How To Intuit a Book Title

How do poets and writers choose their book titles?

I didn’t have a good answer to the question, Why did you choose the title Love Nailed to the Doorpost?” posed at a recent reading, though I knew that sooner or later that someone would ask. I did have a superficial answer, but I hadn’t thought through metaphorical or thematic meanings suggested by the title.

Honestly, until I read what a few others had to say about my book, I wasn’t even sure that the title pointed to a unifying concern.

Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, Third Temple, Love Nailed to the Doorpost: these are the titles in order of publication, of my four books of poetry.

The title Tekiah (1996) was the result of some brainstorming with friends around the dinner table, probably over Shabbat dinner. The moment a friend shouted out tekiah it stuck. Tekiah: a blast of the shofar, ram’s horn, sounded throughout the period leading up to and including the Jewish Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

Chair in the Desert (2000) was one of a number of possible titles on a list I shared with two dear writer friends. The phrase appears in one of a group of poems set in Israel. The specific poem in which the phrase appears is spoken by a minister of immigration “welcoming” new immigrants by dispelling them of fantasies of Jerusalem they may have arrived with and directing them to their new home, their “chair in the desert.”

I found it fairly easy to come up with Third Temple (2007). “Third Temple,” one of the poems in the book that always (with one exception) elicited a favorable response from listeners and readers imagines me offering my (now deceased) 120 pound Chocolate Labrador Retriever “Bubby” as my sacrifice at the third temple in Jerusalem, should that temple ever be built and should the Jews return to the ancient practice of communicating with God by means of animal and other sacrifices.

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The Power of Names

tombstones public domain by Benjamin Balazs on flickrA few weeks back, the news related a story that a confederate veteran killed at Shiloh and buried under the wrong name for one hundred fifty-four years will now have that mistake rectified.

Augustus Beckmann was buried under the name “A. Bergman” at Camp Chase Confederate Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio. The descendants of the German immigrant, who fought in the Texas infantry, discovered the mistake while on a visit to the memorial grounds. Thanks to a refreshingly un-bureaucratic government response, a new stone with the correct name will be put in place. It should only take sixty days to fix an error that has lasted a century and a half.

“But why all the bother?” some might ask, for a man who even the descendants knew little of (except for the touching tale that Augustus’s brother fought alongside him at Shiloh and never learned the fate of his sibling). And it’s only a few letters, too: it should be a c instead of an r, and add another n at the end. Close enough, it could be argued, considering how little it all matters now.

And yet, it does matter; supremely. It matters so much that it makes my skin crawl to think of it. I want a follow-up story when the new stone is put in place and a picture of the corrected name on the discreet little white slab, confirming the matter. [Read more…]

There Must Be a Word for This

Summer Country LandNow spring has come again, the season that’s best for hope. Post-Lenten promises are fresh as a baby’s breathing, and the failures that eventually spoil them are as far away as the height of summer’s heat.

Hope can make us believe in endings as well as beginnings, in the idea that we can accomplish the hard tasks of life and see them to the finish.

“It will get done,” says hope, settling a resolve into our hearts. “Despite all, it will get done.”

However, as usual, I get pensive about things coming to a close. When years of labor spent in achieving something are about to meet resolution, there’s part of me that puts on the brakes—not strong enough to stop the momentum, but strong enough to set my mind churning.

“What now?” becomes the question. Achievement ends purpose, and purpose gives meaning. When foundering around for purpose, we can’t help but feel disoriented.

I’ve heard people express what I’m describing along these lines: “Without what I’ve been doing for so long, I expect I’ll be a bit lost.” And that feeling is all the more profound when the end is an event more necessary than relished, more required than sought. [Read more…]

My Wish for My Students

Students pray on lawn at SPU after shooting at the school.Only this I wish for my students: this semester, I hope you will learn to care for each other.

I hope you will learn how to create conditions in which everyone present in the room feels welcome to speak. I hope you will learn how to discern which of two competing voices within you is worth acting on: the voice that cautions you against speaking lest you confirm, for yourself and others, what you suspect, that you are a fool, and the voice that encourages you to trust yourself, that your thoughts, your questions are worthy of being heard by others. [Read more…]

If Necessary, Use Words

As a retort to the old saying that “a New Englander never uses ten words when one will do,” I’ve heard it said that “a Southerner never uses one word when ten will do.”

I’m proof of the latter. I’ve got a big mouth and have gotten into trouble using it for most of my life.

“You sure do talk a lot.”
“You shouldn’t have said that.”
“Why do you ask so many questions?”

These are common observations by my friends from other climes. Every time I go out, I swear to myself that I won’t dominate the dialogue. But I customarily fail before I’ve even taken my coat off. There has never been an awkward silence with me in the house. [Read more…]