Marcela Sulak is the author of the poetry collections Decency (Black Lawrence Press, 2015), Immigrant (BLP 2010), and a chapbook. With Jacqueline Kolosov she’s edited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres (Rose Metal Press, 2015) and has translated Orit Gidali (Hebrew), Karel Hynek Macha (Czech), K. J. Erben (Czech) and Mutombu Nkulu-N’Sengha (French). She directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, hosts the radio show Israel in Translation (TLV.1) and edits The Ilanot Review.
1 - How did your first book change your life? My first book made it possible for me to teach creative writing at university. I was lucky enough to land an academic job after finishing my academic Ph.D. but I had an M.F.A., too. Since my book (though not because of it) I’ve moved into a new university and now have a primarily creative teaching position with academic research as secondary. Publication also cast an aura of legitimacy over my writing practice.
How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different? Immigrant, my first book, focuses on the history of fruits and vegetables to get at how we, as individuals, create ourselves and the world around us. Decency began as an examination of manuals of etiquette and politeness which were most popular starting in the 18th century, when many people of the world were governed by rulers who did not speak their language, were of a different ethnicity, and sometimes a different religion. So Decency works through how the individual functions in relationship to history’s harms and mores, the terrible and the beautiful things people do to one another.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction? I began writing regularly when I was about 12, and my attempts at novels sucked. A local poet took me in hand, recommended books & exercises. I am grateful that she had me learn prosody, and asked me to be aware that poems need to be framed and grounded to give the reader access. I think nearly everyone writes poetry in adolescence, when particular kinds of emotions and experiences are new, as a way of ordering chaos and making sense of themselves. Because of my itinerate lifestyle as an adult, and my tendency to say yes to things before understanding the ramifications of yes, I’ve prolonged my sense of newness. These days, I write nonfiction, too.
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? I keep a daily journal, and most of my poems occur when I’m journaling. Writing poems for me is largely shaping them and cutting. When I impose an outside constraint, such as syllabics or ottava rima, it helps me determine what is essential and what can go. Then I can let the constraint go, if I need to. Sometimes the piece might turn into an essay.
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? The daily journal allows me to shape a long-term project through the minutia of the quotidian; it allows unexpected insights to coalesce into something bigger, until I realize what I am writing towards. At that point, I might begin to write poems that are thematically or formally cohesive because my obsession has built up momentum. I keep “outlier” poems, too—you never know. Some of my recent poems were begun years ago; every few years I’d take another stab at them, until one day, it worked.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings? Public readings allow me to articulate what, before, I had only implicitly stated to myself. This helps me think more carefully about future work. Mainly readings are a time to see friends and exchange ideas in real life in real time—I love collaborative readings especially.
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 most interested, these days, in observing, not what people say they believe, but in how they act when presented with very mundane choices. Also, I am interested in what people notice about each other and their environment—this, I believe, reveals more about a person than anything else—what they notice.
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? To think clearly and authentically for oneself in all the contradictions that one must straddle, to be informed about what one writes, and to understand one’s limits. Maybe the role of the writer is and has always been to listen. Especially to people you feel the urge to “enlighten.”
Otherwise, the role of the writer in a larger culture depends greatly on the culture to which you belong, and it seems to work best if a writer focuses on his or her own culture, and avoid trying to be a gatekeeper. (Unless you’re a translator—then you are, in fact, introducing new voices and new cultures into your native one).
In the eleven years I’ve been living outside the USA, in Venezuela, Germany, the Czech Republic, and now Israel, working locally, it is increasingly obvious to me that if you do not understand the local languages of the cultures you have opinions about, if you’ve not spent time there, you should probably assume you don’t really know what’s going on no matter who “some of your best friends” are, and it’s probably not a good idea to spend your cultural currency there. I’ve seen enough to know how biased and unreliable our most “reliable” English-language news sources are.
I see art as a communal act; to be in communion requires a rigorous conversation, not with sanctioned political opinion, but with oneself and the people one encounters in daily life. It’s important to encounter other people randomly and in the flesh in daily life. To me, this is the only ethical way to produce art.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)? Outside editors contribute in essential and under-appreciated ways to making one’s work the best it can be. I’d like to thank all mine profusely all right now.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)? “To thine own self be true.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal? I first began translation when I was living in south Bohemia in 1994; my friends assured me I understood nothing about them unless I read Karel Hynek Macha’s Maj, the first book-length poem written in Czech. Reading it was so difficult (it was responsible for re-vitalizing the Czech language at a time when the language had been officially repressed, so its vocabulary wasn’t completely current anymore) that reading it was translating it for myself. They were right; that work is vital—my translation is used to subtitle avant-garde ballet performances (420 People), and my translations of a second book, K.J. Erben’s Kytice, are used in film and folk festival performances. These two texts are absolutely transformative to Czech culture and remain a part of it, as Shakespeare does for English. I’ve since gone on to translate two other books from French (the Congo) and Hebrew; this activity has made me see how vital poetry is to a culture and nation—how it can be a medium of radical expression. I also learned that translation is the most intimate form of close reading I know of.
But I see translation as a completely distinct activity from writing poetry. In the former, I erase my ego, and in the latter, I let it have free reign. Though both activities need a certain element of surprise.
I see the greatest overlap between nonfiction and poetry. In fact, sometimes I don’t know if what I am writing is nonfiction or poetry. And that’s okay. Maybe the difference between the two is ultimately the value one places on emotional truth and factual accuracy—though there are times I revise a poem for factual accuracy, but these days I often write “documentary” poetry. I’m a huge fan of hybridity.
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 get my child out the door for school, then I journal on the bus on the way to university. When I work at home, I try to carve time to journal, but I have to have a loose definition of this activity. I try to set aside a day or half day or two each week to revise, etc. Sometimes I can use entire weeks for that, depending on if the poems demand it, or if other writing and teaching projects do.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration? Translation, academic work, or simply being more present in my world. I have several projects in different genres going at once, and I don’t stress about being stalled in poetry—often I’m grateful because I have deadlines in other things.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home? Marigolds, lantana, and the smell of the air after rain, or ploughed earth in sun are the smells of my childhood home in Texas. The smell of my daughter’s head is home everywhere else.
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? The streets of the cities in which I live, and archaeology, nowadays.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work? Since I’m living away from home, I read like crazy all the new works of poetry and nonfiction from the States (In this last half year I’ve loved Maggie Nelson, Eula Biss, Andrea Baker, Idra Novey, Claudia Rankine, Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Joy Harjo, Daisy Fried). But because I live in a place that is not (yet) my home, and I’m a single mother, I can’t leap into any scenes with the ease I once did. So I host a weekly radio podcast on local literature in translation [Israel in Translation: http://tlv1.fm/content/israel-in-translation/]. I feed a lot of writers, and have informal gatherings in my home (saves money on babysitting so I can buy more books), and have been fortunate to meet in print and person Israeli writers whose work I adore, such as Sharron Hass, Orit Gidali (whom I’ve translated), Assaf Gavron, Shimon Adaf, and Etgar Keret.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done? Learn flamenco dance—it seems the anti-yoga, and a fabulous way of releasing stress. In fact, I already bought the shoes—I couldn’t resist the glittery nail heads in the heel. I’d love to learn print photography and renew my acquaintance with ceramics.
Also, I’d like to see Iceland, or at least the Northern Lights from Scandinavia, and a glacier before they all melt.
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? Writing poetry is certainly an occupation. It simply does not pay. So you ALWAYS have to do something else. I grew up working on a rice farm and taking care of our farm animals; I’ve taught English and Spanish in Czech and German schools, to children aged 9-19; I’ve free-lanced in Venezuela, and now teach literature and creative writing and translation to university students in Israel (having done so in Washington, DC, before that). I’ve waited tables and worked in bookstores and babysat. It might be fun to be a spy, but I’m prone to getting lost and I blush when I lie, so I would probably not make a good one.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else? But I do do something else. I also write because I get cranky and upset if I don’t.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film? Elana Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. I’m a single mother in a land without Netflix, so I don’t get to see many films, but my daughter and I’ve been watching anything by Hayao Miyazaki, and together we’re reading the fabulous The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making series by Catherynne M. Valente. Those are both terrific for adults, too.
20 - What are you currently working on? A series of poems that began on my bus commute to work from Tel Aviv to Ramat-Gan, and my bike and walk commute to bring my young daughter to school, in a span of time that has included two wars and, currently, daily acts of terrorism, as well as gorgeous acts of kindness and bravery.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;