Category: California

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis, Poet and Human Rights Activist, interviewed ...


Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis, Poet and Human Rights Activist

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Charles Jensen’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your work deals heavily with the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Recent escalations in the region have contributed to rising tensions, both in the emotional and physical sense. While rants and diatribes may be a common feature on the news, poetry is a timeless art and requires, often, days, weeks, months, if not years of contemplation before a writer can successfully address any given topic. How do you, hence, deal with the schism on an immediate emotional level, and, yet, at the same time, find the composure to put this plight onto paper?

LZZ: While growing up in downtown Detroit, then the suburb Redford Township, Michigan, and subsequently in Noe Valley, San Francisco, in the early ’70s, my parents did not educate me on our history, the politics around the “Question” of Palestine, the displacement of our people, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the occupation, etc. The occupation of historic Palestine is now seven decades long, and although we’re now dealing with “recent” escalation in the region, such escalations, violence, and turmoil are constant variables under the extremely oppressive and uncompromising regime. It’s possible to do a separate interview on this topic alone, so I won’t ramble on about the conflict/occupation and the brutal and racist policies imposed on Palestinians by the state of Israel. I would urge readers to think critically and learn the “other” story through books, blogs, articles, and websites. There is a sea of misinformation on the web, and trolls do not help the matter, so the best sources are books and reputable online sites. There are many Israeli historians doing good work on the topic—Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim, just to name a couple. It is not easy being Palestinian, and not easy to write about Palestine/Israel without feeling tormented, angry, and desolate; however, it is the suffering, creativity, and resilience of my people that has kept me motivated; it has inspired me to write and publish my poetry, and to endure chronic agony, which really is inevitable for all poets, at least in my view. It is poets who speak for the dispossessed, underrepresented, oppressed, and silenced. That is not a task/journey/undertaking I chose really, but I feel like it chose me—the poetry and the activism that is. Ultimately, I have accepted my role, my calling, if you will, as I do believe in God, and the power of the universe. I also believe that one person can make an impact. Collectively an impact is phenomenal, but I do strongly believe in every person doing his or her part, working for the common good; all this can help bring about positive change—not only in one’s self, but universally. I don’t buy into the lazy ideology—that apathy-filled cop out when people say: “I am helpless. My words and actions alone can’t bring about positive change.” Or when they say: “I don’t like or engage in politics.” I also do not believe that everything is in “God’s hands,” so to say. We need to take charge of our own individual fate, as much as each individual can—using any creativity, any power we can muster. I also believe that God often gives us challenges we are strong enough to survive! If God believes we can handle some challenges, he assigns them to us, and it is our duty as humans to overcome them—however grueling and burdensome the challenges may be. Why does this seem like a parable? I am not a student of theology, but I have a keen intuition, and I am quite spiritual. Given that there is constant violence and aggression in the Holy Land, there is always something to write about; poetry, to answer your question, must work to break down stereotypes and dispel myths about this difficult, skewed, and emotionally charged topic. If only mainstream Western media could be as honest and brave as poets, peace could arrive sooner. And still, those media outlets, journalists, and writers who dare to speak out truthfully deserve all the praise they get, because their job carries with it many risks.

The human rights violations associated with the occupation, along with the lack of knowledge about the hidden and silenced Palestinian narrative, not to mention the constant, wide-spread propaganda, creating a sort of informed apathy here in the US—and elsewhere—has taken a huge toll on my physical and emotional health. It is not easy work—Palestinian solidarity, working towards peace, towards justice even, and the writing, of course. Some Palestinians are not as affected, but personally, I live and breathe Palestine and Israel, and I feel the suffering in every part of my physical and mental being. I would like to see a one-state solution—to see all people of the Holy Land live together in a homeland, but this will only occur if the US and the other major superpowers hold Israel accountable for its wrongdoings, but also put pressure on the Palestinian leadership to reach more solid agreements. We need the global community to act as honest brokers—willing to accept the terms from both sides fairly, objectively, realistically, and especially, we need the international community to acknowledge that the indigenous people of the land, the Palestinians, are human beings and deserve respect; they deserve dignity and basic human rights. The US is the most powerful country in the world, and it is also Israel’s biggest ally; ultimately, it has made no consistent or even significant attempts to solve the conflict. Furthermore, other major powers, like the EU and The Arab League, have really not made any substantial attempts either—everyone has an agenda and the sacrificial lamb is the Palestinian. We have evolved as humans, perhaps, but our evolution on the political level is almost non-existent, in my opinion. That is very sad to me. Powerful countries love to give hand-outs and put bandages on problems—offering mainly lip service and unrealized rhetoric, but they do not get to the root of the problem, to solve it holistically and sustainably. I believe this conflict could be solved very easily if politicians had more compassion, vision, courage, and the political will to solve it. Incidentally, there is much written on the topic of a one state solution, as the two-state solution is no longer a reality, and perhaps never was—that topic is for another day.

I am extremely sensitive about the suffering of Palestinians. I deal with my emotions by writing about them and then reading my work in public, when I get the chance. Publishing also helps, along with working as an activist to heighten awareness through my art—I draw stamina from the desire to improve my country’s situation. Ultimately, I empathize with all human suffering. In this respect, I do feel upset and angry when an Israeli is either hurt or killed; at the same time, through my art and poetry, I am trying to convey that the violence against Palestinians is largely ruthless and always disproportionate. In other words, we do not have an Iron Dome (capable of intercepting ninety percent of incoming rockets), sophisticated military equipment, and the backing of the strongest country in the world. There is criticism on the other side as well, but mostly it is the occupation, land encroachment, and ethnic cleansing that bothers us. My aim is to bring attention to this plight, reveal the violent, racist, and oppressive policies that worsen as we speak, without impunity for the perpetrator. B’Tselem is an Israeli human rights organization that has done a lot of work to document the atrocities. Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization, is another one. There are many, but to keep it short, I only mention two.

DG: At the moment, you’re working on a science fiction novel, along with God’s Hill and an Angel In Her Midst, a collection of vignettes about your mother’s life in Palestine, and a book about your brother’s mental illness, My name is Ten O’Clock. Without giving too much away about either project, it would be fascinating to hear a little bit about each endeavor. Are you working on them concurrently, or do you focus on each one separately for a while and then move on to the next?

LZZ: Unfortunately, I am not a full-time writer, as I have two jobs which take up enormous time and energy, both during the day and in the evening. My husband is from Greece and we work together, running a family business we founded in 1967. I have raised two children, and for the past five years have been caring for my mother in my home, along with assisting in the care of two siblings for most of my adult life. If I had been writing and publishing full-time all these years, I would have published a larger body of work, but life has its own way of making decisions for you, even if you are a good decision maker yourself. Moreover, I am my own worst critic. Although I began writing poetry at the age of thirteen, and subsequently began publishing my work in the ’70’s and ’80’s, I am kind of a closet writer, as I have hundreds upon hundreds of unpublished poems and prose pieces. My goal going forward is to submit more to literary journals, and  publish my poetry anthology, Faces—The Nine Stations of Pain and Joy. I am grateful to Interlitq for publishing four of my poems online, as prior to that publication, I had little online presence. I am fortunate to have been published in fourteen anthologies, and to have released a chapbook of my own from in the late 80’s. Sadly, I do not spend much time on my craft, and that is not by choice; rather it has to do with life constantly taking over. I hope all this will change when I retire. The good thing is that I do get invited to read quite often, and I vowed to myself decades ago, that I would produce new work for readings, or at least, edit old pieces; that has been a good habit, and it has kept me in the creative loop—in a productive way. Not having enough time for my writing makes me melancholy, but I do the best I can, without beating myself up too much about it. Retirement will help me dedicate more time to my craft. I am contemplating, also, returning to college, something I did a few years ago, but this will not be easy in the midst of a pandemic. Several years ago, I took two classes with Tupelo Press, and this has helped me further hone my skills. I consider myself a late bloomer. I also do sketches and have a general interest in art—scribble art, pencil and pen art, and watercolors as well. I do have a children’s poetry collection I would like to publish someday, but that is last on the totem pole. I helped develop and teach children’s poetry workshops for a few years, at a local elementary/middle school.

Regarding God’s Hill and an Angel in her Midst, I have been documenting my mother’s stories for decades, and I am weaving together a collection from her storytelling. The book will begin from her birth in 1932, up to our departure from Palestine in 1964. God’s Hill is the name given to the town I was born in, Ramallah. My mother is a hardworking, loving, selfless, kind, caring and a remarkably strong woman, who has had an unbelievably difficult life; she inspires me daily and is my role model. From her I’ve learned and continue to receive perseverance, unconditional love, hard work, and resilience. She never complains and has endured unbelievable hardship since birth. This is a story I am longing to tell. She touches everyone she meets in a special way, and will turn 90 in March. I began this project as vignettes based on true stories, sprinkled with my imagination, along with facts and events from our lives. I have many original vintage documents and photos to be included. Below is my mother’s birth certificate.

I want this book to weave in also stories of Palestine, to make it truly a piece of historical fiction. During an extended visit many years ago, I conducted a lot of research in Ramallah, and did some research in places where relatives reside. My mother’s Alzheimer’s has in many ways been a blessing in disguise because she is living in the past and her memory from the past is excellent—much better, in fact, than her pre-Alzheimer’s recollections. Her Arabic vocabulary doubled, so I am learning a lot, even though I already speak colloquial Arabic. Each day she blurts out a new word or phrase I have not heard before. It is remarkable to witness the mind with dementia. Here, a photo of me as a one-year-old.

Many years ago, I completed a historical fiction children’s book, which still needs to be published. After 9-11 I feared writing political poetry as an Arab American, so I changed genres for a while. I wanted to write a series of books for young readers, on the subject of the ancient world. I asked a friend to collaborate with me. We wrote Asham and the Smart Ox, a work about the Natufians who lived in ancient Jericho about 10,000 years ago. Jericho is one of the oldest cities in the world. I myself lived there for a short time when my father worked as a waiter. I am hoping to find a publisher for this project soon.

I tend to work on many things at once. I love the writing—all of it, all the genres, but do not care for the administrative, technical, and business side of the enterprise. Luckily, I have a fantastic friend/neighbor, Carmel Weiler, who is a life saver and helps me with the technical aspects of formatting and also the submission process.

With regard to the book I am writing about my little brother Simon, who has tragically been suffering from schizophrenia for three decades, My Name is Ten O’Clock will become a tribute for not only him, but also for all others afflicted with this condition. As is often true with Palestine, people tend to shy away from mental illness as well—it seems fate has chosen me to deal with misunderstood and painful subjects. I already have many poems that will be in this book, but I have not begun writing the actual narrative section yet. I had an older brother who sadly passed away about seven years ago, at the age of 60, and he too suffered most of his adult life with schizophrenia. This horrid and debilitating curse of a malady has no cure. My little brother has an uncanny memory, and supposedly there is a name for the type of memory he has, but that escapes me now. My little brother sings and plays his guitar, mainly to help his auditory hallucinations, and he used to sing to me this tune he’d made up called, “My Name is Ten O’Clock!” I’ve asked to interview him, but he refuses.

DG: You were born in Palestine, but left at a young age for the US with your family. Although each immigrant story is unique, there are nevertheless similarities in the Italian, Irish, Chinese, and German experiences, just as examples. In this respect, what are the challenges and rewards of living as an Arab-American, and how was your own story different and perhaps even similar to what most people either went or go through?

LZZ: In the early stages of our life as immigrants (we arrived in 1964), our challenges were mainly survival—assimilation, finding work, learning the language, getting food on the table, navigating a completely different culture, making friends, and that sort of thing. We had relatives in Detroit, New York, and Florida, so we had support, especially in Detroit, where we first settled. My parents did not drive, so I learned to be very independent and gained the so-called “street smarts” right away; in fact ,I was a courageous and adventurous tomboy. I always joke that I was held back in kindergarten because of my poor English. I was five when I arrived in the US, and personally, I have thrived here, despite the many obstacles I have faced—there is enough material to write a separate memoir. It has not been easy living as an immigrant, and especially a Palestinian Arab woman with strong opinions, but also an outgoing, bubbly personality—to be a woman who is seldom shy about confronting issues or topics head on, whether in poetry, activism, or conversation. However, I have had it easier than immigrants who arrived later, at an older age, not having ample time to assimilate, learn English quickly and proficiently. I did not keep my accent, so I appeared and continue to appear American to many, especially since I was not as dark-skinned as some of my family members, relatives, and friends. As a result, I have encountered less racism than others, but nevertheless, racism, discrimination, and the occasional hate mail did not escape my life entirely. I try my best to fit in with my community and circle of friends, but also I have learned that I often feel much happier, more confident and when I can simply be myself! I have been blessed to have an amazing and supportive husband who has not stifled my writing, activism, and art, despite the fact that I have so many other responsibilities at work and at home with the kids, and so on. I am extremely fortunate to have such a great support system, my husband and two remarkably productive and creative children. My kids are extremely proud of me, and always give me accolades to encourage and assure me I am on the right path; this helps me stay strong and insightful.

Early on in our life in America, we were taught to say we are “Syrian,” and then much later we began to say “Palestinian.” I don’t know what that was all about, but perhaps it is because of our Orthodox Religion—we are “Syrian Orthodox.” Palestine is part of the Levant region—meaning Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, so perhaps it was natural to just say Syrian. I am not sure if this had anything to do with the negative image of the Palestinian at the time, and the stereotyping that subsequently escalated, especially when, in the early years, there were revolts taking place against the “settlers” coming in from Europe and elsewhere. But such designations as “Syrian” could also have been born out of the desire to “fit in,” to be “liked,” and the fear of being labeled negatively, something people do quickly and easily—with a wide brush stroke. Below, our family in 1964, when I was five (it excludes my father as he was already in the US).

I married a Greek Orthodox man thirty-eight years ago, so religion is one of the few things that has remained constant throughout my life, but I am always proud to say I am a Palestinian. I think being Christian made it easier for me to be an immigrant, as Muslim Arabs have a much harder time—and sadly still do, in America and elsewhere. To this day, it is a constant struggle having to educate people that it is a big mistake to automatically assume I am a Muslim when I say I am Palestinian or even Arab. At the same time, this allows me further opportunity to talk about Palestine, Islam, Christianity, Judaism—all of it! People don’t realize they open Pandora’s box when sparking a conversation with me. I have learned when to talk and when to refrain from “opening” up about certain subjects. I enjoy discussing topics related to the Arab World, along with history and religion—taking people’s mind off the labels, racism, and stereotypes. Below, the Zarou family passport from 1964.

Many people do not know that Palestine exists, or what historic Palestine even was, and often people say “Pakistan” when I say Palestine. I am grateful there has been some shifting of the tide in recent years. Social media, citizen reporters, independent journalists, photographers, and filmmakers have helped bring a new perspective to the conflict. Much of our history has been erased from the map—literally. Most say “Israel” when the subject is discussed, but what they should really say is “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” It’s been frustrating trying to educate people that there are Christians, millions of them in fact, in the Arab World. I try not to be presumptuous—it is a simple matter of trying to clarify what most people don’t know. Many people are not educated enough to know about other cultures, religions, traditions, and that is not their fault—if they were not taught this in school or at home. There has been, for decades, I think, a rigorous campaign to stifle activities, students, and professor that want to heighten awareness about Palestinians and their untold, hidden story. Again, that could be another interview.

When I see a wrong, I want to make it right; in this respect, being Arab American and trying to educate people about Palestine has been difficult, and it still is, as most people don’t want to talk about the subject, for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic. Propaganda is strong, and when it is repeated over and over again, falsity morphs into a truth. Once that “false” truth is imbedded into one’s psyche, especially a narrow-minded one, it is often impossible to “extract” it out. That is why I strongly believe in critical thinking as a skill that should be taught in every grade, just like math and reading, starting from the first grade with very simple exercises. Fearmongering and brainwashing have worked very well for those interested in creating false narratives discourses which they later spew out to the gullible, ignorant, and likewise ill-informed. People forget that Arabs are a Semitic race too and speak a Semitic language. Judaism is not to be equated with the state of Israel, as I have nothing against any religion or any culture. I was born in the land where three monotheistic religions flourished—not one—and so we are all children of Abraham, as he is the father of these three monotheistic religions. I have Jewish friends and relatives, so being pro-Palestinian is not being anti-American, anti-Israel, or anti-Semitic. I consider myself a pacifist warrior for the common good.

When the US is criticized in relation to Israel’s policies towards Palestine, it is easy for many to stereotype Arab Americans, particularly Palestinians, as being too political, too radical, and too anti-American. I believe, however, that true patriotism is about the ability to offer constructive criticism—to fight for the change one believes in. I try to engage people—to inspire them to be critical thinkers; this is not anti-American—it’s intelligence, patriotism, and ultimately love. Ignorance has been tough to deal and it’s tough to fight against racism, misinformation, and propaganda because it’s everywhere, consciously and unconsciously hypnotizing minds.

DG: In the late 80’s you did numerous readings in San Francisco with Etel Adnan, the renowned Arab-American poet. She has quite an interesting history and background, to say the least. How did you come to meet her and what was it like to collaborate with her?

LZZ: It is quite remarkable that you ask this question, as I always think about Etel, and how our relationship shaped who I am as a poet and artist. I am so pleased I am able to share this history. Unfortunately, as you know, she recently passed away at a very old age, while I was writing this interview. I missed her last art exhibit (in 2019 at the SF Museum of Modern Art) but I was fortunate enough to attend an art exhibit of hers in the 90’s at Sonoma State University. Her art has truly evolved, as it was much simpler in her earlier days, and she now leaves behind a remarkable collection of stunning art and writings. May her memory be eternal, and it most certainly will, as she has gained enough recognition to be considered one of the most influential artists of our time. She is very well known for her poetry, but also fiction as well. I first met Etel (who is part Lebanese) in the late ’80s when I was invited to read alongside her at Small Press Traffic on Guerrero Street, in San Francisco. There is actually an advertisement for the reading that was published in The San Francisco Examiner on August 14th, 1988.

Small Press Traffic no longer exists as a brick and mortar location, but still operates as an institution, and, in fact, it gave her an award. Recently I was looking at their Instagram page and they sent me an amazing piece of history, which I’d like to share here; it is a photo of the reading with our names. On the evening of the reading, I picked up Etel from her home in Sausalito, and drove her home afterwards. I visited her and Simone Fattal (her lifetime partner) at their home. After this, our friendship blossomed and she began to mentor me for some time. I did a few other readings with her over the years, and one was at Stanford—at the invitation of a lifelong friend who still teaches there, Professor Khalil Barhoum. In fact, I ran into Etel in SF at an art exhibit in the late ’80s, and she introduced me to Khalil and Ann, and we have been great friends since. Etel had a big impact on my life as a poet, especially when she made me believe that it is all right to go at your own pace and take your time. I also heard her and Naomi Shihab Nye read SFSU, my university. On numerous occasions, she advised me not to feel bad about not working hard enough, or producing enough; she told me to focus on raising my children and that my time would eventually come. I think of this advice all the time. Etel and I corresponded for a long time—some years more frequently than others, but we always exchanged Christmas cards. Receiving cards from her was so euphoric for me. I recently found out about the Etel Adnan Poetry Series Prize, and will hopefully submit to that someday. Below are some of my correspondences with Etel.


(Monday, August 13th, 1989)

Dear Lorene,

I like your “Embroidered Memory” very much. It’s good you read it at A.A.U.G. There is Poetry Week coming. You should attend the readings. I am in charge of “International Poetry” afternoon: October 21, from 3 to 5 p.m. at Fort Mason, Pier 2 in the new Theatre. It’s about poets born outside the U.S. I will read with them. It will be good that you follow as many events as possible in that week. Herman has the schedules. Do you know the magazine “POETRY FLASH”? It is distributed free. You can get it at bookstore at the beginning of each month at City Lights, among other places. But don’t get dizzy with it, it has too much information, sometimes, and it is anguishing. I am feeling better, although we lost a very dear friend in the Beirut fighting. A rocket hit her room and she died. We’re extremely upset about it. She was one of Simone’s closest friends. Hope you find moments of calm in this maelstrom … How is the little girl? Give her a hug from me.

Hello to David.

Love to you all,

Etel

 


Dear Lorene,

These last days have been hard, but we will not give up. The best way is to do what we can do best; for you, to continue to write. Was happy to see the picture of your daughters. They are beautiful. Athena has grown and the little one is charming. All my wishes for a brand new year. Be well. Wishes for the whole family.

Love,

Etel

 


Dear Lorene,

Palestinians will get peace. They are paying for it in heroic terms. Miriam Kaiya is most welcome to our imperfect Earth. We should see you after the holidays.

MERRY CHRISTMAS for the three of you,

Love,

Etel

DG: Who are some of the Palestinian poets you enjoy reading and which ones would you, firstly, recommend that have already been translated, and, secondly, are there some writers who are still only read in Arabic but deserve a greater audience?

LZZ: The highly celebrated Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, comes to mind immediately. I truly love Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani, and one of the poems, “Inside Your On Short Story As I Read to You,” which I published in Interlitq’s Californian Poets is about him. I know the question is about Palestinian poets, but I am in awe of the Lebanese writer Gibran Khalil Gibran. It is my pleasure to say that I have poem about him in my own anthology Inquire Within, published in the late 80’s. In fact, I found a poem that he wrote which is almost identical to mine. It was a spiritual moment for me when I discovered it one day, reading to my mother—Gibran poems on a calendar. I froze and ran to get my poem, and I was astounded. I believe he is my true muse and guardian angel, as I had never read this poem when I wrote my own. Here are only a few of the dozens and dozens of Palestinian poets I recommend, Fadwa Tuqan, Samih al-Qasim, Nizar Qabbani, Salma Al-Khadra’ Al-Jayyusi, May Sayegh, Annemarie Jacir, just to name a few. There are so many. In recent years, I have read work by my Palestinian-American colleagues, friends, and poets that have included me in their anthologies, like Naomi Shihab-Nye and Nathalie Handal. I also read other Palestinian American poets like Suheir Haddad, Hala Alyan, Deema Shehabi, Nathalie Khankan, Susan Abulhawa, Philip Metres, Lisa Suair Majaj, and so many more. There are more Palestinian poets that I would like to list but I would fill pages.

DG: In your recent contribution to Interlitq’s feature, Californian Poets, we were very fortunate to receive four poems—three of which dealt with the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in both subtle and direct ways; among these well-written works, however, there was also “Commute Home,” a poem about the beauty of San Francisco and California in general. In this respect, your work is strongly tied to place and belonging, and the challenges of writing about your birth country are immediate and apparent. Despite having lived in the US for most of your life, it’s nevertheless true that most immigrants form different attachments to the people and geography of their new “home.” In other words, they have the privilege of seeing the US from a perspective that native-born people really have no access to. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on this, and if, as a poet, you compose in a different mindset when writing about Palestine, as opposed to your second home?

LZZ: Actually I often feel cursed for having been born in a land with so much strife and suffering, and that my life would have been so much simpler had I been born in the US. Having said that, I would not be who I am had I not been born in Ramallah, Palestine; as I mentioned earlier, it’s the strong connection to my land and its people that fuels my creativity. At the same time, I am very fortunate to have experienced life in Michigan, but most importantly, California, as I love California and truly adore the San Francisco Bay Area—it is really the place which has shaped me the most, as I moved here at the age of twelve or so. This area is endowed with natural beauty, wonderful institutions, museums, a vibrant culinary scene, moderate weather, and like-minded individuals. In the Bay Area, it is like living in an artist’s colony—even more, it is like living in one of those old French “salons.” In my younger years, I had more time to mingle with artists, but as I got older and responsibilities began keeping me increasingly homebound, I began to miss the “salon” life of SF. I still do venture out from time to time, but not as much as I used to. I love being out in nature, hiking, exploring, and going to museums. The Bay Area has so much to offer with its stunning landscapes, and the poem “Commute Home” is one of my favorite pieces, expressing the beauty of California while simply driving home and partaking in the spectacular views we’re blessed with.

It was my great fortune to have been dear friends with the late Jack Hirschman, who often invited me to readings, and who was also one of my publishers in the Revolutionary Poets Brigade anthologies. Jack recently passed, and he too was a great supporter of my work, and a mentor too. He was once a poet laureate of SF. I lost two of my mentors a few months apart. I am feeling old. For year, Jack invited me to read annually at Readers Bookstore at Fort Mason Center on the SF Bay, a collaborative reading with the Friends of the SF Public Library. He also invited me to read at the Beat Museum in North Beach and at all the RPB events.


Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis with Jack Hirschman

For a long time, I also read each year at a historic bar in North Beach (and still do), Specs, with the Maintenant Journal out of NY. I read each time I publish in the journal. I really need to venture out, go to museums, literary and music events more often, as that is how I feel more alive and connected to other artists. Covid has made it tough to connect. I have turned down several Zoom readings, as I don’t feel ready enough to read on that platform. Perhaps I will someday. Ultimately, if I had not spent most of my life in America, I would not have met all the wonderful and supportive people that helped me become who I am. Yes, I have two homes, two histories, two cultures, two of almost everything, including two sets of problems, and that’s a double challenge, but as I wrote earlier, I try to not dwell on the problems, but focus on the solution. And I am grateful I can snap out of my negative thoughts, most of the time. Art helps accomplish this.

DG: If you had to recommend one Palestinian dish, what would it be?

LZZ: I have so many that come to mind, but given how I love the smell of sumac on chicken, musakhan is one of my favorites. The chicken is smothered in this tangy, lemony, and burgundy colored spice, along with olive oil and other spices, a ton of onions, also smothered in sumac, then baked atop homemade bread—it is just delicious. It must be topped with toasted pine nuts, of course, to be complete and beautiful—like many other Palestinian dishes. I will never forget the first time I returned to Ramallah, since emigrating here, we ate this delectable dish cooked the best way, in a “taboon.” A taboon is an ancient oven built in biblical times and still used today, and it cooks like no oven can cook. It resembles a fire pizza oven. My grandmother on my father’s side cooked in our taboon, mainly bread. Our family lived with my with paternal grandparents. My mother told me that it is like a full-time job for my grandmother to keep the eternal flame going in the taboon, and to collect so many materials to fuel this fire. The bread is unlike any bread you will taste.

 

About Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis

Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis is a Palestinian-American, born in Palestine and emigrated to the US when she was 5 years old. She is a poet, writer, and human rights and peace activist. She writes poetry, prose, historical fiction for children and adults, short stories, and science fiction. She self-published a poetry chapbook, Inquire Within, and is published in at least 15 literary anthologies—notably, The Poetry of Arab Women, Food for Our Grandmothers, The Space Between our Footsteps, War After War-SF City Lights Review #5, and A Different Path, Radius of Arab-American Writers. She is most currently published in three Revolutionary Poets Brigade anthologies, and three Maintenant Dada Poetry & Art journals. She is currently writing an historical collection of stories about her mother’s life in Palestine, as well as an anthology of poems entitled Faces, the Nine Stations of Pain & Joy. She was a finalist for two poems entered in the 2011 Indie Writing Contest—(Author Solutions, Inc., the San Francisco Writers Conference, and San Francisco University Partner). The anthology, Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Nathalie Handal, includes two of her poems, and was the Winner of the PEN Oakland Literary Prize.

 

 

Spleen, by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Willis Barnstone


Charles Baudelaire and Skull*
Artist: Édouard Chimot (1890-1959)

Spleen

When the sunken sky weighs like a lid
On spirits torn by long ennuis and frights,
While the round horizon traps us in a grid,
It pours a black day sadder than those nights,

When Earth is changed into a sweating cell
Where Hope like a bat goes battling pot
And wall with timid wings, it starts to swell
And smash its head on ceilings crude with rot.

When raindrops trinkle down an immense train
From a vast prison copying prison bars’ blur,
And a silent mass of a flaming spiders
Spins its threads profoundly into our brain,

When suddenly bells erupt in broad fury
And launch toward a disgusting scream
Like wandering ghosts with no country,
Who call out complaints like hollow steam

—And lengthy hearses with no music or drum
Parade slowly in my soul while Hope. dull,
Vanquished, sobs, and despot Anguish is glum,
Yet pastes it black flag on my drooping skull.

*A note on the painting: In 1948, a 20-year old graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine, I was in the doctoral program at the Sorbonne. A red-headed American or English student was seated near me, but I didn’t know her name. One day at a café on la rue Jacob, the young lady passed by, had the Complete Poems by Baudelaire illustrated by Chimot, handed it to me as a gift and left. I didn’t know her name and she had dropped out of the class, and I never saw here again. But I read this correct copy of last version of Baudelaire’s poems again and again. I wonder where she is. I’m 94 in good health, 2 years younger than most students at 20 from college. If she sees this book, I’m sure she will get in touch with me. I have to say “if,” because at my age, 94, most of my student and university colleagues are helping the daisies flourish.
—Willis Barnstone

 

Spleen

Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle
Sur l’esprit gémissant en proie aux longs ennuis,
Et que de l’horizon embrassant tout le cercle
Il nous verse un jour noir plus triste que les nuits;

Quand la terre est changée en un cachot humide,
Où l’Espérance, comme une chauve-souris,
S’en va battant les murs de son aile timide
Et se cognant la tête à des plafonds pourris;

Quand la pluie, étalant ses immenses traînées,
D’une vaste prison imite les barreaux,
Et qu’un peuple muet d’infâmes araignées
Vient tendre ses filets au fond de nos cerveaux,

Des cloches tout à coup sautent avec furie
Et lancent vers le ciel un affreux hurlement,
Ainsi que des esprits errants et sans patrie
Qui se mettent à geindre opiniâtrement.

—Et de longs corbillards, sans tambour ni musique,
Défilent lentement dans mon âme; l’Espoir,
Vaincu, pleure et l’Angoisse atroce, despotique,
Sur mon crâne incliné plante son drapeau noir.

 

About Willis Barnstone

Poet, religious scholar, and translator Willis Barnstone was born in Lewiston, Maine, and earned a BA from Bowdoin College, an MA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Yale University. An intrepid traveler, he taught in Greece at the end of that country’s civil war and in Argentina during the “Dirty War,” and was in China during the Cultural Revolution. He later returned to China as a Fulbright Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The author of nearly 50 books, Barnstone has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including From This White Island (1959), China Poems (1977), The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets (1996), Algebra of Night: New & Selected Poems 1948–1998, and Life Watch (2003).

He has also published numerous translations from Chinese, Spanish, French, Latin, ancient and modern Greek, and biblical Hebrew, including a complete translation of the New Testament (which he translates as the New Covenant), as well as memoirs, religious studies, children’s literature, and songs.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Lynne Thompson, Los Angeles Poet Laureate, interviewed by David Garyan


Lynne Thompson

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Lynne Thompson, Los Angeles Poet Laureate

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Lynne Thompson’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: It was a great pleasure to hear the news of your selection as LA’s new poet laureate. Given the power of your work and your steadfast connection to the city, it’s hard to think of anyone who deserves this honor more. Along with a discussion of what makes LA such a fascinating literary epicenter, what are some of the initiatives and projects you have begun developing to build on this legacy in your own way?

LT: The first project I launched was a podcast hosted on the L.A. Public Library’s website (lapl.org) as well as Apple Podcasts and Spotify. The podcast is named Poems on Air. Every week, I read the work of a particular poet—some L.A.-based, some not—and give a little background on the poet. It’s been very well-received and that makes it worth all the effort.

I am also in the process of collecting poems written by students in the hopes of publishing them—possibly in e-book form or at a minimum, on the Library’s website.

Finally, as I write this, I’m starting to explore the possibility of reading to and writing about members of L.A.’s senior population in the belief that if we fail to take down these stories, they’ll be irretrievably lost to our culture’s detriment. And of course, I continue to give readings and conduct workshops as often as I can.

DG: Your newest collection, Fretwork, published in 2019, was praised by many individuals, including Major Jackson, who called it a “masterful collection” which will “resonate widely into the 21st century.” This particular work is both highly personal, dealing with adoption, emigration, and the Caribbean identity of your foster parents, but also very near to the heart of all those who’ve lived through similar experiences. While immigrants today, driving from Chicago to Los Angeles, do not have to worry about their journey like your father did in 1930, life, in other respects, nevertheless remains difficult. Do you write with the belief that poetry can be an instrument for change, or is the act of creation a type of remedy for pain?

LT: I think poetry can do both: i.e., bring about a basis for changes that argue for new directions in our culture such as a need to address the effects of climate change, and, in addition, it can supply a recognition of the challenges and pain we all encounter as individuals which must be addressed, such as the subtle—and not-so-subtle racism, homophobia, and discrimination that exists in this country.

DG: Do you find it more difficult to start a poem or to finish it?

LT: On balance, the finishing of a poem presents the greater challenge for me. I start out thinking I have a great idea—and it’s only a “maybe” I do!—and start scribbling away. Then that positivity gives way to a concern that the poem is too didactic, too unfocused, ends with too much of a “skillet” which leaves the reader thinking she’s been hit over the head instead of leaving her with that “ah” feeling, that feeling of sudden and personal recognition. I’m always looking for a way for the reader/listener to feel him-or-herself into what’s being conveyed, to feel there’s more to learn or understanding left to them to discover.

DG: You received a degree in law from Scripps College in 1972 and went on to have a successful career in this field. Many people, subsequently, discouraged your activities as a poet because writing verse is supposedly not what serious adults should do. It’s fortunate that you never shared this view. Indeed, it seems to me that the best laws resemble the most effectively crafted poetry, in that they both attempt to seek the ultimate truth. In this respect, how did your work as a lawyer go on to inform your poetic development, and do you think poetry can be a similarly powerful vehicle for justice as the law?

LT: First, I want to say that I received a BA from Scripps College and a JD from Southwestern Law School. In my case, I can’t say my work as a lawyer informed my poetic development because a lawyer is trying to convince a particular audience of a particular claim whereas a poet seeks to speak her truth as she sees it then leave it to the listener/reader to determine whether or not that truth resonates. I do believe, however, that a poem can be a powerful vehicle for social justice and change. I’m thinking, among others, of Marilyn Nelson’s collection A Wreath for Emmett Till, or the poems in Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting, or the political poems of Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Kofi Awoonor, and Wisława Szymborska.

DG: Wallace Stevens once said, “Money is a kind of poetry,” while Robert Graves said, “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.” If we substituted “money” with “law,” would you side with Stevens or Graves? In other words, do you believe in poetic justice or is all justice poetic?

LT: Can’t we have both poetic justice and a justice that’s poetic?

DG: If you were tasked (let’s say by a mysterious stranger) to write the quintessential poem about LA, would it be more difficult to compose a short piece or long one, and why?

LT: If it’s going to be “quintessential,” it would be harder for me to compose a short piece for so many reasons, including the physical size and geographical layout of the City. And a subcategory that grows from that physicality is the labyrinthine ribbons of highways that challenge all but the most knowledgeable of drivers, but are a necessary evil. It might take several poems to write about the Hollywood, Santa Monica, Santa Ana, San Diego Freeways (as well as the “smaller” freeways I haven’t mentioned!) I’ve only tried one: “Red Jasper.”

Another important feature of the City is its substantial diversity. At one time, I read that there were more than 140 languages spoken in L.A. and we see those languages and cultures reflected in the restaurants, shopping venues, and cultural offerings available across the City. For these reasons and so many others, L.A. deserves nothing less than a crown sonnet to capture its matchlessness!

DG: Where in LA would someone find the most overwhelmingly beautiful place? The one that would require ten pages of poetry.

LT: If you were to ask 10 different people, you’d get 10 different answers but two of the places that I find quintessentially (there’s that word again) L.A., and which I love, are the Griffith Park Observatory and the Getty Center. On clear days, you can take in almost all of the City from different vantage points as well as the Pacific Ocean. Plus, the physical grounds at both are stunning. Oh, and I have to include the Watts Towers created by Simon Rodia, a truly unique feature of the City. At least 10 pages of poetry is needed for each!

DG: On the other hand, where’s the quietest, most understated location? The one so abundant with the beauty of silence that wasting superfluous words on it would be a sin.

LT: The Exposition Park Rose Garden. Centrally located, adjacent to the Natural History Museum, and easily accessible by public transportation, is a space that’s almost cathedral-like in the silence it commands and the beauty in the variety of roses there is beyond stunning. Period.

DG: Would the world be a safer, more comforting place with poets who tell white lies, or lawyers who communicate inconvenient truths?

LT: Now you’ve put me on a spot between my two loves! Both of these options present problems but given the times we’re living in, I’m concerned that what were once thought to be “harmless” white lies have spun out of control and into full on disinformation campaigns which are dangerous to the well-being of so many, particularly marginalized communities. Give me an inconvenient truth any day (although I suspect those will come from the poets!)

DG: How have your writing habits changed, if at all, since the pandemic?

LT: Poets often complain that there isn’t enough time to tend to their work. Given how isolated we’ve all had to be, especially during the early days of the pandemic, you would have thought we would have gained time for that compelling witch, poetry. In my case, however, I was, like others, so stunned and overwhelmed by what was happening or not happening with Covid—coupled with the horrifying political scene playing out before our eyes—I didn’t write any more than I did pre-pandemic. An opportunity lost certainly.

DG: What’s the most recent thing you’ve read, and did you find it interesting?

LT: There are books you buy that get buried underneath other books you buy and, as a result, you don’t get to for sometime. One of those books for me was Emily Jungmin Yoon’s A Cruelty Special To Our Species. The poems concern sexual violence against women, most particularly Korean women who worked in Japanese-occupied territories during WWII and who were demeaningly called “comfort women.” My education is sadly lacking on this topic so the poems were an eye-opening exposure to come across the topic in Yoon’s beautifully written lines.

 

About Lynne Thompson

Lynne Thompson is the author of Start with a Small Guitar (What Books Press, 2013) and Beg No Pardon (Perugia Press, 2007). She received an Artist Fellowship from the City of Los Angeles in 2015. Her newest collection, Fretwork, was published in 2019. She was appointed Poet Laureate for the City of Los Angeles in February 2021.

Le Crépuscule du matin (Daybreak), by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Willis Barnstone


Charles Baudelaire
Artist: Willis Barnstone

Daybreak

Reveille chants in courtyards of the caserns
And morning winds blow on the street lanterns.
It is the hour when sexual dreams of lust
Squirm on pillows of dark adolescents,
Where like a bloody eye quivering in pain
The day lamp spreads her reddish stain.
Where the soul below the body’s weigh.
Like a tearful face the breezes wipe clean,
And in shimmering wind he quits the scene.
Women are sick of love, writer of work. A house
Here and there, chimneys start to puff smoke.
The women of pleasure, their eyelids bleary,

Mouths gaping, collapse in dumb reverie.
The destitute drag sagging cold breasts, meager,
And blow on log embers and blow on fingers.
It is the hour when amid the cold and poor
The agony of childbirth increases more.
Their wild sobs are cut short by foaming blood.
Then a far rooster’s cry tears through mucky air,
A sea of fog immerses the higher buildings
And dying men cast away in poorhouses
Let out last their last rattle in strangling coughs.
The tired debauched come home, broken by their jobs.

Aurora trembling in her gown pink and green
Advances slowly on the deserted Seine,
And a somber Paris, rubs its eyes to stir
And grab the tools, those of the old laborer.

 

Le Crépuscule du matin

La diane chantait dans les cours des casernes,
Et le vent du matin soufflait sur les lanternes.
C’était l’heure où l’essaim des rêves malfaisants
Tord sur leurs oreillers les bruns adolescents;
Où, comme un œil sanglant qui palpite et qui bouge,
La lampe sur le jour fait une tache rouge;
Où l’âme, sous le poids du corps revêche et lourd,
Imite les combats de la lampe et du jour.
Comme un visage en pleurs que les brises essuient,
L’air est plein du frisson des choses qui s’enfuient,
Et l’homme est las d’écrire et la femme d’aimer.
Les maisons çà et là commençaient à fumer.
Les femmes de plaisir, la paupière livide,

Bouche ouverte, dormaient de leur sommeil stupide;
Les pauvresses, traînant leurs seins maigres et froids,
Soufflaient sur leurs tisons et soufflaient sur leurs doigts.
C’était l’heure où parmi le froid et la lésine
S’aggravent les douleurs des femmes en gésine;
Comme un sanglot coupé par un sang écumeux
Le chant du coq au loin déchirait l’air brumeux
Une mer de brouillards baignait les édifices,
Et les agonisants dans le fond des hospices
Poussaient leur dernier râle en hoquets inégaux.
Les débauchés rentraient, brisés par leurs travaux.

L’aurore grelottante en robe rose et verte
S’avançait lentement sur la Seine déserte,
Et le sombre Paris, en se frottant les yeux
Empoignait ses outils, vieillard laborieux.

 

 

About Willis Barnstone

Poet, religious scholar, and translator Willis Barnstone was born in Lewiston, Maine, and earned a BA from Bowdoin College, an MA from Columbia University, and a PhD from Yale University. An intrepid traveler, he taught in Greece at the end of that country’s civil war and in Argentina during the “Dirty War,” and was in China during the Cultural Revolution. He later returned to China as a Fulbright Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

The author of nearly 50 books, Barnstone has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including From This White Island (1959), China Poems (1977), The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets (1996), Algebra of Night: New & Selected Poems 1948–1998, and Life Watch (2003).

He has also published numerous translations from Chinese, Spanish, French, Latin, ancient and modern Greek, and biblical Hebrew, including a complete translation of the New Testament (which he translates as the New Covenant), as well as memoirs, religious studies, children’s literature, and songs.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Lucille Lang Day, Poet, Scientist, and Science/Health Educator inter...


Lucille Lang Day

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Lucille Lang Day, Poet, Scientist, Science/Health Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

 

Click here to read Lucille Lang Day’s contribution to Interlitq’s California Poets Feature

 

DG: Your academic and personal background is extensive and fascinating. With regard to the former, your education encompasses both scientific and artistic disciplines, while your identity is circumscribed by Native and European ancestry. Indeed, a great deal of your writing deals with the relationship between the natural world and the man-made one. In what way, however, if at all, does science resemble poetry, and vice versa, and do you believe that highly specialized, systematic studies of nature ultimately interfere with indigenous traditions or can the relationship be a harmonious one—not only for Native Americans, but original populations everywhere?

LLD: Science uses many of the same mental skills as poetry: logic, reasoning, observation, knowledge. In addition, both science and poetry use intuition. In both realms, sometimes we have to take a leap into the unknown, following our instincts, in order to bring something to fruition, whether it’s a poem or a scientific experiment. Another similarity is that both poems and experiments go through many drafts or iterations even when they’re going well, and both require careful attention to variables, whether they be things like temperature, light, and duration, or rhythm, line breaks, and vowel and consonant sounds. Perhaps the biggest difference is that poetry embraces a larger range of experience by bringing in subjectivity and emotions.

I strongly believe that poetry can be used as a tool in science teaching because it uses many of the same thinking skills as science and can also convey scientific information. Poems by such poets as Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Emily Grosholz, and Roald Hoffmann (also a Nobel laureate in chemistry!) would fit perfectly in a science class. So would poems from Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California (Scarlet Tanager Books, 2018), which I coedited with Ruth Nolan. Poetry can’t replace experiments, lab reports, problem solving, and scientific texts in science teaching, but it can be used in addition to them and possibly get people more excited about science since emotions are allowed.

I do not see a conflict between the Indigenous and scientific ways of looking at nature. Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, has written extensively and poetically about this in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. These two ways of looking at the world can enrich each other. Although the origins of modern science don’t appear in the historical record until the fifth century B.C.E. in Greece, Indigenous peoples worldwide have been experimenting, observing, and passing their discoveries about the environment down to the next generation for many thousands of years. I will add that Indigenous cultures have figured out how to live in balance with nature and coexist with plants and animals, which is something that our modern, technological society needs to learn.

DG: Geography and location feature heavily in your work. In this respect, Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place (Blue Light Press, 2020) is a captivating example. The collection is divided into two parts: “Foreigner,” and “Between the Two Shining Seas.” The former mentions places such as Greece, Mexico, Costa Rica, The Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Spain, while the latter is mainly an exploration of the US. At the same time, Jim Morrison’s grave at Pere Lachaise makes an appearance, along with Las Vegas and its replica constructions of famous European monuments. The differences between the two continents are indeed vast; however, the collection’s seamless transition between Old World and New World suggests a closer, more interdependent relationship. Can you talk a little bit about the writing of the book and what, in your conception, lies on the opposite shores of the Pacific? Is there in fact such a thing as a “new” and “old” world?

LLD: In truth, we have one world. The “new” world was the old world to the people of the Native Nations of North and South America. They had been here for more than 10,000 years before the Europeans arrived, and there is evidence that some of them had arrived as much as 33,000 years earlier. The idea of a “new” versus “old” world is a Eurocentric concept.

Landscapes, languages, and lifestyles vary from one continent to another, and I find it fascinating to look closely at the places I visit, learn what I can about their history, cultures, and creatures, and share my impressions in poetry. Despite the differences, though, between one place and another, your term “interdependent relationship” is right on target. Everyone, everywhere, is in an interdependent relationship with everyone else: we are economically, environmentally, and politically interdependent. Keeping the planet habitable for everyone is a collective enterprise: limiting emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, using resources sustainably, and preserving habitats and biodiversity are responsibilities of every country and every individual. Our interdependence is well-illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic. No country can create a bubble in which the virus can’t reach it, and wealthy countries need to share vaccines and treatments in order to keep everyone safe. This interdependence between individuals, countries, and humans and the environment can be expressed in poetry.

DG: If you had to choose only two cities in which you could divide your time as a writer, what would those be and why?

LLD: One of the cities would have to be in the San Francisco Bay Area with its easy access to the ocean, the redwoods, the Sierra, and the cultural life of San Francisco. Another factor is that I have a daughter and four grandchildren who live here. I would choose either an East Bay city such as Oakland, Berkeley, or Lafayette, or a city north of San Francisco in Marin County, such as Mill Valley or San Rafael. Although I love San Francisco itself, I wouldn’t want to live there. It is often 5 to 10 degrees colder than the East Bay and Marin County, and a summer evening there can chill you to the marrow. Mark Twain famously said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” He wasn’t kidding! In summer, the heat of California’s Central Valley draws ocean fog landward. From the East Bay hills, you can see this icy mist rolling over San Francisco like enormous tidal waves.

The second city would be in Hawaii, not on Oahu, which is very built up, but maybe on Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island. The tropical climate, amazing species—from orchids and spider lilies to petrels and parakeets—and awe-inspiring volcanoes are all draws. As I’m sure you gathered from my first choice of location, I am not a cold-weather person. I don’t snowboard or ski. Choosing a tropical location is tricky for me, though, because most of them are overrun by mosquitoes, and I am a magnet for these mini-vampires. Once in Mexico I got over 70 bites before I could grab the insect repellent! I have also been feasted upon in places as far flung as Costa Rica, Massachusetts, and the Camargue of southern France. I have a poem about this, “Mosquitoes,” in Birds of San Pancho. However, I have never had a mosquito bite in Hawaii.

DG: Would your choices differ if you answered from the perspective of a scientist? In other words, to what extent does the environment itself shape the creation of our so-called “objective” knowledge, as opposed to the subjective “creativity” of each individual person, and more importantly, is there really such a dichotomy in your view?

LLD: Environment shapes both our subjective and objective realities. How could we not be impacted both emotionally and intellectually by the people and natural world that surround us? The call of an ‘apapane on Maui might inspire either a poem or a scientific study of the ‘apapane’s habits and range. That being said, if one is trying to make a living as a scientist, one will need funding. This is true for environmental studies as well as for more esoteric endeavors—such as searching for exoplanets or dark matter, developing computer models of protein structure, determining the genetic relationships between Homo sapiens and earlier human species, or studying the chemical thermodynamics of organic reactions—and where you are located can impact your funding.

Although I trained as a scientist, I have made my living as a science writer and educator. If my goal were to make a living as a scientist, I think teaching at Berkeley or Harvard would be the ideal because the science professors at these institutions include so many Nobel laureates and recipients of other important prizes. I would have no expectation to receive such an award myself; just being a part of the scientific community surrounding these rock stars would suffice. These universities also attract some of the most promising undergraduates and graduate students in the sciences, and the resultant communities of professors and students and the research they do lead to major grant funding, donations, etc. These are therefore very good places to be if you want to pursue scientific research of any kind. So as a scientist, my first choice would be to live in Berkeley, and my second would be to live in Cambridge, Massachusetts (second because it’s colder there!). In either case, I would want to do environmental research, e.g., fire ecology in California or marine biology on Cape Cod. It would be possible to do research anywhere in the world during the summer or other times when I wasn’t teaching, but I could get to my research site more frequently and easily if it were in California or Massachusetts.

DG: Your 2015 collection, Becoming An Ancestor (Červená Barva Press) is a fascinating work, sometimes autobiographical, often historical, and at the same time contemporary, moving effortlessly between the dawn of America at Plymouth, to the Civil War, all the way up to Google and the war in Iraq. From a personal perspective, do you find that the challenges you envision for your descendants will be different than the ones your ancestors faced?

LLD: The inner challenges the next generation will face will be the same: sorrow, loss, anger, confusion, gullibility, the search for meaning, the struggle to discover and embrace their own identity, etc. But the external challenges will be different: climate change, the upheavals of a global economy, divisive politics fueled by the internet, global heath crises such as Covid-19. Our cultural evolution and increasing technological capability are far outstripping our biological evolution as a species. As human occupants of the planet Earth today, we are no different biologically from the people who made magnificent paintings in the Lascaux caves 17,000 years ago or the ones who found their way to North America in the late Pleistocene. Today, though, the internet, social media, and propagandist TV and radio channels that eschew fact-checking are surrounding people with a blizzard of misinformation. We have evolved to live in groups of a few hundred people who work together to provide food and shelter and thereby ensure everyone’s survival. Sorting through the barrage of true and false information now bombarding us each day is an extraordinary challenge for everyone. My own descendants, as well as others growing up today and in the future, will wrestle with many complex issues, including all the misinformation. If they write poetry, it will reflect that.

DG: And speaking more generally about the issue—do you perceive the course of America’s future pessimistically or optimistically?

LLD: It could go either way. About half of the people believe in social justice, gun control, science, environmental protections, universal medical insurance, childcare and education for all, etc. The other half are wary of immigrants and people of color, want to carry their guns, think climate change is a hoax and vaccinations are bad for you, value capitalism over the environment, and consider government investment in social programs such as health insurance, childcare, and education to be a form of socialism, and socialism to be un-American and bad. I hope that better education and the teaching of critical thinking skills will help us bridge this divide. We need more poetry about all of this. Poetry cannot solve the problems, but it can help people to think about them and see the world differently. I have a poem in an excellent anthology of political poetry that came out from Sixteen Rivers Press in 2018: America, We Call Your Name: Poems of Resistance and Resilience. Sixteen Rivers has a program that provides high school teachers with copies of the anthology and lesson plans to go with it. This type of project can stimulate critical thinking among the students regardless of whether they agree or disagree with the poems.

DG: Let’s move back in time and talk about your first collection, Self-Portrait with Hand Microscope (Berkeley Poets Workshop and Press), published in 1982, and selected by former US Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky, along with David Littlejohn and Michael Rubin, for the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. In this collection, the microscope serves not only as a tangible symbol of introspection, but also acts as a metaphor for analyzing the often unseen or hidden beauties and flaws of life. In this respect, one of the most powerful poems is “First Wedding,” where you write “Standing at the altar, I remembered my blue room. / For years the walls had been shrinking. / I saw myself grown huge like Alice / in a box, small and blue, the door shrunken / to shoe box size. I had to burn my way out.” In various interviews you have already spoken at length about the difficulties of your young adult life, but it would be interesting to know: How did the writing of this collection ultimately help you heal, and are painful experiences good or bad creative fuel?

LLD: Through writing poetry and my memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story (Heyday, 2012), I came to understand myself and my choices better. Writing helped me come to terms with both my experiences as a teen mother and my relationship with my own mother. I actually wrote my way to an understanding of her. So yes, painful experiences are good creative fuel, but that does not mean that happy experiences are not. Creatively, I don’t value my mistakes, losses, and failures more than my achievements and successes.

In writing poems about my life and channeling my emotions into poetry, I have been greatly inspired by Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. The events of my life and my emotional responses to these events are very different from those of Lowell, Sexton, and Plath. My life has been nothing like theirs, but the power and precision of their language in documenting their lives and emotions take me right there with them, and I have hoped to do that in my own poetry. Emotions ranging from sorrow and anger to love and compassion are transformed through poetry. A raw complaint is not a poem, nor is an angry rant or even a declaration of love. A poem must transform the emotion into a work of art, and once that happens, a reader can participate in it and understand something better, and so can the writer.

DG: Inspired by Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions, you wrote a chapbook called The Book of Answers (Finishing Line Press, 2006). As a scientist, would you prefer to have more questions or answers?

LLD: Carl Sagan said, “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” To come up with a deep answer, we need to start with a good question. You can’t have one without the other. Also, answers in science tend to generate more questions, and that is an important aspect of how science proceeds. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of questions or have all of the answers.

DG: And what about poetry—should it have more answers than questions, or vice versa?

LLD: Both questions and answers are important in poetry, just as they are in science, but to avoid being didactic in poetry, sometimes it’s best just to raise the question or describe the problem and let the reader come up with the answer. For example, my poem “What Flows Into the Gulf of Mexico” in Birds of San Pancho documents the many types of pollutants—cleaning products, antibiotics, pesticides, fertilizers, etc.—entering the Mississippi River every day. The poem doesn’t offer a solution to this problem, but I hope that by raising people’s consciousness about it, the poem will inspire some people to take appropriate action.

On the other hand, sometimes an answer can be suggested without being didactic. My poem “The Butterflies Are Dying,” which appears in Interlitq, describes how climate change is endangering four hundred fifty species of West Coast butterflies. The last stanza suggests a partial solution: “Oh, welcome them with milkweed / and sunflowers, rabbitbrush, mustard. / Today, say Come to my garden.” Thus, while we are waiting for governments to creep around to taking action to reduce the use of fossil fuels and thereby mitigate global warming, we can help the butterflies by providing habitat for them in our yards. The monarch population in California is higher in 2021 than it was in 2020, and biologists think this is due primarily to the work of individuals who have planted milkweed in their gardens.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

LLD: I just finished reading Bewilderment, a novel by Richard Powers. A troubled autistic boy with deep concerns for animals and the environment is being raised his father, an astrobiologist. It’s an engaging story but ultimately a downer, since the boy can’t save the world and the father can’t save the boy. Currently, I’m reading Deep Hanging Out: Wanderings and Wonderment in Native California, a nonfiction book by Malcolm Margolin. “Deep hanging out” is not only something hippies do but also an anthropological term meaning to immerse oneself informally in another culture. For the past 40 years or so, Margolin has been engaged in deep hanging out with the Native American tribes of California, and he has much to share.

My own latest book, which came out in November 2021 from my press, Scarlet Tanager Books, is a small anthology called Poetry and Science: Writing Our Way to Discovery. It contains poems and essays by Elizabeth Bradfield, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Ann Fisher-Wirth, and Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, as well as my own work. So I am currently trying to get the word out about this book. I hope that my next book will be my “new and collected” science and nature poems, which will contain work from the seven full-length poetry collections I’ve authored over the past 40 years, as well as new poems.

 

About Lucille Lang Day

Lucille Lang Day is the author of seven full-length poetry collections, most recently Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place and Becoming An Ancestor, and four poetry chapbooks. She has also coedited two anthologies, Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California and Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California, and has published two children’s books and a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story. Her many honors include the Blue Light Poetry Prize, two PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Awards, the Joseph Henry Jackson Award, and eleven Pushcart Prize nominations. The founder and publisher of Scarlet Tanager Books, she received her MA in English and MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University, and her BA in biological sciences, MA in zoology, and PhD in science/mathematics education at the University of California, Berkeley.