An Interview with Chana Bloch

(first published in San Francisco Book Review)

Chana Bloch has published four books of poetry — The Secrets of the Tribe, The Past Keeps Changing, Mrs. Dumpty, and Blood Honey. She is the co-translator of The Song of Songs (with Ariel Bloch) and The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai (with Stephen Mitchell), as well as Amichai’s Open Closed Open and Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch (with Chana Kronfeld). She has degrees from Cornell, Brandeis and U.C. Berkeley. For more than 30 years, she taught in the English Department at Mills College, where she directed the Creative Writing Program.

When I asked Chana Bloch for an interview, she graciously invited me to her house in north Berkeley. Before sitting down in the kitchen to talk on a warm July afternoon, Chana showed me the photographs of her family in the hallway — photos of her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts taken in Eastern Europe or shortly after they arrived in this country. These are some of the figures who emerge so powerfully in the poems of Blood Honey.

Zara Raab: You’ve written and translated many books, as well as teaching at Mills College for many years. That’s a full life! What draws you to poetry? Why do you write and translate poetry?

Chana Bloch: I’ve always loved language, the sound of words, the music of words. Often it’s the sound of a word that will lead me where I want to go. And I love the compression of poetry, the fact that you can get a lot said in a small space. Early on, I discovered that the outside and inside of things don’t always correspond, and I wanted to understand what was happening on the inside of my life. “If we were so happy, why weren’t we happy?” — that became a key question.

I wrote stories and poems — actually, rhymed poems — when I was I in high school, and started writing poetry seriously in college and grad school. I was drawn to translation at about the same time because it’s a good way of teaching yourself to write. As for translating from Yiddish and Hebrew: I’m a first-generation American, still very connected to the Jewish culture I grew up with. I wanted to contribute something of substance to American-Jewish culture, which seems me to increasingly lightweight.

ZR: So you were translating poetry right from the beginning. . .

CB: Yes. I started translating from Yiddish, the language of my parents, which I studied as a child — poems by Jacob Glatstein and stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I began to study Hebrew in college and grad school, and during the five years I lived in Jerusalem, and I went on to translate the Israeli poets Dahlia Ravikovitch and Yehuda Amichai.

ZR: Your first two books, The Secrets of the Tribe and The Past Keeps Changing, were published by Sheep Meadow Press, which also published two of your books of translations, of Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poems. How did that come about?

CB: Stanley Kunitz heard Dahlia read at the Rotterdam Poetry Festival and was very enthusiastic about her work. “No poetry in recent years has moved me more,” he wrote, and he urged Sheep Meadow Press to publish a book of her poems. After that, they published two of my books. Now Sheep Meadow will be publishing my son Benjamin’s first book of poems, Narrows.

ZR: You translated the biblical Song of Songs with your first husband, the linguist Ariel Bloch. It is a poem of passionate love. Your relationship with him was, I gather from the opening poems of Mrs. Dumpty, very loving, even passionate. But then he became mentally ill and your marriage disintegrated. Reading The Songs of Songs and then Mrs. Dumpty back-to-back was revelatory for me.

CB: Ariel and I were married for almost twenty-four years. In the beginning we had what appeared to be a very good marriage. Toward the end of our work together on the Song of Songs, the effects of his mental illness became more and more evident, and our marriage began coming apart. After we separated, I wrote Mrs. Dumpty over four consecutive summers at Yaddo [a writer’s retreat in Saratoga Springs, New York]. The first poems came pouring out of me, fueled by a fury of emotions that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel during the years when Ariel’s breakdowns dominated our family life. Each summer after that one, I could feel the pain and confusion subside. By the time I was able to write the tender, loving poems — the ones at the beginning of the book — I had come to terms with an experience that was almost impossible to understand. The process of putting it into words saved my sanity.

When I was teaching at Mills, I talked to students about what it’s like to write poems that are based on your own life. You can be faithful to the truth of what happened without being tied to literal fact. Once you set the material down on the page, it becomes a free-standing object that asks to be shaped in accordance with its own laws. You can get beyond the raw stuff of the “confessional” through metaphor, phrasing and precision of language.

ZR: In your wonderful essay on translation, “Learning from Translation” [the Judith Lee Stronach Memorial Lecture delivered at U.C. Berkeley in May 2011], you mention what Robert Lowell told you in a poetry workshop: “You can learn to write from your own translations.” Are there any particular poems that inspired you in your own work when you came to translate them? Or was it more a process of “strengthening your poetic muscles,” to borrow a metaphor you use in the essay? Can you think of a specific example from your work on the Song of Songs?

CB: When you are translating, you have to choose among possible alternatives to convey meaning and register, image and mood and music. Each time you choose, you are sharpening your skills as a poet. In the process, you learn patience as well.

An example? There was a particular verse in the Song (2:5) that I struggled with for months. The King James Bible has “I am sick of love,” which meant “stricken by passion” in 17th-century English; that’s obviously out of the question today. Some translations resort to “I am sick with love,” which is just as bad, or “I am faint with desire,” which sounds much too Victorian. One day, suddenly, it came to me: “I am in the fever of love.” I felt so high that I went out the door and ran four miles. Maybe only another word-nut would understand what it means to be obsessed with a turn of phrase in that way. Only another poet.

ZR: In “Learning from Translation,” you discuss issues of translation and assimilation, how one thinks within a language and a culture. Do you want to add to that?

CB: Some translators want to make their translations reader-friendly by smoothing out any difficulties, editing out the cultural particularity. At the other end of the spectrum, there are translators who work hard to preserve the flavor and feel of the original. I started out closer to the first type, but in time, especially through my collaboration with Chana Kronfeld, I have moved very much in the direction of the second.

What’s the point of domesticating the foreign? It’s like tourist travel made easy: the travel agent smooths the way so you are as comfortable as if . . . you had never left home. If you travel to another place, I think you should come back with something you couldn’t find at home. This assumes that the reader is willing to make a bit of an effort, but why assume otherwise?

ZR: Your readers come to know your love of Yiddish and Hebrew writers, including Singer, Glatstein, Amichai and Ravikovitch, whom you’ve translated. You’re also the author of a critical study of the 17-century English poet George Herbert. You published a book on Herbert, isn’t that right? [Spelling the Word: George Herbert and the Bible, University of California Press (1985)]. What drew you to his poems?

CB: I fell in love with Herbert in graduate school. We made an unlikely pair — a Jewish girl from the Bronx and a devout 17-century Anglican minister. Do you know Marilynne Robinson’s recent novel, Gilead? It’s about a Congregationalist pastor she calls John Ames, who lives in a small town in Iowa in the 1950s, and who seems to me very much like a latter-day Herbert. When I read it, I felt I was back in touch with his spirit again.

Herbert writes as a Christian believer who is wrestling with his faith, but in essence he is writing about the conflicts of the inner life, and I could easily relate to that; I could follow him up to the point where he turned to Jesus for help. But that was more than enough. His poems have a beautiful dignity and candor and seriousness, along with a sharp unsparing wit. In your review of Blood Honey you wrote that there is a moral value in economy; that’s something I find in Herbert’s poetry too.

ZR: What other writers influence you?

CB: I value clarity — an old-fashioned virtue — and concision. I like poetry that appears to be clear on the surface, with unexpected depths. Among my favorites: Anna Ahkmatova, Elizabeth Bishop, Ruth Stone, Jane Kenyon, Charles Simic, Tomas Tranströmer. I read and reread Tranströmer’s poems, which are tight and profound and mysterious. And I’ve learned a lot from Yehuda Amichai’s irreverent use of the Bible, his acerbic wit, his mixing of tones. His work is warm, alive, and very human — funny and serious at the same time. Among earlier poets, Emily Dickinson in particular.

ZR: What do you think of Emily Dickinson’s martyrdom to poetry? Do you find it off-putting?

CB: I don’t think we know enough about Emily Dickinson’s life to make that kind of judgment. By the way, what color do you think her hair was?

ZR: I don’t know. . . . brown, I suppose.

CB: Her hair was red. To my surprise, I discovered that when I visited her house in Amherst.

ZR: They had a locket of her hair?

CB: Yes. From the famous daguerreotype I assumed her hair was dark. But it was red! Doesn’t that change how you see her? I like imagining her as a bold, feisty redhead, never mind the white dress. Well, you see plenty of evidence of boldness in her poems.

ZR: How do you go about making a poem? Would you be willing to share your own process?

CB: Sometimes a poem will start with a image or a phrase, something I’ve read or heard or saved in a notebook. An article I read in the New Yorker about knife sharpening, a review I read in the New York Review of Books about research on the brain, a comment by a musician about the Stradivarius violin — those generated new poems called “Cleave,” “Happiness Research,” “The Little Ice Age.”

These days I work a lot on the computer. But when I’ve been sitting for hours in front of a computer screen, I find that walking helps; it unglues my brain. When I go for a walk, I always take pencil and paper, and I scribble down lines that come to me. I usually work very slowly, and then I revise and revise and revise.

ZR: What are you working on at the moment?

CB: In Mrs. Dumpty I took on a single daunting subject: the impact of mental illness on marriage and family. In writing Blood Honey I felt a strong impulse to expand my field of vision. I wrote about a poet who lived fifty years in an iron lung, a Harvard student who claimed to be the Messiah, an uncle of mine who killed a man and was proud of it.

In my new manuscript I am trying to extend my range still further. Some of the new poems are about human origins, the death of Socrates, sign language, tourism to Auschwitz. The title poem starts with a epigraph from Pascal: “If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter, the whole history of the world would have been different.” I’m writing a lot about history — personal history, biblical history, European history, human history.

ZR: I look forward to reading it. What are you reading at the moment? How do you decide what you’re going to read?

CB: Right now I’m reading Adam Zagajewski. I follow the reviews in Poetry and other literary journals, and I devour the New York Review of Books. I belong to a group that meets regularly to read poetry together — ancient, medieval, contemporary, in English and in translation. Each month we read a different poet chosen by the group.

ZR: Do you like the Eastern European poets?

CB: Yes, very much. Did I mention Wislawa Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert? He’s a wonderful poet, ironic and heartbreaking (and by the way, a distant relative of George Herbert). I like to read about nature and evolution, especially since my younger son became a wildlife biologist. My children’s interests have always been a spur to my own.

ZR: Do you have any other advice for a poet just starting out, or to a young person thinking of becoming a writer?

CB: To a great extent, you have to teach yourself. Merwin said, “No one can teach you to listen for what only you can hear.” You have to find your own voice. Read a lot and keep writing and don’t get discouraged. Don’t take someone else’s criticism as the absolute truth; often it’s just a matter of taste.

Sometimes a critical comment can be devastating. I remember writing a poem in a creative writing course about a girl who was very pregnant. I was 19 at the time, and I’d had a dream about being pregnant; I tried to convey the bodily sensation in that poem. The teacher said: “I can’t decide whether this poem is ultimately beautiful or ultimately ugly. Let me think about it.” The next week he told me, “It’s ultimately ugly,” and he graded the poem: 83. Idiotic! That guy shouldn’t have been a creative writing teacher. In fact, he shouldn’t have been a teacher at all.

ZR: I had a similar experience in my first year of college. The professor took umbrage when I didn’t understand “Leda and the Swan.” I majored in philosophy instead.

CB: I think a critique of a poet’s work ought to satisfy two requirements: to be true and at the same time to be useful — that is, phrased in such a way that the poet can use it. (That’s good advice in a relationship too, by the way.) I can’t stand the sniping comments you sometimes hear in a workshop. I would always tell my students, “I don’t want any blood on the walls.” My approach would be: “Let’s identify what’s working best in this poem and think about how to bring the rest up to that level.”

ZR: A song cycle based on your work, “Chana’s Story,” was composed by David Del Tredici, and premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Your translation of the Song of Songs was set to music by Jorge Liderman. This piece has been performed by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and the U.C. Berkeley Chamber Chorus at Cal Performances. What was it like hearing your own words put to music?

CB: It was fascinating to work with those composers. I met David Del Tredici at the McDowell Colony [a writer’s retreat in Peterborough, New Hampshire]. He initially set one of the lyrics from the Song of Songs, and he wanted to see my own poems. He chose a number of poems from two of my books and set them as a song-cycle; it was his idea to call it “Chana’s Story.”

Every time he set a poem, he would play it for me in his studio and ask for my feedback. If I said, “I think it needs more of an accent here,” he’d whip out his electric eraser and actually make a change! I was delighted by his openness to my comments, even when I didn’t agree with his interpretation. For example, he set “Tired Sex” from Mrs. Dumpty as an angry poem. I think it’s a funny poem, but he was the composer, after all, and it was his prerogative to set it as he heard it.

I worked very closely with Jorge Liderman, the Argentinian composer who taught Music Composition at U.C. Berkeley before his tragic death. Jorge composed a cantata based on my translation of the Song of Songs. Together we decided which verses to include, and in what order, arranging the poems to suggest a kind of plot-line. He really caught the passion and intensity and youthful exuberance of the Song. His Latin rhythms are terrific. So is the unusual combination of instruments. More recently, David Fulmer wrote a piece for string trio and mezzo soprano, commissioned by the Monadnock Music Festival, based on “Deaths I Come Back To.” Fulmer’s music is very avant-garde; he gets some spooky sounds, sounds you can’t imagine, out of the violin.

ZR: Are the performances we’ve mentioned available on CD? Or are there any performances of these pieces coming up that we should know about?

CB: On my website,, there are links to the CDs of Chana’s Story and the Song of Songs, and a sampling of each, along with my readings of poems from each of my books.

ZR: Do you have a favorite poem of yours?

CB: At the moment I’d choose “Brothers” from Blood Honey. When my sons were young I used to read to them, and they’d get unbelievably involved; when I read “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” their eyes were practically popping out of their heads. “Brothers” refers to the folk tales about Baba Yaga, the Russian witch who lives in a house on chicken legs. My younger son adored his brother, but it took him less than half a second to respond as he does in that poem. His response taught me a lot about the state of the world.

ZR: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I’d like to end with the text of “Brothers”:

When I was the Baba Yaga of the house
on my terrible chicken legs,
the children sat close on the sofa as I read,
both of them together
determined to be scared.
Careful! I cackled, stalking them
among the pillows:
You bad Russian boy,
I eat you up!
They shivered and squirmed, my delicious sons,
waiting for a mighty arm
to seize them.
I chased them screeching down the hall,
I catch you, I eat you!
my witch-blade hungry for the spurt
of laughter –
What stopped me
even as I lifted my hand?
The stricken voice that cried: Eat him!
Eat my brother.

(from Blood Honey by Chana Bloch, copyright 2010 by Chana Bloch. Reprinted by permission of Autumn House Press)

Filed under: Book Review, Poetics, Prose