finding myself between the lines

One poet’s journey with the writing of a commissioned poem.

In the Fall of 2002 I was commissioned by Temple Emek Shalom (Ashland, Oregon) to write a poem for the dedication of their new sanctuary. In fact, the congregation was building an entirely new campus from the ground up: offices, library, chapel, classrooms, sanctuary and gathering spaces. The dedication would culminate a 5-year planning, design and building process. 

As any artist will tell you, working on a commissioned piece slightly alters the creative process, which is, in many ways singular, even insular. At the same time, we strive to share our vision with others and find no greater joy than that of knowing we have touched another’s heart in a profound way, that we have spoken to the universality of the human condition.

When I took this commission, a friend wondered if the fact that I was not exactly a “practicing” Jew might make it a difficult task. But my spiritual life, which is rich and eclectic — if not traditional — informs much of my poetry, and I was confident it would serve me here. 

So I re-immersed myself in Judaic biblical history and became intimately familiar with the religious community for whom I was working. Thus began an enlightening creative — and personal — journey. 

The rabbi, as well as others at the temple, sent notes and photos. They shared with me their feelings and the feelings of congregants who toured the site during the building process. Many of the photos were striking. I could almost feel the crisp air of Oregon’s Rogue River Valley in the sweeping shots of the building against blue, nearly cloudless sky. The interior spaces were bathed in light. The warm, burnished wood of the ark nearly sang the shemah in full baritone. The renderings and website updates from the stained glass artists illustrated a phenomenal marriage of Judaica and abstract art. Even I, sitting at a desk some 400 miles to the north, could feel the power of all that was being created.

My task then, was to take this power, this unnamable sense of God’s presence in every unfinished corner, unpaned window frame, mound of sod shoring up the tiny cedar and cypress trees surrounding the building, and craft stanzas to capture not just this moment or this dedication, but the all of this sacred place for every reader, every time my words were visited, giving to them not what I, the poet wishes, but what each reader seeks even as what s/he searches for remains unknown until that singular moment of discovery.

There were related rabbinical essays to read, transliterations to find and define, prayers and meditations during which I let my fingers reach what keys they would to piece together words, and those words other words, until there were lines and stanzas; a stream of consciousness wrapping itself around images and aspirations; a weaving together of a people’s journey, my people’s journey, spanning 5,000-plus years of struggle, oppression, revelation and redemption, enduring the horrors of man, finally to arrive, in faith, at a sacred house of worship nestled in the shadow of the Siskious.

There was a point when I was certain I’d tinkered with it too long. Pages upon pages of iterations spit from my computer, lines written and rewritten, stanzas moved and moved again. Of course, any poem worth writing (or, more to the point, worth reading) must be finely crafted. But this was no typical crafting process. I faced myself each day, poet and Jew, asking had I said enough, had I said too much, would my readers be able to make the transition from ancient history to the present? 

I longed to workshop the piece with colleagues. At the same time, I didn’t even have a version I could comfortably call the piece. And then, suddenly I did. With the deadline looming, just one person reviewed the poem prior to my reading it to the congregation at the dedication service. My brother Martin is not a poet. He is a reader, a literate man, and, as an ardent fan of my poetry, surely biased. But I knew he could help me see if I’d been true to my task. His comments were few but valuable; I knew I had the poem. 

In the end, many images went unused, while others were left folded deep within the pleats of the poem’s structure (not so different perhaps from the midrash of Torah). 

Just days before I traveled south for the dedication, I received a fax with the temple’s Shabbat service schedule, listing each Torah topic. Ironically, I found that the poem’s title and the Torah portion to be read at the service were one and the same, makom. Some poem titles come early, some late, some mid-process, some not at all. The title of this poem was the first word of it I wrote; it served as its anchor. This happy coincidence delighted me. I chose to look upon it as a sign.

I have been honored to read my work at college and university campuses, poetry festivals, community events, on the radio and at intimate community poetry readings. The opportunity to share one’s artistic vision is always satisfying, but none before has been for me as life-altering an experience. This shared journey with the congregation of Temple Emek Shalom reminded me again of who I am and from whom I come: A people with rich traditions, a people who have been forced to adapt, to find ways to observe their faith despite the risk that doing so might create, a people who have endured some of modern history’s darkest moments. 

Writing this poem, I revisited my roots, traveled back to the conservative Jewish home in which I was raised, where we welcomed each Sabbath with prayer and blessings. I remembered the bedroom where I said the shemah each night before bed, my Sundays in Hebrew school, and my Bat Mitzvah. I remembered leaving home at 17. And perhaps the fact that the religious community in which I grew up never provided refuge from my troubled home, I left Judaism behind as well. 

Three years later, on the eve of the Munich Olympic games, eleven Israeli Olympians were taken hostage and killed. My response was visceral and unexpected. Suddenly thousands of years of collective consciousness surfaced within me. I was part of this. I felt this grief. But even then I did not fully reclaim my roots.

The defining moment came three years later, with the naming of my son. Mixing letters from his paternal grandmother’s and my maternal grandmother’s names, he is Iafay. Only later did I discover its Hebrew origins. The fact that I had turned away from my own faith and culture didn’t matter. In the deepest reaches of my subconscious it was there, available. I realized then that it was part of me even if I was not part of it and that the rich spiritual path I walk is made richer for this. 

All this I brought to the writing of this poem. In turn, I gained a deeper understanding of Torah, Haftorah, and Talmud; I learned about midrash and mishnah (both concepts I adore), and discovered aspects of the rich history of my faith that no Hebrew school ever taught me. And although, this particular poem is about the Jewish experience, others with whom I have shared it have found something that speaks to them as well. 

The congregation of Temple Emek Shalom was deeply moved when I read this poem, more so than any audience for whom I have read in the past. Over and over they thanked me — and continue to thank me — for this profound gift. But I tell you it was I to whom the gift was given, for in the journey of this poem I rediscovered my makom.

Read the poem makom (click the link)

framed print of the poem “makom”

duvall poetry

On June 5, i was the featured poet at the Duvall Library’s monthly event. Not far from Seattle miles-wise, but a good hour away (more when driving in late afternoon/rush hour traffic), i discovered a place i’d never been, very much like the countryside in some parts. i’d met the host of the reading, Mary Crane, nearly three years before when i featured at The Creekside, a retirement center. After my reading Mary asked if i’d be interested in reading in Duvall (and willing to make the trek). i gave her my card. As time went on we found ourselves co-featuring at Greenlake Library and at Tsunga Fine Art & Framing. We were well matched. Fast forward to getting booked. 

Having never been there before, i had no idea what to expect. The poetry room was full of attendees. i took a seat in the back and listened to the open mic readers. Then it was my time. The audience was incredibly receptive to my work. i was inspired by their enthusiasm. After my reading there was time for a bit more open mic. Then the ride home – easier than getting there.

i will fondly remember that reading and those who attended. i am always grateful to share my poetry though i rarely encounter an audience so welcoming. Below is the email i received the following day from Pamela Denchfield, Curator, Duvall Poetry Readings:

“Thank you for an outstanding reading last night at the Duvall Library! You truly mesmerized the audience as you shared your work with us. Here’s to more poetry!”

scholar in residence

August found me traveling to Ashland, Oregon, as Scholar in Residence for The People of the Book Series, sponsored by Temple Emek Shalom. My program touched on the integral relationship between politics and art, how poets stand as witness, and how this informs my own process. i shared poems of Denise Levertov, Carolyn Forché, Langston Hughes and Gil Scott Heron, finally reading a few of my own works available in a handmade, limited-edition book of selected poems produced for the event. Here are the comments of one attendee:

“As a member of the acting company of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, I have spent many years performing the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare. Thus I have fairly high expectations when attending literary events. When I attended Cheryl Latif’s reading of her recent work, I was not disappointed.

“Cheryl’s poetry was enlightening and moving. I enjoyed hearing about her sources of inspiration and how she sees the place of the poet in our social fabric. The idea of poet as witness resonated with me, as I believe that is an important aspect of the work of artists in our culture: to be witnesses for social issues and the emotions that accompany our passions.

“I was particularly moved by her poem, Makom, which speaks to the importance of ‘place.’ “…the beauty of this place is the beauty of our hearts……” is an example of the evocative imagery with which I connected. This poem made me feel at home. To have someone be so articulate while reading her inspiring work was very moving to me, and a lovely way to spend an afternoon.”

Catherine E. Coulson
Actor, Oregon Shakespeare Festival