“In a way, the poems were hidden even from me.” A conversation with Elizabeth Rosner
In this week’s Late Night Interview, Atelier26 Books publisher M. Allen Cunningham and author Elizabeth Rosner discuss her autobiographical poetry collection, GRAVITY, a deeply personal exploration of family, language, memory and history from a daughter of Holocaust survivors.
M. ALLEN CUNNINGHAM: There’s a passage in Patricia Hampl’s memoir A Romantic Education, which seems to me to relate to your brave account of your family’s Holocaust history in Gravity. Hampl writes of her time in Prague: “Mine is the confusion, the search, of someone unmarked. Nothing bad has ever happened to me…I can only proceed, assuming that to be untouched has some significance in the presence of the deeply touched life of this city. Or perhaps…the value of my inquiry is that I am unmarked. (…) People like me are part of the evidence that all that raw material from survivors and witnesses has gone out of journalism, even out of the testament of history, and has plunged into the psychic life of all of us. The horrors and the sadness, the endless mourning, is floating there, careening in the imagination, looking for a place. Looking for some way to be transformed. Looking, in a word, for culture, as I am.”
While of course you have a much more direct and intimate relationship to the Holocaust, I think Hampl articulates something here that resonates in Gravity and your first two novels. In particular, the section in Gravity called “The Trip” comes to mind, in which, after much urging from you, your father agrees to return to Germany and bring you along. To what extent do you view your writing about the Holocaust, in Gravity and in your first two novels, as a “search for culture” like the one Hampl describes?
ELIZABETH ROSNER: As I read and re-read Patricia Hampl’s words, the first part speaks to me as someone who emphatically claims her connection to this history, even as I have struggled with ambivalence about whether that truly “marks” me or not. The more I came to embrace the belief that I have indeed been “touched” by a direct inheritance (paradoxical as that may sound), the more I’ve endeavored to lean toward the inquiries that rise up in me as a result. I find myself pausing more fully at the place where she mentions “looking to be transformed,” and say, YES, that is what I really mean. How can writing about the legacies of the Holocaust help to transform me and (I hope) my readers too? (By the way, I must confess I have not read this book of hers!)
MAC: It’s this very clear conviction, your constant progress toward transformation, that I find so moving about Gravity. And that’s a quality distinct from some of the “uplifting” (fictional) Holocaust narratives that have entered our popular consciousness, in which “hope” or “redemption” are sometimes laid on like appliques. Gravity revolves around a real reckoning: without ever averting your eyes from the bleak actualities of the Holocaust, you insist on the hope for transformation. That personal insistence, together with your clear-sightedness as an inheritor, is a powerful alchemy. Can you talk about how this work took shape over the twenty years since you wrote the first poem? And what drew you to poetry as a form for the work—rather than straight memoir?
ER: So, the actual time frame for the earliest pieces of Gravity stretches even wider than twenty years—more than thirty. (This is a number that astonishes me, but it’s true.) In my early twenties, when I was in the MFA Program at UC Irvine, I began to write about a three-month stay in Europe, during which time I lived mainly in Göteborg, Sweden but also traveled through Denmark, France, Holland and England. I kept notebooks with intricate details of the journey, and then lost those notebooks on my flight home to California. (Ouch. It still hurts to remember that.) Despite that erasure, I reconstructed what I could, focusing especially on the personal encounters and emotionally-drenched landscapes that seemed most vivid and unforgettable. Since that trip included a haunted moment of not getting off the train when it stopped in Hamburg (my father’s birthplace), I made a second trip to Europe a year later, the trip with my father.
All of these pieces were written in prose. Not only did I definitely not consider myself a poet, I was enrolled in a Fiction Program, and therefore soon faced with the dilemma of needing to turn this material into a novel-shaped thesis. I decided to use a first-person narrator named “Irene” (awkwardly attempting to seduce my muse with the sound of “I”). Although I completed my obligations and received my MFA, I felt that the semi-fictionalized result was a very distorted and inauthentic piece of writing. I set it aside for a while to breathe, eventually restoring the original memoir form (Irene reconfigured to I), which I called Souvenirs and Silences. I sent it out to a handful of editors and received numerous polite rejections. I set it aside again.
A few years later, I became a participant in a project called Acts of Reconciliation, created by a drama therapist named Armand Volkas; his parents were Auschwitz survivors, and among many things we had in common was a shared desire to use the expressive arts as a means of transforming the legacy of the Holocaust. Armand brought together descendants of Nazis with descendants of survivors, using psychodrama techniques to promote empathetic dialogue, storytelling and deep listening. The experience was stunningly powerful for all of us, and Armand asked me to “write a poem about it.” Although I tried to explain I wasn’t a poet, he urged me to try, and “Speaking to One of Germany’s Sons” was the result.
MAC: You write in that poem, “Don’t our mothers wish that our sleep be sweet and untroubled, that our hands not tremble when we stretch them toward one another?”
ER: A year later, I wrote “Ghosts” for a contest for “Poems on the Jewish Experience.” And within another few months, I realized that Souvenirs and Silences was neither a novel nor a book of non-fiction. It was a poetry collection, in disguise.
MAC: Do you mean “in disguise” in terms strictly of the form, or was there something in the substance of the material itself that moved you toward the realization that this was poetry?
ER: By “disguise” I mean that, in a way, the poems were hidden even from me. I knew that the chapters and pages of the book were spare and fragmented; the images were dense and thematic; the language was economical and metaphoric. Yet somehow I believed that poetry was something much more opaque and obscure, less narrative and more abstract. It took a while to accept that I didn’t have to define my poems according to any particular “rules” or standards out there in the so-called Poetry World. I didn’t even have to call myself a poet, but rather a writer who worked in multiple forms. Perhaps the greatest benefit of all was how poetry gave me permission to let go of my lofty ambitions as a would-be novelist. Instead, I could rediscover my voice, my material, my sense of self. I could simply tell the truth—hopefully. (And I mean that in all senses: full of hope.)
MAC: So you relinquished your earlier notions of poetry, and the result was a powerful collection of poems. Then, too, after having abandoned your novelistic ambitions, you did become a novelist. I’m very struck by that. Often the truest expression, the most effective art, emerges only once we’ve let go of some seemingly primary conception of the work or of ourselves as its creator.
ER: Quite often I’ve composed poems that I actually hoped would depart from my “usual” themes—only to find that certain threads keep reasserting themselves no matter what I might intend. (Also See Under: acceptance of my material.) I don’t mean to be flip. It’s just that there is this illusion of choosing that I am occasionally toying with, whereas it’s actually been a tremendous relief to allow my ego NOT to be in charge.
MAC: On this note, I remember that our earliest editorial conversations about the book centered around the question of genre. In discussing the form of some of the poems, we determined that they could be recast as memoiristic vignettes, or as prose “suites”—that, in fact, they quite powerfully wanted to be prose. We decided, too, that we’d avoid the words “poetry” or “poems” on the cover, because that kind of bottling was inappropriate to the material at its heart. The book is so much more alive, expansive, and truthful than any genre conventions permit—it is poetry, prose, memoir, imaginative excursion all in one. And then, as Luis Alberto Urrea notes in his blurb, it is a profoundly mysterious work as well. Your first novel, The Speed of Light, also bends genre to remarkable effect: structurally, thematically (even typographically!), it is a novel as poem. Does genre actually exist, or is it purely an industry concept?
ER: I’ve just been listening to an interview with the late Mark Strand, in which he talked about his own writing outside the lines (my words, not his). He uses a phrase “lyric identity” which I like very much and want to borrow from now on. The publishing industry is perhaps assuming that readers want to know what they’re getting themselves into when they choose what to read, but isn’t it a grand experiment to see what happens without such categorization? Strand has a volume of pieces called Almost Invisible that gets described as a collection of prose poems, “sometimes appearing as pure prose, sometimes as impure poetry.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
MAC: Pure prose, impure poetry. All I can think is, how about Pure Writing? Writers and publishers, let’s all resolve to trust the serious reader’s interest in pure writing.
ER: Agreed. Although I might argue in favor of the “impure” part. Must be the iconoclast in me—not to mention the tendency I have to want to explore subjects from multiple angles, and (eventually?) to amalgamate the mix. Alchemy sounds lofty perhaps, but there is a certain implied chemistry involved.
MAC: Gravity is wonderfully cohesive in its themes and motifs, which is one thing that lends it a strong quality of personal narrative or memoir. To take a very apparent example, the theme of gravity is explored in its numerous dimensions: as a scientific phenomenon, as a personal/emotional experience or feeling, as an element of familial/ancestral chemistry, etc. This and other equally consistent themes arc beautifully through the three sections. Did that happen mostly organically over those thirty years? How consciously did you shape these meanings in the book, and how much did they simply grow out of your experience?
ER: In all honesty the cohesiveness you recognize was not always apparent to me. I find it fascinating to discover both the highly visible and less visible interconnections in this collection. When I wrote about my marriage ending, for example, there were all sorts of elements to focus on, but at some fundamental level, the gap between my history and my husband’s was inescapably emblematic. Once again, the images and storyline highlighted themselves among the layers of my experience and awareness.
Then there are other pieces, such as the ones in “Translated from the Swedish,” that poured upward from my unconscious and without any deliberate attempt to connect with any of my other work.
MAC: Yes, the “Translated from the Swedish” poems, which are interspersed through the second and third sections of the book, are somewhat miraculous in their stream-of-consciousness quality, and yet fit very well within the larger scope of the book, which is mostly naturalistic in style. How did that poem sequence first come about?
ER: I was taking a workshop with the extraordinary poet Ellery Akers, and she gave these brilliant exercises in pretending to translate poems by Tomas Tranströmer. Since I already knew a bit of Swedish, I had to pretend to pretend, but the mixture of “actual” and imaginary meanings suited me perfectly. That practice taught me to be much looser and more spontaneous with language, and it enabled all sorts of surprising collisions and oddities. I often use the same exercises with my writing students, and I use them myself when I feel stuck and want/need to interrupt my more controlling narrative consciousness.
MAC: For a beautiful example of the meaningful, unexpected collisions you mention, there’s a stanza in “Nocturne,” the first piece in the “Translated” sequence, which reads: “I wait for summer, I want to build / churches and schools without clocks, / with windows open to wind. In spring / there is no dreaming about the sea, / we have forgotten to begin with forgiveness.”
ER: I’ve traveled to Sweden a total of five different times, and have spent weeks and months at a stretch living there. The original impulse had to do with loving the beautiful melody of the language and with wanting to climb inside the “secrets” of my parents’ lives. They had used Swedish at home when they didn’t want us children to know what they were saying. So naturally, I wanted to know…! It was pure coincidence that Ellery Akers used a Swedish poet for her exercises, but once again, everything connected. The secret language became a source of new poetry.
MAC: At what point did the collection’s title change from Silences and Souvenirs to Gravity?
ER: Once I began to consider my poems as a collection, it became the obvious choice very quickly. The poem itself wasn’t part of that earlier manuscript; in fact the poem “Gravity” was one of the few times I felt completely in service to something writing itself through me.
MAC: You write in that poem, “I think of my grandmother’s / sweet hand, the weight / of it as she stroked my hair / to say goodbye, giving me / comfort because she was / the one leaving.” It’s a characteristically powerful moment in its recognition of the plight of the earthbound, the survivors and inheritors.
ER: Ever since my maternal grandmother’s death, when I was twenty, I had held onto the memory of her hand on my head, the precise weight and inflection of it. I always wanted to write about that moment, but couldn’t figure out what story it belonged to. Then one day I found myself scribbling the lines about Jacob and the angel, and suddenly it made exquisite sense that saying goodbye to my dying grandmother was the second and final part of the poem. Here was grief and gravitas and graves and the inescapable pull of the earth, for water and for our bodies and for everyone and everything we love. The circle finally felt complete.
Find a copy of Gravity on Indiebound or Atelier26 Books
Elizabeth Rosner (photo by Julia McNeal) is a poet, essayist, and the bestselling author of three novels. Her poetry collection Gravity (Atelier26) and her third novel Electric City (Counterpoint Press) both appeared in October 2014. Her first novel The Speed of Light was translated into nine languages, short-listed for the Prix Femina, and awarded the Prix France Bleu Gironde, the Great Lakes Colleges Award for New Fiction, and Hadassah Magazine‘s Ribalow Prize, judged by Elie Wiesel. The Speed of Light was optioned by actress Gillian Anderson, who will make the film her directorial debut. Blue Nude, Rosner’s second novel, was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her essays have appeared in the NY Times Magazine, Elle, the Forward, and several anthologies, and her book reviews appear frequently in the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She has taught literature and writing for more than thirty years. www.elizabethrosner.com