Poetry
4:52 pm
Thu January 2, 2014

What biblical characters were thinking: 'Exodus' by Janet Heller

Kalamazoo native Janet Ruth Heller is a writer, playwright, and literary critic. In her third book of poetry called Exodus, Heller fills in the gaps in the lives of characters in the Bible, especially women. Exodus can be found at Kazoo Books on Parkview Ave. in Kalamazoo, Michigan News Agency, and Amazon.com.

Hear the full interview with Janet Heller

Heller says she’s been working on this collection since the 1970’s. At first, Heller had mixed the biblical poems in with secular poems and tried to publish a book, but publishers wouldn’t take it on. Then, Heller separated her secular poems into what is now her book Folk Concert and put her biblical poems into this new work Exodus. Heller explains why she chose "Exodus" for her title:

We often get in situations in life that don't work out. Maybe a relationship with another person doesn't work out--whether it's a friendship, or a marriage, or a working relationship. Sometimes a job doesn't work out. There are all sorts of changes in life that we have to make and I see these all sort of encompassed in the notion of Exodus. That there are times when we have to leave a situation. We have to get out of there and do something new. And it's difficult, but it's the way that we grow.

Because Exodus spans about 40 years of work, there are poems that empathize with different characters in different stages of their lives. Heller says she was drawn to many female characters in the Bible. She would try to imagine what their lives were like, but also what they would be like today. For example, Heller wrote a poem about Leah, a woman whose husband had many other wives. 

And so I imagined a Leah today, where her husband goes on all these business trips and it's clear to the reader that he's cheating on her. And she's trying to hold things together around the dinner table. So, I try to have sympathy even for people who represent a position that I don't necessarily take. I find the stories in the Bible provide mean with pretty universally know symbols that I can draw on.

Heller says sometimes her poems changed the way she thought about a situation. Like in her poem about Penineh, the second wife of Elkanah. Penineh is often seen as a villain in the Bible because she taunts Elkanah's first wife, Hannah, because she cannot have children.

Heller thought about this story after getting into an argument with a student of hers over the student's mid term. Heller says she was so angry about the way this woman acted toward her that she was determined to write an anger poem. But then Heller started to feel sorry for the student who was an older student and had children to take care of. 

And I wound up thinking of her as being like Peninah in the Bible who's sort of getting shafted. Because her husband prefers a different wife and no matter what she does, she can't...And I was thinking about different conflicts between women in our own time. Women who choose to have a career. Women who choose not to. Women who try to combine both. And the conflicts among these different groups of women.

Janet Ruth Heller is a former professor at Western Michigan University.