Contributing Editor, Helen Bar-Lev, IL




Helen Bar-Lev Interviews Kenneth Salzmann

Question: In which country were you born?

I was born in the United States, where I have lived my entire life (so far).

Question: Where do you live? Tell us a little about your family?

For the past few years, I have lived in Woodstock, New York, a small town in Upstate New York with a large reputation. Woodstock, of course, is certainly best known for the 1969 rock music festival named for the town. Ironically, though, the festival actually took place about an hour’s drive away (thanks to problems securing permits locally and in other communities). Even so, it is a town with a lengthy history as a haven for writers, artists, musicians, and other creative people, and it’s not at all unusual to run into a well-known poet or a rock star in the post office or at the coffee urn in the local convenience store.

I have lived in Woodstock with my wife, Sandi Gelles-Cole, a book editor who has worked with hundreds of authors over the course of a nearly 40-year career, and with whom I collaborate in a small publishing business. Sandi began her career as an editor for several large New York City publishing houses, but has been an independent editor since the 1980s, working on projects for publishers, agents, and authors. Her website is

My first wife, Diana, died in 2004, after a lengthy illness that often finds its way into my poetry. Diana and I had one child, Joshua, now an assistant professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, where he lives with his wife, Rana, a librarian who works in information management for a large trade association, and their daughter, Josie, now 3-years-old.

Question: What is your profession?

Currently, I am Director of the Jewish Federation of Ulster County (New York), a retirement job of sorts that connects pretty closely to other positions on my “career path.” At times, I have been a newspaper reporter and editor; at other times, I have worked as an administrator in non-profit organizations, especially in the arts. For many years, I was Vice-President of an arts center near Albany, New York, where I was responsible for marketing and development, as well as literary programs.  

Question: When did you begin to write poetry and what prompted you to write?

Sometimes, I tell people I write poetry because I can’t play the saxophone. That’s a somewhat facetious answer, of course, but it’s also somewhat true. I think poetry is in some sense a natural language, a natural instrument, for me. I was always drawn to reading poetry and, to some extent, have always attempted to write it as well. Still, I think I only began writing poetry with serious intent when I was about 40 and living for several years in a new and—to me—strange environment. I had taken a job with a regional theatre in the American South, and I think I felt a sort of cultural dislocation. At the same time, I was separated from my accustomed community of New York writers. I think those factors pushed me toward new levels of serious writing and, I hope, a new level of discipline.

Question: You are the second poet in this series of interviews who does not live in Israel. Can you tell us what your connection to poetry in Israel is?

One fundamental part of my answer has to be that I am connected to the poetry of Judaism itself, from the Tanakh to the contemporary voices that continue to wrestle with the same essential questions. And I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that poetry has always been the heart of the inquiry. I think it was the American poet Alicia Ostriker who said, correctly, that “all poets are Jewish.”

Maybe that is why so much of contemporary American poetry—the work that surrounds me where I live—points back to Israel in one way or another. And, of course, Israel produces more than its share of poets and writers who belong to the entire world. For me, that list has to be topped by Yehuda Amichai.

For all of these reasons, I make it a point to seek out poetry from Israel, and have, for example, become an avid reader of Cyclamens & Swords, where I never fail to make new discoveries.

Question: You have just joined Voices Israel. How did you hear of us?

I have known of Voices Israel for a number of years, probably first by searching directories for publications open to Jewish-themed work. Along the way, I have come to know the anthology as a highly-regarded publication.

Question: Do you belong to any other writing/poetry groups? Please tell us a little about them.

I do belong to the Woodstock Poetry Society, which presents a very thoughtfully-curated monthly series of readings. But most of my interchange with other poets happens in an informal, unstructured way. Sometimes that can mean trading poems and comments through the mail (or, more likely these days, e-mail), but it also means hanging out and talking after a reading. I also “belong” to a very loosely configured “Community of Jewish Writers” brought together once a year by a fabulous poet named Leslie Neustadt for a wonderfully diverse reading at a synagogue in Albany.

Question: What inspires your poetry?

For me, a poem almost always begins with a line, or a very concrete image of some sort. From there to a finished work, however, may or may not be a straight line. Some of my poems that I consider most successful artistically are of the type that seem to arrive nearly whole and unmediated by me. But more often that initial phrase or image struggles to find its proper place. In some cases, I have carried lines in my head or in my notes for years before they land in the poem they seem to have been searching for.

Question: Which forms do you prefer? Why?

I recently received a wonderful and unexpected e-mail from a professor and fiction writer I very much admire praising a poetry book of mine. In it, he wrote, “Sometimes I sense a form without being able to describe it. . .”

I liked the comment very much, because even though most of my work would be termed free verse I do work hard at giving each poem form and structure, even if it is “hard to describe.” I think it is true that most of my work in recent years is written in iambic pentameter, and that I have moved closer over time to my own natural voice and meter.

That said, I love to explore the sonnet forms, which can compress so much experience into such a small package, and from time to time I like to try my hand at terza rima. Short forms from every culture are compelling as well, because I love the power of highly compacted language.

Question: Who is your favorite poet?

Like most readers, I suppose, I can answer that differently from day to day. But, in recent years, the poet who keeps rising to the top of my list has to be Stanley Kunitz, who to my mind made the transition somewhere in the course of his long life and career from being a very good poet to being a great poet. Poems of his such as “King of the River” and “The Layers” leave indelible impressions, I think.

Question: Where have you been published?

Some of my credits include Rattle: Poetry for the 21st Century, Beloved on the Earth: 150 Poems of Grief and Gratitude, Riverine: An Anthology of Hudson Valley Writers, Peninsula Review, Comstock Review, Cyclamens & Swords, Reeds and Rushes: Pitch, Buzz and Hum, and Perigee.

Question: Please tell us about the Grandparenting Anthology, which has been such a success.

In the fall of 2010, my wife, Sandi, and I published an anthology of poems and prose pieces about grandparenting, an obvious reaction to the birth of Josie a year-and-a-half earlier. Our goal was to collect nuanced literary work that really explored the topic with intelligence and artistry. We weren’t looking for the sentimentality most such books seemed to be grounded in. And we think we got what we were looking for. Child of My Child: Poems and Stories for Grandparents contains contributions from more than 60 accomplished writers (including three from Israel—Helen Bar-Lev, Johnmichael Simon, and Rochelle Mass), and we have heard nothing but praise for their work from readers and reviewers. At this very moment, it is a very serious contender for a “Readers’ Choice Award” from the New York Times-owned web network,, and it previously was named one of five finalists in the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Awards contest in the Anthology category. Best of all, when I pick it up to read from a little distance now, I continue to love the work we were so lucky to have available.

Question: Is there anything else you would care to tell us?

Just that I am looking forward to this being the year that I will be visiting Israel and will have the chance to experience Israel’s poetry community firsthand. And that I very much appreciate the opportunity to share these thoughts with your readers. Thanks





Free Verse


Lane change; failure to signal


She’ll take the keys
without discussion; he’ll be content,
unquestioning in the passenger seat.

The first mapmaker, while clearly lacking
the global view, was persuaded nonetheless
by elongated blots approximating where he’d been

She’ll navigate little-known landscapes, accelerate
past exit ramps, breathe easily, exhale
minor mysteries, drive on.

She’ll drive on, passing
roadside signs, indecipherable
and that’s okay.

Early cartographers were defeated by perspective;
we map madly now, measuring continents and
gardens and galaxies and the shortfalls of the soul.
But for all of that and science, who can fix a point
and say, “I am there or was or will be?”

She’ll take the keys,
without discussion.



When the Plum Tree Blossomed


No one saw the plum tree this year ease
into its cloak of springtime blossoms
in the same week the forsythia
proclaimed the sun, in the same week
the hospital demanded all the living
we could muster. No one watched new buds
prepare for lace in the ironic promise
of fruit that will not come in later spring.
There was a year when plums formed and
dropped from this isolated, barren tree
despite the certainties of borrowed science,
and there have been years spent far from
the hospital and far from ironic promises
of a spring that never stops arriving,
each time to blossom and bear fruit against
familiar probabilities. No one saw the plum
tree come into full bloom this year;
even so, it remains our godly gift
to watch over it while each petal falls
and each tender leaf searches for its shape.





And when all was done then said,
it wasn't his flaws that caused
him to disappear.

Often enough he had willed that to be so,
wishing to become as insubstantial as
the bundled absence of all he lacked.

But as things turned out
it was a random strand of virtue
that rendered him invisible.

Ones who should have known better
tugged and teased that thread into prominence,
then magnified it beyond all meaning.

Old friends spoke of strength and courage.
New friends suspected him of gentle grace.
He insisted he stood falsely accused,

Offering his alibi to a myopic mirror
that, upon reflection, denied
any impression of him at all.



Blood Counts


In this polite place:
A hand trained in the ways
of death and delivery
cups a pill, slides a gurney,
shrink-wrapped, bubbling,
through sterile chambers
overfilled with hints
of salvation served
on sheets of steel.

Suffering is silent here:
Purple or black fishes dart
in diversionary circles
at the backs of smiling clerks,
when blood counts
don't add up.





If fifty thousand candles can be
the waxy, whispered remains of dead boys
in a cold, November rain,
then Kilby might wrap this night
in chords seized from an acoustic guitar,
as if melody waits unformed
somewhere near the Ellipse,
as if harmony can settle the score
and not swell unexpectedly
thirty years from now when a blood-red BMW
points up the 101,
purposeful enough.

If a drunk and stumbling bum can insist
against the 2 a.m. terrors of Arlington Cemetery
that we imbibe his history
and heft an icy, dented mortar shell
made slick by the Potomac mist,
then Salzmann might write a poem
to reduce or enlarge
this rainy night of America's soul,
as if cadences tried out on the Mall
can settle into lines
that won't overstay their welcome
and float back insistently
thirty years from now when promises and poems
are petals scratched from southern soils,
then gone.


Books by Kenneth Salzmann












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