Poetry co-editor Candelin Wahl recently had this exchange with Issue #43 featured poet Joshua Sassoon Orol. Here’s what Joshua had to say about their Jewish identity, writing as a trans person, their approach to drafting a poem, and more…
These four poems are like a micro-chapbook, linked through the Hebrew female name “Shoshana.” It moves in a progression, questioning, illuminating and teaching about Jewish culture and especially gender identity. Before we get into the individual poems, would you share how this became a series instead of a single poem?
I’d like to attribute the need to return to a single word over and over again to the way I was taught to explore Jewish text. One classical method of Jewish scriptural interpretation imbues each word, verse, and story with literal meaning (pshat), as well as hundreds of layered, metaphorical meanings (remez, drash, and sod). These meanings may even contradict each other at times, without negating their truth and worth.
In the past few years, I started to view Shoshana as a gift given to me by my parents. I think that, as a trans person, I resented the name for a while, since it was such tangible evidence of what could have been if I’d been born in a different body. But actually, for a poet, and for someone who loves picking at words, to have a word all my own that represents the hopes, misses, and history of my imagined female self — that’s a deep blessing.
And so these poems came from realizing that blessing, and then doing the work the way Jews have done it for centuries. What’s the literal meaning of Shoshana? It’s a flower, usually a lily, sometimes a rose, write a poem. It’s a name for girls, write a poem. It appears in poetry millennia old and decades old, read the poems, write a poem. Go back to those flowers, lilies with their long petals and roses with their thorns, write a poem. These four are some of the few that survived that process, and each one shows me a slightly different truth about the name and word Shoshana, and about my own gender as a consequence.
The first poem, “Shoshana,” starts and ends with the language of flowers. But your metaphor goes so much deeper. Please tell us how you built this poem, and where you wanted to take the reader. Also, would you explain the italicized references in the sixth stanza?
This poem came from many attempts to introduce the topic of Shoshana. Earlier versions had a lot of really prosy stuff about my mom and birth and naming, because I was too worried about my readers’ not understanding why I needed to write about Shoshana in the first place. The poem used to be a lot longer, and I was trying to say too much about the body, and about being a trans human.
When I invested more deeply in the flower metaphor, I was able to throw away a lot of pedantic tone of previous versions. One constant expectation placed on trans writers is that we’ll write about the hurt and painful body, and physical changes to it. These are the obvious images of transition. But to write without a focus on a human at all, and instead on plants, allowed me to do away with some of the tropes of trans poetry. Other things besides humans transition. The world transitions.
The italicized lines are from the song mentioned in the poem, “Erev Shel Shoshanim” by Moshe Dor. It’s a very popular Israeli love long. The lyrics use evening and flowers as a metaphor for love. I felt compelled by the shared inevitability of both nighttime and flowers. No matter what humans do, no matter how much we label and define, argue and think, nighttime will come, and plants will grow. The world will keep turning with or without us. Even if a love song was written with straight people in mind, queer folks can sing it. For me, this was a hopeful metaphor for transition. I wanted to take the reader to a place where I could say look, I get it, my gender confuses and even terrifies some people. But none of us can control the changes we go through, or the changes the world goes through. All we can do is choose to keep seeing the beauty around us as it transforms.
“Shoshana’s Mother” drops us into such an ordinary family moment. A hungry teenager reheating leftover fasoolya (green beans with meat over rice). There’s an important question in the first two lines, so readers also get hungry — for answers. Could you talk a little more about this scene, and all of the sensory clues you’ve included in it? Also, how did you think about form – the extra-short lines and stacked format – as you were writing it?
This scene is like historical fiction I wrote about myself. I sometimes get lost in my own head wondering what it would have been like if I’d understood my trans identity more as a teen. One big question is how my relationship to my parents might be different if we had all thought of me as a femme child. I feel heartache for the missed girl-bonding I could have had with my mom. But the question itself is also false, as is my desire for a different childhood interaction with my parents. My mom wasn’t teaching a son about femininity, because even if I didn’t consciously understand it, I was always a feminine child. And so the poem needed to be invested in the senses because we were subconsciously teaching each other, the whole time. I learned so much from my parents, from both of them, things they wanted to teach and things they taught subconsciously, and they did a really good job raising me (because, take it from me, they’re the best). I like to look back at the things I learned anyway, from the imagery they built in the home around us.
The form indicates this type of learning. I move through the world faster than I can consciously track, picking up things around me and only later understanding them within the whole context of a month, a year, a decade. So similarly, the poem offers a phrase, a few words, and then charges onward. Only after you’ve read through the whole thing can you get where you started.
This set culminates in “Grammar Lesson,” where words themselves are personified. We learn grammar and pronunciation, then you turn these upside down with line after line of images: “Everyone in a buzz cut/or everyone in a sundress.” Was this poem the result of “playing with words?” (You’ve said elsewhere that’s how you often start a poem.) If so, how did would you say this piece benefitted from word play?
We talk about language as gendered. The linguists I know remind me that it’s not accurate to imagine native speakers of gendered languages mentally imbuing inanimate objects with the gender of their words. But still, we call words masculine and feminine, or male and female, and that’s just too good to ignore as a trans writer who can use English (not gendered) and Hebrew (gendered). It’s not a hard leap from there to imagine words going through gender transition themselves.
And so I started asking myself, what happens to a word that transitions? What happens if I take the word shoshana, which is a feminine word that takes on the masculine plural form, and force it into the feminine plural form, shoshanot? And then, once it’s written that way, what does an English reader get from it, especially the glaring “not” at the end. I found myself feeling aggressive, even sadistic towards the words. I was forcing them to fit a form that I wanted – and isn’t that just what people who misgender me do? So I leaned into that anger, and the poem gained a tone I don’t think I’d be able to muster if I was writing about people instead of words. When I used the word “bitchslaps” – which is a word imbued with gender in an English, and a word that makes me very uncomfortable – I felt that anger crescendo.
I felt troubled and gross and trapped by the overly gendered language I’d used in the poem, and that felt honest.
You have such an original voice and range in your writing style. We’re curious to know which poets have influenced or inspired your writing, and why?
I once again will name old Jewish texts as one of my major influences. The rabbinic characters in the Talmud, and the rabbis who interpreted their teachings, taught me that sometimes you can introduce a poetic allegory into the middle of a legalistic argument, and that word play is an appropriate way to enter the hidden meaning of written text. Techniques such as gematria – assigning numbers to letters, and then solving math problems to find new words – along with an assumption that literal meaning is strengthened by metaphorical meaning, allow me to enter language in creative ways.
Contemporarily, I’m very influence by Nomi Stone’s Stranger’s Notebook and Alicia Jo Rabins’ Divinity School. Both of these poets make it clear that Jewish identity is never contained within one moment of time, but rather extends throughout our languages, rituals, and history. There are parts of what it means to be a Jew that cannot be named with prose, because prose is too static.
Eduardo C. Corral was my advisor and teacher at the North Carolina State MFA program, and his poetry and teaching are also a huge influence on me. He taught me that it’s ok to let a reader work for meaning, especially in intertextual and multilinguistic poems, and that thinking about a reader too much can hurt my drafting process.
Mud Season Review was launched by members of a writer’s workshop. As an MFA grad, we’d like to hear an example of memorable feedback you received in a workshop. This can be something that helped your writing, or perhaps was a disappointment.
I had a great experience in my North Carolina State MFA workshops. One thing I really appreciated was the ability to test poems with a large amount of Jewish content for an audience of non-Jewish peers, and see what they understood and what they didn’t. Having a diverse group of early readers is good for me. A lot of the most helpful feedback I received in workshop was from Eduardo on drafting. He taught me that if a poem is going to make a reader feel surprise, it should surprise me, too. If I know where a poem is going to end, maybe that’s actually the beginning of the poem. And, that I need to be willing to utterly change a poem between drafts, even retaining only a word or two from the original. He also gave me the language of “inviting in” and “displacing” a reader, two options that can be balanced properly to help a reader who may be unfamiliar with a language or topic.