10 Questions for Mónica Gomery
- By Franchesca Viaud
Today, summer is over.
Today, everybody is ready
for autumn's crimson sleight
of hand. Everybody wants to peel
off a green dress, flirt with the bitter
temperature, get into a fight.
—from "Rosh Hashanah" by Mónica Gomery, Volume 64, Issue 2 (Summer 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I wrote constantly as a kid. As soon as I could put letters together, I was exhilarated to give it a try as often as possible. My mother is a visual artist, and she encouraged my brother and me to make art of all kinds. One of her best moves was buying us these blank hardcover books– the pages were unlined and open, even the covers were blank, so I could write the book, give it a title, and draw the back and front covers myself. I was not a particularly confident young person, but one thing I was lucky to gain was this sense of empowerment and permission around putting together a whole book. I’m so grateful to my mom for that, and I still draw from it now.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
There are so many answers to this question, so I’m going to name just one major influence, Joy Ladin. Her book Psalms is one I return to almost daily. In her own words, her project was to create “a single room in which God and I had no choice but to face each other.” That encounter is refracted through pain, love, and everything in between. I’ve always been amazed that Ladin authored contemporary psalms, which read like a tight braid between the ancient poems she’s modeled them after, and her contemporary vernacular and concerns. She beautifully articulates the dance between intimacy and estrangement that makes up the human-divine relationship. I’d also highly recommend her collection of theological prose essays, The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective, and her newest collection of poetry, Shekhina Speaks, which is composed of found texts from two sources: The Book of Isaiah and Cosmopolitan Magazine. I’ve been influenced and inspired by the combination of play and scholarship with which Ladin approaches inherited texts and devotional forms, which is evident across her whole body of work.
What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve had a handful of past lives in areas of work other than where I now earn my living. I’ve been a waitress and coffee shop barista; an agricultural apprentice and farm hand; I worked on an all-femmes gardening and landscaping team; I taught Spanish to people working in social justice non-profits and was a member-owner of a women’s Spanish-English translation and interpretation co-operative; I worked as a community organizer in an immigrants’ rights organization and as a faith-based organizer in a labor org; I’ve done arts-based education for young people in schools; and when I was 25, I started to train to become a rabbi, and have spent the last almost thirteen years working in Jewish educational organizations and synagogues. I’ve also served as an interfaith chaplain in a nursing home and at a prison. As a rabbi, I currently serve on the clergy team at Kol Tzedek Synagogue, a vibrant, multiracial, intergenerational community in Philly, and I teach on the faculty of SVARA, a yeshiva that empowers Queer and Trans people to expand and transform Jewish tradition. Though it’s complicated to balance rabbinic life with writing life, I’m so grateful to work in these two dynamic fields. Each one grounds me in purpose, community, language and text, big questions, pursuit of justice, and a pursuit of the sacred.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted to be a writer, for as long as I can remember. But as a kid I usually expressed my aspirations in compound form– “writer and.” I have drawings and papers from my childhood where I wrote that I wanted to be “a teacher and write books,” “an astronaut and write books,” etc. Looking back, that kid self seems quite prescient to me now. I guess I’ve always felt drawn to wearing multiple hats, gathering skill and experience from multiple fields.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I wrote this piece as a meditation on collectivity, after observing Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish new year, the time of year in which we sort of glue ourselves back together as a community. Whatever has pulled us apart, we find our way back to one another, to begin the year intentionally, vulnerably, and interconnected. I think one of the hardest things about building and being in community is navigating the line between the individual and the collective– a tension that humbles and shapes me constantly. And being in community so often includes conflict. When I first drafted this poem, I was especially grappling with questions of conflict and collectivity. How do we cultivate unity while also navigating the places where our relationships have fallen apart? How do we come together in prayer, and speak authentically in the “we,” given the reality of difference and struggle between us? What is the spiritual and emotional work of trusting other people, even, perhaps especially, when they fail or hurt you? What’s the path back, and what are the tools for getting there? Also, what’s the role of the prayer leader (the role I most often play in my community) in all of that? These questions were alive for me as I drafted this piece.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Oh yes, so many. In my recent book, Might Kindred, place is a significant anchor and also an ever-moving target. The poems there reflect on being the child of immigrants who were themselves the children of immigrants, and they include landscapes of meaning from across the generations of family—iEastern Europe, Venezuela, and the US—some of which are direct memories from my childhood, and some of which have been shaped by family lore, the way places of the past have become mythologized in my family. In Might Kindred there are also poems that explore what it means to live in a city that isn’t one’s own place of origin, something I’ve done a lot of in my adult life, which feels both fraught and inevitable as a first-generation US citizen. As I’ve moved between Boston, Providence, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, I’ve tried to write poems rooted in the experience of being a resident, occupier, neighbor, gentrifier, and community member of each place. “Rosh Hashanah” is written in and about Philly, and West Philly specifically, where I live now. The church; the trees; our synagogue; and the sound of us singing as it hits the sidewalk; these are all images located in a particular neighborhood.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I don’t usually listen to music while I’m writing or editing. I think often of a phrase that I believe is attributed to Ocean Vuong: “The air is the best editor.” That quiet but attentive air is the silence into which I can read a poem aloud or in my mind and discern it, learn how to edit it. In my own process, that silence is key—it allows me to listen best to the words themselves.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
My preferred writing time is first thing in the morning. My partner and my dog are both late sleepers, which allows me to wake up into a still and quiet house nearly every day of the week, usually around 6am, and spend a few quiet hours with language before switching hats and heading into my day job. I love writing with others, however I can. In the past this has looked like sitting together with friends and giving each other free-write assignments on the spot; epistolary poem exchanges; or a shared folder and accountability group for April’s Poem-A-Day practice. Right now I’m in a beloved exchange with my friend and fellow poet Sally Badawi, in which we send each other a daily “one minute poem,” something we learned from our teacher Leila Chatti, which she learned from her teacher Alicia Ostriker. It means we each have the chance to write a quick draft at least once a day, often with a one minute timer set, and then someone to immediately share it with. It’s keeping me fast and loose and not-precious with writing right now, which is so helpful. Also, I try to always be in a writing class, as my schedule and budget allow for it. I love that I will be a student of poetry for my whole life. Being in a writing class helps me structure and ritualize my writing. The best classes usually include some element of ritual, perhaps as simple as beginning and ending with a check-in or free-write. Being a student is a core part of my spiritual and creative practice.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I feel very indebted to my poetry siblings, who are often my first readers, and with whom I swap drafts and feedback. Right now the people I most frequently share drafts with are Rage Hezekiah, Sally Badawi, and emet ezell, and there have been other poets over the years I’ve been blessed to exchange work with. My partner Jess is often one of my first readers. They’re a photographer and filmmaker, a lover of poetry, and a wonderful writer themself. I’m also a participant in the Emotional Historians community, led by Jon Sands, which means that often, the first read of my work happens just after having initially drafted it, to a room of people who are also all sharing a brand new draft in real time. I love writing in this way, under a pressure cooker, in a concentrated amount of time, and knowing there’s an immediate audience on the other side. It pulls the best out of me.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I hope to come back as a dancer in my next life. Dancers have access to such profound embodied truth and knowing. I’d really want to devote an entire lifetime to studying that craft.
What are you working on currently?
Though it feels vulnerable to name this directly, the poems I’m working on now are constellating around the process of discernment my partner and I are in about whether or not to try to become parents. The poems wrestle with this question from as many angles as they can—questions around how mothering and gender are shaped by Jewish tradition and text, explorations of matriarchs in my family, reflections on caretaking work, failure and desire, aging, queer lineages, and what it means to “mother” in an expansive sense, all against a political backdrop hostile toward reproductive justice and the worsening climate crisis. And because these poems explore different pathways toward nurturing life, they are also about death, loss, and the lifelong labor of grieving.
MÓNICA GOMERY is a poet and rabbi living on unceded Lenni Lenape land in Philadelphia. Her work explores queerness, diaspora, ancestry, loss, theology, and cultivating courageous hearts. Her second collection, Might Kindred, won the 2021 Prairie Schooner/Raz-Shumaker Book Prize in Poetry. She is also the author of Here Is the Night and the Night on the Road (Cooper Dillon Books) and the chapbook Of Darkness and Tumbling (YesYes Books). Her poems have been awarded the Sappho Prize for Women Poets and the Minola Review Poetry Contest. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Four Way Review, Muzzle Magazine, Adroit Journal, Poet Lore, and Poetry Northwest.