10 Questions for Henry Israeli
- By Abby MacGregor
He asks me to buy him a drink,
his face a mirror whose patina has erased
its reflection, features falling away like rust.
I offer him my own, a drink whose name
I cannot remember but means dirt path
in one of the dead languages I’ve studied.
—from “The Day I Met the Hanged Man,” Winter 2017 (Vol. 58, Issue 4)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first piece I wrote was as a senior in high school. It was about addiction, a subject I knew nothing about, but the high I got from writing it is a feeling I will never forget. I’m still chasing the dragon.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
This is such a common question that I should be able to answer easily. I read widely and admire so many poets, past and present, young and old, from every school of writing, and I’m sure that some of them have seeped into my poetic DNA. I just wish someone would tell me who so that I could tell you.
What did you want to be when you were young?
A doctor, a father, and an uncle. I achieved two out of three.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I wrote a poetry collection, still unpublished, in which my father appears and reappears in various incarnations throughout. My father, who passed away twenty years ago, is a mythical creature in my life, a man of many contradictions and complexities who survived the unspeakable atrocity of the Holocaust. Here he is the hanged man, the man who again has survived the impossible, who comes back to relay a message, and I am left at the end of the poem pondering my own destiny as I continue to live in his enormous shadow. In the world of tarot cards, the hanged man represents a period of indecision, a transient phase, or the need to reimagine one’s place in the world. I think that also fits well with the poem’s theme.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Not really, but as an immigrant I see my adopted home from the perspective of the Other. Now, more than ever, in this new golden age of greed, lies, and corruption, I feel displaced, like a refugee in a foreign land, and this dissociation with my environment definitely feeds into my writing.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I need silence when I write and when I edit. I have ADD so any distractions break my concentration. The only sound that helps is the white noise of many people talking, the kind of background noise you find in coffee shops.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I typically start by reading random poems from any of the hundreds of books on my bookshelves. Eventually my mind will snag on a word or two and then I start thinking about it, letting that part of my brain that is not controlled by ego take over. I then start writing in a kind of semi-trance, trying to avoid resistance from my conscious mind. Later I edit and edit and edit . . .
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I do, naturally.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’d probably be a musician. I’d like the instant gratification of synchronicity with other musicians, the pleasure of knowing if something works based on an audience’s reaction, and the bliss of achieving something profound, enigmatic, and nonverbal.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on a collection tentatively titled Night of the Murdered Poets. It’s a reflection on growing up in the ‘70s that harkens back to Stalin’s purges. That probably makes little sense, but the connections are there.
HENRY ISRAELI’S poetry collections are god’s breath hovering across the waters, Praying to the Black Cat, and New Messiahs. He is the translator of three books by Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku. Israeli is also the founder and editor of Saturnalia Books. He is associate professor of English and director of the Drexel Writing Festival at Drexel University in Philadelphia.