The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project: David Biespiel

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Poet, critic, and memoirist David Biespiel and I both grew up in Meyerland, the main Jewish enclave in Houston. (Yes, there are Jews in Texas, even though both of us left.) We lived in low-slung brick “ranch” houses on what Biespiel in his new memoir calls “plaid streets”—Loch Lomond, in his case; Braesheather, in mine. We attended the same giant Conservative synagogue and had significant conversations with the same rabbi, but we didn’t knowingly cross paths because I’m eight years older.

Biespiel’s A Place of Exodus: Home, Memory, and Texas was a multiply pleasurable read—I enjoyed encountering the familiar, and experiencing his poetic and metaphorical turns, such as, “Dots and dashes slashing across the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, were my hominy and grits… my Davy Crockett at the Alamo.” He was a “lifer” at Congregation Beth Yeshurun, starting with nursery and elementary school. In the book he describes being a member of the flock that followed our rabbi Jack Segal on Passover along Brays Bayou, in the annual reenactment of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. After his bar mitzvah Biespiel continued Jewish study—until a life-changing quarrel with the rabbi. This was not some Hasidic sect—in the 1970s Meyerland Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews mixed with one another and at times with their gentile neighbors. “I grew up as just a kid in the American South who liked to run off and think stuff,” Biespiel writes.

For his interview, Biespiel, now in southeast Portland, was at his desk in his book-lined office—a refurbished garage with a wood stove, windows, a couch; easel and acrylics in back. He had packed up the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters, which he founded, and plans to find a new space for it after the pandemic. I was at my desk in Chicago. We spoke via Zoom and discussed his departure from Houston, as well as Judaism in his memoir.

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Rumpus: You wrote about Houston and leaving Houston in The Education of a Young Poet. You mentioned your competitive diving and you wrote about your father’s aphasia from a stroke, but you didn’t write at all about the events with Rabbi Segal.

Biespiel: That story with Rabbi Segal is so emotionally large I really couldn’t find a place for it in The Education of a Young Poet. I originally wrote most of those pieces for The Rumpus. When I finished that book I did something of a literary self-diagnosis, which I’ve done after a lot of books: What did you write? What didn’t you write? Why did you write this? Why did the book go in this direction and not go in that direction? You thought it might include such and such, but it didn’t. Why not—what were you avoiding? I try to figure out what might be next, where my greatest interest is. I realized I had hardly written about Meyerland in that book. I kind of swept it away as being idyllic and being trapped there a little bit. I hadn’t written about one of the chief dramas of my childhood.

I tried to write about this thing with Rabbi Segal when I was younger but I just couldn’t figure it out. I tried to put it into a one-hundred-line poem. Do you know the poem by Gerald Stern called “Bread without Sugar”? That was kind of a model for me. But I just couldn’t do it. I just didn’t have the skills or emotional leverage. In the end I just didn’t have other complementary-colored topics to go with the conflict with Rabbi Segal. He’s just a stand-in for a kind of larger conflict.

Rumpus: And what is that?

Biespiel: A disinterest in religious practice. An allergy to religious experience. Disassociating with questions of the divine.

Rumpus: You write that “Hebrew was a home,” and that you inherited Jewish practice in your blood and body. Where does that fit in with the disinterest?

Biespiel: I think it’s just how I was put together. Also in my blood was hostility. Also in my blood was rejection. Also in my blood was curiosity about other things. Also was feeling imprisoned.

Rumpus: You have all this knowledge and you’re not using it.

Biespiel: “I didn’t send you to Jewish day school, David…”—finish the sentence.

Rumpus: I have more generations there. My father’s family moved there from Mississippi during the Depression. My sister stayed. Her kids are friends with people whose grandparents my mother knows.

Biespiel: It’s a shtetl, a middle-class American shtetl.

Rumpus: Have you heard from people who are not from Meyerland who talked to you about home and how they connected with the way you were in this insular place? 

Biespiel: Absolutely. A lot of people. They’re written to me and said, I really felt in sync with your story.

Rumpus: You said at Boston University there were some Jewish kids like the ones you left behind in Meyerland.

Biespiel: I completely kept my distance from them. Because they seemed exactly the same—very interested in surface concerns, a lot of interest in pop culture that I didn’t have, interest in wealth, status. I didn’t find they were particularly gracious toward the inner life.

Rumpus: I agree with you but that does feed into the stereotype of the Jew as mercantilist, like Kafka’s father, right?

Biespiel: Right. And clichés are clichés because there’s truth in them.

Rumpus: I wanted to go North.

Biespiel: I wanted to go far away but I always missed it. But I was terrified of not chasing the dreams of the literary inner life.

Rumpus: How Texan are you? After twenty years in Portland, you wear cowboy boots.

Biespiel: That goes without saying. I haven’t worn a Stetson in a while. I need to clarify when I say I’m from Oregon, that it really means I’m from Texas. Being from Texas makes you something of a celebrity. And if you’re not willing to boast you’re from Texas, are you really a Texan?

There are aspects of Texas that I really feel center me. One is the sky, is the landscape, the horizon. Some people just have some things in their life that when I’m near this or I see this or taste this or smell this, that’s home. And for me it’s the big horizon. I love where we live; it’s a great place to live. But at first the trees and the rain made it very hard to write. It took me a couple of years to really understand how to concentrate in this environment.

I’m not without clarity about Texas. It has its problems—what’s going on in the legislature; its structural problems in terms of how it treats people, its history of racism, as much toward Black people and probably more so toward Mexicans and the Latinx community.

Rumpus: If you had not had that argument with the rabbi, do you think you would have left?

Biespiel: I don’t know the answer to that. That moved me forward fifty paces in one morning. Suddenly my exit appeared and now I had an excuse.

Rumpus: This is an aesthetic and moral question. I come from journalism and when I write nonfiction I try to be as accurate as possible and to say what I remember and what I don’t. And I know I’m on the conservative side with this. On the other hand, I think you’re presenting things as you remember them. I wonder if you can talk about your theories or your aesthetics of writing memoir, and accuracy.

Biespiel: I’m not an expert. My position is that of a poet—memory, the imaginary, dream, fantasy, they’re all fiction. They’re all related. I thought of my own work in memoir as a re-dramatization, as a simulation of events. One of the reasons in A Place of Exodus I don’t use quotation marks—it’s a minor point—was to remind myself that I was re-simulating some of the peculiarities of the conversations. Some of them were word for word as I remember them. These were stories I’ve been telling or telling to myself from the moment they happened. It doesn’t confer upon them accuracy but it does confer on them the status of myth.

Rumpus: So, if you were writing about the Rabbi Segal argument since your twenties, in your twenties you were pretty close to the event.

Biespiel: Yeah. I found in my “archive,” I guess I would call it, drafts of poems that I wrote when I lived in Vermont. I was stunned to realize word for word how I had portrayed the argument in A Place of Exodus was how I was writing about it when I was twenty-three. Now, to be fair, perhaps the way I was writing it down when I was twenty-three fixed the language I used even though I never published those poems.

In the act of writing about it and revising it, I’m still having the experience. It’s not like experiencing something in life and writing about it are different. Writing about is still continuing the experience. In trying to retell the story, the subject of the quarrel hasn’t changed. I know what Jack Segal sounds like. I know what I sounded like.

Rumpus: You know that he wiggles his fingers.

Biespiel: Oh yeah, this thing. (Holds palms up and draws fingers towards himself.) Give it to me, which he did to me when I ran into him. All the gestures that I’d already written about.

Rumpus: It was kind of creepy, wasn’t it?

Biespiel: It was confirming. It gave me confidence in the accuracy—in all kinds of layers, the emotional accuracies, the accuracies of gestures, of words, of the representation of him representing this idea about existence, my representing this idea about existence.

Rumpus: Did you ever think of getting in touch with him and saying, “This is what I remember; what do you remember?”

Biespiel: No, no. Again, maybe the way I wrote it is the way one writes a poem: you’re interested in the voice, the language of the experience, and the utterance of telling it.

Rumpus: You wrote about a Passover seder with the Rothman family. It seems like you remembered it word for word. I don’t know if I could repeat conversations we had at seders.

Biespiel: In my mind, I was trying to write the dinner scene from “The Dead.” I thought of it not as a model but an aspiration. Get different people to behave and their full character comes through. That was one thing. Another thing is I think that chapter is maybe eight thousand words but that was cut down from maybe seventeen thousand words. I went through the Maxwell House Haggadah, every page. I was trying to piece it all together. We did a lot of seders at the Rothmans. It was a composite of memories and some things Marcy Rothman would remind me about. The principal part of the seder was about the fifth child (the one who is absent) and the sort of jousting and showing off what you were learning at the day school.

Everyone who was there said that’s exactly how we all behaved. People were trying to show off—little hostilities and being kind of put on parade. It was a night for kids to participate fully in these conversations. And, if you didn’t listen to the older people’s conversations about the Warsaw Ghetto, there’s gotta be something wrong with you.

Rumpus: After you pulled yourself from all that you would still know, Chanukah is coming or Shavuot is coming, but you made a complete break. You never did any kind of hippie Rosh Hashanah Aquarian Minyan, JewBu anything—?

Biespiel: It was one move and it was done. I was determined to live without religious practice and to live outside of it, separate from the community of that religious practice—to me it was one and the same—and you know I didn’t have any models. I didn’t go and replace—that’s really the thing I want to stress. I just wanted to be secular. I didn’t pretend I hadn’t been educated in this. I’m not hostile, but I’m not going to participate. I’m not doubting that this is important to people. But it has less pluses and minuses of its long tradition. You guys run the store. I’m not on the pension plan.

I wasn’t abused by the faith. In fact, I was very well taken care of. Those people in Meyerland created a world of safety in a post-war, post-Holocaust America. They are very comfortable in the Americanness, and in the exceptionalism of the Jews as well as the glorification of Israel. I often felt, and this may come across as shocking—it wasn’t Israel that was glorified. It was the Holocaust that was glorified in a way that was supposed to terrify you.

People are shocked when I say this, especially non-Jews. They cannot believe that you would ever desecrate something like that. And I go, first of all, we desecrate everything, and second of all, you didn’t grow up in Texas in the 1970s twenty-five years after the Holocaust. One of the ways people of that era were portraying Israel was that the men were stronger, the armies were better, the bullets killed better, the women were more beautiful. Any idea that came from an Israeli was a good idea. Any philosophy that came from Israel was better—the poetry was better for sure. Everything from Israel was better because it was sanctified. We were growing up in capitalist Meyerland but there was endless praise for the Zionist-Socialists.

Rumpus: I never named Meyerland except when I wrote about Hurricane Harvey. You name streets and I never would have named streets. For some reason, names are very evocative.

Biespiel: How did the book make you feel about being in contact with that place?

Rumpus: Even though I’ve written about Meyerland, it made me feel how sometimes a student will say, I didn’t know you could write about that—I felt a little bit of that.

Biespiel: Because of Harvey and other hurricanes that damaged that neighborhood so much, somewhere in the middle of working on it I realized, I’m actually doing a preservation. Some of my friends said, “Please finish your book; it’s going to be the only thing left of Meyerland.”

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Photograph of David Biespiel by Marion Ettlinger.


S.L. Wisenberg is the author of The Sweetheart Is In, Holocaust Girls: History, Memory & Other Obsessions, and The Adventures of Cancer Bitch. She is a third-generation native Jewish Texan on her mother's side, and lives in Chicago, where she edits Another Chicago Magazine. She's received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Illinois Arts Council, and Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and has been published in the New Yorker, The Sun, New England Review, Ploughshares, and many other journals. More from this author →