Writing as an Act of the Soul; an Interview with Rachel Neve-Midbar

Tell Tell Poetry’s Adina Kopinsky talks with Rachel Neve-Midbar about her new collection Salaam of Birds, a book that weaves themes of war, love, motherhood, loss and hope with a connection to the past, Jewish history, how soil can birth a people, and the pathos of life in Israel and Palestine. They talk about Rachel’s poetic process, how poems gestate, birth, and mature, and the trajectory of art.

Adina Kopinsky: Let’s talk about your forthcoming book Salaam of Birds. In this book I found history, storytelling, motherhood, mythmaking, the longing we feel for each other, all interwoven with Judaism. What felt to me like the crux of the book, the linchpin, was the poem “Reading Bruno Schulz on Rosh Hashana.“ It merged so many aspects of your book together that I wanted to start by discussing this poem, how it felt like the epicenter of your book, both physically centered at page 50 and emotionally holding the book together:

I know that you were working on this poem back in 2017 and I don’t know how long you were working on the poem before then. I also know it was published online by Blackbird this year, in 2020. And that might seem like a really long time to have been working on a poem and to wait to see it published. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that process, how it felt for you, on a poetry level and on a personal level.

Rachel Neve-Midbar: “Reading Bruno Schulz on Rosh Hashana” was inspired by an article in The New Yorker by David Grossman and translated from the original Hebrew. David Grossman had gone to an old age home and had met the student who saw Bruno Schulz’s body, who had kissed him goodbye and taken the loaf of bread out of Schulz’s pocket in a Ukrainian ghetto during World War II. I was lucky to get all of those details into the poem. Before reading the article I had never heard of Schulz, so I went to the library and took out his books. This was right before Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. I just sat up and read Schulz’s short stories the whole night and went to synagogue the next day. On Rosh Hashana the Bible portions we read are about various women in the Bible. We read about Rachel. We read about Hannah. We read about Sarah. And I was thinking, oh my God, Bruno Schulz wrote these incredible stories, they are so visceral. And then he’s dead. Someone shoots him and he’s dead. Where does all that brilliance go?

I was really struck by the fact that when Schulz died he had completed three chapters of a novel called The Messiah, that was lost during the war. No one knows who it was given to and it was never found. I was thinking a lot about the transformation after death, about the resurrection of the dead, which is, I think, a big part of what Rosh Hashana is about. The entire poem came to me in that moment, but I was in synagogue and had no way to write it down. And I tried to memorize some things that were going through my head, but by the time Rosh Hashana ended, everything was gone and it was really devastating.

Next semester, I went to the summer residency of Pacific University low-residency MFA program I was attending. I was assigned to work with a really supportive and kind poet who was my mentor for the next six months. By the end of that semester, I sat down in my dining room and wrote pretty much the entire poem of Bruno Schulz. But I knew it wasn’t done. The third section was still wonky and not working. Years later I heard a podcast about the writer Ariel Levy’s experience having a miscarriage in a hotel room in inner Mongolia and I knew what the real third section was of this poem. And so I wrote that story. A woman on her bathroom floor having a spontaneous abortion and giving birth to a living child who could not survive. And I don’t know that I did it that well. I’ve never experienced that kind of loss. I hope I did the story justice.

Every poem has its right time and its right place. It ended up in the middle of the book because it’s long and that’s the right place for a long piece.

I think that writing poetry is an act of the soul. I think that you’re pulling down life and it comes through you. The work we do as poets is becoming a pipe. I think we just open ourselves up to the spiritual realm, to this soulful realm, to this intellectual realm, and then, as intellectual beings, we clean it up a bit and make it sound bright and improve the verbs and stuff. But to me, that’s where poems come from.

AK: Yeah. I think that most poets and artists would feel at home with that description of being a pipe. I think it’s a feeling that a lot of us have, a feeling I’ve heard spoken of a lot. And what you’re describing about the writing of Bruno Schulz fits into this paradigm of creativity coming down whole and then the work of the artist being the work of recapturing what you first feel. How the poem first came to you reminds me of Rilke trying to finish the Duino Elegies because he wrote the first half —

RNM: Yes! — and then for years he waited for more. He locked himself in a room at a castle. The woman who brought him his food put it outside the door because he wouldn’t talk to anybody. My process, if I am by myself and able to walk and no one talks to me the whole day and the whole night, that’s my process. I need to dig all the way in to get a poem. I walked around for a year saying “the messiah lost in a moment on a corner . . . the messiah lost . . .” How do I talk about this? How do I say this?

AK: What an all-consuming question! Were you able to write other poems at the same time?

RNM: Yeah, sure. Most of the poems that are in this book were written then.

AK: Would you say that this was the most difficult poem in the book to write? And if not, what poem would you say was the most difficult in the book to write?

RNM: I think the Coda, “Salaam of Birds,” which is also the name of the book, was probably the hardest thing, because if you go through this book, it’s not a tremendously personal book. It has personal moments, but it’s not a personal book because as I wrote this book, I was not at a time of my life where I was able to reveal my personal self on the page. And I’m still working towards that. That’s my wall that I have to get over, it’s very hard for me. This is not an intimate book. And I would say that writing about my children is something that I almost never do. And so here writing about my son, how I felt about him being in the army and somebody from our town being killed. That was probably the hardest because I was dealing with my real issues rather than issues of Israel or Judaism or humanity or you know, the bigger things.

AK: What I noticed about the closing piece “Salaam of Birds” was how it is different from the rest of the book in a very particular way, which is that almost the entire book is poetry. There are a few prose poems, but they’re really rare. And then there’s this Coda that ends the book in these poetic, lyrical letters. And I wonder why you chose to structure these letters in prose lines and how you understand the intersection of poetry and prose.

RNM: I was in Greece on a self-imposed writing retreat when I first tried to form this manuscript. I knew I needed to include something about the 2014 Gazan War. I remembered a correspondence from that summer with another Pacific MFA mentor. I took out those letters to see if I could glean some language and ideas from stuff I had written at the time. And that’s when I got the idea of the letters, which I eventually called “Salaam of Birds.” I thought, why am I trying to make this piece into poetry when it’s so clear that if I’m expository, I’m able to allow myself the space to talk about things. Narrative poems are hard, narrative poems, in order to get them right, the right tone, to get the whole story, to leave room for the reader, to get inside your poem, to also bring in the lyric, it’s a hard thing to do. And I had these letters and in and amongst the letters were poems.

I came back from Greece with this thing written and it was beautiful. There were parts of it that were really, really beautiful and I was excited about it. I was lucky enough to get some interest in the piece from the folks at The Georgia Review. They wanted to publish the piece, but felt I needed to make some changes, that it needed to come together better. I was thinking, what can I do? What can I do? And I started just going through the books of poetry that I had in the house by Palestinians and Israelis. I was reading Darwish and I came across that line “salaam of birds.” And that line indicated to me how the piece should come together. So I did a full edit on everything.

And at that point, that was when I really rewrote that last part, because my whole idea was that a woman starts out very together. You know, her purse over her shoulder, her car keys are in her hand. Her children are all washed and dressed. The worst thing that she’s worrying about is getting the dog into the safe room when the bombs go off. Little by little, as she sees loss of life, the danger to her own child. She is losing it — losing it more and more and more. That was what I wanted from the piece. So that last ending, the very lyric ending, really worked for me.

I believe that a lot of books that are being written today are a mix. More and more books are becoming hybrids of poetry and prose together. You see it often. I think that Paisley Rekdal’s book “Nightingale” where there is an amazing lyric essay in the middle of the book really gave me permission to find a place for “Salaam of Birds” in this collection.

AK: I loved it at the end of the book because I felt like it took the book from the theoretical to the practical, just as we often associate poetry with being beyond the rational and prose with the logical, the rational, and the sequential. That’s how the prose Coda feels. It moves Salaam of Birds towards a starker reality.

Moving back into the book and the craft of creating the book, can you tell us how you put a poem together? If you find that your poetry comes in snatches and how those snatches can come together to become whole pieces?

RNM: I’ve been writing poetry for about ten years, which is not very long in the poetry world. In the beginning, your satellite dish is more open, cleaner. And poems just sort of fall into your satellite dish all the time. You’ll hear a piece of music, or somebody will say something to you and boom, it will become a poem, or you’ll experience something and boom, it will become a poem, there’s almost no intellectual interference.

Yes, there is a gestation period where you’re taking notes in your notebook and carrying a notebook, pressing flowers, phrases and words and bits of music, whatever it is that influences you. It should be going into your notebook because that is the gestation of our poetry. You’re writing little lines down and this poem falls into your satellite dish.

Since I got accepted at USC, where all of a sudden I stopped being a novice and I started to become a serious poet, I started to take my poetry too seriously, and it became much harder for me to write.

Now I’m working on two projects and the writing is very slow and a lot of it comes with incredible intent. I say: I’m going to sit down and write a poem about this. It’s going to bring in history and science and cartoons. I don’t know what I’m going to write about, but it’s going to have those aspects to it. A lot of assignments.

And some of my best poems are coming out of prompts which is a way of trying to get those poems on the page. And I’m finding that it’s a harder process, but the poems are ultimately better now, because I have a lot more control over my art than I used to have. The longer poems that I’m writing now are actually better than Schulz.

AK: I’m excited to see them one day.

I’d like to end this conversation by just reciting some lines from your poem “Memorial,”:

I felt that those lines pull together not just the Israeli voices and the Palestinian voices that speak through this collection, but also the relationships that course throughout the book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thank you, Rachel.

Rachel Neve-Midbar’s collection Salaam of Birds has won the 2018 Patricia Bibby First Book Award and will be published by Tebot Bach Press. She is also the author (under the name Heimowitz) of the chapbook, What the Light Reveals (Tebot Bach Press, 2014.). Rachel’s work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Spillway, Prairie Schooner, The Georgia Review, as well as other publications and anthologies. She was recently a finalist for the COR Richard Peterson Prize, winner of the Passenger Poetry Prize and she has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. Rachel completed her MFA at Pacific University in 2015 and is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. http://rachelnevemidbar.com/

Adina Kopinsky is a poet, writer, and multi-genre editor. Now living in Israel, she is originally from Venice, California and has a degree in English Literature from California State University, Northridge. She has work published or forthcoming in Rust + Moth, SWWIM Every Day, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry, among other publications.

Tell Tell Poetry is a poetry resource site for secret poets, wannabe poets, and Anti-MFA dreamers of the world.