Helen Bar-Lev Interviews Kenneth Salzmann
which country were you born?
I was born in the United States, where I have
lived my entire life (so far).
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
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.
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.
When did you begin to write poetry and what prompted you to
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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, About.com, 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
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
Lane change; failure to signal
She’ll take the keys
without discussion; he’ll be content,
unquestioning in the passenger seat.
mapmaker, while clearly lacking
the global view, was persuaded nonetheless
by elongated blots approximating where he’d been
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.
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,
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
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.
In this polite
A hand trained in the ways
of death and delivery
cups a pill, slides a gurney,
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,
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,
Books by Kenneth Salzmann