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The mechanics of creating poetry

By From the Chelmsford Independent/ By Judy Buswick / Correspondent Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Yakov Zilberberg might not have retired at age 66 in June 2000, except he wanted to use his days to write poetry, novels, and plays.

The first published volume for this retired UMass Lowell professor of mechanical engineering is "Three Poetic Tales, As Told by Mister Persey the Scribbling Pooch."

He has also completed a novel, "Downstream Against the Current," and is now seeking a literary agent.

"Three Poetic Tales" is told by a clever pooch who has learned to wag his tail (which is hard and demanding work, we are told) and then to write (which is much worse.) Zilberberg's characters address social issues like discrimination and prejudice and reflect upon the plight of Soviet Jews in the 20th century. He made these uncomfortable topics palatable by creating the three tales as fables, with characters that include talking animals, witches, and wizards.

Born and raised in Odessa in the Ukraine, Zilberberg has been writing since high school, first in Russian and then, after immigrating to the U.S. in 1977, in English. He has written six one-act and six full length plays. His poetry has been included in anthologies such as UMass Lowell's "Offering" and Sparrowgrass Poetry's "Treasured Poems of America." Poetry in the classical verse style with strict rhythm and patterned rhyme is his preference.

Zilberberg and his wife, Faina, both read Russian poetry as children and appreciated the cadence and rhyming they found in Pushkin and Turgenov.

"This style, as opposed to free-style, is easily memorizable and it easily registers," he says. "You can do a lot of different things in this style," including writing satirical poetry supporting anti-war movements.

Zilberberg read such a poem at a recent Poets Against the War in Somerville and found it well received.

He also read at a recent Chelmsford Public Library event co-sponsored by the National League of American Pen Women. Again he found the audience of people in their 40s to 60s appreciated his rhyming verse.

Yet, the target audience for "Three Poetic Tales" will be 15-year olds, "if they are willing and ready to grasp the concepts," says Zilberberg.

A foreword page in the book announces, "This is a book for younger people who've grown literate and smart, as well as for the older ones who stay forever young at heart."

As Zilberberg was planning the book, he became interested in the Harry Potter series and liked the use of language and imagery woven into the stories by J. K. Rowling. The language in the Harry Potter books was "simple and readable, yet powerfully affecting. That was my impression," he said. He feels "imagery probably attracts readers of any age."

With this in mind, he revived his already-drawn character of Mr. Persey, the scribbling pooch, and used poetry to develop new story lines that addressed the discrimination he'd experienced as a Jew in Russia, racial discrimination anywhere, and prejudice against gay or lesbian families. His daughter and her partner are raising two children and he understands their modern experience.

Zilberberg writes his poetry longhand, but he types his prose directly onto the computer. He has noted that with the delete-function on computers, readers in the future will be deprived of seeing how writers developed their poems or novels through multiple drafts. Of his own work, he explains it took him 14 months to write, edit, and type "Three Poetic Tales." He worked up five or six drafts once he brought the poetry to the computer and did not save the developing stages.

Zilberberg believes, "Unless you are your own harshest critic, you can't write."

Each day he arises at seven and by nine is working on his craft until at least one o'clock. Faina jokes that she sometimes has to make an appointment to speak to him.

Zilberberg has chosen the life of a writer. His career in mechanical engineering came about when the Russian government limited options for Jews. In the U.S. he fulfilled one life-long dream of becoming a professor. Now his sights are set on literary endeavors, where "one burrows through few tons of raw linguistic ore,/ But when the word is found, it sounds like a chord/ Of a harmonious (not dissonating) score."

Prof. Zilberberg will be signing books at Barnes and Noble in Lowell at 4 p.m., today, Feb 27. He will participate in programs at the Parish Center for the Arts in Westford on March 4. He will be speaking at Summer Place Retirement home in Chelmsford on March 11 and at Chelmsford Village on March 18. April is Poetry Month and he will be giving a program on April 9 at the Chelmsford Senior Center.