Tom Haviv is the co-founder of Kaf Collective & Press. His debut book of poetry, A Flag of No Nation, and his first children's book, Woven, are both forthcoming in spring 2018. Here is his website & instagram.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I learned that publishing is a material process, and that each step in the process is an art in its own right: from catching the first glimpse of an idea, to drafting, designing and producing the book (choosing the right paper, dimensions and font etc.)–each step has its own feeling of worship, of encounter–each has its own sense of spiritual task or challenge.
Throughout the process, I felt that if I neglected a step, strange things would happen. My body would react; I wouldn’t be able to sleep, my breathing would be irregular. Once I learned that the process couldn’t be neglected or rushed, that each step required its own attention and recognition, I was able to release my expectations, and embrace its shifts, delays and difficulties. This helped me see that what was actually happening in the making of this book was an effort to express love: to express love for my grandmother (to whom the book is dedicated), for my grandfather (a central figure in the book), for my more distant ancestors, for my parents, for my childhood in the states, and for my family’s disintegration and dispersal over continents. In a way, this book, in all its difficulty to be made–and to find a home–was an effort to make home, an impossible home, that spanned hundreds of years in the past and future, and across cities and landscapes, some permanently lost, some yet to be made.
I also learned that although there is truth to the idea that through publishing a writer finds their community, there’s also a lot of distraction in the pursuit of publishing–a lot of low hanging fruit of easy approval and false community that trivializes art-making into a kind of commodity exchange of private experience. There is a lot of vampiric energy in the art world that seeks to rush, co-opt, and steal creative energy, ancestor work, and family history–often with the goal of easy political positioning.
I think it was a recognition of my own power–that I had often diminished in the service of “making it” as an artist, and waiting for the “okay” from others–that helped me see that no matter where you are on the ladder, when you create anything, you are gathering energy. It doesn’t matter at what scale, or whether for good or ill. To protect the integrity of my work, it was important to have a goal that is bigger than publishing.
For A Flag of No Nation, my goal was to build a personal, and then universal groundwork–from the details of my family’s story in the Mediterranean–for a collective re-imagining of the future of Israel|Palestine. It came from a utopian idea, symbolized by the Hamsa Flag, which is a project I’ve been working on for several years. The flag uses the Hamsa (a symbol shared by Jews, Muslims & Christians) as a floating signifier for new forms of peoplehood, new social forms and paths for Jewish & Palestinian co-determination and interdependence–beyond nationalism, maybe beyond statehood itself, toward alternate, unattempted political forms. The question is very open, and belongs to a much larger conversation, of many intersecting communities, that I wish to participate in.
The Hamsa Flag itself is the core poem of the book which calls into question the distinctions between identities that have been hardened and flattened by our histories.
At that horizon of hope and despair, I imagine the Hamsa Flag waving.
Historically speaking, A Flag of No Nation emerges out of the near-complete genocide of the Greek & Turkish Jews in the Holocaust. The Turkish Jews in my family were saved by a trick of fate; they waited and prepared for a German invasion that never happened, as the Holocaust spread to their cousins in Greece. From this closure of history, this narrowness, the book builds into the twined possibility and impossibility of building a new home–and leads me to the fundamental pull of making this book: to turn a page, to try again–to create something new for Jewish history, for the history of Palestine–by investigating the lessons of the violence of creation thus far–and building a language of shared aspiration and solidarity across the border of fear.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Whenever I try to rationalize why poetry, I always think of my family’s weird linguistic history: my first words were in a language I’ve forgotten; my second language is different from my father’s mother tongue; his is different from his mother’s; and his mother’s is different from her mother’s–4 languages in 4 generations; Ladino, Turkish, Hebrew, English. Somehow this explains things to me, but I can’t put into words why here now.
I actually went to film first, and after a short stint in the industry working as an intern in the office of one of my favorite filmmakers, Jim Jarmusch, I began to feel my sense of the cinematic–of montage–expand until it began to include the slowest kind of montage: metaphor, that slow collision of opposites, that constantly generates meaning. I loved the feeling of slowing down cinema into the written word on the page; I wanted to be able to feel the space between juxtaposition, and to dwell in it for a longer duration than I could in a narrative film; something like slow sculpture.
Today, as my “writing” moves beyond the page, I think of the sense of montage expanding to the collision of two bodies, to two lives in juxtaposition–never identical, always in friction–generating meaning–each inter-personal encounter like an paradox, incompatible but generative–in some cases, infinitely so–some for a lifetime–some for a day, or just a moment of passing each other on the street.
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 write quickly, but edit, and develop the work very very slowly; this last book has taken several years to feel like it has found the right balance of modes and forms. For me, if I put a pen down on paper, so to speak, words, a poem or whatever it is, will come out–it’s a neutral process.
That said, when creation feels intentional, in the service of a larger vision, as an act or gift to a community real or imagined, it needs to sit still for me. I need to be able to live the words for years, get a sense of their implications. I like this slower way of writing: it has helped me move away from writing in a reactive way, as if I am expelling a toxin from my body–which is how I used to write–and has allowed me to actually be with language–with the goal of making a community of words that I and others can live in or with, at least for a little while.
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 usually think about a book from the very beginning, or a book within a book within a book, or a constellation of books.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I am taking a break from public readings, since it is easy to feel like you are an ornament in someone’s institution, social ambition or project. But I want to move toward more embodied performance, and to find a way of merging audio, visual, text, and performance. I think the “poetry reading” as such is not a form that I feel super comfortable with; I want to be near musicians, or dancers, or people talking over breakfast.
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?
The most obvious concern, which I have written about elsewhere, is with re-imagining the future of Palestine, and of Jewish & Palestinian interdependence. I am also interested in Jewish theology and history in general, as well as in exploring Mediterranean identities through tracing the stories of my Sephardic family–before and after the fall of the Ottoman empire.
In terms of Jewishness, I’ll give a more specific, poetic example. My favorite poem I’ve written is Island, which was published in part in Black Sun Lit in 2016. I love the poem for many reasons. It’s a poem that continues to surprise me each time I read it. It also is the poem that comes closest to my idea of cinema–a sequence of still images that blur to create the image of transformation.
The poem tells the story about travelers who are lost in a “white ocean,” represented by the white space of a page. Unable to find a place to land–to set up their new home–one of the travelers’ leaders removes their eyes and throws them in the ocean. From where the eyes land, islands begin to form, shooting from the ocean’s water, creating more and more “wake.” More and more adults blind themselves, following suit, and more and more islands begin to form, until all the adults go blind. Their children, fearful, keep their eyes, and are forced to lead their blind parents onto land and describe to them what they see. Thus forms the hierarchy of this new world: the children leading their blind parents onto their new land.
While writing this, I was thinking a lot about the Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum, which means contraction. It comes from the idea that there was a paradox at the world’s creation. That is, if god is everything, then how could God create anything new? (And why would God even have the desire to do so?) But, it seems, God did. So the Kabbalists claim that God had to “contract” in order to create an empty space within itself to make space for something that has not yet been. They believed that the emptiness within god was a choice–and a kind of cosmic sacrifice that made this world.
In a sense, I saw Island–and the lost colonists of the white page–as a poisoned version of Tzimtzum. A broken act of world-making. A lost people cannot find a place to dwell; they sacrifice an elementary particle–the human eye–to create a world on faulty foundations. Its removal: a broken oracular; and for those reasons and others, the island–and its people–cannot reason itself into permanence, and into necessity.
Questions arise. How–if our experience of self is totalizing–if we are lost in the myopia of our own culture–can we create anything new? Does what we see in front of us, stifle us, and our ability to see? How to create new worlds? And at what cost?
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?
A poem is an emblem or signal of the possibility for change. The possibly that a culture can change, that a person can change, that a history can change course, that our bodies can change, that our personalities, families, names, fates, habits can change.
A poem is a totem of potentiality. A poem that is more and more deeply “poetic” is one that can be returned to again and again and produce change for the same person, the same people, the same culture.
A highly potentialized poem is closer to an expression of nature. It changes the way the ground feels. Constantly. Like a song sung a thousand years ago that we still love to sing, which makes us sing more deeply each time; or a story we can keep reading so that each moment in the plot feels more important with each encounter; or a family myth that gives us our ground (even as ground gives way).
A highly potentialized poem burns for others, not only for the poet; it lights possibility for others’ but is never fully consumed (i.e. never exhausts of itself). It presences and illuminates more poetic acts–more possibility. It does not diminish the possibility of others’ visions of other worlds.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it is really difficult to find a good editor, especially when you are working with someone who isn’t a close friend. Once you reach outside that intimate community, it is easy for someone to have an agenda or want to make the writing too “legible”–in the service of making it commodifiable from an identity politics point of view, or a flash-in-the-pan sense of its political intention. My goal is to make something that feels more tender than actual knowledge, more like a tone or hum within the experience of wrestling with these identities and histories, so as to bring people into their mystery. I am much less interested in providing prescriptions for meaning. I think most editors wish to pin writing down in order to sell it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - 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 only write when I have a ton of foreseeable free time, since I find that even casually writing a sentence or a story idea that I like can influence my life for years after. If an idea resonates with me, I will have the nagging feeling for years that I need to develop it and fully render it, until the project is fully expressed. Maybe I need to be more unattached–and let some ideas go for good.
I recently wrote, “every Jew is a dying world.” I meant by this, “every person is a dying world.” And therefore, “every artist is a dying world.” Why? We lose everything, constantly. There is nothing we can keep–as our lives pass, the images and meanings of our lives pass. An artist, as in an impossible prayer, tries to memorialize their life against the inevitable loss of all memory and knowledge.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I seek nature–silence–touch. I seek things that turn my discursive experience off. I want writing or creation to come from an inner need, not from my mind’s need to settle scores, and bets, and promises, and arguments. It should be about the survival of the soul–and of the elevation of the soul to its truest commitments–it’s core journey.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Warm rain on concrete.
13 - 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 inspired by text-based artists Jenny Holzer & Robert Smithson, as well as Chris Marker.
I think A Flag of No Nation comes out of one other book in particular, Theresa Cha’s Dictée, which is a book that ties together document, family narrative, the oracular/esoteric/prophetic, with political allegory.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I love Lorca. I find the commitment to the minor language, the counter-language, the folk song, or folk experience inspiring. This is what I have thinking about with respect to Ladino/Judeo-Spanish, which my father’s family spoke before the Ottoman Empire fell–a language whose culture was eclipsed by the rise of hyper-nationalism in the twentieth century, and the introduction of modern Hebrew as the great unifier.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I want to make a book that feels like a piece of choreography or a video game; I don’t know if it will be a book then, but we will see!
16 - 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 sometimes think that if I hadn’t had a confusing relationship to language, I would have been a graphic designer or an ornithologist or something.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Accidentally answered this for 2!
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great book: Charles Reznikoff’s By The Waters of Manhattan. Last great movie: Moonlight, I cried for two thirds of the movie, so it was good. I particularly loved the changing name of the protagonist, Black to Blue to Chiron. That naming feels biblical–a transformation of a prophet, as Jacob became Israel through the erotic and violent encounter with the angel–Black becomes Blue becomes Chiron.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on publishing my first children’s book!