Popular culture as well as venues, space, place dominate the poetry collection How Our Bodies Learned (Black Widow Press, 2017) by Marilyn Kallet. During February of 2018, we talked to her to learn more about these influences on her work.
Your poetry collection contains a visceral sense of place, location, venue. Tell us about space and geography in your poems.
Traveling to another country permits a writer to experience not only that new environment, but also her native land at a distance – in memory, in imagination. I started going to France as an undergraduate, a junior at the Sorbonne’s Cours de Civilisation. In 2007, when the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts acquired property in Southwest France, in Auvillar, they invited writers and artists to apply for individual residencies. So I packed my valises and fell in love with the cobblestone streets, the food and wine, the villagers, and the dogs. The village is on the pilgrimage route of St. Jacques of Compostelle, and I call myself a poetry pilgrim. After my residency, I asked if there might be an interest in my leading a writing workshop. This will be my tenth year of leading the poetry workshop. Poetry participants often return from year to year. The villagers have become friends. One elderly couple tells me they have adopted me.
I always ask my students to sit by the Garonne River and listen, to write poems in response to the river. We “let the river answer,” as Leonard Cohen wrote. And there’s no reason why this exercise should always produce poems, but it does. Rivers seem to hold many voices. We poets take dictation. “Alternative,” in this volume, invites the river to inform the poem.
Knoxville, Tennessee, is my home, and my work moves back and forth between France and the South. This volume, like my last, The Love That Moves Me, crosses the ocean more than once. Auvillar is addictive.
Paris is prominent in the collection as well. When were you in Paris? In what ways did Paris influence you as a person and your poetry?
Usually, I take the short flight to Paris after the Auvillar workshop. In 2015, I was invited to give a reading at historic Delaville Café in the 10th arrondissement, as part of a series called Ivy Writers Paris, hosted by ParisLit. This program of readings is offered in English and in French, audiences are comprised of French, English, American, British, and Canadian listeners. The reading was set for November 17th. On November 15th, the terror attacks occurred in Paris. The reading took place, despite the cancellation by Chantal Bizzini, my Parisian counterpart. “Ode to My Shawl” sums up my feelings: “Gentle cloak, / You warmed me. / Humans left me cold.” Claire Paulian, another Parisian poet, stepped in, and we had a meaningful gathering.
The audience leaned in, wanting to hear something that made sense. After the program, the poets and the audience ate dinner together.
Back in 2001, I was on a plane waiting to take off at LaGuardia on 9/11, when the first Tower got hit, so the atmosphere in Paris right after the attack felt familiar. There was suspicion in the air (“Why is that car still parked there?”) and nice people became nicer. The hotel owners at the Hotel Quartier Latin became fast friends. The hotel owner’s son give me a beautiful bouquet of bright flowers last spring when I arrived. “On Loving Two Men at Once” gave me the occasion to slip in a tribute to him, the “hotel owner’s son.” He’s kind, yes, and he looks like a movie star. And he did tear apart tape with his teeth, in order to make a mailing box for my books.
The book includes four poems from the Paris events: “Paris Elegy,” “Ode to My Shawl,” “Before After,” and “Ode to Solitude.” “Encore” was written in Paris the next spring, when sensory beauty reasserted itself: “I love you…for the crackle of croissants / and the perfume of escargots.” Paris would not be denied.
Tell us about your work in relation to Auvillar.
I have been writing poetry in Auvillar since 2007. It has become one of my “poetry homes.” The sensual beauty of the place is undeniable. By the time I get to the village in May, the roses are in full bloom, some of them as big as a child’s head. The cats perch on the pillars in order to get a better view of the birds. I guess it’s like watching TV for them.
I live in a house owned by an elderly couple, the Dassonvilles. When I first met them in 2007, they began to tell me stories about World War II, how it affected them, and the region in Southwest France. So I refer to Madame D. in “Splitting,” to her offer to show me where the Jews were hidden during the war. It took ten years for this conversation to take place fully. I think of the Dassonvilles as family; Madame tells me that they have adopted me.
Your Jewish identity appears in your poetry.
Jewish identity is always part of who I am, like being female. Jewish humor is certainly a part of this identity. And the tragic history of the Jews is never far. From the moment I arrived in Auvillar, I began to hear stories about the Holocaust in France. I got out of my car, spoke to the elderly gardener who was working in the yard next door. “Were there any Jews in Auvillar?” “Yes,” he said. “Dr. Hirsch, a radiologist, was taken by Mengele to help him with experiments during the war. Madame Hirsch, 36 years old, was denounced and taken to Auschwitz, where she was gassed. The two children were hidden in Auvillar.” I write extensively about those histories in The Love That Moves Me, also from Black Widow Press.
In our current volume, I grapple with French anti-Semitism in “What Power Has Love?” The poem deals with a horrific kidnapping, torture, and murder in Paris in 2009. The title of the poem goes back to William Carlos Williams’s line, “What has love but forgiveness?” the epigraph to this book. I want to surround even the worst events with loving intention, but it's not easy.
The "narrow St. Pierre," "Notre Dame," "Moissac": sometimes you are so specific in your spatial references. What do you hope to evoke in your reader?
Place names are important to most poets. If something is worth writing about, it’s worth naming. Sometimes the reader may have to imagine the place through the music of the name, as in “narrow St. Pierre,” more an alley than a street. Sometimes readers will recognize the name – “Notre Dame” will ring its resonant bells for most readers. “Moissac” is a lyrical name, and one of the reasons I keep going back to Southwest France. There we find the oldest intact cloister in Europe. And in a little silent prayer room – unadvertised – there’s a small stained-glass window that was created by Chagall. He gave it as a gift to someone in Moissac, who donated it to the church of Moissac. I have opened that prayer room to countless American poets who come to work with me in Auvillar. That room is an illumination, one of many high points. My friend Lucy Anderton, an American poet who lives in Auvillar, calls it “her room.” The hidden room is a place of poetry, beauty, and spirit, taking us away from politics and its thugs.
The events I describe in “Splitting” actually took place in Auvillar a couple of years ago. I was packing up the car on our street, “narrow St. Pierre,” that only has room for one line of cars. As the poem says, Madame D. blessed me, and one of the North African workers in the car behind me called me a name. I tried to imagine the situation from his point of view. In my imagination, I told him stories about my father’s parents and grandparents, who emigrated to New York, from Russia. My relatives were fleeing Cossacks. As much as I cringed at the epithets hurled by the angry men behind me – we were not so different. The poem plays mediator, which has a healing effect in imagination. It reminds me to behave with compassion, to judge less. And to get my butt out of the road! Poems can “be of use,” as Marge Piercy has reminded us.
Discuss immigrations and Ellis island in relation to this poetry collection.
My father’s parents immigrated to New York from Russia in the early 1900s. My grandmother read Yiddish and sang Yiddish songs; my grandfather was a keeper of the Torah. Some of my mother’s family came over from Germany in the early 1800s; others were less lucky and did not escape the Holocaust. But my mother’s family regarded my Grandma Anna as an illiterate peasant. My father told me that his dad invented the cartoon machines that used to be a staple in amusement parks. He went out to Hollywood to work on Betty Boop cartoons. He died before I was born.
You even mention locations in Dante's world. Indeed, you return to Dante many times throughout the work. Is he one of your influences?
Dante, like Baudelaire, is a companion. I’ve carried The Inferno with me to Auvillar. I can’t help it; my background is in Comparative Literature. Life is much less lonely with literary characters and beloved authors at my side. In dreams, as in literary imagination, nothing and no one is dead. Having hell as a place to put one’s tormentors is very handy.
Music and venues such as "Bijou Lou" lace through the collections. How does music intersect with your poetic style? Your themes?
My husband, Lou Gross, gets a couple of cameos in this volume. “Doctor Knows the Blues” opens with his line, “There are worse things than fried pie – a line that allowed me to meditate on worse things. And he shows up again in “Ode To Disappointment” where we make mention of his raise. Lou is a leader in Ecology; he directs NimBios, the National Institute for Math and Biological Sciences. He’s the bane of our administration as he always tells it straight; he is outspoken. But his hobby is running sound at the Laurel Theater, a great venue for traditional music. We’ve been married for more than thirty-three years, and I have attended more folk music concerts than most people. Our daughter is a classical percussionist, specializing in mallet instruments. She is also one of the best editors I know.
Poetry is verbal music, and when I can lace in some references to the world of music, then lyrics are twice lyrics, I hope.
"Often" contains such a definitive sense of childhood, venues, places. Tell us about childhood, memory, and imagination in your poetry.
As the child of a Southern mother and Brooklyn-born father, I have never quite belonged to any one place. This sense of being an outsider, an exile, is extremely valuable to a writer. I remember leaving Montgomery, Alabama, when I was three, because we had to leave behind our dog, Buffy. That spaniel was my best friend. She herded me when I tried to run away from home.
Our car pulled away from the yard and I can still see dog Buffy sitting there, watching us leave. “They might not take us with a dog in New York,” Mother said. I was inconsolable on the night train north, and wanted my mother to sing a silly song: “Where was Moses when the light went out? / Down in the cellar eating sauerkraut!” I didn’t know how to ask for the song, so I begged, “Want sauerkraut! Sauerkraut!” I didn’t realize then that my parents had their own troubles. I didn’t get the ditty I craved, but eventually I learned how to write the songs myself. Poetry is an amazing consolation. It won’t bring anyone back from the dead, but it can rescue an abandoned memory, can rock a needy child in its rhythms. “Passionate” ends with this understanding.
My mother was a proper Southern lady, who never wanted family secrets to be aired. Sometimes when I read aloud poetry that she would have disapproved of, she meddles with the electrical system in our house. This short-circuiting does not censor me, but it definitely lets me know that the material I’m dealing with is charged; that I must choose my audience carefully. When the lights go out during my rehearsal of a poem about racism, I go outside and practice on the back porch. The neighbor dog comes over and listens, hoping for another biscuit at the end.
I have memorized the rooms in the house where I grew up; I can picture the sidewalks, trees, and dead-end street where we played. I can walk through the wooden house and see every stick of furniture, though I cannot find my family. Poetry knows where they are, though. Poetry is better than a GPS for emotional positioning, finding memories, making them palpable, and letting them surprise the poet.
Imagination takes the known image and predictable ending, and helps it morph into something charged with love and music, a healing act. And allows the ending to surprise to the poet as well as the reader.
Even race and class can connect to spaces.
The racism at home, when I was growing up, has been the most difficult subject for me to tackle. “Passionate” takes a bite out of that narrative. The poem notes the years when “fear and hatred bonded / my parents / with almost erotic energy…” When I perform this poem at readings, I find that I leave out “almost.” One parent from Montgomery, one from Brooklyn, they found common ground in their fear of black people. They would never have admitted that, though. They made the mistake of sending my sister and me to liberal schools – me to Tufts in the 1960s; my sister to Berkeley, a few years later. We were critical of everything my parents did, and they, in turn, thought we were ungrateful spawn. But they were proud of us, too.
I will be reading in Montgomery on March 3rd, as part of a benefit for the Southern Poverty Law Center, with Willie James King, Pamela Uschuk, William Pitt Root, Keith Flynn, Joy Harjo, and a cast of other great poets. I will go visit my parents’ graves in Oakhurst Cemetery, pull the weeds, and wipe off the headstone.
My mother was a teacher, and my dad was a salesman. He had no education, but he was talented with words, and was able to create successful advertising. I inherited a love of teaching and a passion for language. My sister, Elaine Zimmerman, is also a poet – a superb poet.
Why write about Flint?
When I first heard the news about the lead-laden water supply in Flint, Michigan, I said to myself, “Thank God it’s not us!” Yet Jewish tradition teaches us that we’re not supposed to be thankful that someone else is afflicted, and not us. The lesson became visceral one day, when brown water came glug-glugging through our tap. Not lead, but not drinkable, either. A hard and expensive lesson.
Flint keeps making the news, so does our nation’s water supply. February 13th, for example, the New York Times published a feature article, “Poor Americans Exposed to Unsafe Water, Study Shows.” We humans inhabit one body, this planet. Our poorer communities suffer first, longest, hardest.
"Europe is crumbling like a biscuit." Even continents make it into your work.
“Warrior Song, After Brexit” was written for an anti-Trump protest, held on campus the day after the election. There are several anti-Trump songs in this volume. There would have been even more, but my publisher said, “Everyone’s writing about Trump. We need less Trump, more song.”
When my daughter Heather was little, she would call me into her room, and say, “Mama, the trees are crying!” Several blocks away, a grove was being torn down to make room for a housing development. Heather seemed to feel that tearing out of roots in a visceral way. I want to hold on to that kind of bodily response to our neighbors’ plight, whether the neighbors are countries or stands of maple trees.
The shootings in Orlando, Knoxville, and San Bernardino inspired poems as well.
Shortly after I got home from terror-ridden Paris in November of 2015, I was invited to read poetry at the National Arts Club in New York. On December 5, 2015, when I stepped off the plane, people were talking about the school shooting in San Bernardino. I made a commitment to myself that day to write an anti-bullet poem every day for a year. A handful of them made it into this book.
Zaevion Dobson, a local youth, was a hero during a gang shoot-out in Knoxville. As the poem notes, he saved two of his friends by covering their bodies with his own. My poetry class gave a memorial reading to honor him, and invited his mother, Zenobia Dobson. She attended, and so did Richard Fausset of the New York Times.
February 17th, Parkland teens spoke out about the need for gun control. They shouldn’t have to lead the way, but they are doing so. And soon, they will have the vote.
What do airports and airplanes say to you?
I was on a plane at LaGuardia, waiting to take off for Knoxville, on the morning of 9/ll. I had forty dollars in cash on me. I was rescued by Dina Bingham, who had the presence of mind to rent a car the instant we got pushed off the plane. She and her daughter Tanya are still my friends. I saw them recently in Atlanta. Tanya was eight years old when the two of them rescued me. Now she is a beautiful young lady.
The airports connect us, and take me back to my beloved Paris, and back again to my loving, cantankerous husband, to my daughter, the best copy editor on the continent. Connection and possibility, amis, amies, mon beau village d’Auvillar, le canard aux cerise, le vin du pays, and home again to bourbon that the French would love to have. Poetry emerges on either shore, bridging the gaps between cities, countries, time zones.
Marilyn Kallet is the author of eighteen books, including How Our Bodies Learned, The Love That Moves Me and Packing Light: New and Selected Poems, poetry from Black Widow Press. She has translated Paul Eluard’s Last Love Poems, Péret’s The Big Game, and co-translated Chantal Bizzini’s Disenchanted City. Dr. Kallet is Nancy Moore Goslee Professor of English at the University of Tennessee. For a decade, she has also lead poetry workshops for VCCA-France, in Auvillar. She has performed her poems on campuses and in theaters across the United States as well as in France and Poland, as a guest of the US Embassy’s “America Presents” program.