A Conversation: Shirley Kaufman & Eve Grubin

When I first met Shirley Kaufman in her home in Jerusalem in the winter of 2002 we began a conversation about her move to Israel over thirty years ago in the midst of a promising poetry career. We picked up our conversation during her visit to New York this spring (2004) where she spoke about topics ranging from translation to politics, from San Francisco in the 1960s to Israeli poetry and George Oppen in Jerusalem.

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Eve Grubin
: When did you leave San Francisco to live in Jerusalem?

Shirley Kaufman
: In the summer of 1973, four months before the Yom Kippur war in October. I met Bill Daleski (who would become my second husband) when he was on a sabbatical year from the Hebrew University. That meeting changed my life. He had lived in Israel since his early twenties, when he served as a volunteer in Israel's War of Independence. Bill is a native of South Africa, and before that he had been in the South African Army in Italy in WW II. He became a prominent international literary scholar and critic after his first book on D.H. Lawrence.

The move was more difficult than I could have anticipated. I had to learn Hebrew, which I'd barely started in San Francisco, and I didn't know how hard it would be. Additionally, I'd been part of a very supportive community of poets in San Francisco, and it took many years before I found a semblance of that in Jerusalem. I began to know Hebrew poets through my work in translation. A small group of English speakers—writers, translators, and teachers at the Hebrew University—met together twice a month to read the work of John Ashbery.

There was also an Israeli poet who was translating Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror into Hebrew, and he needed some help. We all wanted to keep up with what was happening in English and in translation, as well. That group went on meeting and reading for years.

I didn't realize how much I would miss my three daughters, all of them at universities in California, when I left, one just married. And how dislocated I would feel, especially when the war came. Bill had been released that year from reserve duty in the Israeli army after twenty-five years, but he found out his artillery unit was near Jericho, and he got in the car and drove off to the war. Fortunately his commanding officer refused to take him! I tried my best not to behave like a spoiled American who had never sat in an air raid shelter. We gave blood, took Bill's eldest daughter to visit families all over the country whose sons—her friends—had been killed. I had never experienced that kind of grief.

At that time we lived close to the Israel Museum, and one day we walked up the hill to see a new show of elephant skull etchings by Henry Moore. Life and art go on in a strange restorative way during the wars. A friend had presented Moore with an elephant skull for his birthday, a perfect gift for him with all the concavities and convexities in the empty skull. It was on display. And when I looked at his abstract black and white etchings, which he had given titles such as "Mother and Child" and "Eye of the Cyclops," I made my own associations —from the skull and Moore's etchings to the war and the Israeli landscape. The poem that came out of that, "Looking at Henry Moore's Elephant Skull Etchings in Jerusalem During the War," came in one big rush and was the first poem I wrote in Israel. It was both a continuation of the poems I'd written for ten years in San Francisco and the beginning of something new—reacting to the armed struggle over the land of Israel and trying to shape my voice in it.

Poets have always written poems protesting war. The Vietnam war, when I was writing in San Francisco, and the recent war in Iraq have produced only a handful of truly moving poems, but they're important.

What sparked your interest in Hebrew poetry?

: By accident. My life seems to be run by serendipity—like meeting Bill. I had begun to study Hebrew in San Francisco after two trips to Israel, and even bought some Hebrew poetry books, hoping that I could learn to read them. I met a young Israeli woman, Nurit Orchan, who was on an assignment in the Bay area to interest college students in summer programs in Israel. She had been born and grew up in the kibbutz where one of the great poets of Israel lived—Abba Kovner. He had been the leader of the Partisans in the Vilna ghetto, and the Holocaust was his most haunting subject. Nurit showed me his newest book-length poem which had just won an important prize, My Little Sister. It's about a child hidden in a convent to save her life during the Nazi occupation of eastern Europe, and there are many echoes of the Bible's "Song of Songs" from which the title comes.

Kovner and some other young Jews in Vilna had, in fact, been hidden in a Dominican Convent by nuns when the Nazis first forced the Jews to relocate in one crowded ghetto. When they discovered that the "work camps," where the Germans were taking the Jewish men, were really pits in nearby Ponar where they were stripped, shot, and dumped naked into mass graves, Kovner and his friends returned to the ghetto to be with their families and friends. And it was Kovner who issued the first call for resistance: "Let us not go like sheep to the slaughter."

Nurit said, "you can help me with my English (which she'd learned in the kibbutz high school), and I'll help you with Hebrew." We had sense enough to use all the help we could get: Nurit carried on a steady correspondence with Kovner in Hebrew. He consulted Carmi, an ex-American poet writing in Hebrew in Jerusalem. And Carmi wrote to me in English! This was before e-mail, so it took a long time. We also asked for help from Hebrew scholars at UC in Berkeley, and Robert Alter wrote the notes. To our astonishment Penguin published it together with a selection of poems by Nellie Sachs, with an introduction by Stephen Spender. That's how I became a translator!

Did you continue to translate Kovner after you moved to Israel?

Yes. He and his wife, Vitka, became like family and we visited them often on the kibbutz. While I was trying to improve my Hebrew, I continued to translate his work—with him and with others helping us—until his death from cancer in 1987. I published several translations of his books in the USA. It was too painful for me to go on translating his last work without him, after he died, and someone else did—perhaps his finest and most widely acclaimed work: Sloane-Kettering. He was an amazing man. He said, "I want to turn ashes into light."

Have you translated other Israeli poets?

Besides Kovner, I've published a Selected Poems of Amir Gilboa, and my translation of the selected poems of Meir Wieseltier, The Flower of Anarchy, has just come out from the University of California Press.

Wieseltier has written powerful and timeless poems of social and political protest in Israel since the beginning of his writing career in the sixties. It's especially interesting that, in 2002, the Israeli "establishment," starting with the President, gave the most prestigious annual award, the Israel Prize for lifetime achievement, to its most anti-establishment poet.

Wieseltier first brought me some of his poems to translate for the spring, 1977 issue of TriQuarterly, which featured literature from Israel. I translated many of his poems with him over the years and published them in American journals. Friends urged me, after more than twenty years, to put a book together. During two summer visits in Berkeley, I was able to work with Chana Kronfeld, who teaches Hebrew literature at UC and has been my most valuable and penetrating translation critic. I have learned more about the richness of the Hebrew language and the complexities of Hebrew poetry from her than from anyone else.

Let's get back to your own poems.

Yes, PLEASE. I never feel comfortable talking about myself as a translator. It seems so pretentious given my inadequate Hebrew. My joy in working with these poets is always clouded by my sorrow at not being fluent in the language.

When did your life as a poet begin?

My mother gave me a leather-bound book of empty pages to put my poems in from the age of seven, and I kept writing through high school in Seattle, where I had a wonderful teacher who encouraged me, gave me poetry to read, and started me keeping a journal. But then I hardly wrote when I went on to University, and afterwards, after my B.A., I wrote advertising copy, married a physician, moved to San Francisco, and had three daughters.

So what drew you back to writing poems?

I started to keep a journal again, as I had in high school, filled with notes and images for poems, and lines from books I was reading, snatches of conversations. I was secretly writing unhappy poems, but they didn't satisfy me. I didn't want to be only a bourgeois doctor's wife, sitting in playgrounds and at the co-op nursery school with other mothers. And not working. I heard about a poetry workshop, an evening class in the UC Extension program in San Francisco, and I enrolled. Weeks, years of only "exercises"—simile, metaphor, and what Lawrence Hart called "sensory reporting." Precise uncluttered observation. And reading assignments. What discoveries! Lorca and Neruda for a start. My head was swimming with the sound of Verde que te quiero verde ("Green, how much I want you green...."). This Spanish surrealist poetry was a great awakening for me—the music, the dazzle of putting unlikely words together. I began to see and listen in a way I'd never done before.

But I wanted to write poems, so two years later—by then I was forty, and my kids were all in school—I moved to another evening workshop, at San Francisco State, taught by Jack Gilbert, who had just won the Yale award and published his first astonishing book. At the end, after his severe and demanding, often stinging, criticism, only two students remained. Masochists, of course. Linda Gregg and me. That kind of instruction from a poet whose work I greatly admired, was more useful to me than praise. Jack told me to enroll in the graduate writing program at San Francisco State. I will always cherish that advice, together with his careful going over of my first two books before they were published. I've always wanted to cut my lines as he did with his blue pencil, preserving only the essential.

So that's how I discovered the work I wanted to do, how to use language and my imagination, the full range of it. I became an omnivorous reader, all the classics and treasures I'd never read before. Can you imagine reading the Greek plays and Moby Dick, Rilke and Pound for the first time at the age of forty? A binge of reading. I was on a three-year high.

Eventually, my thesis advisor, Mark Linenthal, told me to send my poems out. I asked where, and the first poem was, unbelievably, published in The New Yorker.

The poem was called, "Beetle on the Shasta Daylight," and the Southern Pacific Railroad was very pleased. They obtained permission to publish it in their annual report! It was about the consequence of helplessness in a world which doesn't see. I didn't realize then how persistent that theme would be for me.

Who were your favorite teachers at San Francisco State?

Kay Boyle led me through the required M.A. "Directed Reading" program and became my role model as well. I met with her every week. And John Logan introduced me to the "deep image" poets—Bly and James Wright and Roethke— and taught me how to hear and make music in poetry. Probably the most exciting teacher was Robert Duncan. He had us keep special journals and he read our poems alongside the journals when he met with us privately. He gave us incredible texts to study—from Nietzsche's "Thus Spake Zarathustra" to Gertrude Stein and Alfred Whitehead. He encouraged us to find ways to use the material in our writing. His weekly lectures were like fireworks, wild leaps of association, showers of sparks. Following the quick turns of his mind was a dazzling experience.

And after San Francisco State? sk: I discovered Don Allen's anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960 as the Beats were winding down. The first line in the first poem in that collection—by Charles Olson— has never left me: What does not change / is the will to change. I was intrigued by Williams and the Black Mountain poets. And then there was George Oppen, who had arrived to make his home in San Francisco soon after Of Being Numerous was published, and the other Objectivists whom I should speak more about. I used to feel, during that heady time when I began to give readings everywhere in the city, as if I'd turned back the clock and was twenty again!

Were international poets, particularly Israeli poets, as important to you and to your development as American poets?

In those early years, there were hardly any contemporary Israeli poets translated into English, and I couldn't read the Hebrew without a translation. Yehuda Amichai's first books appeared in the United States, and we met when he came to San Francisco on a reading tour. When he found out about my Kovner translation, he permitted me to translate some of his poems, and I began to follow his work. He had a very special gift for metaphor. And the kind of wit that often teeters on the edge of despair. In his prolific career before his death, he exposed every wonder and stupidity of Israel with heartbreaking love. Everyone warmed to his unquenchable sense of humor.

Yehuda and his wife Chana were kind and supportive friends when I joined Bill in Jerusalem, and he wrote a beautiful statement in praise of the first book I published after living in Israel for six years. But he was very disappointed in me because I couldn't learn Hebrew well enough to speak in the national language. I think he regarded my difficulty as a lack of effort on my part. The Hebrew language was terribly important to him (and to me, too, which was why I couldn't bear to fumble at it). And he was a quintessential Israeli with a Holocaust past. His poems speak to us more than ever these days.

Were there other international poets you learned from?

Too many to talk about! The Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer, is one. His "Baltics" is one of the beacons of my life. His Selected Poems have just appeared in Hebrew in Israel. Most important to me right now, probably the greatest living poet in Europe, is Wislawa Szymborska. I have all her poems translated into English, and just recently I've been reading her collection of essays, Nonrequired Reading. I try to follow the best of contemporary poetry in English but find I read more and am more influenced by contemporary poetry in translation. We really live in an age of translation. The first modern poets I read in translation—after Akhmatova, St. John Perse, Rilke and Lorca—were Greek. Seferis has had a big impact on me. Not only his poetry, but the diaries he wrote when he returned to Greece after World War II. His sense of history and place relates closely to my sense of Israel—the hallucinatory power of the ancient and modern. When I walk through the ancient ruins in Jerusalem and look at our olive trees, the blinding sunlight and the sea rising along the Mediterranean coast, I feel an almost primeval connection.

How did you manage to absorb your new landscape after Seattle and San Francisco?

Abba Kovner said to me when I first arrived, "You can't learn two landscapes in one life." For him the landscape around Vilna cast its shadow on every other place. I was challenged by that. When I first came to Israel, it was important for me to ask everyone the names of trees and shrubs, of flowers and birds I didn't know. I wanted to name everything. Of course, Kovner meant something much deeper than naming.

During the first months of our life together, before the Yom Kippur war, Bill showed me Israel, and we would go hiking and touring all over the country. The desert landscape, that kind of lunar landscape you descend into when you begin to drive down to the Negev, past the Dead Sea, has always had a mysterious effect on me, a feeling of being stripped bare. There's something about the light and the mountains looming over the desert and dry riverbeds that makes you feel as if everything is put there to expose how trivial we are. Especially now as the early idealism wears thin, wears out.

Are you interested in commenting on American poetry now from your vantage point? Who stands out to you and why?

Sometimes I think too much well-crafted poetry with very little to say is being published in the USA now—the result of so many writing programs. But I'm also happy to see such a burgeoning of new poets and readers. I subscribe to a number of poetry journals and visit often so I get to readings, talk to poet friends, browse in bookstores, and always discover writers I want to read. I keep buying my old favorites as they publish new books, but I like to find new poetry by women. New to me, that is. I want to understand the new voices. I'm thinking especially of Carol Snow, Carol Moldaw (her new book, The Lightning Field, is exciting). I feel close to Jane Hirshfield, who is less experimental, but whose inner beauty and spirit of Zen mean a lot to me. And C.D. Wright, whose poems are richer with each book. I've been reading Deepstep Come Shining aloud with a friend, and we enjoy her incredible range of language and insight.

Were you following the early feminist poets when you were still in San Francisco?

I wasn't involved in the feminist movement in those days. Not awake to it yet. I admired poets as poets. But I certainly read Audre Lorde, Carolyn Kizer, Denise Levertov, and Adrienne Rich long before I lived in Israel. Denise's poems and Adrienne's The Will to Change were seminal works for me, and I continue to read most of their books, poetry and prose. Denise was one of the judges who chose my manuscript for a first book award from the University of Pittsburgh, before we met. Muriel Rukeyser was a later discovery. And Maxine Kumin is a continuing inspiration for me—her life and her poems.

What about the feminist movement in Israel and Israeli women poets?

I used to be more concerned by women's weakness in a society like Israel where some ultra-Orthodox rabbis have too much political power. San Francisco was mostly a man's world when I lived there, and I moved to another, powerfully controlled by religious laws which discriminate against women, especially in matters of birth-control, divorce, remarriage, and child custody. It has taken a long time for women to rebel and try to legislate against these things. But times have changed everywhere, and the situation of women is improving—the recognition of more women writers, more women in all the professions, and in politics, and more orthodox women. It's noticeable in Israel these days.

There has been increasing empowerment for women, with gender courses in all the Universities, and many courageous women leading battles on behalf of single mothers, or setting up shelters for battered women, or trying to change the behavior of young soldiers by their presence at road blocks where Palestinians need to cross into Israel for their work or for medical care. It's always an uphill battle.

Men still dominate the scene in the world of literature in Israel and elsewhere, but outstanding women writers are being published and talked about. I'm marveling at poets now who have followed the path already blazed by Dahlia Ravikovitch (still writing) and Yonah Wallach who died very young. Poets like Agi Mishol and Nurit Zarchi who will have books soon in English, translated by a former New York poet who has lived in Israel for many years, Lisa Katz. I enjoy sharing poems and translations with her and other ex-American poets—Rachel Back and Linda Zisquit. They are a generation younger than me, but it doesn't seem to matter.

Do you know or translate Arab-Israeli or Palestinian poets?

Unfortunately I don't know Arabic, but I have translated a few poems by Salma Jayussi, with the help of an Israeli who does. The poems were published in an American journal, and soon after, in 1993, I was invited to read and participate in a symposium with Palestinian women poets, Salma and Naomi Shihab Nye, at an International Festival of the Arts in Los Angeles.

That Festival in Los Angeles took place at the moment of the Oslo agreement. The three of us heard the news on the radio the night we flew in. I can't describe or even relive my euphoria. The next days seemed to revolve around the three of us—press conferences, excitement, blessings from everyone.

We remained good friends for many years, but things fell apart between us as they did between too many Palestinians and Israelis. I'll always feel sad about it.

I also used to visit with a Palestinian friend from Bir Zeit University, Sakher Kalifeh, a novelist and writer. I wrote a poem about that in Claims. "It's not just a matter of truth/or occupation./We each have our fables." And I read with Mahmoud Darwish at Poetry International in Rotterdam. That was a long time ago, soon after the Lebanese war, but I still remember our conversation over breakfast the next morning, and the book I delivered for him to Yehuda Amichai whom he called "my good friend."

Things are much worse now, and we couldn't sustain these friendships. But when Palestinians and Israelis protest together on behalf of peace, and when Palestinian and Israeli women meet in a framework of meaningful action, with a modest goal, it's encouraging and it seems to work.

Are there poets in Israel who are politically important to you?

In Israel right now, except for Meir Wieseltier and the women I mentioned (who are more than "politically" important to me), there are several prose writers: Amos Oz, David Grossman, and Shulamith Hareven, who recently died. She was also a poet. I often return to her collection of essays in English, The Vocabulary of Peace.

In a sense, everything is political: the Feminist movement, relations between men and women, the management of death in our society, drug abuse, child abuse, animal abuse, the environment—not just anti-war movements, or government related demonstrations. Some of our finest poets write about these concerns, out of a deeply felt need to give them a voice. Out of a dwindling, but unquenchable, hope for change. And the salvation of the human race, animals, nature, life on earth. This all sounds very grand as I say it. But I think now that I'm confronting my own aging in this threatening world, and in the Middle East, it's urgent. We can't just write about our personal memories and heartbreaks, conflicts with parents or children, or pleasures in nature and music. There's not enough time.

How else has living in Israel affected your work apart from what you've already described?

We were at the peace rally in Tel-Aviv when Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a religious Israeli. I need to write my way through that. Through everything that happens here.

In a way, my life has been changed not only by tragic wars but by dislocation, a nagging feeling of not belonging anywhere. One of my books is titled Roots in the Air.

Twenty years ago, when I published Claims, my first book about living in Israel, I was searching for roots. Trying to meet claims from many directions—America and Israel, public and private, family and self. The book had to do with my sense of hyphenation as an American-Israeli and my grandparent's dislocation in Seattle when they came from Eastern Europe with their Yiddish language. It took ten years (and the help of Stanley Kunitz) for me to make a book out of it. I wrote: "Home we keep saying…/as if there's a refuge/nothing can change." But places change, and so do the people in them. In Israel, I've been absorbed with place, change (and "the will to change"), and what happens in time, especially as I grow older, moving between my childhood home in Seattle, my life in San Francisco, and my home for thirty years in excessive and unmanageable Jerusalem. Looking forward with eyes in the back of my head, facing the past with the future breathing down my neck. To spend one's writing days putting them together.

There are an increasing number of poems of witness and vulnerability in my work of recent years, poems of the wandering of the Jew, and of the endless violence and suffering in the world and here among Palestinians and Israelis. I know how precarious our lives are.

And that's what makes it necessary to go on writing?

In Israel the situation has become more difficult as you know in spite of all our achievements and dreams—the anger and suffering of Palestinians we meet or read about, of Israelis whose families are killed in suicide bombings or shot while driving in their cars. Our impotence against wrong-headed Israeli governments, especially the present one. A friend said that hope doesn't have time to regenerate itself. Writing has become an imperative as well as a kind of healing for me.

All the old haunts are still filled with people—beaches, playgrounds, restaurants, concerts, art galleries, shopping malls. But we miss a life without security guards and inspections wherever we go. We miss the steady exhilaration of visitors (poets, novelists, musicians, scholars) who were invited to work and stay for long visits at a special guest house, the Mishkenot Sha'ananim (place of tranquility), facing the Turkish wall of the Old City near the Jaffe Gate. Like the two Roths—Henry and Philip—and Stephen Spender, whom we took to meet Abba Kovner after he had written his introduction to the Penguin book.

Is that when you met Stanley Kunitz and George Oppen?

SK: I knew the Oppens very well before. Their stay in Jerusalem was the climax of a long poetic friendship in San Francisco which was one of the most important influences on my life.

George really became my mentor when I finished my M.A., and he commented on many of the poems I wrote over the years, sometimes in letters I still treasure. I saw Mary and George often, mostly at their apartment on Polk Street, where we drank tea and George smoked his corncob pipe and talked about his memories and about poetry. I loved them both, and learned much from them about living and creating, along with political history and philosophy. I felt as though they'd seen it all. Yet they were always so modest, so simple. Not pretentious. Caring, extraordinary people. "Clarity" was a word and a goal George cherished.

The recollections of their month in Israel will never leave me. We met them at the airport, and as we drove up the hills through biblical history, and rounded a bend, they suddenly had their first view of the roofs and buildings of Jerusalem, and George said, "Do you mean to tell me that Jews built all this?"

It was 1975, before George began his tragic decline with Alzheimer's. We took the Oppens to Qumran, as we would later take the Kunitzes, and to the kibbutz to visit Abba Kovner. And out of that visit, and subsequent conversations between Abba and George in Jerusalem, came Oppen's late, great poem which he dedicated to us when it was first published in the Spring, 1977 issue of Ironwood, "disasters."

George recognized the special intensity of our living on the edge of the Judean desert. He had read my translation of Kovner's My Little Sister when it was first published, and read it again before meeting Kovner. Out of that encounter, he began to work on "disasters," in Jerusalem, later using some fragments he had written months before he came to Israel. He told us the visit was a "central experience" of his life. It was for me also.

Can you tell us about Stanley Kunitz in Jerusalem?

SK: Our first meeting with Stanley and Elise, when they were invited to the Mishkenot for a month, was the beginning of a meaningful relationship that enlarged my poetic vision, and continued to enrich me after, when we used to meet in New York. A mutual friend had told them to look us up when they were invited to Jerusalem. We walked with them in and around the old and new city, took them to Jericho, the Dead Sea, and, like the Oppens, to the excavated ruins of Qumran at the Dead Sea where the Essenes may have had their monastic life at the time of Jesus, and where the Scrolls were first discovered. I introduced Stanley to several younger poets writing in English, and we were all overwhelmed by his generosity of spirit. He gave so much of himself to encourage poets and help them revise their work, including me.

He helped shape a whole book for me, Claims, and I continued to send him poems over the years, and they were always improved by his comments.

Can you say some last thing about what poetry means to you?

That's too big a question. We simply have to keep doing what we do best. Most of the time my work matters. The rush of words and memories, the "small nouns" George Oppen taught me to stress, letting them flow, discovering what it is I need to say—this keeps me going.

I walk through the silent city with my cousin or a friend every year at the end of the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)—not a sound, not a car moving—to the southern hill where Abraham camped on his way to Mount Moriah, heading for the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. From there we can see the Old City lights come on at sunset, and hear the last cries of the shofar as the gates of heaven close over the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, as the muezzin calls from surrounding mosques. Our sins are forgiven. We can start a new year. I can write another poem. With or without the help of God.

Originally published in Crossroads, Fall 2004

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