Marcela Sulak is a conjurer of dazzling words and images. In her work, seasons swirl, thoughts cascade, and memories morph through the here and now. An accomplished poet, literary translator, podcast host and lecturer, Sulak has written three full length poetry collections and one chapbook; a lyric memoir; and has also translated several books from Hebrew, Czech, and French. In “Shekhinah,” the first poem in her latest collection, City of Skypapers, she writes, “I am alive today” —and the rest of the book is testimony to the vibrant world Sulak inhabits, to the microscopic vicissitudes that are both particular to her and yet familiar to readers, wherever they live. She lives “in a place where the flowers are old enough to have stories,” and it is these stories, often hidden under the surface, that she shares with us: freshly picked almonds and olivesbecome silk between the fingers; and radio waves “rest as lightly on our heads as air stirred / by a hand moving from a blessing.”
Sulak is Associate Professor at the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University in Israel, where I studied with her some years ago. The Millions talked to her about rivers, runners, and the narrative paths we take.
The Millions: City of Skypapers was written over a three-year period. What was the process you went through?
Marcela Sulak: I had been through an initially demanding period as director of a graduate program and had just completed Decency, an earlier collection of poetry that considers etiquette and ethnicity. It was time, I felt, to take care of myself a bit more. I went running every day and began gardening a lot. I recorded in great detail everything around me. Traditionally, in literature, roads and rivers serve to pull together diverse populations as they move along with the currents. The Yarkon river, close to where I was living at the time, did just that. On my runs, I encountered the same people each day: an 80-year-old man who lifted weights and moved slowly; an ultra-religious woman who was a runner, like me, and had a beautiful voice. I watched the birds that appeared every day and I noticed the dailiness of the river. I kept doing this when I rode the bus to work, observing the people around me. So really, it’s about living in a place that has a dailiness about it.
I didn’t realize this until I went to the VCCA writing residency, where I exchanged manuscripts with poet Erica Meitner, who was then working on Holy Moly Carry Me. You have two books here, she said. Mouth Full of Seeds, (which became my translation memoir) and another book about movement, botanica, people. A daily book. I guess it’s fitting that I didn’t know this because you don’t always realize what you’re doing every day.
TM: In fact, there’s a definite cyclical feel to this book.
MS: It’s a book about being in the moment, experiencing the calendar, the Jewish holidays, the daily movement in which every day is slightly different from the next one and suddenly they propel you into something new but then again not really new. It’s cyclical, so you’re always coming back.
TM: I read the book from the beginning, straight through. I like the river theme because the book pulls you along like a river. There’s incredible movement to different places and different thoughts and all the cycles you’re experiencing. Structurally, how does the book flow through the three sections you delineated?
MS: I almost wanted to keep the whole thing as one section. But the poems are dense, so I broke it up to give it some space. The first part begins with the same prompt – “To get here today I had to” – and those poems are arranged seasonally, an intersection between sacred and secular, an interpenetration of sacred and secular time. The second section is a combination of gardening time, botanical time, and because it deals with land it also deals with conflict based on the land. It deals with the people who have fought here. There have been several flare-ups with Gaza, and so that’s constantly on one’s mind and therefore part of it is war. You can mourn the loss of human life, you can wish that it didn’t exist, you can care deeply about the people, but it’s still war. Gardening is like narrating the land. You literally create the roads and borders and boundaries. Or maybe it’s just the people and the land, how we recreate the land in our own image, how we plant and how we sow.
The third section deals with practicalities, the stuff that makes a city work, you know? Garbage collection, people’s habits of putting out clothing on the street, of letting things go, a global look at where I am though recycling, garbage and waste management. There’s the gardening section in which you create food and resources and then the final section, in which you’re consuming and disposing. This is the heart of the book.
TM: Ultimately, these are more than just interesting entries in a diary; these are poems well-crafted and finely shaped.
MS: I wrote in the form of diary entries, or just plain observations. When I went running, I would come back and write down everything I thought while I was running, everything I saw. I shaped each thought by imposing an external frame upon it. I would turn the poem into syllabics, or an ottava rima, a sonnet sequence, or heroic couplets. I think this is what enabled me to arrange or discard, to shape the stream of consciousness.
TM: This book swings between physical movement (running, biking, busing) and absolute stillness. I’m wondering, is this stillness a microscopic observation of the world, in which everything is the same but a little different? I’m thinking specifically about the poem that opens the third section, “When I Sit and When I Stand” in which you write:
Otherwise, I am perfectly
still inside my breath, which I send out
into the world, which always comes back to me.
MS: I think you’re right. The whole book is a balance between a still center and movement, which is really how everything works. You can’t register movement without stillness, you can’t register stillness without movement; they depend on each other. Think of the still space inside a turning wheel. I think this is also some of the movement you get when you’re looking at the intersection of sacred and secular time. The universal is always there, the beingness of the Jewish calendar and the infinite change, the constant fluctuation of human life, and the imperfect.
This poem you just quoted is interesting because it mimics the Jewish prayer, the Shema, something you say every single morning. It changes every time I read it, but perhaps it’s the stillness, the constancy reflected at the base of all movement.
TM: City of Skypapers is, in fact, teeming with contradictions. What particularly interested me is the rootedness into the land, into holidays, but also this sense throughout of un-rootedness in plants and people, particularly your own sense as a person who’s lived in so many different countries, your own sense of rooting yourself and the nuanced undertones that, ironically, you’re not rooted at all.
MS: On a personal level, I never felt exactly at home wherever I was. My whole childhood was spent around my grandparents who spoke Czech at home and who were always talking about the country they’d left. Texas, on the one hand, I know intensely. I learned Spanish, my dad is a farmer, I’ve lived in Mexico, I know the culture, I can dance every one of the dances from cumbia to polka. I know it intimately, and I love many things about it and yet in many ways I hate it with the hate you have when it’s not exactly the fit. So it’s deep intimacy, deep love, and deep hate. I don’t really know if there is any place on earth at this time where someone feels utterly at home. Wherever I am, I really need to dig in, to become part of it. No place is perfect, but there are places that match you better than other places. And so I think the issues that I had been thinking through with these poems, specifically with the gardening metaphor, is how much you can change something to fit your own image. This is what agriculture is, this is what gardening is, you’re changing the land to give you what you need, and part of it is dealing with what’s there, the climate, the seasons, what can grow.
TM: To continue this metaphor, there is a sense that you’re constantly digging in with your linguistic shovel, uncovering magic in what might otherwise be monotony. You’re an accomplished translator from several languages, and I’m wondering how your experience as such has impacted your writing. In my own writing, I’ve found that the deep reading required in translation has a definite influence.
MS: I’ve been translating almost all my life. I don’t remember what writing was like without it, perhaps it was something I did by myself as an individual soul, an individual mind. When I write as a translator I’m constantly aware of the multiple layers of language, the multiple layers of experience, the way which the world itself is layered, especially in Israel, where underneath a path is an ancient ruin, or underneath a ruin is another ruin. One of the poems in the third section is about a Granta event on translated poetry I was involved in. Somebody said that underneath a house is always another house, and that’s what it feels like with translation and writing. Everything is multiplied.
TM: In that same poem you write about Yehouda Shenhav, a translator who savors the delicate similarities between the foundations of Arabic and Hebrew, and berates the fact that contemporary Hebrew is less nuanced, as in the word “rain”:
…called geshem in modern Hebrew
instead of matar, as in the Hebrew Bible and
the Arabic his tongue first curved into.
MS: I’m always looking at how words are constructed. In Hebrew, I look at the stanza, the bayit, which also means house, and the words become rooms in a house so, especially in Hebrew and Arabic, you’re getting these very basic building blocks. Maybe what lies at the base of this book is how speaking and building are a similar activity.
TM: I love the title and am wondering where it came from.
MS: City of Skypapers is what my daughter called the skyscraper district where I was going to sign some papers and so she transposed the skyscrapers for skypapers.
TM: That sounds like a whole new story opening out.
MS: We are always mediating the world through narratives, through stories. When you listen to other narrations and other stories that are not yours but deal with the same place you’re writing about, when you listen to all the different languages that this land has, it affects the way you navigate through the world. We always bring a story with us, wherever we go.