Back in 2021, I walked to a bookstore in downtown Providence looking for some poetry to read. I started browsing at A — with the authors’ last names — and got down to the S’s before anything grabbed me. When I took Forgive Yourself These Tiny Acts of Self-Destruction off the shelf and flipped through it, I saw Hebrew in one of the poems, which was titled “Jewdaism.” I bought your book, came home, and started reading. The collection, including its Jewish poems, is quite powerful. It led me to contact you and brings us to this interview by phone. How did the book come about?
I’ve been writing forever. Mostly these days I write for the page, but I started as an almost purely stage/performance poet. The people that I respected were publishing books and kept telling me I needed to publish mine. I looked into a couple places, but nothing had come through and I sort of stopped looking. But then my wife said, “Hey, you really should publish that book.” I called up Sam Van Cook at one of my favorite presses, Button Poetry. He said, “Send me the manuscript.” And that’s how it happened.
How do writing for the stage and the page differ?
I want to be clear that almost all page poetry works on the stage, and almost all stage poetry works on the page. The biggest difference, the moment when those things don’t interact and when you have to pick one or the other, is that stage poems have to be understandable on a first read. You’re only going to do it once and they have to get it, whereas on the page you can do things visually that won’t be understood in an auditory setting and you can do things in a complicated way that may require multiple reads.
Why did you make that transition from stage to page?
I just basically stopped enjoying performing and doing slam. I didn’t like it anymore. Slam has always been about showing your deepest hurts, your insides, and I think that it’s really great for a lot of people to learn how to do. I think that there’s a place for it and I’m glad that it exists for the people who still need it, but the older I get the more slam becomes about that sharing of pain.
When I was doing slam, I would say it was half people putting their sadness out there and half people exploring poetry, trying to be funny — all sorts of stuff. Now I think it’s 95% sharing your trauma and 5% anything else. And that’s not how I want to spend my nights. The world’s too hard. I think 20-year-old Jared would have absolutely needed it, would have still been there, would have loved it, but 36-year-old Jared really doesn’t want to come home from dealing with the world and then listen to people be sad for three hours. Working more on the page, and focusing on reading other people’s work instead of listening to other people’s work, I’ve been hearing what I want to hear way more.
How much of Forgive Yourself These Tiny Acts of Self-Destruction was originally for the page and how much of it is from that earlier stage experience?
A lot of my stuff — because I got started on the stage — I still perform at colleges. I still go and teach at colleges. I’m still on stage a lot. I’m just not competing anymore. I’m not tailoring my writing for it. A lot of my writing is more slow these days.
To answer your question, I would say two-thirds of it was originally for the stage, and one-third of it was new for the book. It was a weird experience. I’d been writing seriously and competing — and making my living, at least partially, doing poetry — for 13 years when I put together the book. So I had 13 years’ worth of stuff to pitch from and see what went together. I’m almost done with a second book, and it’s all stuff I’ve written in the last two years.
I think the second book is better, but you hope that every book you write gets better. I absolutely believe everything that’s in Forgive Yourself These Tiny Acts of Self-Destruction, but there are a lot of poems in there that aren’t me anymore. They were me three, five, seven years ago. And that’s really important. I’m happy to have put it in the book, but it also feels separate from myself now, whereas everything in this new book is from the two years since I put that first one out, so it all feels pretty much like me.
Do you still perform the works that don’t feel like you anymore?
Absolutely. One, because some of them I still think people need to hear, and also just because it’s not me anymore doesn’t mean it wasn’t. It’s like getting a tattoo. You might not love the tattoo as much 30 years after you get it, but you still look at it and you’re like, Yeah, that helped make me who I am now.
I have a tattoo — a person with two shadows coming from behind, and with a line from one of my favorite songs: “I tend to underestimate my average.” I don’t think that’s true anymore. I got that tattoo when I was 18 and was a depressed kid who had no self-confidence, and I think I understand what my average is now. But every time I look at that tattoo, I still think about that 18-year-old kid, and I’m like, Hell yeah. I’m still very happy with the tattoo. It’s a picture of who I was in time and I feel that way about a lot of these poems.
If I could travel through time, I would go back
to the moment before it was too late.
Right before you wrote a suicide note that started
I’m doing this now because I know you will be the one to
find me. Of all of my friends, I think you’re the one who’s
strong enough to take it.
What made you think I was strong enough to take this?
(From “A Letter To Sarah Contemplating Superpowers”)
And also, to give a second answer, one of the things I love about performing is that performing lets you put a fin on the writing. Let’s take the poem “A Letter To Sarah Contemplating Superpowers,” from the book. When I first wrote that poem and performed that poem, I was furious. It was cathartic, and anger, and How could you do that to all of us! And when I was performing the poem, I would scream it, or parts of it at least, because I was just so angry.
I’ve edited the poem a little, and removed a few of the angry words, but a lot of the difference is, when I read that poem, I read it how I feel about her now. The words haven’t really changed, but it’s slow and it’s sad, and instead of being me getting out my rage, it’s a dirge for a great person we once knew. And so I still don’t mind reading it. I’m not going to read it in that screaming voice. I’m never doing that again. I don’t feel that anymore. But I’ve got no problem reading the poem.
You said you were making a living partially from your poetry, from your writing. What has made up the other part?
I have an engineering degree. I sometimes build things for people from scratch, but a lot of what I do is I focus on live theater and music festivals. It’s one of the great joys of my life. I mean, making other people sound good and helping people understand text by providing audio for it is a really, really amazing thing.
Obviously that didn’t exist during the pandemic, so during the pandemic, I full-time taught poetry. It fluctuated a little bit, but I had around 30 people I was doing one-on-one lessons with, and then I had three group classes of eight to 10 students. And it was great. Theater is open again. I’m still doing the group classes, but I’m doing much fewer one-on-ones.
I also full-time did poetry, in a very different way, before I started doing theater, right around, I don’t know, 2010-2011. My full-time job was performing at colleges, which was an absolutely amazing experience. I would recommend for anybody in the arts to try and do a road show, try and do a tour, whether it be your own work or working on someone else’s tour. I highly recommend that every artist do it once, and then I highly recommend that you never do it again.
Why only once?
It was an awesome learning experience. It taught me — I can’t even put into words how much I learned, both about my craft and about myself, doing it. I also made, you know, not crazy amounts of money, but what for at the time as a 22-year-old, fresh out of college, was a lot of money. What I would basically do is I would go on tour for two weeks, come home, be home for two weeks, and go on tour for two weeks. When I was on tour, it was not uncommon for me to do 17 or 18 plane rides in two weeks and perform at 15 schools. The year that I did that full-time, I spent more time in airports than I did in my apartment. And secret message: that’s miserable.
I did it for about a year. And it was really great, and I’m really glad that I did it. I would need NFL-superstar money to consider doing it again, but it was great. I’m starting to travel and perform again. These days, I do a couple college shows and come home. I don’t do long tours, because it’s exhausting. It’s really exhausting, and now that I’m married and have a house and a dog, I like to see my house, my dog, and my wife.
You said you’ve become a slower writer.
I don’t mean in the speed at which I write. I mean the pace of the poetry itself. A lot of the early stuff, and a lot of the stuff in the book, in my mind and when I perform it, it’s very quickly paced, and I intentionally use a lot of commas and not many periods to keep it reading fast on the page. And now there’s a lot more Let’s not rush through this. Let’s flow and think about this. A lot less punk rock, a lot more Here’s my story.
Is there an example of what you would think of as a slower poem in Forgive Yourself These Tiny Acts of Self-Destruction?
There are a handful of slower poems. All of the “Being Jewish Means Always Being Too Much Or Not Enough” poems — I would call all three slow poems. There are a few others. A lot of the stuff near the end of the book is slower.
My publisher works with me. I tried to think of there being three major themes to the book, and they wanted me to pick one. Not that they were argumentative, but they said, “The book might be stronger if you pick one.” And while I frequently feel that way about reading poems, I felt like they had enough of an emotional throughput that I really wanted to keep all three themes.
You came in with the idea that there were three themes and were able to stay with it?
And stay with it, yeah. And they were fine with it. They were just making a suggestion. And we removed a few poems. They said, “This is on theme, but it’s completely unlike the other stuff you have in there.” There’s always going to be some of that. I think there are six poems I originally submitted that didn’t make it in the book, and we added three others that weren’t originally in the book.
What were the three themes that you felt the book had?
There’s the flippant answer and then there’s the real answer.
I’ll take both.
The flippant answer is definitely how my publisher phrased it to me to drive the point home. I don’t want it to sound like I’m talking trash about them, because I’m not. I think they were very helpful, and I think they were very right to bring it up. But the flippant answer was: science, dead girls, and your father.
And the not flippant answer, the real version of that, is: dealing with the death of loved ones, trying to figure out what effect family has on who we are, and trying to figure out — in this world and with my background and how complicated the world is — how the hell to be a good person. Those are the themes that I really wanted to come through with.
I do thematically, topic-wise, talk a lot about those three things that my publisher brought up. Most of the people I have lost have been women. I use science for metaphor a lot. And I’ve got some beef with my dad. But I think it’s a little bit more than that.
Your three “Being Jewish Means Always Being Too Much Or Not Enough” poems resonated with me. They also build on each other, even though separated in the book by other poems. I didn’t recover from one poem before getting hit by the next.
Those are some of my favorites. This is a story I can tell. I won’t get too specific with it, but here we are: Something that publishers do is they have what is called a sensitivity reader. And that is somebody who is reading the book, trying to find something that people will be outraged about. They let the author know, and then it’s up to the author what to do with that. And the note that I got was basically that talking about being Jewish, and even mentioning the word Israel, would turn some people off. And that talking about Judaism as a passive thing wouldn’t upset people, but talking about it as part of an identity would, for a certain group of people. And did I want to adjust that. It wasn’t like, “You have to.” It was like, “Do you want to?”
…When I mention that I am Jewish,
all of the kindness drains out of her face,
her rosy cheeks and welcoming grin
replaced with a shark’s smile
as she asks, “Are you a Zionist?”
I say no, but she isn’t satisfied. “Seriously, what do
you think of Israel?” I sigh, knowing that the comradery
of the evening is about to end. I say, it’s complicated.
(From “Being Jewish Means Always Being Too Much Or Not Enough 2”)
Two of those three poems, I left untouched, and the last one, I realized from some of the specific comments, wasn’t coming across the way that I wanted it to, and so I rewrote it, even though I think they were wrong. I personally don’t think there was anything wrong with what I had written, but I also don’t think it was clear, and I realized that through them. I think the final version of that poem is much, much stronger.
You’re saying it helped, in a way.
It helped, once I got over the initial shock of like, I didn’t say anything wrong. Maybe they were reading into it. Maybe it was coming across as a pro-war, pro-Zionist thing, which is definitely not how I feel. I think the poem ended up being much stronger. The three Jewish poems and the poem “Silence” are my favorite poems in the book.
The thing about the truth is that it is
almost never one thing.
I just want to be an honest man
while still leaving room for all the answers.
There are several other Jewish-related poems in the book.
There are more Jewish poems, but there are three that are basically just Jewish poems.
Those three — why are they your next favorite in the book, after “Silence”?
That’s a good question. I mean, a lot of it is because there are things there, that I hope I get at, that I have never heard anyone else talk about publicly. When I read them aloud, when I say them, I inevitably get at least a Jewish person — and if I’m in a room where there are a bunch of Jews, a bunch of people — talk to me and say, “Oh, yeah. That’s exactly how I feel” or “That happens to me all the time.”
You know, I have experienced and been through some really blatant, hateful antisemitism. I could tell you 20 minutes of stories about that stuff. But also, I’ve experienced an awful lot of people who are liberal, who think of themselves as good people, who are political activists, who, hell, I know are good people, who for some reason are really antisemitic. And it’s bizarre, and no one’s talking about it.
During a conversation about discrimination,
someone mentions that they are Jewish and
the Good Man, now drunk, says,
“Maybe if you were a foreigner it would count,
maybe if you wore one of the funny little hats it would
count. But you’re nothing.”
My throat goes dead-dry, shocked hoarse.
He knows that I am also Jewish. Still, he says this
looking right at me with a broadening smile,
like he is letting me in on the sweetest joke.
(From “Being Jewish Means Always Being Too Much Or Not Enough 1”)
That’s what I meant when I said that those resonated with me. I read them and felt, “Yes. This is exactly true.” I hadn’t read poetry expressing this before. Maybe poetry is an ideal way to express this.
The first of those poems — about the Good Man — I think about that night a lot. This guy who called me brother, who really was like family, who helped me when I was at my worst, who was this great guy, just had showed a really anti-Jewish bias at my house, called a Jew there “nothing,” called my Hebrew nonsense, and all sorts of stuff. And it’s not like he was mad at me. He just thought that this stuff was inarguable, absolutely true. And he’s someone who everybody I know is just like, “Ah, that guy. He’s a good man.” And he is a good man — but also, I don’t want that dude in my house ever again. And it’s sad, because I know how big and open his heart is, but also know how accidentally hateful he is.
I think so. I mean, he believes those things are true, and they’re hateful — but he didn’t say them to try and hurt anyone. He just assumed that everybody in the room would agree. “Yeah, your prayers are gibberish, man.” That’s some shit.
And in the second of those three poems, the woman you write about is also someone who could generally be thought of as “a good person.”
Yeah. She’s an activist. I told her that I thought everybody deserved a place where they could live and be safe, and she called me disgusting. That was her exact word. You work for the Peace Corps! How can thinking that people deserve a home be disgusting? Everybody deserves a home. That should be an essential human right. “Oh, no!” You called me disgusting. Okay, well…
I deeply wish she was the first sensitive, welcoming,
tender-heart to tell me I should be ashamed of being
Jewish, but anti-Semitism lives as deeply in the smile
as it does the fist.
(From “Being Jewish Means Always Being Too Much Or Not Enough 2”)
I think at least six of the poems are Jewish-related, but even in other poems, you write God as Gd.
Yes. Always do. It’s an old Jewish thing — anything with God’s name on it is holy and therefore can’t be thrown away, must be buried. It’s that tradition. And I don’t want to put that name on paper knowing that people will destroy it, throw it away, forget about it, or get it water damaged. This is kind of separate from your question, but I want to be very clear: I do not believe in God.
That was going to be my next question, because you write that explicitly in the poem “Hardest Thing.”
I absolutely do not believe in God, but I think that even if God does exist, he’s not worth worshiping if he allows all the stuff that happens to happen. But tradition in and of itself, and having a community, and using tradition to reinforce that community, while not excluding others — that being the key part, the not excluding others — I think is incredibly fulfilling. I put on tefillin every morning.
Do you? I put on tefillin too.
And not out of a belief in God, but because having 10 minutes of reflection every morning, on yesterday and today, and separating today’s stuff from yesterday, and leaving that yesterday, has been incredibly fulfilling and made me a much healthier, happier person. For me, it’s the intentionality of the rituals, rather than any religious significance.
How long have you been putting on tefillin?
Oh, man — I started doing it shortly after my bar mitzvah, and I also ate almost completely kosher. Then when I was 15, I decided that I didn’t know if religion is for me, and so I decided that for a year I wasn’t going to follow any Jewish tradition. I was going to eat whatever I wanted. I was going to do everything I wanted for a year, and then I was going to see how I felt. That was like 15 to 17. And then I went back to eating almost completely kosher after that year. I think I started putting on tefillin again when I was 20 or 21 — probably when I was 21 — so I’ve been doing that for 15 years.
What kind of Jewish background would you say you come from?
An interesting question. My grandparents were super conservative, Orthodoxy, Old World Jews, and my parents considered themselves Jewish, but were very, very Reform. I grew up in a Reform house. I grew up in a “Whether or not you’re even Jewish is up to you” house. But I grew up seeing a lot of the Orthodox stuff.
From your grandparents?
And their family and friends.
The bar mitzvah — was that a Reform synagogue?
It was. It was in a pretty liberal, hippy-dippy synagogue.
Is your wife Jewish?
She is not. That was a hang-up for me. But we’re talking about having kids and she’s thinking about converting — without me asking, without any prompting from me, which is a thing that I’m processing.
“Jewdaism” is the poem in which, when I picked up your book and was looking through it at the bookstore, I came across Hebrew. What does spelling the title that way signify?
I wanted the title to be simple and I was trying to connect it to “This is my role in Judaism. This is the part I play.” Since then — right now, I don’t know much, I just started — I’ve been taking Hebrew lessons. So at some point this poem will no longer be true, but at least right now I’m someone who puts on tefillin every morning and doesn’t understand the Hebrew. I can read it on the page. I can sound it out. I can say it. I can say it correctly. I have no idea what the hell I’m reading. And so it’s about that idea of: Does that make me less of a Jew? We’re the people of the book. Does the fact that I have to take other people’s word for what it says, is that okay? Is that not okay? Frankly, I don’t know the answer, and that’s what I wanted to explore.
If I know anything about my ancestors, it’s
that they would have a definite opinion about this
and that they would not keep their mouths shut.
They couldn’t–they would tell me
exactly what they thought of my choices.
I wouldn’t understand a damn word.
I was taught that following tradition
is more important than understanding it.
Why did you decide to start studying Hebrew?
I’ve always wanted to, and the pandemic gave me some free time.
How are you going about that?
I got a Rosetta Stone package for Hebrew, which is where I’m doing a lot of my studying. I just, just started. Also, there’s a Reform synagogue near me that offers one-on-one Hebrew lessons. So basically, every two weeks I’m doing a Hebrew lesson with them, and I’m trying to progress on my own through Rosetta Stone.
You’re living in New Jersey —
I live in Nutley, New Jersey now. I love our house. I love our neighborhood. I do still wish I was in Brooklyn, but this place is also pretty great. I’m two train stops from the city. I still do theater work for a living, and that’s all in the city, so I still have to go into the city a lot, which is why we live so close to it. I have a yard, a house, a dog. I’m married to the person who has treated me better than any other human in my life. I’ve got nothing to complain about.
I want to be just a little
less me so we can
have a little
(From “Growing Old”)
A beautiful poem in the book, “Growing Old,” is for your wife and about your desire to lose weight. It may be the shortest —
That’s definitely the shortest poem in the book, yeah.
What did your wife think of it?
She had never seen that one until it was in the book. She was incredibly sweet. She definitely got a little verklempt, but also was like, “You don’t have to do that for me. I love you the way you are.” And I was like, “I know that, and the fact that I know that is why I want to maybe make some changes. Because I went through a lot of bad, and a lot of bad partners, and a lot of people who actively wanted to hurt me. I have finally found someone who is amazing. It sure would be a shame if we only had 10 years together, right?”
And were you able to make some changes?
The pandemic’s been hard. I’m going to go with a qualified “eh.” I’m about, I don’t know, 40, 45 pounds lighter than when I wrote that poem. But I’m still easily 100 pounds over where I should be, right? So I think that gets a qualified “eh.”
When you are a successful fat man,
that is what you will always be.
You will never just be successful or
just a man.
(From “On Being a Fat Man”)
The book has a 2019 publication date. How much before March of 2019 did it come out?
Could not have timed it worse if we tried. You know, I was supposed to do a year of pretty heavy touring to promote the book, and didn’t, which I think did affect sales, if we’re using that metric.
There’s been a lot of talk about how poetry had a resurgence during the pandemic.
There was a lot. There were a lot of online shows going on. I did a bunch of online shows.
Are those shows as satisfying as being in front of a live audience? Do they work just as well?
They’re very satisfying. They’re fun. They’re good. They’re not nearly as satisfying.
When you are live with people — even if you’re doing the same material, even if you know your speech, your poem, your song is good — some rooms aren’t going to identify with it, and some rooms are, and the moments and shows where the audience is 100% with you and they’re eating out of your hand, is a feeling unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. I’ve had maybe a dozen of those shows, and I can tell you where and when every single one of them happened. It feels magic. You don’t get that online. It’s still community, but it doesn’t have that moment where you say a line, and the entire room breathes in together.
I had a show once — it was seats, it wasn’t standing. And I have a poem about trying to tell someone that you’re in love with them as the storm rolls in. And with no prompting from me — I have maybe 30 seconds, two stanzas, where I’m describing the thunder rolling in — the people in the room started stamping their feet in unison, and they kept it going for the whole poem. And that’s not something I started or I imagined. It was awesome. It feels like a storm is rolling. That was at Macalester College in Minnesota, and it was 400 kids in a room, and that started and even as it was happening, I was like, Oh, man. This is a thing I’m going to be remembering for a long time.
And you can’t get that online?
You can’t get that online. People are listening, but no one’s getting excited. No one’s jumping out of their seats. I can’t even get excited and jump out of my seat, because I won’t be on camera anymore. So if I’m not giving that level of energy, how could I expect anyone to give it back to me? It’s a great tool. But it’s not the same.
Shai Afsai (shaiafsai.com) lives in Providence. His writing has focused on Thomas Paine, Jews and Freemasonry, Zionist historiography, religious traditions of the Beta Yisrael Jewish community from Ethiopia, emerging Judaism in Nigeria, aliyah from R.I., Jewish pilgrimage to Ukraine, Benjamin Franklin’s influence on Judaism, Jewish-Polish relations, Jews and Irish literature, and Judaism in Northern Ireland.