Dumpty, and Blood Honey. She has degrees from Cornell, Brandeis and U. When I asked Chana Bloch for an interview, she graciously invited me to her house in north Berkeley. Before sitting down in the kitchen to talk on a warm July afternoon, Chana showed me the photographs of her family in the hallway — photos of her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts taken in Eastern Europe or shortly after they arrived in this country.
These are some of the figures who emerge so powerfully in the poems of Blood Honey. What draws you to poetry? Why do you write and translate poetry?
And I love the compression of poetry, the fact that you can get a lot said in a small space. I wrote stories and poems — actually, rhymed poems — when I was I in high school, and started writing poetry seriously in college and grad school. As for translating from Yiddish and Hebrew: I wanted to contribute something of substance to American-Jewish culture, which seems me to increasingly lightweight. So you were translating poetry right from the beginning.
I started translating from Yiddish, the language of my parents, which I studied as a child — poems by Jacob Glatstein and stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I began to study Hebrew in college and grad school, and during the five years I lived in Jerusalem, and I went on to translate the Israeli poets Dahlia Ravikovitch and Yehuda Amichai. How did that come about? Stanley Kunitz heard Dahlia read at the Rotterdam Poetry Festival and was very enthusiastic about her work. After that, they published two of my books.
You translated the biblical Song of Songs with your first husband, the linguist Ariel Bloch. It is a poem of passionate love. Your relationship with him was, I gather from the opening poems of Mrs.
Dumpty, very loving, even passionate. But then he became mentally ill and your marriage disintegrated. Reading The Songs of Songs and then Mrs. Dumpty back-to-back was revelatory for me. Ariel and I were married for almost twenty-four years. In the beginning we had what appeared to be a very good marriage. Toward the end of our work together on the Song of Songs, the effects of his mental illness became more and more evident, and our marriage began coming apart. After we separated, I wrote Mrs.
Each summer after that one, I could feel the pain and confusion subside. By the time I was able to write the tender, loving poems — the ones at the beginning of the book — I had come to terms with an experience that was almost impossible to understand. The process of putting it into words saved my sanity. You can be faithful to the truth of what happened without being tied to literal fact. Once you set the material down on the page, it becomes a free-standing object that asks to be shaped in accordance with its own laws.
Berkeley in May ], you mention what Robert Lowell told you in a poetry workshop: Can you think of a specific example from your work on the Song of Songs? When you are translating, you have to choose among possible alternatives to convey meaning and register, image and mood and music.
Each time you choose, you are sharpening your skills as a poet. In the process, you learn patience as well. There was a particular verse in the Song 2: One day, suddenly, it came to me: Maybe only another word-nut would understand what it means to be obsessed with a turn of phrase in that way.
Do you want to add to that? Some translators want to make their translations reader-friendly by smoothing out any difficulties, editing out the cultural particularity. At the other end of the spectrum, there are translators who work hard to preserve the flavor and feel of the original. I started out closer to the first type, but in time, especially through my collaboration with Chana Kronfeld, I have moved very much in the direction of the second.
This assumes that the reader is willing to make a bit of an effort, but why assume otherwise? What drew you to his poems? I fell in love with Herbert in graduate school. We made an unlikely pair — a Jewish girl from the Bronx and a devout century Anglican minister. When I read it, I felt I was back in touch with his spirit again. Herbert writes as a Christian believer who is wrestling with his faith, but in essence he is writing about the conflicts of the inner life, and I could easily relate to that; I could follow him up to the point where he turned to Jesus for help.
But that was more than enough. His poems have a beautiful dignity and candor and seriousness, along with a sharp unsparing wit. What other writers influence you? I value clarity — an old-fashioned virtue — and concision. I like poetry that appears to be clear on the surface, with unexpected depths.
His work is warm, alive, and very human — funny and serious at the same time. Among earlier poets, Emily Dickinson in particular.
Do you find it off-putting? By the way, what color do you think her hair was? Her hair was red. To my surprise, I discovered that when I visited her house in Amherst. They had a locket of her hair? From the famous daguerreotype I assumed her hair was dark. But it was red! I like imagining her as a bold, feisty redhead, never mind the white dress. Well, you see plenty of evidence of boldness in her poems.
How do you go about making a poem? Would you be willing to share your own process? When I go for a walk, I always take pencil and paper, and I scribble down lines that come to me. I usually work very slowly, and then I revise and revise and revise.
What are you working on at the moment? Dumpty I took on a single daunting subject: In writing Blood Honey I felt a strong impulse to expand my field of vision. I wrote about a poet who lived fifty years in an iron lung, a Harvard student who claimed to be the Messiah, an uncle of mine who killed a man and was proud of it. In my new manuscript I am trying to extend my range still further. Some of the new poems are about human origins, the death of Socrates, sign language, tourism to Auschwitz.
The title poem starts with a epigraph from Pascal: I look forward to reading it. What are you reading at the moment? I belong to a group that meets regularly to read poetry together — ancient, medieval, contemporary, in English and in translation. Each month we read a different poet chosen by the group. Do you like the Eastern European poets? I like to read about nature and evolution, especially since my younger son became a wildlife biologist.
Do you have any other advice for a poet just starting out, or to a young person thinking of becoming a writer? To a great extent, you have to teach yourself. Sometimes a critical comment can be devastating. I remember writing a poem in a creative writing course about a girl who was very pregnant. Let me think about it. I had a similar experience in my first year of college. Your translation of the Song of Songs was set to music by Jorge Liderman. Berkeley Chamber Chorus at Cal Performances.
What was it like hearing your own words put to music? It was fascinating to work with those composers. He initially set one of the lyrics from the Song of Songs, and he wanted to see my own poems. Dumpty as an angry poem. Berkeley before his tragic death. Jorge composed a cantata based on my translation of the Song of Songs. Together we decided which verses to include, and in what order, arranging the poems to suggest a kind of plot-line.