Monday, December 11, 2006
Poet Richard Wollman Searches for “Evidence of Things Seen.”
Poet Richard Wollman is the author of a new collection of Poetry “Evidence of Things Seen.’ (The Sheep Meadow Press). Poet Samuel Menashe writes of his work: “What Wollman speaks of, ‘the plain grandeur of the ordinary evening,’ is true of many of his poems.”
Wollman is a native New Yorker living in Newburyport, Mass. He was educated at Brandeis University and got his doctorate from Columbia University. He is an associate professor of English at Simmons College in Boston and co-director of the “Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center” at the college. I talked with Wollman on my Somerville Community Access TV show: “Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: Stanley Moss wrote that you are not afraid to “dirty your face and hands with the truth.” What do you feel he was getting at, and do you feel your poetry is “dirty” so to speak?
Richard Wollman: When Stanley Moss wrote that about me I didn’t know what to think at first. I think he means to look at things--“evidence of things seen,” might mean looking at things that on the surface might not look beautiful… it might be “the dirty feet of common people.” I think it defines the question I have: “What would God have us see?”
Doug Holder: In the poem “Interior Monologue of a Person,” you write of the thoughts of a corpse—a victim of the Nazi death camps: “The day they uncovered me, /I rested against a banker from Lodz. /A young girl’s cheekbone/ received my hand for eternity. / You can still see where the officer-physician/ took a scalpel to the light/ camouflage of the skin / to find what was impure in me.”
Where did this poem arise from? You seem to drape a scrim of beauty over this grim scene.
Richard Wollman: If there are any of my poems that haunts me it is this one. This was the hardest one to decide whether to include it in the book. This is a tough one to accept because of its grimness. I want the poem to be acceptable to me, the reader, and also the community I have in mind. They are a very particular group—survivors of the Holocaust. There has always been this sensibility since the Holucast, that poetry after the fact would be barbaric. Poets have stayed off the subject for many years. But now we are coming to a certain point of time where the survivors are dying off. There aren’t many left. I wonder who will sing for them. I happened to be a speaker at a rather large gathering for a Holocaust remembrance day. I thought if I could read some of my poems on stage I might have answer in regards to its acceptability. I got a partial answer. There were no objections, and a Rabbi who was with me said” You said good things.”
You do have to dirty your hands with the truth. Poets have to define and redefine what is meaningful. This is just the nature of change in the world. The poem we discussed is a way to get back to “singing.”
Doug Holder: How much does your Jewish background play a role in your poetry?
Richard Wollman: A large portion of the poems in this book are on Jewish themes. It is a home base. I begin there and move outward. I am from a Reformed Jewish background. I have always been intrigued with the fact that on my mother’s side (before they came to America) my relatives were all poets and Rabbis.
I started to write poetry late in life at age 40. It was spurred on by an anti-Semitic incident at my home on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
So my first poem was from a very real incident. Some of our neighbors took their discarded Christmas trees and barricaded our front door with them. This rattled me so, and caused me so much pain, that I responded by writing a poem. The poem was the only way to alleviate the pain.
Doug Holder: Your poem “Self-Portrait” is a fascinating piece, where you view yourself as a work-in-progress, unfinished: “in my unpainted chair.” Do you view the artist, as well as the art, a work of art as well?
Richard Wollman: If not a work of art, certainly a work-in-progress. There is an art to living the poetic life.
Doug Holder: What is the poetic life?
Richard Wollman: For me it means you don’t write your poems for entertainment or merely for esthetic purposes. It is a way of living. Poetry is not even the poetry on the page. I think the poem on the page is the last or best attempt to record some record of the poetic life.
Doug Holder; Where do you write?
Richard Wollman: I write in a third floor room in my home. It is a pretty dreadful place. It has a tiny, little window…it’s bare. Nobody wants to go up there. You have to restrict yourself in order to capture a piece of the world in your poem. I need poverty and solitude. I write better if I can feel the presence of my wife and son two floors down.
Doug Holder: You are the co-director of the Zora Neale Hurston Center at Simmons College in Boston. Can you tell me about that?
Richard Wollman: It is a brainchild of my colleague Afaa Michael Weaver. Afaa created a wonderful reading series of minority voices at Simmons College. We extend out to the community to reach the young students. Afaa also hosted the first “International Chinese Poetry Conference” at Simmons. We are gearing up to have a second in Oct. 2007.
Doug Holder: You are a member of the Pow Wow River poets, no?
Richard Wollman: Yes. We meet in Newburyport, Mass. Rhina Espalliat is the founder. It is a group of two dozen poets. We have a workshop once-a-month. We also have a reading series. Anyone can come to the workshop. It is amazing that in Newburyport you have so many accomplished poets. We push each other.