Movement inspires musings of Walnut Creek poet

It was the combination of a poetry reading and a slow-movement class that inspired much of Elaine Marcus Starkman's latest poetry collection.

"There's a wonderful class I take in Lafayette," said the Walnut Creek-based author and poet. "It's not aerobics but a slow-movement class, and it's a tremendous release for me. [The teacher] had played incredible music that day."

That class inspired the poem that appears as the first in her new chapbook, "Moving: Poems 1992-2002," her fifth book of poetry in 10 years.

The collection can be found at the Barnes & Noble in Walnut Creek, or e-mail Starkman at [email protected]

"Moving" has several themes: Jewish holidays, the individual vs. collective society, family and travel, as "you take yourself with you wherever you go," she said.

Then, "some are just kind of philosophical, about what it is to be alive, and there are some on the process of writing and how it feels."

Starkman is one who knows. In addition to her poetry, she has written several plays and a memoir, "Learning to Sit in Silence: A Journal of Care-taking." Written about the time her mother-in-law lived with her family, the book transformed Starkman into an expert on geriatrics, as she was sought out to speak about taking care of the elderly.

"I go back and forth between poetry and prose," she said. "I don't think one has to define oneself in a particular genre. There have been times in my life when I've only written prose, but I write however it comes to me. Some people think of me as a poet, but they don't know my prose that well."

She also edited "Here I Am: Contemporary Jewish Stories from Around the World" and co-edited "Without a Single Answer: Poems of Contemporary Israel."

Starkman first visited Israel in 1965, and then she and her husband went in 1967, staying for two years. The fact that she speaks Hebrew and has made many subsequent trips to the Jewish state has given her a closer relationship with the country than many tourists.

"Israel gives different things to different people," she said. "For me it was just this incredible, almost unbelievable connection with Jews from around the world who were so unlike ourselves. It was such a strong and deep emotion that has really lasted for so many years."

When Starkman returned from Israel, she and her husband, who had previously been living in Chicago, decided they rather liked living without cold and snow. So they moved to California in 1969 and have lived in the East Bay ever since.

While Israel remained a recurring theme, "I also began to write more about myself and my place in the Jewish community. Not all my work, but nearly all has a Jewish feeling," she said.

Starkman had been a public school teacher in Chicago, and her writing really began after she returned from that two-year period in Israel.

While she could remember writing a monologue in her grandfather's voice when she was

15, "in those days, women were not really encouraged to write. You don't say you're going into writing as a career."

A few of her columns were published in a Chicago newspaper, but it was in California that her writing really took off.

"When we came here, it was the right atmosphere at the right time. It was the crest of the women's writing movement."

Starkman obtained a master's degree in English and creative writing at San Francisco State University, and after that, "I began to write in earnest. Nearly all the stories for my master's thesis were published eventually, and I just kept doing it. It became like a way of life for me; it was a need I had."

Starkman is now mostly retired, though she continues to teach adult-education courses in writing. She also leads small writing workshops.

One of Starkman's favorites in the new collection is "Sequence," in which the four stanzas were each written in different years. The first is from 1993 and the last from 2000.

"Because I kept writing it over many years, I like how my attitude changed over the writing," she said.

There is a poem about her 2001 visit to Israel, and there is one called "Seven Scenes from Spain," which is more of a prose poem.

"After Expulsion, new mezuzah on the doorpost of la sinogaga and keys to the city for ancestors of ancient Sephardim. After Torquemada and Inquisition, Jewish weddings. The bust of your head, Maimonides, copied from an inscription on the Israeli shekel. Medieval and modern, you smile at me from la juderia, not shtetl or barrio but in the end — the same. I too need a personal Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides, as I weave my way past Moors and Jews — into Fernando y Isabela."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."