cast all their sins into the
depth of the seat” — Micah7
Tashlikh: a ritual of symbolically casting one’s sins into a moving body of water performed on Rosh Hashanah afternoon 

Into this
into this
of land,
of water,
I empty
my holiday
a year’s
of gossip,
I empty
my eyes
of lust,
my heart
of unsym-
pathetic joy
over his
I empty
my hand
of the fist
and my mouth
of silence
where there
should have
been cries
of injustice,
I empty even
the emptiness
of vows I
made last
night, before
the open
heart of
this synagogue,
this wounded
house of
into this
I empty the
of ritual
so that I
may stand
stripped to
the bone
of creation,
a deed
to just-
ify my
life, this
life, carried
now only
by the current
of Your mercy.

XpressWhat inspired this piece, and how, if at all, did the poem evolve through revisions?  

Chess: I was asked by leaders of Congregation Beth Israel here in Asheville to read a poem as part of that year’s tashlikh ceremony. Tashlikh is a ceremony performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in which Jewish people symbolically cast off their sins by dropping breadcrumbs into a moving body of water.

Reed Creek runs through the CBI’s property, so I envisioned us gathered at Reed Creek preparing to perform the ritual. I wrote the poem in very short lines as a way, in part, of suggesting the width of the creek as it moves through the property. Those lines may also come to suggest something about our vulnerability at a time of year when we are being judged for our actions over the year that has just come to an end.

I think this poem came pretty quickly. I really like writing poems to be used as part of rituals. There’s a long tradition of that.

At what stage of a given work do you start thinking about the presentation and layout of the actual words on the page and how that choice could offer additional layers to the text? 

I work intuitively. I play with line lengths, for instance, as I go, searching for line lengths that will enable me to find the voice of the poem. Also, as I try out longer lines, shorter lines, and, say, standard length lines — about 10 syllables. I’m also looking for ways that the poem’s lineation will enable me to see what’s there in a draft of the poem and what’s getting in the way of the vision coming through. I’m also searching for a way to clear a space to see or sense what’s really there or what could be there in the poem. I don’t tend to think mimetically … that is finding a form that matches the subject of the poem. However, in this poem, the short lines seemed right, as I said, for the narrow creek that runs through the property of Congregation Beth Israel. The sense of vulnerability those lines may express — I discovered that after I had landed on the line length and shape of the poem.

Circling back, can you speak a little more about your faith and the ways in which it has influenced your writing?

Well, I’m obsessed with Judaism and Jewishness! I love drawing on Jewish texts as points of departure for my work — poetry and prose. Judaism and Jewish culture stimulate me imaginatively, intellectually, spiritually, even physically. There is no space between Jewish stuff and everything else in my life, so it’s inevitable that it would be central to my writing.

As far as faith is concerned, that word doesn’t speak much to me. Judaism draws me into questions, and just about everything I write arises from questions and leads to more questions. I like to point out that questioning is central to Judaism. The Four Questions are always a highlight of a Passover seder. Who gets to ask those questions? The youngest children! So, from the earliest age Jewish kids are taught to question.

Also, in Hebrew, Adam — Hebrew for “man” or generically “human being” — is connected to the word “adamah,” which literally means “earth.” However, the rabbis point out that adamah can be broken into two words: “Adam” and “mah.” Adam, as I said, means man or human; mah means “question,” or “what?” So, what is a human? A questioning being. Questioning — our most essential characteristic.

That’s fantastic. What role do you see poetry playing in the modern world? 

I don’t know what role poetry plays in the world right now. Language is used all around us in reductive, manipulative, abusive ways. Poetry at its best uses language to, among other things, express complex and nuanced emotions. In that, poetry reflects the fullness of human experience, something that the language, say, of politics and advertising fails to do. Perhaps most importantly, poetry plays a role in awakening us to our souls.

Is there a recent poetry collection by a local poet that you’re particularly excited to read? If so, why? 

I am really looking forward to the publication of Jessica Jacobs‘ forthcoming book Unalone. It’s a book of midrashic poetry based on the Book of Genesis. Jessica is a serious student of midrash, a rabbinic method of interpreting biblical texts: filling in gaps, telling missing stories, playing on multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings of individual words in Hebrew. Jessica is also a first-rate poet. The new book will be great not only as a book of powerful poems; it will also make a significant contribution to the body of American-Jewish poetry.

Who are the four poets on your personal Mount Rushmore? 

This is a hard question for me to answer. There are the poets whose work got me going: Gerald Stern and C.K. Williams among them. And W.S. Merwin and Robert Bly and Denise Levertov and Galway Kinnell. And then there was Yehuda Amichai, maybe the most important poet to me. And then those Hebrew poets of Muslim Spain, who I’ve come to love through Peter Cole‘s translations: Samuel HaNagid, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Judah HaLevi.  And, of course, there are all the poets whose work inspires, challenges and sustains me. Some days it’s Edmond Jabes, some days it’s Federico García Lorca and Rafael Alberti. Oh, and my late teachers, Stephen Dunn and Donald Justice. Well, the list is long.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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