To read a selection of poems from Threshold


Also see in this issue Lisa's interview with Gali-Dana Singer


Photo of Shirley Kaufman by Aliza Auerbach. All rights reserved.

Interview with

Shirley Kaufman
Shirley Kaufman

I'm sitting in Shirley's work room, papers everywhere, poems, printed out email, stacks of books; she's getting ready for a two- month trip to the west coast of the USA, to promote her new book, Threshold, and visit her three daughters and their families. “I can't live like this,” she says, meaning the mess, “but I do live like this.”

Lisa Katz: How do you feel about a new book appearing after a seven year hiatus?

Shirley Kaufman : My last one (Roots in the Air, Copper Canyon, 1996) was a selection from six earlier books, starting in 1970, together with a small section of new poems. After that kind of summing up, and so much time, this collection is important to me.

Lisa Katz: Does it have a thread that ties it together?

Shirley Kaufman : You could say that the first long sequence of poems from which the title of the book is taken – Threshold – has a single thread, and the other sections of the book are stations along the way. There are always threads, and there is always “the way,” when you find it. But nothing gets tied together – or resolved. There's too much we can't know and too little time.

Asking the questions is what matters. My first two books were published while I still lived in SF. After I came to Jerusalem in 1973, an enormous gap opened between my American life in Seattle, where I grew up, and SF where I lived for 27 years, and quite suddenly Jerusalem. I had to learn my new life very fast in Israel.

Lisa Katz: You called your third book: From One Life to Another.

Shirley Kaufman : Yes. I arrived just before the Yom Kippur War of (October) 1973. And my introduction to air raid shelters, deaths of young people whose families we knew, and the immediacy of fear I had never experienced during WWII or America's subsequent wars was scary to say the least.

Lisa Katz: So, in addition to the flora and fauna of a new/old landscape, a strange new mixture of people, and the sounds of a new language, you were faced with an atmosphere of war, weren't you? How was that expressed in your poetry? In your imagery?

Shirley Kaufman : The wars here are enormously different from anything I used to know because they surround me and are so close to where I live, and because I feel a direct involvement in the bitter history of claims on this land. And of course, after the '73 war, and after Israel's disastrous and badly calculated invasion of Lebanon, came the first intifada (uprising) in 1987. The increasingly demeaning occupation which the Palestinians had lived under since 1967 and the hatred and violence it caused erupted first with young boys throwing stones. There was a saving moment of euphoria after the Oslo accords while we planned for two secure states living peacefully side by side. But now our hopes have collapsed, and we are all responsible.

Lisa Katz: But what does this have to do with your poetry? Your publisher Sam Hamill has said, “My ethics, my sense of morality, my work ethic, my sense of compassion for suffering humanity, all of that comes directly out of the practice of poetry…”

Shirley Kaufman : Sam always gets to the heart of things. Still there could be another dimension. Not only “out of the practice of poetry”, for me at any rate, but out of the place and circumstances in which I practice poetry. My poetry in the US when I first began to publish in the 1960s looked inward and I wrote a lot about family and love relationships (I still do) -- inspired by texts as well as my dearests and nearests. I was concerned with precise observation – of nature too - more than about moral predicaments. I think that the Beats in the fifties and the flower children in the Haight-Ashbury in the sixties (my middle daughter was one of them) made me wake up; SF was a great place for poetry at that time. I became disenchanted with most confessional poetry, the endless search for self-understanding. But it wasn't until I started writing in Jerusalem in the 70s that I faced my need and desire to know the “other” and began to write poems of witness.

Lisa Katz: Your subject found you, in a way, when you arrived in Israel in 1973.

Shirley Kaufman : I was certainly ready for it. The more I experienced the Palestinian-Israeli struggle here, and what the occupation was doing to us as well as to them, the more I wanted to express it in my writing. I have to say that during the Vietnam War, while I was still living in SF, a lot of political poetry turned me off. While I, like everyone I knew, was badly shaken by the American bombing – by the cruelty of war – and recognized that poets needed an outlet for their anger besides peace marches, what came out was often just noise, without engaging language in a way that made something happen to both the poet and the reader. There are many exceptions -- unforgettable poems by Galway Kinnell like “Vapor Trail Reflected in the Frog Pond” or William Stafford's “At the Bomb Testing Site,” or Denise Levertov's “Life at War.” And George Oppen's World War II poems, in fact, all of his book: On Being Numerous.

Americans – all of us in the twentieth and now twenty-first century – have also had much to learn from the direct experience of extraordinary poets in other languages, and we're lucky that this is an age of translation. I have been enormously enriched by the poetry of Szymborska, Milosz, Herbert, Yehuda Amichai, and the Holocaust poems of Nelly Sachs, Paul Celan, Abba Kovner, Dan Pagis, to name only a few. They have helped me to understand the true meaning of war, the unbearable human suffering and degradation. What they write about pain and loss is part of a much bigger catastrophe, including the destruction of our environment. And I marvel at the way they have also brought light into a very dark time.

I think poets like these and many others may be shaping a splendid denial of W.H. Auden's comment that “poetry makes nothing happen.”

Lisa Katz: You've been part of Poets Against the War—

Shirley Kaufman : A very tiny part. Sam Hamill started something tremendous. It began with anger and rage and turned into the largest political protest of poets against war since the days of Vietnam.

Lisa Katz: Do you really think it had an effect?

Shirley Kaufman : I think that effect is still to be measured. What it did do for sure was to galvanize the anger and distress of articulate, peace-loving people into a powerful gathering of poems on a web site and now in a printed book which will continue to have an influence on how people feel about war long after this war with Iraq is over. It may be a good thing for the Iraqis that Saddam's regime has been toppled, but the human cost of war is horrendous and unforgivable. When I despair about the everlasting struggle here between Palestinians and Israelis, and the devastation and cost of wars all over the globe during my lifetime alone, I try to find some faint gleam of hope in people who are gifted in language, communicating with each other and with the widening circles around them.

Lisa Katz: Yes, when I read Mahmoud Darwish in the wonderful new translations by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche, I felt closer to him than I thought I could; and I suppose we will never actually meet, but I hear his voice; to me that makes some small difference.

Shirley Kaufman : I think it's urgent that we open ourselves and respond to other voices, especially in the troubled part of the world where I now live. Fortunately translation is making this possible more and more. I actually read with Darwish at the International Poetry Festival in Rotterdam, and we had breakfast together the next morning. This was after Lebanon and before Oslo, and he was still living in exile in Paris. It was extremely important for me to hear directly from him about his experience and his feelings.

Lisa Katz: Let's cross the threshold and talk about Threshold.

Since the “Threshold” sequence in the book is a kind of journal, it includes many things that happened through the months of the millennial year.

Lisa Katz: You have a poem in that sequence about a place called Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island, which you visited in 2000 and it's very suggestive of September 11.

The sign on the new bridge
over the wreckage
high winds and wet soil
resulted in windthrow

cedars like over-reaching
their Babel hubris
fir trunks
like ancient columns
thrown down
in the Cardo

the constant and awful
thinning out of lives

lets the light in
seedlings ferns small brush already
waist-high in the ruins

as if some
calculated wrath has ravished the woods
to let them grow

rage and the soggy rubble
pale shoots already
nuzzle the sun
the rainforest shines
in its new
(one place at least)
to heal

Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island July 2000

Shirley Kaufman : From the time I wrote my first notes about this, I was moved by the natural devastation of some of the very old giant trees in this forest, and then the sense of light coming through, new growth, and healing. During the darkest days around here, when everything we do seems ugly and wrong, I try to think about the little flickers of hope that come into my life and my poems from time to time. If I didn't, I'd be in a never-ending condition of despair. Writing is an important restorative for me.

Lisa Katz: I actually got to know you better when, after my surgery, I began to leave poems in your mailbox after dropping off my children at their school, which is near your house. I was desperately looking for healing to come out of language in some way.

Shirley Kaufman : Perhaps some day a glimmer of healing for the world can begin when poets who have learned how to heal themselves share their insights with fellow poets. Poetry -- reading and translating and writing poems -- can sustain us through so much. It has become my life.

Lisa Katz: Have you started to think about the next book? I know you have another book coming out in the fall from the University of California Press, your translations of the poems of Meir Wieseltier.

Shirley Kaufman : I'm very glad that I finally managed to put a book together of Wieseltier's poems, and that his selected poems, The Flower of Anarchy, will be published in September, 2003. I've been working with this exciting and much-honored Tel-Aviv poet for a long time, selecting and translating from poems he has published for thirty years, and it's time that he has a book in English.

But I want to stop translating now, and concentrate on my own work. I just learned that someone I know at the University of Bonn in Germany will teach a course called “The Art of Aging,” a historical survey of several centuries of poetry in English. And he's decided to end with five poems from Threshold. So it seems I may have a new subject! Though I don't think I want to make art out of growing old. I'd rather just fall apart quietly.

The hardest thing for me to endure these days (which I'll never be able to make art of) is not aging, but my rage against the brutal wrongheadedness of our political leaders, most especially in Israel, because Israel is my home, my uneasy home.

And then you were peeling
the first orange
still green
in October

the way you can
unbreakable ribbon
in your hands

juice oozing across our fingers
and our chins

with jet-lag
and longing

what it can mean for two lovers
to wear down
a little
their own older threshold

dear drift
through the rooms dear shapes

like sticks of incense

after all those
before them
the ones who will

but who will
come after
what trace of
our luggage unopened
at the door

Shirley Kaufman, an American poet who has lived in Jerusalem since 1973, has published translations of Hebrew and Dutch poetry, and eight volumes of her own poems, including the recent Roots in the Air: New and Selected Poems, 1996, andThreshold, May, 2003, both from Copper Canyon Press, USA. Since she won the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum for her first book of poems in 1969, she has won National Endowment for the Arts fellowships both for poetry and translation, the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and numerous other prizes. In 2003 two more of her books will apprear: The Flower of Anarchy, Selected Poems of Meir Wieseltier, translated from Hebrew, University of California Press, September, 2003, and Un Abri Pour Nos Tetes, a bi-lingual Selection of her own poems, translated by Claude Vigee, Cheyne Editeur, Le Chambon-sur-Lignin, France, November, 2003.

Interview by Lisa KatzLisa Katz