Michael T. Young: Thank you, Barbara, for agreeing to an interview.
Your newest collection is called Other People’s Stories. I wondered if you could tell us a little about the significance of the title and how it relates to the theme of the collection.
Barbara Elovic: Other People’s Stories serves as the title and the underlying theme of my poetry collection for a few reasons. As a young poet I wrote mostly confessional material. As I got older I found myself less interesting as subject matter and was intrigued by the idea of telling stories that weren’t about me. Philip Levine said long ago in an interview that even though the audience for poetry is small he wanted his poems not to be so recondite that someone had to be a regular poetry reader to understand what he was talking about. That idea appeals to me greatly. I also was lucky enough to have both as a friend and teacher the underacknowledged brilliant poet, Enid Dame. She taught me about the craft of midrash poetry in which the writer chooses stories from the Bible as subject matter to retell with one’s own understanding, insight, and spin.
Even though some of the poems’ subjects are imaginary creatures or people I’ve only read about, I’m telling their stories not mine. Of course, my perspective influences the telling and clues about me are revealed, but the I of the poem is someone other than Barbara Elovic.
Michael T. Young: The collection seems to explore the complex and often plastic way stories are told. I think of the last lines of the poem “Arshile Gorky,” which go, “the stories he told about himself/were just another work of art.” I wonder if you could talk a little about the art of storytelling and its importance in the collection.
Barbara Elovic: I believe that as people live through their days part of their consciousness is the story of the life they believe themselves to be leading. We as individuals tell stories to ourselves, not necessarily as they happen. Perhaps after a day or a much longer period of time an introspective person sits quietly and thinks about what he or she has been doing and what it adds up to. This was an idea featured in feminist thought a few decades back when women were acknowledged to think of themselves as the heroes of their own stories; specifically as regards the Western literary canon in which male heroes and protagonists predominate. Or the idea that what Hemingway wrote was full of big ideas about the world and women who wrote about what happened in individuals’ homes were not doing something equally important.
Michael T. Young: A number of the poems hinge on a shift of perspective or alternative points of view as, for example, “Eve’s Version,” or “You Think You Got Problems?” I wondered if you might address the significance of these alternatives in the collection and its theme.
Barbara Elovic: “Eve’s Story,” and “You Think You’ve Got Problems?” are written in the first person because I wanted the poems to have immediacy for the reader. I come from an Orthodox Jewish background from which I’ve lapsed, but I was taught stories from the book of Genesis when I was a very young girl. When a person learns something as a child it sticks with them on an almost subliminal level. So I had both what I learned as a small God-fearing child in mind when I wrote both poems and my adult re-evaluation of the biblical stories referenced at play. I believe now that Eve was portrayed as a temptress and a troublemaker. Now I think being a troublemaker can be heroic.
Michael T. Young: The collection takes up a number of political and socio-economic issues. There are the overt poems about Robert Moses or Susan B. Anthony. But there’s also the poem about Dorothea Lange. Could you tell us a little about these political and socio-economic issues and how they relate to the collection’s theme?
Barbara Elovic: Robert Moses and Susan B. Anthony were clearly the kind of brave troublemakers I just mentioned. And Dorothea Lange is best known for the pictures she took while working for the WPA Artists Project that Franklin Roosevelt established to help the country out of the Great Depression. Her compassion for her subjects make her photos breathtaking. She composed her most famous photo, “Migrant Mother,” with the subject at the center. The mother’s hair is dark, but her face is deeply lined and she’s probably younger than she appears to be in the picture. Two small children with their backs to the camera bury their heads on both of the mother’s shoulders, framing her. We as viewers can only see the mother’s eyes. The photo makes explicit that she bears the weight for the care of her kids literally. Long after I had seen the photograph, a documentary aired on public television about Dorothea Lange and helped explain at least one source of her compassion. She had suffered from polio years earlier and that pain helped her identify with the suffering of people from a less-privileged class than hers.
Michael T. Young: What do you see as the relationship between imagination and history? How is it important for us today, dealing with current issues in the world?
Barbara Elovic: It took me decades to learn that the history taught me up until high school was only one version of America’s story. Now that I embrace left-wing politics I would say that in fact what I was taught was a combination of propaganda and lies. In fourth grade we talked a little about racism and slavery, but nothing much that I remember was said about the persistence of racism. The story of Thanksgiving was a pallid, happy story worthy of a bank calendar; Native Americans and the Pilgrims sitting down to dinner and being good neighbors. Indian reservations were still to come and the imminent theft of their land appeared nowhere in my social studies textbook.
Imagination at least in part is what one thinks for herself when ranging outside of the conventional boundaries of a shared narrative. American Exceptionalism, which many people in this country take as a given, is a myth to me that excuses the murder of the indigenous population of this country and the second-class citizenship of people of color. And then there’s the right to interfere in other countries’ politics because we’re inherently better than they are when all we’re really doing is adding to global corporations’ profits.
Cell phone cameras have only recently revealed what American cops see as unquestionably appropriate behavior when harassing, wounding and even murdering black men and boys. We now at the very least have some cognitive dissonance popping up, but I don’t see police training or tactics adapting. In fact right-wing politicians blame the group Black Lives Matter for inciting murder of police, which is malarkey to be blunt. They are demanding equal treatment from law officers, but the cops have tin ears and see them as a threat. And too many politicians back them up.
Michael T. Young: In reading the collection and considering the importance of telling our own story and even the freedom to remain anonymous, I also wondered where those needs come together with our need for friends, for companionship. Is that intersection where we share a common story or is it in some other place?
Barbara Elovic: I think in today’s political climate in which rancor predominates we tend to have many friends with whom we share ideas about what’s going on around us. I have friends really annoyed at me for not being a Hillary Clinton supporter. That disappoints me greatly. I’ve learned of late to nod and make sympathetic noises because I don’t want to argue anymore. I was the captain of the debating team in my high school, but that was a long time ago.
I have this Jules-Feiffer-inspired notion of adults as aging bodies encrusting little children inside them riding tricycles whose feet don’t quite reach the pedals. I think it’s the rare person who actually grows up as she grows older. I think artists, those that interest me anyway, are truth tellers. That doesn’t mean they have outstanding social skills, but it makes their ideas more interesting. It also doesn’t make me want to be friends with great artists.
I was very young when I went to graduate school in creative writing and I was overwhelmed and didn’t know how to behave among the professors. Most of them weren’t very kind and too many of them had serious drinking problems, which brought out the nastiness in them. Their best selves were in their poems, not in the personae they paraded around among us lowly students.
It’s wonderful to have friends from different backgrounds. Today my poet friends fill some of that bill.
Michael T. Young: Which is your favorite poem from Other People’s Stories and why is it significant for you?
Barbara Elovic: My favorite poem in the collection is the last, “Leap of Faith.” My father died when he was in his early sixties after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for more than twenty years. When I was young and naïve I assumed I’d have a book published by the time I was thirty because I would calculate the ages of the contemporary poets’ whose first books I admired. They were usually in their early thirties. Easy peasy. I’ve written many poems about my father and had hoped to make his story better known because my poems would be widely read. Ha!
Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that you feel have significantly influenced you as a poet?
Barbara Elovic: For this collection biographies had direct influence on some of the poems I wrote. I also wrote some of these poems many years ago. Biographies of Robert Moses and Arshile Gorky supplied some of the information for the poems about them. I loved the Curious George books as a kid. I learned the improbable story of his creators from an exhibit at New York City’s Jewish Museum. That’s a very specific answer to your question. In a more general sense I assume that every book that I read and enjoy influences me. I won’t read beyond page fifty of any book of prose that displeases me because there’s always so much more to read and life is short.
Michael T. Young: What are your favorite activities that have nothing to do with poetry or writing?
Barbara Elovic: I enjoy teaching the Pilates exercises as well practicing on my own. I love taking long walks. I also love to travel and gain the perspective that I get from seeing other places and talking with the people living there.
Michael T. Young: Thanks for your time, Barbara. Let’s close with your favorite poem from Other People’s Stories.
Leap of Faith
Whether I light Sabbath candles
on time or not at all
is only my affair.
So when the eager young woman
comes between my friend and me
on the street to ask
Excuse me are you Jewish?
I always lie.
What I love and whom I believe
is strictly up to me.
My prayers are only mine and always private.
But my father who died years ago
took his faith with him across the ocean.
Running from the Nazis kept him motivated
the rest of his short life.
On his yahrzeit I light a candle
that blazes while I sleep.
If you would like to read a review of Other People’s Stories, you can find it here: http://prickofthespindle.org/2016/05/13/the-power-of-anonymity-a-review-of-other-peoples-stories-by-barbara-elovic/