Over the past thirty five years, Steven has given many readings, lectures and workshops. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss his availability.
For more than two decades, I have been writing primarily about family and community, seeking moments of holiness and connection. I began by writing poems that focused on several generations of my family, from immigrant grandparents to my own children. More recently, I have been drawn to exploring particular traditions and rituals, to writing about those values that form the core of my private, as well as public, life.
It’s no coincidence that, as I have deepened my religious observance over the years, so has my poetry become more interwoven with this lifestyle, more responsive to its pulse. Part of my poetic task, as I see it, has been to reconcile Jewish life in places as different as Oregon and New York City, honoring tradition yet open to change, building bridges between them. Another part of my task: to know that sense of wonder in everyday actions/interactions and objects, to find awe in the commonplace. Taken together, these have led me on a deeply felt spiritual exploration: often immersed in loss as well as healing, grief as well as belief, memories of comfort as well as love.
Ultimately, I worry about the vision we pass along to our children, what durable values connect us to our past and to each other, what moral guidelines we put into daily practice. The moral and ethical concerns that we own, our spiritual compass, the traditions and rituals we observe, the family and communal values we have absorbed, the culture we strive to define and preserve, the sense of justice and responsible action we value, the environment we create in which to work and live—these issues are at the heart of poetry. If we are loyal to these, then our poetry will speak to larger human concerns, universal truths, become as deep as the creative source from which they draw. We then will have become better equipped to “see” the world through poetry, discovering real connection and even holiness in the mundane.
Steven's poetry was featured in New Works Review Vol. 6, No. 3, which included the following interview:
NWR: What first moved you to write poetry—did the influence come from your parents, friends, school, community, reading (or as a reaction to all of the above)?
Sher: My great uncle Max, my mother’s (maternal) uncle, who came to the States from Poland (Warsaw) after WWI—he supposedly knew the Singer brothers; considered I.J., Nobel prize-winning novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer’s older brother, the superior writer—read his poetry to me many years later in Brooklyn. He wrote in Yiddish only. Never published, as far as I know. But I recall that there was a lot of burning passion and unsparing symbolism in his work. Uncle Max was the only one in my family to speak about poetry. Yet the family, especially my father’s family, was interested in literature, good books and ideas (my father’s two older brothers had been Socialists before WWII; two brothers wrote prose; one published a few textbooks), and they loved word play. Whenever the family gathered, you could expect a barrage of puns, conversation about our roots (the Russian “pale”) as well as lively discussion of novelists (Jewish, Russian, contemporary) and their work. Yet I didn’t really write much until I was out of college (although I had some success and impressed one English professor with some satirical pieces about my family; I also wrote a few short poems at that time). I got my start as a print journalist, interested in feature writing. But within a short time, influenced by “new journalism,” I was drawn to short fiction. I really wasn’t drawn to poetry in the same way, hadn’t spent as much time with it as with prose, although I was reading everything by every contemporary poet (and short story writer) I could lay my hands on. It seems almost coincidental (though I don’t believe in coincidence) that I found my way to writing poetry. I was in an MFA program—in fiction—elsewhere, but decided that it was time to return “home” to NYC. So I located, applied and then switched to the MFA program at BrooklynCollege—in poetry. John Ashbery, who had swept all the major poetry awards that year for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, was directing the program at the time. There were some talented people in that program—John Yau, Rose Drachler, etc. In that setting and with their encouragement (especially from Rose), I started to take myself seriously as a poet.
NWR: Were your early influences the classic European and American poets, like Donne, Shelley, Whitman, and Dickinson, or did you turn to 20th century poets for inspiration?
Sher: I first turned to contemporary American poets: Bly, Stafford, Bishop, Penn Warren, Karl Shapiro, Lowell, Levertov, Plath, Levine, Levis (I took my first poetry workshop with him at Iowa), etc. I found inspiration too in the wealth of small presses and little magazines: the ‘70s were a booming time in American poetry. I also turned my attention to the range of international poets who were being translated into English (East and West European, African, Israeli, Far Eastern, Holocaust…). Re the classics, I was drawn to the Chinese poets more than the others. My first poetry mentor was Menke Katz, poet/Yiddishist/kabbalist as well as long-time editor of the poetry journal Bitterroot. We met in Brooklyn—he invited me to his house in BoroughPark . Menke encouraged me, published my work, invited me to guest-edit Bitterroot, took me to readings, etc. Additionally, I felt deeply connected to him through his poems and their geographic as well as spiritual context (e.g., the family themes, the Lithuanian shtetl of his youth).
NWR: Which contemporary poets have published work that you most respect? Why?
Sher: Ashbery for his juxtapositions and playfulness and great detail. Gerald Stern and Bill Stafford for their accessibility and depth. Amichai for the breadth and daring of his vision. Milosz for his universalism. Glenna Luschei for her distilled imagery: the ability to balance a poem on the head of a pin. There are many contemporary poets I admire and seek out (their work), as well as 20th century poets I like to return to, but I don’t have favorite poets, per se. Over the past few years, my attention has shifted to Biblical and Hebrew poetry.
NWR: What are the chief concerns that are reflected in your poetry?
Sher: Since the mid-1980s, I have been drawn primarily to writing about family and faith, ritual (including creating personal ritual) and prayer, connection and awe. As an observant Jew, I bring a certain sensibility to my poetic vision—I see no separation between my poetry and the other aspects of my life. And I tend to see everything through a spiritual lens.
NWR: What are your plans for your poetry? Are there any long-range projects you are currently working on?
Sher: I recently completed a new manuscript, The House of Washing Hands. Many of the poems in this collection are located in Oregon (at the coast, in the woods, along the rivers), where my wife and I lived for 20 years (and raised our children for the most part) until moving “home” to NYC last year. I’ve also begun a new collection that draws from urban images and tries to infuse them with holiness. And I have some notes/drafts on another couple of projects: one, a reaction to the terror that Israel continues to face/the possibilities of peace in the Middle East; another, a messianic narrative.