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Gail Newman: California Poets Part 6, Four Poems

Gail Newman

October 18th, 2023

Californian Poets: Part VI

Gail Newman

Four Poems

Climbing a Ladder of Praise

I praise the feet

and the rungs.

I praise the plywood platform

where I balance barefoot,

I praise my arms, raised to wash

the windowpane, scrub away

cornered dust, praise the spider’s

webbed filigree, and flies fallen

from banging against the glass

for a way back into the world

of the garden where hollyhocks doze

and the wind whistles like a man

in a field picking apples,

a sack slung over his shoulder,

his grizzled open face

Before the Shooting

It was warm in the classroom,

days leaning into summer,

a door propped open to the hallway,

windows left rashly unlatched.

On the wall, last week’s lesson blazed

with gold stars and happy face stickers.

Some children sat or lay on the rug.

The teacher wore a white dress

rounded at the neck like a circle

drawn in chalk on the playground

into which the children would jump,

tossing balls, laughing, pushing

against each other until someone

would fall, scrape an elbow, someone,

Inevitably, would cry

Last in Line

A woman sleeping in the burned-grass patch of lawn

n front of my parents’ house, beside the Bird of Paradise’s

beaked flames, a flicker of dream-sleep under shut-lid eyes.

Beside her body the wire cage of a shopping cart,

rubbish piled high like graveyard dirt.

The earth we lifted, each of us, then passed

the shovel to the next in line, to fill my father’s grave,

in front of which, because she was old

and could not easily stand, my mother sat,

shading her eyes with dark glasses.

It was a good turnout, they later observed, as they knifed

cream cheese onto onion bagels. My mother,

in the tradition of the tribe, sat on a low cushion

to bring her close to the earth under which he now lay,

in a suit of her choosing, his best tie knotted at the neck.

Let her sleep there, he had said.

She’s not hurting anyone.

—Previously Published in SWIMM


There is no morning


The streets deserted.

Mourning in Kyiv.

Aleppo. Darfur. This

Century so like

The last. The sky bright

With flame. Gunpowder. Missiles.

A shining girl

her father says

Is gone.

A man holds up his bloody t-shirt.

Whose blood

he says.

I don’t now

Another man’s face at the window of a café.

His cigarette billowing smoke.

His eyes closed against the dark.

—Previously Published in And Blue Will Rise Above Yellow, An International Poetry Anthology for Ukraine


January 6th, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

Gail Newman, Poet, Educator, Editor

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Your most recent collection, Blood Memory, tackles the difficult subject of the Shoah. The book is divided into three parts, beginning with your parents’ lives in the Polish ghetto of Lodz, transitioning to your own childhood, and ending with your father who passed away, your mother’s stroke, and the family cemetery. Being a child of genocide survivors, and having been born in a Displaced Persons’ Camp in Germany, must have made the writing of this book unavoidable, and yet the challenges behind a project like this are very real. Can you talk about those, and also how extensively your parents spoke about those times?

GN: Most of my parent’s friends were Holocaust survivors, and they spoke to each other mostly in Polish and Yiddish. As all children do, I picked things up. I had a feeling. I knew something, I don’t know what, but something dark and secret. Later, at some point, I learned more but I don’t remember how or when.

When I was in my 30’s, I asked a friend who produced radio documentaries to interview my parents. I have 12 hours of tape from that time, some of which I used to write the poems in Blood Memory.

This book has been in me all of my life. I feel it is what I was meant to write, but it wasn’t until I was in my 60’s that I brought these poems about my family into the world.

I think I felt conflicted. What right did I have to write about an experience that I knew nothing about? Would my parents take offense? How could I speak about the unspeakable? How can words convey such enormous terror and suffering? How could I avoid sentimentality? These were not so much conscious thoughts as waves of deep feeling.

I gave my mother the book on her 100th birthday. When she saw the cover with a photograph of a street in Poland, she said, That’s my street! Almost Mom. Your street was a few blocks away, I answered.

DG: Along with Blood Memory and other work, you also teach genocide poetry workshops. What are challenges and rewards of doing this, and do you see writing as a form of therapy, or is it more a chronicle of the past?

GN: I think the arts-poetry, theater, music, visual art- provide a valuable tool for professionals who work with people seeking therapy. But making and experiencing art is something else. Joy Harjo said about writing poetry … you begin to learn to listen to the soul, the soul of yourself in here, which is also the soul of everyone else.

History is a chronicle of the past, which is a factual, ordered account. Poetry allows storytelling at a slant, using imagination as well as fact to feel deeply what is under the surfaceas well as what is seen. I love this quote by T. S. Eliot: Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.


Students may have preconceived ideas about poetry that make them reticent. I try to connect the Holocaust with contemporary events and students’ own experiences. The poems they write, their compassion and understanding, the feelings they express and the sense of hope inspired by poetry are the rewards of this workmine as well as, I hope, theirs.


For educators, there are enormous challenges of teaching Holocaust studies in the current climate when Anti-Semitism, disinformation, and denial are on the rise.


DG: It would be fascinating to hear more about the poem, "My Mother Remembers" and how your parents met. Is it true that your mother was briefly in Auschwitz and that she sabotaged war machinery?

GN: While details may be imagined, the main events and memories are accurate. I’ve included a few notes at the back of the book to provide background to some of the historical events referred to in the poems.

My mother is from Lodz, Poland, my father from a small town nearby. During the war the Nazis forced all of the Jews in the area to leave their homes and live in the Lodz Ghetto, a poor neighborhood fenced off from the rest of the town that became a virtual prison. The living conditions were horrific, and many including my grandfather on my father’s side died of starvation.

After four years in the Lodz Ghetto, close to the end of the war, my mother was sent to Auschwitz where she was imprisoned for four months. Because she was still able to work, she was then transported to a work camp where she was locked in with 200 other women. Each morning they walked to a factory where they assembled munitions for the Nazis. The supervisors were French and they allowed the women to sabotage the war machinery. During the war, my mother and others practiced stealth altruism. Every seemingly small act of resistance was life threatening and undertaken with great courage. Here is a passage from "My Mother Remembers."

     We walked, every morning, through the town

     while it was still dark-so the people could not see,

     and could say later they did not know.


     We were skinny, barefoot or in torn shoes

     walking on stones and in dirt to the factory

     where we fit metal parts into little holes.


     Piece by piece, bending our heads down to the work,

     we put the wrong part in the wrong hole,

     so the guns would not fire.

My parents met after the war in the Lansberg Displaced Persons’ Camp where I was born. My father worked in the kitchen and he had access to food which he brought to my mother and her friends. Another poem, "A Short Engagement," describes their first date during which they were arrested by the Germans because they were out after curfew. And yes, it’s all too true.

DG: Many of your poems incorporate words from different languages, and this reflects the way your parents actually communicated: As you write: they “spoke a mingling of languages-Yiddish, Polish, German, Hebrew. Sometimes their sentences would begin in one language and end in another.” How did moving to America affect their identity? To what extent, in your view, did they find an American identity? In other words, in what ways did their immigrant experience mirror that of others, and in what ways was it different?

GN: My parents were immigrants, but they were also DPs, Displaced Persons and Holocaust survivors. They had to deal not only with displacement but also guilt, fear, and other forms of suffering unique to refugees who have experienced the trauma of war, torture, and genocide. 


My mother referred to the survivors as our people. That was my parents' identity. That is who they were. At the same time, they were proud to be American citizens. My parents’ immigrant experience was like those of others in the sense that they felt like outsiders and wanted to fit in. Like many immigrants, my parents, after loss of language, home, and family, had to reconstruct their lives. They were immigrants with all of the longings, hopes, and dreams of immigrants. But like all immigrants, they brought the past with them. They were of another place and memory was imbedded inside of them.

It has been over 75 years since my parents came to this country. A recent report from the United Nations states that “the world is facing the highest number of violent conflicts since the Second World War and 2 billion people…live in places affected by such conflict.” The issues of immigration-bigotry, racial and cultural prejudice, and displacement-are enormous.

DG: Education is at the heart of your career. You’ve written, Poetry Inside and Out, a guide for teachers and writers alike that talks about the relationship between both. Can you talk about how the California Poets in the Schools works, what teachers do, along with what type of poetry students tend to resonate with the most?

GN: California Poets in the Schools (CalPoets) is a statewide program that brings poets into classrooms to work with grades K-12. They offer numerous programs including guest poets, online youth poetry workshops, staff development, student readings and an anthology of student and poet-teacher writing.


I came to CalPoets as a young writer and after I had worked in the schools for a short time, the director of the program, John Oliver Simon hired me to assist with him in the office where I had the opportunity to meet and work with many wonderful poets including Jane Hirshfield, who was employed to develop a curriculum series of ten lessons.

As a poet-teacher I found that students responded to poems that touched them emotionally and spoke to their own experiences and interests. My lessons were largely craft rather than theme based, and we covered a wide range of topics. We looked at metaphor, image, form, rhythm, and sound. We wrote poems based on observation and poems based on memory. Here are some lines from my 4th and 5th graders: to find the door of my heart/you must go over a bridge; Why do people bully?/ Because they have been hurt; Melanie’s mouth/blurts out all kinds of kindness.

DG: Along with your teaching endeavors, you’ve also worked at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum. What was the nature of this work and what have been your favorite events/exhibitions hosted by the museum?

GN: As a museum educator I worked mainly with school groups. For each exhibit, our team would research the artists and then meet to discuss and brainstorm ideas for tours and art activities. As the only writer (the others were artists and educators) on the team, I conducted poetry workshops as well as professional development for teachers.

The museum often curated work by children’s book authors including Myra Kalman, Ezra Jack Keats, and Maurice Sendak, who wrote Where the Wild Things Are. It gave me an opportunity to teach book arts in conjunction with writing. The museum investigates Jewish identity. There have been exhibitions of Leonard Cohen, Levi Strauss, Roz Chast, and Andy Warhol’s portraits of Jews.

One of the most moving experiences I had at the museum was when I read along with Matthew Zapruder, Brynn Saito, and other poets at an exhibition called Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art that examined memory and collective history. We read poems that were paired with works in the gallery depicting war and genocides including The Holocaust, Viet Nam, The Civil Rights Movement, and Korea. I also donned a black leather jacket and beret to read at a great exhibition titled Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg.

DG: You were raised in LA but now work in San Francisco. What was your upbringing like and did you come to discover poetry before moving to San Francisco?

GN: My mother was a great reader and often took me to the public library where I could browse and daydream trying to choose a few books to carry home. Early on she introduced me to the great classics including fairy tales, Anne of Green Gables, and The Secret Garden, books she had read as a girl translated into Polish. We lived a typical family life of the 50’s. My father having been a tailor in Poland worked in a factory sewing dresses and shirts.

My mother was a housewife, but when my father established his own business, she helped with the bookkeeping. In another place, another time, she would have had a career of her own. At the outset of the war, she had been accepted to university where she planned on becoming a Hebrew professor. She had a photographic memory which granted her employment in the Lodz Ghetto documents office, a job that gave her access to food and a place to live. When she came to the States, she couldn’t speak English and faced the prejudices against women and the difficulties of immigration.

My parents joined immigrant organizations where they made many friends. Although I went to a local public school, I grew up in a community of Holocaust survivors. They loved to dance, play cards, dress up and host dinners and parties. So I straddled two cultures and like many young people and immigrants did what I could to fit in.

I always wanted to be a writer, and I think I was influenced by my early exposure to literature, but I didn’t discover poetry until I moved to San Francisco. I remember standing in a line that wound around the block to hear the Beat Poets read in North Beach. I was exposed to a wide range of poetry when I majored in English Literature. But before that I joined a women’s poetry workshop. That was the true beginning.

DG: What’s your favorite place in San Francisco and why?

GN: My favorite place is Bernal Heights, my neighborhood, a village-like enclave of charming houses, and small shops. I’ve lived there for over 30 years. Our front door is painted red, and we have a working fireplace. The neighborhood boasts two coffee shops (no Starbucks we’re proud to say), two cafes and a number of excellent restaurants as well as a pet store. I love to sit and write by the living room window overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

DG: You studied poetry with the late Diane di Prima at the Intersection for the Arts in North Beach. What were these experiences like?

GN: Diane led a women’s dream workshop at Intersection, which was a poetry and arts venue. We discussed our dreams and wrote. Diane was brilliant, warm, and inspiring. She was a feminist early on. Books and anthologies by women, including No More Masks by Ellen Bass, were proliferating at that time. Women were establishing book stores, publishing companies, and writing groups. I co-edited Room, a Women’s Literary Journal and published the early poetry of Sharon Olds, Kay Ryan and many others. We organized a fund-raising benefit poetry reading that included Judy Grahn and Susan Griffin. The room was sold out. It was a wonderful time to be a writer.

DG: What are you reading or working on these days?

GN: I usually have a pile of books stacked on my table. Most recently I read Covenant of Water, a Pulitzer Prize worthy novel. I’m currently reading The Asking by Jane Hirshfield, Adam Zagajewski, Cecilia Woloch, and Tree Lines a new environmental anthology. I receive poems in my inbox from journals, friends, and various sites that I subscribe to so there’s never a lack of inspiration.

I'm also reading the previously published poems from Jessica Jacob's new collection book, unalone, forthcoming in March of 2024 and can't wait to read the book!

I feel like I’m about halfway through a new manuscript, but I can’t yet say what it’s about. I’m thinking as always about memory and time as well as aging, gratitude, and heartbreak-the state of the world.

Author Bio:

Gail Newman was born after WWII in a displaced person’s camp in Lansberg, Germany. The daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, she was raised in a community of Jewish immigrants in Los Angeles. Gail Newman’s poems have appeared in journals including Nimrod International Journal, Prairie Schooner, and The Atlanta Review and in anthologies including Ghosts of the Holocaust, and America, We Call Your Name. Her latest collection, Blood Memory, chosen by Marge Piercy for the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize won the 2020 Northern California Authors and Publishers Gold Award for Poetry and was the 2021 Best Book Awards Winner in the “Poetry: Religious” category. Gail lives with her husband in San Francisco and Sebastopol, CA.


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