Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Karen Alkalay-Gut

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews 

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Hanging Around The House

Karen Alkalay-Gut

has retired from teaching poetry at Tel Aviv University but not from poetry itself. She writes about poetry in numerous forms, cultures and historical contexts, and has written a biography of Adelaide Crapsey.  Her current project is entitled “Here Lie: Poets and Their Graves.”  The third disk of “Panic Ensemble” with her lyrics will be released in 2019 in Berlin.  She’s lost track of the number of books published in English, Hebrew Spanish and Italian translation.  Her latest publications include the Hebrew, “Ways to Love,” in 2017, “Yerusha” in Yiddish and Hebrew, and Hanging Around the House, 2018.
Alkalay-Gut was born in London, England, near the end of World War II.  She moved with her family to Rochester, New York, in 1948, and completed her Phd at the University of Rochester.  In 1972 she moved to Israel and has been living there since.  She is married to Ezra Gut and has children, step-children, grandchildren, and sometimes a pet or two.
Much more information can be found on her website: http://www.karenalkalay-gut.com.

The Interview 

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

The need to figure myself out.  In fifth grade I started writing because a tired teacher told the class to spend the next hour expressing ourselves in words.  I stayed after class and wound up taking the adventure story – that was suddenly filling up my mind – home for the night to finish.  From that moment on I loved writing stories. I wrote plays for the class to perform.  As long as someone asked me to write, I could write.   But it was only a few years later when I began to write poems.   And that was because I didn’t have an audience and I wanted to understand what was going on with me.

2. Who introduced you to poetry? 

The first time I really heard poetry was when a teacher in sixth grade read out “The Highwayman” to us, and I went home and learned it by heart because of the music.  And I got a radio for my birthday and began hearing wonderful lyrical songs.  But it was only when I began studying in  advanced courses that concentrated on great poets, like Chaucer, Pope, Williams, that I really began to feel the power of poetry.     

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets? 

They were never dominating for me because I never thought of my own poetry as part of the poetry world.  It was my world from the beginning.  The only rule I followed was when a poet told me that I should never write if I could sleep without writing poetry.  It had to be an intense drive. 

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t write poetry if the words don’t come into my head.  Usually while in the middle of something else, something monotonous and often rhythmic.  Because prose demands a daily and regular schedule, and I worked and raised kids and did volunteer work, I only write prose occasionally.  I often go back to that excuse that Thoreau gave, “My life is the poem I would have writ but I could not both live and utter it.”  Sometimes you have to leave writing alone and get some experiences and then you have something to write about.

5. What motivates you to write?

Freedom.  Time to write.   I also really like it when I know I will be reading or publishing to a welcome audience.  It makes me think about what I want to say to them.  I’m not interested in figuring myself out any more.

6. What is your work ethic?

Do you mean do I believe in hard work?  Or do I believe that hard work should be rewarded?  Do I have a moral basis for my work? 
Let me answer my third interpretation of the question.  I believe that poetry helps people understand and develop their humanity and that it is therefore necessary to society.  I believe that reading poetry opens me up to others and I hope my poetry does that to other people.  So I believe there is a moral responsibility to communicate poetry to others.  But it is also a very pleasurable activity.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

Of course I don’t remember the writers who didn’t influence me.  And my reading was incredibly eclectic.  I loved the historical novels of Noel Gerson, whose romantization of the past stimulated my mind when I was ten and too young to understand them.  But I loved Gulliver’s Travels too – especially the third book that mocks intellectuals.  The big poetry revolution came when I read Jack Kerouac and then found a record of him reading his poetry.  The music of it drove me wild and I listened to it again and again for years.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I’m stumped.  There are so many and it’s so complicated. I don’t like poetry that begins with an agenda although I love poetry that embodies an agenda.   So Lucille Clifton always resonates for me.  But I recently became engrossed in some novels of the Egyptian writer, Ali Alaswani, that are deeply political, and wondered why there is such a difference between my reaction to poetry and fiction.9. Why do you write? Because I can’t sleep unless I do.10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”You write.  You write and put it away for a while.  Then you show it to someone.  Then you show it to someone else.  Then you revise and then you show it to someone again.  Then, when you think it says what you want it to say,  you try to publish it.  

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I’ve been writing short pieces about poets and their graves.  I call it, “Here Lie.”  I’ve been going around to graves of poets around the world, taking pictures, and writing the stories around them.  I’ve written more than a dozen so far, and they are all fascinating and very different.  I’ve also been writing lots of poetry – some about my family in the holocaust, some about little things in life – like cell phones and kids.  I haven’t been doing too much with these because I just put my energies into writing a book of poems in Yiddish that came out this March and got some good reviews.  I studied Yiddish as a child and my parents spoke it and the stories they told me were more accessible when I returned to their language.  Now I’m back in English and reorganizing my head.  I think that will ultimately be good for my poetry and my prose to reorganize my head.  Last year I did a little book called “Hanging Around the House,” that consisted of poems that the reader is supposed to hang around the house so that they get the feeling that the walls and the furniture are talking to him/her.  My favourites are the ones you hang up in the bathroom because there they have a captive audience.

One thought on “Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Karen Alkalay-Gut

  1. Pingback: Celebrate Wombwell Rainbow Interviews with me over 26 Days. Today is Letter A. One letter a day displaying all the links to those interviews. Today we dig into those surnames beginning with A. Discover their inspirations, how they write, how did they begi

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