In your ABC of Writing Poems, you quote W.S. Graham: ‘A word is exciting because of its surroundings.’ Is that true about the poem in a book-long sequence as well? How are your sequences made? What drives you to compose book-long projects?
Single poem or a sequence, I write out of excitement at words and their possible relationships – when some sound or idea or thing feels linked to something else and I want to find words which link up too. There’s a rustle in the undergrowth, then a phrase or image leads you on. A book I wrote on reading poems explores the journey-shape of different poems – a circle, or down into the underworld, or through a city. I love that feeling, that everything is mysteriously connected to everything else and you need to follow it up.
There’s also the force of obsession, like Paul Cézanne painting Mont Sainte-Victoire again and again. It seems the same subject but you go in differently. I don’t plan in advance. You need to explore, go deeper into the forest, wait for poems to come. If you’re still or watchful enough, they appear, like curious animals, with their own mysterious lives.
In sequences with a narrative shape given by someone’s life, like Darwin’s or Beethoven’s, I read their letters and diaries, went to places where they lived and worked, the Galapagos, the Vienna Woods, waited for associations to the place to mesh with their words, then hoped that this poem would resonate with other poems around it.
In a sequence of poems about my mother after she died, poems arrived as a series of memories mining the dark, looking for that small green shimmer of hope through the cave of mourning, so I called it Emerald. The final sequence takes place in an Ice Age cave, a journey through the underworld. A collection about music and the Middle East was held together by a sequence shaped by Christ’s Seven Last Words from the Cross.
My only book-length sequence shaped by a concept is the migration book, The Mara Crossing. (On Migration in the US). For the 2020 edition, We Are All from Somewhere Else, I added more on how the climate crisis is affecting migration, the hardening of immigration policy everywhere, and Syria’s impact on the Greek islands. Especially Lesbos, an island I’ve been to several times and which is an agonizing microcosm of the whole globe in its relation to migration. That book is a dolphin-like progression of prose and poems, migration from cells to souls, with every kind of migration in between, animal, human, historical, contemporary. Other life forms, cells, fish, birds, plants, do some of the work of showing what the dangerous journey is like, for humans.
But I’ve never done a book-length sequence with a dramatic narrative. How did Deaf Republic evolve? Did it take a long time to find the shape?
Cell migration and soul migration, indeed. As for me, this question can probably produce many answers.
Anything I write – I write in lines. The lines find their way on paper whether I overhear two boys insulting each other at the gas station, or see a gull cleaning her feet, or two old men playing dominoes on a hood of a car, or two young women kissing at the fish market. They become lines on receipts, on my hands, on a water bottle, on other people’s poems. Lines collect for years, but once in a while these lines meet up, and wink at other lines, go tangoing and make out, and a baby gets born – which is to say a stanza or if I am lucky the whole poem. If I am lucky. Which isn’t often. But one has to have faith. I write lyric poems for the delight of being with words – images, assonance, line-breaks, syntax, alliteration. The obsessions are always there too, but I try to be surrounded by language first, and then respond to obsessions when I have the words to build with.
As for Deaf Republic – a boy is killed by soldiers breaking up a protest, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear – all have gone deaf, and their dissent is coordinated by sign language.
My native country, Ukraine, is currently at war. The country in which I am alive right now, USA, is harassing/bombing/taking advantage of more than half of this earth’s population, and is in the middle of crisis all its own. How do I address this, as a lyric poet? Do lyric poets address such things? What is silence? We speak against silence, but it is silence that moves us to speak.
I am not a documentary poet; I am a fabulist. And, yet, the world pushes through, the reality is everywhere in this fable. My job is to make this border between the shelter of fable and the bombardment of reality a lyric moment, I feel. But what of shape – Yes, I feel I am walking around your question instead of walking through it.
The truth is: I did not have hearing aids until I was sixteen, as a deaf child, I experienced my country as a nation without sound. I heard the USSR fall apart with my eyes. Walking through the city, I watched the people; their ears were open all the time, they had no lids. I was interested in what sounds might be like. The whooshing. The hissing. The whistle. The sound of keys turning in the lock, or water moving through the pipes two floors above us. I could easily notice how the people around me spoke to one another with their eyes without realizing it.
But what if the whole country was deaf like me? So that whenever a policeman’s commands were uttered no one could hear? I liked to imagine that. Silence, that last neighborhood, untouched, as ever, by the wisdom of the government.
Those childhood imaginings feel quite relevant for me in America today. When Trump performs his press conferences, wouldn’t it be brilliant if his words landed on the deaf ears of a whole nation? What if we simply refused to hear the hatred of his pronouncements? I want the reader to see the deaf not in terms of their medical condition, but as a political minority, which empowers them. Throughout Deaf Republic, the townspeople teach one another sign language (illustrated in the book) as a way to coordinate their revolution while remaining unintelligible to the government.
These are all stories behind the book, and there are many more. Which is to say: like many others, I am a misplaced person, a refugee, a man cut in half by history. A part of me is still in Odessa, that ghost limb of a city I left. While these characters are imagined, they are also my family. I keep seeing images related by my grandmother about her arrest by Stalin’s regime in 1937:
When the police come to arrest her, they go straight to the kitchen. Right past her. The first policeman. Second policeman. Third. Straight to the kitchen. To the stove. To smell the stove, to see if she has burned any documents or letters. But the stove is cold. So they walk to her closet. They finger her clothes. They take some for their wives or daughters. “You won’t need any of this,” they tell her. And only then do they shove her into their black car.
They are so busy taking her things that they don’t notice the child in the cradle.
The infant stays in the empty apartment when she is taken to the judge. (The child in the cradle, my father, will be stolen and taken to another city. He will survive.)
She doesn’t know this. She also doesn’t know her husband was shot right away. The judge tells her, ‘You have to betray your husband in order to save yourself.’
She says, ‘How can I do that to the father of my child? How will I look into his eyes?’ She doesn’t know he is already dead. And so she goes to Siberia for over a decade. And behind her, the infant stays.
But I am still avoiding your question. The truth is, I knew that as a refugee, I would have to write the book that would speak to both former USSR/Ukraine part of me, and the USA part of me. So, I knew the book would have to be a fable, combining different stories, something that can speak of/to more than one place. That was a given. But what would the means of that fable be, what shape?
The shape came mid-way, when I realized that although I set out to write a narrative, it was the lyrics I was most fascinated by. So, I went for the hybrid form, something that allowed me to stay with the lyrics while allowing short prose pieces throughout the book to propel the narrative and create a momentum of sorts. The lyrics would allow the reader to slow down, to stay in the moment. That, in the end, became a shape.
That’s where ‘hybrid genre’ is useful for poets who approach narrative, I feel: it happens when you need to say something that cannot be said otherwise, something for which you don’t seem to find a ready-made form, but what needs to be said regardless.
If you’re a refugee, that is pretty much your situation: established genres don’t get at what you want to say: you are not in Ukraine, you are not in America – how do you stop being an immigrant, even though you have lived here for over twenty years? That’s hybrid. The difficulty with hybrid genres is to create a pattern that speaks to both your Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish part and your American-living-nine-miles-from-the-violent-USA/Mexico-border-in-San-Diego part.
A lot of these genre questions for me are technical questions, to do with poetic devices. Poets write in the language of poetic devices; they don’t write in English, or Russian or Yiddish. The way Marc Chagall thinks in red, green and blue. The way Rembrandt thinks in shadow. The challenge is to make that apparent to your reader. And it doesn’t matter how many people come to your reading; it matters what they hear, and what kind of clarity and mystery they are presented with. In the end, a poet who makes something that I find memorable is someone who is a very private person but who happens to write well enough, beautifully enough, strangely enough – or, perhaps, finds a shape through to speak privately to many people at the same time. That is where craft joins emotion – where your craft opens up your emotion to another person. Poems might contain information, but they’re not about information. A poem is not about an event; it is an event.
And you: what is this desire for the book-length project? A narrative, so many aspects to one thing. But the small intense lyric too?
Small intense lyric is the core. Lyric stanzas are a kind of linking through separation and space. I.A. Richards said most people nowadays take in a poem in simultaneously through the eye and the ear, but I don’t know how that is for you? Maybe hearing through your eyes makes it come double strong? Maybe that was true for Beethoven, too.
There’s also the mystery of how, reading a poem, you take in hundreds of meanings, thoughts, visualizations, silences and sounds at the same time. ‘So many aspects to one thing,’ as you say. Prose also lives off fire between the words, but poets have the pressure of white space, too, and there’s the thrill of working with that.
I guess we all experience, and have to solve, the ‘so-many-aspects’ differently. They’re mostly unconscious, and bubble up when we write. I love the idea of words and thoughts as ‘hooked atoms’ which link up mysteriously in our subconscious. I think that goes on in everyone, all the time, but some people are able to release them into consciousness at the right moment to write them down.
Seeing lots of things at once can be a bit much, though, so ‘small intense lyric’ keeps you focused. One of my sonnets, ‘Tiger Drinking at Forest Pool’, wrote itself in my head on a drive around the Bay of Vladivostok. I was researching my tiger conservation book Tigers in Red Weather. I’d come to Siberia with my daughter and ex-husband who spoke Russian and translated for me in interviews. Now they were leaving, and I was going into tiger forest. I woke that morning sad they were leaving, but excited too, hoping they’d be safe going back and I’d be safe going into the forest. I thought of George Herbert’s sonnet ‘Prayer’. I had the first and last lines of my poem and suddenly thought, ‘I could do what Herbert does. Between those lines, have other images for the title.’ After they left, a jeep took me on a five-hour journey round the bay, to a farm where a tiger had killed a deer. I had no language in common with the driver. We agreed petrol was more expensive in the UK, then silence fell between us and the images came. I wove them together by the sequence of vowels. I had to get from the vowels in the first line, Water, moonlight, danger, dream, to vowels in the last, A painting on silk, which may fade. The sequence of long vowels was the journey. The lines turned out to have an elegy energy, which came partly from the sadness of saying goodbye to my family but belonged to grief about tigers and extinction.
But that pleasure in shaping words, that ‘formal feeling’ Emily Dickinson speaks of which we welcome when it comes, can also be triggered in me by larger-scale shapes, a play, novel or long poem.
Why Beethoven? What is it about this specific artist, his specific life with its obsessions, all its gossips, cruelties and tendernesses, impossibilities and discoveries, that appeals to you? And, what of his silence? How does it figure (to your mind) in his music? How does it figure in yours? And what did you discover about poetry, confronted with such a figure as Beethoven?
It came from that place where you say ‘craft joins emotion’; when ‘craft opens your emotion up to another person’. I love it when a different art, or sense, illuminates another. What you say about hearing though your eyes, reminds me of Walcott’s blind character Seven Seas in Omeros, ‘He saw with his ears.’ Writing about Beethoven came out of another craft, string-playing. My dad’s father, a schoolteacher in Carlisle, inherited a Germanic tradition of family music-making very similar to the society Beethoven grew up in; in fact, his father was a concert pianist taught by a pupil of Beethoven. Everyone in my dad’s family learned a string instrument and played quartets. Most remained amateurs, though some became professional musicians. There’s a photo of them as children with their instruments and a bust of Beethoven glowering above. My dad got us playing string instruments too. It was a lovely gift, though it came with a baggage of guilt. You haven’t practised, didn’t practise long enough, carefully enough, you’re out of tune, out of time, play it again. But it gave us wonderful music. About ten years ago I started working with a professional quartet, writing poems to go in intervals between their performances, and wrote a sequence about Beethoven’s life in relation to his string quartets. I was fascinated by the way that though he was terrible at personal relationships, he created amazing sonic, emotional relationships between the four voices. The string quartet, in the end, was the most personal vehicle for his always passionate feelings. I started writing a whole book, driven also by the personal connection I felt through my instrument, the viola, which he played professionally in an orchestra age 10 to 20, but above all by his extraordinary creativity. The more I wrote, the more I realized that he just lived to create.
Despite his rows with friends and relations, he had a sweetness which people responded to. His enthusiastic friendships based on the work reminded me of poets – making poems in solitude, but also the joy of sharing work. Like your heartrending poem in Dancing in Odessa, ‘Musica Humana [an elegy for Osip Mandelstam]’. Wonderful, the way other people’s words resonate in one’s mind; how they matter.
What is your next project, your next obsession, next creative shape?
I’ve written a sequence about water and climate denial for Writers Rebel, part of Extinction Rebellion, called Twenty-Four Splashes of Denial. I’m waiting to see what else comes around that. The gods of fire and water . . .
A few new poems about lockdown, the pandemic, even the flickery experience of teaching on Microsoft Teams, address the disorientation we all feel about the disintegrating of the world we’ve known. Environmentally, politically, economically, semantically – why do software commands mean what they say? Who decided? How do we navigate the loss of old meanings, the new ones sprouting all over the place, that feeling of being lost in black spaces of a damaged world?
The nature obsession in my work is always there, it has grown from Darwin to tigers, a novel about wildlife crime, and was the drive behind my migration book. Now I’m researching a prose book on Asian elephants and our relations with them, imaginative and real. I don’t know if any poems will come out of that. We identify with them in surprising ways.
And next year is the two hundredth year of Greek independence and my second novel is coming out, set on Crete, where I’ve lived on and off since I was a Classics student, where I learned to speak modern Greek and have lifelong friends. The novel ends with lockdown on Crete, but draws on the sudden destruction of civilizations: the Minoans, but also the Jewish community on Crete. Greece, its poetry and ways of seeing, is in at the foundation of everything for me.
And you? What is your next obsession? The poems of Dancing in Odessa, their rhythms and lyric concentration reminded me of Sylvia Plath saying, ‘You’ve got to go so far so fast in such a small space, you’ve got to burn away all the peripherals.’ Where are you now? What’s the next thing?
A book of prose, both critical and very personal, about deafness, and leaving Odessa, then going back to Odessa. About parents and death of parents, and about reading other poets, and what one can and cannot learn from them but why I still go back to the bookshelves when I am lost and nothing else can help. Prose is a slightly different music, and a new one for me, and I am enjoying it, and hope to be done with this book in 2021.
But, frankly I am not in a hurry to publish any of this. I love living with poems, the privacy of the writing, revising, beating my head against the wall of unknowing and hoping that it isn’t the head but the wall that will crack. I love learning how to make lullabies or how words can woo other words, or how impossible questions can sometimes be sexed by verbs or metaphysical problems can echo in rhymes. And, why not, why not? This time alone in the room, and not alone because one remembers a line of verse, by this poet or that – that, for a moment, is enough; it consoles.