Writers read at 5th annual café at Agudat Achim Poems explore power relations, grief, survival


Poet and artist Shira Dentz opened the fifth annual Community of Jewish Writers poetry café on May 19 at Agudat Achim, which featured 15 writers sharing their work during the open-mic section.

Writer and artist Leslie Neustadt and Guilderland poet Susan Comninos cochaired the event. Dentz, who teaches creative writing at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, held a question and answer session with the audience of about 35.


Shira Dentz, who teaches creative writing at RPI, opened the poetry café on May 19 at Congregation Agudat Achim.

Misuse of Power

Dentz read from her memoir-based book door of thin skins, which tracks the misuse of power in a patient/doctor relationship in shattering detail. “I combine attention to medium and the materials — how the letters look and sound — and the narrative. I hardly ever have a game plan. I might have a destination. I try not to be guided,” she said. Dentz said that her maternal grandparents escaped Vienna with their children after Kristallnacht and came to the United States via Sweden, but almost all of her grandmother’s family was killed in the Holocaust. Being Jewish has influenced the way Dentz views being a human in the world, as well as how to live a morally conscious life, she said.

She said her background as a visual artist influences her approach to literary form. She often explores hybrid writing (poetic and narrative) and visual writing, and she said she enjoys the fluidity between genres and artistic mediums.

“When you grow up in the Bronx, going to a Jewish school and see people with numbers on their arm, it changes your views on people and society,” she said, and read a poem simply called 18.

Six poets were selected from many local writers who submitted their works for consideration in advance of the event. Those selected were given 4 minutes to read their poems that varied widely in content. Some were the students of Susan Comninos, who holds a poetry workshop on Tuesday evenings at the Schenectady Jewish Community Center.

Niskayuna poet Joanne Seltzer “… we have a vibrant community of Jewish writers …”

Niskayuna poet Joanne Seltzer “… we have a vibrant community of Jewish writers …”

Processing Grief

Joanne Seltzer of Niskayuna attends Comninos’ workshop at the SJCC and read 4 of her short poems.

Her work has been published by Kent State University Press in a book entitled The Widows’ Handbook — Poetic Reflections on Grief and Survival. It is the first anthology of poems written by contemporary widows, many of whom have written their way out of solitude and despair, distilling their strongest feelings into poetry or memoir.

“One of the ones I read was about my husband’s bones, inspired by Ezekiel 1-14, which talks about dry bones coming to life,” she said.

“I began writing when I was 8. My mother sent a poem of mine into Children’s Playmate magazine and they published it. I had a long hiatus, until the 1970s. I’d had 4 children, and seem to find myself in a caretaking role repeatedly. I took care of my mother, then my husband,” she said.

She read a love poem that she called “risqué,” called I Miss Your Lips. “I’m usually pretty conservative,” said Seltzer. Esther Willison, 79, of Schenectady, the mother of two girls, wrote a poem whose title is! (an exclamation point) about two cats that are sisters. “The shape of the poem is also an exclamation point. The cats are metaphors for my daughters, one who passed away at 38, who was a poet.”

Willison works at the Open Door book store in Schenectady, surrounded, she said, “by good books.”

Cong. Agudat Achim earned the Solomon Shechter award in 2012 for the creativity and importance of this program, which it has hosted since its inception. “We look forward to continuing this partnership in the arts for many years,” said Mery Gross, former president of Agudat Achim.



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