This interview with Hadara Bar-Nadav about her book A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight was conducted during the month of February, 2010 by seven poets: Aaron Delee, Dane Hamann, Sarah Jenkins, Joshua Lobb, Christine Pacyk, Lana Rakhman and Virginia Smith.
Q: A number of your poems seem to be inspired by works of art. How does a poem like this evolve? Do you sit down thinking, "I like this piece of art, I think I'll write a poem in response to it," or does such a poem come to fruition in a more organic way--is it only later that you realize the poem was inspired by or in response to the art?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: My collaborations with art are generally pretty organic. There is a Rothko I visit at the Nelson Museum of Art in Kansas City. And as I look at it, words will float up. There are artists I turn to, much like I do certain authors, whose work seems to trigger poems. I worked on a long prose poem about Louise Nevelson's work, and when writing it I immersed myself in her art and writings. I was never sure what would come up--a line, two pages of prose ramblings--but something always did. When I was working on A Glass of Milk, I remember buying a book of Eugene Atget's photographs and one of Cartier-Bresson's that smelled like it had been in a fire; the edges of the pages were charred. The art work teaches me about seeing, about ways of seeing. And often I string together several images to form a narrative of sorts. Visual art reminds me to keep my imagery sharp, to look and look again. I painted for many years, but these days my creative energy is mostly in my poems.
Hadara Bar-Nadav: I made the decision to put the notes at the end of the book because I wanted the poems to be able to stand on their own. Yes, many of these works were inspired by my ongoing conversations across the arts, but a successful poem needs to work apart from its inspirations and allusions. At the same time, I wanted to honor the works of art that had inspired me, which is why I have an extensive notes section (I love a good Notes section). And for those people who do the work, who appreciate researching the inspirations and allusions, they glean the reward of an extra layer of experience.
Q: Religion is frequently alluded to in your poetry, both in the form of religious stories and in the gematria. How do you find a balance between the stories that have already been told and your own poetic narrative/argument?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: Biblical and religious stories already contain such wild narratives. And there is the long tradition of midrash--the taking of stories from the bible and spinning them, retelling them in a different (often contemporary) light. In several poems in A Glass of Milk, I would start with a religious story and explore it through different lenses, letting the poem ultimately follow its own course. Sometimes I was interested in feminist and/or revisionist explorations of religious narratives, as in the case of "Original Sin," "Egg and Envy," "Fish, Daughter, Reader, Hunger," and "Sacrifice."
Q: What is your self-editing process? During such a process, do you find that you have to go back to a poem and edit it often or do you allow a long interval between edits? What is it that you normally look for or do?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: My self-editing process changes with each poem, but is generally pretty obsessive and exhaustive. I'll work and work until a poem coheres or dies (and then I'll see what I can salvage and start again). Generally I edit for sound, form, and clarity of visual imagery, and then look for opportunities to stretch/push language and syntax. There's also an exciting point when a manuscript starts to come together, and I can edit across a book letting the poems speak to one another. Then I edit with an eye for continuity and surprise, a tension that I hope holds a manuscript together and keeps readers coming back for more.
Q: How tenuous of a thread can you/will you allow to exist that is supposed to link each element in a poem? For example, a reader might not immediately see the connection between each line in a poem because of their precise language, but upon further reading and sifting through the text, may realize the whole. Why do you think this works, this gradual gathering of fragments into a whole?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: Part of the joy for me in reading poems is to discover the connection among lines and across stanzas. In the past, I have mapped my poems on great sheets of newsprint and played with pacing and collage-like techniques. I do like to think of poems as beautiful lines, each line in itself a poem, and that "gradual gathering" you detect fits with this technique, each line building on previous lines and advancing forward--a dance of tensions and associations.
Q: Your poems include a number of characters & many are put into very surrealist settings. Are they mostly people from your life or are many of them fictional? For the characters that are family or acquaintances, do you ever feel like you need to limit how much surrealism you use? Do you feel like it's possible to lose a character's real life identity within surrealism? i.e. they become someone completely separate from who they are in real life.
Hadara Bar-Nadav: The poems contain a mix of characters from my life and stories I've heard or read about. I borrowed my husband's father for the poem "Original Sin." (His father was a butcher, mine was a diamond-cutter, though some of the anxiety I had towards my own father is present in the poem). I'm not afraid to use characters from my life or to invent them/vary them, as needed. I feel no allegiance to telling "the truth" in a poem. Who can say where truth and imagination meet? Poems have their own reality. At the same time, I won't hold anything back that the poem calls forth (if you are afraid, why write?).
Q: I feel that your poetic voice is very consistent throughout your book, despite the many forms and shapes your poems take. Do you feel as though your lyricism flows naturally into different forms or did you have to consciously work to make your voice come through in each form?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: I certainly try to balance voice and form, and believe the best poems function on many levels at the same time. I also appreciate stylistic and formal variety in a manuscript (who wants to read the same poem again and again?). As for consistency of voice, I tend toward concision. And I know the couplets helped me to emphasize concision, which in turn impacts the voice.
Q: The voice in A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight struck me as direct, confident, with few hesitations. Is this a style you recognize in your poems? If so, is it an intended/crafted effect cultivated through revision, or something present from the first draft, which emerges more strongly as your poems are read in sequence?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: The directness of the "voice" is something I recognized in these poems and did work with and for. And I think my tendency toward compression enhances this sharpness and directness. The use of shorter lines and the couplet also intensifies the voice.
The poems in A Glass of Milk are lyric, for the most part, which also was a conscious choice. I wanted a fairly constant "I" in these poems to accompany the reader through the difficult terrain of love, loss, death, religion, gender, and so on. The voice is often hard, even merciless ("Dismissed" still makes me wince).
Q: A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight was published in 2007. How do these poems compare to what you're writing now? Any changes in style, structure or subject matter that have surprised you?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: After writing A Glass of Milk, with its many tight/spare poems, I became very interested in the poetic series. I enjoy the collage-like effect of the series, its suggestion of narrative progression and its willful expansiveness and sprawl. I also became intensely interested in architecture. I'm from the East coast, with family and friends in NY and NJ. The falling of the Twin Towers shifted my psychic horizon and the landscape I had known since my childhood. I started thinking about poems as architecture--as physical structures with their own weight and three-dimensionality. The poems in A Glass of Milk are acutely aware of their own, and the world's, fragility. In my most recent work, I've been exploring the elegy within the prose poem form. I've enjoyed pushing sound and syntax in the prose poem, elements that can become more pronounced in the absence of conventional line breaks.
Q: There is a great deal of number/math imagery throughout your poetry. Is this something that you consciously began to do (I read the notes at the end of your book), or is this something that evolved? In other words, did you use the math motif before you knew about the Jewish mysticism, and if so how did that change your writing?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: I had never before written poetry about Judaism and wonder if the math part of the poems gave me a kind of indirect access, a remove that I needed to go there. I've known about gematria for many years. And I really like the idea of a secret language within language--that there are other ways of reading and knowing. In "A Number of Things," the number six became the axis on which the poem developed. I composed the poem while simultaneously researching the cultural significance of the number 6 (which has always haunted my family and, I suspect, many Jews who have lost family members in the Holocaust.)
I also have found myself looking to math in some of my more recent work, which is an acute response to grief: trying to solve linguistic equations as if saying something in the right way could release a burden, burst the weight. Poetry and math aren't that distinct for me--the rhythms and stresses and sounds--the desire for language to equal an idea. Poetry, and language is general, is so impossible and inviting!
Q: I was struck by your poem titled "Baba Yaga Loses Her Sisters". I immediately knew the reference, but I would assume that most of your audience would not. How do you handle such allusions? Rather, how much do you mind your audience when writing about culture/literature that they would not pick up on?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: I think a successful poem needs to stand on its own, regardless of the inspiration, allusion, or source. The point is communication--not exclusion. I hope that someone who reads the Baba Yaga poem still can enjoy the word play, imagery, and bizarre narrative of the poem without having to know the tale itself. If a reader decides to do the research and learn about Baba Yaga and her crazy house on chicken legs, then an extra layer into the poem (and into another culture) becomes available.
Q: I was really moved by the poem, "YOU WILL BE EATEN"; do you remember what originally inspired that poem? What gave birth to it?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: I woke up one morning and found that I had been attacked by chiggers in my sleep--those numbers in the poem are accurate; those suckers mauled me! I was struck by how these little animals had made a meal of me, without my even having been aware of their meal-taking. And chigger bites are furiously itchy--they reminded me of my own violability and mortality. The body is one more link in the food chain. My suffering meant their survival.
Q: Although you use many different forms in your poetry, one of the forms you tend to use most in the book is the couplet (two lined stanzas); is there anything special about that form for you? What does this form do for you? Are there any particular pros/cons you see with it?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: I was very drawn to the couplet at the time I was writing A Glass of Milk. I liked the couplet's vulnerability on the page, its spareness, and how it can isolate language, and wanted to explore/exploit it. At the same time, the couplet suggests a couple or coupling. I found the form created an effective tension when I wrote about loneliness and loss. The absence and loss becomes palpable because the echo of togetherness--the couple--is always there. I also enjoyed the creative energy of exploring/exploding the closed couplet form. It gave me a productive limitation to push against.
Q: The majority of the poems in your collection A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight are composed using short lines; however, several of the poems also reveal a departure from the form that seems most comfortable to you. During the initial draft of a poem, does the form present itself to you as a means to experiment, or is form secondary to either the language choices you make or the thematic significance you're going for?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: Whenever I find myself doing the same thing, I try to break the pattern. I'd like to think I push myself in some way in each of the poems I write. Form can never really be secondary--it's tied to the language itself. Surely, I have written poems and then changed the form radically, but then the language always changes with it. In a poem like "Woman with Plum," the prose poem form lent itself to an expansiveness of language and syntax, and the poem grew and grew (I wrote the bulk of it in a single sitting). I also was experimenting with sestinas and villanelles at the time (none of which were very good), and thought I could use the prose poem to play with patterns of repetition that would ring differently in different contexts.
Q: Which poets have inspired your own writing? Which do you continue to return to with the feeling that you still discover something new? Who are you reading right now?
Hadara Bar-Nadav: When writing A Glass of Milk I was reading Alice Notely, Larissa Szporluk, and Mary Ruefle, among other writers. Ruefle reminded me I could laugh in poems, and I liked playing with the edge of where humor and loss meet. I also was reading Paul Celan (my constant) and French surrealist poets--Breton, Jaccottet, Eluard. When I was writing the poems for A Glass of Milk, I had become a docent for a small museum and was taking classes in art and art history. I painted for many years, so the "text" of visual art is in my work too.
As for writers I return to, Celan, of course, and Lucie Brock-Broido. I admire her elegance and sound play, and her deft handling of the materiality of language. I'm also obsessed with Emily Dickinson and am working on a series of Dickinson-inspired prose poems.
Loosening the House
The typewriter is feminine in French.
I grow larger every day.
Down the hall mother and father
silently shrink in their sleep.
Porcelain bones, cartilage
abandoning their knees
and there go the ears and eyes.
I dream that they die
and think about them flatly.
My arms blast the windows,
my head ruptures the roof
(I crown the tight red sky).
A poodle licks my ankles;
ice tinkles, bells.
Her metal heart and chain
operatic in the metaphoric world.
There's death in the trees,
little ghosts of yawn and plastic.
Snakes in the leaf piles.
Milk leaking from the eaves.
Egg and Envy
To be chosen, perceived
against all those teeth,
millions of miles of want
muttered into the sky.
Desire, an illness:
one wins, twin
born without a twin
(one crushes, and lives).
Every voice, a hiss
with my name inside
and God in the rafters
hissing too. All my life
the chosen one, a lie
the great book told
along with floods,
doves, a plucked rib
and a woman converted
to salt. In Truth,
choking on it,
my clotted mouth,
my face a blanket of skin,
generic, unchosen, storyless.
Somewhere between anonymous
and hiss, hiss.
Hadara Bar-Nadav's book of poetry A Glass of Milk to Kiss Goodnight (MARGIE IntuiT House, 2007) was chosen by Kim Addonizio as the winner of the 2005 MARGIE Book Prize. Recent publications appear or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Chelsea, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, The Journal, Prairie Schooner, TriQuarterly, Verse, and other journals. Born in New York, she currently is an Assistant Professor of Poetry at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She lives in Kansas City, MO with her husband, the furniture designer Scott George Beattie.