by Allison Pitinii Davis
Our poetry editor Allison Pitinii Davis had the pleasure of interviewing poet, scholar, and editor Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach in 2018, and they started with a discussion of her poem “Archive.” Before reading this interview, be sure to check out that poem by Dasbach in Grist’s online issue here.
Allison Pitinii Davis: Your poem “Archive,” which is forthcoming in Grist12, begins with a photo that lists each victim’s name, birth date, and place of death (when available). Is this the list from the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum that you discuss in your essay “Survived or Remained Alive?: An Imagined Interview with Babushka Vera”? What is the relationship between the image and the poem? How does the poem expand or challenge our notion of what an “archive” is, especially in the context of the Holocaust?
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach: You are precisely right. The image is from the “Shoah” exhibit in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. I took the photo while I was there on a three-week Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellowship—a full week of which I spent in Oświęcim, the town renamed Auschwitz by the Germans when they invaded and turned farmland into the concentration (Auschwitz I) and then the death camp (Auschwitz II-Birkenau).
To call this document/memorial/installation a book doesn’t quite do it justice. It is huge, standing as a giant wall that takes up an entire room of Block 27 where the exhibit occurs. It was almost as much a challenge to turn its heavy pages as it was to face what seemed like an endless list of names, each sheet far taller and wider than my own body, then six-months pregnant. Still, the ability to turn the pages myself and the heft of the entire document filled me with a new sense of hope that my great-grandfather, whose name I had failed to find in any online or physical archive up to that point, would actually be among those listed here. But he was not, and neither were my any of the other great-grandparents who died during the Holocaust in Ukraine.
Still, I had to take a photo of the page where his name would have been in order to show his daughter, my grandmother, some kind of evidence by way of its absence. Because this is what the Memorial and Museum claims to be, evidence of the atrocity. But relying on “archival truth” and “material evidence” is not enough to remember. The archive, as Derrida notes, while preserving some things to be remembered, leaves out others to be forgotten. So, in turning to the archive to provide my family with a tangible history, I only found my ancestors missing like the postmortem title given to them after the war—missing without a trace,Propavshie bez vesti. Their names missing or forgotten by the archive whose very purpose is to name and catalogue.
I think the photo stands in my poem as proof of this lack of evidence. Proof of the countless unnamed by the archival sources we consider to be keepers of history and professors of truth. Proof of the gaps with which such sources are rife—gaps I hope poetry can shed some light on, or at least, point readers to the impossibility of filling these gaps when it comes to this trauma, and so many other atrocities within human history.
APD: While much of your work engages with Jewish history thematically, I’m especially interested in how you approach Jewish poetics and form. The format of “Archive” forces us to “select” a reading direction and, for me, interrogates how Nazis weaponized selection. I also think of your poem “Camp means field,”which pairs a Charles Olsen-like “composition by field” with sites of Jewish mass murder and burial. Can you talk more about your work’s engagement with Jewish history and form?
JKD: Form and the rendering of trauma, and particularly the Holocaust, is constantly on my mind. In fact, it’s largely what I’m writing about in my dissertation. The first chapter looks at the work of poet Jehanne Dubrow and the way she uses traditional forms like the sonnet and villanelle to subvert our expectations about what “a Holocaust poem” can look and sound like—using form as a radical intervention into contemporary poetry.
I think to some extent, my use of etymology and excess in the forms of “Camp means field”and “Archive” is my own intervention. When it comes to traumatic history, we have the impulse to name and define as a way of coping, of trying to grasp at understanding. But I do believe that at the core of trauma is the incomprehensible, so I turn to the origins of words to help me understand what they have come to mean, only to know that this is a failed endeavor from the start. Because when it comes to trauma, language too fails. So, I guess for me, excess and etymology are my ways of trying to show the failures of language on the page.
In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes, “To witness the moment when pain causes a reversion to the pre language cries and groans is to witness the destruction of language; but conversely, to be present when a person moves up and out of that pre language and projects the facts of sentience into speech is almost to have been permitted to be present at the birth of language itself.” If it’s not too ambitious to say, in the form of these particular poems, I am trying to startle the rift between the destruction of language and its birth. I hope that when read, and especially when read aloud as poetry should be, this rift is felt. I want the affect of the poems to be one of discomfort and questions, rather than one of comfortable and easy answers, because of course, those don’t exist.
When I was in Poland, we visited a monastery near Auschwitz, Klasztor Franciszkanów, and the nun who had come to work there as a Holocaust educator told us that the biggest lesson she has learned over her decades of study is that his history leaves her with more questions than answers, leaves her feeling like she knows less the more she studies. This sentiment is one I hope my poems also convey, that even with deep exploration of language, acute attention to origins, and endless research, we too are only left with more questions.
APD:“Dear Birthplace,” published in Grist during the Ukraine Crisis, is a letter to Dnepropetrovsk. In it, you investigate the ethics of documenting what you haven’t directly endured or witnessed: “And in writing myself into your story, I know I am at fault—an artful imbedding, a weed trying to thrive in an estranged history.” This pursuit of ethics and creative survival is a theme in your work—I think of the previously-cited imagined interview with your great grandmother:
“Julia:Is it alright that I’m writing about you?
Vera: Well, I suppose so. I just do not understand why you would want to. And when it comes to poetry, I have no place in it at all.”
I also think of “The Question,”in which you imagine your mother criticizing your process: “Still, she captures them and calls it/art, calls it poetry, calls, without/hearing me say: I lived that thing you like to reimagine—” How do intergenerational attitudes toward witnessing and poetry as a medium impact your process?
JKD: I grew up with the Russian cultural perception of the poet-as-prophet, as one who has access to some cardinal truth, who is privileged and burdened with bringing this truth to her people. As early as I can remember, my parents would read and recite poetry from memory, so it was the way I understood not only seeing the world, but interacting with it and finding my own voice. But I think for my parents and grandparents, poetry was always a higher, unreachable art, one that did not include them despite their love of it. Poetry was a kind of object they could enjoy, learn from, even deeply feel for, but not one they could engage with or enter directly. This is both because I don’t think they ever considered their lives worthy of the page and because “the poet,” according to the mythology they grew up with, is someone with almost supernatural, beyond-human gifts.
They had a hard time understanding how I could write poems on a deadline or in response to a particular assignment during my MFA. My grandmother would ask, “Don’t you have to be inspired, visited by the muse to write.” And I would try to explain how poetry is my job, my life, how I need to write whether I’m inspired or not, how sometimes a prompt is where inspiration comes from, inspiration from the process of writing itself and not something outside of it. But the myth of the muse is strong, and not one I could break in one conversation, or the many that followed.
When I first started writing more concretely about our family, they were all a bit uncomfortable with me airing what felt like dirty laundry and choosing to write about subjects that they feel are not suited for poetry. My mom would tell me, “Can’t you just let your great-grandmother stay in her grave and write something lovely about the sea, the ocean, those are beautiful.” But I was more drawn to finding the beauty in that what may seem unattractive, more inspired by Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” describing the suffering of the Russian people under Stalin, than Esenin’s gorgeous lyric poems of love and flowers and the seasons.
Even though my insistence on dredging up the past was not always well received by the older generations, I think their discomfort with it only urged me on. Deep down, I hope that something I write about a past they might not want to remember or the past through my own intergenerational lens, might illuminate something new and necessary for them. Might help them face something they maybe haven’t come to terms with yet. This might sound idealistic, but I can’t help holding on to some belief in the prophetic power of poetry, not poet-as-prophet, but the words themselves as necessary glimpses into a kind of truth.
APD: In Call it English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature (2006), Hana Wirth-Nesher writes “Jewish writing has always been transnational and multilingual” (xii). In Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization(2009), MichaelRothberg argues for the inclusion of Jewish texts in comparative transnational, postcolonial discourses. Do you understand your own work—and Holocaust poetry in general—as part of a larger, transnational conversation? What other poets exploring the Holocaust inspire your poetry and research?
JKD: I certainly hope that my work is part of a larger, transnational, and postcolonial discourse. When it comes to Holocaust poetry in general, I think the kinds of poets I look to are also a part of this much broader comparative framework, while other poems abiding by a dangerous narrative of exceptionalism and false sentimentality are ones that I’ll leave to my last dissertation chapter to critique.
As for poets exploring the Holocaust, I am really excited to be on an AWP panel this year, Holocaust Poetics: Writing the Traumatized Past and Present,with Jehanne Dubrow, whom I’d mentioned, Luisa Muradyan, Jason Schneiderman, and Yerra Sugarman. In addition to reading our work, we will each be speaking about elements of craft that are at the core of our own Holocaust poetics. For example, Jehanne plans to speak about her use of traditional fixed-forms and I will address the use catalogue and etymology. I am particularly moved by the contemporary poets continuing to take on the challenge of writing this history and making it felt in the present political moment, where it grows more and more palpable.
One of the most inspiring contemporary poets for me is Ilya Kaminsky, who’s collection Dancing in Odessa, while not overtly about the Holocaust, is all about intergenerational trauma and atrocity against Jews in the former Soviet Union. sam sax, an incredible poet I’m lucky enough to call a friend, writes about past and present acts of violence against Jews and minorities with harrowing unabashedness, so much so that his poems stay under my skin and in my teeth for days on end. I could spend too long gushing about the work of poets I admire, so here is a list of just a few other poets writing today who overtly or tangentially address the Holocaust, and please forgive the many I’ve left out: Maya Pindyck, Hadara Bar-Nadav, Allison Benis White, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Anne Michaels, and Jacqueline Osherow.
I just want to conclude by saying that whenever I’m asked what my dissertation is about, and I say, Contemporary American Poetry about the Holocaust, the most common response I get is: “Really, that’s a thing? People are still writing about that?” And the answer is, YES. It’s still a thing. It needs to be a thing! It’s not something we can ever close the book on or feel resolved about because that’s when we are most at risk.
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach emigrated from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine as a Jewish refugee when she was six years old. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon and is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania where her research focuses on contemporary American poetry about the Holocaust. Julia is the author of THE MANY NAMES FOR MOTHER, winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry prize, forthcoming from Kent State University Press in the fall of 2019, and The Bear Who Ate the Stars (Split Lip Press, 2014). Her poems have recently appeared in or are forthcoming from POETRY, Best New Poets, American PoetryReview, TriQuarterly, and Nashville Review, among others. Julia is the Editor-in-Chief of Construction Magazine (www.constructionlitmag.com) and when not busy chasing her toddler around the playgrounds of Philadelphia, she writes a blog about motherhood (https://otherwomendonttellyou.wordpress.com/). Check out her website at www.juliakolchinskydasbach.com