Henry Israeli is a dual citizen of Canada and the United States and lives in Philadelphia with his wife and daughters. His latest book is Our Age of Anxiety, is the winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. His previous books are god’s breath hovering across the waters (Four Way Books: 2016), Praying to the Black Cat (Del Sol: 2010), and New Messiahs (Four Way Books: 2002). He is also the translator of three books by Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku, and the founder and publisher of Saturnalia Books.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Having one’s first book published is a great vote of confidence. But other than that, nothing changes. In fact, it becomes more difficult. I’ve seen hundreds of brilliant first books. The real question is, can you follow it up with a second? A third? Can your vision sustain more than one book?
Every book I’ve ever written has been a work of full dedication and self-torture. It never gets easier.
I’d like to think that my new work is more thoughtful and mature, but that’s not a determination I can make myself.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was young I wrote in all the major genres: poetry, fiction (short and long), drama, and essays. But poetry, I found, was the most fulfilling. When you get a poem right, it’s like snapping in that last puzzle piece. It just feels gratifying.
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 collection of poetry takes me several years to complete. I start by writing individual poems and when I have enough of them, I look carefully for patterns and recurring concerns, things that will give me a clue about what I’m digging for and how to organize the poems into a manuscript that is, hopefully, greater than the sum of its parts. Then there’s the endless editing, culling bad poems, and sending poems out to journals.
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?
Oh, I think I just answered that. I start with individual poems and once I figure out what the hell I’m getting at I start thinking of new poems as contributions to an already established theme.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do readings to promote new books, but I don’t enjoy doing them. I’m an introvert and standing in front of a crowd, or worse yet, a near empty room, is intimidating for me. Still I realize, as a publisher myself, the importance of getting out there to sell books. So I put on my best face, pretend I’m charming, and just do it.
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?
As a child of immigrants and as an immigrant myself, my work is always concerned with Otherness. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am also concerned with heredity, persecution, and existential fear and anxiety. However, I’m not trying to answer any questions. I don’t think poetry is very good at that. I’m more interested in asking them.
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?
Writing and reading poetry in a world that is hostile, resentful, or simply oblivious of poetry is a political act in itself. I love the thought that I am part of a counterculture that resists oppression by committing itself to an ancient artform. The poets are the canaries in a coal mine when it comes to dictatorships. However, I do not delude myself into thinking that “my precious words” can enact change or affect our larger culture in any significant way. But who knows? Occasionally a poet breaks through the cultural barrier and has an impact, but that’s a rare event.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it is essential that poets share their work and take advice from other poets. It’s all too common not to clearly see what’s directly in front of us.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I’m not sure if someone gave this to me when I was young, or if I made it up for my students. “Let the poem take you where it wants to go.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation)? What do you see as the appeal?
Translation is a form of editing. You are editing someone’s foreign words for an audience that you are familiar with. Translating certainly helped me sharpen my editing skills.
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 wish! Unfortunately, because I teach at a university full time, and my university is on a quarter system, and my schedule and the amount of work I have changes, sometimes radically, every three months. Ideally though I would write for two to three hours every morning.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I have a bookshelf stocked with poetry books and I’ll randomly pull one out and read. A line, a word, a turn of phrase, anything really, can stimulate my writing.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Chicken soup. Hey, I’m Jewish.
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 have written ekphrastic poems and poems based science. I am, of course, influenced by nature, and by simple things I experience or see day to day. I am also greatly influenced by history and sometimes by philosophy.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Of the classics, Keats, Donne, Eliot, Stevens, Celan, Plath, Creeley, and others. When I was in grad school in the early 90’s, we all considered Ashbery to be the closest thing to a poetry God on Earth. Now I read widely and can take something away from nearly every poet I read, young or old. Of contemporary poets, I greatly admire Peter Gizzi, Mary Ruefle, Forrest Gander, Tracy K. Smith, Terrance Hayes, Ocean Vuong, and so many more. Of course, I love all the poets that my press, Saturnalia Books, publishes but it would be unfair of me to pick favorites.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Hike Machu Picchu.
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 would have discovered the cure for cancer. Sorry, world.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Stupidity. What the hell was I thinking?
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Fiction: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Part nightmare, part fantasy, part political satire, one hundred percent insane.
Poetry: Archeophonics by Peter Gizzi. So many wonderful surprises and linguistic leaps.
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a film in ages. But I am a big fan of TV: The Americans, Fargo, Chernobyl, When They See Us, and anything by David Simon come to mind.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m finishing up a poetry manuscript, Night of the Murdered Poets, that combines the story of Stalin’s last purge with memories of growing up in the 1970’s. I’m also working on another collection that focusses on the current cultural and political disconnect through short ineffable lyrics with the working title, Deep Fake.