By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Award-winning poet Susan Comninos, formerly of Endwell, has published her debut collection of poetry, “Out of Nowhere” (Stephen F. Austin University Press). Comninos is a graduate of Cornell University and holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Michigan. She taught at SUNY Albany and now works as a freelance writer. Her poetry awards include the Yehuda Halevi Poetry Contest run by Tablet Magazine (winner 2010), the Dora and Alexander Raynes Poetry Prize (2013 finalist), the VQR Writers’ Conference Scholarship in poetry (2016 winner), the Conduit Books’ Marystina Santiestevan First Book Prize (2019 finalist), the Cider Press Review Book Award (2019 finalist) and the Cowles Poetry Book Award (2021 longlist finalist). Award-winning poet Marilyn Kallet called the poems in Comninos’ book “sassy, provocative, perfectly cut,” noting that they will “delight, console and nurture our spirits through troubled times.”
In an e-mail interview, Comninos spoke about growing up Jewish in Endwell during the 1970s and ‘80s. “It was pretty homogenous,” she said. “A majority of the kids I went to school with – if I remember correctly – were Italian-American. Their families traced their roots to Sicily and Naples, so the surrounding culture was predominantly Catholic. I don’t recall much diversity. Certainly, that led to my feeling different. (As I mentioned in a biographical note accompanying my poem ‘Imagining Abraham,’ when it first appeared in Rattle magazine, I only ever knew of one other Jewish kid in my grade within the Union-Endicott school system. But I always loved – and still love – being Jewish.)”
She noted the influence of Jewish poetry on her work, but it was only when she wrote for The Reporter that she realized that prayers were also poetry. “It wasn’t until my late 20s, when The Reporter’s then-Editor Marc Goldberg assigned me to write about the poetic nature of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, that it occurred to me to think of the prayers as poems,” she said. “After that, I kept trying my hand at penning contemporized versions of them. I remember feeling very guilty about it, given the erotic and furious elements that were emerging in my recasting of traditional work. But that was before I knew anything about the Jewish singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen (think: ‘Who By Fire’ and ‘Hallelujah’). He’d done the exact same thing – beautifully, and long before me!” She added that two of her poems in her book are reworkings of the High Holiday prayers: “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”) and “Ashamnu” (“We Have Trespassed”).
In her poetry, Comninos uses languages other than English to emphasize a point. “A poem like ‘A Love Poem (for my mother)’ uses Yiddish because my mother’s family spoke Yiddish,” she noted. “She was bilingual as a child. Her parents emigrated respectively from Ukraine and Lithuania. Maybe fled is more accurate. In October 1905, the city then known as Yekaterinoslav (now Dnipro), was wracked by three anti-Jewish pogroms shortly before my grandmother left it for the U.S. (Although I feel awful about what’s currently happening in Ukraine, I also suspect that it’s not widely known how Ukraine historically treated its Jewish population. The Ukrainian-Christian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, in his recent documentary, ‘Babi Yar: Context,’ challenges Ukraine to come to terms with its own role in past atrocities: in this case, the 1941 slaughter of some 33,000 Jews outside of Kyiv.)”
Other poems borrow language from their subjects. Comninos noted that “‘Naked Admission,’ for example, is pegged to a 2018 news story about French nudists enjoying a naked night out at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris. The poem uses French terms because of its setting. It also pushes things in a broader comic direction by imagining the nudists heading to the Louvre and during the day. The poem decides they need to commute there during morning rush hour, on mass transit.”
When deciding what poetry to include in her book, Comninos didn’t have a central theme in mind. Instead, she focused on individual poems. “The book was written over time, poem by poem,” she said. “It takes its shape from my strongest poems. The weaker ones, I pulled. But of course, I see that I keep revisiting certain themes. The book is very interested in legacy and chance. One we inherit, the other strikes as we grow up and older – and at random. If you look at the book’s epigraphs – one by Jewish writer-translator Stephen Mitchell, the other by Jewish poet Louise Gluck – both treat how we grapple with what we’re given.”
She refused to pick a favorite poem, noting that “I don’t think I want to pick a favorite child! But I hope that there are poems in the book that speak to readers, that hold their interest, and that perhaps help some feel less alone in trying to make sense of what can appear delivered to us – at times uninvited and seemingly from ‘out of nowhere.’”