Judith Baumel
January 1999

 

Judith Baumel's poetry combines her urban, Orthodox Jewish background with her interests in science, history and other cultures, particularly Italian culture. The titles of her books, The Weight of Numbers (1988), Now (1996) and Monument (forthcoming in 2001) suggest her vision of the contemporary moment as refracted through an accumulation of previous moments, the present perspective as refracted through multiple alternative perspectives. "Baumel makes connections to stunning effect," writes poet Rachel Hadas in The Kenyon Review. "The strangeness in Baumel's work isn't discovered from within; it is bestowed from without, because her city and her world are complicated places [in which] work and world are porous."

Born in the Bronx the day after Don Larsen's perfect game in the World Series, Baumel has lived in her native borough for most of her life, pursuing interests in baseball and poetry, with digressions into the physical sciences and arts administration (she was director of the Poetry Society of America from 19851988). Baumel attended public schools, including The Bronx High School of Science. Often, coming home from high school, she would visit the Poe Cottage in which Edgar Allen Poe wrote "The Raven" to enjoy the macabre atmosphere of the then-derelict museum.

Entering Radcliffe College with the dream of becoming a food technologist, Baumel also studied with poets Robert Lowell, Robert Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Shaw, James Richardson and Jane Shore. Although still an accomplished cook and collector of cookbooks, she eventually switched majors from Chemistry to Creative Writing (at the time an exclusive program which admitted only five students per year). She was a awarded a fellowship to attend the graduate poetry workshop of the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. There she worked with Richard Howard, Cynthia Macdonald and David St. John, and sought out the city's baseball and poetry landmarks including the birthplace of the quintessential Bronx hero, Babe Ruth, and Poe's grave.

After receiving her M.A., Baumel returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she worked as an administrative assistant at the Carpenter Center, Harvard University's Studio Arts and Architecture Department and Contemporary Art Gallery. She found life in the only Corbusier building in North America both stimulating and bewildering in its strict attention to Corbusier's and Joan Miro's aesthetic principles. She also taught part time at Boston University and Harvard University. Baumel and the poet Jacqueline Osherow took a five month trip to Italy in 1981. Learning Italian through immersion, she began a lifelong devotion to Italian language and culture. She frequently visits central and southern Italy and contributes to Italian literary and scholarly journals. Baumel is currently translating the Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli.

Baumel returned to New York to live with the poet and journalist David Ghitelman whom she met at a party celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Agni Review, of which Ghitelman was an early editor. In 1985 they married. That year Baumel became Director of the Poetry Society of America, working closely with William Matthews, who was to be an important friend until the end of his life. Her first child, Sam, was born in 1988 and her second, Aaron, in 1991. Soon after, the family moved back to The Bronx where Baumel continues to be inspired by local landmarks including the Poe Cottage, the Bronx Botanical Garden (site of the only virgin forest left in the City of New York) and Woodlawn Cemetery, the final resting place of such distinguished and diverse New Yorkers as Herman Melville, Duke Ellington, J.C. Penny, F.W. Woolworth, Fiorello LaGuardia and members of the Belmont and Vanderbilt families. She is a volunteer poet-in-the-schools at her local public schools and is an active member of her synagogue.

Baumel has been teaching Creative Writing, English Literature and Expository Writing at Adelphi University on Long Island, New York since 1988. She is currently Associate Professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program. Since 1995, Baumel has also taught in the graduate writing program of the City College of the City University of New York.

Mona Van Duyn chose Baumel's first book, The Weight of Numbers, for the 1987 Walt Whitman Prize of the Academy of American Poets. Baumel also received a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1987. Her recent book of poems Now was published in April 1996. Poems from Now appeared in The New Yorker, The Threepenny Review, Agni, and Harvard Magazine, among other places. Her poems, essays and translations have appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and Poetry. Her work has been widely anthologized in such books as Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, ed. Rubin; A Year In Poetry, ed. Foster and Guthrie; A Walk On The Wild Side, ed. Christopher; Articulations: The Body and Illness in Poetry, ed. Mukand; and Sports Poems, ed. Swenson and Knudsen.

Baumel has read her work and taught throughout this country as well as in England and Italy. Having recently completed the manuscript of her third book of poems, Monument, she has begun her next collection. She is also at work on Dashed Hopes, a critical book about American women poets. This book grows out of a series of lectures she gave in 1998 and 1999 to the English Faculty of Oxford University, UK.


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