LIDIA VIANU -- EVA SALZMAN
Cleverness has become the new altar on which we may sacrifice too many poems
Interview with EVA SALZMAN (born 20 April 1960), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: Unlike anyone else in contemporary poetry, you write, I suspect, as you dance. Your poems are passionate whirls and your rhythm is that of the winding body, starving for communication of moods through gestures/words. You were a dancer from the age of ten to twenty-two. Are you still? Why poetry? Instead of or along dancing?
EVA SALZMAN: I wonder if I can cover this in a suitably condensed form. Why dance and poetry indeed? Hmmmm. Never could figure it out myself. Apparently I danced from a very early age and was then sent to lessons, as all well brought-up girls should be! Soon, I was giving command performances in my grandmother’s living room. So, success came early! I loved studying formal technique, especially Martha Graham’s, which offered a discipline and opportunity to indulge the drama queen in me. With both the poetry and the dance, I instinctively felt the need for the expression to be channeled through a form and structure that somehow justifies those indulgent influences one must never confess to!
Aside from the odd Salsa class, any dancing I do now is in the privacy of my or someone else’s living room – usually not so private, since the occasion is usually a party. Living rooms are the extent of my stage aspirations. One early dance I choreographed dealt with my mixed feelings about the bowing to applause. I mean it felt too good, so I wanted to shove away that part of my ego. The piece was called ‘Riot’ and at the end of it I exited by a side door, not returning to acknowledge my audience. Rude, huh? I wish I were doing more dance classes – once bitten…I miss it. I sometimes long for Tea Dances, except it’d have to have Salsa, jitterbug, the odd waltz. In my last full collection, Bargain with the Watchman, all of the muses I summoned obediently attended – except Terpsichore (I think I’ll have to add the Muse of Stubbornness to my muse repertoire.). The muse of dance simply wouldn’t put in an appearance, almost to spite this earlier life of mine: ‘The hell with your poetry – I’m a dancer.’ Finally, in her own good time, she showed.
LV. You were born in New York and moved to Britain in 1985. This is the old road taken by T.S. Eliot, Henry James, Ezra Pound. I am sure, though, you had different motives. Why did you leave New York? Is England a good home to you? Is English poetry a place you like?
ES. My motive for moving was a man, so, yes, quite different from the motives of the guys above, unless they have some interesting secret lives. Men usually do. Living in the UK, I suddenly had a strange picture of NYC as being strangely provincial – or parochial, I should say. New Yorkers are passionate and knowledgeable about important things, so long as those important things are themselves. Well, that’s a bit harsh. But at that time I was glad to distance myself from what I saw as a uniquely American political naivety and solipsism. After all these years, I’ve fallen back in love with my hometown – even appreciating the New York arrogance which is a palliative to the stuffy Home Counties English stuff I was living with in Tunbridge Wells – the place I lived the first years I was in the UK. I wrote a lot of really bad poems during that period, informed by the conservatism of that place, and a crappy marriage. The cliché about post-colonial ex-majors in the army and their unhappy wives seemed pretty much true. Nevertheless, I still held on to an idealized view of the European intellectual, considering England as part of Europe; hell, it never occurred to me that someone wouldn’t want to be part of Europe! And I carried on my literary love affair with England. My first readings were 18th and 19th century novels, mainly English. I took my time joining modern times, living in a sort of (mainly) Victorian bubble.
English poetry is ‘a place I like’, as you put it, but I’m not sure it always likes me! Americans are recognized and even feted here, but usually after they’re dead. During an Oxford event commemorating the Oxford Poets list, the Bronx poet Michael Donaghy and I, both Oxford poets at that time, sat in the audience listening to English voices reading out absent or dead American writers. We weren’t asked to read at all – were, in fact, the only current poets on the list who didn’t read that night! That sort of thing makes you wonder.
Sometimes I wonder if the anti-American bias is a hangover from WWII, or something (‘overpaid, over-sexed and over here’). Most of us are not overpaid. Pass on the others. People often mistake me for a representative of the US government, especially these days. Can’t understand that. I mean, I’m not dressed for that role, for one thing. Okay, Americans are loud and they gesticulate lots. Just like lots of Europeans in fact. But the New Yorkers in particular also have a kind of energy I miss.
Being an outsider in England has made me an outsider back home too. I’m not sorry to be out of the US right now, following September 11. Well, I was sort of sorry to begin with, but a year later…There’s more opposition to US government than people think – opposition to the clichéd imperialist, war-mongering, red-neck mentality. What people here don’t seem to realize, complaining about the UK media, is how much worse the media is over there; it never reflects much dissent and it’s easy for people to thus assume, as they do, that there isn’t any. The newspapers are certainly superficial and there aren’t that many of them. Aside from National Public Radio, and a few maverick stations – which often have to fight for their little lives. International politics gets a paragraph here or there, but you’d think the US lived in a vacuum. But meet people and go places, and the range of opinion and the genuine-ness of the people makes you think twice about just what this creature is: this American. And, in fact, the marches in the US, in NYC on February 15 this year, were hardly reported in the UK. Many dismissed them as small and inconsequential, but hundreds of thousands attended in NYC and apparently many thousands couldn’t get through the police barriers. In some quarters it’s more convenient for people to stick to their generalizations about Americans.
LV. Although you were published in an anthology of Jewish women’s poetry, nationality does not seem to be an issue in what you write. Where do you feel you belong?
ES. Ah, nationality. Like many writers, nowhere and everywhere. Nothing seems to fit perfectly. D.H. Lawrence never settled anywhere, or he settled lots of places then moved on. The Joyces moved around incessantly. The writers you mention maybe recognized their English-ness, and in some ways I can say the same. All New Yorkers are foreigners, so that makes sense. What is a New Yorker, but somebody from somewhere else?
The New Yorker identity is hugely influenced by the two biggest immigrant populations from the end of the last centuries: the Irish and Jews from Eastern Europe. So, while I lived in New York, I never really thought about being Jewish… until I came here and one day realized that there were hardly any Jews around! What a revelation that was, that I’d lived my whole life among Jews without knowing it. Whenever I meet any in England, almost instantly they ask me if I’m Jewish.
I’ve always felt nationality to be something imposed on me. Maybe you also feel it when it’s endangered. The English seem particularly deft at putting you in your place in this way. Since I’ve lived in the UK, I’ve been turned into an American, turned into a Jewish writer, turned into a woman writer (that becomes a tag too) – anything, but simply a writer. I have to say that the only anti-Semitism I’ve ever experienced was on these shores. I’m not painting NYC as some racial utopia, but I honestly didn’t grow up noticing people’s colour or religion, in the same way that I notice it here, or the way people notice it here and so force me to notice it. I often resent their inability to even recognize how they do this.
So I end up at home in exile, with exiles. I feel myself more comfortable, say, doing an Arts Council readings tour with a panel of writers from India, Egypt and Nigeria, than with English writers. Foreigners. In fact, I feel more affinity with, say, a Muslim writer than with someone from the Home Counties. Ironic, really. I seem to perpetuate this outsider condition without meaning to, working in prisons and with the disenfranchised.
I’ve become the foreigner in my own country – America being strange to me in precisely the way England used to be. There’s a poignant sadness in that situation (as in: ‘Why should I be in love with such dazzling sadness’ – the line you quote later in the interview! Keats wrote about it too). When I return to Brooklyn Heights, I walk out our front door – on Middagh Street, where Auden lived – and in two minutes I can sit on the promenade, look out over the East River to Wall Street, marvel at the sky-line. (It’s awful to say it, but without the twin towers, it’s more beautiful; the older buildings are more defined, in relief against the sky: the 1930’s buildings, the gothic Woolworth Building, which was NYC’s first real sky-scraper, built in 1912.) I think to myself: I am a New Yorker. Never mind: American. New Yorker. Always will be.
A friend, after visiting NYC commented at how surprisingly religious a city it was. Some of that is born-again Christian fundamentalism, but some of it that I saw
post-September 11, at firemen’s funeral processions, resembled the sort of flamboyant Catholicism of Italy or Spain. I’ve often thought that there should be an organisation for Catholic Jews; Sarah Bernhardt was one. We can all be guilty together, as one. We can compete in small, social circles. It’d be like a leisure sport. (Guilt, as in: How many Jewish grandmothers does it take to screw in a light bulb – None! I’ll sit in the dark!). and, like a lot of writers, I’ve been drawn to and fascinated by Catholicism, probably because it’s all about sex – every bit of it.
I’ve always had a lot of Catholic friends – mainly Irish. When I first moved over, I began to take apart my own voice and intonation; the New Yorker’s. I began to notice the influence of certain Irish accents: Tree, for Three, and so forth. Philip Casey, an Irish writer and friend, has made me an honorary Irish writer. That’s not the first time that’s happened. I feel comfortable among the Irish – feel more comfortable with them than with the English. Doesn’t that make sense?! And it’s nothing to do with drink. Or so what if it is. Maybe it’s even a selfish thing. They tolerate me more, they seem to love me more. And I can be loud around them.
LV. Your poems – like most really good Desperado poems – have a recipe: when you want to write a good poem, have something happen in it. This was true of the generation of Alan Brownjohn, mostly. Your generation, poets born in the sixties and a bit earlier, run away from incident to a complication or disembodiment of words which brings confusion. Do you think this is a correct remark? Do you prefer poetry with action in it?
Do the poets who are your age and whom you happen to read do the same?
ES. But artists make things happen.
LV. The poem Signs has a line which seems to describe you: ‘I’m an unbeliever in so many wondrous things.’ Take words, for instance. Here is a remarkable text:
Words travel badly.
Unwieldy and hard to fold
into smaller bundles,
they take up far more space
than the grain of their truth would occupy.
Those launched over the ocean to you
careen wildly, collide with other letters,
or return to sender,
packages mauled, shredded and torn into strips.
Few arrive intact.
As a battleground for love, the Atlantic
is too enormous and too romantic-sounding
for the bad language. Daggers rust,
fall useless into the sea.
Take the words: I love you.
Disembodied, though tantalising,
they arrive at your hearing.
Anybody might have sent them
to the wrong address.
Or: I ache for you.
The ache has journeyed long distances,
is tired with itself.
How does one ache for a you?
What is a you and where?
Take these words: You do not understand.
Print them and post them back.
We are just our words.
This is written in a faintly Eliotian manner, namely tongue in your cheek. You state one thing – and very clearly, too – and your heart is actually in its opposite. You mistrust clarity, in short, but you use it everywhere. Nothing of what you write is obscure (there are tons of fertile poetic ambiguity, though), so communication with the reader is certain. Your dancer’s movements have turned into words. They are obvious, but only become meaningful to the reader who is a soul mate. You fervently want your reader to share your being, to partake of your dancing words as a holy communion. Is all this true or am I misreading your poems?
ES. This poem, and others in that book, have that learned nationalism of the displaced person which I described earlier, and that learned nationalism breeds its own language which is then used for all transactions – including the romantic ones. In this case, any nuances or complexity have been reduced to a graph to be analysed. When it comes to detachment, geographical distance is the least of the problem. All we need to do is open our mouths.
I don’t like talking about my poems too much though. I’d rather talk about experiences or people or politics or gossip about love affairs (or have them!). I prefer to leave the interpretation to the reader. But I can identify with the notion of holy communion, since I’ve always seen my engagement with literature as a religious one. The act of writing to me is the closest I think I get to or experiencing a kind of epiphany. In literature, I find a belief system of sorts, the only kind I can adhere to.
LV. A poem (Physics) mentions emigration, Ellis Island. Is there a family story behind that which you could reveal?
ES. As with a huge percentage of the US population, my family came through Ellis Island, which was, surprisingly, derelict for many years, before being transformed into an excellent museum. (Actually, not so surprising it was derelict. The Americans are cavalier with their heritage. They appreciate it in England, where everything is supposed to be old. But in the US everything’s supposed to be new.) So it took ages for NYC to get around to commemorating that site’s importance not just to NYC, but also to all of America. The first time I went there was a couple of years after my father’s father had died. Samuel Salzman was born in Poland, and came to the USA around 1907. Samuel’s father had sent over his pregnant wife, my great-grandmother, with my grandfather and his brother, but the father could only come later himself. I’m not sure why. Something to do with my great-grandfather getting drafted or not drafted into the army (you were exempt if you had three children and, so far, there were only two, with another on the way) or something to do with Cossacks and the part of Poland that was Russia. My grandfather remembered these Cossacks. There was something about them putting a candle in the window, to signal something – Cossacks around or friendliness to them. I’m not sure. Eventually, the great-grandfather joined his family in the USA and expanded it to seven children. One of my grandfather’s brothers is the well-known psychiatrist Leon Salzman. All the siblings worked and saved money to send Uncle Leo to medical school in Edinburgh. That’s how it was done. I wish I knew more. It’s all lost now! The history goes so quickly, and age and distance make me regret what I don’t know.
My grandfather himself was an extraordinary man: one Bar Exam short of being a lawyer, he taught for many years, but also held an engineering degree and eventually became a psychologist. He was a secular humanist and polymath par excellence. My family of that generation were all secular, but apparently they were all Rabbis before that – Levis or Cohens, I’ve forgotten which – and anyway it doesn’t matter because I’m a woman and so the Rabbi mantle wouldn’t pass to me in any case! Still, it’s another thing I’d like to know about.
Another of my grandfather’s brothers and his wife, in true 1920’/30’s intelligentsia fashion, subscribed to Soviet Life until they died. We all lived within a few blocks of each other in Brooklyn Heights. My grandparents were like second parents, I was so close to them. I have this grandmother’s name, Frances, as my middle name.
My grandfather had tutored my grandmother through high school and then married her – that old story. I bet they were really passionate. I could feel the ghost of that. My grandmother was born in the US, as a Klenett (originally Klenetsky), raised in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, which is just over the bridge from the lower East Side. She was a teacher and also ran a children’s theatre, and wrote music-theatre – both the music and libretti. Sometimes, my mother, referring to this dancing daughter, would say: ‘I don’t know where she gets it from’ and my grandmother would look at her like she was crazy.
Later, my grandmother ran a book business from her home, but that was just an excuse for accumulating something like 20,000 books in her home. Subsequently, my grandfather also tutored me through Stuyvesant High School – a math and science high school where I had the Irish writer Frank McCourt as my teacher. (He may be partly responsible for my Irish honorable status.) Subsequently, I also ran a book business in England, to help support my writing habit. I carried across the ocean what books I could manage – not enough of, never enough, but enough to make a nice collection I’m really proud of.
My grandmother on my mother’s side, Beatrice, was born in Hungary and probably also passed through Ellis Island, although she never spoke about it. (My twin sister has Beatrice for her middle name.) This grandmother was raised in the mid-west, so I’ve got some Great Plains Americana in me too. That branch of the family included the actor Edward G. Robinson and the name of Martinson, who started a famous coffee company. Also, there were Pasternaks – apparently related to the well-known film producer of that name. Nice, but I’m more interested in having Boris on my side!
The early photos of this part of my family reveal some dark-skinned relatives, who look pretty Gypsy-like to me! It was also this part of my family who got caught in the camps. A couple of them seemed to have gotten out before the end of the war – perhaps as part of a group of Hungarian Jews who’d been ‘bought’ out somehow. One cousin, who had been at Auschwitz, apparently died within weeks of reaching the States – in a diving accident. Beatrice’s husband, Sydney, was called Jackson – changed from Kaufmann. His background was Latvian, although he was born in the US, raised in Boston. More I wish I knew!
LV. Your love is beautiful and fulfilling, both physical and inner. In Pilgrim a line ejaculates, ‘How I kissed the shore of my shame and wishing!’ Your feeling, whatever it is, is incandescent. Do you begin a poem with a feeling or a word in mind?
ES. Some poems start with a word or a line, like a song riff. Or a lateral connection of some kind. It’s different every time. I’d be lying to say that a strong emotion doesn’t give rise to a poem, but such emotion is useless if I can’t find the key which opens the door to a more universal context. If I can’t identify the larger picture, then I won’t feel driven to write about it.
In this poem, I wanted to dispose of a group of young people, in the most beautiful way possible, as described in the next line: ‘And Eternity rushed to meet them in a wave.’ Their memorial is the lasting bitterness and longing with which I think of them, but also it is the deep, blue sea. I’ve given them a beautiful lasting place of rest, you see!
LV. Spells bestows ‘A blessing on the Lyric muse when she is kind to me.’ Is she ever different? What do you do when the muse turns her back and walks away? Turn to dance or try other arts? Your husband illustrated wonderfully your third volume. Do you paint, too? Would you like to, if you do not?
ES. I used to draw – the last time being when I was very ill with pleurisy. I was living in a small worker’s cottage attached to an estate owned by the actress Susannah York. I draw like I play the piano: pretty badly. (The piano playing is marginally less bad, but in another life – see later question – I’ll remedy my disgraceful fingering…) I hated being forced to practise by my composer father and my music-loving environmentalist mother. It was only when the lessons stopped, at about age 12 or 13, that I suddenly thought, hmmmm, maybe this wasn’t after all such a bad thing to know how to do… So I kept playing, but then didn’t have a piano for many years in the UK. An ex-boyfriend finally bought me one, insisting it was a crime that I didn’t play anymore. (Speaking of crimes, he eventually got arrested… he was Irish-Catholic by the way.)
Writers are inventive when it comes to procrastination, and many of these procrastinating activities – laundry, dishes – make it impossible to return to any writing afterwards. Which is the point of doing them! Playing the piano pauses creative activity but somehow doesn’t break the flow in the same way. I’ve loved submerging myself again into playing the piano; maybe this has been one of the things that led me into writing libretti and lyrics – my father’s territory. Some of these lyrics in the recently published booklet of mine, illustrated by my husband, which you mention Since I also did some acting, this writing for music feels very natural, since it unifies these disparate elements of my life. As for the muse, s/he makes brief visits, but then it’s all hard graft for craft after that!
LV. A poem states, ‘With him I felt sublimely wordless. Until this.’ You end your poem in this way, and ‘this’ is the page, actually. Is it not sublime to write poetry? Is silence above that? The silence of eloquent dance? The music of the unuttered, unexplained in so many words?
ES. In that poem I wanted to write accurately, yet not explicitly or evasively, about the sexual experience – adequately conveying it from the male as well as female perspective. That is: I wanted to be explicit in a deeper way than just describing the activity. Finding the metaphors was only part of it. Language often unpicks this experience, I find, so I wanted to be explicit in a new way. I wanted to convey the spirituality without prettifying it. To talk about the power-games in love as sex and sex as love is not to diminish the intensity or the meaning of the experience. But to intellectualise the rawness is not accurate either. Within a sequence about the muses, where the muse is male, I also wanted to play with ideas of gender and role-playing – sometimes yielding to the irresistible pun or two! In this poem, that’s – appropriately – made explicit. I mean, who’s the muse in that poem? This muse turns the tables.
LV. ‘Why should I be in love with such dazzling sadness’, a line rebels. You are sad. I daresay that is the sadness of your very old race. You write about Jesus in your new volume. Do you ever feel your old roots? What is your religion and has it meant anything to you, poetically and in real life?
ES. I’ve talked about my secular heritage. The last year I lived in NYC, I worked as the Fitness Director at an Orthodox Jewish Diet Centre (I kid you not); this was in Borough Park Brooklyn and in Williamsburgh, where my grandmother lived. I guess I learned more about Jewish-ness doing this job. I could feel that pull of belonging, the pleasure that comes from being part of a club, in the same way I feel alien and not part of any British club. I was interested – and sometimes appalled – by the Orthodox society, but no more intrigued than I’ve been about, say, Catholicism, as in the ‘Jesus’ poem you mention.
Sometimes, when I took a taxi back from there, I’d have Russian or Israeli taxi drivers. One asked if I’d ever visited my ‘homeland’: Israel. I replied: But this is my homeland! I couldn’t understand that feeling. Yet I’m living in a country which is noticeably more on the ‘side’ of the Palestinians, the way that Americans are more on the ‘side’ of Israel. I know I strongly support the creation of a Palestinian state and deplore the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, yet when I see signs, which I often do, which read Free Palestine, I wonder what that means. Does that mean that one would oppose the existence of the only Jewish state which exists anywhere? Does that mean Israel, as a state, shouldn’t exist at all? Does that mean push all the Jews into the sea? Does that mean, have them all live in a Muslim state and they’ll be okay? How can one support a Palestinian state and not an Israeli state? Zionism has become a dirty word, but it seems to be as dirty as the implications of any state built on religious foundations, instead of those of secular democracy.
Nevertheless, if I feel nationalism of any kind, I feel the nationalism of being a New Yorker. Getting older, living so far from home and not having children, one does think more about one’s roots, but these are in Eastern Europe. I do often feel like I have no past and no future either. (This subject is also in that ‘Jesus’ poem.) I guess if I were to become religious I’d have to be a (bad) Buddhist or a (slightly better) Quaker.
LV. Döppelganger sees your life in these terms:
Nine months before drawing a single breath
I was living with my own death.
This is so unlike your verse in many ways. You celebrate life. Rhyme is discreet, usually. It is noisily present here, just as it was in Eliot’s poetry when he meant to ridicule his fears. Is Eliot a model? Do you feel his poems close to your own emotional intensity?
ES. God, maybe he is! Who the hell knows? I’ve been likened to Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, even Marianne Moore and Emily Dickinson. If you’re a woman, mostly you get dolled up in dresses, but I’m not sure that Auden, Frost and Larkin aren’t lurking in there too. Some more contemporary writers – my peers and friends. They’re all there – this invisible crowd, jostling, and mostly not permitted to speak because I’m speaking instead. But I’m also listening as they whisper in my ear. I think I can’t say that Eliot is a model, any more than other poets except that I do ridicule that which is strongest in me, that’s true.
I recognize the fact that I’ve been wresting myself away from the Irony generation. It’s a voice that’s seductive, and limiting. Much of my work is actually lyrical, and in many ways I consider myself a nature poet, even though I can’t think of a critic who has ever commented on this. It’s that pigeonholing stuff. It’s been decided in advance who you are and what you write, and why. Urban girl, urban poet, urban concerns. Satire. That’s only a small part of the work. I feel that death is always sniffing around under the door while on the other side I take refuge in whatever life-affirming writing I can manage. This is the spiritual, religious aspect to it.
The lyrics I’ve been writing do contain rhymes which are less discreet. The poem you mention is part of a series on twins; I’m a twin myself. Maybe this subject doesn’t lend itself to subtlety….
LV. What contemporary poets do you feel akin to? Do you belong to any poetical group?
ES. I guess I’m loosely part of the post-formalist crew, although by now I must be ‘pre-’ rather than ‘post-’, or smack-in-the-middle-of. Anyway, back to the nationalism: I don’t wave any banners. Right now, there’s a crew running around who call themselves Language Poets. Hey? Have I missed something here?! Language, eh? There’s a novel idea.
Groups or ‘schools’ of writing do emerge naturally, due to the writers sharing the same concerns or just hanging out and getting drunk together. I approve of that. Other groupings happen in retrospect, but I deeply dislike artificially created schools of thought, since they’re often the invention of academia, or writers who’d prefer to do away with some of their colleagues or those famous poets whose reputations they consider to be inflated. But hey, who are they to know? Often, these people are more critics – publishing reviews for years and then one thinks: hey, when’s your book coming out, buddy? It’s amusing I guess to play arbiter and invent an academic raison d’etre by creating the one ‘true’ canon – done and dusted before anybody’s dead. Dream on, I think.
There are numerous contemporary poets who move and/or interest me, and I find myself being drawn back to American poets. The UK poetry scene is so small and insular and in recent years it’s been cursed by a smaller and smaller bank of publishers who are usually writers scratching each other’s back. Recently, one American poet resigned as judge because it was alleged, unfairly, in this case, that the same guys (and it’s still mainly guys) were putting each other forward, revolving-door style. Private Eye did a funny piece on it. The implication was that there’s been some kind of conspiracy, which I don’t quite believe in…but the end result is the same, and is indeed how it’s portrayed.
I think the pendulum may be swinging back, but the recent flavour of the month is Celtic/Northern Hard Guys – with nods to a few mainly unthreatening and unrisky women writers, who, for the most part, have been very strategic with their work choices – not to mention their private lives. There’s also this big protest among women writers that, hey, we write like writers, not like women, which is true enough, but I think some women writers are deliberately and strategically adopting a style (I never understood this
cold-blooded quest for style…) which is masculine. They’re reacting against the sort of male reviewer who may find us ‘enjoyable’ or ‘promising’, but saves his heavyweight adjectives of depth and profundity for the guys. Women who write about love and family are ‘domestic’, while men are writing about the ‘big subjects’.
Anyway, not only are the editors starting to publish their own clones, they are more blatantly indulging in cronyish. The only female editor in town, Jacqueline Simms, is now gone from Oxford University Press – who treated her disgracefully – and the world has once again returned to the new-boy network situation. It’s not agenda or anything; it’s just, well, life. Even worse, as with other forms of literature, the critics have landed on the idea of concentrating on the young and beautiful. Oh well, I think not just about the young and beautiful subjects, but also their salivating reviewers: You’ll all get old too!
LV. I have not explained what I mean by Desperado. It is a word that ought to describe the starving need of all recent poets – actually all poets after Eliot – to be different from every other writer, to take the law in their own hands and find a way for themselves by force. A literary Desperado is not unlike the hero of Westerners, who lives by killing whoever opposes his will. Your poems show an indomitable will to be. Not to be new, not shocking, not musical. Just to be. I guess you have this subtle sense of poise from dance. Is that too far-fetched? Do you write as you dance?
ES. I think writers and editors in the UK take very few risks – with their reviews, with their own writing, with any literary project. British writers are afraid of being sentimental. I used to admire their resistance to sentimentality, but this tendency throws out the baby with the proverbial bathwater. I miss the visionary sometimes. I’ve found myself more and more admiring those who risk, even if they fail miserably. There are too many writers who don’t plough their own furrow. I think you pay a heavy price in this country for being daring. The establishment jealously guards a certain element of its own mediocrity.
LV. What do you think of poetry that ignores clarity and encodes meaning in masterful rhymes and rhythms, which, however, fail to reach the reader’s understanding?
ES. Some writers value a certain kind of obscurity which they’d like others to understand as complexity. This is not to say that some writers, and some poems, aren’t more difficult than others. With the so-called return to form, writers may be in danger of getting too enamoured with these newly discovered toys – may be in danger of writing
fill-in-the-dots sort of work. Cleverness has become the new altar on which we may sacrifice the humanist poem.
LV. Is poetry still a national thing? Are literary borders still operational?
ES. I still consider it my duty to bridge the US/UK divide, and then try to ignore it.
LV. If you could choose who you could be, what would you choose? Would you choose poetry over dance or would you try something new?
ES. Lawyer, sailor, shrink, dancer, traveller. Don’t you wish we could institute some kind of swapping lives arrangement, to be able to cover the gamut in a lifetime? Mind you, the writer is one of the few who gets to be everything at once – everything or nothing. I’m sort of glad I have no choice. It relieves me of a great burden, makes it easier. I wouldn’t be able to choose.
LV. This invasion of the computer screen can make or unmake poetry. Which do you think it does?
ES. I actually think that the computer (and e-mail) may revive the art of letter writing!
X-cept I hate that shorthand stuff FYI. But sometimes the pithy abbreviations can have an art to them. The computer is a godsend for the prose-writer.
LV. Do you write by hand or type your poems straight into the computer? Eliot used to type. Many poets, though, prefer the feel of pen and paper. The act of handwriting stimulates their imagination. What stimulates yours?
ES. I fervently believe that poetry must be written longhand and kept in that form until quite a late draft. Writing with a pen and paper is a physical experience, which is sensuous. The sensual and sensuous qualities of the words travel up through the pen, not through the computer. Experiencing the physicality of language is what form is about.
LV. Do you belong to American or British poetry?
ES. That’s one of those questions which others can answer. I’d prefer not to. Often enough, I’ve heard editors or writers comment about writing in an ‘American’ way, but they never really explain what they mean. Another handy pigeonholing I suspect. They don’t want to explain it. Probably they can’t. Maybe one of the hallmarks in my work is a mid-Atlantic suspension. Or Nowheresville.
LV. Could you think of a question that you would most like to be asked?
ES. How about: Would it be all right if I gave you a whole heap of money, to last the rest of your life, so you wouldn’t have to worry about the subject ever again? (Answer: okay.)
January 28, 2003
POET'S NEW YORK
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: Were you born in New York? When? What was it like when you were a child?
EVA SALZMAN: I was born in an uptown Manhattan hospital on the East River, but grew up in Brooklyn Heights. My composer father, then writing for the Times, devised a birth announcement styled as a mock-up news feature reviewing our twin musical debuts (I’m the elder by eight minutes). We were ‘sopranos of considerable proportions…(who) presented mainly atonal music with little subtlety but plenty of vigour.’ So, no change there.
To survive each day in this exhausting, competitive city felt like a major achievement. Out-of-towners, immediately recognizable to seasoned New Yorkers, are advised to avoid muggings by trying to look like they belong, like they own the place. NYC often strikes me as oddly Third-World. You fly into the shoddy JFK, our international airport, and get sucked into a disorganized, pell-mell city, which is also a place of immense wealth and power. My childhood memories include driving over pot-holed highways, forever being repaired. Finally, the penny dropped; the repairs were never meant to be completed. This way the jobs kept going. Maybe it’s to do with the mob. I don’t know. New Yorkers are arrogant, but also brimming with life, energy… and opinions. We award ourselves top marks in the Street-Cred department. People describe Americans as lacking the Irony gene, but New Yorkers are famed for their sarcastic, sharp wit. One visit home, I was struck by the sight of a pot-bellied guy swaggering, Adonis-like, along Brighton Beach. This guy was going to inhabit his space, no matter what. I miss that un-English unashamed physicality, the Mediterranean gesticulating. I walk faster than anyone I know, even if I’m going nowhere.
The subway system is hot as Hades, the trains at that time not air-conditioned and deafeningly loud. Standing on a platform as a train rumbled in, you could yell at the top of your lungs into your companion’s ear and s/he wouldn’t hear you. Giuliani, our first Republican mayor in ages, cleaned everything up. Don’t know what he did with the homeless, maybe dumped them in New Jersey. Now I’m nostalgic about a dirty, dangerous NYC, although I never actually thought of it as dangerous really. When Giuliani tried to clean up our artwork too, objecting to an exhibition featuring the artist Chris Offili, who uses elephant dung in his paintings, New Yorkers put their collective foot down. NYC dropped right down on the Murder Capital chart. Apparently, most murders happen between about 2 and 5 AM, when good citizens are in their beds (though not this good citizen teenager, it has to be said!) and are either drug-related, or Domestics gone wrong. Why throw a frying-pan when you can shoot a gun?
During the 2004 Republican Convention, we were overrun by stars-and-stripes, ten-gallon hat Texans and polyester-suited mid-westerners, taking buses to go just a few blocks. Why don’t they take the subway like us, I asked a cop. He said the Delegates’ folks were calling the police from all over the country, nervous about their relatives’ safety in our liberal hands. We were affronted to be hosting this convention at all.
LV. Is childhood in New York any different from childhood in a smaller town or in the country?
ES. I had an unusual degree of freedom, thanks to hippie-ish parents but NYC kids are mostly precocious as hell. My country yokel friends were barred from visiting us city slickers in Sodom, as their parents thought of the place I lived. Nowadays, the Sodom idea doesn’t seem far-fetched, though NYC is nothing like Bush’s America. People forget: it’s a big country! Nationalism is abhorrent to me, but I do feel ‘patriotic’ about NYC, identifying with the place profoundly. In my heart of hearts, it feels like the centre of the world.
LV. What did your house look like?
ES. 29 Middagh Street, still my parents’ house, is a four-story clapboard house, with marble fireplaces and wide floorboards. Although my parents are naturalists – my father is an expert on Long Island birds – we’re no good with gardens. Ours, called the ‘yard’, is overrun with weeds. One summer, I made the effort with my first husband; a photo commemorates another summer when we sublet to talented gardeners. Old homes need constant repairs; we’ve always rented out the upstairs duplex, needing the cash. My grandparents’ house, now sold, was also an early Federal building just around the corner on Cranberry Street, where, Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Leaves of Grass’ was first published.
7 Middagh Street’s various tenants included W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Brittain, Salvatore Dali and the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. In my as-yet unwritten screenplay, she rehearses her new striptease acts for a slightly bored, though perceptive and analytical Auden. (Actually, the Irish poet Paul Muldoon sort of got there first, with his poem ‘7 Middagh Street’.) The neighbourhood has many literary associations; Norman Mailer’s house overlooks the Promenade, from where the Manhattan skyline’s more famous views are taken, including the one of burning Twin Towers. That was like seeing my past crumbling before my eyes. We didn’t know anyone, but everyone knew someone who knew someone. My husband’s artwork was in one tower, a smaller loss than the collection of Rodin, this loss itself dwarfed by the enormous loss of life.
LV. Was it typical of New York architecture? What is, in your opinion, typical of New York architecture? Do New Yorkers love their housing comfort?
ES. The Promenade was our consolation prize for the building of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, an example of the famous Robert Moses’s zeal for civic development as exemplified by road building, which in this case cut through the Heights ruthlessly, knocking down the historic 7 Middagh Street, among other things. An underground slave ‘railway’ is meant to run under the Heights, with hiding places and escape routes. Or maybe I’ve made that up, or someone else made it up. It happens to places already packed with history. After years of local petitioning, something with which my parents were involved, the Heights was designated an historic neighbourhood, to protect what was left, including the area’s later turn-of-the-century brownstones, for which NYC is famous and which are more typical of the kinds of homes all over the city. Originally built as a suburb for wealthy shipping magnates, wishing to overlook their docks, the Brooklyn Heights fell on hard times after World War II. People couldn’t afford the heat or servants needed for large houses, many of which were divided into apartments, or boarding houses, like Number 7. This is why my grandparents, lucky to be working throughout the Depression, could afford to buy in a neighbourhood, now expensive and desirable again. Even here, few buildings date back to 1829, the year our house was built. Many New Yorkers live in co-ops, with more affordable housing found mainly outside of Manhattan, in the further reaches of the boroughs: Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, or over the Hudson river in New Jersey.
LV. Could you feel as a child that New York was a multicultural city? Did you fit in easily or did you feel an outsider?
ES. Having attended multicultural public (free) schools for many years, I had friends from many backgrounds, classes and ethnic groups: black (African origin, as opposed to the Caribbean slant in the UK), Chinese, Egyptian, Puerto Rican and American Indian. What is a New Yorker but someone from somewhere else? Still, feeling the ‘outsider’ is the writer’s habitual condition! I hung out with neighbourhood kids on the stoop, which is the Dutch word for the steps out front. (Middagh, also a Dutch word, means ‘midday’.)
LV. As a teenager in New York, what was your cultural life? TV? Theatres? Movies?
ES. Unlike the clichéd American family, we had no dishwasher, no TV, but this movie fanatic got her paws on the latter, when I was old enough to get away with it. I’d stay up watching the Late Show, Late, Late Show and, finally, the Late Late Late Show, which educated me in (mainly Hollywood) cinema history. Well, that’s my excuse.
Because I trained in dance and choreography for many years, my fairy grandmother – the one with the talent for buying houses – bought me tickets to see the great ballet companies. There I was, this lone teenager, sitting right up front, practically getting sprayed by Mikhail Baryshnikov’s sweat. (Once, during his big entrance in ‘Giselle’, he tripped on this sword!) I saw them all: the New York City and Joffrey Ballet companies, American Ballet Theatre and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, which was ground-breaking in its training and presenting of black dancers in historically white ballet classics. Alvin Ailey Company, a favourite, was known for its multicultural make-up: mainly black, but also Puerto Rican, Oriental and the odd white. I cherish the memory of Natalaya Makorova’s perfect 32 fouettes in ‘Swan Lake’, and Rudolf Nureyev partnering Margo Fonteyn, to name a few Greats I was privileged to see in their prime.
Contemporary dance was really more my thing: the Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham troupes. Because my father wrote music-theatre, I was exposed to work on the cutting edge: the avant-garde, the experimental. My father’s multi-media piece, ‘The Nude Paper Sermon’, featured a text by the poet John Ashbery and the actor Stacy Keach, who later went to Hollywood (and to jail, but that’s another story…). This piece’s finale afforded me my first if fleeting glimpse, of the naked male form. Like I said, we’re precocious. My father knew and worked with well-known composers, musicians and conductors including Pierre Boulez, William Bolcolm, Joshua Rifkin and Charles Rosen. His mother (same grandmother!) also wrote music-theatre, and was a child vaudeville actress, touring with her parents, who earned their living in this business.
LV. As a student and later, what magazines did you like to read?
ES. We had various political, current affairs and environmental journals around the house. My mother, an environmentalist, was a campaigner against the dangers of nuclear power before this became a fashionable cause. We also subscribed to satirical publications such as Mad Magazine and National Lampoon, and got the New York Times daily, this being the only broadsheet paper widely available, aside from the Washington Post, which you’d have to go a little further to find. (Most US media is narrow, superficial, biased, utter garbage.) I’d steal my grandparents’ New Yorker magazine, which I loved, at first mainly for its famous cartoons and covers. Alongside the English and American 19th century novels I devoured, I read Cosmopolitan, movie magazines, comic books and Ripley’s Believe It or Not, being indiscriminate and haphazard in my reading. Still am.
LV. When did you become interested in New York’s literary life and what places did you go to, what New York reviews did you read?
ES. I never got especially ‘interested’ in literary life, just as I never thought to ‘become’ a writer; I just wrote and loved books. I had the immense good fortune to have access to my grandmother’s astounding library of 20,000-ish books, crammed on shelves or piled up in towering, toppling piles, on the third floor of before-mentioned Cranberry Street house. It was like having a private library at one’s disposal, except she’d give me the books. What treasures! Literature was my escape, my passion. The Irish writer Frank McCourt was my teacher at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School. His idea of teaching English was to tell us stories about the Irish, so I thought English was nothing but stories. And so it is. As it turned out, he was rehearsing on us his bestseller Angela’s Ashes. Every Friday the class was asked to present their teenage angst-ridden literary scribblings, and I always strained at the leash to bore everybody with mine. Most of the other students, brilliant in the math and science – the school’s specialty – took McCourt’s class because it was an easy ride. He gave everyone 96%, and there were no tests.
LV. Was it uncomfortable at all to live in a place which was a melting pot of all nationalities? Did you ever feel uncomfortably different from anyone?
ES. Back to the writer’s ‘pathology’! Aren’t writers all uncomfortable in some way? NYC had nothing to do with it. I like ‘difference’, in fact am often drawn to black sheep. When I lived in Paris at the age of four, the kids threw rocks at me in the school-yard. The south of England, was homogenous in such an alien way to me. One day, driving into Tunbridge Wells, I nearly crashed the car, after spotting a perfectly ordinary man crossing the road. It took me a moment to understand why I’d done this double-take: I hadn’t seen a black man in three months, and hadn’t even realized it until that moment.
LV. Could you describe the social classes in New York? Have they changed since your were a child? Which do you belong to?
ES. Class in the US doesn’t exist in the same way as it does in the UK, despite what people say. Money is certainly more connected to notions of class. Although there’s a certain ‘Brahmin’ caste of old US families, the classes aren’t so rigidly defined. I guess I’m educated middle-class, privileged in am artsy bohemian way. My grandparents were poor immigrants, the first generation to achieve financial security but only after years of working hard, scrimping and saving. The houses they managed to buy went up in value later. My grandfather had seven brothers and sisters; all of their earnings went into a common pot, to pay for the youngest brother’s education; later, he worked his own way through university. He modernized his house himself, putting in the plumbing, electricity and a kitchen, doing all the repairs at our house too. When he died, everything fell apart.
LV. Why did you leave New York?
ES. The old story. A man. An Englishman. First, he came to the US, while I finished my BA degree, and then got my MFA at Columbia University, after which we moved to the UK… and got divorced. Since then I’ve tried a Scotsman and an Irishman, but am now married to an American from Long Island, not far from NYC! Life is strange.
LV. Was it an easy decision?
ES. One of the hardest I’ve ever made. I’d never have left New York City otherwise, not in a million years. I think I left precisely because I knew this, and wanted to experience another place and people. Many things about America disturbed me but I really truly didn’t think I’d stay in the UK so long. Even now, I’m in denial that I live in England.
LV. If you were to decide to come and live in London again, would you still do it?
ES. Knowing what I now know? No point in going down that road. How do I know if I’d have done the things I’ve done, if things had been different. It’s impossible to undo one thing without undoing the rest. Writing is often about trying out the lives one didn’t lead.
LV. What was the impact of London on you? How old were you when you came to London?
ES. I was 18 when I first visited London, but didn’t move to England until I was 24, living first in Kent, then Brighton before moving to London. My intellect is urban, but my spirit floats around in the country somewhere.
LV. Who were your literary friends in New York and who are now your literary friends in London?
ES. The poetry world is tiny, everyone knowing everyone. My friends include writers of all kinds, but I’d be bored having only literary friends. There are many false friends in the literary world, despite our supposedly lofty pursuits. I’ve never been clever – or devious – enough to pretend I like people, just because they might help my ‘career’. Despite my inborn cynicism, I’m continually amazed by people’s duplicity and shallowness.
LV. Where do you feel more at home, London or New York?
ES. After many years, I’d still say NYC. When I go home, it’s like I’ve been holding my breath all this time. Suddenly I can heave a sigh of relief and be a loud-mouthed extrovert – just like everyone else.
LV. Does your poetry have traces of New York imagery? What is the emblematic feature of New York in your soul?
ES. The traffic hum of the Brooklyn Bridge was the background score of my childhood, and a I wrote a sonnet about it, in order to re-possess what I felt to be mine. For a while anyway. Rather than give a nod to Crane’s famous poem on the subject (Walt Whitman too wrote about it) I decided to brazenly rip off his lines, comparing the suspension cables to a harp. The completion of the bridge was overseen by Emily Roebling, from the top floor of her and her invalid husband’s house, in Brooklyn Heights.
Also posted at Icorn, http://www.icorn.org/articles.php?var=29