According to Susan Amsterdam — a longtime Ridgewood resident recently transplanted to Midland Park — she was a bit surprised when poet and publisher Stanley Barkan approached her after a poetry reading.
It was two years ago, and at Passaic County Community College, and the gathering was celebrating the launch of that year’s Paterson Literary Review. Mr. Barkan “didn’t really talk much,” Ms. Amsterdam said. “He was just struck by the poem I read.
“When they have launches, people with poems published in the Review are encouraged to read their work from it,” she added. That’s what Ms. Amsterdam was doing when Mr. Barkan approached her for a “brief conversation,” she said. “He said he wanted me to submit four short poems, no more than a certain length, for ‘Bridging the Waters 2.’
“I didn’t know what that was.”
Now, she not only knows what it is — a poetry anthology, in Korean and in English — but two of her poems are included in it, both as written and translated into Korean. Ms. Amsterdam, who volunteers as an ESL tutor at the Ridgewood Library, has two Korean women as her students. “I’m going to ask them to read my poems in Korean so I can hear what they sound like,” she said.
“The poems had to be short,” she continued. “Korean poets are represented as well, and their poems are translated into English. Even with the proviso about length, the book runs to 628 pages.”
Ms. Amsterdam said she was “completely surprised” when she received a copy of the book last week. “Generally speaking, an editor will tell you within 6 months if your work is going to be published,” she said. “After two years, I assumed he wasn’t interested.” She also was surprised by Mr. Barkan’s request that she read her poems at the Yale Club in Manhattan a few weeks ago. Apparently, the publisher lines up the poets for the club’s monthly readings. “There were seven of us reading.
“The energy was so warm and friendly. I’ve discovered at all the readings that everyone is so enthusiastic about each other’s work. I have found a generosity of spirit in the poetry world as poets go out of their way to compliment each other’s work and invite each other to poetry events.”
When Susan and the late Marvin Amsterdam moved to Ridgewood in 1973, they immediately became active in the town’s Temple Israel, Ms. Amsterdam said. “Until his death in 2004, Marvin was active on the board and on the bima as past president and a lay leader, whose tekia gedola is still remembered by longtime members — although he preferred to be known as a Torah reader. When we were honored by the Temple in 1997, we created an endowment fund that supports the purchase of siddurim for the aleph class and now serves as a living memorial to Marvin.”
She has worked in the cultural affairs department at Passaic County Community College for 24 years, helping to organize many poetry events there, and participating in them as well. “But my main responsibility is to administer the Theater and Poetry Project, a grant-funded language arts enrichment program benefiting the Paterson public schools,” she said.
Through that project, Ms. Amsterdam provides high-quality professional children’s theater, free of charge, to students who might never have the opportunity to see it otherwise. She also facilitates “meet the author” visits, providing students with a personal connection to the creative process.
Another of her jobs is to provide poetry writing workshops and a district-wide contest culminating in a printed anthology, an awards ceremony, and a reception. “The entire 300-seat college theater is packed with student poets, families, and school personnel,” she said. “Naturally, not every child wants to be a poet, but for some the experience of using poetry as a means of self-expression can be transformative.”
The poem that appealed to Mr. Barkan was a nostalgic piece about her grandparents’ home, Ms. Amsterdam recalled. And one of the poems he accepted for the anthology was about a very old tallis. “I think he likes poetry that has a touch of yiddishkeit in it,” she reflected, though the anthology is far from a religious volume. She also thinks he likes the kind of poetry she writes, which “is clear, accessible, and you can understand what the poet is saying. I took a fast look at the Korean poems in translation, and they seem to be pretty much the same type.”
She noted, however, that while the poetry is clear, there is an underlying message within them that is more universal. For example, while one of her poems deals with her husband’s tallis, “there is also the idea of ancient traditions being carried through into contemporary life.”
Mr. Barkan and Ms. Amsterdam had met before, through the poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan, who is the executive director of the college’s cultural affairs department and head of its poetry center. Mr. Barkan, a friend of Ms. Gillan’s as well as a poet, publisher, and translator, had attended many of the center’s events. “He has published 400 titles in 50 languages,” Ms. Amsterdam said; Mr. Barkan also is the editor and publisher of Cross-Cultural Communications, she added. “Bridging the Waters” is co-published by a Korean publishing company seeking to “contribute to the globalization of Korean literature,” according to a blurb on the book’s flap. Korean contributions include poems from Korean Americans.
Ms. Amsterdam, who considers herself “a very private person,” said, “It never occurred to me to have people I don’t know” reading her poetry. While she wrote a lot when she was young — “I was the kid who always wrote the bunk pages and the camp yearbook” — “I hadn’t written poetry in years,” she said. When her husband was terminally ill, “Life turned, everything changed, and not in a good way. Writing poems was a way to process my emotions and release them by creative means.
“One of my earliest memories was of telling my mother that I liked a particular book,” she recalled. “We were library-goers, a bookish household. She said if I liked the book, I should read other books by the same author. I still remember it as a light-bulb moment. It didn’t occur to me that books were not products on a shelf but the output of a specific person. This encouraged me to write.” An English major in college, she discovered in poetry writing workshops that “I couldn’t write quickly. I was very slow and not very prolific.” Her poems come out slowly, and in stages, she said.
Ms. Amsterdam — a former English teacher and one-time contributor to the Jewish Standard — said that Ms. Gillan had encouraged her to begin writing again and published her work in the Paterson Literary Review. In addition, Laura Boss, a poet and editor of the poetry journal Lips, encouraged her and published her work. She noted proudly that her family contains many good writers, including a granddaughter “who was published a couple of times in an anthology of poems by teens and won a large poetry contest, much like the one I run.”
How does she feel about being published in “Bridging the Waters”? “I’m very pleased,” she said. “It’s very validating at this point in my life to be recognized for doing something I didn’t think was all that special. There are so many excellent poets represented in this book that I feel honored and a little bewildered to be included.
“Maybe this will be the impetus to send my poems to other editors,” she said.
Two poems by Susan Amsterdam, both first published in Lips
Lost is such a trivial word
I lost my husband
Not misplaced, forgotten or dropped like an umbrella in a storm
Literally lost, lost from my life
Gone — a gap beyond imagination
But today at the cemetery
I thought of the cosmos
And I said to my dead husband
Perhaps you’re like the supernova
Spewing energy, elements, atoms
After all, if the universe re-uses, recycles
Maybe your essence exploded from your grave
And I can breathe you in
My husband’s chant, so deep and resonant, a link to antiquity,
To wooden synagogues decayed and cantors forgotten.
Our shoulders touch in the sleek modern pew
Warmth emanates from his heirloom tallis,
Age-darkened wool trimmed with silver threads.
The tallis — a wedding gift to my father-in-law
From his own new father-in-law
In a Polish shtetl a hundred years ago.
Today in our suburban temple
My husband wears the tallis
Bearing history in every strand and sequin.
He leans toward me with a whisper
And I feel his immaculate beard against my cheek
And smell his sweet breath
Redolent of breakfast.