In ‘Story & Bone’ poems, Deborah Leipziger writes on matters of home and heritage
Deborah Leipziger has lived a life of many roles: She’s been a poet, an adviser on sustainability and a mother. She has written several nonfiction books covering the environment and global warming, and co-founded the New England Jewish Poetry Festival and Soul-Lit, an online poetry magazine focused on spirituality. Leipziger’s most recent work, a collection of poetry called “Story & Bone,” is lyrical, deep and meaningful and goes into the roots of Deborah’s identity and loves, ranging from her ancestors to her children and her partners. The Brookline poet is expected at a Poetry Month reading at the Cambridge Main Library at 2 p.m. April 22. (She also reads from Thursday at the Brookline Booksmith.) We talked with Leipziger on March 2 over Zoom; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Family is a large theme in this collection. How have your relatives’ stories affected you?
These stories have always been really interesting to me. Throughout my childhood, I heard so many different languages. My mother’s family is Italian, and I’m very influenced by that. My father’s family speaks German, and I speak Portuguese. My family is really an interesting mix of languages and cultures. And so, growing up, I began to question, “Who am I? Where do I belong?” Poetry gives me a space to explore that. Also, a lot of my family’s cultural traditions revolve around food, and I have a number of poems about different types of foods or baking, using it as a metaphor for family and for living.
At what age did you start writing poetry?
I only consciously started in eighth grade. I remember very clearly having my first poem published in the school newspaper. Still, I’ve always kept a journal, and my first memories are of words. I think words have always been a part of me. I remember, after we moved from Brazil to the United States, I went to see a play about Emily Dickinson and was like, “Oh my gosh, this is a profession – people do this, and women do this.” It just blew my mind that someone could live their life as a writer. And then of course I began telling people that I wanted to be a poet, and they would say, “Oh, no, no, no, that’s not a good idea.”
Why do you choose to write love poems in particular?
It’s one of those things that is fun to do because it’s hard. Love wants to be expressed, it needs to be expressed. It’s also something I want to remember. I want to hold on to these feelings, to make them permanent. I imagine the love poems I write about my kids as a photograph of a feeling.
How did you decide on “Story & Bone” as the title of your collection?
The title was, in many ways, the hardest part. One of my poems, “Island Cities,” had the line “story and bone” in it, and I thought, “Okay, well, that’s really interesting.” I like how it looks and sounds and how it is unique. What we carry with us are our stories, our bones, in a metaphoric way. For a while, I used the title “What is Home” as an organizing principle and then I thought, “Okay, home is story and bone,” and so it just transitioned to “Story & Bone.”
How does Judaism and your spirituality influence your poetry?
My father is a rabbi and my brother is a rabbi.That’s influenced me, and my poetry has a lot of interest in spiritual issues. Some of that is Jewish, as I’ve been very interested in Jewish themes. There are themes about being a refugee, coming from a family of refugees and trying to understand what it was like for my grandparents to leave Italy or leave Germany, and trying to come to terms with that. That’s definitely part of my journey. And I’m really inspired by my Jewish heritage, so different holidays, and different traditions are a part of my poetry too. I also started the New England Jewish Poetry Festival at my temple. I’ve built a network of poets writing on Jewish themes. It’s always fascinating to see the different languages that they use, because some people write in Yiddish, some people write in Hebrew, and it’s a whole universe that I love. I love learning things, and that’s been a great way of learning.
What have been the challenges with running the festival?
It’s been a labor of love, and I’ve been really fortunate to find funding and to have a lot of support. We did have to adapt during the pandemic and to use Zoom instead of meeting in-person. That allowed us to get people from all over the world, which was new and wonderful. During the very dark moments of the pandemic in early 2020, it was so good to connect through poetry. It was a real opportunity to show the power of poems.
You also run a spirituality magazine, Soul-Lit. What does spirituality mean to you?
Most poetry tends to be spiritual. It’s really about our connections to each other, to the world, to nature and our quest for meaning. That to me is what spirituality is. If you ask other people, they may have other definitions, but to me spirituality is searching for the answers to the questions, “Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What are we here to do? And what is our responsibility to each other?” Exploring that human connection is also a big part of what makes me interested in the environment. Those things for me are very connected – our role in the world and our responsibility to it.
How have your children inspired your poems?
I love the way that children learn language. I believe it was Pablo Picasso that said, “We’re all born artists.” And I think that children are natural poets; they’re learning language, learning new words, and I would just fall in love with the things that they would say. A long time ago, one of my daughters, Jackie, saw that her little watering can had been filled with rain. We lived in the Netherlands and it rains all the time. And so she said, “Who filled my watering can?” and I said, “The rain,” and she says, “Thank you, rain.” It was just so beautiful. It’s a poem, it’s a prayer, it’s a natural expression of gratitude.
What do you hope that readers will come away with after reading “Story & Bone”?
I hope that people will come away with a curiosity about different cultures and traditions. We all have so many cultural influences, and understanding that and being curious about it is so important. I hope that people will ask themselves, “What is my heritage? What did my grandmother teach me? What do I want to teach my grandchildren one day? What matters to me and what is home for me?”