The Other Half: APU’s Rebecca Cantor Brings to Light Women in the Bible

Whether stepping into the garden with Eve or journeying alongside Solomon’s 600th wife, The Other Half: Poems about Women in the Bible by Rebecca Cantor, Ph.D., assistant provost, brings new depth to the experiences of women in scripture. In celebration of her recent publication, Cantor shares her thoughts behind these poems.

What inspired you to write and publish this book?

Women in the Bible have fascinated me all my life. I’ve long felt their stories deserved greater exploration, as if some things were hidden in the shadows. I’ve written poetry about these women for some time now, and in the last couple of years, I noticed a distinct arc that seemed to crave collecting. I began to look for a home for them, which eventually became The Other Half.

What is the meaning behind the title of your book?

The Other Half stems from a concept I encountered in Mark Twain’s novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson, that if you cut off half of something, you kill the whole. Both halves are necessary for a society, church, group, or body to function. It’s also the title of my poem about the woman whose baby King Solomon threatens to cut in half. Her story has resonated with me since I was a child. Like many others, I celebrated and marveled at Solomon’s wisdom. It was a long time before I realized I wanted to write her story of trauma and bravery, that her story ought to be told.

Describe your creative process. How did you step into the stories of these women?

There’s definitely some creative license involved. Stepping into their stories included not only reading the Bible, but also other great books by people who have done historical research on these incredible women and fleshed out their stories. One of those people was Rachel Held Evans who sadly passed away this month at the age of 37. Her most recent book, Inspired, has a depiction of Hagar’s story that broke my heart and opened my eyes. I highly recommend her work and her story, which also deserves to be brought to light.

Sometimes writing a poem is a quick process—inspiration comes in a flash. More often for me, it takes time and many, many drafts! “Eve,” for instance, started in free verse, and then I tried it as a sonnet, which failed, and later, I mean years later, it became a pantoum and finally worked. In a pantoum, pairs of lines interlock and repeat in a way that feels rhythmic and almost mystical, kind of like being in a garden in the moonlight.

No matter the poem, my process involves getting my thoughts down quickly, not worrying about polish or perfection—which can be hard for me—and returning later on to make it better. I try to lump the clay on the slab first, remembering I’ll still have time to go back and make it beautiful.

What wisdom can we gain by walking with these women from thousands of years ago?

These women’s stories, while dissimilar from today, still reflect our current experiences. A reviewer on the back of my book wrote that The Other Half reminds us it has been #MeToo for a very long time. We have made strides, and we have work to do. We can participate in this work by seeing the struggles of women, bringing to light stories left in the dark, and valuing the undervalued. Even though these women lived long ago, from the cover (designed by APU grad Chad Richards) to the last poem, I worked to present these stories in a modern and fresh way.

What did it mean to you to include a poem about your mother at the end of the book?

After learning my mom had stage-four brain cancer, it took me a long time to figure out how to write the poem I knew I needed to write. I couldn’t find a way to enter into her story that didn’t feel overly sad or saccharine but offered something more. In the end, I remembered a particular moment in our shared history and realized that she was the key to my connection to these women in the Bible, and the poem started to fall into place. It was such a relief. (See the poem below.)

What poem in the book is your personal favorite?

I love many for different reasons, of course, so I’ll just mention the quirkiest poem in the book, “The Woman at the Well,” which was recently published in Christianity and Literature. It talks about coffee steam and my passwords at work in ways that initially seems disconnected but, I hope, start to make sense during the journey of the poem, which is about remembering in day-to-day-life what these stories give to us.

What other books have you written, and what’s next?

My first book, Running Away (Finishing Line Press, 2016), looks at the journey of an imagined woman from childhood to old age, peering into different moments during her life. The book I’m currently writing, most likely titled Leading Lady, will explore the experiences—comedic and frustrating and wonderful—of being a woman in a leadership role. Stay tuned!

The Other Half: Poems about Women in the Bible is available on Amazon.

For My Mother

When the Challenger exploded

into a shock of white, and sank

slowly down our screen in long,

delicate tendrils, I saw you cry

for the first time, perhaps. You cried

for all of them, but especially, I think,

for the teacher, who must have been

afraid as the countdown sounded,

who had stepped outside her sphere

for a moment, hoping to see the world

from above, to bring back stories

as a gift for her students.

I was surprised to see you sad,

to see you broken down, and tonight

I am still surprised that anything,

even the mass and tendrils growing

in your brain, could break you down.

I asked you once, a hundred years ago,

what happens when we die?

How does it feel? What do we see?

And I can see you, even now,

folding a light blue sheet in the early

sun as you told me that you

didn’t know, but you believed

it would be beautiful. And I can hear

your knowing laugh when,

after a pause, after a beat, I said

I would ask my teacher on Sunday—

when I said that she would know.

Like the women from those Sunday

stories, Momma, stunning and strong,

you are better than your sphere,

and it’s alright to be afraid,

but you are more than this place, and

while I don’t know what happens next,

I believe it will be beautiful.