Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Judith Vollmer Interviewed in The Writer's Chronicle

The current issue of the Associated Writing Program's journal The Writer's Chronicle features an important and extensive interview with Polish-American poet Judith Vollmer. She discusses -- among other topics -- the cultural landscape of America, the language of poetry, and the Polish poets who have meant the most to her.

In reply to the interviewer's question "When you read Polish writers, what are you seeking?" Ms. Vollmer replies,

I'm looking for my grandmother's table. I'm looking for a garden where the dill and scallions and tomatoes border the sidewalk, and where my grandmother, even when it is eighty-five degrees, pours out a hot cup of coffee for me. I'm looking for a language I heard all the time as a child and didn't understand; and for all of the war stories my uncles and my parents told and for what the post-World War II poets have to teach us. So Szymborska, Herbert, Milosz, Rosewicz--all are important. And living in the place I do, where the boundaries are still being rewritten, that literature is crucial.


Here are two poems from Ms. Vollmer's recent book Reactor (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004):

July Evening With Ancestors

Narrow & green under the summer canopy
my daydream calls up

a sea turtle dozing on my lap so I can study
its shell, ancient model for the igloo,
a nice idea in July

& a boy streaming the hard reverb
of his black stratocaster onto the quiet street,
the hard pure sound
breaks the sauna air a little

& now a canal
tinted & flavored by gardeners &
cooks taking smoke breaks and pausing
to snip the wild mint.

The canal darkens, also,
with hands slipping sandals from tired feet,
and brightens
at each footbridge with sconces,
slender guides that light-finger the shadows.

Extended Family Genealogy

—It is better to be bored at home than go
ballistic in someone else’s space.

—Andrei Codrescu

Today I learned from the Ellis Island website
my Baci’s boat left Europe from Antwerp not Gdansk
which means she made a long overland journey
that remains unrecorded. My mother does not know

her own grandmother’s name or town or origin.
My grandmother traveled with a 2-year-old
girl not her own, entrusted to her by a lady.
Onboard she ate for the first time a banana, unpeeled,

in the company of the child, Janina,
& of corpses to be buried after the Ellis docking.
Literate at home in Krakow, she never learned English
and for 40 years kept the peace & quiet of our house.

One of my favorite poets, Li Po, was descended from
Turks. Maybe his dizzy mountain airs
offer us voyages uncharted still. My mother

is named for either Marie Antoinette
or Maria Theresa, and her maiden name,
Gunia, means horsehair in Polish but also holds origins
in Palermo whose murky radiance I have begun to trace.

My parents named me for St. Jude, patron of hopeless
causes. I have lied, cheated, & stolen. Grieved much
of it but do we ever finish. I love stealing,

not only the Desnos/”Hammock” theft,
but also the grand larceny of “The Jewel,” lifted
from Cold Mountain while reading
the translations a 100th time. (Not

theft, it’s riffling, sampling!) My affinity
with the poet Larbaud is unmistakable.
Consider too my Muir-like fevers:
when only 14 he rose at 1 a.m.

to spend 4 hours reading before returning
to work his father’s Wisconsin fields.
I claim my own and they claim me, certifiably.

My most famous blood relative, my aunt
who died a prostitute in Steubenville, warned
of the uselessness of fixed identity: “Honey, it’s like that
black coat of yours: collects everything but men & money.”

(The photograph of Judith Vollmer was taken by Anne Begler.)

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