An Interview with Linda Zisquit
Linda Zisquit was born in Buffalo, NY, and moved to Israel over 35 years ago. She is the author of three poetry collections, and has published translations from Hebrew, including Open-Eyed Land: Desert Poems of Yehuda Amichai (Schocken, 1992), Wild Light (Sheep Meadow, 1997), for which she received an NEA Translation Grant, Let the Words: Selected Poems of Yona Wallach (Sheep Meadow, 2006) and These Mountains: Selected Poems of Rivka Miriam (Toby Press, 2009), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in Poetry. Her new collection, Havoc: New & Selected Poems will be published this year.
Her poetry has appeared in journals in the U.S. and abroad, including The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Salmagundi, The Southern Review and Stand. Linda is the Poetry Coordinator for the Shaindy Rudoff MA in Creative Writing Program at Bar-Ilan University, where she is Associate Professor of Poetry. She is founding director of ARTSPACE, a Jerusalem art gallery representing contemporary Israeli artists.
This year, Linda published Ghazal-Mazal (Finishing Line Press), a collection of poems which take the classic ghazal form. The unique structural requirements of the ghazal evoke a Middle Eastern sensibility that, in these poems, plays out with highly personal and philosophical content.
Imagine a cold, rainy day in Jerusalem. As you walk amongst the elegant but somber stone houses of the German Colony, the wind blows the rain up against you, making your umbrella redundant. But when you reach your destination, you’re welcomed into a large, gracious hallway with a classic Middle-Eastern tiled floor, and high white walls. You’re taken past the grand piano to the kitchen, where a large window overlooks a charming green garden, bright with rain. You’re offered a cup of hot tea, and a chair at a homey wooden table, where you sit down with the lady of the house to discuss poetry. This was the setting for my talk with Linda Zisquit, poet, poetry instructor, translator, art gallery owner, and mother to five grown children.
Janice Weizman: How did you get interested in writing in the ghazal form? What was it about it that made you want to write ghazals?
Linda Zisquit: Two years ago one of my students brought in his translation from the Persian of a ghazal by Hafiz. He told us about the requirements of the form, which I had read about. It’s a form that’s been used in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. It has a very tight, restricting form: repetition of a word in the first couplet, and then that word is repeated at the end of each couplet. Each couplet is supposed to end a thought, but I love enjambment, where a sentence doesn’t end but carries over into the next verse. The weaving of the word through the poem is powerful, and then at the end there is a signature couplet where you “sign”—you might berate yourself, or boast. It enables playfulness.
I assigned my class to write a ghazal, and I always do the assignment as well. I soon found myself entering the rhythm of the ghazal. I’m often drawn to use biblical figures in my poetry—for me they are a way of understanding my own dilemmas. And somehow the ghazal, maybe because it’s Middle Eastern in its origins, enabled me to bring in my own feelings about these figures. Its playfulness captivated me—for a year and a half, it was all I did. I’d be getting ready for Shabbat, and in the midst of cooking I would sit down and write another ghazal. The form compels you to experiment with language. It requires you to work with a specific word, so you hear it in each couplet, with its various meanings and uses. There is a tension between chaos and form, and form must have been for me then, without my realizing it, what I needed.
JW: Your poems are a translation of the intensely personal into poetic form. How much does it matter to you that the reader may not be capable of understanding what you’ve written?
LZ: What else is there besides the intensely personal—besides what one knows one has lived? Emotional truth, self-revelation. For me, poems, like Midrash, are ways of unfolding things that I didn’t know I knew. Touching on the hidden that is already stirring inside, but unless it’s touched, it won’t reveal itself. You want revelation, but you also want form, you need to put it into a form you can live with. Poems give form to the intensely personal.
I don’t think about whether someone will understand what I’m writing. But I do like poetry to be clear and accessible, as difficult as the subject might be, or as personal as it is. I don’t think that that keeps someone out. I think that brings a reader in. If a poem has emotional truth, if I’m inside a crisis of my own and I’m working it through, in language that expresses where I am and what I’m experiencing, then that should be clear to another human being who may also have, if not experienced it, recognized that possibility of experience.
JW: Your poems manage to give voice to feelings and states so complex that we don’t have words for them. Do your poems ever surprise you?
LZ: I would hope that I’m always surprised. It’s so easy at my stage of life to become complacent—I’ve had this excitement and that excitement, I’ve had children, and I’ve published a few books—it can be a plateau, complacency. One could rest on one’s achievements. I don’t do that, because I’m always full of doubt and I don’t feel much achievement, so I’m always a little hard on myself. But there’s also that element of whatever has been achieved. You can stay frozen, dwell in the achievement, and that’s it, or you can move on from that into another, more difficult place—a place of exploration.
JW: How important is it that a reader understands the poetry he/she is reading?
LZ: I can’t control who will understand what. There can be psychological complexity that a reader relates to and recognizes from experience.
JW: And the idea that someone can read it and make certain assumptions that are totally wrong?
LZ: That’s okay. It could be uncomfortable if I hear about it. Once, after a reading, a man came up to me and said, “your poems are so scary.” I was surprised. I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah. As a man.”
And I thought, “Wow, what am I doing?” He hadn’t had the experience of a woman speaking from whatever place that was. It surprised me, but I can live with that. I found it interesting. I thought, “Do I have some power that I don’t know about?”
JW: I’ll give you an example. There’s a poem called, “Your Visit”, where you write about a guest who’s coming for a visit. It’s a wonderful poem, and I think a lot of people can take something from it on their own personal level. And yet, this poem is clearly about you. It’s obvious that it’s a very powerful experience that you’re going through, before, during, and after this visit. As a reader, I’m trying to put together a scene.
LZ: Someone is coming to visit who used to think of me in a certain way, or so I perceived it. And, like that snail, that—that was what I crushed as I walked out—I too was something small, reduced, lacking the old confidence I once felt in that relationship.
JW: What do you do when you can’t get a poem right?
LZ: There are poems I’ve worked on for 20 years. I remember when I was working on “Porous”, a very long poem. It took me eight years to write. Shirley Kaufman, who is a poet and a good friend of mine, read it and said, “Oh, it’s the same poem you always write,” so I put it aside for a very long time. Many years later, I looked at it again, and I said to myself, “No, this is not the same poem.” The poem deals with repetition, and so I started reading anything I could on the subject. I read Kierkegaard and biblical texts.
LZ: Because if I’m repeating the same poem, then I’m guilty of repetition, but if I want to change and not repeat, I want to explore what that is. The final result was a very complex poem.
JW: So if you’re stuck, reading something else that is related thematically can help?
LZ: Absolutely. Before I began the project I’m working on now, all I was doing was reading. I read various ancient interpretations of the Bible, Duties of the Heart [a text from 1080 C.E.], learned about prayer. I study biblical texts. I read a lot. I spend too much time reading the newspaper. I love reading the newspaper. I am constantly disturbed by the news. My poetry isn’t political, though I am often in despair at what happens here and perhaps the tension feeds my work even if overt political reactions do not appear in my poems. I read poetry. I read lots of essays. I have all kinds of books I’m in the middle of. I read about art. I resist it because I don’t want the gallery to take over my life, but I love reading about art, and looking at it.
JW: What inspires you to write poems?
LZ: Love, desire, crises, blind spots, fear, loss, errors, hurts, intellectual associations between something I read and something I feel. The first poem in my new book is called, “Everything’s Falling into Place”, because—well, my mother died, and then my father died, and one day I was walking to my writing room in Rehavia, and I became aware of a rhythm, the way a rhythm sometimes gets into your head. I had done whatever housework needed to be done, and suddenly there was this kind of feeling of things being right with the world—everything falling into place. And then I realized the absolute horror of that statement. My parents had now fallen into their places—their permanent, forever places. And the poem came from that. It was a sense that I was treating loss as a task like anything else.
JW: What is it most important that your students take from your poetry class?
LZ: To love poetry and to not think that it’s in some way exclusive. To perceive how a poem can touch the deepest place in them, how it can speak for them and to them. I give a lot of reading assignments. I prepare a large book of poetry to be read, and we do a lot of imitation exercises. I also assign a project asking them to immerse themselves in the work of a poet they aren’t familiar with. Getting inside the head of someone else is very instructive: the heartbeats, the rhythm. Not everyone who takes the course is a poet, but I want my students to feel the intensity and the necessity that the best poems were written with. I want them to hear the way a form can reflect the content, how it can be the only way that a poem could have been written, the only words able to say that. To perceive how language can evoke an actual sensual and textural experience. To appreciate the simplicity of language, and the complexity of it.
JW: Many of your poems deal with the challenge of creating a physical and mental space in your life for poetic expression. If someone were to ask you how a person with an urge for poetic expression might negotiate the conflict between being in the world and working toward one’s art, how would you answer?
LZ: How lucky to have real life to deal with! And that’s the material. If one’s own life isn’t interesting or exciting enough as material, then what’s there to write about?
JW: But when you’re teaching, or you’re taking care of your family, then you can’t be writing.
LZ: True. You don’t want to resent the people that you spend the time with. You don’t want to resent the need to make a living. But still, you can’t write all day long. So you need to find a rhythm to the day. And it changes. Life changes—the way one negotiates one’s time and space along with the demands of family and work. It takes discipline. When I write, I don’t answer the phone or the doorbell.
JW: You create a space for writing, in the midst of everything else that’s going on.
LZ: Yes. I see that there are some people who have created a life where they have less interference and less distraction, so less effort has to go into keeping things out. They’ve simply made a decision.
JW: But they pay a price for that.
LZ: Sure. They may have one child, or none. Or they don’t work—they don’t have to do a job. That’s also luck, not only choice. But using the luck, they make the choice to stay home and write. I guess everyone has his or her lot. I feel very lucky, as busy as I am. I hope I’m given a little more time in this life, because I’m just figuring out how to use it.
Click here to read a selection of poetry by Linda Zisquit.