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FATHERS AND SONS, POEMS AND OBOES: An interview with Paul Hostovsky

Published in the newsletter of the Embassy of the Czech Republic, January 2007.

American journalist Hodding Carter said, “There are two lasting bequests we can give our children. One is roots. The other is wings.” The life odyssey of the celebrated Czech novelist Egon Hostovsky (1908-1973) took him from his birthplace in the northeastern Bohemian town of Hronov, to Prague, Vienna, Brussels, Paris, Lisbon, Oslo, Denmark, and finally New York, before he eventually settled in Millburn, New Jersey where he married and had a son, Paul. If New Jersey became the roots of the next Hostovsky generation, literature gave the boy wings.

JMC*: What was your upbringing like? Tell me about your early family life—parents, siblings, school and neighborhood.

PH: I was an only child, which I hated and loved. It was the first of many ambivalences. My father was married twice before. He had a daughter from each of those marriages, Jenny and Olga, my two half sisters. They were older and rather mythological to me because I rarely saw them and they lived in far-away places with strange names like Pennsylvania and Czechoslovakia. My father was in his late forties (my age now) when he met my mother. She was young (mid twenties) and beautiful and intellectual. They fell in love and married and moved from NY to NJ, and then I came along. My mother did not know Czech. She was born in Leipzig. When she was 3 her family left Germany for Holland, and then when she was 11 they came to the U.S. So my parents spoke English to each other, and consequently I never learned Czech (in school I studied French and German). When I was very young we moved to Denmark where my father had some distant relatives (his immediate family all perished in the Holocaust). For two years we lived outside of Copenhagen on the second floor of a two-family house where I still go in my dreams and imagination. Except for those two years abroad, my childhood was spent in NJ, and it was full of baseball and bullies, television and Motown, pretty girls, doomed crushes, egg salad sandwiches, Czech ghosts. My first book of poems, Sonnets from South Mountain, takes a look at those years. My son Marc, when he was 12, illustrated those sonnets and so I included some of his illustrations in the book. It’s a kind of father-and-son collaboration. When I was 12 my father grew ill and spent most of the next two years in his bathrobe and slippers, in pain. He died when I was 14.

JMC: What role did your father play in your upbringing?

PH: He played the role of the foreign-distant-and-aloof-writer-of-psychological-Czech- novels who didn’t understand baseball or rock ’n roll and spoke English with a thick accent and was smooth-skinned like Jacob and older than Isaac and Abraham put together, more of a grandfather than a father really, because he was already very old and sick when I was still very young and existential, but I do have a few fond memories of going on walks with him in green places and holding his hand and kissing him on the mouth and hearing him speak Czech into the telephone, saying at intervals, “Ano, ano, ano…”

JMC: How did his being a writer affect you?

PH: I knew from an early age that my father was a famous writer. I remember, when I was very young, sitting in Graham Greene’s lap in London. I don’t know how I got there—if I climbed up there myself or if he lifted me up—but I know we were living in Denmark at the time, and Greene had reviewed one of my father’s books (favorably). “A very famous writer,” my mother told me, “has invited us to his London apartment for tea.” I remember my father was nervous about his English, and hopeful about the possibility of help, with publication or with money or with work. And I remember 3 other things about that day. The first is not being able to read yet, though I knew what books were and what a famous writer was; and the second is sitting on Graham Greene’s lap and not being able to reach the floor with my toes; and the third is telling him matter-of-factly that I knew a famous writer too, and then pointing across the room at my father smiling nervously at me already at home in the big lap in London. I was “burned by books early, and kept sidling up to the flame,” as the poet Stephen Dunn has put it. Even before I could read, books captured my attention and my imagination, probably because they filled most of the wall space in our house. And since my father’s novels had been translated into many languages already, and since we had multiple copies of his books in multiple languages—there must have been hundreds altogether—there was this one room where all the Hostovsky books were kept, this one room (like a shrine) where I would go and gaze with pride and wonder at all of those spines with my name on them. I remember taking my friends into that room full of HOSTOVSKY and it never failed to impress the hell out of them, especially the books translated into Japanese and Chinese. But, sadly, I never had the opportunity to discuss writing with my father. I had only just begun to write when he died. Though he wrote novels in Czech and I write poetry in English, still, I would give anything to be able to sit down with him today and talk about our shared—and unshared—passion for writing.

JMC: If you could ask your father one question about his writing, what would it be?

PH: Hmmm. I guess I’d ask him, was it worth it? That is, is the sublime self-centeredness of the artist worth the wreckage it leaves in its path, the resentments and lost relationships and empty spaces and lonelinesses floating around in its wake? In other words, the book was better than the movie, but was the book better than the life, too?

JMC: How much of his work have you read?

PH: A few years after he died, when I was still a teenager, I read all of his books that were translated into English, but that was 30 years ago. I don’t remember them very well. Maybe it’s time to reread them. But I’m so busy with my own work—my career, my children, and my own writing, and there are so many other writers, especially my contemporaries writing in English, whose books I also want to read—that I don’t know when I’ll ever get around to rereading Egon Hostovsky.

JMC: How strong was your identification with your father’s Czech nationality?

PH: As I said, there were “Czech ghosts”—overheard bits of phone conversation in Czech; paintings on the walls by Czech artists like Sima, Janacek, Fremund, Lada; children’s books by Jiri Trinka; on the phonograph Smetana and Dvorzak; and that diminutive –ek suffix floating around in my childhood (Paulicek, pupicek,); and occasional visits from famous old men with funny names like Skvorecky, Voskovec, Liehm, Lustig, et al. But as you know, the gateway to culture is language, and I think because my mother never learned Czech (though she did try) and I didn’t acquire it growing up, the attendant Czech culture was inaccessible to me. In fact, that’s the word that best describes how I felt about my father: inaccessible.

JMC: Do you go often to the Czech Republic?

PH: No. I’ve only been there twice. The first time was in 1979 on a trip with my mother, for one week. The Communists were still in power, of course, so we were being watched closely because my mother was in touch with certain dissident Czech writers living in the States and elsewhere through her sponsorship of the Egon Hostovsky Prize, which was an award given annually to a deserving Czech writer whose works were proscribed inside Czechoslovakia. This is what I remember about that trip: I was 21 and less interested in the Castle than in the doorknobs, which were mostly levers instead of knobs; and the toilets which were mostly not in the bathrooms but in little rooms beside the bathrooms; and the “pater noster” elevators which had no doors or buttons and never stopped moving so you had to leap in and leap out when they got to your floor; and the squirrels which were mostly red or black instead of gray; and the fact that things in general seemed more substantial—the bread for instance, and the soups, and the eyebrows of the grandmothers, and the beauty of the women, all those beautiful young substantial Czech women who were headed, I suspected, not to the Castle or the Old Jewish Cemetery, but somewhere else I knew I would not see, especially not with my mother in tow. My second trip to Prague, 27 years later, was only just recently, and my impressions are still too raw to put into words, except to say that the bread and the beauty of the women remain as substantial as ever.

JMC: Did you have any particular life influences—either a person or an experience that prompted you to write poetry?

PH: I think poetry is what prompted me to write poetry. Hearing it and reading it led me to writing it. We learn to love the things we love from others who loved them before us.

JMC: What did you study and where?

PH: I went to a small liberal arts school for creative fuck-ups (excuse my language) in the Hudson River Valley, about an hour north of New York City, where I majored in English and minored in German, drank a lot of beer, smoked a lot of pot, and consequently learned very little.

JMC: Who are your literary influences?

PH: Oh there have been many. Frost was an early influence. And Carl Sandberg, believe it or not. And Rilke. Nellie Sachs. Auden. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Elizabeth Bishop. William Matthews, Stephen Dunn, Billy Collins, Thomas Lux, Tony Hoagland, Mark Halliday, Sharon Olds, Louise Gluck, Marie Howe, Mary Oliver, and many, many others.

JMC: Why do you write poetry?

PH: Actually, I have no idea. I have asked myself that same question many times, why do I insist on spending so much time thinking about and writing and rewriting the poems? But then who knows why we do the things we do? I suppose I write because I have to write. To tell you the truth, I would rather build houses or play the oboe. But I don’t know how to build houses or play the oboe. But I do know how to write poetry. So I write. Because I have always written. Because I’m happiest when I’m writing. Because I’m always thinking of something else, something a little off the point. Because I have a small bladder and a big nose and a prodigious imagination. I write poetry because I am eating the world one bite at a time.

JMC: For whom do you write? Do you think about your audience, and if so, who do you think they are?

PH: I write for myself, and I write for the whole world. As with certain other activities, I do it alone, but in my mind I’m doing it with someone else. I would like to do it with everyone—well, maybe not everyone—with anyone who’s interested—or interesting. So I’m a bit of a poetry whore. My audience is all lovers of poetry, all ex-lovers of poetry, and all potential lovers of poetry.

JMC: Of all your poems, do you have a favorite? If so, which one and why?

PH: My favorite of all my poems is the next one, the one I’m about to write, the one that’s seducing me now.

JMC: How did you become an interpreter for the deaf?

PH: Well, I fell in love with sign language and deaf people, some of whom I have married. After college, on a lark, I took an introductory course in American Sign Language, and one thing led to another. The teacher was deaf. The sign language was the most beautiful, impossible, incredible, airborne, linguistic phenomenon I had ever seen in my life. I said to myself, I have to learn this. I was 23. And I did learn it. (And I’m still learning it—one is never done learning a language). And I’ve been working as an interpreter for the deaf ever since. My daughter is deaf, her mother is deaf, my boss is deaf, my financial planner and plumber and gardener are deaf, many of my friends and colleagues are deaf. It’s my life, and I love my life.

JMC: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a poet?

PH: Well, I’ve been on a roll these last few years as my poems have been published more widely in many magazines and anthologies, both in print and online. I have won contests. I’ve had two collections published this year, Bird in the Hand (Grayson Books) and Dusk Outside the Braille Press (Riverstone Press). My work has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, I’ve been featured on Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, and my poems were recently read on NPR by Garrison Keillor. But I’d say my greatest accomplishment as a poet is when someone reads one of my poems and likes it well enough to put it up on their refrigerator. I think the refrigerator is the highest honor a poet can aspire to. It’s the ultimate publication.

JMC: What is poetry to you?

PH: Poetry is the kind of thing you see from the corner of your eye. Like a star. It isn’t life itself, it’s a by-product of life, and if you look at your life a certain way you will see the poetry. If you look straight at it you can’t see it, but if you look a little to one side it is there. A poem is a serious joke, a love affair with speech and its sounds, with words and their echoes. To quote a famous poet, William Stafford: “Anyone who breathes is in the rhythm business; anyone who is alive is caught up in the imminences, the doubts mixed with the triumphant certainty, of poetry.”

*(JoAnn M. Cooper is a writer and filmmaker who has been helping the world communicate for more than 20 years. She currently works as the Senior PR Officer for the Czech Embassy in Washington, D.C.)