Ruth in tears amid the alien corn :An email based academic chat with
Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal
Born in London on the last night of the Blitz, Karen Alkalay‑Gut grew up in Rochester, New York, completing a Ph.D in 1975 at the University of Rochester. Since 1972
she has been in Israel, teaching poetry at Tel Aviv University. She Chairs the Israel Association of Vice Chairperson of the Federation
of Writers Unions in Israel, and also a board member of the Yiddish Writers Association. She has a number of poetry collections to her
credit. Some of her important poetry books are Making Love: Poems
This poetess of high academic taste was disturbed by displacement and dislocation in alien USA. She has written thus about her predicament in The Preface to her poetry collection, In My Skin:
…one of my major reasons for moving to Israel in 1972 was that I wanted to be ‘normal’, to be able to avoid the constant obsession with Jewish identity that I thought characterized me because it seemed to characterize all of the Diaspora.
In the just mentioned statement, she has voiced the concern of alien Diaspora throughout the world. In a way, her poetry does have a universal appeal. The vibrating notes of her poetry find echo in every human heart. Erica Jong has written thus about her poems:
They remind me that poetry is meant to delight, to remind us that language is one of the joys of being human, and they also probe the depths of the heart….
This literary genius of high excellence discusses with Dr. Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal her poetic experience, Diaspora, feminism, relevance of English Studies and several other literary and intellectual issues.
NKA: A person of Jewish identity in her skin, Karen was born in London and studied in USA. How has this diasporic displacement and dislocation affected your psyche?
KAG:The major displacement was that I was born to refugee parents who lost most of their family in World War II. They were living in England on temporary visas and were forced to find a new home after the war. This sense of repeated displacement and repeated new beginnings characterized my childhood.
NKA: Did you feel marginalized and alienated in the States?
KAG:I was in a permanent state of marginalization and alienation, but found a variety of homes on my own. In some ways the cultural atmosphere of the United States was extremely welcoming to me.
NKA: What are the major psychological problems, faced by Asian Diaspora in USA?
KAG:Much depends on how and why people leave a country why they go elsewhere,and what is the immediate community into which they are accepted.. When there is a choice, and there are kind people, there is a sense of empowerment. When there is no choice, and the people are not welcoming, it is much harder. In our case, as soon as my parents established a permanent residence in the United States, they began to take in newer refugees, and then I was the “native,” helping the newcomers. This was very good for me.
NKA: What are the major obstacles in the promotion of multicultural and hybrid social order in the West? How can we make this racially antagonized world similar to ‘ a salad bowl’ or ‘a melting pot.’ Please enlighten the readers.
KAG:This is such a difficult question. There is no simple answer. The most important thing we can do is to try to work together at every opportunity. Perhaps poetry can help – if we can understand each others’ hearts, we can help create a genuine ‘melting pot,’ a world in which all others can be accepted.
NKA: Was your homecoming peaceful? Were there certain problems in acclimatizing yourself to your own native culture after living in exile for years? Did the natives accept you easily? Please illuminate.
KAG:What does homecoming mean? I moved to Israel when I was in my early twenties. I didn’t have another ‘homeland’ than the United States, and I loved it and continue to love it. I moved to Israel because it was where I felt I could make a difference in the world. In Israel I found a political ideology with which I could identify and a religious freedom I had not experienced. I have lived in Israel for 35 years and am very happy to be here, despite the changes in political ideology. Was it easy to become adjusted to life in the Middle East? I am in a constant state of learning to adjust, because things change here from day to day. Most of the time I find it a wonderful challenge, but sometimes it is quite terrifying.
NKA: What are the major issues and subjects of your poetry?
KAG: I think the position and responsibility of the individual in the universe is my main issue. As one of two people who survived a family of fifty-odd people, I feel constantly the burden of justifying my own survival, and sometimes I also feel it necessary to justify my right to exist as well. As for subjects, I deal with everything that is human, from erotica to environment.
NKA: You have also published some books of translation. What difference do you find between the writing of poetry and translation of a work? How can a work of translation be made more imaginative and creative? What do you prefer more—translation or creative poetry? Please communicate.
KAG: Translating is an amazing opportunity to enter the skin of another individual and see the world from their perspective. You learn to breathe as they breathe, see what they see, and shape art from their perspective. Translation also provides an opportunity to explore new styles and language. I find it extremely creative. It is a completely different experience from writing poetry from my own perspective, and the two experiences are complementary.
NKA: In your poem ‘Poetry in the Middle East’, you are in the pain because “The people we love/will kill each other/for land and/broken down monuments.” The atmosphere of the Middle-east is dismal and peace is very fragile. In another poem ‘Regards’ too, you are crying as peace is “ too frail to be/left on its own/even for a single day.” What is the remedy for this peace-starved world? Please guide.
KAG: If I had the remedy I’d be running around the world telling my secret to world leaders. All I know is that if we all pay proper attention to the subject of peace, we’d be in a better position then we are now. We like to think we have answers, and that people should listen to us, but if we could realize that all the answers have to be arrived at through attention, communication, and responsibility, perhaps we’d have a chance. I like to think that poetry helps us understand each other in some small way.
NKA: To borrow Simon de Beauvoir’s phrase, women are considered ‘the second sex.’ Do you find the position of the women worse in Asia than in the West? Do women enjoy greater independence and freedom in the West? Or is the exploitation same everywhere? As a woman teacher and poet, you must have experienced this male bias? What are the various prejudices of the men towards the women writers and teachers? Or are they completely unbiased? What are the ways to check this prejudiced approach of the men towards the women? Please enlighten.
KAG: There are so many different ways in which women are subjugated. I haven’t lived everywhere so I don’t know about comparing degrees of subjugation in different societies, but I have lived as a woman in Western society for many years and the situation has altered a great deal. When I was accepted as a doctoral candidate I was warned that I would be taking the place of a man, and that meant that since I would be costing the school a great deal of money, I should make sure I used my studies in a full-time career and not waste it having children. That sounds terribly sexually prejudicial but in the context of the society at the time it made some sense. I did continue my studies, and I also did have children, and I remembered always that as a woman if I want to have a career as a woman I also had to remember that I should expect no concessions because I was a woman.
NKA: As a teacher of English Literature, what are your views about the decolonization of English Studies in this era of Post-Colonialism. Should we continue to teach the classics of England? Should not we promote our own regional literatures in English translation? Should not we interpret English classics applying the native critical tools? In a way, we should have Literature in English Language in place of Literature of England in our curriculum. Teaching of just the classics of England shows our mental slavery. Your comments, please.
KAG: Although I really believe we should learn our regional literatures, I would hate for my students not to learn and been enriched by the classics of England and the United States. It is not a case of either/or but both/and. I have actually been researching the literature in English of my own country and have published a great deal on this subject. I think it is wonderful to develop an appreciation for the local writers and it is equally important to develop the worldliness and awareness of these local writers and their audience. It is only mental slavery if we allow it to be foisted on us. If we are free to choose and know why we are choosing, we are not slaves – we are developers of our own societies.
NKA: What is the relationship between Karen Gut, the teacher and Karen Gut,the poet?
KAG: They are getting to know each other as I get older. For many years I had to keep them separate. It was considered unprofessional for an academic to devote time to unacademic pursuits, like the writing of poetry, but recently things have changed and my academic writing is becoming influenced by my poetic soul. On the other hand, I was always influenced in my poetry by my academic pursuits, and have constant dialogues with the poets I teach
NKA: What is the significance of the family metaphor in your poetry?
KAG: I don’t know about the metaphor part! I have always tried to avoid talking about my children, and I’ve always used my husband as a ‘contrasting voice.’ He doesn’t mind at all my re-creating him in my poetry, but I think it would be disasterous if I wrote about people I am close to – it would be usurping their lives.
NKA: In your collection The Love of Clothes and Nakedness, you are talking about the burden of clothes on the naked soul. In a way, through this collection, you are making a point that by becoming elemental and primitive in our lives, we can escape the ennui and boredom of this contemporary world. The poems like ‘The Body’, ‘Dirty Laundry’, ‘Dirty Linen’, ‘Underwear’, ‘Panties’ and ‘Evidence’ are perfect examples of this deification of the elemental and primitive aspects of life. In this veneration of the primitive and instinctive elements of life, are you not unconsciously inspired by the great English novelist D.H.Lawrence, who too shunned all rationalism in favour of emotions? Or is there any other influence? Please tell something.
KAG: I was using clothes as a metaphor for consciousness, protection, exposure and connection. I don’t think I shun rationalism at all, but I would never have been able to get to use subjects like these had I not read Lawrence from an early age. He and Henry Miller and Erica Jong and others opened up many possibilities for me.
NKA: Poetry is the product of the extreme emotional experience. A poet universalizes his personal emotions. Poetry emerges, when a poet has a flood of emotions in his heart. Wordsworth also called poetry ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’ What emotional factors, other than your displacement in an alien country, are responsible for your poetry? Please make an emotional statement.
KAG: The most powerful emotions are beyond words. Words tame powerful emotions, make them communicable. When I am in the grip of really powerful emotions, I do not make words.
The interviewer Dr.Nilanshu Kumar Agarwal is Senior Lecturer in English at Feroze Gandhi College,Rae Bareli, (U.P.), India.