Friday, December 17, 2010
Israeli Poet Karen Akalay-Gut: An orphan who has found a home.
Interview with Doug Holder.
In an email from Poet Karen Akalay-Gut she writes:
"When I was just beginning to feel at home in the Israeli poetry scene, the author and editor Ben Zion Tomer was looking over a piece of mine he was going to publish and said, “You know, you were born an orphan.” The shock I felt was one of recognition not insult – for the first time someone had understood the basis of my writing more clearly than I had. The idea of exile, of perspective, was something I had carried with me from the days of my childhood, when my parents, long-term refugees and now new immigrants to the United States, chose to share their freshly acquired dwelling with displaced persons and concentration camp survivors. The religious education I was given in a Jewish Day School which emphasized Judaism as its center and Israel as the new home for the Jews was balanced by the afterschool Yiddish Farband Classes which focused on socialism and community. Home in other words, was always relative. But when I first came to Israel as a teenager I understood that for me there was an emotional absolute, that no matter how much it might be strange, and no matter how much I could argue about its directions, this was where I belonged."
Karen Alkalay-Gut was born in London in the Blitz (March 29,1945), and was educated in the United States. She received her Ph.D in English literature at the University of Rochester. In 1972 She moved to Israel, and has been teaching poetry at Israeli universities since then. In 1977 she joined the faculty at Tel Aviv University. In addition to a biography of the poet Adelaide Crapsey, Alkalay-Gut has published numerous articles on modern American poetry, Victorian literature and fiction, and studies of poetry and popular culture. In addition to over twenty books of poetry and a number of CDs with pianist Liz Magnes, Roi Yarkoni, and others, new work scheduled for 2010 include: a compact disk of her poetry with Panic Ensemble; a dual language collection, Belly Dancing in Tel Aviv, will appear with Edizioni Kolibris in Italy; and an edition of Selected Poems will be appearing in Hebrew translation.
I was suppose to meet her in Israeli and talk to her class in 2007, but the University was on strike and it never happened. I met her a couple of years later at McLean Hospital when she was researching a book on Sexton, and Plath. Gut is planning a trip this Winter in 2001, and hopefully will make a trip to the promised land of Somerville and a meeting of the Bagel Bards.
Do you think being born in London during the Blitz had a subliminal effect on you as a poet and writer?
I was born on the last night of the buzz bombs, so in a way I brought the peace, but the real effect on me came through my parents: for them, the blitz in London was a relief. They were refugees, had been fleeing for years before WWII, fled from Lida in Lithuania to Danzig in 1930, were persecuted for my father’s communist background in Danzig, and escaped that city on the night before Hitler invaded, on the last bus out. By the time they got to England they must have been wrecks, but the tragedy of the war only came to them when I was born. It was then that my mother learned that all of her family had been killed in the war. That must have influenced the way I was raised, and the expectations my parents had for me. I think the enormous tragedies that were uncovered at the time of my birth had more than a subliminal effect on me – they are part of my identity.
In your poetry and in your life--you exhibit the feeling of being an orphan. Literally you are not--but metaphorically you are. Explain?
In a way I wanted to be an orphan, to grow up without the burden of my family’s past. To grow up without the past of my people, without the imperative of my gender, without the rules that seem to dominate the way we think. I was always breaking out of traditions, even while I was enjoying my own versions of traditional things. For example, when Isaac Bashevis Singer’s book, Satan in Goray, came out in English, I was sixteen, and I devoured the book. He wasn’t famous yet, and was invited by my parents’ in Rochester to lecture in Yiddish. His lecture was wild, rowdy, nothing like any Yiddish literature the cultured Yiddish audience had experienced, and the audience was appalled. Afterward, my mother brought him to me, and said to him, “Here, SHE will be interested in what you have to say!” That was meant as a little insult to both of us, but I was overjoyed to be coupled with my new hero.
You moved to Israel in 1972 from the States. Israel is a place where many people go to find themselves--they are disconnected where they presently live--and are looking for meaning--a sort of existential crisis. Was that how it was for you?
I was perfectly happy in Rochester, New York. There were many ways in which the city, the schools, the centers, the university nurtured me in a way that is rarely available to people. For years I had saved up to go to Europe, but when I was 20, and had enough money, my parents “strongly urged” me to go to Israel instead. I wasn’t interested, but being a good girl, went along, thinking I’d catch a flight to Greece from Tel Aviv. The moment I landed in Israel I fell in love, and continued to fall in love with every single person I met, every place I encountered. So the first chance I got after I finished school I moved to Israel. It wasn’t easy, and I have political conflicts all the time, but existentially, I’m where I’m supposed to be.
You use this quote in your collection of poetry " Miracles"
From far away everything looks like a miracle,
but up close even a miracle doesn’t look like one.
- Yehuda Amichai, “Miracles”
Is this a call to you for immediate experience--the tangible over conjecture?
I thought I was simply referring to the fact that there are millions of miracles that occur every day – and we usually don’t notice them because we’re so involved in our own survival.
Like the Israelite in Amichai’s poem who is busy watching the back of the man in front of him on the way out of Egypt and doesn’t realize that the parting of the Red Sea has taken place. Medicine seems a miracle to me – the stuff that makes you better when you’re sick. But for Amichai the real miracles are the ones we experience all the time – little amazing details, remarkable in themselves, and of which poetry is created.
You have written a great deal about Slyvia Plath and Anne Sexton. They both seemed like orphans in the context of their tragic lives. Is this what attracted you?
My initial attraction was to their boldness and daring, but the more I read their poetry the more I saw what wonderful artists they were, asserting madness and freedom but with such control and craftsmanship that their art is often invisible. The drama attracted me, and the art keeps me attracted. My ‘orphans’ have the freedom determine their status. Even though my heart breaks every time I think of what Anne Sexton’s treatment should have been, and how much damage her mistreatment did, that isn’t what calls me to her. I am drawn to their pinpoint analysis of the social imperatives that were imprisoning them, and their desire to create their own destinies.
There is no one right way to write a poem. How do you go about it?
When I was nine or ten, a wise Yiddish poet was boarding with my family, and when he saw that I was making some efforts at composition he gave me this advice: “Never write if you can sleep without it.” I have thousands of ideas and phrases in my head all the time, but most of the time they will dissipate if I can ignore them, but when the words start to overwhelm me I jot them down and then begin to work on them, to hone them into the poem that reflects the original thought, and/or to develop them into what they could be.
What school of poetry are you in or have been expelled from?
Orphans don’t go to school.
I’ve been teaching poetry for forty five years. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Tennyson, Rossetti, Wilde, Williams, Stevens, Roethke, Lowell, Pinsky... I learn from them, from my students, from my research. There’s also my rock group – for a few years I was performing with them and in the past few years I’ve been writing lyrics for them. It makes me more aware of the sound of words, how they fit together to make their own meaning. Maybe the whole world is my school. There are a group of poems pasted on the wall in my bathroom – they were written from contemplation there – but they are about how it feels to be a sink, the responsibilities of soap, what is hiding behind the shower curtain, stuff like that. Was the bathroom my school?
A summer dress hangs on two pegs
The sash flutters out, like a butterfly
Who knows where it belongs
and the wind fills out the flowered bosom
as if spirit alone
was enough to give it life