Zilka Joseph and Indie Blu(e) Publishing met through Indie’s The Kali Project, which Zilka submitted poems for. We were very fortunate to have poetry by Zilka in this collection, she is a particularly addictive poet with a keen artistic eye and someone not afraid to write out truths.
Indie Blu(e) caught up with Zilka Joseph, who is always creatively busy writing books and submitting successfully to anthologies or editing others’ works. She shared with us: “I am fortunate to be be part of two projects sponsored by Michigan State University–two of my poems will appear in an anthology on “Home” and are on the shortlist offered to filmmakers for the Filmetry Festival, where film makers choose a poem and make a film to enter the contest. At the moment, I am writing poems inspired by creation hymns from the Rig Veda that will become an audiovisual component for an Odissi dance production/video.” These are incredible multi-layered, exciting projects with the medium of film utilizing poetry, which sounds like it’s becoming an ever-popular genre in its own right.
“Later this year, I hope to collaborate on some projects with artist Siona Benjamin, (who, like me, is from the Bene Israel community), whose themes of immigration and myth resonate with my work. Her art is on the cover of my book In Our Beautiful Bones.” When Indie Blu(e) first saw Zilka Joseph’s cover, we were similarly impressed at the extreme beauty of this cover art, which compliments the stunning writing therein.
Here is Zilka Joseph reading from her collection – In Our Beautiful Bones, at her book launch at Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI. October 6, 2021. Here she is reading with Nawaaz Ahmed and NN Carlson.
Zilka Joseph was born in Mumbai, and lived in Kolkata. Her work is influenced by Indian and Western cultures, and her Bene Israel roots. In the India she grew up in, communities of all religions and faiths lived side by side, went to school together, celebrated festivals together, and were quite integrated. It was natural for her to absorb Indian and Western cultures and literatures, in addition to her own Indian Jewish culture, and read writers such as Tagore, Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das. Her work reflects a range of subject matter and complexity.
She shares with us some information about this unique community she belongs to:
“There are many theories about the origins of the Bene Israel, (called “Shanwar Telis” or Saturday oil pressers) from India. The three most well-known ones are (1) they arrived after the destruction of temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., (2) that they were the descendants of the Lost Tribes, who came around the time of King Solomon in the tenth century B.C.E., and another one says that they were fleeing from Galilee and the rule of the Greek overlord Antiochus Epiphanes, in 175 B.C.E. Some scholars seem to think it was more likely that they came in the fifth or sixth century C.E. from Yemen or South Arabia or Persia. (Sources: The Jews of India by Benjamin J. Israel Mosaic Books, and The Bene Israel of India: Some Studies by Benjamin J. Israel, Orient Longman.).”
“Probably the most popular theory about their arrival is that two ships were shipwrecked on the west coast of India in 175 B.C.E., and it is said that they were fleeing from Galilee and the rule of the Greek overlord Antiochus Epiphanes. The survivors settled in villages, and made a new life for themselves. They adopted Indian ways, clothes, foods, and kept the Sabbath.”
“Their descendants have thrived in India and wherever in the world they immigrated, contributed to the greater good and to society, and made their mark in varied professions.”
Zilka has a BA in English and a BEd (a post-graduate teaching degree), from the University of Calcutta, India and an MA in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, Calcutta. India. She was a high school English teacher at St. James’ School for Boys, Kolkata. She moved to Chicago with her husband later in life, where she began volunteering at a public school and the Indo American Center. She attended several literary festivals, read contemporary American literature, and was inspired by the writers and poets she read and met. After she moved to Michigan, she began taking writing workshops, attending conferences, and publishing her work.
She has been nominated several times for PEN, Pushcart, and for a Best of the Net awards, participated in literary festivals, readings, interdisciplinary collaborations, been featured on NPR/Michigan Radio, Rattlecast, podcasts such as Desi Books, Culturico, CEW’s Strength in the Midst of Change— Center for the Education of Women, University of Michigan, and other audio and online interviews.
This March, at the AWP conference, Joy Ladin, NN Carlson, ME Silverman, Ilya Kaminsky, and herself, are featured on a panel called “L’Chaim: Jewish Poetry in the Twenty-first Century.”
Published internationally, her work has appeared in journals such as Poetry, Poetry Daily, Frontier Poetry, Kenyon Review Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, Rattle, Asia Literary Review, The Writer’s Chronicle (AWP), The Punch Magazine, Poetry at Sangam, Review Americana, and in anthologies such as 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium, The Kali Project, RESPECT: An Anthology of Detroit Music Poetry. Sharp Blue Search of Flame, her book of poems, was a Foreword Indies Book Award finalist. Her third chapbook Sparrows and Dust won a Best Indie Book Award and was a New and Notable Asian American Poetry Book (Lantern Review).
In Our Beautiful Bones, her newest book, has been nominated for a PEN America and Pushcart prize. She was awarded a Zell Fellowship, the Michael R. Gutterman award for poetry, and the Elsie Choy Lee Scholarship (Center for the Education of Women) from the University of Michigan.
Zilka Joseph teaches creative writing workshops in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is an editor, a manuscript coach, and a mentor to her students. http://www.zilkajoseph.com
You can also click on this link and see Zilka Joseph reading from In Our Beautiful Bones, for Third Wednesday Magazine: The Living Room Online Literary Series hosted by ML Liebler: Reading with Kirun Kapur, Sumita Chakraborty and Indran Amirthanayagam.
Sparrows and Dust
I believe! I believe!—
In the sparrow, happy on gravel;
—From Roethke’s Praise to the End!
The first time I noticed a cloud of dust rise
from the playground, I squinted my six-year-old eyes
and saw sparrows flailing about
in gravelly dirt. My mother told me, Look, they’re having
their daily dust bath! See how well they wash themselves.
Such a cleansing! Dust with dust, letting what’s broken, biting,
or dead flake off. I have always loved house sparrows even
when they drove us mad with their noisy fights and ferocious
nesting inside our second-floor Kolkata flat. Raining dirt,
twigs, eggs and just-born chicks on us when rival pairs fought
for territory on tops of cupboards, chinks in clutter and junk
stored everywhere. Our house was heaven, and a kind
of hell. Sometimes when streaking in from the hot sun,
one would fly into the fan’s spinning blades. With a soft
gasp, it would die at my feet.
Sometimes, how it struggled, poor thing, I would cradle
its head as blood seeped into my hand, give it water, whisper
comfort. Often, when I shut its eyelids, a vision of my own
feathered body lying lifeless below
would flash by, as I hovered above. As if
I have been somewhere else. Weeping, I willed them—
Come back from the dead. Failed shaman, I never saved anyone
or anything—my parents, the animals and birds
we loved, the locked flat fallen to ruin. Now, years later,
in short Michigan summers, I look for flusters of dust,
feel a warmth thrill in my aching bones when I see
the happy birds squirm in soil, then spring from a cloud, fluffing,
cheeping, cleansed, whole. I think of the little-known tale I read—
about the precocious, five-year-old trickster Jesus who played
by the river one Shabbath evening, and who shaped twelve
sparrows from wet clay. When his father scolded
that he had violated the holy day, Jesus clapped, shouting
to the birds to “remember me, you who are now alive,”
and the living sparrows
rose and flew away.
Sparrows and Dust, Notable Indie Book Award Winner, 2021. Book launch at Literati, with poets Robert Fanning and John Freeman:
You can also click on this link and watch Zilka Joseph reading at Stony Brook University, Matwaala South Asian Diaspora Poetry Festival, 2020. She is reading with Pramila Venkateswaran, Monica Ferrell, Usha Akella and Sophia Naz. Both Venkateswaran, Akella and Naz were fellow writers in The Kali Project.
“My new manuscript of poems is currently in circulation. I continue to teach poetry workshops via email, and coach clients via Zoom and Facetime. Critiquing book manuscripts, guiding writers on their journey to publication, and working with students/clients to help them get to the next level, whether it be for an MFA, or to publish a poem for the very first time, is what makes my calling worthwhile. What gives me the most joy is to witness their joy when they accomplish something they set out to do, and when the manuscripts I helped them hone get published!”
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