Chana Bloch’s Swimming in the Rain: New and Selected Poems will be published in 2015. The author of four collections of poetry, she is cotranslator of the Song of Songs as well as translator of Israeli poets Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch. Her poem “Inside Out” from the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review can be found here.
Could you tell us a little about “Inside Out”? What was your original impetus for writing it? How does it differ from your other work?
I wrote “Inside Out” the day I showed up for a crucial scan and was told, “Come back tomorrow. The scanner is broken.” I sat benumbed at my computer for a couple of hours, parsing the terrible “either/or.” As on other occasions when facing a crisis, I found it was possible—no, essential—“to divert [myself] with words.” When I stopped for lunch, I discovered I had written the first half of the poem. Then, pencil in hand, I walked down Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Berkeley searching for a sign—in the sky, the trees—and the rest of the poem wrote itself.
Most of my poems are the end result of a long period of distillation: I look back at some event and try to make sense of it retrospectively. “Inside Out” is the only poem in which I wrote about a crisis in real time, minute-by-minute, as I experienced it. It is also one of very few poems of mine that arrived almost finished—one gauge of the internal pressure that needed to find its way out in words.
Why did you choose to write this poem in the second person?
The second person yields the greatest range of interpretations: I could be addressing another person, or the reader, or myself. In this case, I didn’t choose; the poem chose you instead of I, no doubt because of a bone-chilling sense of estrangement (“This can’t be me”). In poems where I chide myself about something I have or haven’t done, the tone can be severe, even heartless (“You’ve had your seven wishes / and never been grateful”; “This is the life you haven’t lived”; “Have you already managed to forget?”). “Inside Out” is about a situation beyond control; here, you and I are one in compassion.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you first started out?
In my early work, I tended to wrap up the poem and deliver the meaning, like the good student I am. Now I prefer to follow the poem wherever it wants to go. Sometimes I am surprised by the turns it takes. The element of unpredictability that I have come to value in a literary work is not just a “literary device”; it reflects an aspect of our shared human experience—the way our lives keep taking us by surprise.
Which non-writing-related aspects of your life most influence your writing?
Relationships. Parents, husbands, lovers, friends, students. My children most of all; they opened up territories inside me that I would otherwise never have known. Reading. The Hebrew Bible. Politics. History. Returning to paintings I love.
What advice about writing have you given to students over the years?
I tell others only what I have found to be useful in my own work. Some examples:
- When you are stuck, get up from your desk and go for a walk. Don’t forget to take a pencil. You can often get your gray matter unstuck simply by moving.
- Save the different versions of your poem, dated, and file them away. When you have finished a poem, go back and see what a little acorn it was to begin with; this should persuade you to keep going when you are discouraged.
- Take the critiques of others with a half a cup of salt. Sometimes a critical comment will tell you more about the critic than about your work—e.g. “These poems are too dark.” What amount of dark is admissible? Poems do not have to deliver upbeat endings and joy to the world. There are three things that matter to me in a poem: language, language, language. I tacked a sentence, repurposed from an old campaign slogan, on my bulletin board, to remind myself: “It’s the language, stupid.”
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
As a young writer, in a workshop with Robert Lowell, I submitted, along with my own poems, some translations of Abraham Sutzkever, the great Yiddish poet. Lowell didn’t know Yiddish, but he could see what worked and what didn’t. He told me, “You can learn to write from your own translations.” His suggestion proved to be the most helpful advice I ever received about writing. Later I discovered that Merwin had heard the same thing from Pound. If he wanted to be a writer he should write every day, Pound said, but since he was too young to have anything worth writing about, he ought to translate. Pound spoke of the value of translation “as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of the possibilities of his own language.”
A translator needs to know at least one language very well: his or her own. You might say that translation is a form of apprenticeship—not to a master craftsman, but to the genius of the language itself. When you translate you are constantly choosing among alternatives in order to convey meaning, register, image, mood, music; each time you choose, you are exercising muscles that you need in shaping your own work. It’s a strenuous but efficient way of teaching yourself to write.