Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
The Eastern Echo Thursday, May 30, 2024 | Print Archive
The Eastern Echo

Zaftig by Molly Raynor

Local poet Molly Raynor releases first poetry book 'Zaftig'

Molly Raynor, published poet, community builder, mother, and Ann Arbor native, has been in the world of poetry, performance, and community engagement since she was a teen.

Now, with years of writing, teaching, and leading experience under her belt, Raynor is releasing her debut poetry book “Zaftig,” a collection of poems representing her life, culture, and ancestors.

“'Zaftig' means pleasantly plump in Yiddish and it’s kind of like the Yiddish term for saying thick,” Raynor said. “To me, 'Zaftig' means the kind of woman I want to be, which is unapologetic, comfortable in my own body, my own skin, my own culture, and not trying to assimilate into any of those things.”

The poems, written over the course of Raynor’s adult life, explored topics of survival, resilience, love, and ancestry. But Raynor was especially inspired by role models in her own life.

“The theme connecting all of them is my family lineage, specifically the women in my family,” Raynor said. “I just wanted to write an ode to all the women in my family… all of my ancestors.”

Raynor’s first experiences with writing and storytelling date back to her childhood. She was always interested in the concepts because of her story-telling mother and ancestors.

“I would just say that I come from a long line of griots, or storytellers, going back to the old country on my Jewish side,” Raynor said. “So I kind of inherited that.”

In her teen years, Raynor’s inheritance carried her to poetry workshops at the Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, then to poetry slams across the country in high school and college.

“I met amazing kids from all around the world and I remember it was on my 16th birthday, that weekend when I was at the National Youth Poetry Slam in San Francisco, ‘Brave New Voices,’ and that was like a turning point moment in my life,” Raynor said. “I think my little Ann Arbor bubble got broken open.”

Raynor kept writing, but turned away from performance and focused on fighting injustices through her work. She was passionate about working with other young people and creating spaces like the ones she grew up in.

“It was such a life-changing experience for me to grow up in a poetry community,” Raynor said. “I wanted to just kind of pass on that feeling.”

Raynor went on to work for many years as a leader in spaces for young people in Richmond, Calif. and Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Mich.

“I am meant to cultivate communities, and poetry is a source of joy for me, but not the thing I want to be how I make my money or make my living,” Raynor said.

When Raynor took her focus away from her poetry, she found it often took a backseat in her life. Creating space for her poetry was a challenge as she took on a career path that highlighted the work of other artists.

“It took me a really long time to come to a space where I was actually prioritizing my own art,” Raynor said.

It wasn’t until moving back home to Michigan and reconnecting with her writing community that she felt fueled once again.

“As I entered this new season where I was like, oh my god, I’m about to be a mom, I’m about to reach middle-age or mid-life, it put fire under my butt to be like I do want to publish a book of poetry,” Raynor said. “And it’s cool because now I can do that without it being connected to my career.”

Molly Raynor
Molly Raynor releases her first poetry book "Zaftig" on April 23.

Raynor has found inspiration as her life has changed, in motherhood, her mother, her grandmother “Grandy,” and her maternal ancestors.

“I’ve become so interested in my ancestors and lineage, and studying them,” Raynor said. “Any time I find an artifact from one of them, I get so excited because it helps me understand the story of where I come from.”

Collecting artifacts from her ancestors was part of why Raynor felt so compelled to put her book into the world.

“I have poems all over,” Raynor said. “But I didn’t have an artifact that I could then pass on to my child and grandchildren that’s like here is the story of our family and of me.”

In “Zaftig,” Raynor included collages of family photos and handwritten recipes to give the feeling of a scrapbook. The book was broken into three sections inspired by the baking of challah bread: kneading, braiding, and rising.

Raynor said she has found strength in her heritage and culture. As a Jewish woman, she has connected and grounded herself in her identity in recent years, emphasizing her commitment to social justice.

“I think the reason I’m so committed to social justice and have always been drawn toward doing work that combats systematic oppression is because of growing up Jewish with these particular ancestors and living people in my family who have huge hearts and do not put up with injustice,” Raynor said.

As an anti-Zionist Jew, Raynor has felt tension releasing a book celebrating her culture as others in the world suffer.

“I want to be abundantly clear where I stand: in solidarity with Palestinians,” Raynor said. “I stand against genocide. I am rooted in the Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing a broken world) and the prophetic tradition; I was raised to speak out against injustice, even when it’s my own people perpetuating the very oppression we once faced. I am listening to my ancestors who said never again, to the 'kitchen poets’ who braided lessons into the bread and handed down recipes of resilience, not revenge.”

As a part of her efforts, Raynor donated a portion of the proceeds from her “Zaftig” preorders to aid organizations in Palestine, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the month of Ramadan.

“Zaftig,” which is scheduled for release on April 23 through Fifth Avenue Press, will be accompanied by a Spotify album featuring Raynor’s poems produced with music.

“One of my favorite things to do as a teen was to collaborate with musician friends and to perform poems over music,” Raynor said.

Raynor has cherished her community for lifting her up with the release of her first book. Blurbs about the publication featured words from writers Shira Erlichman, Carlina Duan, and Kush Thompson, and a foreword from Yalie Kamara.

“Reading their words about ‘Zaftig,’ about the collection, actually made me see it through their eyes,” Raynor said. “This is a book I’ve been working on for a long time and I should be proud of it.”

The release party for “Zaftig” is scheduled for June 1 from 3-5 p.m at the Ann Arbor Art Center. The release will be a weekend-long multimedia exhibition featuring local women and nonbinary poets, visual artists, and chefs exploring the themes of “Zaftig.” For the first portion of the program, attendees will get to taste homemade family recipes from the artists followed by performances of spoken word accompanied by music from Josef Deas.

To find out more about Molly Raynor, or to place an order for "Zaftig," visit her website.