Jon Curley: Can you envision what kinds of poems, whether structurally or thematically, you might consider writing beyond the realm of your past practice? Are there elements of poems outside your usual patterns and activities you might try to integrate into your work?
Rachel Hadas: I find myself in close, ongoing collaboration with a video artist, Shalom Gorewitz. His “Yemaya,” (made under the pseudonym of Solace Salentino) a video rendering of a new poem of mine, can be found here. Due to my illness this summer, I became interested in making an offering to the ocean mother divinity, Yemaya, and this video depicts that. We plan more videos going forward.
Other than this kind of collaboration, which is new to me, I am interested in all kinds of poetic forms, free verse and translation. None of this is new, but maybe I have a new sense of eclecticism in how I use collage or bricolage to put texts in dialogue with each other. For example, each semester I write a cento using lines from my MFA students’ work, but increasingly I use what I think of as an aleatory cento form for my own work, i.e. using quotes I’ve liked from a wide range of poetry and prose (some in translation) to incorporate into my own work.
JC: What inspired what you call your new eclecticism?
RH: In terms of my own work’s trajectory, a kind of restlessness, yes, and also an enhanced sense of intertextuality—of the fact that all poems speak to and through one another. In terms of my life’s arc, a new and consuming relationship with a video artist. The medium of video was one I hadn’t thought much about. It proved to have an electric effect on my imagination even before the fact, as in a prophetic line I wrote in January 2013: “The flickering of what there are no words for.” Except that there are words, of course. Words are still my medium, but sometimes they are someone else’s words.
In two new poems, one from January 2013 and one from late summer 2013, there are some examples of my appropriations, or folding lines from someone else’s poem (or prose) into my own lyric structure or mix. From my aleatory canto “The White Door,” here’s a stanza:
I don’t know how to speak.
Armloads of wild flowers cover something dead.
We two struggle uphill.
What are you afraid of?
Everyone sees visions.
You must go away and then come back.
My skin was wrinkled and my hair was white
The first line is an adaptation of the wife’s accusation to the husband in Robert Frost’s “Home Burial,” when she angrily says, “You don’t know how to speak.” “Everyone sees visions” (a thought continued in the next stanza) is a line by Greek poet George Seferis, who was himself, I believe, channeling Heraclitus—these borrowings are not new!
And from “But It’s True” (late summer 2013), two nonadjacent stanzas:
Through the hourglass. Down the rabbit hole.
Eros shook my mind like a mountain wind.
Thus is his cheek the map of days outworn.
Hypothesis improbable but true:
My soul bled out of me and into you.
Something has been postponed.
I burned in the river of not having you.
Low and straight I flew toward snowy mountains.
A paradox improbable but true:
My soul swooped out of me and into you.
First stanza here: “rabbit hole” is, of course, from Alice. “Eros shook my mind…”: Sappho. “Thus is his cheek…”: Shakespeare, “Sonnet 68.” Second stanza: “Something has been postponed”: from the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos’ prison poems, Diaries of Exile. “I burned in the river of not having you”: a poem by Robert Pinsky, “Antique.”
You get the idea, I hope!
JC: How do you link the practice of poetry to coping with or confronting illness? Should poetry be regarded as therapeutic? Thaumaturgic? Shamanic?
RH: Let me reply by quoting the Prologue to my 2011 memoir about my husband’s illness, Strange Relation. I’m referring to some of the works of literature that helped me through George’s long illness: “Though many of them are certainly beautiful, these works of literature [both poetry and novels] didn’t soothe or console or lull me with their beauty. On the contrary, they made me sit up and pay attention. Each in its own way, they helped me by telling me the truth, or rather a truth, about the almost overwhelming situation in which I found myself.”
Therapy. Truth telling. Companionship. Discovery. Transformation. Literature, in my experience, can fulfill all these functions, though perhaps not all at one time. Two further thoughts: If I were a carpenter or musician or dancer or painter (or video artist!), I suspect I might find that my craft or art fulfilled these functions in the same way poetry does for me. And secondly, the burgeoning field of Narrative Medicine speaks to the many ways literature (and indeed all the arts) relates to human suffering. The tremendous power of narrative, of listening and speaking, of being able to tell a story and hear a story, is something our younger doctors have almost lost. At least in certain institutions, they are now beginning to recover it.
Rachel Hadas, Board of Governors Professor of English at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, is the author of over a dozen books of poetry, essays and translations, most recently The Golden Road and Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia, and Poetry.