A Lawyer Finds Her Poetic Voice

Jamie Stern's notebook, with a much worked-over poem about her grandmother, which eventually was published in her book, "Chasing Steam." Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Mar. 01, 2013

Jamie Stern, 62, a litigation lawyer and 30-year Tribeca resident, is the author of “Chasing Steam.” The newly published collection of poetry was in­spired by her grandmother’s life and re­lationships within the family. Stern discussed her writing with April Koral.

A poetry teacher of mine, Marie Ponsot, would say, “A pencil and piece of paper can save your life.”

I wrote poems from childhood through college, but after I went to law school and had kids, I stopped writing.

Having children was this miraculously wonderful thing for me. But when the kids grew up, what could I do  that would make me feel that good? One of the things that filled out my life was poetry.

About eight years ago, when my oldest son was in high school, I started taking poetry workshops.

The first class I took was like going home. Suddenly I had this whole way of expressing myself that was not legal writing—a different way of using language and of thinking about whatever I saw or felt. For me it was a way of recovering something that I loved when I was young and that I had let go.

It never occurred to me that I would do anything other than take some classes. When I was in college, I didn’t think I was good enough. I wasn’t Auden. I wasn’t Faulkner. But I didn’t have those kind of expectations now—so it was just a delight.

Putting words on a piece of white paper is a hard thing to do, especially if the initial words aren’t very good. I write on scrap paper, in notebooks, or scribble on the back of discarded paper. What I put down initially rarely ends up in the finished product. There may be a one line, a verse. I’ve worked on some of my poems for years. I’ve spent days working on just one word.

Most poets revise and revise, and so much of the pleasure of writing for me is in the revision. Very often, I can only see what I want to say after I have written it­—my first thought is not always the real thought. 

For some reason, three or four years ago I started to think about my grandmother Est­her, who died in 1993. I’m not ex­actly sure why. My mother died before my grandmother. I suppose I missed them all.

Esther escaped from Poland right after World War I. She al­ways had a book by her bed called “101 Famous Poems” and she knew them all by heart. We lived in a two-family house in Passaic and we would sit on the porch and recite Longfellow.

Although Esther was very brave, she never had the courage to leave my grandfather Dave. He was so violent, so volatile. At his funeral I sat next to her.

My mother cried and my uncle cried. I remember looking at my grandmother  and asking, “Why are they crying?”

My grandmother compensated for a terrible marriage by playing bridge,  going to Manhattan once a week, and reading and reciting poetry. She was de­termined to enjoy life. That didn’t mean going to Paris. It meant being great at bridge! I think I wanted to try to understand my grandmother, and also learn from her indomitable spirit.

Last year, I sent the Esther poems to an old friend who is a poet. I asked her, “Are these any good?” She told me to send them to the Virtual Artists Col­lective [a small poetry press]. In the spring I got an email saying they wanted to publish them. I couldn’t believe it. I had to read the email out loud.

Suddenly, I no longer felt like a lawyer trying to write poetry. I had earned the right to call myself a poet. It was an extraordinary feeling.


Selections from “Chasing Steam” by Jamie Stern

David: 1924

How she met him, she never said.
Why she liked  him, if she liked him.
From Bialystok,
he blistered everything he touched.
Esther was eighteen.
She must not have been looking.

Maybe the meanness came later.
Maybe it was too familiar to pass up.
Maybe she never saw him eat.
Meat. Biting into the bone.
Ripping it. Bloody. Nearly raw.
Animal to animal.

She could not have been looking.
She was eighteen.
She was reading Longfellow.

Gone Fishing

Did Dave hit them
or did screaming do the trick.
Send Esther to some corner
crying. Slicing pain
across her side. Her son Billy
wrapped around her waist.
Her daughter Florence shouting
at a slamming door.

While Dave, still yelling,
with a rod and leather bag,
pounded down the stairs
to start his car. A weekend
on the lake without them.

Dave loved to fish.
Cold water
seeming not to move.
A still boat.
The chance to slit
some trout’s throat.


Esther was small.
She made herself smaller.
When Dave was home,
she hid
behind pots,
clothes hanging out of doors,

She laughed when he was working.
She smoked.
She found a piano they could have.
For nothing. Almost.
Lessons they could have.
For nothing. Almost.
When he was working,
she read sonnets.

Dave was always working.
Lifting something heavy,
pushing himself
and the men on the floor,
while his father read Hebrew,
his brother became a doctor,
his sisters married well.

The foreman his mother wanted
Dave worked with his hands.
was what he felt most.

There are no stories about Esther’s wedding.  
Or her dress, if she had one.