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Interview with Alan Michael Parker, from the Best American Poetry Blog

In the summer of 2016 Alan Michael Parker invited me to be one of eleven poets who answered a series of questions about our forthcoming books for his stint as editor of the BAP Blog. The responses appeared in three segments between September 18 and October 3. I've gathered all of AMP's questions and my responses together here.

AMP: Which of these poems predicts your future?

Allow me to subvert the question to talk about a dream that led me on a journey. In the early summer of 2011 I woke in the middle of the night hearing the words “Tonight I am walking backwards”; I scribbled them in my journal before falling back to sleep. The sentence had the peculiar quality of utterance that has led me over the years to germinal poems, yet I had no idea what it might refer to. In a month I was to fly to Vilnius for an SLS seminar, an opportunity for me to explore the Jewish history and culture of a city that had witnessed both their heights and their depths, but I made no conscious connection between the trip and the image of walking backwards.

In Vilnius, I lived in the garret of an old building on one of the seven streets that had constituted the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Between 1941 and 1943, over 35,000 people were confined there; almost all would die at the hands of their captors, the majority by execution in the nearby killing fields of Ponar. I literally walked in their footsteps as I traveled the cobbled streets and as I climbed four flights of crumbling stairs to a room some number of them hadcrowded into and tried to sleep. By chance or fate I found myself “walking backwards” into the vexed history I claim as my inheritance. Night by night in that haunted room, in the company of the poetry of the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, I listened to the silence as the poem of walking backwards grew into “In the capital of a small republic.”

AMP : Which poem in your book should be read aloud first—that is, not the volume’s first poem?

“The City” began as an exercise, an attempt to work with the form David Ferry invented in his “One Two Three Four Five”: a single word is repeated in each line of a five-line poem, first placed at the front of a line and with each succeeding line moving further toward its end. I had been thinking about the vision of the City on the Hill and reading about cities of refuge in ancient Palestine, where those who had committed involuntary manslaughter were protected from punishment for their crimes. It was only when Jeffrey Levine accepted the completed manuscript of Walking Backwards for Tupelo and the press asked me to write a brief description of it that I realized the quest for a city “with water for cleaning and drinking” and “bread to quiet hunger” had become the thread that holds the book together. So, if you’re not wont to read books of poetry from the beginning, do turn to “The City” and read its fifteen lines aloud. I didn’t adhere strictly to David’s form, but the principle of progressive repetition in his model helped me construct a parable that opens the door to the journey.

AMP: Which poem in your book arrived mostly whole?

“Lashing the body from the bones” came all of a piece and quickly. Essentially a found poem, it is a distillation of the transcripts of the poet Peretz Markish’s testimony at his trial for crimes against the state in the last months of the Stalinist era, as published in Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov’s Stalin’s Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Markish was a Yiddish-language poet widely acclaimed in the early years of the Soviet Union but later executed along with twelve other prominent Jewish writers and intellectuals on what has become known as The Night of the Murdered Poets. My contribution to the poem consists entirely of my excisions. The testimony is so Kafkaesque it bore no emendation or commentary.

AMP: What are you doing formally in this book that’s new for you?

Like many poets I see my work as being in conversation with the poetry that has informed it. That sense was particularly acute when I was working on this book, where I was engaged in retrieving fragments of what was almost lost, particularly in the case of Markish and Abraham Sutzkever, condemned to present-day obscurity as a consequence of writing in a tongue largely annihilated by genocide. In poems such as “Old World,” “Lyric,” and “Something we might give” I conceived the page as a simultaneous present where poets whose voices were inflected by the Shoah and I might engage in intimate exchange—a risky enterprise but one I felt impelled to. Integrating words from their poems directly into my own gave me the sense that they were speaking through my mouth, a way of ceding space to them, an act of homage in which reading and writing, listening and speaking and, it seemed, self and other, merged.

AMP : List five books that mattered to you during the writing of your book.

When I was writing the poems in Walking Backwards my reading became concentrated on work by and about Jewish poets whose voices have outlived attempts to silence not just them but an entire cultural heritage. Among the familiars on my bookshelf: Poems of Paul Celan, trans. Michael Hamburger; Nelly Sachs’ Glowing Enigmas, trans. Michael Hamburger; Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence, trans. Christopher Clark; Joseph Leftwich’s An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Literature (particularly for his translations of Markish); and A. Sutzkever: Selected Poetry and Prose, trans. Barbara and Benjamin Harshav. Ilya Kaminsky and G. C. Waldrep’s anthology Homage to Paul Celan—if I may slip in a sixth—was also invaluable. Of many, these are but a few.