Monday, February 2, 2015



Those of you who know me well know that I’ve been writing it for a very, very long time.

Those of you who actually live with me (or are poets yourself) know that part of being a poet is sending out your book, over and over, to contests which then send you a nice rejection letter, or a form rejection letter, or occasionally a semifinalist-but-sorry letter.

Last month, I got a phone call that on my approximately 75th try (maybe a slight exaggeration) it worked: my poetry book, DIVINITY SCHOOL, won the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize and will be published on September 1, 2015.

I have been dreaming of this day since I was a teenager, and this exact manuscript has been rejected many, many times.

So to know that it will be in bookstores means more to me than I can say.

It's almost disorienting, after such a long creep forward, to jump into book-land so suddenly.  And I wanted to be transparent about how it happened (revise, submit, receive rejection, rinse, repeat).  To offer this as an example for why it’s worth forging stubbornly ahead.  For you, for me, for the projects to come, for all the knock-downs along the way, and for holding on to the dream.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

goodbye, 2013

Dear friends, dear listeners, dear diary, dear NSA, dear archives, dear cache, dear universe:

2013 has been quite a year.  We moved from North Brooklyn to North Portland.  Our little girl went from barely crawling to verbally requesting "hot tea."

Leaving the familiar structure of my life (NYC, the east coast, living within a few hours of my family, my east coast friends and community, and the newness of early motherhood) has been a profound deconstruction of my life as I knew it.  To be honest, it has been a real struggle, though shot through with plenty of joy too.  Thank goodness for the support of my friends and family.  For yoga.  For walks in the woods.  And for art.  I wish all those things for all of you in 2014.

Meanwhile, here's a little 2013 roundup.  It's a lot of information. It may well only be interesting to me, my mother, and maybe the most ardent fans.  But time flies and leaves no trace, I'm terrible at keeping a journal these days, and somehow it feels right to name what happened this past year in music, writing, and teaching.


This hour-long piece, a chamber-rock opera meditating on the intersection of finance and spirituality, premiered in 2012 and is continuing to grow and change.  Which is basically an artist's dream.  This year I performed the show in DC with the amazing original band (Colette Alexander, David Freeman, Lily Maase); we recorded a live studio version in NYC, to be released this winter.  Meanwhile I am revising the piece somewhat radically, working on a solo version for the West Coast premiere,  Feb 6-9 at Portland Playhouse!  I'm really excited for this new version, and lucky to be working with excellent collaborators - the show is produced by Boom Arts, featuring full-length projected animation by Zak Margolis, and directed by the brilliant Maureen Towey, who helped me develop the earliest incarnation of the show.


Turns out that while touring and performing is rough with a toddler, writing (at least the way I do it, in short bursts) is relatively easy to arrange, especially with a supportive partner at home.  So - I got to restore my focus to writing and publishing poems in 2013, an unexpected side benefit of motherhood.  I was honored to win the 2013 Matt Clark Poetry Prize from the New Delta Review for my poem, How to Travel, from the Manuals series - such an honor.  More of these Manuals poems appeared in The Collagist, The Ilanot Review, and Sentence: A Journal of Prose Poetics. I gave readings on KBOO Community Radio and for Portland's Loggernaut Reading Series.  Also, I dove headfirst into personal essays, which I have been eyeing longingly for some time, with my Torah Momentary over at Kveller, a weekly series of Torah commentary through the eyes of a new mother.


Improbably, Girls in Trouble continued to tour despite the fact that the band is largely comprised of Sylvie's two parents!  We flew back and forth across the country with our wee one to perform our usual combination of clubs, conferences, universities, and homes: this year we played at Limmud NY, the University of Utah,  Fairfield University in Connecticut, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Association Conference, the Oregon Jewish Museum, K Records' Helsing Junction Festival in Washington, Cherry Sprout grocery store in Portland, and in some other lovely living rooms and underground venues. We couldn't have done it without our families and friends who helped us along the way (thanks, Mom!). We just found out we were awarded a grant from the Portland Regional Arts and Culture Council, which will partially support creating a new album in 2014!  So, GIT album 3 is now seriously in the pipeline.  We just need to line up the rest of funding, and then we will really dive into recording the third album!


One huge upside of moving to Portland is that I've had the privilege of teaching in the local Jewish community, which I've found to be warm, creative, and lovely.  Thanks to their warm welcome, I have a whole crop of wonderful Portland bar/bat mitzvah students, and I got to officiate a bat mitzvah in a Portland rock club.  I'm teaching the Melton Foundations curriculum for day school parents at Portland Jewish Academy, and to my delight, I was invited to officiate a bat mitzvah in Walla Walla, Washington, where they keep their Torahs in a gun safe because that was the only secure storage available within a couple hours' drive!   I've also continued to work over Skype with tweens, teens and adults in other states.  Finally, I was thrilled to teach once again at Studio G-dcast, in residence at SF's Contemporary Jewish Museum, where undergrad and grad school artists animated complex Torah stories in 3 minute shorts, and I've continued to lead workshops on women in Torah alongside Girls in Trouble performances.  For years, teachers have been asking me for a curriculum based on GIT songs, and in 2014 I plan to begin work on that project - but that's for another post.

Well, there you have it.  Goodbye, 2013.  You were challenging and sweet.  I wrestled.  I gave in.  I wrestled. I relaxed.  I wrestled.  I learned a lot.  I was stretched, and blessed in that stretching.  Goodbye, dear friends, if you've gotten this far down.  I love you. See you in 2014.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Upcoming performances and yet more thoughts on vulnerability...

Hi everyone.  I wrote a mailing-list email today that was really just as much of a letter/blog post than anything, so I'm posting it here.  If you'd like to join the list, I'd love to have you; there's a link on

Dear friends,

Greetings from beautiful, gray Portland. I haven’t written you in a while so this is more of an actual letter than just a show-listing. I’ll list the news + shows first, and then you can get on with your busy lives, or digress with me below.

First, the wonderful Mustafa Bhagat created a trailer for my Madoff show! If you’re near DC, come see the live performance on May 4 at the Washington Jewish Music Festival; otherwise you can find the trailer here. I’m excited to announce that we’ll be heading into the studio to record the full show soon for digital release, too. A still from the show:

Second, I’m currently accepting a few new bar/bat mitzvah and adult Torah students. Some of you already know that I love to teach Torah online, which enables me to work with students anywhere. I call it Personal Torah: creative, meaningful bar/bat mitzvah preparation and Torah study, and start-to-finish help for unaffiliated families creating their own ceremonies (or preparing for synagogue ceremonies.) I even have a website for my teaching, yes I do! Feel free to share.

Finally, Girls in Trouble will be on the East Coast in October for some performances, so if you would like to bring us (or me) to your community for shows, teaching or a mini-residency, that’s a good time since we’ll be local! Write if you’re interested.

Now the SHOWS:

GIRLS IN TROUBLE duo show in Portland
Sunday April 14, 2-3 pm, at the Oregon Jewish Museum
$10/$5, tickets + info here

Saturday May 4, 9 pm, as part of the DC Jewish Music Festival
a full performance of my new song-cycle about Bernie Madoff
and the intersection of finance and spirituality.
$20/$15, tickets + info here

And now, I digress.

For the past three months I’ve been settling in and getting used to the slower pace here. Taking care of my little one and writing poems and having band practice in our basement and reading library books and hanging out at our local playground. Girls in Trouble played a show at an independent grocery store this weekend, a bill with our friend Arrington de Dionyso as well as an existentialist stand-up comic, nestled among the produce and bulk aisles – it was very lovely and yes, very Portland.  

Being an artist and a mother is a fascinating combination so far. Giving birth has redefined my priorities and sense of time, but also made me even more stubbornly committed to creating and writing and performing. It’s a delicate and perhaps impossible balance, and yet, it happens. Being a mother is forcing me to be less of a perfectionist and more of an actionist (if that’s a word). It doesn’t really matter whether I do something perfectly, but that I do it. And since perfection is impossible, this is beginning to seem like the only sane way to live.

I miss NYC like crazy and am excited to visit as often as humanly possible, but also am really enjoying being here in the city of my birth, Portland. One good part of living in a much smaller city (and maybe also moving east to west) is that resources – time, money – go a little bit farther out here. So I have been taking advantage of that by going out to see art every chance I get. I got to see the fantastic NYC poet Eileen Myles read last week, something I never managed to do when I was actually living there, and took a trip to Seattle this weekend to see a dear friend perform in Young Jean Lee’s mindblowing theater work, Untitled Feminist Piece. I can’t stop thinking about that show. If you get a chance to see it, do. Naked and brave in every sense of the word. It felt like a personal challenge and encouragement to go deep, to perservere, to head straight into vulnerability and fear, and be honest about what I find there.

And that’s the news from Portland. I hope you all are well and enjoying the blossoms. Hope to see some of you in DC!

Yours in spring,

ps: I’m also back on twitter after a long absence, so if you’re there, come say hi at @ohaliciajo.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Wow.  A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff, the chamber-rock-opera I've been working on for the last two years thanks to grants from the Six Points Fellowship and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, is complete.  No sound recordings ready to post yet, but it looked like this:

I feel like it's a bit unusual to speak frankly about the creation process, but creating this show was all-consuming, and one of the most challenging things I've ever done.  Surprisingly to me, this show about a giant Ponzi scheme turned out to be the most personal piece of art I've ever created.   The timing - happening the same year as my daughter's birth - may be part of it, and also feels appropriate (and a bit of a double whammy), because creating the piece felt like a birth too.  A culmination and integration of all the training, both formal and informal, of my life so far:  playing classical violin; writing and arranging rock songs;  writing poems and nonfiction; performing;  looping;  singing;  Jewish texts; spiritual study and practice;  and, most recently, reading countless books about Bernie Madoff while becoming a mother (weird combo for sure).  

And also to my surprise, while the creation was deeply challenging, the performance was  I hear that's how it is in theater.  My friend Filip pointed me back to Yeats' poem The Fascination of What's Difficult, which felt, in the days leading up to opening night, exactly right.

But it looks like we will be performing the show again in other cities this year, and I am unequivocally glad.   I'm also beginning to think about fundraising to make a studio recording of the show, since I think it would live well in that medium, and it'll enable the piece to travel to places where I'm not physically able to go due to the restraints of the body, the budget, etc.

I'm tremendously grateful to my artist-collaborators and interviewees for helping me realize this piece, and to my family for supporting me in moments both quotidian and extreme.  And now, onward, to Portland.  I'll probably write more about my complicated feelings about leaving New York soon, and I'll let you know when the next performances of A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff will be.  As a wise monk said to me during my writing process:  "The only transcendence is fully embracing the ups and the downs."

Thursday, July 26, 2012


Well, it worked.  The baby grew inside me as we toured the US and Europe (mostly Italy), she finally came into the world (two weeks late), we named her Sylvia Tallulah, and now she is three months old and nicknamed Sylvie and loves coming to band practice (with headphones on).  In this picture I think she looks like a train-hopper who would go by the name Ramblin' Syl.

I've been thinking a lot about how she relates to the Madoff piece I'm working on.  On the surface - so distant.  A little deeper - so very close.  It's difficult to say that everything is connected without sounding facile or reductionist, but that's it.  Everything is connected.  Every single thing.  I can almost see the strings these days.  There is a special kind of postpartum vision, a blood red vision, a vision of meat and light.  

It's from this space that I'm composing new songs about FBI agents, therapists, and Buddhist monks (and their perspective on Madoff), and assembling the team who will be working with me to help me realize this project.  Our little family, and therefore our band, is based in Portland Oregon for the summer.  Having lived in the concrete-bound lands of Bushwick, Brooklyn for the past 3 years, I can really appreciate seeing trees at this moment, this very moment, when I look up and out through the window of the walk-in-closet which is my office and also where we change the baby.  

Everything is connected.  

Saturday, January 28, 2012


A two week tour of Europe at seven months pregnant? Sure, why not...?!

hey--it's me! on the Tube!
We began our tour in England, where as you can see they have very cute pregnant logos.   I had been invited to teach and perform with Girls in Trouble (in trio incarnation, with with the remarkable David Freeman on drums) at the Limmud Conference, an unparalleled, all-volunteer festival of Torah study, late night discos and political debate.

 Needless to say, over two thousand British Jews studying, dancing, and drinking Guinness for a week--at this case, at the University of Warwick in Coventry--deserves its own blog post. For now, I will just say that it was an incredible experience for all of us in GIT; the love flowed along with the Guinness, and I am profoundly grateful for the help, support, loaned body pillow, borrowed guitars and drums, and the amazing energy of the Conference, which Aaron and I carried with us for the rest of tour.

After a couple nights staying with our dear friend Nina in London, we flew to Turin to start tour with a night off on New Year’s Eve, during which we wandered downtown from our hotel, noticed a stream of people flowing towards a central square, and ended up celebrating with what seemed to be everyone in Torino. I must say, they know how to decorate a town center in Torino-- 

nice hat, Hartman.

and New Years in the streets is pretty awesome without open container laws.  Each group of friends had their own champagne bottle and plastic cups, and toasted 2012 as a massive Italian big-band played on the square.

Torino just after midnight, 1/1/12.  A little hard to see how many thousands of people are celebrating.

The next day we were picked up by Roberto, who (not to be too melodramatic) I will forever think of as our angel. Roberto is a fantastic musician, a classics grad student, and a friend of Monique, our Italian booking agent. When he heard we were planning to travel by train, he offered to drive us for the first week of our tour – AND to host us on a day off at his parents’ house in a small town – AND to set up an intimate house concert, which turned out to be magical and one of our favorite nights of the tour. Roberto ended up also translating, sourcing an emergency electronic converter for us, doing sound, and becoming a close friend. I only hope we get a chance to repay some of his extreme hospitality one day.

There is a really awesome community of artists and friends in Roberto's small town.  A musician-designer friend cooked dinner for all of the performers in the kitchen and we all ate together, family style,

delicious risotto and vegetables for all the musicians in Roberto's family's kitchen before the show...

before we all headed up stairs for one of the best nights of tour - the other groups performing included a harp duo (during which the baby was kicking delightedly), and a theater artist-songwriter who lent me his loop pedal because I didn't yet have a converter, and whose lyrics made everyone laugh hysterically and made me kick myself (in time with the baby's kicks) for not speaking Itallian.

Duo of beautiful harpists, apparently the baby's favorite music yet, based on kick counts.

After the house concert, we slowly worked our way from Torino to Florence, with Roberto our angel at the wheel of his Fiat, and Zorba (which somehow became the baby’s in-utero name) dancing away inside me.  Awesome things: the food of course, and the sometimes shocking roadside restaurant decor;

Aaron and Roberto at a random restaurant by the side of the road in Central Italy

the wine and coffee (which in Italy even pregnant women are encouraged to enjoy, in moderation of course, don't send me angry emails);  the afternoons walking around old cities, even the ones we weren’t playing in – Bologna, Ferrara; and meeting up with friends (Henry and Francesca!) for an afternoon of coffee and castle-ogling.

the moat in Ferrara

Not-awesome: coming down with a serious cold and not being able to take real medicine for fear of hurting wee Zorba.

This cold actually began on our last stop in London, but by the third day of Italy tour it had fully taken effect, and taken most of my voice with it. Being sick on tour is never fun, but it was especially depressing not to be able to sing except for a few notes in my lower range. Despite lots of homeopathic Italian-pharmacy treatment, I struggled with this the whole time.   But, while I was frustrated that most of my voice was not really working and I had to rewrite all the melodies within a five-note very low range, at least we never had to miss a show.

 We continued traveling south, played close to the Leaning Tower of Pisa

I may be about to sneeze on you, but I am still really psyched to see this leaning tower I've always heard about.

and, a few nights later, a couple blocks away from the Duomo in Florence (so we got to do a lap around it after the show, all lit up at midnight!)

We also played at a bar called Die Hard;  we noticed on the way there that whereas most of the venues wrote "2 drinks per person" on our drink allowance, the owner of that one had written "Drink until the alcohol is gone."  We discussed what that might mean.

It all made sense once we arrived.  Throughout the evening Aaron and Roberto were strongly encouraged to try a variety of increasingly performative shots, culminating in the grand finale, in which they had to take a mouthful of one liquor, to dip a finger in a shot of something else, light that finger on fire, and put the flaming finger in their (own) mouth to extinguish the fire.  I was very glad to use Zorba as an excuse to avoid that particular cultural experience.

pyrotechnic mixologist. great cook.

We bid a sad farewell to Roberto in Florence and continued on to Rome, where we played at a lovely club called Le Mura and got to have dinner with our friend Rachel.

By the end of that night I really wasn’t feeling great.  We had a day off the next day, and were desperately trying to find a place where I could sleep late.  The excellent sound engineer, Paolo, turned out also to be something of an angel and took us to his family’s house north of Rome, where he lives, at 2:30 am.
We ended up staying for two nights so I could rest and recuperate, and meeting his parents, who took great care of us. Paolo’s mother actually turned out to be a professor of American literature who loves twentieth century poetry, so we had some great conversations.  I tried to repay at least part of their generosity with a fireside fiddle concert the second night, and the gift of our albums. 

The next morning, Paolo took us to the train station and we did the seven-hour ride (comfortable compartment! Mediterranean out the window almost the whole way!) down to Sicily. The train itself actually rolled onto a large ferry and crossed the Strait of Messina, and then dropped us off in Messina, where we were met by a lovely group of people who took us out to traditional Sicilian food.

 I thought of my Grandpa Al, who had taken a semester off of college to work on a Merchant Marine ship. They were docked in Italy, and on off-hours, he would walk with his fellow sailors through the streets of a town draped in swastika banners. Still, it came as a surprise when World War II was suddenly declared, placing the American ship in enemy waters. They had to turn off all their running lights and motor as quietly as possible out of the notoriously dangerous Strait of Messina, escaping both notice from the Italians, and shipwreck on the rocks below and to either side.

We, however, were quite comfortable taking the (fully lit, very safe) ferry back and forth between Messina and Reggio Calabria, where we played at an incredible restaurant and performance space called Locanda I Tre Farfalli. We joked with them about starting a branch in Brooklyn; I would happily eat their fried eggplant every night.

Zorba looking out at the strait of Messina, where my grandfather sailed maybe 70 years ago.

After two weeks of coughing, we figured it might be prudent to go to the doctor, so we stopped by a hospital near where we were staying in Messina. How did we spend an hour there and then sneak out rather than looking for a doctor with a stethoscope? Well…
  1. The ER people sent us to Building F, where the elevator doors opened and the first thing we saw was a man lighting a cigarette in the hallway.
  2.  Even the doctors we found in the smoky hallway couldn’t figure out what the paper from the ER meant. They banged on a couple doors and finally produced a nurse who seemed equally confused.
  3. This somehow ended with me and Aaron sitting in a small room and a doctor looking in my ears (fine) and then taking a long black plastic tube, rinsing it in cold water, and coming at my nose. No, per favore, dottore! They seemed amused that I wouldn’t let him stick this unsanitary tube in my nose.
  4.  Finally they shrugged and moved on to the throat exam. A nurse brought a small silver dish with a cottonball, squirted something on it, and set it on fire with a lighter. The doctor held a dentist’s-mirror-looking-implement in the flame for a while, wiped it off, and stuck it in my mouth. Throat fine.
  5.  But he couldn’t listen to my lungs because he was an ear, nose and throat doctor. Only pulmonologists had stethoscopes. I would have had to go back to the ER, explain again that I had a cough and wanted someone to listen to my lungs, and get another reference, to who knows where.


It seemed more dangerous to hang around that place than to just continue on (and I really was doing fine, just wanted to be safe) so rather than return to the ER, we headed down to the bus station, glad to have a clean bill of health for my throat and ears at least. We boarded a bus, passed Mount Etna--which had recently erupted although I could see no trace of it--and finally reached our furthest south stop, Catania. Aaron had been excited for Catania since we first learned we were going there, and I think it was my favorite stop of the tour. We played at a space which had been an opulent theater but was destroyed by bombing during WWII, and had been largely empty ever since except for intermittent use as rehearsal space. A group of artists recently took it over, basically squatting in it (as an art-space rather than a living-space), and, entirely unpaid, have poured energy into creating this incredible theater.

Teatro Coppola=awesome.

When we played there, they had had a full month of performances, with all donated labor (performers, sound crew, the women sewing stage curtains when we arrived) and all proceeds going to the theater renovations. It felt like a sacred space, with a lovely audience who felt like friends somehow.
The next day we walked around beautiful Catania a bit, admired the famous elephant-obelisk statue, and then went to a local studio so I could record some violin on a song in Sicilian dialect written by Cesare Basile, who took care of us in Catania and is a legendary local (and touring) musician as well. I’ll let you know when it’s released this spring, I am very excited to hear the rest of the songs.

the engineer setting up mic's.  really cool hand built drumset in the background.

So. Adventure complete (and the cold was, happily, proclaimed harmless by my Brooklyn midwife who had no problems locating a stethoscope despite not being a pulmonologist). Grazie mille to Monique, Roberto, Paolo, Cesare, and everyone who took care of us on the road. I wonder if the baby will come out with some sort of affinity for Italian food and culture – I wouldn’t be surprised. I guess we’ll just have to return with him/her and see.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dear blog, are you there? It's me, Alicia.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to make that pun.

I have my hands in three projects right now, which is exhilarating and challenging. I'm preparing for a monthlong Girls in Trouble duo tour, as well as some European shows in winter including our return to Limmud. I'm deep in the creative process (with requisite hair-pulling, 4 am bolting-awake, and moments of glee) for my performative song cycle about Bernie Madoff, currently working hard on the libretto thanks to a fantastic playwriting workshop with my sister-in-law Karen Hartman. (Playwriting! Who would have thought!) And I am still in the revision process for my first book of poems.

And working on other, supreme creative projects a little more out of my hands, which will be revealed soon.

Good thing it's fall, probably my favorite season for working. An overcast, drizzly day in Little Skip's, my neighborhood cafe, where the M train rattles by overhead like a reminder of technology and history all at once: the perfect place to write another page of libretto, confirm another show for tour, try another order for the book. Wish me luck.