An interview with Barbara Regenspan in regards to her published book of poems, The Chessmaster’s Daughter.
- How does your Jewish heritage influence your writing?
My specific Jewish heritage is situated in the understanding of both of my parents that “living a decent life” requires a belief that all human beings deserve adequate resources: food, housing, education and the ability to imagine a gratifying life for their children. Both my mother and father were influenced by socialist movements that were heavily populated by Jews during their relatively constrained young adulthoods, although neither of them were activists. Both associated their tremendous respect for knowledge of history and literature with their Jewishness. My mother continually conveyed that she should have been a teacher, but that she was discouraged by dynamics of both classism and antisemitism when she was growing up in the Philadelphia public schools during the Depression. She was very proud of my own desire to be a teacher, and she was never impressed by higher paying careers. She herself became a secretary to the head of curriculum in the city school district when I was a young teenager. My father shared this pride in my commitment to teaching, but I believe that his pride in both my career choice and commitments to community engagement were also influenced by sexism, particularly the belief that women should fulfill care-taking roles. I participated in a Zionist youth movement in young adulthood, not initially processing the contradiction, but eventually I rebelled against both Zionist politics and a level of classism I observed especially among many suburban Jews. I have been married for forty years to an ordained Reform rabbi whose ambivalence about both the patriarchal nature of the religion and his resistance to Zionism made him too uncomfortable to continue to lead a full-time congregation after less than ten years. Yet both he and I continue to pursue study of Jewish texts, and I even lead services occasionally in the local Reform temple, which makes a home for politically progressive Jews, some of whom share my ambivalence about both Judaism and organized religion. I don’t experience my attachment and sometime love of Judaism as strictly rational, yet I also don’t believe that rationalism includes enough of the stuff of being human. I detached from Judaism for a period in my twenties when I pursued non-violent revolutionary politics, even briefly joining a Trotskyist movement, but eventually found the rationalism of the Left to be only slightly less troubling than capitalist rationalism. I reconnected to Judaism through the progressive New Jewish Agenda around the time I met my husband, and we led a chapter of that movement during our early marriage, coinciding with his decision to go to rabbinical school.
- Your poems are rich with imagery—do you have a process in picking which images you include?
The imagery of my poems come from the “newsreel in my head,” that I think of as conceived equally by political, psychological, and spiritual life experience. The connection between my relatively recent evolution as a poet and my social science research modality of auto-ethnography—that is the illumination of one’s own life experience through critical political, psychological and spiritual lenses and the reverse—examination of the critical political, psychological, and spiritual realities of the historical era in which one lives using personal life experience for data, is not an accident.
- How do you remember some of these specific memories; did you keep a diary as a child/teenager?
Although I have not journaled with any consistency, I have periodically since childhood written both angry and positively determined-toward-future-behavior manifestos of either rage or good intentions towards the future. My father was an intellectual and often-charming-but-narcissistic man with related troubled psycho-sexual boundaries. His humanity was in equal measure empowered and damaged by his experience of childhood and adolescence as a Jew from a working class family in Roumania at the turn of the century who literally brought his family to this country as an older teenager, escaping and saving them from the worst of the rise of fascism in Europe. My mother grew up in a working class Jewish family in West Philadelphia. Her own father was briefly conscripted into the tsar’s army, and when he came to this country, he was briefly a “Wobbly” (Workers of the World) activist. I have a powerful memory from when I was about ten-years-old of him when he was dying of cancer, lying naked in shallow water in the bathtub of the garden apartment he shared with the woman with whom he lived after my grandmom died. My mother and her siblings did not like this woman, Ida, who gave me costume jewelry clip-on earrings I treasured. I remember one Mother’s Day wrapping them in Kleenex and re-gifting them to my mother. These memories are all so psychodynamically colorful and vivid that I have not needed journals for them to construct the “newsreel in my mind.”
- What kind of research do you conduct to help write your poems?
My academic career in Educational Studies as both an existentialist philosopher and a social justice-focused teacher educator required me to be an intellectual generalist. I have had to acquire survey knowledge from the fields of the humanities and the socially critical social sciences. Also, during my time as a Trotkyist, I studied Marxism and its derivatives in feminism very seriously. I had tremendous respect for the psychoanalyst, Otto Thaler, who eventually resigned from my dissertation committee because my feminist interpretations of Freud felt too uncomfortable for him. Later in my career, I read all of the books by Deborah Britzman, a Lefty teacher educator like me who eventually pursued formal psychoanalytic training. She and Sherry Turkle have powerfully influenced my own thinking about my life as female Jewish teacher and academic of my era. So, I have processed my own life experience through many different research modalities, including what I learned as a social work student in therapy at a psychoanalytic institute when my husband was a rabbinical student in Cincinnati. It was also at this time that our first baby died at birth, and I learned a tremendous amount in grief counseling with my husband, which we pursued until our son, Ben, now thirty-five, was born. I later also gave birth to my wonderful daughter, Sarah, whose unusually vast emotional and spiritual intelligence has also educated me more powerfully than any formal research could. But in the sense of formal active research, I often consult Wikipedia when I feel a need for more background knowledge or musicality when a poem leads me in the direction of a memory around which I need specific historical or mythological information that I can deliver with cadence.
- Do your poems come to you randomly throughout the day, or do you have to sit down and really have to concentrate and think for them to come to out?
I have almost always written my poems in response to qualities of form and/or content I admire in other poets’ poems, by “filling in” my own vivid memories. So, I typically use a published poem as a kind of loose template for some quality or combination of qualities that inspire me. I have been co-leading with my husband, David, and a few close friends the Cascadilla Writers’ Group every Monday morning for six years. We have almost consistently followed this same process of presenting a published poem, collectively deconstructing it, and then each pursuing our own writing for about a half-hour, using that poem for anything inspiring we find in it. I learned this process when I took classes with Amherst Writers’ and Artists and workshops with the Northampton, Mass. poet, Patricia Lewis, on a sabbatical in 2009 that began with a workshop with the poet Tony Hoagland who became a friend with whom I corresponded until his death in 2018. I also had one incredibly educative term in an MFA program in 2015 when the poet Leslie Ullman was my mentor.
- In your book of poems, why do you repeat “My father lived on oranges the week he beat Botvinik at the tournament in Atlantic City” in both Education 1 and Construction of Plea by Keychain Association 2?
It’s a seminal memory of my childhood. My memory is that Botvinik was the name of the Russian chess champion who became the international chess champion in the year my father beat him in one game at the tournament in Atlantic City during my very early childhood when he (my father) was the Pennsylvania state chess champion. My father was a healthy eater, and he also had certain ascetic qualities. He regularly exerted a kind of “less-is-more” influence on my thinking that I believe was actually quite healthy and part of what shaped my own anti-capitalist thinking from an early age.
The idea of “living on oranges” for a week impressed me from the perspective of both sacrificing plentitude and range and also making a healthy choice about what to choose for sustenance during a challenging time.