Pamela Wax is the author of Walking the Labyrinth (Main Street Rag, 2022) and the forthcoming chapbook, Starter Mothers (Finishing Line Press). Her poems have received awards from Crosswinds Poetry Journal, Paterson Literary Review, Oberon Poetry Magazine and the Robinson Jeffers Tor House. Her publication credits include Barrow Street, Pensive, Connecticut River Review, Heron Tree, Glimpse, Mudfish, Pedestal, Pangyrus, Reed Magazine, Naugatuck River Review, Sixfold, Solstice, and Passengers Journal, among others. Pam is an ordained rabbi who facilitates spiritual poetry writing workshops and walks labyrinths in the Northern Berkshires of Massachusetts—or wherever she can find them. Her forthcoming website is www.pamelawax.com.
A trigger warning. Please note that this interview, because of the subject matter and themes of Pamela’s new book Walking the Labyrinth, may touch on suicide. If you are having suicidal thoughts please reach out for support resources in your area.
James Morehead: Before discussing “Walking the Labyrinth”, what were the poems or poets that first sparked your interest in poetry?
Pamela Wax: “Back in the 80s, before I came back to poetry, I was living in Santa Cruz, California writing poetry and won an award when I was in my 20s. I then went to the Napa poetry conference where I got to study with Carolyn Forché. She was one of my first formidable model mentors. But in Santa Cruz, Ellen Bass and Adrienne Rich were part of my community and I had the opportunity to read with them. Then, I got scared by this idea of being a poet and I left poetry until my brother died. I can’t say that during those years I had particular models because I was writing and reading memoirs and fiction as opposed to poetry. It’s only through writing this book that I’ve come back to feeling like I can call myself a poet. Poetry has become a passion and an obsession.”
James: Writing poems in memoriam is a challenging task most poets have tackled. Your book is almost entirely poems memorializing your brother. How did writing these poems help work through the grief of loss, and how did you decide what to share publicly through your poetry?
Pamela: “There were a lot of bad poems that didn’t make it into the book, but I really did not edit myself in terms of what I wrote. There’s one poem in the book that is called ‘How to Bring Him Back’ which is a backwards view of his suicide. The poem starts with him at the bridge and then works back to him leaving before he got there. That was the most terrifying poem in the book for me and the one I did not want to include in the collection because I thought it would hurt my brother’s husband and his kids. I think that particular poem was just so graphic, but when I asked my brother-in-law about it, he was incredibly generous saying that he might never read it but that it’s my prerogative to write it. I think that opened me up to writing some other poems that I might not have written otherwise once I had his permission. There had been a censor in some way that I hadn’t even recognized until that poem came out. I was concerned about it, and then other poems came because of his permission. It was a real catharsis to write these poems. It’s both an elegy to Howard, my brother, but I think it’s as much an exploration of my own grief. As a rabbi, I know that the Book of Psalms is so much about grief and despair in addition to every other human emotion. I come from a long tradition of other poets who have written about death, mortality, and the loss of loved ones. The fact that it doesn’t seem trite to people and that it speaks to the universal human experience is really touching to me. I didn’t expect the book to land as it has.”
James: Several of the poems in this collection explore the question “why”, searching for signs that were missed. “M’aidez” is a moving example and begins with:
"He didn't say it twice, urgent that his ship was listing off-balance. He certainly didn't say it in French, though he must have said it in some language we didn't or refused to understand"
How did exploring the question “why” in different ways, and through the act of creating poetry in such intimate ways, play a role in the grieving process?
Pamela: “A number of the poems deal with my own sense of regret and guilt. This was me coming to some recognition that it was out of my hands perhaps. Yes, there were probably signs I could have seen and intervened in some way — whether it would have made a difference or not, I have no idea. But, that question of “why” is there whether you’ve lost somebody to suicide or not. I have done bereavement counseling. That was my bailiwick for four years — running a Healing Center. Even people who lost loved ones to illness always thought there was a way they could have saved them. The “why” and the “if I had done this” and “what if” are very strong in us. I think these are particularly strong when somebody dies by suicide. We don’t know how to grapple with that.”
James: How has your faith and studying to become an ordained rabbi influenced your writing? There are the obvious elements – references made in many of your poems – I’m thinking of the more subtle influences of your faith.
Pamela: “My poem “Howard”, which although only references the Book of Lamentations very briefly, I consider to be the most Jewish of my poems even though that’s the only reference to anything biblical or religious. I say that because it is a deep dive into language. It parses my brother’s name Howard into its two syllables, ‘how’ and ‘ward’, which to me is a particularly Jewish methodology of how we attack Hebrew text. We look at words and combinations of words and how we can rework the letters of a word for a totally different meaning of the text. That playfulness with language is part of what comes naturally to me and is the rabbinic part of me.”
James: There are so many moments of extraordinary beauty in your book, and the poem “My nephew dreams of birds” was one of my favorites. An excerpt:
"You visit when he sleeps. You are crow, bluebird, cardinal, canary-you choose the color, and he supplies the plumage. He shows me a single feather left on his pillow in the morning and lets me stroke it against my cheek."
This image of your brother having an ethereal presence in nature is so beautifully crafted, and one of the shortest poems in the book. What was your approach to revising and editing this poem?
Pamela: “That poem came pretty much as is except that it wasn’t clear that it was my nephew, and there was some confusion about who I was referring to; that was the primary edit. It was just one of those creative moments. My nephen had a dream of his father as a bird, so I’ve played a lot with that image because it was very comforting to my nephew as a 12 year old child, having lost his dad to suicide.”
James: I devoted an earlier episode of this podcast to exploring how writing poetry helps unlock memories, how the process of exploring images, in re-experiencing an emotion to capture it in words, can tap into memories long buried. Did you experience something similar through the process of writing these poems? And do you see writing – in poetry or in any form – as a tool in the grieving process?
Pamela: “That’s so central to this book and to what I was doing because when you lose somebody, long lost memories come to the surface and it was a question of which ones I wanted to tend to and address. One of the poems in the book is my earliest memory of my brother. I was five years old and I remember very clearly his birth. I actually thought that would be the beginning poem to the book. I thought it would be a chronological book initially, but that’s not what happened. It weaves in and out. Part of the healing was to realize that nothing could take away that history.”
James: The order of poems and structure of your book shows a lot of care was taken in balancing grief with lighter moments. “Relativity”, “My Sleeve”, and “Jewish Geography” are a few examples. How did you approach the construction of “Walking the Labyrinth”?
Pamela: “I can’t take full credit for that. In fact, I probably can’t take any credit! I hired a wonderful editor who laid all the poems down on his living room floor.”
James: That’s the technique everybody uses and it works very well!
Pamela: “My editor came back to me with a suggested order which I only changed a little. There were a couple of poems he thought should not be included. They were a little sentimental and I reworked them. We had to do a little shuffling to make that work. I did not see Gleanings from the Field to be the last poem in the book – that poem actually was written in 1989, long before Howard died. That’s an art that I’m still not fully versed in – how to put a collection together.”
James: Most of the poems in this collection are free verse, but take a wide variety of forms. “A Broken Sestina” in particular stood out. A sestina, for listeners not familiar with the form, is perhaps the most strict and challenging of forms. The lines of the first six stanzas each end with the same set of six words, but in each stanza the order varies in a strict pattern. The seventh three line stanza includes the six words interspersed in a strict order. “A Broken Sestina” isn’t strictly a sestina but has shadows of that form. “Approaching Zeal: A Run-On Abecedarian” is another example where each line starts with a letter of the alphabet in order then continues past “z”.
Share how you approach finding a form to match the images and meaning you want to convey.
Pamela: “‘A Broken Sestina’ started as an actual sestina, but it was so forced. When revising, so that it really worked, the poem couldn’t be a sestina anymore. These were responses to prompts from the Writer’s Studio. I don’t think these are forms I would consider on my own. It’s been really helpful to force myself to write things that I might not otherwise have chosen to write. That’s what I love about classes: if you’re given an exercise, it’s not just write whatever you want to write, it’s follow the form, and you’ll stretch yourself.”