Feature Poet:
Betty Aberlin

We are thrilled to have the accomplished spiritual poet Betty Aberlin as our feature for this edition. Founding editor Wayne-Daniel Berard conducted this interview.

Soul-Lit: Betty, how did you come to poetry?  What experiences led you to become a poet?

BA: As a child I loved the rhymes of A.A. Milne, the poetry of William Blake, limericks, street-game chants, the lyrics of folk-songs, musical theater & Gilbert & Sullivan.

I don't know whether one "becomes" a poet. I always wrote, and when in 1959, at age 16, I mistakenly took as gospel the backhanded compliment of my teacher, a famous critic, Stanley Edgar Hyman (see bio), I continued to write poetry, even though what confidence I had had been utterly destroyed by his comment. Whether I focused on plays, novellas or short stories, I kept being told that my writing was "poetic." It wasn't until 2005, when I took George MacDonald up on his invitation to respond to his Diary of an Old Soul, that I began to write verse again, and realized that "I was a poet and didn't know it."

Soul-Lit: I understand that you studied with both Howard Nemerov and Bernard Malamud. Could you speak a little about that experience?

BA: I had gone to public schools in New York City. Bennington, then an all-girls school, had tiny classes, sometimes in the living rooms of the dorms. It was heaven to have one's ideas taken seriously, and Barbara Herrnstein-Smith taught a wonderful class in which we learned to read classic poets closely. My whole approach to poetry had been tainted by the throw-away comment, so I approached fine poetry, from Shakespeare to Yeats, as something that was far beyond my capacities, wonderful to appreciate.  Nemerov used to go around campus whistling the Tuba Mirum from the Mozart Requiem, so in this way, because I loved his work and so admired him, I got to know a great work of music. He let me know that being a poet was a hard life and said that if I continued to live imaginatively on the level of reality, that reality would eventually get to me.  He was right.

I admired Malamud's short stories in particular, and it was thanks to him that I got to read Tillie Olsen's Tell Me A Riddle in proofs, a transformative experience

Soul-Lit: As you know, Soul-Lit is a journal dedicated to spiritual poetry. We are often asked what we mean by this. So, I would like to ask the question of you, as well: How do you understand the term “spiritual poetry?”

BA: Perhaps "spiritual poetry" is poetry that deals with mystery, that which is ineffable, that which is beyond categorization or capture in word or image.  It may have to do with the way nature is magnificent & terrible at once.

Whether it is a portal into Eternity, like Blake's grain of sand, or speaks of a child's love, like Milne's "James James Wellington Wellington Weatherby George Duprey" and his mother, spiritual poetry might be something like looking into the heart of a fire in the hearth, some sort of inchoate seeking that is contained in the words enclosing the hope of reaching beyond our intellects into the realm of the sacred, that which wants to be expressed through us, to God or to our fellows.

Soul-Lit: Could you speak a bit about your own spirituality, and the role it plays in your poetry?

BA: It is said that if you have to describe a dance - why bother to dance it?  The singer cannot hear her own voice. I was brought up in what I call post-Holocaust Orthodox Jewish Atheism. My father left my mother to raise me and my younger sister on her own, so we were not part of any community of faith, or observance of any kind. I'm a 2nd generation American, Russian on both sides of the family tree. I could not help being uplifted in assemblies when we sang a version of the Lord's prayer, with the high note on the "EV" of "forEVer", but during what was called Religious Instruction, I sat alone in my classroom and drew pictures. I was around when they inserted "under God" into a perfectly beautiful sentence in the Pledge of Allegiance. I never met Catholics, for they were all in parochial school, and when we heard that the nuns were allowed to hit their students, we felt morally superior.  Nearly against my will, I experienced a conversion to some form of Christianity, heartened by Edith Stein/Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Cardinal Lustiger & Simone Weil who had managed to be "both.” When I realized Jesus was a Jew you could have knocked me over with a feather, and when I read Romans, I began to feel quite happy to share the DNA of the very Tree others were grafted into. Whether there is any spirituality in my poetry I would think would depend entirely on the perception of my readers. I owe Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, C.S. Lewis, J.D. Salinger, George MacDonald, as well as the books The Way of the Pilgrim and The Philokalia, a debt of gratitude. 

Soul-Lit: A number of your poems seem to center on issues and concerns of our day – mass shootings, anti-Semitism, war, violence against women. How do you see the voice of a poet, especially a spiritual poet, in these times?

BA: I think we humans (poets and non-poets) have to tell the truth as we see it, and not shy away from the hard subject matter, as though only lacy, non-controversial material were worthy of verse. Norman Vincent Peale’s power of positive thinking has empowered a very dangerous man who has used it to great advantage. I believe silence is complicity.

Soul-Lit: What poets would you say have influenced you the most, and who are the contemporary poets that you read?

BA: I am not very well read in poetry.  I did not know till the day before yesterday that artists were allowed to steal from each other! I was afraid that I would not find my own voice - would either copy others or be so intimidated by their genius that I would be discouraged from writing my own work.  Blake & Yeats, I have already mentioned.  T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party, George Herbert, Gerard Manly Hopkins. Gjertrud Schnackenberg's astonishing poem, Supernatural Love .... Stephen Sondheim lyrics, & visually speaking, the films of Tarkovsky, Roehmer, Bresson & Fellini. 

Soul-Lit: What advice would you offer to younger poets today?

BA: I think it's a miracle that I am published at all.  I am still too timid to submit my work, and the idea that you have to have an MFA in literature to find an agent repulses me as much as do the actors who had the money to go to The Yale School of Drama and buy the connections such training provided. The only advice I can think of is to go on writing whether you are published or not. write for the Most High. If you can gather a little motley group around you, & meet even once a month, to read your work & theirs in a workshop atmosphere of loving encouragement, I think you will find the inspiration and moxie to keep on.  I guess that's the gist of my advice, & I myself will try to follow it: Keep on. 

Soul-Lit: Betty, you’ve been very good about responding to all these questions – thank you! I’d like to close this interview by asking if there is a question you wish I might have asked? If so, I’d love for you to have the opportunity to ask and respond to it.

BA: The only questions I have are: How do we hearten each other?  How do we share that spirit which is beyond words? I'd like to recommend the book Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism by Anonymous (Element Books) which has enough inspiration in it to last us all our lives. If we do our best to pray without ceasing & keep working to best fear/anger with love/trust, that would be, as the grandfather we called Shepsa (little sheep) used to say, "just the ticket."