A lifetime of wordsNov 24, 2021 08:09AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Through all the dark days, Jill Sharon Kimmelman has taken solace in words, wrapping herself again and again in poetry, as if it was a thick blanket against the cold.
At the age of 4, she was reading every line from Best Loved Poems of the World, an anthology she found among her mother’s books. “I taught myself to read by reading poetry,” Kimmelman said during a recent interview at her home. “I wrote my first poem at the age of 7, but it took me until the age of 10 to learn to ride a bike.”
The muse has stayed with her. In early November, her first collection of poetry, You Are The Poem, was published. It marks the largest collection of her work in one place, although she has contributed her writing to many collections since 2012, when she made her published debut with a powerful elegy for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Today she’s a respected member of the global online community of poets, who support one another through live readings and letters of encouragement.
For Kimmelman, life has been a series of challenges – some temporary, some ongoing. To begin with, it’s impossible to imagine her being the hardened lawyer that her parents encouraged her to become. She wears her emotions openly, and can tap into a deep well of hurt and happiness to craft her poems.
After she stepped away from a future in practicing the law, she followed her heart to studying hotel and restaurant management and went on to operate her own business after college. Beginning in the 1980s, she baked desserts out of her apartment to sell to hotels and restaurants in Virginia. That business lasted 14 years, until her first marriage ended and she moved to Chicago. Food still occasionally turns up in her poetry, and she has a gift for equating the pleasures of the culinary arts with emotional states.
But it’s the death of her beloved father, when she was a freshman at Rutgers, that sent her to Israel for a soul-searching expedition. “It’s been 42 years since he died, but he still lives inside my heart,” she said. “I believe that he put my husband Tim on my path.”
The two met in 2013 at the apartment building where they have both lived since 1998. Tim Little has had his own lifetime of challenges. At 12, he was critically burned in a chemical explosion and has suffered with ongoing effects of his injuries ever since. But he and Jill have a relationship that has survived repeated, extended hospitalizations, and he has contributed some of his photos to You Are The Poem. Kimmelman has a son, Jordan, 32, who lives in Richmond, Va.
Kimmelman’s broad smile and upbeat attitude are in stark contrast to the ongoing health issues that have plagued her since her early years. She has suffered from intense migraines, rheumatoid arthritis, Guillain-Barré syndrome as an adult, glaucoma and now mobility issues that keep her at home most days. She was hospitalized twice in 2018 and twice in 2019, requiring a ventilator when she was conscious. “My definition of hell,” she said of the experiences.
Out of that time, and the current Covid crisis, she wrote “Double Shift,” a tribute to the indomitable spirit of nurses. “My social distancing started before the pandemic,” Kimmelman said. “In 2019, I was in the same ICU with Tim, where the nurses started calling us ‘The Romance of the ICU,’” she added, laughing. When the poem was published in the summer of 2020, it was distributed throughout Christiana Hospital, and printed copies were delivered to every nursing station. It gets to the heart of the exhaustion and bravery of healthcare staff in passages such as this:
Needy people needing you, each one demanding
a break, a meal, a hug, change for the bus
chatter turns to shouting, demands soar
fighting against their dying, headed for heaven
they are scared, you are too
face it, some days are just plain hell!
Kimmelman has a writing desk in the tidy living room of her apartment, “but there are more days when I do my writing in bed,” she said. Enlarging the type on her iPad allows her to write poetry and communicate with a global community of authors.
“Since Covid, the global poetry community has just exploded,” she said. “Nobody gets paid, really, but we’re there to support and mentor each other.”
Her poems have appeared in several international anthologies, and she regularly contributes cover text to collections of poems by others, beginning in 2020. “I’ve become the ‘It Girl’ for blurbs,” she said, laughing. “It’s such an honor to be asked to write them.”
She has learned the time zones of the world so she can interact with friends in India, Africa and beyond, taking part in live readings and discussions with those who share a common language of poetry. “There’s such respect and etiquette,” she said of her far-flung friends. “We refer to each other as Dear Brother or Dear Sister. Across oceans, through deserts and over mountains that divide us, our love of language and our poems unite us.”
She has also formed a deep bond of mentorship and friendship with a 14-year-old girl in Nigeria, Olufunke Elizabeth Omolayo Ogunmodede, affectionately nicknamed Lizzie. “At the age of 12, she wrote a poem called ‘Garden of Roses,’ although she has never seen or touched a real rose,” Kimmelman said. “The poem had such an elevated language. We set up a Zoom meeting to talk, and we are still in touch every day. She helped me finish ‘For Jack From Your Jill,’ a poem about my father. It’s the most personal poem I have ever written. She is such an extraordinary, gifted person.”
The long process of getting You Are The Poem to print has paid off with a book that has involved Kimmelman on every level – from typeface selection to photography to which poems would be selected. They include heartfelt statements of love from her husband (“You Knew”), as well as the love between friends, siblings and parents. There are poems that celebrate the ordinary, such as “Cubby’s Joy,” written with Little:
Buttery bear-claws once among his
very favorite things
replaced now by something more special
a love so joyful, so precious
it makes this once-thief’s heart sing
In true love he has found a partner
faithful, fair, fine
her light, her love, her life, a constant delight
to his soul, his heart, his mind.
There are little moments, such as the fleeting connection of “Our First Smiles of the Day,” written about Kimmelman’s son when he was 4. The poem “Trading Wishes” centers on two friends trading messages from opposite sides of the world.
There are somber poems as well, but Kimmelman said that “Before Covid, I used to write more about tragic, critical issues, but now there are so many poets forming a chorus, asking people to see the beauty in the world and have a reason to celebrate every day.”
With her book launched into the world, Kimmelman is looking forward to sharing it at local readings and book signings, as well as seeing how readers react to her very personal work. “There’s poetry in every moment if you’re attuned to it,” she said. “This book has moments of refuge and beauty and stories of survival, of love.”
The book’s epilogue is a message to her fellow writers, but also applies to everyone. “Don’t leave your words unsaid,” she said. “Listen to people’s stories, and be a receiver of life.”
For more information and updates, visit www.facebook.com/jskimmelman.
Slug: You are the poem
THESE CAN BE BOXED ANYWHERE IN THE STORY
Cooking from the heart
Missing Your Poet’s Voice
Author Jill Sharon Kimmelman has just published her first collection of poetry.
Kimmelman and Tim
Kimmelman with her husband, Tim Little, who has been her constant supporter.
‘You Are The Poem’ was published in mid-November.
The international bond between poets has brought Lizzie, from Nigeria, into Kimmelman’s life as a friend.