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Profiles
An Interview with Rachel Tzvia Back



Rachel Tzvia Back is an Israeli poet whose work includes the collections Litany and Azimuth, as well as pieces published in The American Poetry Review, Tikkun, Modern Poetry in Translation and Dreaming the Actual: Contemporary Fiction and Poetry by Israeli Women Writers. Her newest work is entitled The Buffalo Poems, a book-length series tracking the cycle of violence defining the lives of Israelis and Palestinians during these last years. American born, Back writes in English but has lived in Israel for 25 years, where she and her husband are raising three children ages 14, 11 and 6. During a recent visit to the Blue Mountain Center, a residential colony in the Adirondacks for activists, artists and writers, Back spoke with writer Susan Ito about the stories in her poems, how becoming a parent has changed her work, and what it's like to mother in a war zone.

Read Rachel's poem Her Hands

Susan Ito: When did you start writing poetry?

Rachel Tzvia Back: From a very young age, and I've only ever written poetry. I'm also an academic; I teach English literature and poetry; my focus is American poetry and literature. I've never had a sense of myself as a narrative writer. I see things that stand as a moment in time rather than something that extends.

SI: Yet I can feel the stories, your narratives within the poetic form.

RTB: Yes. But I'm constantly trying to disrupt the narrative. Lorine Niedecker -- an important objectivist poet whom I admire -- says she is always struggling against the sentence, and I resonate to that very deeply. I like being unsettled a lot, as a reader. We always end up writing what we want to read, don't we?

SI: Who are the writers who have unsettled you?

RTB: [Emily] Dickinson unsettles everything. Even though she lands so beautifully on the final word, her work is all about being unsettled. I also love Charles Olson, George Oppen. I locate myself, very roughly, within that school of poetry. But I also like Joy Harjo, who is quite narrative. I wrote my dissertation on Susan Howe -- very challenging, experimental, musical work. I'm intrigued by language being pushed to a limit.

SI: I know that you just completed a new volume of poetry, The Buffalo Poems. Could you tell me how this book differs from your previous work, if it does? How would you describe it?

RTB: The Buffalo Poems are a series of poems that started over six years ago, before this latest intifadah broke out and while I was pregnant with my daughter. I had a vision of a buffalo one day -- I mean, I actually saw a buffalo, while I was driving home, in the Jerusalem hills. I'm not one prone to vision, not at all -- but there he was. I didn't understand then what he was there for, but later, when the violence erupted, the buffalo figure became a focal figure in my poems. It wandered in and out of the poems, carrying on its broad back the loss and suffering all around me, the loss and suffering embodied in its own tragic tale too. So, the difference of this work is that focus, that organizing image -- I've never had something like that before. I understand it was a gift I was given, at that moment.

The work is also more political, one could say -- but political always from the most personal of places, from the heart, from the home. The mother's voice and figure are more prominent than in my earlier work; the presence of children -- my own and the children of others -- is also more pronounced. That's not surprising, as my life these last years has revolved around my children. And it's not surprising also because children are daily killed in Palestine, in Israel too. It often feels like that is the greatest tragedy of the middle-east conflict -- the sacrifice of children, how much the death ledgers are filled with the names of children. I feel my children's great vulnerability, and it is unbearable.

SI: That is so powerful. Can you speak about the intersection between your writing and parenting?

RTB: I'm happy for the question because I don't think it's one I've ever really asked myself. The obvious answer, the more superficial answer, is that parenting has gotten in the way of writing. I struggle for time and focus and peace. It's a terrible struggle, and it is definitely not just parenting but mothering specifically. In our family, regarding my husband, our partnership is equal but somehow the emotional weight is still on me.

SI: I definitely don't think you're alone in that.

RTB: It sounds almost politically incorrect to say it, though. My children always come to me with their emotional struggles. It engulfs me and threatens to wipe out any possibility of writing. How does one have the emotional space to be a writer? That's the constant struggle.

SI: So, how do you do it?

RTB: Not so well. One of the things that I've done, which I've learned from other women poets, is to come to terms with the fact that everything will take longer. Not a book every two years, but every six or seven, if you're lucky. It's just a period of your life, and it's not forever.

Accepting this has allowed me to live more peacefully and to cherish this moment. My oldest child is already 14 and will be leaving the home in four years. So I have to treasure these child-rearing years while I am in them, while my children are present and need me.

SI: Do you think your poetry has changed since having children?

RTB: I would say that being a parent has changed me, so my being in the world is different. Also, living in a war zone as a parent is something very different. All those various permutations make my poetry different and make what I need to write about also different.

I most want to write about being a parent in the context of the world we live in. This is what most engages me now. What does it mean to be raising children in such a dangerous place and choosing to do so?

SI: You often speak of it as a choice.

RTB: It is a choice and has to be acknowledged as a choice and I am fortunate to have the option of choice. Having said that, I have lived in Israel for 25 years and I have Israeli children, not American children. My daughter doesn't speak a word of English by her choice. It is a very stubborn choice. She refuses. She's really smart and understands that it is simpler to just embrace one language. These very strong children just make their stand.

I speak to her in English and she responds in Hebrew. I have had very vivid dreams of her speaking to me in English, but it has not happened in life. It is an incredible thing: a way in which she is almost a foreigner to me. I imagine what it would be like if suddenly one day she were to say to me, "I love you Mama" in English. That's a very intense thing. My 14 year-old son is fluent in English, and my 11-year-old middle son speaks the language but not fluently - he has his own intriguing and unique relationship to languages in general.

As far as the choice, it was a choice I made 25 years ago to make my life in Israel. Today I feel like a foreigner in America but Americans don't treat me like a foreigner. Sometimes I wish I had an accent so that they would see me as Israeli. But I sound like an American. When I visit in America, people here talk about the danger of living in Israel, and they ask me why I don't just leave. But leaving would absolutely break my heart. I have a great passion for Israel, even now -- a passion for the Israeli landscapes and sensibility, for the rhythms of the Hebrew language, for the ancientness of the culture, and its raw newness too. My heart feels most connected to itself in Israel -- I feel most myself there. I hope it doesn't ever come to my leaving.

But then where does parental responsibility step in versus ease of life versus ideology? I wrote a poem about a Jewish settler mother from the Gaza Strip whose three children were on a bus that was bombed, and they all lost various limbs. She said on the news that if she had to put her children back on the same bus the next day, she would. I remember being stunned, even appalled, by her. But she would say, "Well, it's just a matter of degree."

Some people would say I am being irresponsible for living in Israel. They see it differently than how I see it, or how that mother sees it. I don't imagine I would ever make the same choice she did, but I have made this choice.

SI: Do your children read or respond it your poems?

RTB: It's a sore subject (laughs). My sons don't think highly of poetry at all. They don't see a reason for its existence in the world. And my daughter is very young, so it is abstract to her. Still, my sons are intrigued by the fact that I write books. When the books come out, they are most interested to know how thick they will be -- the thicker the better -- but they don't read my poetry. They have never come to my readings. I do most of my readings in America. I don't do many readings in Israel at all because I'm an English language poet, and here is where my audience is. Every year I come to the U.S. for two to three weeks to do readings. My partner saw me read for the first time last year.

SI: What was his response?

RTB: He loved it. He was so excited. But he's really the only one in my immediate family who reads my work.

For mothers in particular it is hard for the poetry to be seen as real work. It is so abstract. My husband is a doctor and his work is very physical, very real. People in the neighborhood are always dropping by to get some advice or help from him. Everyone is always coming to him for emergency stitching. He is seen as very important, and the children like that, that he can do these things for other people. My work is not so visible.

The other thing about sharing my poetry with my sons is that my poetry is pretty violent. I don't really want them to have all those images -- they don't need more. I don't allow them to watch the news. They beg me to watch the news and if I know there's been something terrible that's happened that day, I say no. So they don't need it in the poetry too. They're also implicated in it, in my work. I have one poem where my children are running through sprinklers while other children are being buried. Do they need to deal with that?

A friend of ours was killed while picking up his son from his army base, and his picture was on the front page of the newspaper the next day. My middle son was so upset that this friend's picture was on the front page. It was like a violation of privacy and he made us promise that if anything happened to us we would not allow our photos to be printed. That exposure was horrifying to him. So in a way, maybe they see the poetry as another kind of public exposure, although I never use their names specifically, I do refer to them as my children.

SI: How do you feel like your childhood and growing up in Buffalo, New York, is different from theirs?

RTB: It's really different. The most significant difference -- I'm projecting -- is that their father and I are much, much more aware of their emotional life, and what their struggles are. We want to be part of it and actively pursue open communication, even when our 14-year-old is closing down. I was one of five children in my family, and while it was a very nurturing home, my parents didn't really know what we were feeling. Certainly, a lot of that was a generational thing, where talking about feelings with your children just wasn't the norm.

SI: I'm surprised by your answer. The biggest difference seems to be generational, how things have changed, and not so much how things are different in Israel versus the U.S.

RTB: It seems more generational, but having said that, they're much more focused on family in Israel. One of the things my siblings, who all are raising children here in America, envy is that the culture at large puts its greatest emphasis on family. Everything is structured to promote and sustain family life. Family time in Israel is sacred, while the culture in America doesn't promote it. There is plenty of rhetoric but it doesn't happen.

SI: I'm intrigued. Can you give a specific example of that?

RTB: In practical terms, there's every expectation that everyone is home at 6:30 and they will have a meal together. You're supposed to be in your family and in your community, both together. There are no sports practices or anything that anyone needs to attend at that family dinner hour. There is also less of this kind of obsessive structuring of time, like "playdates." Children in Israel are much more independent. I don't need to take them anywhere. There's a bus that takes them back and forth from school, and they're completely independent. My six-year-old takes herself to and from the bus and to her afterschool activities. I don't ever pick them up. These things do not seem to happen here in America.

SI: It's ironic. There's much more fear here, and yet the real danger is actually more present where you live.

RTB: It's true. We really allow children much more independence. We step aside for a moment and everybody grows, and that's the way it should be. They're growing, you're growing. Just yesterday, when I phoned Israel, my husband said: "Wonderful things happen when you go away." They stretch a little, when I am not there taking care of everything. He told me that my 11- and 6-year-old took a 90-minute train trip, which included a transfer, to visit their grandparents, on their own. They did great. The train was full of soldiers, and they had to stand half the way, but they were so proud of themselves and I was so proud of them, and glad for them.

SI: Somehow I can't imagine that happening here.

RTB: Me either. But yet it really helps the child grow. My 14-year-old has been very independent for many years. I've always trusted him so much and he's always gotten this message from us, from the time he was very young. My 6-year-old goes to the grocery store several blocks away by herself, and she's becoming very independent. It's lovely to watch.

It's very different for my siblings living here, in the United States, with their children -- and it's something they really envy about my life. We live in a little village of 120 families, and there is a very strong group identity. The children, they have their own society, so on a Friday night all of the 11-year-olds will meet up at the town center and they'll "hang out" until midnight doing who knows what, playing hide and seek or whatever. One will bring popcorn and one will bring Kool-Aid. At midnight they'll come home. They've being doing this for two years. They occupy themselves. They build their own community or they do whatever secret thing they've invented in the forest. All we say is that they have to be home at midnight.

SI: Okay, I'm envious too. I wish my children could have that kind of freedom.

RTB: There are obviously so many wonderful aspects of growing up in the U.S., things that I enjoyed, things that my siblings' children have. And there are many heartrending aspects to the life I've chosen -- but it is our home, and it would break my heart to leave.



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