Do you always deal in Jewish themes in your writing?
I seem to put 'Jew' in the title a lot. My first book published is called "The Missing Jew." Then "The Jew in the Lotus," and now this one. I don't know if it's going to happen in the future, though. This may be my farewell.
Are there other Jewish poets that you particularly admire?
Well, I have been doing a Jewish poetry column for the Forward for last three years, called Psalm 151. What I have been amazed at is the number of really high quality Jewish poets. The Jewish audience isn't really aware of them at all.
Gerald Stern, Philip Levine, Alicia Ostriker . In the post-war era, since World War II, there has been a tremendous growth in the number of poets that are Jewish.
Do you think the events of World War II had something to do with that?
I think it had to do a lot with it. One of the things I'm addressing in those two poems in the front of the book, "The Lowercase Jew" and "Allen Ginsberg Forgives Ezra Pound on Behalf of the Jews," is that the modernist poets, Eliot and Pound in particular, were virulently anti-Semitic. The general acceptance of their work and the propagation of it in the period before World War II really made it difficult for Jewish poets in that time, the 20s and 30s. It was felt if you were writing poetry in English, you couldn't be a Jew. It was something to be ashamed of.
Clearly after World War II, after the Holocaust, with the emergence of people like Allen Ginsberg, it was possible for poets to be Jewish and to write in English.
Did Ginsberg really identify as a Jewish poet?
That's a great question. I think intrinsically he was a Jewish poet and he saw himself, in the beginning, in the line of the Hebrew prophets--sort of a minor Hebrew prophet. He wrote "Howl," which is kind of a prophetic protest, and he wrote "Kaddish," which is the only example I know of an American poem written to Aramaic. The whole rhythm of that poem is to the Kaddish. So, he was a Jewish poet but he died as a Buddhist.
Which you address in your poem about him.
Right. In that poem, Pound sees him as a Jew. Even though I think Ginsberg properly presents himself as a Buddhist.
So that conversation between Pound and Ginsberg actually took place?
Absolutely. It was used by the defenders of Pound to say, `See, look he apologized and he was forgiven.'
Since World War II, has it become easier for Jewish poets?
There still aren't many outlets for Jewish poets to write. One reason I started the column in the Forward was to give a place where if you wanted to use the word minyan or if you wanted to refer to Yom Kippur without a footnote, you could do it. I had a friend who had a story accepted in a prominent literary review, which is pretty sophisticated, and she used the word minyan in the title and she was asked to change it.
What I see is that the poets who probably were born in the late 20s and 30s and who came of age in the 50s and 60s, a lot of them were Jewish but not explicitly Jewish in their work. I'd say the new generation of poets, which I'm part of, and the ones coming up after me, are much more explicit.
Do you think when Eliot and Pound are taught in universities today, that their anti-Semitism should be addressed before their poems are read?
While reading. It's ironic because you're taught to read every word. You analyze for hours a single line or image. But when you get a line like, [from Eliot's "The Wasteland"] "the rats are underneath the piles, the Jew is underneath the lot," it's usually passed over in silence. It certainly doesn't become the topic.
Do you teach these poets?
By and large I don't. I have taught Pound to some extent. You almost have to--it's really hard to explain what happened to American poetry without talking about Pound's contribution.
So what would you say to a group of students if you came across a line that was anti-Semitic?
I generally don't teach those poems, but I certainly say to them that Pound was an anti-Semite and that he put that in his work and that he should be aware of it. The problem I had with it was that when I was in school, teachers were glossing over it entirely. They weren't addressing it at all.
I was a very naïve kid. I was 15 when I started reading Eliot. I loved Eliot. I memorized "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". That was my initiation into poetry. Everything I had read in anthologies and books and what I heard from English teachers was that he was the great poet. So when I turned the page to find that line from "Gerontion," 'the jew squats on the windowsill,' it was like a kick in the stomach. I really didn't have any defenses to assimilate it. It made me feel that either I wasn't allowed in the poems or that poetry was not for me.
Can you explain the title of your book?
It's from the same experience, of opening the pages of Eliot. A friend had given me "Collected Poems," so I started reading every poem in the book. When I came across "Gerontion," I noticed that the J was lowercase, and I had never seen anything like that. It's a usage that you do find early on, I suppose, in some writers and poets, but to do that in the 20th century was a deliberate slap in the face. There's no question that Eliot knew better. He obviously is someone who cares about the language, so you have to see it as a deliberate insult. That's the way it felt, and I think that's accurate.
So are you, in a way, embracing that insult by naming your book after it?
It's a paradox, isn't it? On the cover of the book, it's typographical. The real title of the book is not lowercase. I was a little concerned about that, but I thought, well, I'll put it out there. This came across in my first book of poetry, "The Missing Jew." The word 'Jew' is very unusual in the English language because it's the name of a people but at the same time it can be seen as an insult. I remember when I was a kid some guy walked up to me and said, "You Jew!" and I thought, "Well, I am a Jew." But I knew he meant it as an insult.
In a way, I've made a habit of using the word as much as possible to play with that dual-edge quality that it has. You wouldn't walk up to somebody and say "You Italian" or "You Catholic." It just wouldn't work. I think Eliot was aware of that, of the force of the word, the hatred embedded in the word that we find in his writing.
I was really struck by your poem "My Holocaust." It seems, especially at the end, to be kind of a jab at the many Holocaust movies. It brings up how we can't experience what it was really like, as you say, while we sit in the movie theater eating popcorn. What do you see as the difference between making a Holocaust movie and writing a poem about the Holocaust?
None. I think that my discomfort with both the Holocaust museum, and in this case, "Schindlers's List," which is what provoked the poem to begin with, was understanding that on the one hand we feel we have to make it our own. As a poet, I have to make it my own. That's why the poem is called "My Holocaust." It's saying that I didn't experience it, I was born after it happened, and now my job is somehow to make it my own. The poem is about the struggle to do that--it's not easy to do in an authentic way. We are in danger of exploiting it.
What do you mean when you say the Holocaust has no future?
Well, as a poet, I should say that you should interpret that yourself. So what do you think?
Well in the context of the poem, it seems to mean we're coming to a point when we will lack understanding, that survivors are dying and first-hand witnesses won't be around to explain what it was to them.
That's true--it will be history. It's clear that for the last 50 years or so, the Holocaust has had a special aura in the world and certainly in the Jewish world. As a poet, you sort of feel the energy going into words and you sort of feel the energy going out of words. And I think the energy is going out of that word because it's been used and abused so much by so many politicians and so many pious people on the right and the left and Zionists and anti-Zionists and so on. It's really in a sad and battered state.
So if the word itself is losing its meaning, does that mean the event is also losing its meaning?
The event isn't losing its meaning, but it's going to require more imagination to bring it to life now. I think we've done a tremendous job of preserving the memory of the Holocaust. There is no question that was a necessary and important and dignified thing to do, but my contention is that we haven't really come to terms with it at a deeper level. We're just beginning to do that. What is the spiritual meaning of the Holocaust for Jewish people and for other people as well? Whose Holocaust is it, I guess, is another question implicit in the title. Who does it belong to? Who owns it? What is it for? I think that the danger of it, the problem in the poem and the danger in general, is that the very effort to preserve it, by a movie for example, can also contribute to the banalization of it. It's a paradox.
I'm not against it. But it's sort of inevitable that the very act of preserving it also can weaken it and make it more banal. I was moved by "Schindler's List." I think it was a powerful film. But I also had a question as to whether I was experiencing something in second hand.
Getting back to the book, is there a poem in this collection that is your favorite?
I like the poems about rye bread. One is called "Rye" and the other is called "You Don't Have to Be Jewish." Those two mean a lot to me. I feel like I am the rye bread poet. And the borscht poet.
I think that the poems in the beginning are kind of fierce, so I wanted to have some poems in there that also celebrated Jewish life. I think even the last poem, "Psalm 1," which was my homage to Psalm 1, and my connection with King David, who obviously is the greatest Jewish poet. It's an attempt to say that these poems are still alive. We can make them come alive in our own time.