In this CCAR Press interview, Merle Feld, author of Longing: Poems of a Life, discusses her creative process, what sets Longing apart from her previous work, and what she hopes readers will take away from her pieces.
What inspired the creation of Longing?
It started with a single poem, “In the corner,” my earliest recollection. The entire book unfolded from that memory. It’s an innocent poem, the voice of a very young child, maybe age three. But then in the poem that follows, the child recalls memories which are painful, terrifying, anything but innocent. This first section of the book is the most difficult, because nothing matches the helplessness of a child.
How did you select which poems to include in the book?
As many more poems came to me, I eventually realized that the book had a shape—childhood; then adolescence, a treacherous time for a girl; young love, learning as a couple how to fight, pick up the pieces, grow together. A series of poems re-engaging with the four-day vigil as my mother was dying; poems capturing a succession of cherished friends, for me an endlessly fascinating and important subject. Next, some tales of the small town in which I’ve lived for the past twenty-six years. And finally, many facets, faces, of aging. In the end it turned out I’d written a memoir in poetry.
Longing engages with both painful and joyous moments from your life. What was it like to revisit these experiences?
The book is an ongoing conversation with myself that I hope will provoke conversations in my readers. I’m still in the midst of that exploration: though a book has gone to press and is out in the world, the inner conversations continue. I learn from my writing, find new wisdom, perhaps more peace, but the next question is not far behind. And after a rest, the next poem. Especially meaningful in this process are the many accounts of how Longing has fostered deep introspection and connections for readers, that the poems inspire them to reflect on their own life stories. Not why I wrote the poems, but why I published them.
What makes Longing different from your previous books?
Longing opens a vista acquired from decades of experience through the eyes and heart of a mature person seeking discernment, healing, summoning unprecedented courage. The parallels with and contrasts to my first book, A Spiritual Life (SUNY Press 1999; revised 2007), are striking. The voice in those poems is that of a young woman, grounded in home-making, child-making, questions of career, creativity, and nascent activism, but above all, joyously celebrating her newly reclaimed Jewish identity and vigorously advocating for feminist changes, many of which are normalized in our current realities. In a way, the two volumes bookend one another.
What do you want readers to take away from the book?
We are capable of tremendous resilience.
Listen, to others and to yourself.
Notice if you are inexplicably sad, or angry—find help and be courageous.
You don’t know the stories that have shaped another person: be respectful, gentle, kind.
Little children matter.
In the end, each day is gratitude.
Learn more and order the book at longing.ccarpress.org. Watch the video of the book launch, featuring a conversation between Merle Feld and Rabbi Hara Person, CCAR Chief Executive.
Merle Feld is an acclaimed poet, playwright, educator, and activist. Her previous works include her memoir A Spiritual Life and a poetry collection, Finding Words.