When Talia Young graduated from high school, she made a sacrifice to leave the beautiful California weather and brace herself for some cold Minnesota winters as she began college at Macalester in St. Paul to pursue creative writing. Now, the 23-year-old graduate has goals of becoming a rabbi and sharing her poetry across various platforms. This week, Talia talks all things poetry and Judaism in this week’s Who The Folk?!
Are you originally from Minnesota?
I grew up in California, the Bay Area.
How did you end up here?
I get asked that a lot. I was really into slam poetry in high school and I watched YouTube videos of slam poetry. It just happened that all my favorite slam poets were from the Twin Cities, and a lot of them are from Macalester College, which is where I went to school. So that was what brought me over here.
Did you first get started with slam poetry in high school?
Yeah, I was doing it in high school and Minnesota was kind of this magical place in my head.
How did you become interested in poetry? Is slam poetry different than traditional poetry?
The only difference is that there are things that work better in performance so then there’s sort of these conventions. But ultimately it’s still writing. I think of myself as participating in slam poetry communities but I also would just call myself a poet.
Cool. I’ve watched slam poetry in the past but I never really made the connection between the two…
That’s so interesting that you hadn’t connected them. And I’ve heard there’s also people who are formal poets who have formal training, who will say “that’s not really poetry.” There’s definitely people who feel differently about it, but I think there’s a lot of similarities, it’s just that it’s about writing… I think good slam poetry is also good writing, and would be good if you read it on a page.
That makes sense. Do you go back and forth between written and slam? Is it some combination of both?
I read a lot of books of poetry, and I think it’s important to learn from written poetry and not have slam be the only place where I’m hearing poetry and being exposed to new material. So I feel like I learn from the whole poetry tradition that’s not just slam. But why I really like slam is because there’s a lot of community around it. So if I write something and I go to a slam, I can share something I wrote that day, and have the immediacy of feedback and audience. If I’m just writing by myself… it takes longer to get something published, and if you do get it published, you’re not seeing people’s reaction to it so much. That’s what I found to be really alive and exciting about slam.
So you went to Macalester. Did you study poetry there?
I did, yes, I did creative writing. I liked being a [creative writing] major, but there was also this thing called CUPSI (College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational), the college national poetry slam, and there are 70 different competing colleges, and I was on Macalester’s team for a few years. We would be coached by local poets, and … I was really lucky, I got to work with some really amazing poets, and that was a way that I learned a lot about writing, probably even more than in the classroom.
Totally. And so, what are you doing now? You’re teaching a class tomorrow…
It’s called Engage. It’s a night of Jewish learning. I’m teaching a poetry workshop on the Kaddish. And we’re going to read poetry; Allen Ginsberg has a poem called Kaddish, and there’s a more contemporary poet that has a poem also called Kaddish, so we’re going to read those two poems and talk about the Kaddish and the text, and write some poems. I’m really excited.
Have you done a lot of other work connecting your poetry with Jewish writing?
Yeah, that’s kind of a dream of mine. I might want to be a rabbi one day, and I think they’re two really big parts of my identity. Judaism is so much about text; we have these textual traditions. This year — I just graduated college last year, so I’ve been working a lot of part-time jobs, trying to develop myself as this poetry/Judaism teacher.
What is your creative process like?
Usually I free write, which is where you just write and try to get whatever comes out come out. And then I’ll usually try to pull things from that. When I sit down with my journal, I don’t necessarily know what I’m going to be writing, but I’ll start writing about how I’m feeling and usually it’ll go somewhere. Some of my teachers said writing should be an active discovery, so i try to see where it goes.
Usually, more poems will come out of poems. So, poems will [create] other poems. Right now, for this show I’m doing with Rimon, I’ve been trying to write a lot of Jewish poems, and I’m writing a poem about learning Hebrew from my dad. But then as I’ve been writing that poem, I’ve been like, there are so many stories that are other poems I need to write. I’m trying to get — it’s the first time I’ve been writing about this kind of stuff in a while, so the poem is really long right now, and I think what’s happening is I have a lot of poems and I’m trying to put them all in one. That one poem, I’m like, oh, this could be a chapbook. I want to write a poem about my grandfather and him teaching my dad Hebrew, and my mom and my dad. So, yeah, poems come out of other poems.
You mentioned the Rimon salon. Are you excited?
Yeah, I’m really excited! I don’t get a lot of opportunities to combine my poetry and my Judaism. Usually when I perform, I perform at local slams, and I can talk about my Jewish identity there, but it’s not the same as being in a room full of people who get it. A lot of these things, like what it means to be Jewish and inherited trauma, and Hebrew and Israel, are things that I’m excited to talk about and be able to share poetry about in a Jewish context.
I’m working with Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman. She’s really cool; she’s totally a role model and has all these ideas for Judaism. She teaches a Mishna class Sunday nights… and she’s just so giving and creates all these opportunities for people. It’s been really fun getting ready for the show, because we’ve gotten to have a lot of conversations and also with David Harris, who runs Rimon, the three of us have met a lot, and we actually went to a poetry slam together. It’s been really fun.
What should people expect from the salon? What do you hope it will be like?
I hope it will bring this art form to — that’s actually something I haven’t thought about a lot, so that’s a good question. I think slam poetry is maybe not — maybe not everyone who comes to the salon has heard of it before, so I think that’ll be really interesting, bringing this art form into a different space and context.
And I hope it’ll be — these events are dialogues, which I think is really cool — and David’s whole idea, is he says the best idea in the room is often sitting in the audience. So it’s not just me presenting, it’s … I should be learning something too, in the process. I’m just excited for what comes out, when we bring all those people into that space. It’s a little more nerve-wracking because a lot of it… when I’ve performed before, I have a set, I know what poems I’m doing and I know what jokes I’m going to make between my poems. But in this case, I can’t really prepare.
Yeah, that’s exciting, but I can see how it could be nerve-wracking.
It helps that we’ve spent so much time building trust between me and Rabbi Emma and David because I really trust them and feel comfortable with them.
You mentioned this was one of the only opportunities you’ve had to connect your poetry and your Judaism, which are these two pieces of your identity. What was that like at Macalester?
It was just like they were different parts of my life. In poetry, I wrote a lot about being a woman, because that’s more a topic that gets explored in slam, and queerness. In the poetry community, that was a good space for exploring that part of myself. And then the Judaism was just kind of separate.
There was one time I wrote a poem about Israel, and how it was hard, on campus, that people didn’t understand why I would have a connection to Israel. I performed it at a slam and that was kind of a scary experience to talk about that identity. I just noticed that even though no one is being like, “don’t talk about your Judaism,” I just noticed that it’s something that I’m less willing to bring up in those spaces that aren’t explicitly Jewish. It feels like, that’s just something interesting to notice in myself, that I keep those things separate. And it’s really exciting when I don’t have to do that.
That’s interesting. Especially comparing that experience to being Jewish at the University of Minnesota.
Yeah. Both my parents went to UC-Berkeley, and it’s the same kind of thing where it’s a big school, and there’s a large Jewish community. Their friend groups were just people they met, they lived in the Jewish co-ops. At Macalester, I had a lot of friends who had never met Jews before, and that was really cool and exciting but also hard. And there was this cool thing where I was friends with the people running the Palestinian organization on campus, whereas if I was at a big college I would never be in the same circles as those people. So that was a cool opportunity to collaborate.
Do you ever get stuck, like writer’s block? What do you do about it?
Definitely. I totally get stuck, and writing will kind of slip to the bottom of my priority list, because I work a bunch of different jobs, and one thing is just having things I have to perform for. If I have shows, then I will write new material, because my old work starts to feel boring to me. So for this Rimon show, I’ve been writing a bunch. But before, two months ago, I wasn’t writing every day. And sometimes, I notice I was getting stuck because I have anxiety and sometimes to write you have to go into these vulnerable places and explore these hard topics.
There were moments when writing almost felt like it was making me feel worse. Sometimes I would rather be in a yoga class than sitting in my room writing; it’s about what’s best for my mental health in that moment. I guess, just being in community really helps. When I’m reading a lot of books, I feel inspired to write; when I’m going to slams or hanging out with friends who are writing, then I feel really motivated and it feels good.
What do you want people to get from your work?
That’s a really interesting question, because I feel like when I write, I’m always try to have it come from a place where I’m discovering something about myself. So, if I start to be like, “this is what I want someone to get from this,” it almost doesn’t feel authentic. My process is more about, what does the poem want to say, and not what do I want the poem to say.
I’m really interested in Jewish trauma; just the relationship between my anxiety and this whole history of Jewish trauma that I inherited. So even if I’m not living in a world that is the way that it was for my grandpa, I still have that anxiety. I’m really interested in that. I’m interested in Hebrew, and what it means; I’m obsessed with Hebrew. It’s just really spiritual to me, and I’ve been studying it for a long time. This summer I did a seven-week immersive Hebrew program. I’m close to fluent.
Favorite Jewish holiday?
Yom Kippur. Shabbat, when we do Havdallah, we say God separates the holy from every day, and I never feel like I’m able to get that with Shabbat because I don’t keep Shabbat. But with Yom Kippur, something about fasting makes it different from every other day. I just feel really — on Yom Kippur, like that’s when I’m the most Jewish. I find it really meaningful.
Favorite Jewish food?
Maybe rugelach. Really good rugelach.
Like Marzipan in Jerusalem?
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