Adam Sol needed a “louder” voice for his next book of poetry—a voice that could “blow the roof off the joint.”
The Toronto poet was rebelling against a modern poetic sphere largely dominated by understatement, subtlety and “being quiet,” he said.
For some of the best brash and boom on record, Sol needed to look no further than the Torah.
The biblical prophet Jeremiah stars in Sol’s latest book, Jeremiah, Ohio.
Teamed up with everyman sidekick “Bruce,” the 5th-century BC prophet is transplanted into a journey through modern-day middle America.
Biblically, Jeremiah is known as the doom prophet.
God supplied him with key tidbits of impending doom—such as an upcoming siege of Jerusalem—and watched as Jeremiah’s desperate pleas were ignored by the local populace.
Of course, it was all part of the divine plan.
“You will go to them; but for their part, they will not listen to you,” said God.
Often, they pilloried him or threw him in jail.
In religious art, Jeremiah is often portrayed as an exasperated old man cradling his head in his hands.
“Every one of them doth curse me,” he lamented.
Traveling through Sol’s Ohio, Jeremiah sees a dying Eden in the state’s decaying industrial infrastructure.
Brick buildings sit empty, parking lots lay abandoned, the trappings of paradise are crumbling around him: a fitting setting for the “doom prophet.”
Jeremiah speaks with a religious zeal rarely seen beyond the pages of the King James Bible.
Walking through an outlet mall, the prophet remarks:
Behold the pyramid of linens!
Behold the bushel of spoons!
Yea, I have not seen such riches since yesterday.
How can we know ourselves in this Nike cookie sheet?
Appropriating old-world religious zeal allows Sol to “kick” up his work without needing to tread too heavily on former terrain.
“The trick is, you can’t sound like Allen Ginsberg all the time,” said Sol, referring to the celebrity poet’s preference for the vivid and shocking.
“Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness!” reads a line of Ginsberg’s 1956 poem Howl.
Sol teamed up Jeremiah with Bruce, an everyman sidekick—and confidant to Jeremiah’s heaven-sent entreaties.
Jeremiah, Ohio, was originally a experiment—a smattering of poems exploring Jeremiah’s voice transplanted into the present.
“Then September 11th happened, and the ‘doom prophet’ thing started to click,” said Sol.
“I thought, this is exactly the kind of thing that would have a real impact on Jeremiah,” he said.
Sol is an apostle of post-modernist Jewish literature, the “best next thing after modernism,” said Sol, referencing a quote by American novelist John Barth.
The modernists—authors like Philip Roth, Mordecai Richler and Saul Bellow—brought Jewish literature to the masses through anecdotes of detached alienation.
Roth, especially, “was like a spy writing about Jewish culture,” said Sol.
Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s 1969 novel, features a guilt-ridden, sex-obsessed 33-year-old Jewish man dictating his life history to a psychoanalyst.
Portnoy’s “condition” of insatiable sexual desire puts him at odds with his suffocatingly doting mother and father.
The book broke new ground in examining “ethnic identity.”
“(Roth) knows what (Jewishness) is on a superficial level, but he doesn’t know what those traditions are about,” said Sol.
“He and Bellow and Richler were never interested in that part of the story … if they had their choice they would have ripped themselves right out of the equation,” he said.
Sol plays his work closer to the chest, writing from “inside” the Jewish experience, rather than an observer looking in.
It’s only part of the story to write about bagels and lox, without examining the identity that underlies it, said Sol.
“Which isn’t to say you can’t be critical,” said Sol.
Sol is married to Yael Splansky, a Reform rabbi at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple.
“Nobody is in a better position to be critical of the Jews than the husband of a rabbi,” said Sol.
“But it’s about being critical in a committed way,” he said.
In a 2004 essay, Sol questioned why New York’s Lower East Side—a hotbed of Jewish immigrant culture in the early 20th century—remains such a glaring focal point of Jewish literature.
All too often, the genre is prone to prop itself up on the “colourful story of its first generations’ experience in America,” wrote Sol.
“Can’t our Jewishness move beyond nostalgia?” he wrote.
“Any crappy Jewish writer could write a sad poem about the Holocaust, but that wouldn’t make it worth reading,” said Sol.
“Unless you’re making something new out of it, you’re just sucking on the experience,” he said.
As a teacher at both York University and the University of Toronto, Sol faces roomfuls of literature’s harshest critics on a daily basis.
“Students don’t have a lot of time, energy or interest in stuff that’s only half good—and that’s to their credit,” said Sol.
“They know mediocrity when they see it,” he said.
Whenever he puts pen to paper, images of scowling, no-nonsense students swarm his thoughts—and fires his creative drive.
A half-baked poem that ends up in the wastebasket of future dorm rooms just isn’t worth the effort.
Poetry doesn’t hold enough “money, honour or attention” to do it “just for kicks,” said Sol.
Contact Tristin Hopper at firstname.lastname@example.org