Feature Poet:
Ken Rosenstein

Ken Rosenstein was ordained as a rabbi by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal in 2018. Ken's rabbinate focuses on Integral Judaism, ethics, the environment and deep ecumenism/interfaith relations. Ken has authored a volume of poetry, Time, Space, and Soul: A Three-Fold Cord/Chord: Poems for a Renewed Jewish Liturgy published by Albion-Andalus Press in 2014 in which Threads of Life: Ki Tisa' and The Tree of Hesed and Tif'eretTu B'Sh'vat first appeared. Ken is collecting unpublished work and writing new poems and 
midrashim (imaginative expositions on Jewish sacred literature) for a projected second volume. Ken's midrash/poem on climate change titled The Tree of Life is Dying (with explanatory notes) has just been accepted for publication in a volume dealing with social issues from a multi faith perspective projectively titled Walking with God edited by Rabbi Deb Smith which is scheduled to appear in September of this year. 

Who's Out What's In originally appeared in McCann's Poetry Society: A Journal of Poetry and Political Writings edited by Morissa Lou Williams z"l who also edited The Wild Swanns: A Journal of Poetry and Letters in which In Memoriam: Primo Levi and For Those Who Were Lost on September 11 first appeared. These three poems were subsequently published in Time, Space, and Soul: A Three-Fold Cord/Chord: Poems for a Renewed Jewish Liturgy. The poem Clouds of Glory Wellsprings of Salvation makes its first appearance in Soul-Lit for which he is grateful. 

Soul-Lit co-founding editor Wayne-Daniel Berard conducted this interview with Spring Edition’s featured poet, Ken Rosenstein. 

W-D: Ken, we have been friends and fellow spiritual travelers for years; it is a pleasure to be interviewing you. May I start by asking, “How did you come to poetry?” What may have been the circumstances and happenings of your life that brought you to poems and to the creation of them yourself?

KR: As an adult, I began writing poetry when I felt the need to give voice to my internal wrestling with personal issues in the late 1980s. Somehow, I connected with the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the divine messenger/angel which is a touchstone story for me. The poem that resulted from that experience is titled The Blessing and may be found in my book of poetry listed in my bio below. From then on I began to write a cycle of poems on the major Jewish holidays and selected Torah portions as well as some poetry about literature, politics, Jewish cultural figures, artists, Jewish mysticism and my self/Self (in the Jungian sense). 

As a preface how I came to poetry, I will relate an anecdote that I trust will not reflect on my current estimation of my poems by other readers. When I was in sixth grade, a student teacher taught us poetry declaiming: "Everyone likes poetry. Is there anyone here who doesn't like poetry?" The gauntlet was thrown down. One brave student rose to the challenge and raised his hand declaring "I don't like poetry." That student was me. I can't precisely remember when I seriously began to read poetry. I do remember encountering the work of Anne Sexton as a high school student in the 1970’s when she was alive. 

W-D: Who are the writers, particularly the poets, that you love best and who might have had the greatest influence upon you?

KR: Aside from Anne Sexton, the poets I love best are Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, Wallace Stevens, Adam Zagajewski, Charles Simic, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mahmoud Darwish, Dan Pagis, Yehuda Amichai, Gabriel Preil, Abba Kovner, the Jewish poets of the Golden Age of Spain, Robert Pinsky, Rodger Kamenetz, and Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook. I believe that all of these poets and others have influenced me, although it is difficult for me to pinpoint exactly how they have done so.

W-D: As you know, Soul-Lit is a journal dedicated to spiritual poetry. You have been a mainstay of the readings we have sponsored over the years; I remember often introducing you with the words, “If you were wondering what the term “spiritual poetry” means, you are about to find out!” We ask each of our features the question: What to you is spiritual poetry? How, if at all, is it distinct from other forms of poetry?

KR: Spiritual poetry is poetry that affords one a greater apprehension of their self/Self, their relationship to those around them in family, friendships, work environments, community, society, and one's relationship to the natural world and the cosmos. I believe spiritual poetry is a vehicle of exploration into one's self/Self, society, the natural world and the cosmos. Spiritual poetry thus provides one psychological growth. As such, I believe, spiritual poetry can effectuate repair of one's self/Self, and repair of the world; what in Judaism is termed tikkun. For me as a poet, a desideratum of writing spiritual poetry is becoming a better me. Other types of poetry that do not address spiritual issues seem to me to lack these dimensions of spiritual poetry. Sometimes I come across poems in The New Yorker and other publications and I am left bewildered as to their meaning. When this is the case the cartoons and articles in The New Yorker are more spiritual than its poetry. I am being somewhat facetious although the point I would like to emphasize here is that humor for me is a dimension of the spiritual. 

W-D: Your poetry seems to be very firmly rooted in and colored by your Jewish identity and spirituality. Can you speak about the connection between these and your poetry?

KR: I primarily write poems that are based in Jewish tradition, holidays, Jewish mysticism, Jewish history and sacred Jewish literature (which has a time-honored tradition of creative imaginative exposition known as midrash which I also create). I believe my poems serve to enlarge the parameters of Judaism via creative imagination which shapes and reshapes Judaism and simultaneously serve as a portal to individual spiritual and psychological growth. 

W-D: What advice would you offer to younger poets, especially spiritual poets?

KR: I would advise writing about what interests you, intrigues you, excites you, about that for which you are passionate, angry, exhilarated, curious. I like to do research sometimes before I write poetry. 

W-D: And finally, is there a question that you wish an interview like this might have asked you, but didn’t? If so, please ask – and respond to – it?

KR: How do I respond to William Carlos Williams who wrote "It is difficult/to get the news from poems/Yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there"? Yes, people do die miserably every day for lack of what is found in poems. If people don't physically die, then they die spiritually. Yes, one does not turn directly to poetry for the news, however it seems to me that more and more poetry is being written as a response to the news, in protest of the news, as a call to action. Spiritual poetry is an act of affirmation, of what we hold to be sacred, inviolable. Writing spiritual poetry is an act of resistance, not passive resistance rather most definitely, active resistance as necessary as other more overt acts of resistance in this day. Other Featured Poets in Soul-Lit have expressed these sentiments as well.

W-D: Thank you, brother, so very much.