Feature Poets:
Rachel Kann and Jill Hammer

Soul-Lit’s co-founder and editor, Wayne-Daniel Berard, engaged in interview with this edition’s co-featured poets, Jill Hammer and Rachel Kann, inviting them into a dialogue with each other.

Writing together they authored this poem -
Leaving Sodom


W-D: Rachel and Jill, welcome to featuring with Soul-Lit. You are our first ever co-features, and we are thrilled! The first question I’d like to ask is: What brought you to poetry?  What was it in the process of your own lives (and in the nature of poetry) that led you to become poets?


Jill: My mother says that I composed my first poem when I was around three, and it went something like this:
Someone created the world
we don’t know
but it is so 
Someone created the world
but we don’t know
but it is so


The poem says something real about me, which is that I am both a fierce skeptic and a deep believer—a difficult balancing act that a friend, Erin Kenny, once called “cynical optimism.”  That quality allows me to do the work I do, which is both a critique of Jewish text, theology and practice and an attempt to deepen, widen, and re-enchant that text, theology and practice.
I couldn’t really have imagined not being a poet.  I loved the idea of being a “poet”—someone who created beauty and meaning through language. I began writing poetry at a fairly early age and right after college I began to try to place my poetry for publication.  At the same time, I was also writing poems that were liturgy, and creatively translating Hebrew texts.  Now, my poems and translations appear in journals and in my book The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries, but also in Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook, and in The Romemu Siddur and other prayerbooks. 
The natural world and the mythic world both speak to me in images.  For me, poetry is a translation of those images, a writing down of the lightning that is the intimate revelation of the real.  I write a great deal of prose, but poetry is just necessary to my life.  It is a way I acknowledge my intimacy with the divine presence.


Rachel: In the Kohenet realm (with its own taxonomy—birthed forth by its co-creators Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD and Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere—still in a state of continuing expansion,) “priestess” is not just a noun, it is also a verb.

I mention this because I was exceedingly fortunate to have my poetry priestessed out of me by an extraordinary woman named Amy Steinberg.

Before I had ever heard of Kohenet, back when I was 21, Amy Steinberg and I met in Manhattan at a Jesus Christ Superstar audition. We did not get cast, but we got something better: new instant besties. 

Amy was (and is) an out-of-this-world singer-songwriter as well as spiritual powerhouse. Very shortly into our new bestfriendship, she urged me to do spoken word, and asked me why I wasn’t already doing it. According to her, I had a weird way with words, a unique perspective, and a responsibility to use it to create poetry. I resisted. Who knows why? She continued to midwife my nascent inner poet with gentle urgings and reminders—a true priestess in her own right. 

And not just that: another extraordinary thing I learned from Amy was how to unabashedly share art with no hidden agenda. We’d hang in her midtown apartment and she’d excitedly perform her latest songs for me. She had set up a mirror on the wall her keyboard was up against, and put the sofa across the room, where she could make eye contact with her visitor and really deliver. Her exuberance and willingness were...revelatory.

After a year of her asking after these unborn poems, I wrote one. 

Amy Steinberg priestessed the poetry right out of me. 

Nowadays, in addition to an award-winning rockstar, she is also the Minister of Ritual for the Jubilee! Spiritual Community in Asheville, NC. 

Life! Who can predict it?

In terms of poetry context, I was primed and had other things working in my favor, also by the simple grace of good fortune. I was already an avid reader. I’d fallen into being mentored by a world-class Shakespeare expert, Gail Fury-Childs. (So, so lucky. Such a life-altering blessing.) And I was really into the golden era of hip-hop. 

But none of that led me into actually writing poetry. That was all prompted and priestessed by one visionary besty. I was just really, really lucky, and I want to thank Amy Steinberg. I am, of course, forever grateful to her for seeing in me what I could not see in myself.

Jill: I love this story of Amy Steinberg midwifing your poetry.  We need to know someone is listening.

Having heard your story, I think I could say that, although I became a poet years before, Alicia Ostriker was the midwife-priestess for my poetry.  I took many of her midrash-writing workshops. She thought I could write and that mattered to me.  And she reminded me always to be as honest as possible in poetry and as simple and direct as possible, and that has made a big difference to me.   She once wrote a book of poems, The Volcano Sequence, that she entirely channeled— she says that as opposed to writing the poems, they wrote her.  I crave that experience, and sometimes it happens.

Rachel: I want to take a moment to say thank you to Alicia Ostriker for midwifing your poetry into the world. Both of you are such exquisite poets, and I am so grateful for the poems you’ve brought forth into the world.

I love this idea of being written by one’s poems rather than one writing their poetry. I know what it feels like to feel like my poems are more real than myself sometimes, which feels somehow related. There is great wisdom to consider here. Thank you for sharing this.


W-D: You are both deeply involved with Kohenet, which works to “reclaim the traditions of women, from priestesses and prophetesses of biblical antiquity to healers, dreamers, and seekers throughout Jewish tradition.”  Rabbi Jill, you are co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute, and Rachel, you are a Tzovah, a Temple Keeper, part of Kohenet’s Priestess-in-training program.  


Could you speak about what Kohenet means to you and how it informs the process of your poetry?


Jill: The Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute brings to life the spiritual leadership gifts of women and other marginalized Jews from the ancient world to the present, by training Jewish women in earth-based, embodied, gender-aware forms of spiritual leadership.  We want the Jewish community to celebrate, and benefit from, these ancient and new forms of Jewish practice.  We imagine a rich Jewish ritual life that includes the feminine as a positive force.  Our chant-based liturgy speaks to God/dess in a variety of genders.  Our ritual practices tend to include intuitive and embodied practices, like drumming, dreamwork, prayer and chant-writing, amulet-making, or communing with the natural world. 


Poetry fits right in because poetry employs a kind of prophetic intuition—it is an attempt to speak something true about the world while in vibrant relationship to that world.  Poetry is radical by its nature because of its spontaneity—it speaks against the censoring voice.  When we use poetry at Kohenet, we usually use poetry as prayer, and it complements the traditional prayers with a liturgical voice that is very much in the present.  Often when I write poetry, I am seeking that voice-- trying to awaken my sense of mystery and reverence in the present.


Rachel: I am currently immersed in the training program, matriculating toward smicha (ordination) in July of 2020, so to say Kohenet means a lot to me would be a major understatement. It informs much more than my poetry, but I am happy to speak to that specifically, and let it expand out a little bit—especially because it is so fundamental to my current work.

I just published my most recent poetry collection, How to Bless the New Moon on Ben Yehuda Press’s Jewish Poetry Project imprint. This was particularly meaningful to me because Ben Yehuda Press is also the publisher of Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD's and Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere’s seminal Kohenet texts, The Hebrew Priestess and The Kohenet Siddur. For me this was a hugely gratifying and validating gift, a big, full-bodied yes

I had become very inspired by the 13 Priestess Archetypes as laid out in The Hebrew Priestess, as have many others. There are Hamsas for the Divine Feminine by Kohenet Bekah Starr and Eht/Aht: a Netivot Wisdom Oracle by Kohenet Ketzirah Lesser, to name just a few
examples.

I feel so unnecessarily imprisoned by the maiden/mother/crone ternary. It makes me feel like my throat is closing up, like I am breaking out in hives. I think I am going into anaphylactic shock! I am allergic to all three of these options. None of them fit at all. 

What Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD's and Rav Kohenet Taya Mâ Shere offer by giving us these thirteen archetypes is an opening…an opening into even greater expansion and possibility, and I find this inspiring, healing and affirming. I am so grateful for these thirteen pathways.

I made a practice of writing a poem for each of the archetypes and they were published pretty much biweekly on Hevria.

It was not a preconceived idea. The Seeker, Doreshet, came to me first. 

I ultimately gathered the collection of thirteen poems as The Kohenet Netivot Sidrah (The Priestess Paths Cycle,) which forms the centerpiece of my collection, How to Bless the New Moon.

Suffice to say Kohenet has informed my poetry as directly as it gets. Could not be more directly than that!  

Jill: Rachel’s poems on the thirteen archetypes are some of my favorite poetry everywhen, everywhere.

Rachel: Just interjecting here to say thank you so much, Rav Kohenet. These words are a gift and I am so grateful. This means so much to me. It is a huge act of generosity to allow some else’s art to flourish from your visions and inspiration. To know how deeply you enjoy The Kohenet Netivot Sidrah is the sweetest cherry on top I could ever imagine. Back to the wisdom…

Jill: It has been so exciting to see the Kohenet archetypes (we call them netivot or pathways) become a language people use to express themselves about life, the feminine, the sacred, priestessing, and the diversity of being.  It really is so rewarding to have worked on this set of images and watch gifted creators like Rachel, Bekah, and Ketzirah take them and run with them.  

Rachel, I hear your frustration with the threefold division of the feminine into maiden, mother, and crone. The more pathways, the better, in my way of thinking.  Then more people have a chance of finding a myth with which they identify, that can challenge them and help them grow.

W-D:  I’m very interested in knowing the poets that you yourselves read and love? Whose work has inspired or motivated you as poets? Who are the poets, both older and contemporary, that you would recommend?


Jill: When I was in high school, I was reading poets like Robert Frost and John Donne—I was very into sonnets and rhyme.  When I was in college, I read all the feminist Jewish poets: Marge Piercy, Rachel Adler, Adrienne Rich, Alicia Ostriker.  Those women had a huge influence on me: their poems were about liberation and about constructive engagement with tradition.  They were my liturgy.  I read feminist poets of color too, like Ntosake Shange and Maya Angelou. I read midrashic poets like Yehuda Amichai and Veronica Golos. I have also been highly influenced by Japanese haiku poets, who speak in brief clear images and without any excess. And now I tend to read “spiritual poets” of a variety of time and places, like Rumi and Sappho and Mary Oliver, Marcia Falk and Malka Heifetz Tussman.  Especially, I like poets who delve deeply into our relationship with nature, and who give a sense of magical realism—that the real is truly magical.  Rachel Kann’s work is such a good example of this!


And I’ve been fortunate enough to get to have poets as friends and colleagues: Alicia Ostriker has become a teacher and friend, and also there’s people like Jay Michaelson, Trisha Arlin, Rachel Barenblat, and other Kohenet poets like Nina Pick, Ilana Streit, Ketzirah Lesser, Ryn Silverstein, Yaya Rosado-Torres—I get to see how their lives and spiritual visions become poetry and liturgy.  To me, that is such a profound knowing of someone, to see the poetry that comes out of them. 


I was in a writing workshop with Marge Piercy when I was in my twenties, and she gave the class some advice I will never forget.  She said: “Be curious about everything.” I have really tried to take that advice seriously.  For me, poetry arises out of encounter, and you can’t have compelling encounters with the world if you aren’t curious.  I think poets should read as widely as they can. 


Rachel: I would like everyone in the world to read “Song” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. I love Lucille Clifton, Warsan Shire, Jill Alexander Essbaum, Gayle Brandeis, Ellen Bass, Mary Oliver, Danez Smith, Alicia Ostriker, Joy Harjo, Naomi Shihab Nye, Li-Young Lee, Marie Howe and many, many, many more. 

I am incredibly lucky that Rabbi Jill Hammer is one of the greatest poets I have ever read, what a gift it is to pray her translations of the divine! What a gift it is to learn through her words. 


W-D: As you know, Soul-Lit is a journal of spiritual poetry (a term which we construe quite broadly!) Let me ask you the question we ask all our features: What does the term “spiritual poetry” mean to you? How would you distinguish (if at all) spiritual poetry from other forms? 


Jill: Spiritual poetry tries to address ultimate concerns: Who are we?  What are we doing here?  Is there meaning to life?  Does God exist?  What is my relationship to the cosmos?  Questions like that.  Maybe all poetry tries to do that, and to the extent that it does, maybe all poetry is spiritual poetry.   But spiritual poetry, I think, has a certain kind of optimism about these questions—an assumption that there is meaning, that being matters.


Spiritual poetry often attends to the ordinary and makes it sacred. Many of the poems I submitted for this issue came from moments in my daily life.  “What’s Under the Words” is about studying Zohar with my friend Dr. Nathaniel Berman, w.  “Miriam Points to the Well” is about a moment that happened at a Kohenet retreat when water burst out of a field where we’d been praying.  And “Bald Cypress” comes from my daily Central Park walk, where I pass a bald cypress tree who has become my friend.  “Tamar,” on the other hand, is a midrashic poem: it comes from an encounter with the story of Tamar in Genesis.  I wanted to speak in the voice of Tamar, but as I did, I found I was also speaking in the voice of the Goddess, and the voice of the earth. 


Rachel: It has to do with awe. It has to do with awe and ecstatic mystery. It has to do with longing and wrestling with meaning. It has to do with all of this, as filtered through the heartrendingly limited human experience. 

Jill: Yes!!


W-D: What words would offer to those who may be just starting out as poets? What thoughts, perhaps, do you wish someone had shared with you at that same in your lives?


Jill: I don’t know that there is any advice I would have wanted earlier in my life.  I think I would echo Marge Piercy’s advice: Be curious about everything. Read words that you find beautiful.  And don’t get caught up in whether you’re a good poet or a significant poet or a famous poet.  More than anything, poetry is a practice.  If it’s your practice, you just keep doing it, and trying to do it better all the time.  It’s great to find venues where you can share with others, and, what’s most important is the practice itself.


Rachel: When in doubt, return to the five senses. 

Think like a filmmaker. 

Immerse your reader in the world of your poem. 

Respect their time and be grateful they shared it with you by reading your poem, and it will help you speak true. 

(I think you were hoping for a spiritual answer, but in addition to publishing and performing, I am a teaching artist by way of being a poetry workshop leader at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, among other places, for over a decade and I can’t help but believe the practical is the spiritual in this case—if you catch my drift!)

Jill: I love this advice.

When I am writing a poem, I try to include as many concrete, sensual images as possible.  Abstraction in poetry is often alienating.  I love the words: “Immerse your reader in the world of your poem."


W-D: Lastly, I’d like to involve you both even more personally in this interview, and ask, “What is a question that you wish people (including myself) would ask you about yourself and your poetry? And what question might each of you like to ask the other?” (And then feel free to provide an answer) 


Jill: I like it when people ask me specific questions about poems I write.
Rachel: I have never thought of this (thank you for asking!) and I hope I don’t sound too shallow, but the first thing that comes to mind is:

Is it fun?

And to this, I would answer, YES! And so very hard. 

Rachel: Rabbi Jill, I would like to ask you, what were your favorite poems in high school? Also as a small child?

What recurring settings appear in your dreams and do these in any way affect your poems?

Is there a poem you love that I just have to read? 

When you are translating sacred texts, how do the perfect meanings come through to you? Is it a heard or felt sense of knowing? Your translations bring so much to light for me! 

Jill: What great questions.  

1.

As a child I loved nursery rhymes and fairy tales and folk songs and legends from around the world.  I loved Susan Cooper’s series The Dark is Rising and the poems she made up to be the underpinnings of the myths she invented. : “On the day of the dead, when the year too dies, must the youngest open the oldest hills, through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks…” 

I loved Robert Browning’s “The Eve of St. Agnes”: 

Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,
    Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
    Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
    Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
    Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
    Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
    Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,
    In fancy, fair St Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.
As an adolescent, I loved Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice,” which I memorized:

Some say the world will end in fire,
some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think i know enough of hate
to say that for destruction ice
is also great, and would suffice.

 

It says so much and in so few words.  I aspire to that.

I notice now that I loved poems I could memorize and recite to myself.  It was the sound of them that I loved, as well as the images they conveyed.

Rachel—I want to hear your favorite childhood poets too!

Rachel: Rabbi Jill, I also loved “Fire an Ice” by Robert Frost. And “The Road Not Taken” for sure. I also remember “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell gutted me.

Shel Silverstein was/is foundational.

When I was very young, I was given The Arbuthnot Anthology of Children's Literature that came out in the 70s. That book plunged me into poetry, immersed my mind in possibility. I love it so much. 

The poems from my childhood that rearranged my DNA and completely blew me open are: "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks and “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. I can’t put into words what those poems did to me; what they mean to me. 

2.  Recurring settings in my dreams:

Poems do come out of my dreams, and my dreams are an inspiration for so much that I do.  

I sometimes dream of underground sacred places: tunnels under a priestess fortress of black rock, a labyrinth of caves under the Temple in Jerusalem, a cave palace with an imprisoned princess, an elevator that dropped me like a stone to the underbasement of an immense tower, things like that.  And the underworld is a big presence in my poems: one of the poems I submitted for this issue (“What’s Under the Words”) is an underworld poem.  Labyrinths also appear frequently in my dreams, and I write about those too; there’s a labyrinth poem in the Kohenet prayerbook.  And many dreams take place overseas in castles and museums.  I love beautiful things and that shows up both in my dreams and in my poetry.

Water in any dream of mine is always a healing sign.  Rivers, oceans, and pools are often present.  I recently dreamt that I was caring for a turtle, and released it into a stream, and it sailed down several small waterfalls.  One might view this dream as describing the journey of the soul.

And, many dreams are set at Isabella Freedman where Kohenet meets, and we are doing grand ritual there!

And your dream landscapes?

Rachel: My most recurrent dream landscape is a place I call “The Dreambeach.” It’s a beach I don’t recognize from waking life. I’ve been there more times than anywhere else. It's sometimes serene and idyllic and sometimes terrifying and very dangerous. There is an impossibly long pier that goes out a couple miles. Behind the sand, there is a treacherous mountain with a very risky path I find myself on now and then.

The water is sometimes bordering on tsunami-level and sometimes as placid as a gentle lake. Sometimes it is sunny and sometimes is stormy.

I often go out into the Dreamocean.

I do have poems that take place there. The one that most readily is coming to mind is Mermaid Esther: An Astonishing Fire.

 

3. Poems I love that you just must read: you must read the whole of Alicia Ostriker’s The Volcano Sequence:

the disturbing red thread invisible yet warm 
travels between earth and heaven, vibrates through starless void...
does it carry the pulse 
of our prayers 
like a bulge in a snake dozing, like a stream 
of hungry, bloody hope, do all the red threads join 
form a web

And you must read the devotional poems of the Hindu mystic Mirabai:

One night as I sat in quiet,
I seemed on the verge of entering a world so vast
I know it is the source of
all of 
us.

In another poem, she says to Krishna:

Body and mind I surrendered ages ago,
taking refuge
wherever your feet pass.

And you must read Yehuda Amichai’s book Open Closed Open.  His midrashic poems are beyond parallel.

And there are lots of poets writing in a Jewish spiritual vein today.  Trisha Arlin’s book Place Yourself is great, so is Jay Michaelson’s Another Word for Sky.  Rachel Barenblat writes beautiful midrashic poems, too.    

And your poems are a must-read!

4.

When I am translating sacred text, I am trying to feel into the sensuousness of the text, how it conveys specific images, feelings, sounds, etc.  And, I am trying to look for its earth-based resonances: where it touches or expresses the natural world.  The experience of it is that I am bringing the text into myself, perceiving what I see when I read it, and then trying to translate that perception into the English.  And it’s also about noticing all the little resonances of words and seeing how that might affect the translation.  It’s a weaving experience.

Thank you for these wonderful questions!


Jill: Questions I’d like to ask Rachel: Your poetry is so beautiful when performed.  When you write, are you imagining that you are performing, or does that not come into play until later?  Also: I love your poem about Eve.  Do you have a favorite biblical woman?


Rachel: Thank you for the compliment. Some poems do come through me wanting to be spoken aloud, and some come through me longing to live more fully on the page. And some come through wanting to do both.

But the truth is I have very rarely imagined myself performing poems and then written them.

It’s so rare that I can remember one of the few times it ever happened, and it was around 15 years ago. As I was writing it, a vision of me speaking it on a mic came into my mind. It was very vivid, in a venue I had never been in before. When that moment came into real-life existence about six months later, I was onstage, performing, and remembered the location and details from the vision.

Rabbi Jill, thank you so much for your kind words about the Eve poem. It’s so hard to choose a favorite biblical woman, I am very taken with so many of them…but I think Eve and Lilith are tied…with Devorah in there, too.

…And one last shout for the Witch of Endor! You gotta love a witch who summons the ghost of a dead prophet for you...and then won’t let you leave without having a bissel nosh first. I have never felt more seen.

Rabbi Jill, last question, I want to know your favorite biblical woman, too.

Jill: For many years my favorite biblical character was Leah. One of my eyes has almost no vision, so I identified with Leah and her “weak eyes.”  I liked that she had many children and named them all in poetic ways, and I loved that the kabbalah identifies her with Binah, the “hidden" cosmic mother.  To me, Leah was the quintessential “internal" woman, drawing on her inner resources even with few outer resources to draw on.

Now I have so many favorites!  Miriam, Ruth, Tamar, and Michal (Saul’s daughter) all come to mind.  I love Ruth for her courage and kindness, Tamar for her ingenuity, and Michal for her quick thinking and her refusal to let anyone dictate to her.  Miriam is probably now my favorite, though— because I think the biblical text portrays her as a priestess, celebrating with song and dance. The story of the well that followed Miriam through the wilderness and nourished the Israelites has had so much resonance in my own life— I felt particularly connected to Miriam his past summer, at a Kohenet retreat, when a flow of water erupted in a field where we had been praying!. It felt to me just like the Miriam story.

 I also find it so meaningful that Sephardic Jewish women claim Miriam as the first healer, and that Miriam has become a symbol of the liberation of the feminine in our own day.  At Kohenet, the beta of tehd rum accompanies most of what we do, so the legacy of Miriam’s drum is with us all the time.  

W-D: Thank you both so very much!!