Sunday, March 1, 2009

Interview with Alissa Valles, author of Orphan Fire

Alissa Valles' Orphan Fire (Nov., 2008) received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which wrote: "Valles's terse, learned, harsh collection is one of the standout first books of the year." Claire McQuerry recently interviewed her, and the interview is published here on the Four Way Books blog for the first time.

Claire McQuerry: From what I understand, you were raised in a multilingual home, and I know you have done quite a bit of translation work, most notably the Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert. Yet, unlike work by a number of multilingual poets I can think of, the poems in this collection almost never slip into your other languages. Have you purposefully avoided this? In what ways do you think your multilingual background manifests in your poetry or influences your approach to writing?

Alissa Valles: I feel that to slip into other languages (either in speech or print) is a form of either snobbishness or laziness – either you are showing off or you can’t find the words, or both. Although I owe a lot to Pound, I find his kind of phrase-dropping irritating. Yes, some things are untranslatable, but a poet’s job is to push his or her own language farther, to expand it. Shakespeare didn’t quote; he assimilated.

English is my first language. I was born in Amsterdam but taken to the US almost immediately. I learned Dutch when I was eight, when we moved back to Holland. In my teens I started translating Dutch poets: Faverey, Achterberg, Kopland, and the wonderful South African poet Ingrid Jonker, who wrote in Afrikaans, which I can read but not speak. For me the impulse to translate came from being plunged into a new language element and wanting to draw correspondences back to my bedrock language, which was English. One basic reason not to do this in my own poems is that virtually no one knows Dutch. It’s not like throwing in French or Spanish words. No one (except maybe my mother) would get it if I did mix my languages.

Multilingualism, which may soon be the rule rather than the exception in the U.S., does fuel a private inquiry into the nature of language, and maybe that shows in what I write. It turns some children into little epistemologists. Polish and Russian are acquired languages for me, and I have been reading and translating Polish and Russian poetry and prose quite a long time, but I still don’t really understand how they may or may not affect what I write in my own name.

CM: There is a tension in your poems, particularly in “Orphan Fire,” regarding the limitations of language and communication. The speaker wants pure, unrestrained expression but recognizes that “what is real” and expressible are definitive particulars: “the place on the wall someone’s hand wore away, a cat’s eye….” Earlier in the poem the speaker also recognizes that there are limits to what language can accomplish: “you can’t find/ a word in any language that would/ both bind a man to his own world/ and lead him, trusting, into another.” Some of these limitations seem to be linked to the boundaries of what the self can know and therefore express: “So far it is my eyes, my judgment and my searching that speak these words to you” and, later, “tell me to what oracle/ I pay tribute, who is speaking through me.” There is, of course, an epistemological uncertainty inherent in such recognition. Yet, your closing poem in the book, “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” insists, “there are things only I can tell you.” Do you find that your background in languages informs your sense of these limitations in language, and your poetics? How do you reconcile the fact that individual perception and experience are both limiting and enriching, particularly in terms of the poem as communication?

AV: Studying languages certainly contributes to a sense of the boundaries of language, but it also forces you to think or dream about a possible underlying unity, some kind of deep grammar, built into the mind. I for one am very susceptible to metaphors drawn from the Chomskian theory (or myth). At the same time, language is so bound up with “who we are” that it makes a good framework for exploring the ambiguities of selfhood.

As for Herodotus (“So far it is my eyes…”), the next phrase in that passage is “From this on, it is the accounts of the Egyptians that I will tell to you as I heard them….” It’s about two kinds of speech, one based on one’s own sight and sense, and another which relies to a great extent on things we have heard (or read) and take on the authority of others. I think one of the reasons that contemporary poetry, at least in the U.S., is so hesitant to venture beyond the personal is that there is a great confusion about tradition, about who speaks ‘through us’. What is called postmodernism – at least in literature -- has tended to deepen the confusion, while veiling it, I think.

CM: In your introduction to the Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert, you consider his poem “Apollo and Marsayas.” You suggest this poem is built around the sound that the flayed Marsayas makes—A. One vowel—arguing that Herbert’s refusal to sound this cry out is an important part of the poem’s complexity, that Marsayas’s pain finds its expression instead in “a series of metamorphoses.”

I compare this to your poem, “In the North (Westerbork),” which presents a series of harsh images that describe a landscape lacking any human presence. “Westerbork” is inhabited by personified things: “a stick probes the exhausted mouth of morning,” “the North shaves and washes in its cold mirror,” “The wind…wanders,/ a wakeful child in a house deserted by the elders.” The only living thing in the poem appears in the last line: “an oriole…punishing its one vowel.” While the anthropomorphized landscape echoes the lives of victims, the poem ends on the act of victimization and its resulting utterance: “one vowel.” This is the only sound in the poem. The landscape points to the unvoiced pain—wind rubbing its face raw, trees clawing at earth and air—but the oriole’s vowel is unsounded, only described. Can you speak to this? In what ways do you see “Westerbork” as being in conversation with Herbert’s poem?

AV: I think my poem, at least on the conscious level, is more directly in conversation with Stevens’ poem “The Course of a Particular”, an extraordinary poem that describes a bleak landscape, and a cry which is ‘not a cry of divine attention,/ Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.’ But there may be a connection with Herbert’s poem. Of course the scary thing about “Apollo and Marsyas” is that the cry seems actually to murder the landscape, rather than entering and animating it, as it does in the original myth. Both poems are about the failure or refusal to participate in a pain not “ours”.

But my poem is mainly a response to the specific landscape, or one of the landscapes, in which I grew up. Westerbork is a place in the province of Drenthe in the north of the Netherlands near where we had a house for a number of years when I was a child. It was the site of a camp that received refugees from Germany in the thirties and was then turned into a transit camp for the huge numbers deported deathward during the war. That countryside in winter is extremely bleak. Van Gogh painted it in dull shades of brown and grey. I don’t know what the oriole is doing here, but it’s not helping.

CM: As I just mentioned, the landscape in “Westerbork” recalls not only the atrocities inflicted upon individuals, but also those inflicted by individuals. I see this lack of denial paralleled in “Ev’n in Their Ashes (Srebrenica).” This poem weaves in echoes of Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” yet while the speaker of Gray’s poem imagines his way into the lives of the churchyard’s dead, the speaker of “Srebrenica” does not imagine herself into the victims’ experience.

Instead, in the closing lines, the speaker seems to consider the massacre from the perspective of the killers, to whom the victims are like sheep “bleating…under a knife.” I think too of Frank Bidart’s poem “Curse,” addressed not to the victims of 9/11, but to the terrorists — not identifying with them, but entering into their perspective, nonetheless. Did you choose to do this consciously? Would you consider this a part of your approach to witness poetry?

AV: I have to say that I resist the notion of ‘witness poetry’. It makes no sense to me to separate off a category of historical events that require or deserve ‘witnessing’ by virtue of their extremity. I write about violence in the world because it’s part of everyday reality. In the 1990’s both London, where I studied, and Amsterdam were awash with ex-Yugoslav’s of all descriptions and I had a lot to do with them, in various capacities. The Dutch Institute of War Documentation, for which I worked after college, did the official investigation into the responsibility of the Dutch forces for the Srebrenica massacre. I felt the report was too complacent, and (like many others) I was angry about it. The poem I wrote was simply a continuation of conversations I was having at that time. I was trying to describe the people I knew, the ones who got away. You came across both thugs and victims, and they were both haunted by images of violence, sometimes the same images.

CM: Place seems to be an important element in this book: you have poems set in Amsterdam, Paris, London, Warsaw, Chicago — and there is a definite sense of the particular qualities of these physical environments. (The snow’s “white sheets” on Vasilevsky Island, “windows lit up/ with pink neon” in Amsterdam, bark peeling from the plane trees in Paris, etc.). Do you find place/setting to be an impetus for your poetry? How does place factor into the way you conceptualize this collection?

AV: I’ve moved around a lot, first under parental duress and then by choice. Places come to embody certain experiences or discoveries which themselves are logically independent of place. I don’t usually like poetry driven entirely by the thrill of foreign travel. I’ve written mainly about places where I’ve lived and worked for a length of time - with the exception of ‘San Juan del Duero’, a little poem that came out of traveling in Northern Spain with my mother. But the country looms large in my family history, and for me there’s a huge charge in visiting Spain. The book’s middle part is a kind of travelogue, it starts inside the house in San Francisco where we lived when I and my brother Gabe were kids, and it ends in the city where I was living when I finished the book, Warsaw.

CM: In the stunning title poem for this collection you allude to creation mythology, particularly the notion of a fall: The epigraph, from Blake’s “Song of Thel;” a child’s dress, like wings, “without memory of a fall;” the “Constant fire, passing into the created world,” which destroys its end and encounters the pain of limitation. These allusions seem to work as metaphor for the distance between the openness of possibility and constraints of reality. One specific manifestation of this distance is the separation of the self from other selves: “the nearest you get to purity is the pain/ of division.” While these lines literally describe the pain of birth, the physical separation of mother and child, they also figure the pain present in the separation of the self from any other self.

In what ways do you see poetry, another act of creation, as undoing or in some way healing that rupture between self and other? In addition to the creation mythology of “Orphan Fire,” art and artists, composers, poets, other kinds of creators, figure significantly in a number of the poems in the collection. Could you discuss your sense of the myth - and the act - of creation as they recur in Orphan Fire?

AV: In trying to give an account of birth, one can find it helpful to invoke a creation myth – and to understand birth as a kind of recapitulation of that story. On the other hand, perhaps creation myths are a [projection] on world history of the experience of being born – being first divided from the mother, and then from the self by consciousness. But I am not a psychoanalyst, nor do I build any coherent mythology.

I used the Hebrew beth, an expression of creation-as-division: the first letter of the Hebrew Bible corresponds to the number 2, according to the counting Cabalists, and has been read to mean that everything in creation is dual. The experience of being born seems to be so traumatic that people spend their lives seeking for a pre-birth condition of unity. Some artists do in their art. For my own part, I do not experience writing as healing.

CM: Fire is an important motif in the book, and in the title poem, especially, it’s connected with creation mythology. There is that line in the poem’s first section in which you describe this mythological fire as “twice orphaned, by gods and by earth.” What brought the notions of orphanhood and fire together for you, and how did you arrive at this marriage for the title of your book?

AV: I’m trying to describe a condition of existing outside of an intelligible relationship to God or nature. The Greek word orphanos means simply ‘bereaved’.

Claire McQuerry writes and translates poetry. Recent publications include Double Change and Harpur Palate, where she was a finalist for the Milton Kessler Memorial Prize. She lives in Seattle.

Alissa Valles is the editor and co-translator of Zbigniew Herbert’s The Collected Poems 1956-1998 (Ecco) a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year in 2007. She was born in Amsterdam to an American father and a Dutch mother. She grew up in the U.S. and the Netherlands and studied at the School of Slavonic & East European Studies in London and later at universities in Poland, Russia, and the U.S. She has worked for the BBC, the Dutch Institute of War Documentation, the Jewish Historical Institute and La Strada International in Warsaw. She has contributed to Polish Writers on Writing (Trinity University Press, 2007), The New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008), Documentary Theatre on the World Stage (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and served as editor for the web journal Words Without Borders. Her poems and translations have appeared in The Iowa Review, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Poetry, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, Verse, and elsewhere.