Skip to content

Log Out


Jessica Jacobs and Philip Metres in Conversation


Philip Metres is the recipient of the Adrienne Rich Award, three Arab American Book Awards, the Lyric Poetry Prize, and the Cleveland Arts Prize and has garnered fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Lannan Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Ohio Arts Council, and Watson Foundation. He is the author of twelve books, including Fugitive/Refuge (Copper Canyon, 2024) and Shrapnel Maps (Copper Canyon, 2020) and is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University.

Jessica Jacobs is the winner of the New Mexico Book Award in Poetry, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and has received fellowships and residencies from the Sewanee School of Letters, Eliot House, and Frost Place. She is the author of three poetry collections including unalone, poems in conversation with the book of Genesis (Four Way Books, 2024), and coauthor of Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire (Spruce Books/Penguin Random House, 2020). She is the founder and executive director of Yetzirah: A Hearth for Jewish Poetry.

 After being alerted to the startling fact that their forthcoming poetry collections have nearly identical covers, the two of them started a conversation about the surprising resonances between their work on and off the page, their interfaith explorations, and how the act of writing poetry might lead to a place of greater connection and receptivity to the experiences and questions of others.

Philip Metres: Jessica, thanks for joining me in conversation. I know it must have been a shock when you first saw the cover of Fugitive/Refuge and saw something like a twin of your own unalone. When you emailed me to share your cover, I laughed! What are the chances? To know that each of us went through a painstaking process of exploration and discovery to find just the right image, and we landed on the same one. Learning more about you and your book, I felt, strangely, less alone (unalone!). Some little egoic part of me had to die—that part that wants to believe that I am somehow original or separate (aha! the Western myth of the individual genius!)—but what took its place was the chance to see our art as something shared, a conversation, a possible friendship. Given this moment we’re in, the racial hatred against Jews and Arabs in this country, the nightmarish killings in Israel and Gaza, the terrible loneliness felt by so many of us (especially Jews and Arabs), I suppose that’s what I’m hungering for—to connect, to see that we are not doomed to separation and strife, that we are not alone at all.

So, what originally drew you to that image of Chiharu Shiota’s exhibition The Key in the Hand?

Jessica Jacobs: A book’s cover is so important, so personal. When I realized ours were nearly identical, I was upset for both of us and, as we didn’t yet know each other, worried about your possible response. I thought of “One Tree,” the opening poem in Shrapnel Maps, a book of yours I’ve long admired, in which a landscaping dispute between two neighbors also stands as a metaphor for the struggle between Palestinians and Israelis: “Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love.” How wonderful to know you met this unexpected twinship not with anger but laughter! As Viktor Frankl taught, so much of our experience of events is how we choose to respond to them.

When I shared this coincidence with a dear friend, she texted back, “Odd or God?” Given the surprising resonance not just between our books’ covers but their questions and themes; and that this came at this fraught, lonely moment when, as the director of Yetzirah, a literary organization for Jewish poets, I’ve been trying to find ways to reach across cultural divides; and that you’re an Arab American poet and the director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights Program at John Carroll University, I’m happy to lean into the latter option, feeling that this twinship is in some way meant to be.

My poems grew from obsessive study and a weaving together of texts and ideas with pressing personal concerns. Looking for a potential cover image, I wanted to find an artist whose methodology resonated with my writing practice. I began to research textile artists and, as I often approach the Torah through a feminist lens, following the paths blazed by brilliant thinkers like Avivah Zornberg and Alicia Ostriker, ideally I wanted that artist to be female.

Shiota’s installations grabbed me from the first, both for the astonishing complexity of her craft and for the concepts of memory and connectivity that inspire her. The Key in the Hand was especially striking, as was her artist statement that accompanied the work at the Venice Art Bienniale:

As I create the work in the space, the memories of everyone who provides me with their keys will overlap with my own memories for the first time. These overlapping memories will in turn combine with those of the people from all over the world who come to see the biennale, giving them a chance to communicate in a new way and better understand each other’s feelings.

Overlapping memories as a means of communication is very much a description of how it felt to write into and from a foundational sacred text. Now I can only hope my poems will continue as one small part of this chain of exchange and transmission.

And what about your book? What made this image feel like the one to carry the poems of Fugitive/Refuge into the world?

PM: I love your naming that image as one of connectivity and memory—that sense of our entanglement between ancestral pasts and unknown futures, between ourselves and the other selves who live now, between ourselves and those who composed the holy texts we wrestle with.

That sense of entanglement is already in Shiota’s art. I’ve been drawn to Shiota for some time now; I printed a different image from that show and kept it nearby as I worked. I wanted to keep it in mind, as if I were trying to write toward it, into it. I was drawn by the boat, its hull tilted upward to sky, surrounded by a red cloud of yarn. (Here, I think of your Noah poems, particularly “Collective Nouns,” and how the Noah story is a climate refugee story.) From this cloud, keys dangle like metal fruit. I see the hull as a heart, bathed in blood, holding invisible people and their vanished homes. The world is full of keys and blood and boats facing high waves, sometimes capsizing, taking down untold lives, grieved homes. The migrant and refugee experience is often marked by conveyances—boats, trains, lifejackets, backpacks, shoes. But those means of travel are threaded with such sorrow, such longing. It’s unsettling to know that every day, people are leaving everything they know, everything that is home, to face an unknown future. Fugitive/Refuge is a book tracing many journeys, including those of my own refugee ancestors—from Lebanon to Mexico to the United States.

Fugitive/Refuge is a book about trying to claim home, to remember the past and to forge new poetic forms and ways of being in language. Like you, I want to connect our disparate and divided lives through poems, their language forms and invitation to imagination. And like you, I was drawn by Shiota’s vision of the strings as connection. As she writes, “I can connect everything.... I want to connect people to the universe. I have also a universe inside my body and there outside of the universe. It’s all connected. My string is visible but I can see that we’re connected with invisible lines.”

Our lives, of course, are not linear but entangled. I wonder if you might draw us back to some of the places and moments where your wrestling with your Jewish faith began to crystallize. If I recall correctly, it was in the desert, working on your first book, Pelvis with Distance, about Georgia O’Keeffe?

JJ: Your description of Shiota’s “hull as a heart, bathed in blood, holding invisible people and their vanished homes” brings to mind “This Sea, Wrought & Tempestuous,” the powerful series of poems woven throughout Fugitive/Refuge. As the series progresses, the poems themselves, like so many of those boats horribly broken by their attempted journeys, abandoning their passengers to the water, start to disintegrate across the page.

All but one of my grandparents made their own ocean crossings as young children, fleeing the Polish pogroms. (It’s only after reading your book, especially the endnotes in which you write, “We never used the term refugee, but my grandfather was a refugee, who fled Lebanon after his father, my great-grandfather, Iskandar ibn Mitri Abourjaili, was exiled for disobeying the Ottoman army,” that I find myself wondering for the first time whether my grandparents were immigrants, the term my family has always used, or refugees—a potential reseeing for which you have my gratitude.) While my family felt it was important that I understood myself to be culturally Jewish and that I had some sense of the history of persecution that had brought us to the US, they were not particularly invested in Judaism as a religion. So as a young queer kid desperate to discover a world beyond conservative central Florida, books became my sacred texts, my means of connection to a reality beyond my own.

Then in my early thirties I went to the high desert of New Mexico to write what would become my first book. Forty miles out from the tiny town of Abiquiu, at the base of a narrow canyon, I spent a month alone in a small cabin with no electricity, internet, or phone, where my closest neighbors were five miles away by foot. The first thing I did was cover all the mirrors, curious to know what might happen if my only means of reflection was internal. I read and wrote, ran barefoot in the dry riverbed and along the rutted paths of deer and elk. In the absence of society’s rush and noise and the need to construct a public self to survive within it, I became a bit more feral each day, and large questions rose up in me: Why was I here? What would it mean to live a good life? What choices could I make to serve more than just myself?

Pelvis with Distance is a biography-in-poems of Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as an exploration of what it might mean to live as an artist, but looking again closely, I can see the spiritual concerns that snuck in. Though I had not yet read the Psalms, I now think of that time in the canyon as an embodiment of Psalm 118:5: “From the narrow place I called out to God and God answered with expanse.” (And you have to love the chiasmus here, in which the words answer each other in reverse order, just as sounds echo between a canyon’s walls.)

Returning to the world, literature no longer felt like enough. I wanted to learn from more ancient and expansive wisdom, tested by the trials of time, which eventually brought me to the Torah and Midrash, as well as more mystical Jewish texts. But on my way there, I found an important connection with the teachings of Saint Ignatius—a fact that added to that fated feeling when I learned you teach at a Jesuit school.

PM: I want to talk more about your return to studying and practicing the faith of your ancestors, but as someone who has gone through Jesuit prep school and college before teaching at John Carroll, I’m dying to hear more about your encounter with Saint Ignatius—and then I’ll tell you about my long-standing obsession with Jewish texts and culture.

JJ: I’m always happy to talk about my fangirling of Saint Ignatius. I was running marathons and 50Ks at the time and listening to podcasts to help carry me through the training. During one long run, I heard a conversation so compelling I listened to it twice: Krista Tippett interviewing Father James Martin, SJ, about the teachings and practices of Saint Ignatius. As someone who has never felt all that comfortable within given systems, I loved the story of this man who came to religion as an outsider, on his own terms, and who was deemed a heretic before he was regarded as a saint.

Though I was uncertain of my relationship to the concept of God (and still am, for that matter), I was moved to learn about the daily examen, that beautiful process of discernment that might help us live each day just a little more aligned with our internal better angels.

I also became a bit obsessed with imaginative prayer, which you described in America magazine as a “fundamental emphasis on an active imagination, what Saint Ignatius calls composición—often translated as ‘seeing in imagination’ or ‘mental representation.’” This practice, which I’ve also seen called “composition of place,” beautifully described how I was trying to imagine my way into the experiences and emotions of O’Keeffe and, later, how I would come to write my way into the stories of Genesis for unalone. I particularly love the idea that you notice your own noticing without judgment, without berating yourself for not giving awareness to the “right” thing, but instead ask what can be learned by trying to understand what drew you to the object of your attention.

I was so taken with these teachings that I even briefly considered whether Catholicism might be right for me. But I figured I should at least give my own tradition a chance before jumping ship, and I was delighted to find some similar practices in Judaism: cheshbon hanefesh is “an accounting of the soul,” and every year on Passover, we’re commanded not just to tell the story of the exodus from slavery in Egypt but to imagine that we ourselves were slaves making that journey toward freedom. Yet I still practice the examen on occasion, and Ignatian imaginative prayer has become a cornerstone of how I teach Midrashic and research-based writing.

I’d love to hear about your relationship to Catholicism, and how it’s changed over your years in Jesuit institutions, as well as your interfaith and intercultural explorations—as your book draws its form from the Arabic qasida, quotes Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and concludes with the stunning poem “Devotional,” which riffs on a Muslim prayer.

PM: I loved your essay in Guernica, “The History Before Us,” and how it traces the journeys of your great-grandparents from Poland, fleeing antisemitism and narrowly missing being annihilated during the Holocaust. You describe how your great-grandmother lost two sons due to poisoning by flour sold to Jews that was mixed by the local merchant with gypsum, and you share a poignant realization:

Whether she is grateful for it or not, whether she would have changed it if she could, the death of her sons saved her from that pit. Their deaths were traded for the lives of my grandmother and her siblings, for my father and his. Traded for my sisters and me and the children who come after us. We all live because those boys didn’t.

You capture so well the aching miracle of being alive at all in a world that seems to conspire to kill you. And how that wonder leads to a sense of debt to those who came before us, who made it through. Our books unalone and Fugitive/Refuge share not only covers but also an obsession with ancestral inheritances, tracing ancestral journeys backward in order to find out where we are and where we’re going. And of course, those inheritances include the faith practices of our ancestors.

My parents were both cradle Catholics, fervently so. My father was a member of a Sodality of Our Lady in college (yes, I had to look it up too), and my mother actually joined a convent for a year before realizing that her calling was for married life. They continue to attend weekly Mass wherever they go. Like you, I have had (and continue to have) my struggles with institutionalized religion and the church. I was a spotty churchgoer in my twenties and even thirties. I’d have fits of fervor, like the year I lived in Russia, when religion was one of only things that kept me from losing my mind entirely. Suffering is like that.

Yet something more than Marx’s opiates keeps calling me back. When my wife and I started going to Saint Dominic Parish about a dozen years ago, we felt so welcome. We would take turns crying during Mass at the loving words spoken by Father Tom, exhorting us that all are welcome in this place. We wanted to raise our children in the church—not because it is perfect, but because it is a place and time where we set aside our busy lives and seek communion, to encounter (one hopes) the divine. I love what Father Greg Boyle has said, that the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners, for those longing to be healed.

It hasn’t worked out as elegantly as that. One of our daughters came out as gay. The following year at her Catholic primary school, her bid to start an allies group was rejected. She was devastated, and it turned her off from church entirely. The other daughter, in solidarity, is also searching outside the Catholic Church. My wife is exploring pagan goddess worship. I get it. I wrestle with the patriarchy, homophobia, and authoritarianism of the Catholic Church all the time. I mean, really, why would I go to a church that does not see my daughter’s love as just as beautiful as any other love?

What I have decided, at least for now, is that I’m not afraid of the struggle. Jacob’s struggle with the man (or angel?) is my struggle. I’m not letting go. I’m holding on for the blessing. Blessing, after all, at its root means to be marked with blood. I once confessed to a Jesuit friend that I thought maybe I was a Jewish Catholic, because I was constantly wrestling, constantly arguing with God and the church. He said, “Aw, you’re just a Jesuit Catholic!” But I’m drawn by that aspect of Hebrew Scripture that you address in “Why There Is No Hebrew Word for Obey.” That poem, about Abraham and Isaac, ends so majestically, so poignantly:

What if we turn
from certainty and arm ourselves

instead with questions?
Obey, obey, obey is everywhere

In translation. The real word is
ַשמע  shema: listen

I identify with you in this poem. And with Jacob and his wrestling, with Job and his incessant (and utterly rational) questions. God’s silence is terrifying and demoralizing. God must explain why evil is visited upon good people. It doesn’t make sense!

For the past twenty-five years or so, my parents have begun each day with a psalm and half an hour of silent contemplative prayer. What used to make me itchy—all that silence—now is this wild blessing of time with them when I visit home. That listening. Nothing but pure presence. As you write in “In the Days between Detection and Diagnosis” in your previous book: “I cannot say / what I believe. But I am listening.”

One of the ironies is that they were turned on to contemplative prayer within the Catholic tradition by a Protestant minister, Hal Edwards, with whom they shared many years of interfaith community. My dad, a practicing therapist for nearly fifty years, used to take us to all the local churches as part of his outreach. We visited every Christian denomination you can imagine. What I discovered was that they were far more alike than not. And when I went to services at synagogues, I saw the kinship there as well. And still later, I saw kinship with Islam and its embodied devotions and cherished relationship to a living and somehow irreducible word, even to the point of resisting translation of the Qur’an. (By the way, I’m still shook by how your Noah poem reveals that one meaning of the Hebrew term for ark is word!)

The more I’ve dipped my small cup into these various deep religious wells, the more I see the sweet water they share. I saw the rhyme as well between the Midrashic tradition and the Ignatian “composition of place”—entering into those stories imaginatively, working ourselves inside them, trying to imagine through all the presences and silences.

When I was twenty, I did a silent Zen retreat, thinking I might be Buddhist, and then a weeklong version of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises—also a silent retreat. I can’t tell you the great gift of that silence, which was also a kind of communion with my silent classmates, on the shores of the Narragansett River in Rhode Island. The kenosis of it. The outpouring of so much. And then the inflow of love. This love, flowing in and out of a me that is not just my self but also something else. The great Sufi poet Rumi, in one translation at least, says, “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.” That’s it. Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “When I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure.”

From my first books—and really from my first published poem—that encounter with the great otherness has always been there. In every book, there’s at least one prayer poem, and often elements of what has broadly been called the Catholic imagination. What I appreciated about the Jesuit tradition, as well, was its commitment to social justice, to solidarity work—to the idea that faith is nothing without commitment to something beyond ourselves. What I didn’t understand—perhaps until the Kairos retreat my senior year—was that all the “faith seeking reason” stuff wasn’t enough for me. I was an anxious, guilt-ridden, flesh-fearing boy. The earliest form of Catholic training I received seemed rule-bound, stiff, guilt-sodden, and inhumane. The second layer of training, around reason, felt similarly distant from my heart. It was only with those experiences of retreat, of contemplative and mystical prayer (thanks, Merton!), that I felt something nourishing in the tradition, that I felt something healing in me.

I didn’t really think of myself as a Catholic poet until I won an award called the Hunt Prize, which is given to a Catholic writer. I had to be called back. I can see it more clearly now, but I had to wind a long prodigal way back even to accept it. When I was younger, I thought if I truly believed that God was first, then I should destroy all my poems, like Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’ve gotten less militant about such things—thankfully, Hopkins acceded to a request by his superior to write a poem for nuns who died in a shipwreck. Nobody asked me, but I felt the river in me enough to say that maybe this was not just about my ego.

In Fugitive/Refuge, as with Sand Opera, I begin and end with prayer poems. During the pandemic lockdowns of 2020, I got obsessed with the Psalms again, reading them in multiple translations and working with them to find some way out of plague isolation and desolation. The first poem is “Plague Psalm 40,” a remix of the original fortieth psalm. The final poem is “Devotional,” which is inspired by a prayer from the Islamic tradition, though its language feels at home in probably all three religions of the Book. It has been important to me to be in conversation with these traditions; Jews, Christians, and Muslims need to find a way back to each other in order to move into the future together—not just in Jerusalem and Israel/Palestine, but in our whole broken and polarized world. I see and know the occasional parochialism of my own tradition—indeed, any tradition that sees itself as universal—and so I’ve chosen to make sure I spend as much time as I can in margins, in desert places.

Can you talk about why you began with the beginning—or, as I learned from unalone—the plural “beginnings” of Genesis. In many ways, this book’s focus on Judaism is a departure from your previous work, with its concerns grounded in erotic relationality, the body, and love, with the exception of a few poems (like “Nevertheless” from Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going—itself a reference to the book of Ruth). What drew you specifically to want to abide with and write through that book and its origin stories? Did you have specific practices or rituals as you attended to the work?

JJ: I want to first say how moved I am by how you not only accept your immediate family’s explorations outside of Catholicism but seem to truly support and appreciate such heartfelt searching: that you see your daughter’s love as “just as beautiful as any other love” and understand your family’s spiritual quests to be just as vital as your own. This all feels wonderfully in keeping with how you draw on an array of sources for your own inspiration.

Two of my inspirations (among many) are etymology and questions of translation. Verse by verse, I was astonished by how the etymologies of nearly every word could open and beckon like rabbit holes into a boundless burrow. Genesis begins, Bereshit bara Elohim, which is usually translated, “In the beginning, God created…” But even these first words are mysteries crying out for our engagement. At a glance I can find over three hundred pieces of commentary on these three words alone! For as Rashi writes, “This text calls out ‘explain me!’”—using the Hebrew phrase darsheni, which shares the same root as Midrash.

Part of this mystery is that bereshit is actually plural (“beginnings”), giving rise to wonderful interpretations, including the possibility that the Torah may have already contained our modern concept of the multiverse, with many realities now playing themselves out simultaneously, as well as the idea that there were more than a few false starts before God hit upon a beginning that seemed worth seeing through. Bara can also be read as a gerund: “creating” instead of “created.” So in contrast to placing the creation of the world firmly in the rearview mirror, the text can potentially read, “In the beginnings of God’s creating...,” allowing us to imagine we live in a world that is every moment created anew, infused with the divine choice that existence should continue, and that everything that happened in the Torah is always happening, always there for us to tap into and reexperience. (I won’t even go into the amount of commentary about the very first letter: Why begin this holiest work with bet, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, instead of aleph, the first? And the rabbis go wild…)

At first, I thought I’d write a single book in response to the entire Pentateuch, with one poem for each of the fifty-four weekly Torah portions. But after learning that even three words could engender an entire library of rabbinic writing, I knew that to truly engage with this text, to gain even some small semblance of understanding, I’d need to slow down and immerse myself in this one book.

The twelve portions of Genesis provided the narrative arc of unalone, with their themes and characters acting as the book’s skeletal structure. I relied on multiple translations of the Torah and taught myself just enough biblical Hebrew to burrow into the language myself, also reading widely in classic rabbinic commentary and contemporary scholarship. I took careful notes, transcribing passages I found especially moving or curious or, often, infuriating, interspersing these with my questions. Yet to give these skeletal notes flesh and breath, the tendons and ligaments needed to bind it all and set the poems in motion, I also made note of what rose up from my own life and the world around me in response to these ancient stories.

What I didn’t fully grasp until I was nearly through writing unalone was that while Exodus through Deuteronomy focuses on the saga of a disparate and often contentious group of escaped slaves wandering the wilderness while slowly cohering into a community with a shared set of laws and values, Genesis is far more intimate, primarily concerned with individuals, their families, and their personal relationships with God.

So while many of the poems in unalone address larger topics I’ve never before felt able to write about so directly—patterns of racism and antisemitism, climate change and the consequent rise of climate refugees—much of it is personal, drawing on romantic and familial love and sorrows. During the research and writing, as I lost my mother by slow degrees to dementia, I was accompanied by Isaac’s grief after Sarah’s death and Joseph’s longing for his lost family. Because I was able to see my own life reflected in these ancient archetypes, I felt far less alone.

Also instrumental in writing these poems were conversations that allowed me to wrestle with the texts in good company. By some tremendous stroke of luck, right before the pandemic I connected with Rabbi Burton Visotzky, a renowned scholar of Midrash, and he invited me to become one of his chevruta (study partners). We’ve been meeting regularly to discuss Scripture and various wisdom literature for the last three years, which gave me much of the confidence I needed to begin sending these poems into the world—and which is why unalone is dedicated to Burt.

But over the seven years of writing this, as with you and your parents before you, my inspirations and influences have ranged widely. I’ve received spiritual direction from the Presbyterian minister and poet Nadine Ellsworth-Moran, joined an incredible Black-Jewish Bible study group composed of rabbis and Black Christian clergy (and me, as the lone poet), taught workshops on using poetry to explore the sacred (if you want to understand something, I think one of the best ways to do so is to teach a course on the subject), and through those classes learned from former nuns, practicing Buddhists, lapsed Catholics (who can’t stop writing about Catholicism), and clergy of various denominations. I’ve also had a weekly walking date with Amy Peterson, an Episcopalian priest and wonderful memoirist, during which we tread a four-mile loop while brainstorming for her weekly sermon, hashing out ideas for one of my poems, or delving together into texts from the perspective of our respective traditions, which has been a beautiful way to forge a friendship.

In a conversation with the poet and artist Cameron Lawrence in the Los Angeles Review of Books, you said, “If I’m being honest, I find some God talk to be suffocating. I want the God behind the God of religion. The God at the core of the mystery of existence.” While I rarely tap into the sacred during a formal religious service, studying my way into a story through writing and conversation and shared exploration, truly alive to the text’s every nuance and possible direction, often feels like the closest I come to communing with God.

In addition to being in conversation with ancestors like your great-grandparents Iskander and Elena and telling some of the stories of contemporary migrations around the world, you also share the stories of two of your Black neighbors in Cleveland who struggle to find housing after completing prison sentences. From my time with Burt, I’ve learned that it’s not enough to just study Torah; that to truly learn it one must live it, embodying these teachings in our actions. What is the relationship between your poetry, your faith, and your work in social justice? I’d love to hear more about how they inform and fuel each other.

PM: I’m still thinking about that notion of not one beginning, but beginnings. In my study of the Bible, I was aware of the two creation myths packed in there, but the fact that it’s in the very first word—I’m speechless, humbled again, thinking of how what we imagine to be a certain way turns out to be another. This is partly why I get itchy around exclusionary views in my own Catholic tradition—“if you don’t believe this, then you are not one of us.” One of the poets in an online workshop I recently taught for Image, Elizabeth Brown, had a dream in which these words came to her: “Theology is the gate, but poetry is the movement of the gate as summer passes through.” How many of us have experienced theology, or our religious communities, as a gate—or worse, as an exclusionary wall, a suffocating prison cell? Yet suffused throughout these traditions—perhaps, finally, the animating force—is that wind, that spirit, that spiritus, that ruach. The God behind God. God is the word, perhaps, for that which binds us all—no, let’s say, threads us all—to what we can only partially know or understand.

All of which is to say that I write in order to encounter that unknowability, to enter into that mystery, to ground myself, a self that is connected to earth and to other people. In “Let Us Be Attentive,” an essay I wrote on wonder and social justice, I realized that my sense of curiosity and awe invariably led me to peace and justice work. If our eyes are open, we can instantly see both lovable beauty and aching tragedy all around us. For some, the tragic is only that: something that we must acknowledge but ultimately cannot change. That idea of total resignation violates something in me. I can understand why people come to that point, but I refuse to accept it. (Pirkei Avot: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”) This reminds me of your poem “In the Canyon II/Fear and Breaking” (from Pelvis with Distance) in which you quote from Rabbi Isaac Luria on both the tradition of tikkun olam (to repair the world) and tikkun hanefesh (repair of the soul). You write,

Inherent in brokenness

            is breaking open—the ability to hold more than when whole.

If we allow it, we’re often broken open by the world. And, somehow, perhaps, we can hold more because of it.

Saint Oscar Romero, a bishop in El Salvador, was assassinated in 1980 for his advocacy. What got him into trouble was that he refused to be silent while his parishioners were being murdered by the state. When asked to explain Catholic Church teaching on the preferential option for the poor, he said:

A building is on fire and you’re watching it burn, standing and wondering if everyone is safe. Then someone tells you that your mother and your sister are inside that building. Your attitude changes completely. You’re frantic; your mother and sister are burning and you’d do anything to rescue them even at the cost of getting charred. That’s what it means to be truly committed. If we look at poverty from the outside, as if we’re looking at a fire, that’s not to opt for the poor, no matter how concerned we may be. We should get inside as if our own mother and sister were burning. Indeed it’s Christ who is there, hungry and suffering.

This is precisely the parable that our own pastor used when talking about Black Lives Matter. He said, of course all lives matter, but if you’re on a block and a home is burning, you rush to that house to put out that fire. This is the painful part of believing we’re connected. If indeed we are connected, then our ideologies, our protective shields, must be lowered. What if it were our mother or sister or brother burning? Would we not rush headlong to stop the fire? This is perhaps why I’ve been utterly deranged, beside myself, by the bombings of Gaza—and the new technologies that place us, virtually, right there, seeing children sandwiched between layers of concrete rubble.

For me, those two poems you mentioned in Fugitive/Refuge about Joe Gaston and Christana Gamble, two Black Clevelanders who experienced homelessness due to their felony convictions, were a way to “bring home” the book’s concerns about finding home. Too often, those of us in social justice work get passionate about something far off, when right next door (sometimes literally) there are people burning.

My own journey in peace and justice had everything to do with the fact that my father was a veteran of the Vietnam War and was profoundly affected by that experience, disillusioned and depressed by it. When I was five, we sponsored a Vietnamese family who were made refugees by the war, and I encountered firsthand the ravages of the mass violence that is war in this lovely, lost family. It was the church who helped facilitate these sponsorships—the belief that we are not separate, that we must be for and with each other. There is a kind of impossibility to this ethic, colored as it is by the eschatological belief of the early Christians that the world was ending. Yet that sense of urgency feels utterly contemporary as well, as we collectively face climate extinction alongside our human capacity to other each other out of existence.

In college, I organized a protest against the imminent Gulf War, and I was part of the first class to receive minors in peace and conflict studies. Throughout graduate school, my work constantly returned to the question of how poets could engage meaningfully in peace and justice work. I was utterly out of step with the dominant aesthetic of American creative writing, but amazingly, today, so many writers are thinking through and lifting up poetry that is doing that work. It was natural, then, when we started the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University, for me to throw myself into that work. I was elected the second director of the program in 2016, and even when I asked to step down in 2022, they encouraged me to keep going.

I love this idea that Torah is not just about text or word but also about worlding. How do we write the sentence of our actions in the world? Poetry is a symbolic action, but symbolic actions are also a kind of poetry. What kind of poem are we making with our lives?

One of the most meaningful ways that’s happened for me has been in the cofounding and shepherding of the writers-in-residence program; thanks to Zach Thomas and other John Carroll students, we helped start a program that facilitates creative writing in juvenile detention facilities—first in the Cleveland area, and now with cohorts that serve hundreds of incarcerated youth writers throughout the state of Ohio. From the very first session, we got feedback from the youth that made me feel that this was more than a workshop, something more like community. Two different young writers wrote: “Helped us bond like family” and “I felt like I had a family again.” To me, that’s poetry as making, as creation, as one of those many possible beginnings.

Can you talk about your founding of Yetzirah and the collective poem you’re making with that literary organization?

JJ: How incredible it must have been to lead the workshop in which Elizabeth Brown’s epiphany took root: “Theology is the gate, but poetry is the movement of the gate as summer passes through.” The very first poem in unalone quotes, like you just did, from the eminently quotable Pirkei Avot: “Make a fence around the Torah.” It goes on to set an intention grounded in a feeling of having been shut out of Judaism for so much of my life:

But sometimes barriers grow so large it’s hard to see
what they’re protecting….

Let every fence in my mind have a gate.
With an easy latch and well-oiled hinges.

I’ve come to understand some of the value in placing a metaphorical fence around a concept or a practice as a means of slowing your approach to it and helping hold it sacred. (Sacred and kadosh, which is “holy” in Hebrew, both carry “to set apart” in their etymology.) Yet a means of entrance is crucial. For me, those hinges stay oiled through the movement of poetry your student names, as well as in learning from people who speak and write from the vantage of different traditions.

I felt this expansion strongly when reading your poem “Map the Not Answer,” which, like both Arabic and Hebrew, reads from right to left:

mean that lines black

out or in are you
stories in locked

you write to want that
keys find to want you

give to forgot elders
days ask you

or love make you do
you make loves do

The poem can in a way be read conventionally (note here another moment of being locked in or out!), but wonders arise through the mental calisthenics of slowing down and approaching English from a new direction. Suddenly, there are: “stories / that want to write you” and a koan I now carry with me: “do you make love or / do loves make you.” Waking from the dream of this poem, I want to question everything; I am eager to explore what I do by rote and might once again see anew.

Romero’s powerful parable also helps me reenvision a Midrashic tale that when Abraham heeded God’s call to leave his father’s home, he entered the world like a man witnessing a birah doleket, “a palace in flames,” who asks, “Is it possible no one cares for this place?” at which point a person pokes his head out a window and says, “I am the owner of this palace.” This is compared to God as the owner of this burning world—a world whose deranging horrors, as you wrote, seem to grow only more devastating by the day. Like you, I hear the news from Israel and Gaza and my heart feels so broken (and then broken and broken again with each image I see, each new story of loss I read or hear from my colleagues and friends).

Yet Rashi reminds us that doleket can also mean “illuminated”; so birah doloket can also be “a palace of light.”

Poetry brought me back to Judaism and, in turn, Judaism deepened my poetry. It has also changed for the better nearly every aspect of my life, from how I understand the world to how I engage with others. Yetzirah was founded in large part to share that experience, to support Jewish poets and Jewish poetry and see what miracles might occur if we could welcome each other through the gate and enter into real community.

For I believe it’s in communities like Yetzirah and John Carroll’s Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program, both of which draw on ancient traditions wed to the needs of our contemporary moment, as well as in conversations like this one, of genuine curiosity and close listening, that together we might work to extinguish these flames, might transform the burning world into a palace of light.



Header photo by Beat Schuler on Unsplash

Book images courtesy of Four Way Books and Copper Canyon Press.



Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Receive ImageUpdate, our free weekly newsletter featuring the best from Image and the world of arts & faith

* indicates required