Tête-à-Tête: Janet Kirchheimer
Poet, Writer & Filmmaker
The Wise Owl has a friendly chat with Janet R Kirchheimer who wears many hats. A prize-winning poet and author of the poetry collections ‘How to Spot One of Us’ (2007) and ‘Seduction: Out of Eden’ (2022), she is also the recipient of Drisha Institute for Jewish Education Arts Fellowship and is a nominee for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous international journals, anthologies, and online publications.
Janet is a creative writing teacher and coach and has taught and given talks and readings at a wide variety of organizations. She was part of a ‘Six-Word Memoir’ storytelling event held at the Tenement Museum in New York City, and her chapter ‘At the Water’s Edge: Poetry and the Holocaust’ was featured in ‘The Psychoanalytic Textbook of Holocaust Studies’ in 2019. She is a co-winner of the 2022 Lincoln Poetry Prize. Janet is also a filmmaker and is the producer of ‘AFTER: Bringing the Dead Back to Life’, a performance documentary about poetry and the Holocaust. Janet is also a Clal Teaching Fellow.
Thanks Janet, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl.
Q: Janet, you are a poet, essayist, storyteller, a filmmaker, as well as a creative writing teacher and coach. That is a lot of roles for one person. Our readers and viewers would love to know how you juggle all these roles with such panache.
A: Thank you, Rachna for this interview. I’m a big fan of The Wise Owl, and it’s an honour for me.
What a great question! I’m a Gemini, and maybe that accounts for being interested in so many things or it’s just the way I came into the world. I’ve never been just one thing. I think of myself as a hyphenated person: I’m the daughter of Holocaust survivors, a poet, opera lover, knitter, avid reader, teacher, essayist, and that’s just the beginning.
So many things fascinate me. I’ll never get to be a fashion designer, a tool and die maker or chef, and I find that sad. I wish I had time to learn about so many things – well, except for snakes, bugs, and geometry.
I’m not certain how I juggle everything. Sometimes one role will take a back seat for a while, but I’m happiest when I’m indulging many of my interests. I must confess that I have a few file drawers and email subdirectories filled with articles to read, started poems and essays, and anything I might want to do at some point. I know I won’t get to them all or read all the books I own, but I’m surrounded by all this knowledge and that keeps me happy.
Q: Tell us a little about your creative journey. When did you first realise you wanted to write? Were there any poets or writers or creative mentors who inspired you in your journey?
A: I wrote my first poem when I was eight years old. I have always loved to read. My parents would take me to the library each week to get books. I couldn’t wait to go, even though the children’s librarian scared me so much. I was small for my age and could barely reach the top of the counter to put my book on it. And there was a specific procedure – the book had to be opened to the back page with my library card on it, then face the book towards her, and then slowly push it to her. If I didn’t do this exactly right, I couldn’t take out a book. It took years to realize how much she loved and respected books and, even though she passed away many years ago, I think about her from time to time and thank her for instilling in me a respect for books.
I still can’t wait to get a new book. I love to buy books (way too many), to hold them in my hands, to open that first page and wonder what I’ll read, what I’ll learn.
Mary Stewart Hammond is my poetry teacher. She is a spectacular poet and generous teacher, and I would not be the poet I am today without her. I have studied with Cornelius Eady, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, David Yezzi, and Minnie Bruce Pratt and have learned so much from all of them. I am truly grateful that I got to study with these teachers and renowned poets.
My parents also inspired my poetic journey – two poetic souls. I’ve been inspired by Carl Dennis, Alicia Ostriker, Philip Levine, Stanley Kunitz, Françoise Sagan, Aharon Appelfeld, and so many other writers. I’m also inspired by the Hebrew Bible. Biblical Hebrew grammar is filled with metaphor and images, and the verb declensions fascinate me. I do love reading Biblical Hebrew dictionaries – yeah, I know I’m a grammar geek. Words inspire me. I love the sounds, the meanings, the ways in which they can be used.
Q: You have published two poetry collections, ‘How to Spot One of Us’ and ‘Seduction: Out of Eden.’ One deals with the Holocaust while the other is a restructuring of the story of ‘Genesis.’ What was the inspiration behind these vastly different collections (thematically speaking)? Which poems (one in each collection) are the closest to your heart in these collections?
A: ‘How to Spot One of Us’ is about my family and the Holocaust and about being the daughter of survivors. My father was 16 when he was arrested and sent to Dachau, my mother was 6 when her parents got her out of Germany to an orphanage in Amsterdam. Poet Edward Hirsch says that poetry tells you how to feel, and that’s what writing poetry is for me. I didn’t set out to write a book, I just set out to write poems, to explore what I felt about my family, the ones I never got to meet, about my parents, about myself as a daughter of survivors. I tried to express the losses: my father’s mother, father, older sister, and younger brother in Auschwitz; all of his extended family but for one aunt and cousin; my mother’s extended family except one aunt; growing up in a small family, wondering what my life would have been like had my family survived. I couldn’t avoid the Holocaust even going to the doctor. When I told a new doctor that my paternal grandparents died before I was born, he said it was important to know my family history. So, I told him they were murdered in Auschwitz.
It’s hard to pick one, but I love ‘Learning a New Language’ (about my father teaching me German and so much more). ‘How to Spot One of Us’ is out of print, but I’m looking for a new publisher.
‘Seduction: Out of Eden’ is co-authored with Jaclyn Piudik. We are both inspired by the Hebrew Bible and wrote a modern re-telling of the story of creation to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Jaclyn is a more experimental poet, and I’m more narrative, and our styles meshed in ways we didn’t imagine when we first starting writing together. We each wrote for the sake of the poem, and we killed many of our own darlings, as the saying goes. I think one of the poems that is dear to my heart is ‘The Receiving’. The book is available in print from Kelsay Books Seduction: Out of Eden – Kelsay Books or in print or Kindle from Amazon Seduction: Out of Eden: Piudik, Jaclyn, Kirchheimer, Janet R.: 9781639801404: Amazon.com: Books
Q: Much of your poetry and writings are about the Holocaust. I was deeply touched by your poems ‘My Father’s Sister’ and ‘In Oma Kirchheimer’s Hand’ and your essay ‘Sometimes You Have to Walk Through the Door Even if There is Blood on It’, published in The Wisdom Daily. Tell us a little more about how and why your work is so strongly impacted by this subject and historical event?
A: Thank you for your kind words about the poems and my essay. I realized when I was young that I wasn’t living the normal American childhood. I didn’t have the ability to verbalize it, but I could feel it. As I got older, I asked questions. I was lucky, my parents answered them all. There was so much of my family missing. Perhaps I tried to write them into my life.
I thought I would write short stories about the Holocaust but couldn’t say what I wanted to say. Once I was in Mary Stewart Hammond’s poetry workshop, I began to express myself in ways I didn’t know I could. What was on the page, what was not on the page, struggling with every word, line and stanza break, punctuation, and more let me shape each poem as I tried to learn a new language in my attempt to comprehend the Holocaust and its effect on my life.
In my writing, I want to honour all the family I lost, the family I never got to know except through stories, and to try to figure out my place in the world. It’s as simple and complicated as that.
My essay on The Wisdom Daily was about my first trip to Germany. My parents never wanted to go back, but I was presented with an opportunity; and though I didn’t want to go, I knew I had to. I wanted those who came before me to know that I went to Germany, that I went to see where they were born and lived, that my life has value and meaning, and that I try to honour them in everything I do. It was a momentous undertaking for me. It changed me in ways I still do not understand. I went in 2019, and I’m still trying to write about it. I did not return to the United States the same person. The blood of my family and the six million still remains on the door, but I walked through it to see what was on the other side.
Q: You are producing a film on the Holocaust titled ‘AFTER: Bringing the Dead Back to Life’ that won awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Tell us a little about what inspired you to make a film on this theme? Tell us also about how you brought together so many contemporary poets for your project?
A: I met the director, Richard Kroehling, at a conference, and we talked about our mutual love of poetry. I gave him a copy of ‘How to Spot One of Us’, and two weeks later he said he had an idea for a film – to explore the Holocaust through cinema and poetry. AFTER presents poetry written about the Holocaust featuring contemporary poets who also discuss the responsibility of art to respond to genocide. Edward Hirsch said that one of the jobs of poetry is to try to bring the dead back to life. AFTER forges new inroads and allows for a new kind of language to try to achieve some kind of understanding.
Writer and survivor Aharon Appelfeld stated, “After the death of the last witnesses, the remembrance of the Holocaust must not be entrusted to historians alone. Now comes the hour of artistic creation.” My family inspired me. The film is a way to honour their legacy, along with the six million murdered in the Holocaust. The film allowed me to express my love of poetry with Richard’s extraordinary vision for AFTER.
Each poet I approached about being in the film was generous with their poetry, their reading, their knowledge. The film features Edward Hirsch, Alicia Ostriker, Cornelius Eady, Géza Röhrig, Christine Poreba, the works of Paul Celan and Yehuda Amichai, and more.
Q: Your article ‘At the Water’s Edge: Poetry and the Holocaust’ was featured in ‘The Psychoanalytic Textbook of Holocaust Studies, edited by Dr Ira Brenner.’ Please shed some light on how you think the writing fraternity and poets were impacted by the trauma of the Holocaust and how it was woven into their creative articulations?
A: There is the famous quote by Theodor Adorno – “To write poetry after the Auschwitz is barbaric.” It’s something I take seriously. Yes, culture and genocide can go hand in hand, but I believe that poetry is capable of influencing culture for the better. Poets did not stop writing during the Holocaust. It remains the poet’s obligation to continue writing after Auschwitz, not only for the dead, but also for the living.
We live in a society that seeks to deconstruct, analyze, and take things apart in order to understand and categorize them, forgoing the ambiguity and paradox that are a part of everyday life. Poetry seeks to retain and honor this ambiguity, this paradox. And rather than deconstruct, it endeavors to embrace the mystery of the human condition that is our reality. John Keats wrote about negative capability: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Poets understand paradox and ambiguity and what it means to write in the face of unspeakable tragedy. It is another job of poetry.
Q: Our readers would be curious to know if you have any more creative projects on the anvil? When will they hit the bookstores or theatres?
A: Continuing my juggling act:
These days I’ve been writing creative non-fiction essays and blogging on my website, www.janetkworks.com.
Beginning in November, I’m teaching a virtual Memoir writing class at the Marlene Meyerson JCC in New York City. [VIRTUAL] A Memoir - Writing Workshop | Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan (mmjccm.org)
AFTER will be out in 2023, and I hope that your readers will be able to see the film. www.after.film.
I’m also finishing a book-length poem about the traditional Jewish year of mourning after my father died. Jaclyn Piudik (jaclynpiudik.com)and I are plotting our next book.
Q: You are a creative writing coach. Our budding writers and poet wannabes would welcome some quick tips from you about how to hone their writing and poetic skills?
A: I love helping others explore their writing – their voice and vision.
Just write and write until you can’t write anymore, and most of the time you can write more than you think. I love first drafts because I’m just writing whatever shows up and don’t need to worry about editing, and I don’t care if it makes sense or not. That’s freedom for me – I don’t expect anything from my writing except for it to be messy.
Read as much as you can – from comic books to Shakespeare. Any kind of reading is good, and some comic books are fun reading (I like X Men). Read authors you like and read those you don’t like to figure out what about their writing you don’t like. I’ve learned a lot that way.
Keep a notebook with you to write down any interesting words you find or ideas that show up. The more you write, the more ideas will show up.
Most importantly, remember that any time you sit down and write, it is an accomplishment. If, in your writing, you find one good word, one good sentence, which I am sure you will, you’ve done something worthwhile. I believe everyone has a unique voice and vision, and everyone has a story worth writing.
Thank you so much for talking to us Janet. It was lovely interacting with you. We wish you the best in all your future creative endeavours. Your work on the Holocaust is very relevant as it will always remind us of one of the darkest periods in world history. Such reminders will ensure that mankind does not forget the life lessons that history taught us.