Your poem, Some Woman, speaks powerfully, voicing both the outrage, and witness, of what it means to live in our time. Could you please speak about your influences, what other writers have impacted your work, your vision?
“Some Woman” is a poem about the culture of rape. Now that culture is changing because we write and talk about it. When I saw that the spirit of our time is women uniting to free each other, I wrote the poem “A Woman can Release a Woman.” It is a vision of a solution which stands before us. . And then came the incredibly essential “Me Too” movement.
My strongest influences include the Israeli poets Yona Wallach, Yehuda amichai, Zelda, and Dahlia Ravikovitch; the German-Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler; and also Leonard Cohen, Charles Bukowski. Ann sexton, Silvia Plath, Emily Dickenson, J.D. Salinger, Virginia Woolf, Catherine Harrison, Natalia Ginsburg, and Simone de Beauvoir. From the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
Your poem, You Are the One, is such an interesting piece, both addressing the reader in a direct way, and also giving us a multi-layered complexity. It is a poem of a place and also the poem of a voice, a poem of gender and a poem of a very specific moment in time. Can you tell us what, in your opinion, is the poet’s relationship to her time, to her place?
“You Are the One” is a farewell poem to a man I loved in Jerusalem. In the wake of this heartbreak I discovered the city’s madness, a madness that suffuses Solomon’s erotic poem, the Song of Songs. I put myself in the position of the woman in that poem who walks the streets of Jerusalem and seeks her lover. I discovered something both about the truth of the Song of Songs and the true madness in Jerusalem. It is a poem of prayer for love, for the return of love to me, but also to Israel. A land of war where art offers the only counterbalance. Poetry is salvation. There is something eternal in poetry that is found in Jerusalem and in the yearning for love.
Many of your poems dear with gender, with representation, with mythology of self, with mythology of place. Your work always seems to want to give the voice to others, to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. Could you please tell us what is the place of a poet vs. her people?
I believe that artists are the true priests and ministers and prophets. The Hebrew root Aleph Mem Nun א.מ.נ denotes art, faith, and loyalty. Art is a practice of faith and loyalty.
A poet is an artist of emotion, and emotion is the basis for all transcendent art. To cast a glance from the sidelines, to give words to those who do not have access to words–this is the role of the poet. I believe that men need feminism just like women. In countries where there is no acceptance of feminism, gay rights are not recognized. When there is no freedom given to femininity, there is no freedom to be feminine. Where there is room only for masculinity, oppression and violence hold sway. The world needs femininity to heal and re-create, just as Israel needs art as a balance against its conflicts.
We read your work in translation. What is your relationship to your language, your culture?
My talented translator Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is the author of Kafka’s Last Trial (Norton, 2018). I feel lucky to have found him.
He and I share an appreciation for the fact that the wisdom of the Hebrew language is in its system of roots. Each root discloses a secret connected with the essence of life. For example, the root ש.י.ר SIR means both “poem” and also “remnant.” A poem, in Hebrew, is something you leave behind, something that remains.
The route mem.samech.resh, מ.ס.ר means several things at once: message, devotion, and delivery. Together, these meanings make up the essence of art: Devotion and giving with hope of acceptance. Give yourself up and then the reader will throw your voice back to you.
Studying Hebrew is a very great privilege given to me: it is like being given a spring of meaning and wisdom. My favorite book is the Even Shoshan dictionary, which my father wrapped with his own hands and left for me. It means everything to me.
Hebrew is very concise and therefore suitable for writing poetry. In fact, Hebrew is poetry. In Hebrew the word “love” means “do not give me, I will give you.” That is the meaning of love, but also the meaning of poetry: giving to others. So I believe that love is my main motivation for writing.
Could you please tell us a bit about contemporary poetry from Israel? Your contemporaries? What poets you admire? What poets should we read? What poets from Israel haven’t been translated yet, but should?
I greatly admire Meir Wieseltier. Some of his poems have been translated into English, but in my opinion not nearly enough. The poet Merhav Yeshurun is the inspiration for my poem “On Friendship” from my book Trembling of the City (you can read and listen to the poem on The New Yorker online). Because his writing is entirely dedicated to the sounds of Hebrew, translating it poses a challenge. In “trembling of the city” I dedicated a poem to Anat Levin , a poet of a pure musical soul. In that poem I wrote about the love of the poet Adi Asis. The love he gives her when they are trying to bring a child together. After long years of struggling they now have a daughter. They live together and write poems. In my book “Ash wails” I dedicated a poem to the poet David More. In his work one can find the silence and wisdom of inner contemplation, together with observation of others. He wants to find the inner point inside him.
Poems by Hagit Grossman From “The Book of the Body”
Translated from Hebrew by Benjamin Balint
To be a woman in a pornographic era in financial crisis,
Anyone can come into you, as you wander the streets hungry,
Ready for any candy. You go home with them, at three in the morning,
To drink vodka.
It does them good to take you from behind, to sow inside you the hell
Of shattered formation, of misunderstanding and mislove.
It does them good if it does you good and you want more,
In love with them from afar.
You haven’t yet learned the unattainable position
And this is especially difficult when inside you drags a deep debt of love.
And you awake in the morning in your mother’s house, a woman of thirty-two,
With an addiction to cleanliness and an innocent soul.
Don’t wander the streets alone, don’t drink, don’t lose your way,
And if someone enters your body, after he said he does not love
And will not love, and will not be,
Remember that you’re a woman in a pornographic world
In a financial crisis, and there’s nothing you can do,
Other than write about it.
You are the One
You are the one, you are the one, you are the one, you are the one.
You were the one in great doubt
You were promised, you were a girl, you were fully a man’s wife,
You were forbidden to yourself, to the darkness, to Jerusalem, to the mountain.
The peak of your strangeness climbs a frigid Jerusalem street,
And the jail of separation refuses to bring you back to the heart of the city.
The wheels stand still.
Jerusalem—just once lift the voice of love
With amplified flame, love will dig under the skirt of Israel
For there is a war but no one to fight for.
A spigot of blood, in the throat, Jerusalem, a year passed,
I was everything he wanted, I was deserving of everything.
Look how virginal I am, look at the signs,
I bled the first time, blood, from me.
On the second time, you’ll pronounce “virgin”
And you’ll say: “You are the one.”
A working woman – a single mother
A woman working in the street
A woman bought by mafiosos
And now sold to any man
A woman with a wealthy father
A strong woman – a kept woman
A mistress or wife
A religious woman who wants out
A woman loathed or loved
Sick or healthy
Sane or insane.
A woman can remain faithful to a woman
Help her watch the kids
Lend her clothes
Give her work.
A woman can liberate a woman.
If you were beaten and poor
If you’ve been shunned by society
If you’ve been taught to hate other women
If you’ve been told your body isn’t beautiful
If you’ve been instructed that it isn’t polite to ask payment for your work,
If your mother left or your father made it difficult,
Remember: a woman can liberate a woman.
A Thought Before Correction
There’s another dimension where I am who I am
And did not go astray to my formal self
And the words that I wrote are not detached in a floating breadth
And I can sit down and write straight from the gut
And I’m joined and bound to the words with a stern bond
Which are from a seed I sowed.
And they’re original and faithfully express my truth
And I’m not disturbed by tasks given me
And I don’t lose my way, but become lost
In order to find new territories and stretch borders
And invent my own true reflection.
I am who I am and do not betray myself.
And I count the times
And they’re written in my dialect
And I’m not lost to myself
And I know the truth
With my five senses. And it is not written in the stars.
Or in the books—except those I wrote.
Author’s photo credit: Zoe Grindea