Behind the Words: An Interview with Karen Alkalay-Gut
by Omri J. Luzon
Karen Alkalay-Gut is a professor at Tel-Aviv University, the Chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English, Vice Chair of the Federation of Writers Unions in Israel and the board member of the Yiddish Writers Association. She is also a coordinating editor of the newly revived Jerusalem Review and a trustee for the Alsop Review.
Titles are just titles – they do not tell us who the person is, who the poet Karen Alkalay-Gut is. ‘Behind the Words’ is a series of in-depth discussions with contemporary writers and poets in which we’ll try to get to know the poet – this time, the remarkable Karen Alkalay-Gut – a little bit better.. It should be mentioned that the interview before you was conducted in the middle of the humid Israeli summer, in a very hot and un-air-conditioned office in Tel Aviv University, and the effects of it will be greatly felt.
Let’s start easy, shall we – coffee or tea?
Depends on where I am, what I’m doing. I was asked by my grandchild, “What is your favorite coffee?” and I answered, “The coffee I’m drinking now”.
Where are you from?
When I first came to Israel and was introduced to a famous poet – Ben Zion Tomer, who read my poetry, he said – “I know where you’re from, you were born orphaned”. I was born in London during the Blitz, my parents were escaping from Lithuania through Danzig, and came to England for the war [WWII], to London, from the war! After the war we were thrown out and went to the United States, and I grew up there and moved to Israel on ’72. So I’m from where – Lithuania, Danzig, London, Rochester NY, Israel or somewhere else?
We’ll settle on From then.
Agreed – From it is. [laughing]
What is your favorite genre for reading?
I am now reading a novel of the 20s or 30s by Ada Leverson called ”Tenterhooks”, about illicit love. I usually prefer poetry because it is shorter and more intense. I like wholeness, to have a whole experience in one sitting, like Edgar Allan Poe said about poetry – you should be able to read it from beginning to an end in one sitting. Novels demands going in and out. I love plays actually, but they also demand going in and out. Poetry is a one, single, immediate experience, and I like that.
What is the first thing you look for when you open a fresh new book?
Weight! [laughing] Heavy books are difficult for me! But I’m not kidding about weight – if it’s a heavy book of poems, then you say that this is a narcissistic poet [laughing], a heavy novel on the other hand might be a summer experience, or something to keep you in another world all year.
What is the last thing you expect to find when you open a fresh new book?
The most important thing is that it absorbs me, that I can fight with it and love it and experience with it. I don’t want a book to reflect me or my opinions, I want a book to teach me something new and maybe something old.
What time of day is best for your writing?
When I have a minute free [laughing].
OK, now that we know a little bit about you, let’s really get to know you – who is Karen Alkalay-Gut?
I don’t know yet, I’m only 66! Who is Karen? Let’s see, I am a person who very much enjoys the present and what I’m doing. I don’t like to brand myself, so the idea of “who is”… I should have started out with – I’m a professor, or I am a poet, a mother, a grandmother, a wife, or the daughter of -, the sister of -, etc. None of those incorporate anything about who I am, but they help to explain something about me.
It takes me back to the idea of titles and what they say about a person. So, how do you think, if at all, the moving around the world affected you and your art?
First of all I am not committed to anything – not a group of, or a school of anything. My first language was Yiddish, which has no national boundaries and is dying. But it is in some ways above the culture, so that I never became totally a part of any culture.
So you don’t call yourself, for example, an Israeli poet.
I am a person who writes poetry. Yehuda Amichai [a famous Israeli writer –http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yehuda_Amichai ] said – I am not defined as a poet, I am a person who writes poetry. An individual who writes poetry, and I adopted that from him. Am I a poet? Yes. Am I an Israeli poet? If you want to limit me – yes. I don’t think I write for Israeli audience most of the time, but some un-existing Yiddish audience, that disappeared 50 years ago.
Then maybe we can say that the only limitation you have as a poet, is the limitation of your own thoughts.
Possibly. It could also be that when someone says that he is beyond all limitations that he is about to be put away in a mental institution.
I thought we’ll get there! [laughing]
But I find that I have that kind of critical sense and that kind of being a part, and being apart, of things.
And still we can’t get away of definitions, so – you are a female.
Yes. Although I have used the opportunity to dress up in drag when I was 8! [laughing]
And you do write poetry. So how does the two combine? How do you incorporate the subjects of femininity, sexuality, etc.?
Every topic is tainted with gender, because, as I told you before the interview, I saw a play about a cancer patient yesterday, and it’s a female cancer patient, so here treatment by the doctors, the way she perceives the treatment, chemotherapy as a kind of invasion of the body, a kind of romantic invasion of her body, is not sexual and is sexual. So everything you see and experience is influenced by gender.
In harsher poems, such as – “Ahrei“ (“Afterward” in Hebrew) or “Porno Ladies”, we read a stronger critical voice emerging. They feel like impressions, but at the same time – much more.
Yes. I’m a political being. I am involved in politics. “Ahrei” is about rape in the sixties, which is only now coming to be defined clearly. There are all kinds of abuse of women that was considered OK, the fault of the woman. This poem was written from the point of view of the woman that still, kind of, blames herself. Not only the rapist, but the whole of society would have blamed her for the rape. In “Porno Ladies”, I’m trying to talk about the fact that porno was, at the beginning, exciting, but it became more and more extreme to the point of being ridiculous. It is a popular topic, but unless you’re in great need [laughing] – you can’t look at it seriously.
Many researches connect Porno and Violence, for example –
I think that we don’t really realize to what extent our sexuality is influenced by politics. In John Donne’s poetry there’s always this interrelationship between religion and sex, and I think that sexuality is determined by everything around you. And even choices of sexual preferences, homosexuality, heterosexuality. I got into trouble many years ago by saying that all the American women poets were turning lesbians, and the reason is because they needed freedom. Not a biological choice as much of a choice of individuality and freedom that wasn’t given to them. I guess I was hinting there that to some extent we make our sexual decisions by political ones.
In your poem “Reader Response” you write – “Verse is the antithesis / of communication.” – What is verse for you?
Writing a poem, which is very intimate and close, is not the same as intimacy. If I write a love poem, at the moment I write I say to myself – “This is how I feel about you”. But by writing it down, by publishing it, I have made it not a communication between me and you, but a public statement. Therefore – it is not a communication. And I think that people get mixed up with the intimacy of a poem and the intimacy between a relationship of a poet and the poet.
1980, I think that my first book in Hebrew came out, entitled “Butter Sculptures”, and was very erotic for Israel of the time. I used to get letters by unknown men – “I love your poetry and I love you too”, I got marriage proposals! So, you know, that of course led me to say – “Hey, it’s not about you”. I like the freedom of being whatever I want to be in a poem, whereas in life – I don’t know how to tell lies.
So is poetry all about lies?
No, but I mean – in real life it would be lies. I do a lot of dialogues with Aristotle, stuff like that, if I really saw visions like that I would be put away. I like to have the freedom in the poem of making up a situation and enjoy that situation. I don’t want someone to think that I actually did this, not that I’m ashamed of the possibility that I actually did this, but as soon as you confine it to reality – it’s a confinement.
What is the importance of poetry for you?
The amazing freedom of the imagination that allows you to go beyond reality, that allows you to dream something that isn’t actually get, and to create it. Now, that’s where the connection between the importance of poetry and the importance of life is – I can imagine in poems situations and then, sometimes, fulfill them or go beyond. I once wrote a poem in which I wrote, “The sign that you’ve lived a good life is that your children forgive you, not because you deserve it but because you’ve taught them to forgive”. Now, that took me very far in my relationship with my children. Because I’ve made a lot of mistakes, parents make a lot of mistakes, but I have trained them to understand human beings.
Avra CaDivra, is a book of chants. How did it come to be, what is your connection to the world of magic and magical possibilities? Do you believe in magic?
Yes! But what kind of magic? The idea of Avra CaDivra, or abracadabra – the magic word, basically comes from Aramaic – “Abra CaDivra”, “It happens as it is said”, “The word makes the world”. You make it reality by saying it. That’s what I was saying about poetry changing lives, and ways of thinking, which changes the world. It’s not like a cult thing, which I got into, you know, or magic charms (although I do use them though – there are times when you’re in trouble, like an operation that I’m about to go, and I say a couple of poems, which put me above the situation, and they comfort me. Some of them are not nice about the dentist! [laughing]).
In your book – “So far, So Good”, there’s a lot in common between the world of magic and myth and that of poetry. What do you think about this idea?
I think that Magic, Myth and Poetry are the same, are very similar. They are always right alongside of us. I live in the real world, I help run a business here, you know – I’m a realistic person, I live in the real world, read newspapers, watch Weeds [laughing] —
It’s a good show!
It’s back! But the real world here is a very difficult world to live in. and to be able to cope with it, you have to have that person next to you that you just made up. When you are in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation you make you something, it doesn’t take out of the situation – it helps you cope with the situation. I don’t want to escape but to work with, and magic works with. You can fantasize and want it to be, and it happens when you want it to be.
You write a lot of witty whimsical poetry, and it is always a great fun to read those works. Like the food/refrigerator poems, or “BeBeit Ha’Caffe” [“In the Coffee House” in Hebrew], “Animals of Tel Aviv”. So I have to ask – are you somewhat insane?
I knew that we would get to that! Apparently, see, I’m very sane. The craziest thing about it is that I’m very sane, that I cope with a great deal of many different experiences, etc. I have insanity next door if I want it! I worked in a mental institution for a couple of years, and many of my friends wound up in the institution. And the only difference between them and me was the freedom of imagination – I have a crazy imagination, I can go anywhere with it, but I would come back when needed. They could go and not come back. They didn’t have the control over it.
I believe in insanity as a way of life, an option.
I think that the heaviness which accompanies the association of the word “Poetry”, might be a key element for contemporary Poetry’s downfall. And therefore, maybe the fun and laughter is important to make poetry contemporary and accessible.
A lot of people say the opposite – that humorous poetry isn’t serious. But it seems to me that humor is one of the most intelligent ways of coping with situations. It gives you the stepping aside.
You know, those refrigerator poems are very serious! I mean, they are funny but some of them make you contemplate. I have in my bathroom a series of poems, that have been plastered in strategic places, for ten years, and there’s one above the toilet so that if you are looking there you are not paying attention to… Anyway, the poem sometimes is a distraction from the proper goal! [laughing]
And still, looking at your poetry, one cannot avoid the harsh topics of sex, sexuality, individuality, and politics – which is there in poems such as “Live war”. But we also have poems such as “Poland”, were has the heaviness and the lightness together. It’s an interesting way of dealing with these issues, and I think that it takes courage to write so bluntly, and still, fine. So, how do you get there, what gives you the courage to write in such a way about such delicate topics?
It’s the crazy person in me! [laughing]. I don’t know. I know that it is connected to being an outsider and an insider at the same time. To be part of a culture, and at the same time to be a little bit outside. Saying things that are not quite right, but sometimes get farther than you can get when you say the proper things.
A very good friend of mine was having a very proper dinner party, and sitting next to him was a very proper lady, and he didn’t know what to do. He finely turned to her and said, she was about 50 years old – “So how are your teeth?” [laughing]. Now, he was the senior book editor of the New York Times, a very important person, and he thought – “That’s it. She’s not going to talk to me ever again”. And she was so thrilled that someone picked a subject that was so close to her heart, because everyone suffer somewhere from teeth, and it was like – you cut through all the bullshit to something that is serious, really serious, by saying something funny. And it’s a very interesting possibility for intellectual manipulation of freedom.
Before we reach the ending of the interview, how does it feel to have a good resume of published poetry behind you, do you still have that excitement before each new book? Do you feel the same for poetry as you did at the beginning? How does it feel?
Nothing. First of all, I said at the beginning of the interview that the coffee I like is the coffee that I’m drinking at the moment – the poem I like is the poem I’m writing. Whatever I’ve done – I’ve done, it’s over there. You don’t look for the fruit of your work, you look for the work, you enjoy the work itself. I don’t see that I have a distinguished record, if I look at it critically I say – “Pfft. What have you done?” What I usually do is look at what I do now. Sometimes I look too much.
You mentioned a coming book?
There’s a book of poems and photographs of Galapagos, which is relating to the world – it’s not a travel book, it is about how you come to a place that is different and you can’t get your ground, and you come to a point of – “Yes! This is it!”, and say that you can connect to his iguana, but it hates me. And you realize that actually you should be afraid, that it is not an ideal world. But that’s in Hebrew.
The other book – there’s an audiobook coming out in Italy, a dual language audiobook which is being recorded and mixed as we speak.
A disc is coming out of my group Panic Ensemble, the second disc of this group, coming out in September.
But! If you’ve noticed I’m not mentioning the body of my works in English, because it’s ready and I haven’t done anything in finding a publisher, because my publisher went bankrupt. So if you know anyone out there… [laughing]
So we’re now to a fast round. Answer as intuitively as you can – your favorite book?
“Ferdinand the Bull” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_Ferdinand ] It’s a children book about a bull who won’t fight in the bull fight, and he sits and smell the flowers that they throw into the ring.
Your favorite poem.
Depends on the moment. At the moment – Theodore Roethke “The Moment” [http://karenalkalay-gut.com/ROETHKE.htm ]
A word/phrase that turns you on.
So to speak.
A word/phrase that turns you off.
Nothing in itself turns me off.
A genre you’ll never write in.
A genre that doesn’t exist! I don’t know what I’ll do tomorrow.
A genre you didn’t try and wish to give a go.
When I was in grammar school I wrote plays for the class, and we produced them and I starred in them. But since then I haven’t written a play. I’m trying to write a play now.
Cursing or no cursing in your art?
If you mean using bad words…
No, I mean CURSING.
The most embarrassing piece you ever wrote.
There’s this thing in the first album of Panic Ensemble called “Jewish Women”, and it was written about the book of Judith, which is about this woman who saves the town of the Greeks, probably, by killing the leader – getting him drunk and cutting off his head. So, I wrote this song for the group – “They always do it, those Jewish women, promise you everything and then cut off your head” [laughing]. Alright, when we recorded it there was a section I did in Yiddish, that is the translation of the same thing. They asked us to be on London and Kirshenbaum [a famous Israeli talk show] and I was out of the country, so they took the German trombone and trumpet player, who is a wonderful player, and he did the Yiddish but he did it in German accent. And as soon as it went into German it became anti-Semitic! It suddenly became Nazi, and that was very embarrassing. Then I realized for the first time that interpretations can go very far! [laughing]
Ouch! What is success in the literature world for you?
What is success? I don’t even know what success is. Just let me get this book out! [laughing] I’m not goning to win any prizes in Israel, because the prizes in Israel go to Hebrew writers, I’m not going to win any prizes in America because they are for Americans, so that’s out. Nobel! They never give the Nobel prize for poets, so you know – we’re free from the desire of success!
If you were to meet any writer/artist in the world – who would it be and what is the first thing you will do/say?
First of all – I meet them all the time! Just this morning I had some coffee with Yeats, he doesn’t drink coffee well, you know very nervous. And it was very interesting, and he was talking about planning his day and as usual he wants to stay in bed and write. And we discussed that, because that’s what I would like to do – stay in morning in bed, next to Yeats, and you know, sit and correct poems. And he said that – you can’t be expected to do something like that. And I said – “Why?”, and he said – “Well, you’re not me”.
There are so many people I would like to meet, so many things I would like to say, and so many that I have met that I didn’t say it to them. See – this picture [in her office] is of Dan Ben-Amotz [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dahn_Ben-Amotz ] and me, I went abroad when he got sick, and when I came back he just had this party of saying goodbye to the world, because he was dying. I regret most of all of not having the chance to see him before he died, and not knowing what he was talking to me when he was alive – because he gave me a lot of information and advice that I didn’t understand.
I am entirely unprotected
You are moving above me
in a form of congress
and I am thinking that the dream
of someday having a child with you
was born in the town Cervantes called home
that you will never
leave your wife
And this flat we have used
for our little meetings
is suddenly sordid
and you are really
as a lover
not very communicative
Even this meeting
to end in sex
and it is the wrong
time of month
a strangled cry
as if unwilling
to let your pleasure
and I shout what
have you done
and you slowly
turn to me
surprised I have a voice
I was thinking
of other things.
I would like to thank Karen for this really remarkable interview, and invite you all to enjoy her works and art on – http://karenalkalay-gut.com/ .