The beat goes on: two poets, two generations

Two poets born generations and worlds apart will bring their works, which share roots in Jewish mysticism, to a National Poetry Month celebration in Palo Alto.

The Oshman JCC is hosting an evening of avant-garde beat poetry by Bay Area writers David Meltzer and Jake Marmer on April 3.

David Meltzer

The work of the two poets is often informed by Jewish mysticism and texts that reflect the Jewish experience, said Joel Stanley, the JCC’s director of Jewish innovation.

Meltzer, 79, came on the Bay Area poetry scene during the 1950s Beat Generation and has since published more than 40 works of poetry, fiction and essays, including “Two-Way Mirror,” reissued last year by City Lights Books. Meltzer has long been interested in kabbalistic expression, which also fascinates Marmer, 37, and informs his poetry.

Meltzer was born in Brooklyn and raised amid Old World cultures, communism, trade unionism, socialism and anarchism. It wasn’t until he came to the Bay Area and discovered Gershom Scholem’s “Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism’’ that he became intrigued with Jewish mysticism because it reminded him of the poetic process.

“I suddenly understood why some of these old guys with the beards stayed inside all day reading one sentence of the Torah,” he joked in an interview from his Oakland home.

Meltzer and Marmer both grew up non-religious.

Jake Marmer

Marmer was born in Ukraine in 1979, where the culture was secular and spirituality was cultivated through literature and art. He immigrated to Philadelphia when he was 15 before moving to New York to study at Yeshiva University.

Marmer, who came to California two years ago, teaches Jewish studies and writing at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto. His book of poetry, “Jazz Talmud,” was released in 2011, and a jazz/poetry CD “Hermeneutic Stomp” came out in 2013, featuring Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London.

Poetry, for both of these artists, is an expression of the running commentary on their experiences.

“Art could be an interesting way forward for the Jewish discourse,” Marmer said in an email. “And for the ritual life, too. Art can always be that space of subversion, innovation, the space where you can ask the big questions, push buttons — or at least find them.”

Meltzer, who claims “poetry is the attempt to break through into a deeper understanding,’’ said that even with the rise of technology, the literary world continues to expand and poetry remains relevant.

“Poetry still deals at heart with the human condition as they find it,” he said. “And that’s why it’s kind of a resistance movement, utopian at times in its desire to change the world, the oppression, the alienation.”

Marmer, also a writer for Jewish publications, interviewed Meltzer for Tablet magazine after “Two-Way Mirror” was reissued and a friendship blossomed. The elder poet has inspired Marmer’s poetry.

“[Meltzer] knows so much in a way that is so humble and profound about poetry and music,” Marmer said. “He wrote extensively about Jewish mysticism in a very poetic way.”

Stanley said Marmer and Meltzer “represent youth and experience, the old school and the new wave of Jewish beat poetry.

“More generally, poetry is an ideal medium to explore new forms of Jewish identity and expression,’’ he said. “Jewish poets like Jake and David are always uncovering and reframing the Jewish experience, offering new alternatives to the standard ways of engaging in Jewish community.”

“Generations: Avant-Garde Jewish Poetry,” 4 p.m. April 3 at Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $5.

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.