Poet Janet Kirchheimer to visit BSKI

For Janet Kirchheimer, finding her calling as a poet came a bit later in life than she might have preferred. Although her mom still has a poem Kirchheimer wrote as an 8-year-old, it wouldn’t be until she was struggling to write short stories in college that a teacher at New York University pointed out that poetry might be her strong suit.

A class assignment asking the students to write about a woman going through a door spurred classmates to write careful, narrative descriptions for a half-hour. Kirchheimer kept it sparse, straightforward. “I pretty much wrote ‘She went through the door.’ The teacher came over and looked at what I wrote and said, ‘I really think you should try poetry,'” she recalls.


Well, the teacher — and perhaps the 8-year-old — had good instincts.

Kirchheimer’s work has been published in a number of publications and she has earned accolades — particularly for her book, “How to Spot One of Us,” (Clal, 2007).

The collection of more than 80 poems tells her family’s stories of life during the Shoah — and the author’s experience as a child of survivors.

Kirchheimer, of New York City, is now a teaching fellow at Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. She travels across the country leading poetry discussions and workshops on Jewish leadership and creative writing.

March 6 and 7, Kirchheimer visits St. Louis and will take part in two events at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel in Richmond Heights sponsored by the congregation’s Adult Education Committeee (see below for details) and one 4 p.m. event Sunday, March 7 at Left Bank Books in the Central West End.

Kirchheimer spoke with the Jewish Light by telephone prior to her visit.

What about poetry resonated with you so strongly?

I love the sharpness of it. I love the fact that you can use few words to say so much — how what’s on the page matters and how what’s not on the page matters.

That’s not to say that other kinds of writing don’t do that also. But there’s something about poetry that lifts it off the page.

I heard a definition that poetry is about exploring what it means to be alive at a certain point in time and a certain place — and I love that.

There’s an amazing essay called ‘How Creative Writing Creates Us.’ It talks about how poetry –any kind of creative writing — you surrender your defined self to the whiteness of the page and you get to discover yourself over and over again.

What you write may just jump up off of the page and surprise you.

Is that what happens when you write?

I never know what’s inside of me until I put that pen or pencil down on that page. I love that. I get to rediscover myself over and over and over again.

You teach workshops for many different ages. Are there any special techniques for getting young people to connect with poetry?

I’m firmly in the school of — and it’s almost a dirty word — ‘accessible’ poetry. Kids have an innate sense of poetry. I think they instinctively understand metaphor.

Yesterday I was at PS86 in the Bronx and I spoke to a sixth grade class of gifted students and I used my book.

They got the poetry. They really understood. And these were sixth grade kids.

I think there’s something in poetry that allows you to enter pretty much whatever topic the writer is talking about.

Poetry forces you to think. It asks you questions and it invites you to dig deeper.

What are your ‘Poetry Schmoozes’ all about?

What I try to do is to really get a conversation going. I don’t want it to be like I’m reading a Ph.D. thesis.

Whether it’s a schmooze or teaching about Jewish leadership or teaching a Parsha class, everybody’s got an opinion and everybody brings life experience to whatever I’m bringing in. I try to get something very interactive going.

What do you get from discussing poems with an audience?

Everybody brings their own sense. I may think the poem means this to me, possibly because I’m going through this or that and then someone else says, ‘Yeah, but this is what I think,’ and I say ‘Holy Cow, that’s amazing.’

I bring back poems over and over that I think are phenomenal and like any good text you see more every single time that you didn’t see before in that poem.

Was it difficult writing about painful chapters of your family’s past?

I wanted to do it with a sense of kavod — of honor. I couldn’t do it in any other way.

This is what happened to my family, and to people in my family I never got to meet.

To be able to give the dead a voice was a tremendous responsibility and honor.

I don’t particularly view it as any sort of catharsis — or any sort of easy out. All of these people are gone — they’re dead, and it doesn’t tie up neatly any of this.

As the child of survivors, it’s just such a part of me.

Did your parents talk much about their experiences during the Holocaust?

It was very age-appropriate. I wasn’t five years old learning about gas chambers. I knew about the family that had been killed and as I got older, I started to ask more questions. They were always very open and honest and telling me what they thought was age-appropriate.

Once I was an adult we could start to have those more difficult conversations.

Janet Kirchheimer at BSKI

WHO: Poet and educator with Clal

WHAT: Coffeehouse program with Kirchheimer, local poets and entertainment from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday, March 6 and a workshop at noon Sunday, March 7 on ‘Personal responsibility: Am I my brother’s keeper and just whose brother is it anyway?’

WHERE: Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel, 1107 East Linden in Richmond Heights

COST: Free

MORE INFO: Sponsored by BSKI’s Adult Education Committee. Visit www.e-bski.org or call 314-725-6230 for more info.