A Conversation with Pamela Wax & an Excerpt from Walking the Labyrinth — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

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 work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in other journals including Artemis, Relief, Barrow Street, Pensive, Connecticut River Review, The Cape Rock, Awakenings, Heron Tree, Glimpse, Green Ink Poetry, Sheila-Na-Gig, Pedestal, Mudfish, Pangyrus, Reed Magazine, DASH, Steam Ticket, The Dewdrop, Naugatuck River Review, Sixfold, Solstice, Persimmon Tree, and Passengers Journal. As a rabbi and pastoral counselor, Pam ran a spiritual healing center for 19 years. She now facilitates spiritual poetry writing workshops and Mussar practice groups online. Her essays on Judaism, spirituality, and women’s issues have been published broadly. Pam gardens, swims, walks labyrinths, and obsesses about poetry in the Northern Berkshires of Massachusetts where she lives with her husband.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your new book, Walking the Labyrinth, just launched from Main Street Rag Publishing. What are three things youd like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?  

Pamela Wax: Kristina, I have to laugh, wondering if that question is inspired by my poem, “3 Things” In fact, yes, I can come up with three things:

Thing 1: It might be helpful for readers to know that I am a rabbi for whom spiritual practice and a spiritual orientation are givens. Some of the practices that held me through my grief following my brother’s suicide include the labyrinth (alluded to in the title poem), prayer (referred to in several poems), and writing itself. I directly address writing as spiritual practice in the poem “Nacre,” in which it begins as an itch, turns into a revenge upon the intruding grief, and then becomes something beautiful and lustrous. My relationship to my writing has changed now that I consciously think of it as spiritual practice. 

Thing 2: I ran a spiritual healing center at a social service agency for 19 years, and much of my work there was bereavement counseling. I think that the feedback that I’ve received from readers about the poems feeling both personal and universal is perhaps a credit to that “witness mind” I had access to in those early months after Howard died because of my professional training. I was both mourner, fully immersed in the grief, as well as able—some of the time—to watch myself grieving from a curious and mindful distance.

Thing 3: Readers might be interested to know that I did not sit down with a script, conscious of the storyline or the arc of the book. I didn’t even know if there was a book in my future. My writing was a force of nature, a means of catharsis, a compulsion, and a prayer. Of course, nearly everything I wrote was about Howard, my grief, memories of childhood. A couple of months before the pandemic, I send a formless morass of a manuscript to Travis Denton, the wonderful editor I’d hired to help me turn straw into gold. With his professional eye, many poems ended up on the cutting room floor, and every other poem was fully overhauled, line-by-line and word-by-word from where it had started, in order to expunge the sentimental from my writing and to go deeper.  I was very fortunate to be safe during the lock-down of the pandemic and able—when I wasn’t working virtually for my job—to focus so much energy on revision and new writing. It was, needless to say, an obsession and a lifeline both through my grief for Howard and through the pandemic to have the project of the manuscript to anchor me.

KMD:  You frame poetry — quite uniquely, I might add — as an interrogative mode of expression, a search for answers, rather than a formal presentation of an argument, view or perspective.  As a reader, I find this humility refreshing.  What are some of the artistic advantages of thinking of poetry in this way, as a process of discovery and revelation?  

PW: Thank you for that. I just came across a wonderful quote from the British writer Philip Pullman that speaks so beautifully to this understanding of poetry. He said: “Poetry is not a fancy way of giving you information; it’s an incantation. It’s actually a magic spell. It changes things; it changes you.” For sure, I am the raw material, and the words—when I am most honest and open—are working on and through me, not vice versa. I’m as much the created as I am the creator through this dialogue I have with the written word. That’s what makes it a spiritual practice—poetry as an encounter with the divine, ever surprising, demanding, and heart-opening. 

While I’m certainly interested in surprising the reader, I first delight in surprising myself. I notice that there is almost always a turn in my poems, either from the humorous to the serious, or from the serious to the sublime. Can the mundane be ineffable; can the ineffable be expressed in a way that it will “land”? 

When I was in rabbinical school, my homiletics professor said that a sermon should be a revelation of the soul of the orator, not a revelation of a text or an idea. And as you pose the question, Kristina, I realize that I’ve taken this same understanding into my poetry. I write my best work when I’m open and receptive to learning, to being surprised, to experiencing revelation, rather than in order to teach. However, since rabbi means teacher and teaching is part of my DNA, there is always a tension in my writing between myself as teacher/imparter of information and myself as student/open to revelation. I keep practicing to keep it in balance, to save preachiness for my sermons rather than my poetry.

KMD:  I admire the interdisciplinary space that you create through poetry.  Here, religion and spirituality intersect with etymology, literary history, and fine art. To what extent is the poet a curator, orchestrating a conversation between mediums, disciplines, and ways of seeing the world?  

PW: I can’t speak to all poetry or all poets here. Certainly, I am the sum total of my parts, bringing all mediums and disciplines to bear on my own poetry. Spirituality and religion, in particular, are leitmotifs in my work. Perhaps the other intersection that isn’t fully apparent in this selection of poems (though hinted at in “Nuit et brouillard, Resnais, 1956”) is my engagement with the larger world. That, too, is salient to my spirituality, not separate from it. I’m decidedly not a monastic naval-gazer in my striving for connection, but ever in conversation with the mess of it all—whether ugly, unjust, dying, dead, or beautiful, kind, humorous, and thriving. Accepting the fact that I’m a finite being in a world of infinite needs (a great teaching from my spiritual director) keeps me grounded when I’m tempted to play messiah to save the world single-handedly.

KMD:  The stunning excerpt featured here makes fascinating use of definitions and etymologies.  You expertly reveal the meaning, possibility, and history that has been buried within everyday words and phrases.  What advice do you have for poets who wish to interrogate and reflect on language, but might struggle to balance this philosophical impulse with specificity?  

PW: While the only religious reference in my poem “Howard” is to the book of Lamentations, I consider this poem to be one the most rabbinic and Jewish poems in the entire collection because of its interrogation of the component parts of the name “Howard.” That’s indicative of the kind of parsing of sacred Hebrew words that comes as second nature to me as a rabbi—finding hidden meaning in the text of Torah. I clearly have an advantage in that regard, and I suppose I bring that same curiosity about Hebrew words into my engagement with the English language. The poem “Nacre,” in which the creation story of the pearl mingles with my own creation story as a writer, exhibits a similar curiosity.

My best advice for poets is to have both professional readers (teachers and mentors) as well as peer readers of their work and to be open to receiving constructive feedback. I am an inveterate student, often taking more than one poetry class at a time, in addition to my private work with my editor. I also have a monthly meet-up with three poet friends to receive their trusted opinions of my work. As a teacher, I push my students to get specific, to find images and metaphors to make their writing pop. That didn’t come naturally to me in my own writing; it’s been learned by trial-and-error and by attending the school of hard knocks, where I was forced to grow a thick skin. 

My other best advice: Stay curious, and play on the page! 

KMD:  Will you share a writing prompt with our readers?  

PW: If the poets out there have never tried to write their own abecedarian, go for it! Mine, “Approaching Zeal: A Run-On Abecedarian” was inspired by Natalie Diaz’s talky narrator in “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation.” How can you write about a serious topic with some humor so that the tone and the mood contrast a bit? 

My poem “How to Bring Him Back,” inspired by Sean Shearer’s poem “Rewinding an Overdose on a Projector” plays time backwards—and dispassionately—on a very loaded, horrific scene. I’d suggest such a prompt especially for painful material that requires a dispassionate eye in order to get close to the truth of it. For me, this was a terrifying poem to write, but ultimately liberating.

KMD:  What are you currently working on?  What else can readers look forward to?

PW: Some of the poems in Walking the Labyrinth address other forms of grief, such as my engagement with a world on fire—eco-grief—and some rumination about not being a mother, in addition to grief for deceased loved ones. Those themes will be apparent, as well, in my forthcoming chapbook Starter Mothers to be published in 2023 by Finishing Line Press. My next full-length collection, currently taking shape, will also continue to address those issues.

I’ve just completed the Tupelo Press 30/30 poem-a-day challenge in July, so I suddenly have 30 new poems to revise and get into working order. One of the triggers for me right now is the fall of Roe v. Wade. Fighting for reproductive justice has been my “lane” for decades, having worked as an abortion counselor in the 1980s. Several of the poems I wrote during this past month are a reflection of my outrage about this demolition of human rights, and time will tell if any of them are salvageable for public consumption.

Since I can be inspired by almost anything—something I hear, read, or see, I tend to privilege the writing of new work over revision (who doesn’t, right?). Which is to say, I’m not systematic in my writing towards a collection. Until I have a body of work to reflect on, I can’t necessarily see the forest through the trees. Once I see some of the trees published individually, maybe the forest will come into view.