Risa Denenberg is a Pacific Northwest poet and publisher. We met during her launch of slight faith at Imprint Books in Port Townsend, Washington. She slipped a free copy into my hands, her asymmetrical haircut framing her sly smile. I immediately began to follow her work, discovering again and again the words of a woman unafraid to ask the hard questions. I am grateful for the opportunity to find out more about her writing.
Lauren Davis: Can you tell me how slight faith began? Did you see these poems living together in a manuscript when you started writing them?
Risa Denenberg: I think it started with a poem I wrote called “Metanoia Lost,” which was originally published online at The Nervous Breakdown in 2013. The first line is “I speak god language / because people die / and god is the tongue of death.” Later it says, “Life offers tautologies—there is no god / but god,” reflecting the feeling that is called the via negative—meaning to me that no description of what god is was sufficient to explain god.
I was studying to be a chaplain at the time I wrote those lines, a program I never completed, but was taking classes to learn how to work with suffering and death. I don’t have a specific conversation in mind, but it seems like I was explaining to my nonreligious friends why I had learned how to pray with my patients.
It didn’t matter what I believed if I could pray with someone or comfort them by saying, “I don’t think God would want you to suffer.” It was a way to share a language we could both speak.
And then not much later, I realized that I was writing different poems sort of suddenly. And they were about doubt—and there was a lot of doubt—and the poems kept coming. On retrospect, doubt seemed like a form of faith. The term “slight faith” seemed to best describe what I felt—and what I feel—about the deeper questions that I had been concerned with all of my life.
LD: I am intrigued by your book’s dedication to Kindness. Can you tell me about your decision to dedicate the book to a behavior?
RD: Maybe twenty years ago, or so, I noticed that I was crying—tearing up I guess you’d say—more easily than I had in the past. Or differently. I remember years when I was younger of trying to hold back tears when I was threatened or being criticized, say at the job, and then going decades without being able to cry even when I wanted to. This was different—a tendency to become tearful at what I viewed as embarrassingly sentimental stuff until I looked deeper and realized that the stories and acts that made me cry were those times when a kindness was offered from one being to others.
It feels rare and important to mark kindnesses. I would like to think I practice kindness as far as I know how to. And so, I feel somewhat indebted to kindness, for many reasons, but also for giving me tears that are hopeful instead of anguished. Of course, my current manuscript is titled, Why I Hate to Cry. So go figure.
I guess I also should say that I didn’t feel a need to dedicate this book to any particular person or group of people. I didn’t really feel a huge indebtedness to anyone during the years I spent writing these poems. I didn’t have a “someone” that I showed my work to or who supported me emotionally or otherwise in my writing life. I still feel a real sense of aloneness in my writing. Although in reality I understand the falseness of that statement, and it embarrasses me that I feel this. Perhaps that is something I need to work on.
LD: “Twenty Years Dead” is a brutally beautiful poem written to a late friend of yours named Jon. It seems, though, in a way, many of these poems in slight faith are for him. You’ve also written poems to him in other books. Would you call him one of your life subjects?
RD: Jon is absolutely my poetic sine qua non subject. My brief friendship with him was so meaningful to me. Watching a young man that I loved die of AIDS in the most creative years of his life marked me forever. I still think about him all the time. He challenged my thinking about illness and death, about literature and life, about religion and politics, so deeply. Our twinned melancholy and feelings of alienation made us such a good match. Possibly more than anyone else I’ve been close to, I felt understood, I felt that every conversation we had was meaningful. Can’t match that. I’ll keep writing Jon poems, probably forever.
LD: I hope you do. They are very tender poems. There is also a stunning musicality to your last piece in the collection called “Tisha b’Av.” How do you bring sound into your poems? Does it come naturally, or is it willful?
RD: I would say that of the elements of craft of writing that I’ve struggled to learn, musicality does not seem to be a stretch for me, although of course it isn’t always there when I need it.
I love the sounds of words and I am always saying things out loud. I read poetry aloud to hear its cadence and sounds. I get great delight from saying simple phrases like “hello moon” or “baby cow.” I love the way those sounds roll in my mouth.
In “Tisha b’Av,” I actually wrote most of the poem while I was waiting for the waitress to serve the soup, when I realized that it was a fast day on the Jewish calendar, and I hadn’t eaten all day, although I had not consciously decided to fast.
I did have to work on the poem quite a bit, and got some suggestions from the editor who published it, but a phrase such as “cane sugar, cocaine, crack, sea-green glass” just seemed to unfold while I was looking at a Coke bottle. It’s the sort of thing you can’t make happen, it just comes out of associative thinking.
In revisions, I do go back through poems line by line to see if I can create more assonance, more alliteration. I often use a thesaurus when I don’t like how the words on the page sound, but am not sure what would sound better. So sometimes I cheat.
LD: Your book quotes a fair amount of scripture. How has the Old Testament informed your work?
RD: I would say both bibles, Jewish and Christian, inform my poetry. Other religious texts too, but less so than these two. Both are amazing works of literature that inform my sense of history, my love of poetry, my love of a good story. Religious texts are such founts of brilliant allegories, parables, and metaphors. It makes sense to tap into them for inspiration. The Psalms are poems that have been particularly meaningful to me. I had a typical Jewish education as a child, and so I can read biblical Hebrew somewhat, and its simplicity and sounds are very beautiful to my ear. I had a kid at nineteen, and became a nurse, since I needed to do something practical, but I think if I’d had more choices, I might have studied comparative religions. Or philosophy. My love of reading and thinking has no bounds.
LD: Could you talk a little bit about your relationship to your publisher MoonPath Press? How did you find each other, and how did your publisher help create the book’s final form?
RD: MoonPath Press is singlehandedly run by Lana Ayers. I knew Lana tangentially when she lived in Kingston (was it Kingston?) and she came to hear me read once in Tacoma, which I thought was an amazing thing for her to do. She was such an iconic part of the poetry community out here and I felt like an unknown newbie.
That might have been around 2012. Then we ran into each other at bookfairs, since we both have presses, and we both enjoyed having someone to hang out with at those events.
I sent her the manuscript of slight faith in 2015 and she declined nicely, but the next year she offered publication if I could wait eighteen months from acceptance to publication. slight faith has the typical story of taking years to write, uncounted numbers of rejections, several semi-finalist and a couple of finalist landings. So, when Lana accepted it, I was ecstatic. It meant more to me to be published by a Pacific Northwest publisher than to win a prize publication. Waiting made sense to me, as I had just published a book through my own press in 2016—Whirlwind @ Lesbos.
She has been a great editor and does a lot to promote her books. Her designer, Tonya Namura, also did a fabulous job with the design. Lana is also a great host. I’ve visited her in Oregon and have had a really delightful time.
LD: What do you have in the works now?
RD: I have a new manuscript out, which has three potential titles—Why I Hate to Cry, petless and unwed, or Goodbye, I’ll Never See You Again. The Headmistress Press book, Whirlwind @ Lesbos, was mostly a collection of poems I’d written in the late Nineties that centered around my lesbian identity, and had a lot of lovesick and love lost poems in it. The new manuscript is also autobiographical but with a very different tone.
I have started sending it out. I’ve also created a chapbook of some of the poems and I’m sending that around, too. So we’ll see. I’m also writing a sonnet cycle for my April poem-a-day practice, so that is getting my mind off of the new manuscript for a while.
My most exciting new poetry venture is that I’ve started writing poetry reviews, which it turns out I’m pretty good at. Since last June, I’ve had reviews published or forthcoming at The Rumpus, Crab Creek Review, Drizzle, Broadsided Press, and Psaltery & Lyre. And I love doing it so much that I have also started a website, called The Poetry Café—a meeting place where poetry chapbooks are reviewed.
My first review was your book, Each Wild Thing’s Consent, which I truly loved. Now I have people mailing me their chapbooks. What fun! The thing is, I have notified my job that I will be retiring in January 2020. In February I will turn seventy, which is hard to believe, but true. And now I have a full plate of reviews to write for my next career.
LD: Is there anything you would like your readers to know about your work?
RD: Writing is my spiritual practice. Poems I’ve read are my MFA program. The poems in slight faith are my religion. The poems in Whirlwind @ Lesbos are my sexual preference. Poems I’ve written about my best friend Jon, who died of AIDS at age thirty-seven, are lamentations. Poems I’ve written about illness and death are my occupation. Poetry is the political party I belong to. The poets in my life—alive or not, in workshop or on stage, in person or on social media—are my family.