PoetryPoet Sylvia Paskin interviewed by Gil Dekel.

Gil Dekel: How do words come to you? [1]

Sylvia Paskin: Often they come as a burst of emotion. Sometimes I hear or read something, or something happens to me. And around this set of feelings you find yourself writing about it. That’s how the poem begins to form. I usually write long-hand, I don’t write directly to the computer. I make notes. One day it can be two sentences, on another two lines, or one word. Over time it begins to make a kind of a shape or a form. If you let it be it grows, and you find yourself having a poem. Sometimes you read what you have produced and you think, ‘How did all this come?’ You don’t even know what was inside; you can’t understand how it got from a lot of different feelings, different emotions, to a finished poem. [2]

With any poem, even if you think you finished it, you have to let it go. Let it be and come back to it in a few weeks’ time. This is why people often take their poems to workshops, where other people can comment. Of course, you also have to trust yourself. [3]

I think a thesaurus is very useful, particularly in English because it has such a big vocabulary. Sometimes there is a word that is just similar but it has a little nuance, an edge or something, and you try that word and often it works. Sometimes the word just comes to you, and it is just ‘the’ word. [4]

Do you ever read back your poems after a while, and learn that there is something there that has come to tell you something? [5]

I think that’s true; it has happened to me. I tend to write poems based on my life and responses. I am not somebody who writes poems about the contemporary political situation. When you write about things that are more directly associated with your life, then the poem helps you to understand things about your life. The poem speaks from a place that you might not have such an easy access to. Only when you concentrate and focus, there is a distillation, an essence is coming through. You look and think to yourself, ‘That is how I actually feel!’ This can be very powerful. [6]

What you write is very specific to you, but on the other hand, why do people enjoy reading poetry? They want to read a poem because it speaks to them. The greatest poems are those that relate to more people. Why do people respond to Shakespeare? Because what he says is a universal truth: dilemmas and dramas do not change, they go on. [7]

A good poet then has the talent to distil a kind of a DNA of universal emotion? [8]

Yes, but a poem can’t just be emotional. If it were just emotional there would be no boundaries to it; you would just have syrup…

So I think emotion has to be filtered in a way that it has structure and clarity. This is very important. Poems are about emotion, yet a good poem has a kind of an ‘arc’ to it. As you read the poem it takes you on a journey. Rising up the arc, going through the poem, and then down to its end. When you come to the end of the poem you know you have travelled through this wonderful arc of grace. Like any journey you make there has to be preparation, and then you can produce the poem. [9]

And how do you feel the poet creates such arc? How are the poet’s emotions ‘converted’ to linguistic structure? [10]

Depends what a word is; how you define it. Certain words have emotions around them. If you take the word ‘love’, nobody can understand that word without having a lot of responses. Such a word carries with it feelings. But you can write about a table, which may not have a feeling in itself but has a meaning to you. Your emotions about the table must work together with the words that you generate in the poem. [11]

Is there a non-linguistic phase; an emotional level that exists before words come? [12]

Joseph Brodsky, in his Nobel Prize in Literature speech, said: ‘It is not poets who create language; it is language which creates poets.’ [13]

I think we start with emotion, and there is a process where you have to leave emotions, put them aside, and deal with the language that needs to be adequate to what you want to say. You have to be very tough with yourself, because it isn’t enough just to write what you feel. A level of understanding has to come in. The right syllable, the right word order, the right rhythm, meter. A poem is on the page, it has to have a look – a sonnet, a sestina, free-verse, couplets, four lines. These are tremendous decisions to make. And then you need somehow to bring in the emotions, the feelings, the experiences. [14]

It is like a sculpture. [15]

Yes, it is architectural. In some cultures the amount of syllables you use is laid down differently, for example, the Japanese Haiku. You can have as much emotion as there is in the world, but you can only have seventeen syllables. On one hand, that might be very difficult for a poet. On the other hand, some poets will tell you that when you do have a very strict form it makes it easier because there is so much you push away and so you get to find the point. [16]

The Sufi poet Rumi wrote short verse. You get a feeling that he followed a process of refinement to get to what he wanted to say. When the Arabs were in Spain I think they used to write what we call Hanging Poems. These were poems embroidered in silk and hung in the streets. Can you imagine this beautiful scene where you walk down the street through hung poems that would wave at you. You would walk through poems, and the wind would play with them. [17]

Do you sometimes feel your poems reveal too much personal stuff you would prefer not to see? [18]

Yes, I’ll tell you about my parents. My parents were Holocaust survivors, and a few years ago I started to write one poem about it that became quite violent. I thought to myself, ‘Can I write this poem? Can I actually say what I want to say?’ Because what I wanted to say was shocking. On the one hand the emotion in the poem is private. On the other hand it is something that anyone can read and understand. And I was moving between these two. [19]

This poem is connected to taste. My mother is from Vienna, and would make wonderful cakes. My mother could bake like an angel. I remember as a child, growing up in Britain, that on Sundays other refugees would come to us for coffee and cake. As my mother was baking, she used to show me what all these cakes were; so one line came to me in the poem: ‘with the pastries came the stories.’ [20]

As she would bake she would tell me these stories of what happened to her. So, Gil, we are making these fantastic cakes of celebration, and at the same time these are stories of Vienna and the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Germany, and what happened to my grandparents. Then I am expected to eat the cakes. [21]

The poem is about what happens to me as I am eating. My mother, as many other Holocausts survivors do, would give me those cakes, and would say: “You will not starve”. Meaning, of course, you will not starve like those who did starve. And whenever she would say that to me, I would feel I can’t eat anymore. I cannot digest; I cannot take into myself anymore of this horror. This is a difficult poem. It’s about the celebration of life in a way, and at the same time it is about terror. Emotions, feelings, experiences, and trying to make sense as a second generation child. What is this chocolate of death? Your tongue, your mouth, your teeth. I began to imagine that my teeth were tombs. Cooking, baking, lovely Vienna, and on the other hand… this horror… [22]

Can poetry heal? [23]

Yes, it can. What can you do with difficult emotions? You can distract them inside you. Or you can become an alchemist, taking lead and turning it to gold. Of course, it has to stand in its own right; you cannot just splurge on the page. The poem has to be considered and worked out to make sense. But it is valuable to cope with difficult emotions, and poetry does that. [24]

Sometimes people have emotions which they say they cannot express in words. Do you feel that words are a limited tool of expression? [25]

What else could I use? Poetry is about the beauty of the words, how you put them together. Maybe other poets can also paint, or play music. You have to trust yourself that what you write has inner integrity – this is the only way a poem can work. If you mess about it trying to be clever the poem will show this. I think the poems that work best have integrity, just like a person. [26]

How much the poet has to be in his poem? [27]

I think everyone that writes, signs their name at the end of the poem, telling you that this is their original response and feelings. There is a lot self-identification in poetry, and it is important for people to say that this is their work. In the same way that in the Renaissance artists begun to sign their paintings. In the eleventh century people did not do that. It is always the author of the poem who speaks. Even if you write about a forest, it is you who speaks from your poem. The forest is not coming your way; it is you who uses the poem to explore responses. [28]

There is a lot of soul-baring and exposure in poetry. With a poem it is very easy with just a few lines to reveal yourself, unlike a book which is made of thousands of lines. A poem is quite immediate, and it feels powerful for the writer. Very rarely do people write poems together. [29]

Sometimes people would tell you, ‘You take it too personally’. And I think to myself, how else can I take it, I am a person. [30]

21 June 2008
Interview held in London, UK, August 2006