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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the April 23, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

A Young Poet Shares Knowledge & Energy

The energy and elegance of teenager Kate Mende-Fridkis

reciting her poetry at Princeton-area readings and slams has earned

her widespread regard. Last summer she electrified her audience when

she recited her contribution to the U.S. 1 annual Summer Fiction Issue,

"Standing in the Checkout Line at the Shoprite," at Barnes

and Noble. At a "Poetry for Peace" event in February at the

Unitarian Congregation auditorium she was third on the bill —

following right on the heels of Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Paul

Muldoon and C.K. Williams. Her heartfelt poem, written for the occasion,

included the rhythmic refrain that she declaimed with spirit:

Take a life

Rip a hole

Take a life

Rip a hole that can’t be filled or sewn

Take a life

Tear a gap

Tear a family

Tear a hundred

Tear a world.

Back in the spotlight for National Poetry Month, Mende-Fridkis

will share her poetry ideas and know-how with young writers ages 10

to 14 at a free workshop at Barnes & Noble in MarketFair on Friday,

April 25, at 4 p.m. The previous afternoon, on April 24, she

shares a poetry reading with Rice Lyons and students at the Suzanne

Paterson Center in Princeton.

On a recent spring morning, Mende-Fridkis arrived for

our interview at the bookstore wearing a long, flowing geranium-red

skirt, matched with an orange top, and a plum-colored corduroy shirt

embellished with a delicate rosebud print. Wearing her long light-brown

hair swept quietly back in a twist, Kate wore no makeup, nor was any

needed to accentuate her large brown eyes and delicate mobile lips.

Noteworthy today is the news that Mende-Fridkis is 16 no more. Having

turned 17 in March, this self-possessed young woman now drives. Furthermore,

poetry is only one of her panoply of interests. She is deeply involved

in her work as a Chazanit or cantor for her temple, writes stories

and novels, plays classical piano and composes folk rock, and loves

figurative painting and illustration.

Behind this creative teen are two proud parents, both natives of New

Jersey. Her father, Larry Fridkis, is a photographer and owner of

K&L Digital Photography, and also a jazz piano enthusiast. Karen Mende

is a full-time mother who enjoys writing and poetry and also homeschools

the couple’s three children, Kate, and her brothers Jacob, 13, and

Gabe, 10.

Mende-Fridkis spent her earliest years in Jobstown near Mount Holly

before the family moved to the Princeton area about four years ago.

Princeton had long been a focus for the children’s classes and teachers;

they lived in Montgomery before settling into their present home

in Hopewell. Also important in Mende-Fridkis’ life are two sets

of grandparents: one pair live one hour to the north, the other pair

live one hour to the south.

A parent’s ability to teach their child is not always smooth sailing,

but for Mende-Fridkis it seems to have worked like a charm. What is

the secret?

"Mostly their attitudes," says Mende-Fridkis, " — their

openness and their belief in me. It also comes from their strong conviction

that children will learn no matter what. They’ve always given me the

space and the support to find my interests and my skills."

Finding interests in key. The child of a mixed marriage (her father

is Jewish; her mother has converted to Judaism), Mende-Fridkis was

only eight when she asked her parents to let her attend Hebrew school.

Over the years, she has studied her faith, trained, and taken on wide

responsibilities. Since age 15, she has been the Chazanit or

cantor for her temple, the Jewish Community Center of Belle Mead,

leading services under Rabbi Shana Margolin. She also directs a temple

choir and teaches in its Hebrew school.

Creative writing has been a passion for years. "Before I wrote

poetry I wrote books," she says. "Little Women" was an

early favorite, followed rapidly by her ongoing love of contemporary

fantasy novels, with Robin McKinley rated as "the absolute best."

Her enthusiasm for poetry came later.

"When I was 14, I fell in love," Mende-Fridkis explains. "I

fell in love and I had to write a love song. So I took out my notebook

of short stories and began to set one to music. But I discovered that

what I had was not a song but a poem — it had rhythm on the inside."

Over the next few months, she says, "I filled an entire notebook

with poems — bad poems."

Among her guides to becoming a better poet, Mende-Fridkis recognizes

her mother, who had her and her brothers memorize a poem "every

Tuesday," until eventually each child had 20 or 30 memorized.

"My mother would choose romantic poems that made her cry, but

my choices were mostly humorous and rhyming," she says.

A strong rhythmic sense, combined with a strong personal convictions,

has contributed to her success in the slam arena. As a 16-year-old,

she conquered the competition in poetry slams at the Arts Council

of Princeton and at Barnes & Noble bookstore.

For more than two years, Mende-Fridkis has studied poetry and writing

at the Arts Council of Princeton with Anne Waldron Neumann. "At

first they were a bit concerned because I was the first child in the

class and also a poet — most of the writers in there were writing

fiction or memoir. So I came in at 15 with my poems about how much

I despised math. The class was encouraging but also very critical.

They shredded the poem — but I loved it." The critique process

remains a key and welcome process.

Mende-Fridkis prefers reading modern poets — and has come to feel

somewhat defensive about this posture. "People ask me about my

favorite poets and they’re unhappy that I can’t name classical poets."

In fact she draws her role models closer to home. She particularly

enjoys Paul Muldoon’s poetry; poet John Falk, now retired from Rutgers,

is an important role model. Princeton’s Cool Women poets have been

an inspiration, as have members of the Delaware Valley Poets of which

she’s an active member.

Thinking ahead to her workshop for poets younger than herself, Mende-Fridkis

becomes animated and inspired.

"Absolutely I want them to know that poetry can bring pleasure

in every way," she says. "Not to be too self-important or

anything, but I’d like to expose them to the poetry I write and the

poetry of our contemporaries. I want to get rid of the notion that

a poem has to be mushy — poems can be powerful, they can be masculine,

they can be anything the children would care to write."

Slam poetry, combining her love of writing with her

love of performing, is a special sub-set for Mende-Fridkis. In addition

to her work as a cantor, she has played piano for recitals and audiences

at family concerts much of her life.

"Slam poems are fast, heated, powerful, and passionate," she

says. Her arsenal of slam poems includes "What right have you

to forget?," a political poem about modern Jews, and "The

Six billionth Unique One," a humorous poem about our overblown

sense of our own importance. She does not participate in improvised

slams where the poets must compose on the spot. "The beauty in

poetry lies in the thinking of it, the creative aspect," she says.

"There’s a type of poetry that has been around over centuries

which is over-dramatized and which is also dull. Modern poetry turned

away from that. Modern poetry is honest and it also can be beautiful.

"I also enjoy a soothing poem, the kind you need to read or to

have read to you. It’s not performance poetry, it’s more subtle, more

gentle. It’s almost like a song without melody or a prayer or a wish."

Recognizing her own aversion to the traditional classroom, Mende-Fridkis

is as yet undecided on whether or where to attend college. Asked where

she’d like to be in five to 10 years, she remains thoughtful.

"I’d like to get my latest novel published," she decides.

"I know I’ve said that before, but I’m confident about this one."

— Nicole Plett

Kate Mende-Fridkis, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,

Route 1 South, 609-716-1570. Workshop for ages 10 to 14. Free. Friday,

April 25, 4 p.m.

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