WHERE AM I
A Conversation with Claire Schwartz
by Gabrielle Spear
I was introduced to Claire Schwartz in February through a mutual friend in Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a national organization committed to ending U.S. support of Israeli apartheid. What started as an email introduction and the possibility of an intimate reading together at our mutual friend’s home evolved into a JVP-sponsored poetry benefit for the imprisoned Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour’s legal fund. Tatour was charged by Israel for “inciting terrorism” through her poem “Resist, My People, Resist Them” posted on Facebook back in 2015. In a translated letter to the audience, Dareen wrote, “How painful it is to be imprisoned because of a poem. But despite all of this, I’ve continued to write and touched the true meaning of freedom.” Through grappling with her own identity as a queer Jewish woman in relation to Zionism and the Palestinian Nakba, Claire’s chapbook bound touches freedom as well.
In bound, Claire calls into question the stakes of language—who creates it, manipulates it, and ignores its repercussions. Even her explanation of her own poems reads like one itself; as she explains of her recent poem “Where I Eat,” featured in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, “Question: What is the circumference of a white woman’s wail? Answer: A nation.” Indeed, Claire’s poetry seeks to question white womanhood and its complicity and triumph in creating the settler-colonial state both in the U.S. and Israel. As someone working on a manuscript about similar topics, I am an eager student of Claire’s work and Twitter account, and I was lucky enough to chat with her this summer via email about her poetic practice and book.
Gabrielle Spear: My two favorite poems in bound are “Shards of Diffuse Light” and “When I Press My Spine to the Dirt & My One Fisted Heart to the Open Ear of Night, I Can Hear It Rising Starward” because of the way they so beautifully interrogate Zionism, as well as hold Palestine and the Nazi Holocaust in all their complexity. These two poems feel like such models for what Adrienne Rich calls “diving into the wreck.” When did you start questioning Zionism and how soon after did it begin to manifest in your writing practice? Did you always know this collection would revolve around that interrogation?
Claire Schwartz: A few years ago, on Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi spoke about how we celebrate the birth of the world. He said: “We don’t know exactly what we’re marking on this day,” and he gave a few examples of what might define the world’s genesis. One stuck with me: “Some believe that today is the anniversary of the first question. The first question being, Where am I?”
I am grateful to inherit a tradition that holds deep questioning at its core. Tending to my Jewish identity has always meant tending to my questions, but for many Jewish communities, Israel marks a limit of that questioning—the unspeakable trauma of the Nazi Holocaust collapsing into a kind of unspeakability about Israel’s right to exist. To say: there was no watershed moment when I began to question Zionism. There were only small ways that I started to sense that the practice of questioning that we apply to violence done to us does not apply as fully to the ways that we do violence. Sometimes, we leverage violence done to us as an alibi for the violence that we do.
What I didn’t understand until college—when I started to engage more seriously with entangled Black, Native, and Palestinian freedom movements—was how so much of what I called not only safety, but also beauty, was forged in the crucibles of white supremacy that are the United States and the State of Israel, settler colonial states envisioned by Europeans. What I didn’t understand was how mitigated forms of occupation are still occupation. I didn’t understand that the pretense of “two sides” not only erases questions of power between Israel and Palestine, but also elides the complex racialized schema by which Jews of color are also subordinated by the State of Israel and are often tasked with doing the most direct, violent maintenance work of occupation—even as Jews of color have also done some of the most imaginative and effective work of challenging the occupation. I didn’t understand how language about making Israel more civil, less spectacular in its harm, prolongs violence by casting it in a softer light, rendering it more thinkable for more people.
As an American, I am steeped in language that authorizes the occupation of Palestine. My violence—and my ignorance of and apathy to my violence—is structurally maintained. The work of understanding and undoing my complicity in the occupation and in white supremacy in its many forms is ongoing. What I can do is lift up the work of Palestinian and Palestinian American poets—Hala Alyan, Taha Muhammad Ali, Dareen Tatour, Mahmoud Darwish, Fady Joudah, George Abraham, Ghassan Zaqtan, Fadwa Tuqan, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha and so many others—who are already doing the most rigorous, nuanced, and gorgeous work about Palestine. What I can do is make work that tries to erode obstacles to the wide circulation and careful reading of their work. One of those obstacles is the way that the Nazi Holocaust is deployed across time and space as a horror-above-all-horrors, and that the State of Israel is taken for granted as an unquestionable safeguard of that legacy. Identity and flows of power are not fixed. The idea of Jews as always at risk is inflected by the magnitude of the Holocaust in Western memory. To be clear: I am not saying that the Holocaust was not a devastating atrocity with ongoing repercussions. I am asking: In what ways do what passes for honoring the victims and survivors of the Nazi Holocaust collude with white supremacy? What other atrocities does this obscure? Too often, contemporary invocation of the Nazi Holocaust re-centers whiteness because it refuses to look at the ways that it is precisely the whiteness of Ashkenazi Jews (as a cultural category; not that all Ashkenazi Jews are white) that underwrites this privileged position and allows our violence (and, let’s be real, white Christian violence done in our name) to persist so recklessly.
Poetry offers me an opportunity to denaturalize my own received language so that other ways of being come into view. Poems are part of my practice of reckoning with and divesting from my violence. In poems, I can begin to reconstitute my own I as a subject of relation. Each poem in bound tries to renew that original question, to ask better: Where am I?
GS: One of my favorite parts of writing poetry is the sense of self-discovery and self-awe that occurs when a poem is finished. Of all the poems in the collection, which poem felt the most revelatory when finished and, if you don't mind saying, why?
CS: If a poem doesn’t move in front of me, I don’t put it in the world. So, each of these poems taught me something. “Shards with Diffuse Light” showed me the central concerns of the collection in a way I had not been previously able to see.
To enter this poem, I need to first say a bit about the book’s title. The title came early. The collection is concerned with relation and contradiction, so I knew I needed a contranym—a word that contained its opposite and whose meaning depends entirely on relation. Bound is what you are headed for and what you are tied to, a redirection that never entirely sheds its past as it envisions different futures. It’s also a gorgeously uncertain word biblically. For example, I had in mind the Akedah (the Binding of Isaac), which tells that Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son at God’s direction; however, God intervened, and Isaac was spared. There is no clear moral lesson about where righteousness resides. Was Abraham right to obey God in preparing to sacrifice Isaac? Should he have refused to sacrifice his son? So, for me, the word bound is mired in not-knowing. It opens up all of these questions about how we come to know what we know, how we understand what is sacred, and how those designations shape relation.
Most importantly for “Shards with Diffuse Light”: Kabbalistic traditions tell us that when God set out to create the world, the first step was to withdraw the infinite so as to give form to the finite. (Is that a definition of poetry?) God bound the light from the previous worlds and placed them in vessels. The light was too intense, and the vessels shattered.
In “Shards with Diffuse Light,” I was thinking about what this original idea of compression and shattering might offer as a form. To take shattering as a formal constraint required me to relinquish an attachment to wholeness. That meant that I could no longer conceive of things in terms of an inside and outside—those constitutive metrics of nationalism. Fracture demands an alternative to retracing power’s borders. This poem opened new sightlines. It returned me differently to the central political concerns of the collection. “Shards” tasked me with holding together without collapsing into sameness: the occupation of Palestine, the Nazi Holocaust, the Yemenite Children Affair, my own romantic heartbreak (which is also political), my own political heartbreak (is that not, too, a romance?), the dull threat of nuclear war.
When origin stories are mapped onto nationalist frameworks, they can become borders—a way of marking (non)belonging. This is one logic behind the anthropological dig obsession in Israel. It is propaganda that narratively ties ancient Jewish presence to the contemporary occupation in order to naturalize the latter. Jewish stories are my stories. My living is of them. I cannot dispose of them—nor do I wish to. Tending ethically to these narratives means remaining ever alert to the ways that they are mobilized to do harm. What surfaced for me when I took “the beginning” from the shattered vessels as form (fractured and diffuse) rather than “the beginning” as a narrative (which foregrounds cohesion and consolidation) was how profoundly my own desire has been produced by white supremacist structures and traces of a way I might work toward an otherwise.
Something shook loose with that poem. The title came early. This poem came last. In that stretch I learned something about the shape of my obsessions.
GS: I stumbled upon Solmaz Sharif’s Tumblr about her incredible collection Look and now I want every poet to have a Tumblr filled with their collections’ foundations. You already mentioned some Palestinian poets that you hold close, but if you were to create a Tumblr for bound, what specific poems, essays, and other forms of art would be on it?
CS: I learn so much from Solmaz Sharif’s work. I love that she makes her archive available in that way. Some texts that form part of bound’s archive:
June Jordan’s Civil Wars, which tells me that civility is the enemy of love; Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, which investigates the relationship between power and the (de)formation of the historical record; Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK, which reminds me that forms of expression are social structures and that poetry can hold power to account; Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, which lays out the spatial logics and tactics of dominance; the legend of the Golem, which teaches me that language is creative and truth makes its own forms; selected Magnum photographs of Jewish settlers arriving in Israel in 1948, which recall that this has not always been, that the origins of brutality can look like hope; photographs of my grandparents to remind me that the work is long and I have precedent; Alexander Keith’s “The Land of Israel According to the Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob” (1843), which keeps in view the long European Christian vision of a settler colonial state; Israeli pioneer music (“ארץ, ארץ, ארץ”), which still wakes something in my body and reminds me how deep and ongoing my unlearning is; Instagram photographs and (other) promotional materials from Birthright trips, which remind me that violence is diffuse and multi-modal; Dareen Tatour’s “Resist My People, Resist Them,” which proves that a poem can make a nation tremble.
GS: You recently began contributing to Paris Review’s Poetry Rx column alongside Kaveh Akbar and Sarah Kay, where you all prescribe poems as a form of advice to readers. What chapbooks and collections do you most often recommend to people who are eager to read poetry but don’t know where to start or people who are convinced poetry just isn’t cool/accessible enough?
CS: I’m wary of unqualified frameworks of access because I think it can obscure all kinds of questions of power: Access to what? For whom? Is there a way that expanding access to what is can stand in for more substantive change and excuse us from doing deeper structural work? And being cool is definitely not a priority of mine (ha). (Also: I’m trying to condition myself out of “feeling too negative” when I refuse something … Anyway!) What I’ve loved about Poetry Rx is that people write to us with what they’re seeking and, in response, we offer a poem and a few words. It’s a kind of co-created text. So what I’d offer has everything to do with who is asking and for what. But there’s also something gorgeous about finding what you didn’t yet know you needed, and there’s definitely something to be said for not allowing my assumptions about you to shape my recommendations.
So let me try instead for some collections (in addition to work by poets I’ve already named) that, to transpose a phrase of Robert Hayden’s, have offered me “the beautiful, needful thing”: Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa, Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, Athena Farrokhzad’s White Blight (trans. Jennifer Hayashida), Evie Shockley’s semiautomatic, Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap, Cameron Awkward-Rich’s Sympathetic Little Monster, Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Rocket Fantastic, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s There Should Be Flowers, Aracelis Girmay’s the black maria, Paul Celan’s Breathturn into Timestead (trans. Pierre Jori), Marie Howe’s The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, Edmond Jabès’s The book of questions, Heather Christle’s Heliopause, Bob Kaufman’s The Ancient Rain, Kai Cheng Thom’s A Place Called No Homeland, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, Zeina Hashem Beck’s There Was and How Much There Was; Rickey Laurentiis’s Boy with Thorn; Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World, Sonia Sanchez’s Does Your House Have Lions?, Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Annie Allen. If Ross Gay poems were seeds, I would plant them everywhere. Thank goodness they are.
GS: I’m going to borrow a question from Sibling Rivalry Press’s manuscript application and ask: if you were to have a single line from bound tattooed on your body, what line would you choose?
CS: I don’t understand my religious practice to permit tattoos (though I think they’re often beautiful), but I like the way the question sharpens something for me about encounter and permanence, and reminds me how different parts of my body live differently in the world. What I’d choose for my inner thigh would not be what I’d choose for my back would not be what I’d choose for my wrist.
I don’t want this line on my body, but I do want my body responsive to this line: What is a country / without an other?
GS: Besides poetry, what protects your hope?
CS: Friendship, abolitionists, the small and unrushable labor of peeling a pomegranate. Libraries. The total presence of people doing what they love. Mornings, sunflowers, the little ways people check on each other, a tight hug, a soft blanket, the jolt of torqued syntax, the smell of coffee, kindness, refusal, that particular light of someone feeling themselves in their body. Those good, good teachers who make space for wild becoming by taking seriously what is. Uncivility. Complexity. Tenderness, which reminds me that conquest is not the only route to survival.
Gabrielle Spear has been named a Goucher College Kratz Summer Writing Fellow, a finalist in LUMINA's 2017 Borders and Boundaries Nonfiction Contest judged by Leslie Jamison, and a Brooklyn Poets Fellow. She is currently working on a poetry manuscript about tourism, memorialization, and Catholicism in relation to her studies in Rwanda and Palestine. You can find her tweeting about her disdain for Zionist hummus @gabsters93.