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2005 Writers Forum
Fredda Jaffe ~ with curator John Mifsud

Fredda Jaffe currently works as a family therapist. She volunteers with Powerful Schools as a writing consultant at Beacon Hill Elementary and writes poetry. Fredda Jaffe photo
Jump to excerpts from this conversation:
Personal Background
Art
Creative Process
Healing
Inspiration
Outcomes
Writing Habits
Sharing
Conflict (2)
Influences
Click on the ears below to listen to excerpts from this conversation. (Real Audio)
photo credit:
dean wong
Read and listen to writings by Fredda Jaffe
JM



I am delighted to be in the studio with Fredda Jaffe, who is one of our poets from this round. I am hoping you'll just tell our audience a little bit about yourself, your family background, how you came to writing.
FJ












I grew up in New York City. My grandparents were Russian Jews who came to New York around the turn of the century, leaving the Ukraine where life was not very safe. And I grew up in a house with my grandparents living in an apartment on the first floor, and my parents and sister and I living in an apartment on the second floor. So there were three generations of us. I started writing after I received the gift of a book, "Horton Hears a Who" by Dr. Seuss, and I just loved the language and the rhymes, and so I began writing-I thought poetry had to rhyme-and so I would sit for hours saying to myself, 'light, sight, kite, might, height…' because I always had to rhyme things. And so I played with words a lot.I think I must have been seven.
JM How would you describe your creative process?
FJ










Sometimes I get a kind of feeling, something, that's even a little uncomfortable, sort of like a piece of sand in your eye, that I just can't get rid of. And I don't know where it's going and I don't know what it is, but I know I'm required to allow it to germinate. And from there I play with it. I try to write regularly in the mornings, and it will take me somewhere if I allow it. And where it takes me isn't in any way where I expected it would, and sometimes it's a little bit off-putting where it takes me, and sometimes it blossoms into something I had no concept of. So I am sometimes in awe of it, like, "Where did that come from?"
JM



So you say you like to write in the morning. What are the particular circumstances …do you have to have a cup of coffee with you, or quiet, or…what's an environment that nurtures your writing?
FJ








I have to move around a little bit first. Get out all the creaks in my body. And stretch. I'm lucky to live on a street that looks at a distance down at Puget Sound. So I often find myself having to walk out the door for a moment and just make sure the Sound is there and kind of breathe that salt air-although I'm not always at home when I write, I could be somewhere else. And then I sit down on my creaky old couch with a pencil and a piece of paper. I like pencils. And I have a pencil sharpener nearby. It's very rudimentary.
JM So you don't compose right on the computer.
FJ




I've tried. And there's a kind of stiffness for me in doing that right away. There's a point at which I can move it there and then rewrite. The computer is so great for that. "Delete. Erase." But at first, no, I need the physicality and the pencil in my hand, and somehow that helps.
JM





If I had to characterize you, which I don't really have to do but…I was drawn by the political sensibility of your writing, and the awareness that seemed larger than an individual life, more about our collective experience. So, where's the passionate connection there that allows you to follow inspirations that encourage that kind of exploration?
FJ






I would have to say that it's the eight year old child who, as she asked some questions of her parents, found out about WWII and the Holocaust, and had to somehow make sense of that. And my first question was, "Why didn't you stop it?" Which, my parents explained, they could not. And my second question was, "How could God let this happen?" and then a lot of questions after that, that I kind of carried around inside me.
Influences
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JM







You're not the only writer in this round that is inspired by the residual effect of what it means to explore our histories, our families as associated with the devastation of WWII. So poignant especially at a time when we're at war in this country. Can you talk about that, what it means to have this history because of war [that] sort of gives you the fuel for your creativity, and now being in a circumstance where there's maybe fuel thrown on the fire?
FJ









As I began to do my not-quite-scholarly research, just trying to make sense of this experience, I read, I talked to people. And then I had this opportunity to really go a step further because I came of age during the Vietnam era. And many things came together in terms of making sense of that and understanding the implications of that. I was one of those people that organized in the dorms and went to the demonstrations in Washington, DC, and really was very touched by Kent State, as a college student. And that's continued, because of course there's been no dearth of wars.
Conflict

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JM

So, how 'bout you share one of your poems with us at this time?
FJ This is called "Picasso's Song."
<reading>
JM

Tell me, how does inspiration hit you, and how do you respond?
FJ









I really pay attention to how things effect me when I hear them, or when they reach my eyes, or some sense. Some things just really strike me powerfully, and I want to play with them a little bit-or maybe 'play' is the wrong word-I want to take a closer look at them. It's almost as if, in order to metabolize them, I have to look at them from all sides. I have to take a moment with them, I have to breathe, I have to do some things, tiptoe around them, dance a little bit, in order to take them in, and take them in at a level that I can understand them.
JM


I'm curious about your saying that it's sort of like a grain of sand in your eye, that it has a level of maybe irritation or discomfort with it. Can you say more about that?
FJ





Well it's something that's wanting more attention, that doesn't just sail by. We are so bombarded by images and sounds and traffic, and there's so much that just kind of sails past us. So when something actually lodges in me, I've learned to pay attention to it because often, if I follow the trail, it leads me to some wonderful pearl.
JM




You've said your family history inspires this look at a world perspective, with a focus on the results of war. And I'm wondering if you've shared this writing with family, and has it contributed to a greater understanding in the context of your family about the specifics of your history?
FJ






I have shared earlier pieces, I haven't shared any of this most recent work about war with my family yet. None of my family lives here in town, but I have shared my work with them. I wrote some pieces about watching TV with my grandmother, and some of the experiences of growing up with my grandparents, with my mom, whose parents they are, and it was very moving to her to hear about them in a different way.
JM

This writing [can be] part of our personal healing process. Can you speak to that for yourself?
FJ














I am a family therapist, so I think about healing as I work with others, and my own healing. And I find that often times when I'm in the darkest places, that writing is often a way that I can move through that. It sort of lifts me up a little bit, it's very therapeutic for me. And I know it's not true for everyone, but I often recommend that to people I work with, if it's at all comfortable for them. And I'll often suggest, you know, "Don't try and make a masterpiece or worry what anyone will think of it, just write, just put your pencil down on a piece of paper, or a pen, and just let it out." And people often report, "Gee, I thought it was a wacky idea but I tried it and it was really helpful." Sometimes I'll have people write a letter to a dead parent or a relative or someone they're angry at, and they'll be surprised by what comes out, and how it helps move the experience through them and out.
Healing

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JM






It's so interesting the terms you use, because you say it comes from a dark place maybe, and I always think of writing or inspiration as a seed. And of course the seed is underground typically when it gets that fusion with water so then it starts to reach through that dark place towards light, and then breaks through and comes out. Will you read another poem for us?
FJ Sure. "The names of the Dead"
Listen to reading
<reading>
JM


If I asked you what your intended outcome was in the writing of this recent body of work that you've created, what would it be?
FJ























Well, "intended outcome" is interesting, because I'm not sure when I started this if I had a sense of the outcome as much as I had a sense of the income, meaning the initial experience, and I would say-particularly this piece-I was feeling so angry. I haven't been very comfortable with how we've gone off to war this time, and I thought there were some other things we could've done before we did that, and I feared the loss of life. It seems to me that life is incredibly precious. And on this particular day I actually was trying to write about one of the people that was being described in the New York Times, a man wearing an orange jumpsuit who was begging for his life-I think to the president, or maybe Tony Blair-one of the people who was being held hostage and who was being threatened, and was begging for his life, and somehow I really related to that person. I could imagine myself begging for my life. And I was trying to write about the orange jumpsuit and the life hanging in the balance, and suddenly my eye rested on this little box that said on the top, "The names of the dead." The New York Times publishes every day, "the names of the dead." And when I saw that, it was just so universal and it just caught my eye. It was like a break in between the rage, and suddenly I just sat down-I was lucky, I had maybe a cancellation or maybe an hour in between things at work-and this just came out, pretty close to what you heard.
Outcomes

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JM

What about being a Jack Straw Writer in poetry this year is supporting your endeavor?
FJ














My proposal was to write about living in a culture of war. And in part that was in response to the experience of sitting with a number of people in my office who have either been coming back from being in the reserves, coming back from Iraq or military intelligence, or being the spouse of someone, who's been waiting for her partner to come home from the war, and someone who's actually dealing with having been in one of the camps during WWII, one of the concentration camps. And so my proposal was to write about what it's like to live in a culture of war, and it's been an encouragement to keep focusing on it even though there are moments when I think "I don't want to write about war anymore, it's too painful. I'm not into war." And so it's just been an invitation to stay focused and not veer off in all the many directions my imagination would rather be than thinking about war.
Conflict

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JM







The sensibility of focusing on tragedy, loss, suffering, pain, is a difficult process I am sure, and at the same time so important for us all. And the way that you transform that process into some creative expression in poetry is gratifying, inspiring. So, given that, do you have a sense that you have some body of writing in you or hovering above you that might be different from what you're working on right now, that might steer you into the future?
FJ















Well, interestingly enough, in the midst of trying to figure out how I was going to enter this, describing war, talking about living in a culture of war, which is such a huge formidable topic, I stumbled on a book about Picasso's famous painting, "Guernica," which I knew a little bit about but not a lot, and now I know a lot more. And in the process, I really got caught up in Picasso's life and the creative process and the ways in which he kept pushing the envelope and never really resting, just always pushing things a little bit more. I'm really interested in that. It's hard to talk about, it's hard to think about, because it's sort of like having a meta-situation. It's like thinking about breathing: once you start thinking about it, it totally changes, because, it's just something that's so automatic almost. So to really think about how we think about things, is a real challenge. And I kind of like that. And we'll have to see where that takes me.
JM

And what has your experience been in the company you're keeping with the other writers selected this year?
FJ







It's a really wonderful, varied group of people. I love that there are many different nationalities, people doing different kinds of work, it's just been very stimulating to me. And I feel kind of in awe of how many different ways there are to write about things, and so many different forms. Each and every person is just so rich, and brings with them so many of their own stories and ethnic backgrounds and travel experiences, it's just been fascinating.
JM


Well thank you for taking this time today, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. And if it's okay with you, I'd ask you to read one more poem as we close.
FJ I'd love to.
<"Your next Poem" reading>
Read and listen to writings by Fredda Jaffe
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