by Peter Menkin
In an effort to find out what is on the mind and in the work of a beginning poet, in this case Robert Siegel of Redding, California, this writer interviewed a Messianic Jewish believer who lives in Northern California USA. Redding, California is north of San Francisco by 230 miles. Gateway community Christian Church of the Nazerene is important to Mr. Siegel, and is located near Redding.
Mr. Siegel attends Messianic Jewish services, and is a friend of a local Nazarene Church in the area. An Evangelical Church, Nazarene Church has about 2 million members in the United States and almost 60 seminaries or schools.
The pastor of the Church Mr. Siegel attends was ordained by the national church, like all their pastors. Pastor Bob Rupert started the Messianic group in Redding. He is with Nazarene Church.
The worship service for Messianic Jewish members is more like a Jewish Temple, Mr. Seigel tells this writer.
It is out of this tradition, this Nazarene Church and its adjunct worship church of Messianic Jews where Mr. Siegel’s poetry springs. He says, “Hosea, then John — as they have similar themes (God’s love)…” are favorite books of the Bible for him. Much of his poetry expresses these feelings of affection.
This interview-article is part of the series of ongoing interviews with Christian and Anglican poets. I came across Mr. Siegel’s work through an error, thinking him the same Robert Siegel who wrote the recent poetry book, “a Pentecost of finches.” There will be an article-interview with the established and well-known Robert A. Siegel. The “real” Robert A. Siegel is an Episcopalian.
The Messianic Mr. Siegel tells me about his poetry, “I have shared them with a close circle of friends around the years.” Some of his work is in the Addendum to the interview in this article. Regarding his education, he graduated with high honors in Pastoral Leadership from a Bible College and was a missionary in Europe. The Bible Colleges Mr. Siegel attended, were, he says in an email, “…after Bible college, I attended the Maryland Bible College & Seminary in Lenox. Actually, Stevens School of the Bible, which I attended was in Lenox, Massachusetts.” He has been writing poetry since 2002.
- 1. Many readers have thought about being poets, starting out with the work. This is especially true of those who read poetry. I would think this would be the majority of them, themselves, try their hand at the work. As a poet who is starting out as a writer, where did you get your inspiration to begin? Can you tell us something about trying out your first works of poetry, and what you did after reading it later? Have you an example of a couple of lines of that very beginning work you can share.
I am not sure where (or when) my inspiration began to write poetry. The process paralleled the start of a novel, which I began in March of 2001. It was about a month after signing divorce papers. The purpose of my creative writing journey was to express feelings and experiences from God during the process of recovery, by projecting them into various characters in other times and places.
- 2. You’ve said how interested you are in the Bible, and as a Messianic Jew who is friend of your Nazarene Church in Redding, California, talk to us a little of what in the Bible you’ve found most poetic. By this I mean, what has stuck in your mind or in your heart. How does it speak to you in its poetic way? Maybe a best way to get to this is to have you quote something from that part here.
Psalm 119 is the best example of Biblical poetry, in my mind. It is an acrostic poem, that is, each section begins with a letter in the Hebrew language. A person who knows basic Hebrew can identify many of the key words in the opening line of each section. There are four other psalms written in this style, as the Book of Lamentations. This use of poetry in the Bible is obscured in English translations, but the Jewish Publication Society version makes it clearer by citing the Hebrew letter which begins specific lines or sections.
Tom Meyer, a scholar of Biblical memory-practices, explains (2010) that the reason why ancient Hebrews wrote acrostic poetry was so it could be an mnemonic device; the poem/psalm would be easier to remember, and therefore, to recite. It also takes planning and forethought to craft a poem alphabetically. And, of course, “men of God wrote as they were moved by the Holy Spirit,” as the New Testament declares. Some of these men, however, were trained how to craft religious poems.
- 3. What is it about the Nazarene Church that has caught your ear? Tell us something of their Methodist style worship; that is the sounds and what goes on in a worship service. I assume the worship of the Messianic Jew is more like that of a Jewish Temple, by what you tell me. Will you tell us something of these words that you find poetic and catch your attention. Which of your poems most reflects this worship in the Messianic Jew tradition?
First, let me clarify that I identify myself as a Messianic Jew who has friends at a local Nazarene church who are exploring Messianic-style worship and teaching. I have only attended three of their Sunday services so I cannot comment much about their “sounds.” They are, however, not Pentecostal.
Both the Sunday services and twice-monthly Messianic celebrations on Friday nights feature Messianic style music. A couple of years ago, the latter services featured traditional liturgy from Judaism but we have moved away from that, seeking more heart-felt ways to worship.
A poem of mine that best reflects worship in the Messianic style – and perhaps closer to Temple-era praise – is “The Seer’s Psalm.” It expresses the narrator’s personal relationship with God in Old Testament terms. The poem is written in the style of a psalm, using many of the techniques used by David. The poem alludes to Queen Esther, and the prophets Elijah and Ezekiel.
- 4. Of the classes in poetry you’ve taken, the two, and especially of the two, the one about the Bible and the Old Testament, tell us something of the teacher and what he emphasized. I notice in the works you sent for use at the Addendum to this interview, that most have Old Testament themes. When you are teaching Bible, which of the stories (Chapters), are the ones you emphasize? Do you read any of your poetry at these Bible teaching sessions, or have you thought of doing so? What brought you to become a Bible teacher in your community. What about your students do you like most?
I took two poetry classes in recent years. The first class was taught by Dr. Jefferson Carter at Pima Community College in Tucson, AZ. It was Introduction to Poetry; we read and wrote many styles of the art. Jefferson particularly liked my astronomy-related poems, stating that they contained unexpected concepts and vocabulary, quite unlike poetry by other writers. He encouraged me to be innovative, take chances, and to read my work to other students in the class. One thing he taught me was “the narrator is not the poet,” that is, the narrator of a poem could be anyone or anything. I regularly remind non-initiates to poetry of this maxim, as they often have stereotypical views of the genre.
Speaking against poetry-stereotypes, Jefferson also taught that poetry is often not romantic, nor is it Romantic in the historical sense. This understanding gave me the freedom to write about unconventional themes. He also taught that poems always have a meaning; there may be several nuances or interpretations to metaphors, but essentially a poem is about something specific. Both sides of this principle encouraged me to write on multiple levels. In my word choice and syntax, I am often aware of multiple shades of meaning which I leave to the Reader/Hearer to discover. Sometimes I find out years later that a symbol may have yet another meaning, wholly unknown to me when I wrote the poem. The additional nuance permits the Reader/Hearer to become a co-creator of a poem’s meaning – something not fostered in clear prose. Jefferson taught me this idea which still intrigues me.
This week, I discovered that Jefferson has recently been nominated for a Pushcart award in poetry.
The second class I took was taught by Dr. Ed Wright at the University of Arizona in Tucson. His course on Biblical Poetry was part of the Judaic studies program, which was my minor. We used J.P. Fokkelman’s book on the same subject (2001). It was technical, translated from the German and difficult to understand at times, but a worthy guide to explore the technical aspects of Scriptural poetry. Ed taught that the psalm-writers did not dream up poems while staring at clouds in fields with their sheep. They wrote according to patterns and models of styles that had been well established in Ancient Israel – and surprisingly, throughout the Near East. In “The Seer’s Psalm,” I incorporate many of these stylistic elements, such as parallelism.
You asked what Bible stories and themes do I often use when teaching. I have taught a lot about the binding of Isaac from Genesis 22, and the love of God as revealed through Hosea’s commitment to Gomer, his unfaithful wife. Neither themes have been employed in my poems, however, they are folded into my unfinished novel.
You asked if I read my poems at Bible teaching sessions, or have thought about doing so. I know from experience that Christians in the Eastern bloc countries regularly read their own poems of praise during services – or used to, in the 1980s, when I visited there. But I have only attempted to read my works, on two different occasions. I used them as illustrations, but they did not seem to be well-received. Perhaps if I wrote a piece that was more specific to a theme, omitting unusual allusions, they would be better received. Upon reflection, I will pursue this further.
What brought me to become a Bible teacher in my community? Within a year of becoming a Believer in Messiah Yeshua (Jesus), I sensed a call to serve Him, and went to Bible college. After graduating with High Honors, I served in various ways. Currently, I teach the Scriptures from a Messianic perspective – based on my knowledge of Jewish culture and history. Having some understanding of Hebrew enhances the teaching very much. This training, knowledge and skill has made me a specialist of sorts. I do not feel, however, that I have fully used this teaching gift as much I desire. But I’m not done yet in serving the Living God!
- 5. Given the opportunity to talk to poets like yourself who are starting out, what encouragement would you offer? Where do you suggest they look, especially young people in high school or college years. Speak something of your own experience when making this encouragement.
I would encourage students, especially at the college level, to seek encouragement and resources from local poetry centers. Both the University of Arizona and San Francisco State University (I attended both) have Poetry Centers. The latter has a taped collection of well-known speakers who have shared their poetry at the school. SFSU also regularly hosts guest poets. I once heard a speaker talk about Medieval Spanish-Jewish poetry – a fascinating subject!
I would also suggest to aspiring poets to take opportunities to attend writing workshops – on any correlative subject – and to read their works to attendees. One thing that I have not done – but have considered – is reading my poems regularly in open-mic venues. And I am planning to join a local Writer’s Forum.
- 6. Is there anything you’d like to add that I’ve missed, or that you just plain want to say as we come to the end of this interview?
BITTER TEARS OF AFFLICTION
by Robert A. Siegel
A poem for Passover.
These are the bitter tears of affliction
Reminding us “we were slaves
Once in the Land of Egypt,
But the Lord delivered us with
An outstretched hand, and
A mighty arm.”
We are still slaves in a
Land of Exile. Wanderers
Without a home.
When can I go Home
To Haifa, and Mount Carmel –
And teach there, as I was destined,
With or without my Queen?
These are the bitter years of
Affliction and Exile.
“Yet the Lord delivered us with
An outstretched hand, and
A mighty arm.”
A SEER’S PSALM
by Robert A. Siegel
To You, O God, I lift my voice
To El Who dwells on high,
I plead to you with my whole heart,
I cry to You with tears and sighs.
When will You deliver me from this affliction
That I may come before You with joy?
When will You free me from this confusion
That I may worship with Your People?
O Adonai, the Circle of Time overwhelms me:
The old despised me when I was young
And the young refuse now to break bread.
When can I come to destiny
And teach with my Queen by the sea?
Who is this Queen of Glory
Who leads by wisdom with me?
Guided by Your signs and dreams
I have searched into the Past,
I have peered into the Seven Mirrors
But her image is dim in the brass.
You steer the Wheel within the Wheel
That I might know what I cannot know;
You hold eternity in Your hands
That humanity may serve you.
My Present’s filled with emptiness,
The invisible few clearly see;
Like a ghost from the nether world,
Friends disavow knowing me.
I sought a Deliverer but
Esther chose not; she could not
Save my spirit from the End
Before we could create a Beginning!
Yet You prepare a spring for me
In the Wilderness Your streams are sweet;
You come alongside and strengthen me,
Your presence comforts, God Who Sees!
When strangers laugh and women answer me not,
You hold me in Your surrounding arms;
You send Your creature who purrs to me:
The raven feeds Elijah by night.
My God, compassionate Father,
Deliver me from this Whirlpool of Time!
Then will I teach students Your Ways,
And proclaim Your truths to the Nations!
O love the Lord, you called-out ones!
For He is close to the broken-hearted;
He strengthens those who master the Times,
Enabling them to ride the beast!
Praise, I say, the Master of Time.
12 November 2005;
revised 14 November
A LAND WHERE LIGHT
IS THE LANGUAGE
by Robert A. Siegel
Alluding to Psalm 19. The poem draws on the double meaning of the Hebrew word, kol, first as a noun meaning “voice” and then as a adverb meaning “now.”Arise, O Muse!
Speak through me, that I may sing your virtues!
Give voice – kol – so the “string” thereof
Resounds throughout the earth!
In the Silence are many words
Flummoxed by my own grey matter –
“The voice thereof” extends into the night
While sleepless dreams leave me stupefied!
I have no dreams, but I have Visions –
Unspeakable, and yet they live
Between us, hanging in the ether
Like telegraphic thoughts. It should not
Be this way; yes, it must, for I
Have written the Signs. But I reach
For wind – breath – pneuma – ruach –
And battle like a Jedi against myself.
Complications set in from old wounds –
But who wants to squawk about that?
I want to talk about E-lectricity
But don’t know where to begin. All –
“Kol” – is written. Would you read it?
Parables at Troy’s shores. Rivers
Of tears at Arundel. Decisions
On Mount Carmel. And dragon-slayers –
All committed to ink in a Land
Where Light is the Language,
As if Affection required Translation.
My thoughts are beyond words. October 25, 2011