Interview with Robert Whitehill-Bashan, American Hebrew Poet
Interview with Robert Whitehill-Bashan, American Hebrew Poet
Tell us something about your upbringing.
I was an only child to bizarre, older-than-average parents, first-generation American born—my father was a psychiatrist from New York, and my mother, from Petersburg, Virginia, was trained as a registered nurse. Each of them had a lot of personal baggage. From the time I was five we lived in Lubbock, Texas. There was a small Jewish community there, but my parents severed ties with it when I was in the third grade. As time went on, my parents also broke from their families back east. My mother had a mysterious neurological condition, and my father was her only physician. He kept her stoked with Phenobarbital. My mother was warm and outgoing, but emotionally and intellectually shallow. My father had a sharp mind but was a failure as a human being and a Jewish anti-Semite. With all of the negativity and strangeness in our home, I am thankful that I didn’t become a bitter and nonfunctional neurotic. Luckily, I looked to the outside for normalcy: I had friends; I participated in school activities; I dated; I was the token Jew in my college fraternity.
How did you develop a passion for Hebrew language and Hebrew poetry?
It probably would never have happened if my parents had been normal. With the lack of Judaism in our home and the nasty things I heard my parents say about Jewish people, I could well have assimilated into the Christian milieu of my friends. But in the summer of 1961, when I was 14, we stayed at a local hotel for a few days while our house was being painted. I bought a paperback book about the Dead Sea Scrolls with an intriguing title: The Lost Years of Jesus Revealed. Reading this book became for me a sort of “Franz Rosenzweig experience,” a sudden, overwhelming, inspired, even atavistic refuge into Judaism, albeit only in theory, because my entire exposure to Judaism was through books. I read every book available on Judaism in the Lubbock Public Library. I decided that I would move to Israel after college. I told no one. I decided to learn Hebrew, first from books and later from phonograph records. My parents were a bit nonplussed by this, but they didn’t act to prevent it. Seven years later I visited Israel for the first time and studied Hebrew at Ulpan Akiva in Netanya. The poetry part came later.
Why did you decide to write in Hebrew? Isn’t it difficult to write poetry—the language of the heart— in a second language?
Until I was in college I didn’t care for poetry. But at Texas Tech I studied Shakespeare and Milton, along with 18th, 19th and 20th century British and American poets and became captivated by them. But the ambition to write poetry did not come until I discovered a new volume in the Texas Tech library, a dual-language anthology of Modern Hebrew poetry compiled by Ruth Feiner Mintz. That lit my fire. If Bialik and Tchernichovsky could write Hebrew poetry in Russia, I could write Hebrew poetry in Texas. While in law school at UT Austin I simultaneously took undergraduate and graduate-level courses in Hebrew literature, grammar and syntax and started writing poetry. I sent some poems to HaDoar and Bitzaron, the Hebrew language journals of the time. The Israeli poet and songwriter Yossi Gamzu was studying in Austin at that time, and he helped me collect and edit poems that eventually become my first book, Orvim Chumim (Brown Crows, Eked 1976). My poems also appeared in Israeli literary supplements and journals such as HaAretz, Davar, Maariv, Yediot, Al Hamishmar, and Moznaim.
Do you write English language poetry as well?
English is my language of daily discourse, but not my language of art. As Uri Zvi Greenberg so blithely put it, “the language of my blood.” I have, however, translated some of my narrative poems into English and delivered a reading this January at Portland State University before a large and very receptive audience, as a part of the celebration inaugurating Michael Weingrad’s new book, American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States. Michael graciously included me in his last chapter.
Does it feel lonely being a Hebrew poet in America? Is there any sort of community of Hebrew poets here, or elsewhere in the Diaspora?
I should feel lonely, but I don’t. It would be nice to have an audience here, to be invited to deliver readings. My audience is in Israel. While at Portland I also did a Hebrew poetry reading before a Chug Ivri—and the audience seemed to enjoy it. It was a lot of fun, and I hope that others will invite me. There is no real community anymore. Most Hebrew speakers are Israeli expatriates. There was still a small community of American Hebraists in the 1970s, but it was moribund, and except for a few notable exceptions, such as the late Jacob Kabakoff and Haim Leaf, most of them harbored that infamous New York prejudice against anything that happens outside of New York. They considered me at best a novelty act, at worst an annoyance.
Does being a Hebrew poet on “admat neichar” (foreign ground, Psalms 137:4) make some kind of political or cultural statement?
My “persona,” the “I” of my poetry, in one poem might identify with life in Israel; in another poem it may identify with life in the Diaspora; yet other poems will have the “I” disenfranchising itself from life in either locale and simply be an omnipresent, rootless observer. Hebrew has always been the language representing the aspirations of the entire Jewish people. No other Judaic language can claim such a role. Although I am personally religiously observant, my poetry tends to be proto-Judaic, Canaanite, pagan, and I like to write about the about the unseemly side of life—Baudelaire is a favorite of mine—and about quirks, paradoxes, with an occasional historical aside. I hope to give my Israeli readers some insights into American life that they can’t get from Israeli writers, even the ones with green cards. Are these things a political statement? Maybe.
Are you in regular contact with poets in Israel? Do you see them, and do they see you, as colleagues?
I keep in touch with my writer friends via Facebook and email. Whenever I am in Israel, I visit with them, give poetry readings and hang out in literary cafes and bookstores. Do we see each other as colleagues? I guess so, but poets tend to be a rather self-absorbed group of people who tend to think that their thoughts and feelings are of more importance than they really are. I hope that life experience has cured me of such delusions. I identify with any group that realizes that good poetry, like any art, requires hard work and revision, revision, revision. Not every “deep thought” is worthy of publication, i.e., sharing it with others. I was very happy to see that my last book of poems was tagged with “Staff Favorite” at the Steimatsky bookstore on Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv. People I don’t now come up to me at events and say that they like my work. The ones who don’t like it simply don’t say anything. As a whole, the Israeli literary scene doesn’t know what to make of me, because I don’t fall into the neat little categories invented by obtuse professors. Thus, I am still an outsider, because the Israeli literary scene, despite its pretensions of worldliness, is, with some notable exceptions, still as provincial as it was thirty years ago, if not more so.
Which poets, both Hebrew and in other languages, are your biggest source of inspiration?
I find continuous inspiration in the Hebrew Bible, the Midrashim, Mishnat HaZohar, medieval poetry, Hebrew translations of the Roman and Greek classics, Helit Yeshurun’s Hebrew translation of Marcel Proust, Dory Manor’s translations of Baudelaire and Mallarmé. I also derive inspiration from Leah Goldberg, Bialik, Haim Gouri and Agnon. In English, I read a lot of history, anthropology, cosmology, and am currently caught among the following poets: Pound, Dickenson, Hart Crane, Samuel Greenberg (whom Crane plagiarized), Whitman, Basil Bunting and Avid Jones. My favorite Jewish Biblical scholar is Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, for her depth and her humanity, and my favorite Biblical historian is Professor Mark S. Smith of NYU, whose insights into the origins of the Jewish people are unsurpassed in light of his analysis of the texts of Ugarit—which are to Hebrew literature what Beowulf is to English literature. My favorite literary critic is Camille Paglia, especially as she presents herself in Sexual Personae. Such are my inspirations.
At one time, in the early to mid-20th century, there were several significant American Hebrew poets. Please tell us a little about them, and if they have special interest for you.
If you want to know about these poets, you must read Michael Weingrad’s new book American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States. Of the writers mentioned in his book, the only ones that I appreciate most, and whom I had the honor of visiting with on two occasions, was Gabriel Preil, who was a sublime poet and a wonderful human being. The other poet I knew personally was Eisig Silberschag, who toward the end of his career held a chaired position at the University of Texas at Austin, and I studied in some of his classes. Years ago, while browsing in a used book store in Austin, I came across, much to my surprise, a book of poems by Gabriel Preil. Even more to my surprise, it was autographed by Gabriel Preil with a personal dedication to Eisig Silberschlag!
Kindly share a short poem with our readers and tell us something about it.
I’ll leave you a very short one—and there is an English translation for it too. Here’s a poem from my latest book manuscript, סטפס בְחוֹרים שחורים (Tap Dancing Through Black Holes).
עָשִׂינוּ פִּיקְנִיק: יָשַׁבְנוּ בָּאוֹטוֹ בְּשׁוּלֵי הַכְּבִישׁ, לֹא רָחוֹק מֵהַבּוֹאֲשִׁים הַשְׁטוּחִים.
הַנְּבֵלוֹת כְּבָר הָיוּ בְּשִׂיא הַיֹבֶשׁ, וְהָיָה סִרְחוֹנָן קַלִּיל.
אִמָּא הוֹצִיאָה מִשַּׂקִית נְיָר כְּרִיכֵי עוֹף מִקֻּפְסָאוֹת שִׁמּוּרִים.
חִטֵּאנוּ אֶת הַיָּדַיִם בְּאַלְכּוֹהוֹל רְפוּאִי.
מָרוּתוֹ נָדְפָה מֵהַיָּדַיִם לַכְּרִיכִים וְלַפֶּה.
Family Picnic, 1950s
We stopped for a picnic:
We sat in the car on the side of the road, and not far from the flattened little bodies of road-kill skunks,
Their carcasses crisp in the July sun, their stench now just a whisper.
My mother opened a brown paper bag containing sandwiches made from Swanson’s canned chicken, wrapped in wax paper.
We disinfected our hands with a bottle of Walgreen’s isopropyl alcohol.
The bitter chemical taste wafted from our fingers to the sandwiches and to our tongues.
We ate quickly.
Then we drove away.
Here’s my take on the poem:
I remember this event. I think we were on the way to California or Arizona on a summer vacation. But all our picnics were like this. When we stopped to eat—we never got out of the car—never sat on the grass, never sat at picnic tables, never had a meal with friends. It was always isolation. I think I remember four times when my parents had dinner guests over between 1952 and 1968. So our family events were always isolated. Instead of people, we had animals—not just animals, but dead animals, and not just dead animals, but flattened road kill animals, and not just road kill, but skunks, very common on Texas highways.
The mechanical process of stopping and eating is what I remember, and the purification process of rubbing alcohol—to remove all vestiges of germs—as if we were going into surgery—and how it made our hands taste bitter—and the bitterness wafting over into the food, giving the tasty (and treif) canned chicken packed into two slices of white bread an acridness that I can still taste today.
In the Hebrew version, I use language for the dead skunks that one would use for a fine wine—“the skunks were at the pinnacle of dryness, and their stench was light.” In the English version, the skunks are more like sun-dried banana slices—crisp in the heat, but their stench, just a “whisper.” ♦
Robert Whitehill-Bashan (b. 1947) is the author of three books of Hebrew poetry and is the translator of several novels by Aharon Megged. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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