Sunday, June 01, 2008
Poet Eva Salzman: From Brooklyn to Britain with a side trip to Somerville, Mass.
Over 20 years ago Poet Eva Salzman popped over the pond to England after spending her early years in Brooklyn and Long Island. Salzman was a friend of the late poet Sarah Hannah who was interviewed on my show “ Poet to Poet…” on Somerville Community Access TV shortly before Hannah took her own life. Salzman was in town visiting with Hannah’s parents, and gave a reading of her own and Hannah’s work at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Mass. (hosted by Fulcrum Magazine). Salzman traveled in a drenching rainstorm to the hinterlands of Union Square, Somerville to be interviewed by yours truly.
Salzman is an accomplished poet, living in London, who grew up in Brooklyn and attended Columbia University where she got her MFA. Her latest poetry collection is “Double Crossing” (Bloodaxe Books). She has also co-edited an anthology of modern women poets “Women’s Work…” that is scheduled to be released soon from the Seren Press. She has taught at such British institutions of higher learning as Warwick University and Ruskin College in Oxford, England. She has also collaborated on a number of operas, and her work has been frequently broadcasted on the BBC. Salzman has been published widely and has read from her work at festivals around the world.
Doug Holder: First off, why did you move to England in 1985?
Eva Salzman: That’s easy. A man. It’s the old story. He was in Brooklyn with me, and then we moved to England. It was a pretty major move for me. I thought that I would never leave New York. He was born in South East Wales. It was a huge culture shock for a Brooklyn Jewish girl.
DH: Why didn’t you leave England after your breakup?
ES: Well we moved to Brighton. And I started to make friends and get published there. When we split up, he said: “Well I guess you’ll move back to New York.” I said to myself: “ Damn him…I have a life here. I’m going to stay here!”
DH: You have had a lot of offbeat jobs…I suppose a lot of writers do. Another Brooklyn writer Paul Auster comes to mind. You worked as an out-of-print book searcher, an Exercise Director at a Brooklyn orthodox Jewish diet center, a cleaner of rich ladies houses, all of which informs your work. In a sense did these jobs have more value for your writing then say your MFA?
ES: I love studying…but I had a fear of missing more. In a way I was trying out different lives. The out-of-print book search service I did for many years was to support my writing habit in Britain. It was a continuation of a business my grandmother ran for many years from her house in Brooklyn.
DH: You studied at Stuyvesant High in Brooklyn in the 70’s. One of your teachers was Frank McCourt, the author of “Angela’s Ashes” Did you know at the time that he would be such an acclaimed writer?
ES: He always seemed world- weary. I had a romantic sense of him. I felt he was not fated to last long. He would tell us wonderful stories about his impoverished Irish childhood. I realize now he was rehearsing for his great memoir “Angela’s Ashes.” We were the last class he came to—he had taught in many tough schools in the city. He did not teach a strict English class, expecting us to write a lot, etc… I thought learning English was learning stories. Maybe it is. He was just fascinating. I eventually met up with him in England. I interviewed him for the Guardian.
DH: You have also studied with the likes of Derek Walcott, Jorie Graham, Stanley Kunitz, and Joesph Brodsky to name a few. Was it hard to find your “voice?” Do we really have a truly original voice?
ES: I was very intimidated at the Columbia MFA program because I was a lot younger than most of the students there. But I still loved the program. I remember taking a workshop with Stanley Kunitz. He would pick out pieces of my poems and say: “ This is your voice.” I wondered what that meant. Was there a voice I was supposed to slip into already? It made me think about what would trigger my voice.
DH: Can you talk about the new CD “Secret Life of a Girl” by singer/songwriter Christine Tobin in which a poem of yours is set to music?
ES: She is actually from Dublin, but now lives in London. She is well known in both places. She makes a point of collaborating with poets, and in her new CD she used a poem of mine, and a poem of Paul Muldoon.
DH: You have also collaborated on operas. In fact one has been with your father, the composer Eric Salzman. Good poetry should have a strong sense of musicality, no? Has you work as a poet helped you with your work with opera?
ES: I see it as a two way street. Language and music are interactive. I believe the music of language leads you to ideas or poems. But yes, I do believe poetry has to have a sense of music to it.
Most of the poets I know who write in form or meter, don’t do it for ideology. You write in free verse or you write in form. You write what you want to write.
DH: I use food in a lot of my poetry. I notice you do too. What would you say to critics who say food as a theme or focus is too trivial?
ES: I am a sensualist. I am about everything to do with the senses. I don’t see this split between matters of the body and matters of the spirit. I see it as all parts of the same. Coming from a large Jewish family you can guess how I feel about food. There is a ritualistic quality about eating and meals.
DH: You were a friend and mentor to the late poet Sarah Hannah. Hannah taught at Emerson College in Boston, appeared on this show, was the author of two critically acclaimed poetry collections “Longing Distance,” and “Inflorescence” (Tupelo Press).
Can you tell me how you met and became fast friends?
ES: We met at the Wesleyan Writers Conference, where I taught. I was interested in the sonnet form and so was she. She had read my poems. She was passionate about the sonnet. She brought me her work that had wit and formal dexterity. Like Plath, she coupled the vernacular with a more elevated poem.
DH: Her poetry is accessible. Yours is too. Your take?
ES: I never personally think about accessible or inaccessible. Some of the poems I write are accessible, some are not. Sarah had that ability to travel to different worlds. I have a review of her two collections in “Contemporary Poetry Review.,” extracted from an article in “Dark Horses” magazine.
DH: You have co-edited a new anthology of women’s poetry titled “ Women's Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English”
ES: “Women’s Work…” will be out within months. It will basically be modern women poets from 1920 on… Women poets who write in English. Jorie Graham is in it, English, American, and Irish poets….you name it. It is published by SEREN.
To The Enemy
Sit down, have a chair and relax,
you who've made the former friends bleed.
Here are all my questionable expenses
for the tax-man, the faithless to read.
Okay, so I drink, talk to strangers,
loudly befriending at parties
those lacking position, power or wealth,
who aren't distinguished or arty.
I slept with a man who was handsome
instead of the powerful editor
(not that I've ever claimed purer ethics -
it's just that I never knew better).
Please outline what's wrong with my life plan,
help map the route of my passions,
edit me into comfortable style
according to science or fashion.
It's not that I don't have ambition
or a liking for money or fame.
Is it just that I misinterpret the rules?
Don't I cheat well enough at the game?