WWPH’s forthcoming 2009 poetry contest winner, From the Fever-World (October 15, 2009), is an extended meditation on Eastern European Jewry in a world before Auschwitz, transgressive, erotic, and rooted in the experience of the senses. The poetry is the result of Dubrow’s research of Yiddish literature, oral histories, and testimony, which she completed while serving as a Sosland Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies inWashington, DC.Dubrow was born in Italy and grew up in Yugoslavia, Zaire, Poland, Belgium, Austria, and the United States. She holds an MFA from the University of Maryland, College Park and a PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her works include a poetry collection, The Hardship Post (Three Candles Press, 2009), and a chapbook, The Promised Bride(Finishing Line Press, 2007). Her third book, Stateside, will be released by Northwestern University Press in 2010. She lives on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she teaches creative writing and literature at Washington College.
Visit the author’s website: jehannedubrow.com
In the fever-world, my dearest
In the fever-world, my dearest,
our hands aren’t clean
for very long, the brambles
biting in our palms,
deep thorns across our life lines—
here, even the shrub
surrendering fruit to the picker
resents the sacrifice and wants
its juices given back in blood.
if you are hungry, starve yourself.
Make a desert of your thirst.
Don’t fall asleep
Here, my dearest,
there’s only wilderness where fields
should be, only the blackberries
cherries pitted with buckshot
to choke the unsuspecting throat,
and peaches whose centers hold
dark stones of cyanide.
Last night my pillow broke
Last night my pillow broke
into a thousand feathers.
My mouth gave birth to wings
but crippled ones,
as if a child had struck
a white stork from the sky,
his slingshot made for killing
what is only beautiful beyond
our gravity our pull.
He left the bird for dead
beneath my tongue. I felt
the needle of its beak,
its pinions gray as fever,
its claws unholy thorns.
Q: How long have you been writing? Have you always been writing poetry?
I wrote my first poem when I was eleven years old (it was about seagulls, of all things!). From then on, I always wrote poetry, but it was only in my early twenties—after a really theatrical, tearful break-up with the man who is now my husband—that I became serious about writing and decided that I wanted to be A Real Poet.
Q: How has your experience as a professor, and your experience in other fields, influenced you as a writer?
My work as a teacher always informs my work as a writer. In the classroom, I need to explain the craft of poetry using language that is clear, accessible, and lively; this pressure to be lucid, concise, and even entertaining has forced me to develop a really strong sense of what it is I do as a poet, how my poetry works on my page (and in the ear and on the tongue), and how the poetry I value reflects these same ideals. If I weren’t a professor, maybe I wouldn’t know my own writing processes quite so well.
At other times in my life, I have managed a local chain of gourmet coffee shops, have worked as a shampoo girl in beauty parlor, and have made a mean pastrami on rye in a deli. I don’t write poems about lattes, split ends, or spicy mustard, but all of those jobs taught me the value of good time management. I learned how to write sonnets in between pouring shots of espresso. Those jobs also taught me the importance of writing even when you don’t have a poem due for next week’s workshop; the need to write must be an internal pressure. It was working in the service industry, not getting an MFA or a PhD, that taught me how to be a writer who sits at the desk every day and writes, whether inspiration strikes or not.
Q: Poetry is something that many people struggle to understand and create. How do you start your writing process? Why does poetry appeal to you?
Growing up in Poland, I learned how to read by following along in the libretti of the Time Life series of “Great American Musicals,” like Kiss Me, Kate, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Most Happy Fella, Porgy and Bess, and Showboat. My first poets were songmakers like Cole Porter and Frank Loesser, artists who certainly understood the musicality and playfulness of language. I always start with sound—a line that tastes delicious to me—and then I move toward meaning. When I draft a poem, often I don’t know where that first, yummy line of language will take me, but I’ve learned to trust the blindness. I think that it’s fine, both as a reader and as a writer, not to fully comprehend a poem’s magic. Sometimes a poem pleases us, even if we don’t grasp its meaning. Wallace Stevens comes to mind as a good example of this phenomenon.
Q: These poems incorporate a lot of Jewish culture. How does your Jewish heritage inspire you?
Yes, From the Fever-World is a very Jewish book (as was my first collection, The Hardship Post). In grad school, my professor Stan Plumly reassured me that it’s okay—even necessary—for a poet to have obsessions and to pursue those obsessions, well, obsessively. So, I’ve done just that. A lot of my writing considers identity: the defining of identity, its blurriness, its beautiful mutability. Writing in the voice of Ida Lewin, an Orthodox Jew from another time and place, gave me permission to explore my own role as a Jew, in a way that some of my more overtly autobiographical poems could not. Sometimes wearing a mask can be a very revealing experience.
Q: How long did it take you to write these poems? How long have the ideas of Ida and AlwaysWinter been in your mind?
From the Fever-World was written over the space of a year. For four months, I was a Sosland Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, which is the academic arm of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC. During my fellowship, I was working on a project that I called AlwaysWinter: A Novel-in-Poems. The middle part of this verse collection was a series of fragments written in the voice of an imaginary Yiddish poet, Ida Lewin. Eventually, Ida took over the whole project. She became the story and the dominant voice. The other sections fell away or became part of my first book.
After I left the Museum, more Ida poems kept coming to me, like strange visitations. As someone who works mostly in carefully wrought, fixed forms such as sonnets and villanelles, it felt very strange to “receive” these fake Yiddish fragments whole cloth. Sometimes they came in dreams or over my morning coffee or on a walk with my puppy, Argos. But they definitely did not write themselves in the same way that my rhymed couplets or sestinas do. About six months after my fellowship, I went to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and spent a month completing and revising the manuscript. When I finished the book, I asked myself, “Is this thing any good? Or is it just plain nuts?”
Q: You’ve lived so many different places across the world. Is the town of AlwaysWinter based on any of the places you’ve lived or is it a product of your imagination?
Poland is one of the central landscapes of my imagination. But the Poland that lives in my head is a mythologized version, not only of my childhood but also of my studies and scholarship in Jewish and Holocaust literature. From the Fever-World is set in AlwaysWinter (or Zawsze-Zima in Polish), a fictional town in the region of Galicia, which we would now call southern Poland. AlwaysWinter is modeled on the many small towns that existed in interwar Poland, places of incredible cultural, political, and religious diversity. When I was inventing AlwaysWinter, I relied both on recollections of the seven years I spent in Poland as a little girl and on my research of yizkor books, witness testimony, historiography, and Yiddish literature.
Q: How did you come up with the character of Ida Lewin. Was there any real life inspiration for her?
In my “translator’s note,” at the end of From the Fever-World, I write that “Ida Lewin (or someone like her)” must have existed. I believe that to be true. Cynthia Ozick’s wonderful short story, “Envy; Or Yiddish in America,” describes the great sadness of being a Yiddish poet who writes in an exterminated mothertongue and is unable to find a translator. There are so many real Yiddish poets who have disappeared or been forgotten, simply because no one has been able to bring their work into a living language like English. I don’t know Yiddish but, through Ida Lewin, I found my poet and my job as a translator.
Q: A lot of these poems discuss the role of women as mothers and wives. Were these inspired by your own experiences or the experiences of women around you?
I am a wife, but I’m not a mother. I have always wanted to be a novelist, and From the Fever-World may be the closest I get to writing fiction. This project certainly reminded me of the pleasure to be had in making things up. It was fun to think as Ida on the page, imagining her dry and cold arranged marriage, her little baby Rivka, her desire for the people and things of the unkosher world. I’ve always been the good girl but, in her own way, Ida is very bad, subversive, rebellious, and much sexier than I am.
Q: What people have inspired your work? how have they inspired you?
Some of my brilliant and talented friends—poets like Kristin Naca, Leslie Harrison, and Yerra Sugarman—inspire me with their own work, not to mention their kindness, generosity, and humor. Everyone should go read their poetry right now! My mentor and former teacher, Hilda Raz, has been a very important role model for me, demonstrating how it’s possible to balance art, familial commitments, and career, always with grace and beauty. When I grow up, I want to be Hilda. And the members of my family (my husband, my parents, my little brother) continue to shape my work; I come from a tribe of overly articulate, very cerebral people, and I can’t seem to escape the influence of all that yammering.
Q: Do you have any plans for future works?
I’m like a shark—always moving forward or I’ll die. My third poetry collection, Stateside, will be published by Northwestern University Press in 2010; it examines my experiences as a Navy wife. I’m currently working on a new manuscript of poetry, Red Army Red, which uses my early years in the Eastern Bloc as a metaphor for the tyranny and oppressiveness of adolescence (how’s that for cheery?). And, I’m also writing a collection of lyrical essays, tentatively titled A Thousand Penelopes. When I finished Starteside, I realized that I still had more to say about the life of the “milspouse” and wanted to say those things in prose rather than poetry.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
Everyone gives this advice, but my answer is Read, Read, Read. Read the dead poets and the living ones. Read men and women. Read in English and in other languages, if you know them. Memorize poems that you enjoy reciting. Memorize metrical verse so that you can internalize the music on a cellular level. Train your eye and your ear. Do your research: about journals, about writing programs, about teachers. Expect that everything will take longer than you expected. Expect rejection. Be thrilled with acceptance. And just keep reading and writing.
Composed in the voice of the imaginary Yiddish poet Ida, these poems are subtle, musically complex, and frequently startling in their immediacy, violence, and grace. Steeped in Jewish and Polish history, they’re set in the invented town of AlwaysWinter, a lush, strange, and frequently harrowing place where even the most mundane objects seems imbued with sexuality, pain, and danger. This is a wonderful poetic sequence and, more than a mere ventriloquist, Jehanne Dubrow is a poet of enormous skill and vision.
—Kevin Prufer, editor of Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing and author of National Anthem, one of Publishers Weekly‘s Five Best Poetry Books of 2008
These are feverish poems indeed, ardent to the point of hallucination, burning between the sexuality of the sacred and the need to write: “to find the slingshot word…turning/ pencils into nettle-points,” and to be the writing, incantatory as a curse, ancient as the lost world of Yiddish Poland, modern or timeless as “the fullness that begins with emptiness,” the “bitterness that sticks/ like honey on the tongue.” Dubrow’s poetry is never less than astonishing.
—Alicia Ostriker, feminist critic and award-winning poet
In these precise and soulful meditations, Dubrow combs through lost, illuminated fields of lyrical imagery for what’s been “left for gleaners to find,” and in doing so, restores some part of what we cannot live without.
—Dorianne Laux, author of Facts about the Moon, winner of the Oregon Book Award
“Here is language given to an unrecorded life, a fiery spirit released through utterance of the most intimate feelings of an imagined Old World woman, one confined to a body used and defined by others. In an act of historical reclamation and generosity, Jehanne Dubrow breaks the ancestral silence of female subjectivity radically constrained by tradition; the result is a poetry of an almost incandescent intensity, a kind of fever dream in a world forever winter.”
—Eleanor Wilner, Advisory Editor of Calyx and award-winning poet