Friday, December 17, 2010

Israeli Poet Karen Akalay-Gut: An orphan who has found a home.

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

-----Karen Akalay-Gut

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

“Redneck Poems” by Rusty Barnes

“Redneck Poems”
Rusty Barnes
MiPOesias Chapbook Series
$4.25 Holiday Sale

Edge. Rusty Barnes work will walk you out to the edge, ask you to look over, and consider whether you feel your stomach drop or your eyes water as you read. This is the real thing. Barnes grew up in rural Appalachia and his words are shot through with those Appalachian roots. Barnes creates an image that arouses all the senses in the opening of “When the Wrong Words Get Said”

Car tire on gravel,
rough smell of beer
and roasted corn. . .

the low of cows,
moonshine slips in like a tongue
through the treeless hedge fence

His pen inks imagery onto the page that cannot help but offer us a clear and vivid picture. In the opening work with the killer title: “Hollywood Appalachian Noir: A Lesson,” his description of taking a fist to the jaw is fluid motion

Vaughan turns round and strokes my jaw loose on its strings with his hard-
working fist. . .

Soon I am ass-over-teakettle and not even Patrick Swayze
can save me now. . .

How can one consider putting a book down that opens with a poem that scores being on the wrong end of a fight with such lyricism?

“Redneck Poems” never loses its edge. Later in the book a poem entitled “Cutter” will reach your ears with the echo of a soulful mandolin

Between the witching hour and its successor
I caught her with my utility knife in the open closet

all sound ceases when in a few lines we read

. . .I grasp her by the forearm, press the brachial artery and try
to ignore her pleading, I just want to die, then Daddy,
then Daddy again.

There is only one thing wrong with this poetry book. It’s over too soon. This Holiday Season treat yourself to “Redneck Poems.” You will not be disappointed.

Rene Schwiesow is the co-host of Poetry: The Art of Words in Plymouth, MA.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Somerville Poet/Writer Cam Terwilliger: From the Nursing Home to the Atlantic Magazine

Somerville Poet/Writer Cam Terwillger: From the Nursing Home to the Atlantic Magazine

Cam Terwilliger is a tall man and holds one mean pen. This Somerville poet and writer is equally adept at verse as well as fiction, and has the credits in top tier magazines to prove it. He teaches at GRUB ST., Emerson College, and has an MFA from that same college. He is the author of the short story collection Man & Machine, and stories from that manuscript have appeared in The Greensboro Review, The Mid-American Review, and The GSU Review. I talked with Terwillger on my Somerville Community Access TV show: " Poet to Poet : Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder: I first heard of you when I interviewed several elderly poets at THE SOMERVILLE HOME. They told me that you ran a memoir workshop.

Cam Terwilliger: The program was held during the winter/spring of 2009. We met every Thursday morning. I got a small grant from the Somerville Arts Council. It really went well. We had a range of folks who would appear. We had a number of regulars. Some who were quite young--in their 50's and 60's--one woman was in her 90's. Often my students told me that they had nothing to write about, but we would have these prompts that were very specific to the memories they had. I was invariably surprised that at the end of these prompts they would conjure up these vivid stories about childhood, the Great Depression, or the trials and tribulations of living in a nursing home. I was always stunned by the level of detail and imagination that was displayed in their writing.

DH: What were the prompts?

CT: Stuff like " Write about your first memory of riding a bicycle." One woman wrote this memorable story about the first time she witnessed her mother riding a bike. She had never seen a woman ride a bike, and she thought this was the most magical thing.

DH: Did you ever print an anthology?

CT: No, but we did have a public reading. The Boston Globe covered it. The group members had great stuff that we would revise at the end. I always tried to get them to have that great sense of voice.

DH: You have worked as a reader at top shelf literary magazines such as: the Atlantic and Ploughshares. How much of a chance does an unsolicited manuscript have of getting in these magazines?

CT: I am going to be perfectly honest--the chances are very small. The top tier magazines have a flood of submissions. But they all are read--that was my job at the time. It was very difficult for a fiction manuscript to make it up from the slush pile. You have a better chance with poetry--perhaps because they are shorter, and people are willing to take a chance on them. Half the submissions at Ploughshares are solicited by the editors, the other half are collected by staff.

DH: What qualities do you look for in poetry submissions?

CT: Each poet has his own style. I am looking for that level of surprise. Some poems surprise you but then they falter. In that case you often write a letter to the poet and encourage him to keep submitting. It takes a long time for a poet to perfect their craft: the line breaks--the sound, etc...If you have the desire to perfect your craft you can but it takes a long time. There is not one answer as to what makes a good poem

DH: You got your MFA at Emerson College in Boston. A lot of great folks teach there. I've interviewed writer/poet Richard Hoffman, Tracy Strauss, the late poet Sarah Hannah, and I have had the opportunity to publish Daniel Tobin in the latest issue of Ibbetson Street. Who did you study with?

CT: For poetry I studied with David Barber, the Atlantic's poetry editor. I also studied with Bill Knott. He is different from Barber, but brilliant as well. Knott has some real problems with the way the publishing industry works. I studied with fiction writer Pamela Hunter--a great writer of Flash Fiction.

The Extinct

I see them at museums—arrayed
as the animals they must have been.
Steel rods force their bodies together.
Their faces assemble like jigsaws.
Because no one alive has ever seen them
one missing bone changes their message.
Without the ankle: No one outruns
the asteroid. Without the jaw: Hunger.
It doesn’t matter. All bones are synonyms.
No species can outlast its fossils.
Skeletons totter around their case
like antique alphabets, longing to collapse.
They long to disband the characters
for disease, for ice—whatever composed
the irresistible song: their last evolutions,
the chorus of silence we are not required
to understand, only required to join.

----Cam Terwilliger

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Attention Somerville Poets... The Mass. Poetry Festival....May 13

By Doug Holder

I am excited to be on the Advisory Board of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival to be held this Spring in Salem, Mass. I have spoken several times with the Director Mike Ansara, and have attended meetings with poets from around the state about this exciting event that was previously held in Lowell, Mass. I hope to involve Endicott College, Beverly, Mass. (where I teach writing) in this state-wide venue for the art of poetry. Here is quote from the website for the festival that will provide further details.

"MassPoetry has chosen historic Salem as the location for the third Massachusetts Poetry Festival to be held on May 13 and 14, 2011. A two day festival features poetry readings, slams, workshops, a day of poetry for high school students, and a small press fair highlighting published poets. The event is coordinated by founder Michael Ansara, and by a variety of poetry partners, including Salem State University, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, Destination Salem, local businesses and poetry enthusiasts. The Massachusetts Poetry Outreach Project, also known as MassPoetry, sponsors this flagship event and also coordinates outreach programs to bring poetry into schools and communities across the Commonwealth.

The Massachusetts Poetry Festival will bring a blizzard of verbal beauty to Salem, a city with a rich literary history and vibrant writing community. It will connect generations, and it will give the city and university a leadership role in building culture in the Commonwealth,” said J.D. Scrimgeour, poet and Professor of English at Salem State University. ‘The Poetry Festival is evidence of the vitality of the fundamental, central art of poetry,” said Robert Pinsky, the former Poet Laureate of the U.S. and the Honorary Chair of the Poetry Festival.

Mayor Driscoll declared, “Salem is proud of its own unique literary tradition and offers many exciting venues for such an event. We look forward, with great enthusiasm, to hosting a successful Festival in May, 2011.” Provost Kristin Esterberg from Salem State University also commented, “Salem State has been engaged with the Massachusetts Poetry Festival since its beginning. We’re delighted to continue the tradition which began in Lowell, and we welcome the festival to Salem, another proud literary city in Massachusetts.”

Friday, the first day of the festival, is devoted to high school students and teachers with workshops at Salem State University. Among the featured readers will be Salem State Alumni, poet Tom Sexton, who has published more than 10 books of poetry and has won numerous regional and national awards for his writing. He is the former poet laureate of Alaska, where he spent much of his life since his childhood in Massachusetts. Day two of the festival will be open to the public and will include readings, workshops, performances, poetry and dance, Shakespearean sonnets, and slam poetry. These events will be held across downtown Salem’s cafes, restaurants, historic buildings, churches, museums, and Old Town Hall.

“Given its long literary traditions, Salem, the home of Hawthorne, is an appropriate site for the 2011 Poetry Festival,” Congressman John Tierney said. “Salem State University’s involvement and the Festival’s educational focus for young students will continue to foster creativity and energy across our community.” The festival brought over 1000 poetry lovers to Lowell in 2009, and the May, 2011 festival is expected to be even larger."

I hope folks from Somerville will make the relatively short trek to Salem to participate in this valuable venue for the spoken and written word.