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INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA SEIFERLE

Rebecca Seiferle

Write a bio about yourself.

Oh, bios, ergh: usually with writers there's the bio of publication, but there could be the geographical bio, the bio of the interior realities of writing poetry or fishing or carving wood, etc, or the bio of one's sexuality, or the bio of relationships, or the bio of the books one has read, or the bio of all one has loved, or the bio of perceptions, or the bio of life-changing dreams, any of which might be more interesting.

I don't know, more simply, my life seems to have been several lives, all marked by traumatic disruptions, a kind of death and being reborn. I grew up moving, sometimes three or four schools in one year, so it was a very nomadic existence. My second life began in New Mexico, which was unlike anywhere I'd ever lived before, its different history, a strong Hispanic and Native American community, and also the presence of vanished cultures, and the way in which the landscape itself seems to intersect with my imagination. I lived there for twenty years, about twelve of them in the desert raising goats, and a number of years hauling water and generating our own electricity. As for this third life: the last several years have been full of change, in any number of respects, sometimes incredibly difficult, and at times I feel as if I were inhabiting a transition zone. For this simplifying framework of 'lives' doesn't really convey the corresponding changes in many other aspects, which changes all of these other bios. I decided that I wanted to write when I was fourteen, and writing has been perhaps the only thread of continuity throughout, perhaps because from the beginning, it was the only place in which the ways in which I already existed were allowed a way to exist.

Describe the room you write in.

We rent the second floor of a house, and I write in the sun room which is at the front of the apartment and set off from the living room by a wall with a large arch opening, which is vaguely Arabic. I like that it's more subject to the weather, colder in winter, warmer in summer, and the incidentals of light, though I'm also always within child-tending distance. My desk is against one wall so that working I face the four full length windows which overlook the street and which look into the branches of various trees.

Where do you find inspiration for writing?

I don't know, at the moment I find this question impossible to answer, or maybe always since there is no "where" some place to which I can always go. I have gotten used to some profound way of being homeless, even as a writer. So since you asked about my writing "Singular Cherubim" perhaps I can answer there more clearly in the particular.

You recently moved here from New Mexico. Why the move and have you adjusted to Boston?

I moved for the job at Brandeis and, since I partly grew up in New England, moving here has been partially a reconnecting with my childhood and familial history; though I don't know if that's so much a matter of place as this particular time in my life. When I went to Lithuania in October, a country I never expected to visit, I learned at a party given by the scholar, Dovid Katz, in connection with his new book, Words of Fire: the Forgotten History of Yiddish, that my last name which I'd thought was from the German, meaning something like 'little soaps' is in fact from the Yiddish "seyfer" which means a book of sacred text in Hebrew or Aramaic. Which made me feel as if some obscure weight which had been attached to me, unknowingly, in the womb, like lead wings on my shoulders had lifted, become somehow light or bearable in a way it hadn't been before . I would say that it is 'reclaiming' one's ancestral inheritance, but for me, it is as much about, how becoming aware of it in some clearing way, allows me to leave it behind finally. In a way, I think I buried my father in Lithuania, even though his ashes are scattered on a mountain in Colorado, put to rest his invisible presence. And being in Boston has had that aspect of going back to a past where there were obscure weights, and also of clearing those unknown inheritances. These forests were the forest of my childhood and part of my imagination (I was first aware of my desire to write poetry when I was nine and trying to complete a writing assignment in the Vermont woods). I like very much the access to art and music here. I've gone to the Boston Fine Arts Museum for a number of exhibits, and been reminded of how art was integral, for I used to paint and sculpt in my early twenties, to my sense of writing. But I also remember my first trip to the museum when I was nine and going with my father who was showing one of his paintings of Lincoln to the museum director. So being here has had an aspect of both the familiar and the unknown; there are certain intangible things I love about it, even the rush of being on the T and coming out on the Charles River Bridge where everything opens up to the river, the sky and the skyline of Boston. Or of being out on the Cape, and out on the ocean, but those are encounters with nature. And, on the other hand, urban life is to constantly encounter human injury, the various inequities, the sheer inhumane of human societies, tragedies which are chosen again and again, the afflictions of indifference and neglect, to which there is also an inability to ever adjust.

You translated one of my favorite poets, Vallejo. Please talk about your translation of Trilce and The Black Heralds.

I had read Vallejo for a number of years in the original but didn't translate any of his poems until I was at Warren Wilson and wanted to write about them critically and realized this would mean having to translate them, since I felt the extant translations missed the point. Then one of my advisers suggested that I translate Trilce, and the suggestion stuck. Except that I thought, making excuses, that it would be difficult to find the original; until I went to a local bookstore and there was a copy of Trilce for 99 cents on the remainder table. . . I worked on the translations for a number of years, and then Stanley Moss offered to publish them. We went over the poems word by word, some of his remarks were very sharp, but others missed altogether, so I ended up feeling somewhat frustrated, so within a period of three weeks, I redid the entire book, as if my brain were on fire. One of the criticism that followed my publication of Trilce was the view of several critics that I had overemphasized the importance of Vallejo coming from a mixed cultural and ethnic background. So wondering if they were right, I read backwards into Vallejo's earlier work and began translating The Black Heralds. His work in The Black Heralds is more accessible, but there are other challenges, for instance, his writing of sonnets. I don't know, Vallejo is a very different poet than I am. There's a terrible gravitational pull in Vallejo, his work differs from mine in that it spins ever more tightly into some interior void, whereas my own work flies out from it, as if impelled from that same center. So I learned a great deal about writing from translating him but cannot say exactly what. Though of course, one could say it's the preoccupation with the precision of language, while allowing oneself to be haunted by another's very different realities and intensities, that translation lends to poetry.

Please talk about the books you have published and awards. I thought rather than me naming them, I would let you talk about these on your own. This way, you can say what you want about them.

In terms of the books alone, I guess I would say that I've never wanted to repeat myself, to cultivate some niche of style or material and remain there, and that each of them was driven out of the necessity of various intersections. But, since also you ask about the awards, which is something else altogether, it's probably the case that my books wouldn't have been published without winning awards, for that was the means by which various people became aware that my work existed. When I read for the Bogin award at the Poetry Society of America in NYC, Stanley Moss, the publisher of Sheep Meadow Press, happened to be there. Both the publication of Trilce and The Ripped-Out Seam followed from that occasion. In 1998, my trip to to NYC for another PSA award, the Hemley award, led to Stanley asking if I had a new manuscript, so The Music We Dance To was published from that. In 1990, the Writers' Exchange award, led to my meeting Sam Hamill, then editor of Copper Canyon. We didn't stay in touch, and I was surprised when he called in 1998 and asked if I had a new poetry collection for Copper Canyon to look at, though I'd already verbally promised The Music We Dance To to Stanley. Though this may not be the entire story, since Michael Wiegers who is now the editor at Copper Canyon and was managing editor during those same years had been interested in publishing my work since the early 90's when he was visiting Grolier's in Cambridge and asked Louisa Solano if she had anything to recommend and she gave him a copy of The Ripped-Out Seam. So I'm not sure if Sam's calling in 98 wasn't due to Michael's prompting. The most notable award I've been given is the Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship in 2004 which helped enormously, particularly given the economic difficulties of my divorce.

As you know, I write poems about angels. I recently read a poem of yours called Singular Cherubim. This poem knocked me for a loop. It is so powerful, blunt, dark, haunting, beautiful, and graphic. Please talk about this poem and how it came into being.

I was living in the desert of New Mexico when one of our cats who was pregnant went missing for a day and then came back. I'd been looking for her but it was until a couple of days later that I found the two kittens that she'd had in the brush; when I picked them up, they had maggots, which were in the lining of their skins beneath the navel. My reaction was of revulsion and also that sort of shock that I'd felt as a kid when I saw a bird hopping on the grass and going toward it, in delight of seeing a bird up so close, only to realize, as I came closer, ,that the bird was walking because half of its head was gone or one of its wings was frozen in injury. I extracted and killed the maggots to save the kittens, but felt in so doing that the maggots were not creatures of my revulsion but creatures in their own right , that they had no choice but to be so. I was also thinking of Catholicism, the way in which Christianity regards the body as a sort of soul hatchery. In our culture, even when consciously aesthetic or agnostic or not driven by any apparent 'religious' values, there is still a fundamental sense that regards the body, the experience of living in a particular body, as raw material, something to be used, for whatever's valued--fame, celebrity, money, success, power in various aspects, etc. A sort of profound contempt of bodily reality which can only confirm itself by marginalization of various aspects of being, and even entire categories of being, species, classes or groups of people, etc. I realized that these three maggots were holy, even though I felt profoundly shocked, as if I were called within myself to love what I had not been able to love before.

When did you start The Drunken Boat? How many issues come out a year? What do you look for when reading submissions?

The Drunken Boat's first issue went online in April, 2000. Originally, it was on a quarterly schedule but there was almost a year, 2004, without an issue, due to my moving etc, and then it's moved toward a biannual with double spring/summer and fall/winter issue which I think will probably remain the case for a while. When reading submissions, I look for a certain quality of language but also a certain edge of raw, some way in which the poet is doing more than creating a merely well-crafted poetry box. I prefer work where the poet is taking a risk in some way, a risk of writing in ways he or she hasn't before, a genuine sense of exploration or of being up against some particular force in the world and trying to speak anyway. I don't look for 'perfect' or 'best' works, or those that suit my own taste or poetic practice, and the works published are rather eclectic. It is a 'drunken' boat, drunken in the sense of allowing space for other's enthusiasms, and even for my allowing for what I don't favor. I guess I am most concerned with the struggle with and for existence. Some of these works are rescues, of ignored literatures, of overlooked writers, of the overlooked works of an otherwise somewhat known writer, sometimes of works which in the particular poet's life were silenced for a number of reasons, works which involve writing about subject material that hasn't had much of a poetic life, or literatures that have been oppressed.

The Drunken Boat has given me the opportunity to read many poets that I normally wouldn't be exposed to. How do you find these writers and give them a voice to be heard? So many of these writers have lived under oppression at one time.

Well, it's interesting that you notice that many of these writers have lived under oppression. I think Vallejo said something about the experience of having been unjustly jailed made him aware that we were all, always, in jail. And I do feel that much of my life has involved weird forms of oppression, which is why some of my writing has been generated by rage or pain, as if out of the wounded creature. So perhaps that's an accurate reflection of some preoccupation.

Well, I don't give them a voice to be heard, that voice is already there; I just give the space for it to exist where it might not have been heard before. In fact, most of these writers find me, and I think that's mostly a matter of having created the space, and how it extends itself through various associations. For instance, the Latvian and Lithuanian features are due to J.C. Todd's long-term interest in those areas, her travels there and connections with other writers. George Murray contacted me with his work and his interest in doing a feature of Canadian writers, Lisa Katz contacted me about a feature of several Israeli poets she had translated, Liz Hall-Downs contacted me concerning doing a feature of Queensland, Australia, poets, and about her own work as a performance poet. Charles Fishman brought in a good number of writers, both from the U.S. and in Israeli. That's why I have contributing editors, though a number of these writers contacted me about the features and then 'became' contributing editors. In the beginning of the magazine, I asked some writers that I knew, Ruth Stone, Eleanor Wilner, Sam Hamill, and whose work was then somewhat overlooked, if they'd be interviewed and send new work. But most of the work comes to me one way or another, and has sometimes created a continuing association, for instance, Aliki Barnstone's work has been included a couple of times and then Abayomi Animashuan who had done an interview with her contacted me since he knew I'd published her work previously. And, yes, it is true, that many of these writers have lived under oppression, the Lithuanian and Latvian writers. I also publish as many women writers as men, sometimes perhaps more, since I feel that they have often been oppressed in weird ways, allowed to write only in certain modes or manners, and that, even when writing in more conventional forms, they are often exploring material that has been left out of poetry.

I find all the writing that you publish in The Drunken Boat to be so beautiful and strongly written. How has reading this work influenced your own writing? Your own life?

I am glad that you find it so. I don't know as it has influenced my writing or my life, which is perhaps an odd thing to say, but basically in publishing, I wanted to make space for others' enthusiasms. There are a few works which have great personal significance to me, but, in general, The Drunken Boat is mostly to create space for what I'm not. It does reflect my life in that most of this work has come to me, either through the other editors, the accidents and circumstances of meeting people at various writer's events, etc, and then these writers bring in other writers. It is perhaps a reflection of various associations, people that I have met or encountered or features that I have lent my support to. I have found something of interest in everything I've published.

What is your biggest challenge as an editor? as a writer?

Well, I would say my biggest challenge all along has been doing all the work since I did the webdesign and do all the html work. But lately, I'd say my biggest challenge as an editor has been waking up to my own naivete. I began the magazine with a somewhat naive ideal of creating a space for other's enthusiams, of a space beyond boundaries, an international poetry, and of giving a space for what had been marginalized, not allowed (perhaps even in a writer's sense of his or her own work) . I have been very slow to wake up to this role of being an 'editor'.

I felt I was basically no one publishing this magazine at my own expense and effort in the middle of nowhere. So it's taken some time to dawn on me the whole aspect of 'having something to offer,' that there is this role of being an 'editor', and how this has meant various people attaching themselves to me as it were by stealth and my not noticing, or people creating various 'personal' relationships in order to be published or the difficulty of having contributing editors who trade on the magazine in some way, of how . With the Latvian issue, I became particularly aware that a letter from me can obtain government funding for projects, help decide which translators get work, that it's very political and that I am not that aware of the intricacies of involvements, nor am I sure in a country that lived under Soviet repression, even the people there are. All of this has made me, I don't know what, uncomfortable, preoccupied, wondering how to precede from here, or even at times whether to precede. I am also aware that this naivete was also in some way an unawareness of responsibility, that, in publishing, I'm also creating a sense of what matters. So I am thinking about this in various ways and do not know exactly where it will lead.

At Brandeis, what do you try to teach your students about writing?

Well, my students at Brandeis are undergraduates, young and often need most a sense of welcoming recognition, a sense that it is ok to exist as they are--however crazy or quirky or impossible they've been made to feel that their own perceptions and feelings are. Generally I try to teach both an awareness of craft, form, language, and also create an environment that is both welcoming and challenging to them. For instance, I usually give them two writing exercises every week, one that challenges them to some aspect of form or craft that most of them haven't tried before, and one that's a bit crazy and hopefully leads to expansiveness, more possibilities from which they can write. I'm surprised that while young, they are not young in a sense of possibility, but write out of one particular mode, moment, feeling, situation that they've feel is 'poetic,' it's as if there is one spot in their being where they write poetry and the rest of their lives never gets into poetry or is viewed as a part of poetry. So it's like this division in the self, between the 'poet' who is like someone else, and the person who lives all the rest of their lives. Since they are young, I hope that perhaps I can help make them aware that it doesn't have to be that way, that you don't have to put your soul in a never never land and live your life according to entirely other, and often imposed, values.

Any last comments?

Thanks.


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