Jehanne Dubrow: Art-Making is Dangerous Businessby Lizzie Stark, Jehanne Dubrow • 03.26.2012
Today Fringe reprinted selections from Jehanne Dubrow’s wonderful series “Fragments from a Nonexistent Yiddish Poet”(included in her book, From the Fever-World)Editor Lizzie Stark took the opportunity to grill her about everything from her childhood in communist Poland to her new book of poems, Red Army Red.
Looking at these poems nearly five years after publication, what strikes you about them? Is there anything you’d change?
When I read the nonexistent Yiddish poems—these, and any of the other fragments that appear in my second book From the Fever-World—I’m struck by how invested they are in their own fictional universe of AlwaysWinter, Poland. These poems gave me permission to speak another voice, to be someone else on the page. I can also see the ways in which these pieces reveal a desire to use my training as a formalist while moving beyond the constraints of received and fixed forms. The ear of these poems still seems deeply metrical, very much informed by tradition.
Today, I would probably trust the power of fragmentation more than I did five years ago. I would probably allow the poems more white space, more breaks in syntax. I think these fragments could be more fragmented than they are, without sacrificing meaning or logic. But it’s also very clear to me that my “fragments from a nonexistent Yiddish poet” allowed me to write the poems that I’m now writing. Without the fake Yiddish fragments, I wouldn’t be working on a book prose poems in 2012.
Why did you choose a Yiddish persona as the writer of these poems?
I first began writing the fragments while serving as a Sosland Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, which is the academic arm of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. For my fellowship, I had proposed a course of research in the transmission of trauma from survivors to their children and grandchildren. My plan was to write a novel-in-verse based on this research of the second and third generations.
Instead, while I was at the CAHS, I started reading yizkor books (community memory books of disappeared Jewish towns in Eastern Europe), histories of Yiddish culture at the beginning of the 20th century, and surveys of Yiddish literature. It became clear to me that our notions of Yiddish culture are extremely narrow and that, prior to 1933, Yiddish literature in Eastern Europe was often highly experimental, socially conscious, and rooted in an urban sensibility. I started thinking myself, What kind of Yiddish poet would I hope to discover if I were a scholar and translator of this literature? And that’s how Ida Lewin came to be.
Your family lived all over the world while you were growing up. Has this affected your work?
Absolutely. First of all, I grew up in places like Communist-era Poland where poetry was taken very seriously and poets were often viewed as national heroes. Perhaps, if I had grown up in the United States, I wouldn’t see art as so urgent or necessary or deadly serious. In other parts of the world, poets are imprisoned or murdered for the words they write. Even as a little girl, I understood that art-making is dangerous business and that artists are entrusted with saying the difficult things that we don’t say in polite society. That seemed like important work to me.
Poland also remains a central figure in my writing. It is my “triggering town” (to summon William Stafford’s phrase).
Finally, my parents’ careers as U.S. Foreign Service officers ensured that I was constantly aware of the pressure of history on our daily lives. Living in the United States, it’s easy to forget history. Occasionally, history is forced into our homes, as it was on September 11, 2001. But, most of the time, Americans don’t walk through their cities or towns thinking of the stories embedded in the landscape. In her novella, Envy; or, Yiddish in America, Cynthia Ozick calls America the “empty bride,” a figure stripped of memory. In a place like Poland, history was always sitting at the dinner table. This is why my poems often bring together personal and national histories, the private and the public.
How have you developed as a writer since the fragments series?
Well, I’ve published two books since From the Fever-World: Stateside (2010) and Red Army Red, the second of which will be published by Northwestern University Press in autumn 2012. Both books are extremely formal and have helped me to determine what kind of formalist I want to be: a writer who uses tradition but (hopefully) doesn’t allow tradition to control her narrative choices.
I’ve learned that I can write a very strict line of iambic pentameter when I choose to but that I only want to adhere to a strict line when the content demands such rigidity. In other words, I’ve learned that being committed to the inextricable relationship between form and content means flexibility, adventurousness, and curiosity. Sometimes content demands an Elizabethan sonnet. Sometimes it demands free verse or a prose poem. My job is to remain open, willingly following the content toward whatever form the narrative requires.
Tell us a bit about Red Army Red. What sort of poems will we find in the book? What inspired it? How does it relate to your earlier work?
Here’s the clever answer about Red Army Red. The book uses the oppressive language of Communism to speak about the oppressiveness of the adolescent body. I came of age in the final days of the Eastern Bloc, during my family’s second tour in Poland (1987-1991). Two days after the Wall came down in Berlin, I turned 14. So, in my imagination, the transformation of Eastern Europe is aligned with my own transformation from girlhood to puberty.
Initially, the book began as an investigation of Soviet kitsch: loud, brassy poems about the shabby-beautiful aesthetic of the Eastern Bloc. I was interested in the nostalgia that some Europeans feel for the bad old days of Communism. But, very quickly, the book became an examination of the adolescent body, especially the female body, looking at the ways in which puberty is a vacillation between deprivation and excess. This movement mirrors the movement from Communism to a free market economy. Being a teenager is all about feast and famine, the adolescent’s inability to regulate herself or her choices.
Do you have any poetry memorized?
Yes. I started out in the theater and still have long passages of Shakespeare memorized. When I was in my early twenties and first trying my hand at formal verse, I realized that I could hear and duplicate the meters because I knew so much iambic pentameter by heart. Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin also stick with me, as do some of the really important French poets I memorized in my school days (“Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle…”). I know students roll their eyes at the idea of memorizing verse, but there’s really nothing more essential when it comes to hearing and internalizing meter on a cellular level. As Steven says, “music is feeling, then, not sound.” Meter is in the blood, not something to be counted out on the fingers.