Karen Alkalay-Gut’s Miracles & More was published by Keshev in 2012. She currently lives in Los Angeles, CA with her partner, two cats, dog, and a lentil.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My debut poetry book, Dear Darwish, is the outcome of a slow and complex process that lead to a shift in my historical, cultural, and political outlooks. In other words, the “change” occurred and the book was conceived as a result.
I have spent my life moving back and forth between Israel and the U.S. When I started my Ph.D. in English/Poetics at SUNY Buffalo in 2009, I was exposed to a wide range of poetry that radically altered my writing practices. The book showcases the change in my writing “style.” I experiment with different forms, such as epistolary, prose-poetry, borrowed text, and longer, more sequential poems, since several poems naturally lend themselves to these forms. As Robert Creeley stated: "form is never more than an extension of content.” My poetry now feels “different” because I allow the poems to emerge in whatever form they need to be/come.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I look back at my childhood, it seems like I have always been writing poetry: jotting down words on paper, assembling lines along the margins of notebooks, and even hanging up a favorite poem in my bedroom in elementary school (“Warning” by Jenny Joseph). (Okay, I love the color purple too!) I started writing regularly during high school when I moved back to Israel and had to relearn Hebrew. I wrote poems in English while trying to immerse myself in an old-new language and culture. I don’t think I was ever aware that these were poems per se. Rather, I felt compelled to write about my life and my surroundings, and poetry became the outlet for recording those experiences.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
A project begins with an idea. Sometimes, I start working on a project right away. Other times it takes months and years for the ideas to evolve and for me to even become aware that there’s a “project” that can emerge out of them. Writing is a craft that seems to have a pace of its own (which can also be a source of great frustration when the projects are slow-going). In the end, every poem is treated as a separate entity: some require heavy revision (or are left out entirely) and others only require subtle changes or none at all.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I am often preoccupied with a few major issues and end up writing poems about them. The poems, in retrospect, can then be compartmentalized into book projects revolving around one major theme. But all of my poems begin with a thought, one so overbearing that I am (unknowingly) made aware of my own cognitive thought processes and begin to write – a word, a line, a stanza – that might potentially evolve into a poem. I’ve been practicing the art of being mindful when this occurs.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Poetry, for me, is first and foremost a communal endeavor (even when it occurs in isolation between writer-reader-book). I love attending as well as participating in readings. I have met many great friends and writers through these shared spaces. I am open to the possibility of letting other people’s words and languages seep into my own creative thought processes and therefore always have my notebook and pen in hand. Reading my work allows me to share my poems through my voice and my body in ways that do not exist on the page alone. The poems become alive (or I give them a particular “life” depending on my tone and mood at the moment). Plus, it’s nice to get feedback from friends and/or strangers, especially when I have worked on a project for so long.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am currently completing my doctorate, which focuses on the lyric tradition, transnationalism, and Israeli and Palestinian relations. Several poems located in Dear Darwish were written as a result of my research. I consider my creative and scholarly endeavors as part of one larger project in which I examine questions of memory, nationalism, and trauma; I aim at understanding how particular memories and cultural practices are shaped and later perpetuated. Poetry becomes an alternative space where I can challenge the values that I “naturally” inherited. I’m not sure if there are specific questions that I ask; rather, the entire book is a collection of several possible answers.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
For me, personally, poetry is a form of activism. I think language is charged, multi-layered, and political; the act of writing, therefore, is a dynamic process where writer and world interact in meaningful ways. Poets, as Shelley puts it, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I would like to think we are acknowledged and that part of the beauty and magic of poetry (and writing in general) is that we never know what seeds we plant in our readers’ minds and when those seeds will emerge as new modes of thinking and experiencing the world. I think the writer should just write, share, read, write more, and share again. Although we do not always have the privilege of defining our own roles as writers, we can, at least, define the type of poems we wish to create and disseminate.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Dear Darwish was released by BlazeVOX [books], and the wonderful publisher Geoffrey Gatza gave me the artistic freedom to edit the work as I see fit. I am grateful for a very supportive group of friends who read drafts of the manuscript. Their invaluable feedback helped shape the book.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Many writers have given this advice in different shapes and forms: just write, write, write and let go. I listen to people who encourage messiness and chaos, are aware of the non-linear process of writing, and support spontaneity. I am learning how every poem is a thought/work-in-progress.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
I had the great fortune of translating Israeli/American poet Karen Alkalay-Gut’s collection Miracles & More to Hebrew. I rediscovered what a beautiful language Hebrew is through this process and also learned the degree in which languages are so deeply and culturally charged. This is where community is at its best: translating someone else’s work is a huge honor and gift, but also a form of responsibility. I constantly had to renegotiate and relearn the potentiality of each poem and what it can do in another language. This process heightened my sensitivity to language-use in my own work: I use words with caution.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I met Israeli novelist Amos Oz when he visited Buffalo in October 2011. He asked me if I write, and my reply was, “Yes, but not enough.” He said, “Haval” which means “too bad” in Hebrew. In order to conceal my shame, I inquired about his writing process. He compared his routine to that of a shop-owner claiming that he must keep the store open everyday. He said (I’m paraphrasing): “On some days the shop is full and on others it is empty. But if I don’t keep it open every single day, I won’t know how many customers walk in.” I have tried opening up a shop of my own, but it is not open 24/7. When I am immersed in a project, however, I tend to write everyday (even several times a day).
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read. I free-write. I read more. I search the web for articles, blogs, and essays about the issues I’m working through. I revisit some of my own poems. I examine the stacks of old notebooks that are filled with my handwriting and remind myself that I have already produced quite a lot of writing and that I can do it – again and again. And, when necessary, I take a break. I let the project sit and rest peacefully until I am ready to engage with it once again.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
“Home” is many things: Tarzana, CA = the smell of 7-Eleven; Tel Aviv, Israel = a street vendor deep-frying falafel balls and then stuffing eggplant and tahini into a piece of pita bread; Buffalo, NY = the smell of my dog after playing in a pile of fresh snow; and most recently: Los Angeles, CA = the smell of my favorite flower, plumeria.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I am a huge fan of ekphrasis, and visual art has certainly influenced my work. I have written several poems that result from my admiration for Frida Kahlo and her artwork. My writing has also been influenced by conversations with people and their experiences. For instance, Dear Darwish incorporates an encounter with a former neighbor in Buffalo, NY: She had just planted fresh bulbs of flowers in her front yard, and as I walked by with my dog, she complained that the neighborhood squirrels had been stealing them. This image later seeped into what became the first poem/letter of the project. I am very attentive to my surroundings – people, objects, interactions, nature, and situations – and am fascinated by the ways in which they travel into my work.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Here is a list of writers, in no particular order, whose work and writings have been tremendously important to me: Mahmoud Darwish, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Rabindranath Tagore, Pablo Neruda, Ilan Pappe, Gideon Levy, Jack Kerouac, Vered Mosenzon, Gabriel García Márquez, Margaret Atwood (mainly her poetry), Sahar Khalifeh, Adrienne Rich, Karen Alkalay-Gut, Naomi Shihab Nye, Nawal El Saadawi, and J.M. Coetzee.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Read and speak Arabic fluently (beyond my current beginner’s reading level), sky dive, visit India, and get a tattoo.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I almost studied Biomedical Engineering as an undergraduate and later contemplated a career in Clinical Psychology. But if I could attempt another occupation it would either be a human rights attorney or the Israeli Minister of Education. No doubt.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The question is phrased very interestingly: what makes one do anything? The verb indicates an external force that causes something to happen. Writing, I think, is involuntary for me. It derives from an inner desire to make sense of my surroundings through language and is often beyond my (conscious) control. Nawal El Saadawi once stated that her writing arises from dissatisfaction or anger. I can relate to her sentiments: when I feel that something is unjust, usually in our society, I am compelled to write about it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Ina May's Guide to Childbirth completely altered my view on the unnecessary medical interventions that occur during childbirth. It opened my eyes to natural and unmedicated labor and birth. It inspired me to work on a new book project. (I’m currently expecting my first child!)
One of the most recent films I watched was Judgment at Nuremberg. I taught this film in a Literature and Law survey course and was amazed at how students were able to apply aspects of the film into their understanding of contemporary American culture and politics. Reading books is a solitary practice, whereas watching films often occurs in public spaces. In the classroom, there’s room for discussion and so the film was “great” in the sense that I witnessed how students sharpened their critical thinking.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am working on a project revolving around pregnancy, labor, birth, and motherhood. I am learning more about how the medical world has taken control over one of the most natural biological processes women can experience and am concerned with the ways in which women’s perceptions of their pregnant bodies is shaped by current cultural trends. I am also in the process of completing another project that I began a few years ago, Folding into Her Self, which examines the relationship between origami and pornography.
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