A Little in Love a Lot, Interview with Paul Hostovsky
(The Main Street Rag, Volume 14, Number 3, Summer 2009)
Paul Hostovsky's poems appear and disappear simultaneously (voila!) and have recently been sighted in places where they pay you for your trouble with your own trouble doubled, and other people's troubles thrown in, which never seem to him as great as his troubles, though he tries not to compare. He has no life and spends it with his poems, trying to perfect their perfect disappearances. His recent collection, Bending the Notes (Main Street Rag, 2008) includes work that has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer's Almanac, and The Pushcart Prize XXXIII. Paul makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter at the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, where he specializes in working with the deaf-blind. Poems about sign language and deaf people are sprinkled throughout Bending the Notes, as well as poems about blind people and Braille, parenthood and childhood, bullies and baseball, harmonicas and trombones, and quite a few ars poetica poems. There are also a number of cameo appearances by Rilke, Milton, Sappho, Frost, Wordsworth, Li Po, and one of Yeats' swans. Paul was a finalist for a second time in the 2009 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. His manuscript, Dear Truth, will also be published by MSR in winter 2010.
Beth Browne: There is so much going on in this book, it’s hard to know where to begin. One thing that’s hinted at in your poems “Greenhouse” and “The Tush” is your Jewish heritage. It seems as though the starkness of the emotions in your poems reflects the tendency in Jewish culture to keep emotions on the surface. Can you say a little bit about how your work has been influenced by Jewish culture?
Paul Hostovsky: I guess you could say I’m a rotten Jew. Not a dirty, rotten Jew—just a rotten one, rotten at being Jewish. At least I suspect that’s what a good observant Jew would say about me. Somewhere in the Passover seder it talks—a little disparagingly—about the Jew who doesn’t even know what it means to be a Jew. I always identified with that Jew. I always felt like that passage was talking about me. Like maybe after it was read aloud, Gramps would look over at me and take a sip of wine and straighten his yarmulke, and say: “Paul, that means you.” But of course he never said that. But that being said, of course, I AM a Jew. I’m a Jew from New Jersey. And I grew up among Jews from New Jersey. And so I guess it’s fair to say that my work has been influenced by Jewish culture. But I’ll be damned if I can tell you how. I think it’s a little like my New Jersey accent—I can’t hear it myself, but other people hear it, and sometimes they comment on it, which makes me a little self-conscious, but also vaguely patriotic—sort of proud of and homesick for New Jersey, where I haven’t lived in over 30 years. So you see, I’m one of the Diaspora. Two, actually. That is, I’m of two diasporas: I’m a rotten Jew from New Jersey who has been living in Boston among Gentiles for 30 years.
But back to those poems you mentioned, “Greenhouse” and “The Tush”. I think they’re less about being Jewish than about being, well, human. They’re both true stories, well, sort of. I may have gotten some of the facts mixed up, but both poems tell the emotional truths. As for “Greenhouse”, I do have a second cousin whose father sat shiva for her—that is, he mourned her for dead—even though she was still very much alive. He mourned her because she had married a black man. This did happen, though it was before I was born, or when I was very small. I heard about it when I was growing up. “Sitting shiva” is a Jewish rite of mourning, and of course Jews are historically and famously insular, but nevertheless, I don’t think of the story the poem tells as being essentially a Jewish story. It’s about intolerance, and ignorance, and fear, and it’s about parents disapproving of their children’s choices in love, which is a story as common and as old as—older than—Romeo and Juliet. Which brings me to the other poem, “The Tush”, which offers its own pithy little interpretation of Romeo and Juliet somewhere down in the sixth stanza. But there was a girl named Maraida (the beloved in the poem) whom I was hopelessly in love with when I was 6 or 7 years old. As for Maraida, she was 9 or 10, the oldest sister of my classmate, Kirsten (Inge was the middle sister). The rest of the poem I sort of made up, except for the Kaddish, and the tush in the Kaddish . There is a tush in the Kaddish (any good Jew would know that). I’m not sure what it means in the context of that prayer—I think it might be an article or a conjunction, or a preposition. It’s probably not a noun, and it’s definitely not a butt. But it’s there, it’s there! Me and my cousin Michael used to crack up in temple whenever they recited the Kaddish. We’d try not to look at each other when it started—Yit-ga-dal ve-yit-ka-dash she-mei ra-ba…Yit-ba-rach ve-yish-ta-bach, ve-yit-pa-ar—here it comes, here it comes—and then they’d say it—tush-be-cha-ta—TUSH! they said it, and we’d start laughing uncontrollably. I guess you had to be there. I guess it’s a Jewish thing.
BB: (Laughing) Yes, that’s a pretty vivid image of you and your cousin cracking up in temple, and at the Kaddish no less, the prayer of mourning. I think this is part of what I was getting at with that question. I grew up on the opposite side of that fence, as a Gentile surrounded by New York Jews. The Jewish people I knew growing up seemed to be more able to easily express their feelings as well as being at ease making fun of serious things. In this collection, you tackle so many really difficult emotions, seemingly with ease and often with great humor. Writing about strong emotions seems to come so easily to you. Does that seem to be the case?
PH: Difficult emotions are never easily tackled. To stay with your football metaphor, I suppose I sometimes tackle them by tickling them, if I can get close enough. Huge difficult emotions elbowing their way through your heart and life are a moving target and not easily pinned down, but if you can tickle their ankles or necks or Achilles tendons, you just might get them to stop a moment and sit down at the table of the poem to have a cup of tea with you. But it's always a risk, going for humor. You risk being glib, or stupid, or worse--there you are with your pen or index finger sticking out, trying to tickle a little skin in the middle of the football field of life...one could get hurt doing that!
BB: Some of the poems in this collection are about your children and your experiences as they were growing up. One of my favorites is “Visitation”, which is about your making sandwiches for them to take to school. Could you talk a little about where that poem comes from?
PH: I always wondered about that word, visitation, in the legal context. Divorced dads and angels are in the business of visitation. My ex-wife was very critical of me, and truly, I made a lot of mistakes, and I made mistakes with my kids, but I make them the best lunches. I do. When they are with their mother, she doesn’t have time to make their lunches in the morning before work, or so she says, so she gives them a few bucks and tells them to buy it in the school cafeteria. An abomination! So I felt I had to make up for that. I guess I felt I had to make up for a whole lot more than that. And so making their lunches every morning has turned into a kind of grace, a kind of penance. A kind of salvation on rye. A kind of poem.
BB: Your own father was a well-known Czech novelist who died when you were fourteen. Did being the son of a writer influence you in becoming a writer yourself? Did he encourage you in writing?
PH: Not directly. I mean I don’t remember ever talking to him about writing. But I always knew that he did it. So it was something I always knew one could do. What does your father do? My father? He’s a writer. He spends whole days holed up in a little room upstairs at the prow of the house…It makes me think of that Richard Wilbur poem, “The Writer”: …at the prow of the house… and I would “pause in the stairwell, hearing/ a commotion of typewriter-keys/like a chain hauled over a gunwale.” Years later, I heard Alicia Ostriker, up at The Frost Place, say, “We poets are lucky, we have something to do.” Yes. We are. And we do. So I knew he did it, and eventually I started doing it, and then it turned out that that’s where it comes from, the word poem, from the Greek word, “to make or do or create”. I don’t know how much my making poems has to do with my father having been a writer. Maybe more than I care to admit. And maybe nothing. The fact is I resented him for it. I have very clear memories of being young and existential in our kitchen, playing and singing and laughing out loud, when my mother suddenly appears with a finger to her lips, censuring me: “Shush, Daddy is writing.” That was as good as it got: Shush. Daddy is writing. And he was writing. And he needed for the house to be quiet. But the house didn’t want to be quiet. So the house resented him for being in the house, holed up in his room all the time, writing. Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. I do remember it, but I repeated it anyway. I mean I think I may have done the same thing to my own kids, especially when they were young and I was working on my stupid clever poems all the time somewhere up in the prow of the house as far away from their racket as possible. Not surprisingly, today they “pay no praise…nor heed my sullen craft or art.” And I don’t blame them.
BB: You have a gift for taking an item, a pocket comb, a sprinkler, a box of sugar, or a People Magazine, and working it around into a profound exploration of some aspect of life. Do you find that the items inspire the poems? Or is it the other way around and you find the items useful in saying what you want to say?
PH: Well thank you. I don’t know what to say, I mean I don’t know what I want to say. Which, they say, is a good thing for a poet. They also say, “No ideas but in things.” I remember that pocket comb you mention, the one that ended up in the poem. I remember it like it was yesterday. My son was 8 or 9, I was recently divorced and my kids were with me half the time. This black comb turns up one day on the white bathroom sink. How did it get in the house? It wasn’t mine. It scared me. I mean it really did, in some ontological, apocalyptic way. Someone had given it to my son—the school photographer, it turned out—and he brought it home with him, brought it into the house and I knew it was the beginning of the end. The end of what? I didn’t know. I know it’s crazy, but that was the idea in the thing. That was the thought. So what can you do with a thought like that, except put it in a poem? So I guess the answer to your question is that the thing inspires the poem—not inspires, but sort of grows the poem. The poem sort of grows up around the thing, like a forest, where one might live for a little while.
BB: In your day job, you work as a sign language interpreter, and many of your poems deal with deafness or blindness in some way. How did you get into doing this work? Do you think that spending time with people who are deaf and/or blind gives you a unique perspective on the senses? Do you find that using a manual language much of the time gives you a different rhythm in your writing? Have you ever written a poem in the syntax of American Sign Language (ASL) rather than English?
PH: How I got into it is the proverbial long story—which I guess is why I keep writing about it—but I guess the short answer is, I fell in love. First I fell in love with Braille, then with sign language, and then with lots of deaf and blind people, some of whom I have married. But for a long time I didn’t write about it, because I didn’t know how. I had tried writing about it, but the results were always either too sentimental or too esoteric. For example, I did (as you ask) write a few poems in ASL syntax, but no one who didn’t know ASL could appreciate them. And the people who knew ASL, most of them, didn’t much care for poetry. But I didn’t give up. I kept coming back to it, trying to get in through different angles, different personas. I found that the persona of the ignorant or uninitiated speaker often yielded the best poems. When I say “ignorant” I mean ignorant about deaf people, ignorant about sign language, which is actually most of the people in the world (especially doctors!). Most people just don’t get it, when it comes to ASL and Deaf culture. In the earlier poems I tried to explain it; I took a sort of deaf apologist approach, which always fell short. But when I tried writing in the tentative, awed, fearful voice of a high school basketball player going to an away game at the school for the deaf, it yielded something interesting. Or the voice of someone who doesn’t know sign language, but is watching the interpreter, and is also watching the deaf person watching the interpreter. Or the voice of an angry young hearing child of deaf parents. Or the voice of a farmer who remembers a deaf boy on the farm one who was good with animals and could imitate them, could “paint any animal on the farm” simply by using his hands and face and body. These were ways for me to praise the beauty of sign language and the skill of deaf people without resorting to hyperbole or apology, without sounding like a hyperbolic needle in my poems, if you know what I mean.
BB: One of my favorite poems in Bending The Notes is “Braille in Public Places” in which you take the persona of a Braille dot on an ATM machine in a public building and wrap it around itself so that the reader ends up feeling completely in empathy with the poor neglected, misunderstood dot. It is a marvelous thing. Can you talk about how this poem came to be?
PH: Well, with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) came all sorts of well-intentioned efforts at providing increased access for the blind and the disabled. Suddenly we were seeing Braille in all sorts of unlikely places, often at eye-level or above, where blind people would probably never think to look. I can read Braille, visually or tactually (I like to read Braille tactually while I’m driving to work with my eyes on the road, one hand on the steering wheel and one deep in Dr. Ruth or Dear Abby. I’m not kidding.) And so, since I can read Braille, I probably tend to notice it out there in various public places more than the average sighted person would. And what I notice is that it’s often upside-down, or spelled wrong, or too pointy, or too fat, or, as I said, in places where blind people would never think to look. And it got me thinking about all the unread Braille dots out there, just waiting to be noticed, to be read with the fingers, to be understood with the mind, to be appreciated with the heart—which I guess isn’t so different from the lives of lots of other lonely hearts out there. And thence the poem.
BB: Your poems “Coconut” and “Greenhouse” were featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. How did you come to get on the show, and how did it feel to have your poems read on NPR?
PH: Those poems appeared in my first chapbook, Bird in the Hand, which the publisher (Grayson Books) sent to The Writer’s Almanac, and I guess Keillor liked them. I didn’t like the way he read them, though. He plowed right through them, as though they were prose. I mean I love enjambment as much as the next guy, but I’m of the school that believes one should pause ever so slightly, even if only practically imperceptibly, at the end of each line. After all, isn’t the line break finally the only thing that truly separates poetry from prose? I remember hearing him read my poem while I was driving to work at 8:55 in the morning (my publisher had told me to tune in), and I remember thinking, if not saying aloud: Slow down, baby, slow down, slow down! But he didn’t slow down and it wasn’t an accident and I haven’t forgiven him for it yet. Nevertheless, a lot of people listen to that program, and I got a ton of emails from admiring listeners (first with “Greenhouse”, and then twice as many emails when “Coconut” was read a few weeks later) and not one of them said anything about Keillor going too fast, in fact, they all loved him, and they all loved me, and they all loved the poems and his reading of them, and it generated a whole bunch of sales of the chapbook, and I’d love to do it all again, although now that I’ve publicly stated that I didn’t like the way he read them, what are the chances of that happening? [Shortly after this interview, Keillor read another of Paul’s poems, “Little League”, on The Writer’s Almanac.]
BB: In a previous interview, you said that your favorite poem "is the next one, the one I'm about to write, the one that's seducing me now." Would you care to share what you are currently working on?
PH: I've been writing a lot about pain lately, and illness. It's hard to tackle/tickle pain and illness. I mean what can you say about pain when ouch says it all. And I continue to write poems about childhood, and about beauty, and sex, and God, and deafness, and blindness, and ars poetica. I tend to keep a running list of "poem ideas", bits of conversation, memories, possible first lines, or just compelling images. Sometimes these turn into poems. I also go back and dig up old uncooked poems, old broken poems, and try to fix them, revise them, resuscitate them. Sometimes they spring back to life surprisingly. And sometimes it's like beating a dead poem.
BB: And by the way, did I see that you actually got a Pushcart, or did I dream that?
PH: That's exactly what I said. Did my poem "Dream" win a Pushcart, or did I win a Pushcart in my dreams? The latter many times over the years, yes, and then, later, recently, the former, yes, yes, yes!.
BB: Well, congratulations
to you and I look forward to reading your new book when it