Natania Rosenfeld and I met in March 2015 at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, where both of us were resident artists. We quickly sensed a deep affinity and began a series of conversations about literature, art, history, and family that has continued unabated since then. In the summer of 2016 we started the conversations that resulted in this written interview. We talked in the Catskills, over the phone, and in New York City, finishing up after the election but before the inauguration. The original idea was to discuss her book of poems, Wild Domestic (Sheep Meadow Press, 2015), but since we were conversing over a period of time, it seemed to make sense to include discussion about other genres and more recent production as well.
Natania Rosenfeld’s work reflects the variety and depth of her intellectual, artistic, and personal experience as an essayist, poet, and novelist. The only child of academics who taught German language and literature and translated several books from German, Natania grew up in the rarified environment of Oberlin College, where her father was a professor. Her mother had an academic position at a nearby university.
Sheltered as she was by both environment and parents (we onlies often are), she also absorbed the history that hung over her family: her mother is a non-Jewish Lithuanian who spent the war years fleeing first the Germans, then the Russians, and emigrated to Chicago after four years in a Displaced Persons camp, her father a Philadelphia-born first-generation immigrant whose distant relatives were likely killed by Nazi Einsatzgruppen. That knowledge makes her aware of the threats that hang over all of us—at this moment especially. Educated at Bryn Mawr and Princeton, Rosenfeld has spent the last nineteen years in the Midwest, in the English Department of Knox College, where her husband is also on faculty and teaches Theater. They divide their time between Galesburg and Chicago, Illinois. Natania Rosenfeld has published a considerable number of essays, hence my very first question:
Ruth Danon: So, Natania, you write essays and you write poems. What is their relationship to each other, and what is your relationship to them?
Natania Rosenfeld: I write essays in order to figure things out, and increasingly, I do the same in poems. I used to feel a poem had to be a completed thought or revelation. Years ago—over twenty years ago—when I worked as Associate Editor for APR, I showed two of the editors, who were also poets, my poems. Of the more lyric, imagistic ones, they said, “More substance, but good.” Of several others they said, “Oh, you write discursive poetry.” They made “discursive” sound a bit like ca-ca, and I felt dumb. In fact, I was too young to be discoursing in poetry, I see that now. But they gave me a scare, and I stuck pretty strictly to the lyric-imagistic and became a better poet in that voice. Now I’m middle-aged and think I have enough valid observations about the world to become “discursive” again. I’ve been writing personal essays, about art, the psyche, the body, and relationships, for over a dozen years; it’s the form that began to come most easily to me. Now I’ve realized I can transfer some of that thought-energy to poems. I can be lyrical and pithy but also conversational, thinking out loud.
RD: So let me push forward a little. Are you able to do things in poems you can’t do in essays and vice versa?
NR: Odd juxtapositions are easier in poems. In essays one has to narrate or explain the train of thought from one thing to something else—a very different proposition. Doing that has its own pleasures but sometimes I’d like to skip it all and just make the reader think about possible connections.
RD: That’s a great segue to my next question. I would like to ask about the oxymoronic title of your book—Wild Domestic. Since there is no comma between the two words in the title the suggestion is that “wild” modifies “domestic.” How do you want us to read the title? The suggestion seems to be that within the domestic, wildness occurs. In the last section of the book, which has the same title, lots of animals appear, occupying spaces within the domestic world. How do you see all that?
NR: I think I was trying to capture a certain element of familial and marital life—how disconcerting it can be to live with someone else—the way that the people we live with and love, within the framework of great intimacy, are completely incomprehensible to us—different creatures, almost different species.
RD: So I guess you are saying that in some way whenever we live with others we are living with pets!
NR: Yes, I guess so. We live with pets, and we are the pets. We need the stroking, the correcting, the domestication, all that. It makes me think that most of these poems were written over a long period of time—through the course of my marriage—now twenty-seven years. When I was first married, I found myself kicking and screaming against domestication. But when the book came out—and most of it isn’t about marriage—I did a reading at Knox—and at one point I surprised myself saying, “monogamy has been a great adventure.” I think these poems explore what it means to live with other people. We rebel against the confines of domestic life, but we need that life and wouldn’t be happy without it. It’s what Freud says, civilization clips our wings but we wouldn’t be able to realize ourselves if we weren’t civilized. I guess, for me, animals are, in some ways, more congenial than humans—they are always interesting to watch, they don’t talk back, and we can project onto them endlessly without hurting their feelings.
RD: So would you say that you are almost more comfortable with animals?
NR: My stance may have something to do with having been an only child and not having learned to “play nicely” with others. In some ways, it seems, I prefer the other to be really Other.
RD: This does, I think, lead us to another theme or “other” in your work that seems as paradoxical as your relationship to the domestic—and that is history as a kind of confinement. You seem in this work both to embrace history and attempt to escape it. In one beautiful poem you write, “the leaves of memory fall open,” suggesting that the past simply presents itself, both as leaves of a book and as what’s left over from the past that can’t be escaped. The speaker has ambivalence about that, not unlike the ambivalence about domesticity. In these poems speakers both long for the past and try to break away from it.
NR: Some of the poems are statements about history—in “For Omm Sety” the English woman, Dorothy Eady, “recalls” being the mistress of a pharaoh. This is a way of imagining having a completely different relationship with history. Eady was able to lead archeologists to amazing finds in Egypt. I’m fascinated that she could have had a totally different history than the one she was born into. Just once, as in my poem “Fantasia,” I would like to imagine not being a Jew, not being burdened by my parents’ history, or my own. I try to imagine what it would be to have a neutral relationship to history.
RD: Do you think it’s possible to get away from one’s own history?
NR: No, I don’t, but there may be a way that this belief ties in to my feelings about domesticity. My husband is an Englishman who seems to have a comfortable place in the world. His family has lived in England, securely working or middle class, for generations. He doesn’t need to feel guilty about empire and he bears no class resentment—there is something steadying for me about knowing that there are people for whom history is not fraught, not personal. It provides a counterweight.
RD: Is there a longing for that?
NR: Yes, I think so. I think so. But then history is fraught for everyone, because everyone comes from a family.
RD: Well, there are two kinds of history—personal history and the history of the world—the history of the culture and of the race.
NR: History never goes away. In the book I try to work my way through my anxiety about the twists and turns of my parents’ history and about my place in the world in relation to theirs.
RD: This brings up another of my questions that starts with one of your parents. In the early part of the book you write about the mother’s hunger and of hunger for the mother. What, for you, is the relationship between different kinds of hunger and different kinds of satiation?
NR: That’s such an interesting question. My editor wanted me to title the book Mother Hunger but I wasn’t happy with that. I thought it would focus the book in only one direction and I think the book is about more than that. But it is true that in the poems my mother is hungry and I hunger for the mother. The mother, in her hunger, is distracted, and that leads the child to hunger for the mother. That desire is related to what I talked about before—the desire to understand another person’s elusive psyche. And the process goes on, probably ad infinitum, given that mothers will always hunger for something besides the child.
I think the book reflects a kind of restlessness. One hunger is satisfied but it leads to another.
RD: So if the hunger is insatiable how does one hunger lead to another as the book unfolds?
NR: Perhaps the whole book is shaped not so much by hunger as by a sense of lack. For instance the poem that takes place in the Lake District is about not having children, in which I address an experience that I will never have.
RD: At one point you write, “lack becomes plenty.” How does that happen?
NR: I think of the line “The spider is my mother” from the poem dedicated to Louise Bourgeois and James Joyce. I think the plenty comes through art making. The spider spins a web out of its own belly. So when I make art I make what feeds me, from my own experience. In this way “lack becomes plenty.”
RD: You make for yourself the plenty that you need and besides providing at least temporary satiation this gives you a way of exploring unexplored parts of yourself—so, I’m wondering if this has something to do with the fact that in quite a few poems in Wild Domestic you create personae. What draws you to that?
NR: I had imaginary friends as a child, as do many children, especially children without siblings. My best friend was Gaga, but another character who showed up every so often, a kind of wizard in a purple cloak was—get this— “Reason.” Really, I had an imaginary friend, more of an avuncular figure, called Reason, while my alter ego was Gaga. In Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf writes, “Wherever I seat myself, I die in exile.” She’s referring to the stream-of-consciousness narrator, who, to inhabit one figure, must abandon another. We have so many personalities, yet we are condemned to singularity, when it would be, as I said earlier when I talked about history, so refreshing to inhabit other people from time to time. In “What I Want for My Birthday,” one of the wishes is “one season in someone else’s mouth.” A dream of joining, but also of escape! One must escape from self, or feel entrapped. It’s why I teach literature and am a voracious reader. I need to live in others’ heads because my own is too clamorous and too predictable.
RD: Now I want to bring up a technical matter that may be related to what you’ve been talking about. I notice that in your work you use a great many similes. Do you have any thoughts about that, or a theory of simile that might apply to your work?
NR: Well, I hadn’t noticed that consciously, but it’s true that I use similes a lot. I think they allow me to populate my mind—often preoccupied with the matters we’ve been talking about—hunger, longing, lack, outsiderness—with linkages. X is like Y, and there is something comforting in that connection.
RD: And there are always two.
NR: Yes, there are two, but they are linked, side-by-side. When I wrote my dissertation on Virginia and Leonard Woolf, I was very much interested in Winnicott and his notion that the best way to be alone and most alive is to be in the presence of another who is not interfering or intruding but just there, a reliable presence who is not clamoring for attention.
RD: Kind of like the pets we were talking about earlier. It brings us right back to the ideas we were talking about earlier, back to the elusive mystery of the other.
RD: So that brings me to something you said about the relationship between poetry and essay. I’m wondering how you see the relationship between the lyric and the discursive elements in your work at this point and where you see yourself going next.
NR: Well, I do want to keep writing essays that include elements of the lyric, but I have a slight chariness about the idea of the “lyric essay.” I worry that the lyric essay all too often ends up being disjointed and fragmentary, a kind of flying-by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants quality. I think the essay should be a marriage between thinking aloud in the self-pondering way of Montaigne and a genuine attention to sound, rhythm, melody, the shape of a sentence, and yes, simile and metaphor. I’m apprehensive that the lyric essay all too often ends up being a kind of mish-mash.
RD: You want to preserve the intellectual rigor of the essay form.
NR: Yes, I do. I do.
RD: What about the relationship of essays to the newer poems?
NR: At one point last summer I sat down to write. I was already writing these diary poems about the events in the news and in shows and movies, and I was thinking about a student of mine who was not binary gendered and I started to write in couplets. But then I started thinking about the ideas that were coming to me as I wrote about them, and I rewrote the poem in an essay form because I thought I could expand my ideas more fully that way. But I think that by first writing in couplets I gave the essay a rhythm and musicality that it wouldn’t have had otherwise.
RD: I’ve read some of the newer poems and there’s a kind of rolling vernacular that pulls them along in very alive way, as if the speaker is simply gathering up the details of life as lived and as mediated through television and other forms and putting them into long couplets that contrast interesting and effectively with the vernacular energy. Is that another embodiment of the “wild domestic?”
NR: The couplet is domestic, a kind of marriage or clinching of two things . . .
RD: As, by the way, are similes.
NR: . . . and yet I want these couplets to be filled with the sense of disturbance. We live in a world that is continually scaring, frightening, horrifying us, and at the same time you and I and people like us are living comfortable middle-class lives. So how do we find a form that allows us to acknowledge the latter while grappling as intelligently as we can with the former?
RD: It strikes me that you’re describing a point of arrival that’s not unlike what you spoke about earlier when you described your sense of your British husband’s place in the world, a comfortable, secure middle-class life. How do we have that while being attentive to what’s outside of us?
NR: Well the truth is that we’re more able to be attentive about these things precisely because we’re not, personally, suffering the suffering of the suffering. That allows us a kind of openness and generosity and at the same time it can be said we’re quite clueless. What do I know about what it feels like to live three miles from me in Chicago where you can get shot strolling a baby down the street? I sit here on my green couch looking at my beautiful red chair and contemplating the leaves outside the window in a kind of luxury that many people don’t have. I am sheltered and I am lucky. And yet paradoxically it’s a luxury that allows me to say the words that those who are so vulnerable don’t have the luxury to say.
RD: This speaks to the responsibility of the writer to speak for those who can’t. It’s one of the points that Nick Hornby makes when he objects to writers writing about writers and intellectuals. The job of the writer is to give voice to those who can’t speak for themselves.
I was wondering if in these new poems, you have landed at place of comfort, arrived at a point where you’ve achieved the “vast clarity like a tent” that you name in one of your poems?
NR: I’m not entirely sure I want that “vast clarity” because it would cover up all the messiness that we need to pay attention to.
RD: So we must live in an endless state of desire?
NR: I think so.
Ruth Danon is the author of the poetry collections Limitless Tiny Boat, Triangulation from a Known Point, Living with the Fireman, and a book of literary criticism, Work in the English Novel Review. Her work appears in the recently published anthology, Resist Much, Obey Little and is forthcoming in The Florida Review. Her poetry was selected by Robert Creeley for Best American Poetry 2002, and her poetry and prose have appeared in NOON: The Journal of the Small Poem, Versal, Mead, BOMB, the Paris Review, Fence, the Boston Review, 3rd Bed, Crayon, and many other publications in the US and abroad. She teaches and directs creative and expository writing in the School of Professional Studies of New York University.
Read Natania Rosenfeld’s interview of Ruth Danon.