Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! –Rusty Morrison
This interview focuses on Ewa Chrusciel’s forthcoming Omnidawn book, Contraband of Hoopoe.
Rusty Morrison: The sound value of the book’s title makes it a delight to say aloud! But I know that both words, “contraband” and “hoopoe” in the title, have great significance. Will you speak to them?
Ewa Chrusciel: The hoopoe is an orange bird with white and black stripes and a spectacular crest. It can be found across Afro-Eurasia. One of its species, the Saint Helena Hoopoe, is already extinct. This bird is also a Biblical, mythological, and literary character. King Solomon sent the hoopoe to the Queen of Sheba to convert her to monotheism. The hoopoe could speak and he accomplished Solomon’s mission. It was also a hoopoe that led other birds on a pilgrimage to see the face of Mystery—Simurgh—in Attar’s famous Sufi epic, “The Conference of the Birds.” In 2008, the hoopoe was chosen as the national bird of Israel. The hoopoe happens to be, at the same time, a symbol of exile for the Palestinians. In his poem “Hoopoe,” Mahmoud Darwish says: “But, among us there is a hoopoe who dictates his letters to the olive tree of exile.” By now Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry has found its way to Israeli high schools. Therefore, the hoopoe continues its mission. He is the smuggler of sacred messages. By ceaseless cultural crossing, he is a peacemaker.
The hoopoe stands for the other, for the foreigner. It creates bewilderment. It transports us to new places. It changes us. That’s the secret contraband of this book; well, one of them. Edith Stein suggests that the other puts us in motion, so we actively go out of ourselves to meet the other. My book embodies this desire—the desire to face the poverty of spirit, the wounded and the vulnerable in us and outside of us. And that desire tends to be disguised. The noblest contraband dwells in fraintendimento, understanding in-between or, in other words, reading between the lines.
RM: There are so many recurring references to both your personal history and to the histories of immigration in this text. Of course, in a short interview, we can’t discuss them all, but I’d love to ask you to talk about the Ellis Island poems, as well as the poems that delve into your past. How do you see these works interacting in the text?
EC: The idea of connecting the Ellis Island poems with my past and present came from my constant packing and unpacking, crossing and re-crossing the borders. I had to constantly leave behind things and places I was attached to. I had to carefully select things I could take and what I would leave behind. There was also a growing awareness that the things we miss, or long for, are usually other desires in disguise. That personal experience led me to a question about immigration and the first immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island. I started to visit Ellis Island and the Tenement Museum in New York because I was interested in the objects of affections that the first immigrants carried with them. Then I got interested in the ideas they carried. The first face I saw when I walked onto Ellis Island was that of Al Capone. Ellis Island was featuring an exhibition on Alcatraz. That collision between Ellis Island and Alcatraz Island gave rise to new questions about immigration, in the past and nowadays.
In the end, I realized the poems I was writing at that time were tending towards the other/Other. They investigated the liminal spaces and the transgressive nature of our desire. In the Hebrew Bible, the stranger is always mentioned in conjunction with the orphan and the widow. Foreigners are people who cannot take anything for granted. Nothing belongs to them. To adopt Jorie Graham’s words: “They live in a perpetual state of adaptation and mercy. Their path is a ‘twisted’ one, a crooked path, the one that takes you off the expected path—the one Mercury, or Hermes, leads you towards—‘off road’, ‘off course.’” Words are also strangers, multilingual immigrants.
RM: Can you speak to your poetic process? Your last book and this one both show your mastery of the prose poem form. Do you find this strategy to best enable you to invite in, and then expose, the kind of hidden “contraband” that most actively engages and surprises your process? But you also lineate some poems, for instance, “Prayer Before Flight” and “All Souls’ Poem” and “Emergency Prayer,” to name a few. Can you also speak to this formal decision?
EC: In “Lost in Translation”, Eva Hoffman claims that we can have a new beginning in a new language. We can be free of constraints and native inhibitions. We gain distance in the second language. We no longer can take ourselves that seriously.
Prose poetry comes naturally to me in English, even though I do not use this form often when I write in Polish. In English, I let my syntax meander in order to encounter the subject of my poems, in order to storm the walls of mystery. Prose poetry seems to be a good form, for the meaning is always dynamic and ongoing for me. It expands into new domains, as new projective structures arise.
I let my sentences explode, take off, expand. Writing in English requires a constant mental shifting and shuffling between the two languages, between these two different conceptualizations of the world. It is the work of smuggling metaphors. This is also why I oscillate between the prose poem and lineated poems. Perhaps the hidden contraband of this book comes from the refusal to linguistically renounce anything—the desire to keep both worlds, the desire for bilocation. The price is the ceaseless border crossing, smuggling.
RM: Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything about you that is not in the bio printed in the book, and that might give insight into your more personal relationship to this text?
EC: I grew up during the Communist Regime in Poland. I remember the lines in front of the shops to buy rationed food. When there is deprivation, contraband is born. Poles soon figured out what is worth smuggling out of the country and back into the country.
Most important, however, the censorship gave rise to intellectual and spiritual contraband. Polish writers had to invent their own code-language in order to cleanse themselves of the Newspeak imposed on them by the Stalinist and Communist Regime. The Communist establishment banned books that criticized the Soviet Union, or any books that undermined the glory of Russia in general. Books that showed the West as an attractive place were banned. In high school, we smuggled quotes from Orwell’s Animal Farm: All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others. My father was in Solidarity, and as a child, I remember he was hiding some documents in a rabbit’s cage in our garden.
Perhaps the origin of writing is contraband. Writing somehow flourishes under the opposition, if not oppression. Compare this phenomenon to Kant’s pigeon—the atmospheric pressure that seems to hinder its flight makes it actually possible. Think of Hopkins’ windhover, which by hurling itself horizontally into the wind rebuffs it. Think of a kestrel which, buffeted by the wind, emerges out of the wind even stronger.
RM: Who are the authors or artists or musicians with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you currently reading, watching, hearing?
EC: When I grew up in Poland, I mostly admired Zbigniew Herbert, Czesław Miłosz, Ryszard Krynicki, Tadeusz Różewicz and Paul Celan. These poets showed me that poetry was like bread for the hungry. Generally, I am drawn to the poetics of omission, gaps, silence. Dickinson, Stevens, Bishop, Oppen. While I was completing my PhD and based in the US, I became interested in the poetics of A.R. Ammons, Hejinian, Jorie Graham, Cole Swensen, Anne Carson and Rosmarie Waldrop. Now there are tons of contemporary poets who fascinate me: Fanny Howe, Charles Wright, Mary Ruefle, just to mention a few. Recently, I got interested in the writings of self-taught Gypsy poet Bronisława Wajs, known as Papusza, who lived in Poland from 1908 to 1987.
I am also a fan of Flannery O’Connor. A story is good, as O’Connor instructs us, when it “hangs on and expands in the mind.” I apply these words to poetry.
RM: You chose the artist who created the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?
EC: I met Julie Püttgen at a reading of mine in Vermont and she contacted me about one of my contraband poems, which she liked. I told her I wanted to write a book with an overarching theme of smuggling and she became interested in the project. In the meantime, I went to Julie’s exhibition and I become an admirer of her art. This is why I envisioned her for the cover of the book. Please check out her website.
Ewa Chrusciel has two books in Polish: Furkot and Sopilki and one book in English, Strata, which won the 2009 International Book Contest and was published with Emergency Press in 2011. Her poems have appeared in many books and magazines in Poland, England, Italy, and the United States, including Jubilat, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Lana Turner, Spoon River Review,Aufgabe. She translated Jack London, Joseph Conrad, I.B. Singer as well as some contemporary American poets into Polish. She is an associate professor of humanities at Colby-Sawyer College.