A woman with short hair and glasses

“There’s this practice, called midrash, of writing into the gaps in a story. That kind of work is really appealing to me,” Edelman says.

How did your family end up in Memphis?

I’m the fifth generation of my maternal grandfather’s family to live in Memphis. They emigrated from what was then the German Empire in the mid-1800s. They were in New Orleans for one generation and then moved to Memphis. At the time, American Jews were discouraging Jews who were fleeing Europe from going to New York. They worried that if too many Jews came into New York, there would be backlash and antisemitism would worsen. So the messaging to European Jews who wanted to immigrate was to go to the South, go to the Midwest. Around that time is when Jewish communities became more established along the Mississippi River in places like New Orleans and Memphis.

Memphis is the name of the  ancient capital of Egypt. How does the Book of Exodus play into your poems?

The Passover seder is my favorite thing: the ritual meal where you tell the [Exodus] story, and foods symbolize different things. It’s a literalization through metaphor and symbolism. It’s also really carefully orchestrated. When you go to a Passover seder, you’re supposed to speak in the first-person plural: You’re supposed to say, “We were slaves in the land of Egypt.” There’s this intense linguistic focus on that ritual. Even in the times when I felt estranged from Jewish community, I never felt estranged from that particular ritual. So that story—and the act of telling stories about migration, expulsion and human movement—has always had a situated place for me. The ability to imagine other realities into that story is something that’s very Jewish as well. There’s this practice, called midrash, of writing into the gaps in a story. We know about Moses as a baby, and then we know about Moses as a grown-up. But that whole time of his childhood is completely elided from the Torah. And so, people make up stories, and that’s midrash. That kind of work is really appealing to me.

Throughout this collection, you ask really interesting questions: Would you rather be exterminated or assimilated? There are Jews in Memphis? What do I know about exile? And am I allowed here? The poems wrestle with questions around family, heritage, belonging, otherness. Did you feel like an outsider in Memphis?

Yes, always, even though my family was from there. I never went to a school with a Jewish majority or even a significant Jewish population. We were spread out among many schools. There wasn’t one part of town that was Jewish. While I was educated in Hebrew schools after school and on weekends, the majority of my time was spent in majority-Christian spaces, and the Christianity was so heavy. It just was pervasive. I remember going to a speech competition, and you had to deliver a speech on a particular topic to this club of charitable old men over breakfast. They said a prayer in Jesus’ name before we sat down. That could happen anywhere, at any time. And it did. There was that constant reminder. I didn’t know what to do with myself when it happened. Like, “Oh, they say bow your head. No, I don’t think I’m supposed to do that.”

How do you embody Southern culture?

I grew up in Southern Jewish culture, but there are certain ways that I know, since leaving the South 18 years ago, that I do embody Southernness. There’s a culture of care that I learned growing up in the South that’s important to me. When somebody is ill or caring for loved ones, you bring food; that’s just what you do. I’m not sure if that’s a Southern thing or a Jewish thing or a family thing, but it’s deeply ingrained in me that that is the action you take—and that care is a series of actions.

How did your experience at  Amherst impact your writing?

I became a poet at Amherst. As soon as I took my first two poetry classes, Amherst turned me from somebody who thought, “I’m more of a fiction writer,” into somebody who was entirely a poet. Studying with Daniel Hall cemented for me my self-concept as a poet. My sense of meter, rhyme and sound very much come from studying with Daniel and having him be very clear and blunt with me, and very loving.

I also learned from Daniel Hall that it is important to live a good life, not to suffer for your art. He had no patience for any of my self-indulgent whining about how suffering would make me a better poet. He was like, “Nope, not an option. Go live a good life.”

He hosted our Special Topics class in his house. His husband cooked for us. He hosted dinners for visiting writers. It taught me how to be a good friend, a good host. Today, when it comes to mentoring students and helping them make their way through life choices, Daniel’s patience, but also his honesty, guide me.

Guiol is a writer and digital health educator.