Anna Goodman Herrick (Photo/Courtesy)
Anna Goodman Herrick (Photo/Courtesy)

Queer poet weaves mysticism and memoir in new book

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Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

Anna Goodman Herrick was working in television production in Los Angeles when she decided that she needed to pursue a more monastic life. She spent a year living in a Santa Barbara convent studying the philosophy behind Hinduism, then moved to the Bay Area in 2015 and immersed herself in Jewish text study at different synagogues.

“I realized my Judaism could be all that I need it to be,” said the poet, who lived in Berkeley and San Anselmo before returning to L.A. “It was really important for me to dig deeper into my ancestral tradition, my ancestral wisdom.”

Goodman Herrick, 43, weaves Jewish texts and mysticism with parts of her life story in a poetry memoir published June 4 titled “A Speaker Is a Wilderness: Poems on the Sacred Path from Broken to Whole.”

The poems in the book, her first, deal with various chapters of her life: growing up in New York and Connecticut, leaving home at 14, joining the vibrant New York City nightclub scene, studying with Hasidic rabbis in Israel and the U.S. and living at the Vedanta convent.

She also writes about her journey toward healing after experiencing several traumatic events, including the death of her younger brother when she was 7 and sexual assault by a classmate when she was 13.

In the poem “Wallpaper from the Walls of the Healing Room,” she writes: “autobiography of all of us: / we are healers. and. / we are healing.”

Goodman Herrick, who currently works as a freelance writer and creative, spoke with J. earlier this month about her life and poetry. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

J.: Your book starts off with a gut punch, the death of your brother, and your subsequent experiences of his funeral and your parents’ mourning. How did his passing while you were so young affect you?

Anna Goodman Herrick: My world shattered, and I was blown open, and I was all over the place and not OK. I remember really wondering as a little kid: Where’s God at in all this? What is God? How are we all connected? And what is the greater purpose? 

I really felt part of something infinite, something very, very big, so much bigger than what I can understand. And that felt incredibly awe inspiring as much as it was awful.

You write quite a bit about ancestral trauma and your connection to Judaism through your grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor. What was your relationship like?

When she passed away, we went through all her things, and in her wallet she had pictures of her grandkids, which is pretty classic grandma stuff. But what really surprised me was she also had in her wallet this poem that I had written and painted on my wall, when I must have been 12 or 13 years old. 

Anna dancing with her grandmother, 1984. (Photo/Courtesy)

I was really shocked. She had handwritten it down herself on a piece of paper, and then put it in her wallet and carried it for all those years. I don’t know why she never even mentioned that to me.

Growing up I didn’t really understand that I inherited a sort of traumatic love. I constantly experienced the lessons of generational trauma, and I remember there was a part of me as a young kid, that was like, OK, but where’s the good stuff? Where’s our generational wisdom? She gave me that key to go unlock myself. 

She’d say, “I understand why this is so important to you, and also I can’t fully do all these practices with you all the time because it’s so painful to remember the loss.” So I think in a way, it’s a privilege to get to heal. It’s a privilege to do soul healing.

Many of your poems refer to the Talmud, Jewish mysticism and Hebrew as a sacred language. Do these references and connections come naturally to you when you’re writing, or is your process more a form of meditation or text study?

Both. I did a lot of text study with Zohar scholars, Hebrew academics and Talmud scholars, and I just dug into it and loved every moment of it. It felt really rich for me, really juicy. And I think it became almost imperative when I was writing about ancestral healing that I do it through my ancestral tradition and through my ancestral wisdom. So it was almost meta, like, OK, I know in my bones and in my soul that we are the universe. Where does it say that in Judaism?

So I’d go look it up because somebody important to our tradition must have said it — it’s not just like a random understanding. But then, other times I’d read something in text study, or I’d be in shul, davening or reading something, and it just sort of shocked me alive and awake: Oh, this is deeply important. How does this relate to me? Why is it so important to me?

In your poem “Call Me By My Healing Name,” referencing André Aciman’s celebrated queer novel “Call Me By Your Name,” you hint at exploring feelings you had for another girl as a tween. Do you identify as queer?

Oh, yeah. To me, queer is a shorthand, and I love the word “pan” for me because I feel very fluid and very expansive. I appreciate people of all genders.

One reason why I wrote that piece is because in that chapter I sort of felt as a child or as a teenager that something terrible would happen to me if I was authentically me. I was a kid in the ’90s. It felt very terrifying to be out. I also didn’t understand pansexuality, and I didn’t understand that you didn’t have to be either/or, so it was also confusing to me. 

I did have huge crushes on boys, but I also was totally crushing on this girl. As much as I don’t want to get bogged down by identities, sometimes when we hear something that names us, in a way it can be such a relief because we have some kind of framework for it. A piece of that is knowing that it is OK to be human, it is OK to be all that you are.

What does the book’s title, “A Speaker Is a Wilderness,” mean to you?

I started learning Hebrew prayer at [Congregation] Kol Shofar in Marin around 2015, and they taught us about shoresh [Hebrew root letters], and that was just so cool to me because I’ve always had this weird almost obsession with etymology.

I was breaking down bamidbar, “in the wilderness.” Midbar, “wilderness/desert,” and medaber, “speaks,” are spelled the same in Hebrew. There’s this whole conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years about those [words] coming from the same root. Some scholars say absolutely not and some scholars say yes. But there’s a Jewish tradition of elevating language, roots, and folk etymology as spiritual meditation, and in that the point is that they’re both there, intertwined.

There’s this idea we have in Judaism that you have to go down to come up, a spiritual descent for an ascent. You also have to kind of get down into that wilderness to come back out into something spiritually higher and greater, get into that mess and make your way out, but there’s so much wisdom that you’re taking with you from there. That’s in a lot of ways what this book is about.

When we put that on the cover, I knew I also wanted disco balls in homage to my club life, which was a bit of a wilderness. My experience is that the sacred is in everything. There’s not this division of, you’re either in shul or you’re in the wild and you’ve lost the derech [“path”]. No, the derech is inside you, you are the derech.

Healing is a unifying theme throughout the book. What advice do you have for those who are on their own healing journeys, especially at a time like now when there is so much collective pain and grief?

I think it helps to look at what we mean by “we.” When we say “We have suffered” or “We are struggling” or “Something terrible happened to us,” the next question is, “Well, how big can your ‘us’ be?” because the whole world is suffering. So many people are suffering, and if I’m only interested in my suffering and in my trauma, that’s a traumatic response. We’ll get stuck there.

So the question becomes: How many people can you meet? How many communities can you get to know to understand that everyone’s suffering is so important, and everyone’s safety is so important, and everyone’s joy is so important? There’s actually both individual and collective healing in that.

The more we’re willing to open ourselves, to really meet each other and really get to know each other, then the world becomes so much less terrifying.

“A Speaker Is a Wilderness: Poems on the Sacred Path from Broken to Whole” by Anna Goodman Herrick (Monkfish Book Publishing, 94 pages). Afikomen Judaica, 3042 Claremont Ave., Berkeley, will host a free book release party with live music at 7 p.m. June 26.

Lea Loeb
(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Lea Loeb

Lea Loeb is engagement reporter at J. She previously served as editorial assistant.