Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: “They Become Stars” by Liz Marlow

Wombwell Rainbow Book 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 three options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger, or an interview about their latest book, or a combination of these.
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.

They Become Stars By Liz Marlow

Liz Marlow’s

debut chapbook, They Become Stars, was the winner of the 2019 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition. Additionally, her work has appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Minnesota Review, Permafrost, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere.

Her website is www.lizmarlow.com

on Twitter: @LizRMarlow.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

The first time I wrote a poem that was not assigned by a teacher was when I was 13 years old. Shortly after that, I took my first creative writing class in high school. I loved that classroom. I loved scooting our desks into a circle every morning, scraping them against the white tile floor. Though that sound might have bothered the classes nearby, to me it signaled the beginning of intense learning and discussion—joy. Never before in my life had I taken a class where we sat in a circle and shared our ideas on the literature that we read. Never before had a teacher really listened to me as though what I thought about a text really mattered and could be applied to something that I created—my own art. Every poem that we discussed in her class had a purpose. For instance, when a student wrote a poem that described an object not well enough, she assigned Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” When someone wrote a poem about feminism, she assigned Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll.” Each poem that we read was part of a lesson in how to write and revise better. I started writing poetry, ultimately, because I started reading contemporary poetry. Mostly, I wrote about my experiences—my first concert, first time in Israel, and first kiss. However, I also wrote about people that I knew personally or observed from people watching.

I also enjoyed being around other poets who discussed ideas and literature. My teacher encouraged our friendships by having us cook and eat breakfast together once a week, since our class was the first of the day. Every Friday, we brought ingredients for breakfast burritos—air filling with the smell of onions, peppers, and eggs frying on an electric skillet. More importantly, though, laughter filled the air. Cooking and eating together were part of building trust so that we felt safe enough to be honest and critical with each other’s work. When I first started writing poetry, it was to be part of that community I loved and to be in a class with a teacher I truly respected.

2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

Since I began writing seriously, I have been aware of the dominating presence of older poets in traditional and contemporary poetry. The first poem that I remember reading was Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which I had to memorize and recite in front of my class when I was eight years old. He died a little over a decade before I was born, but most of the poetry that I read in high school and college was from poets that had been dead for decades or centuries. A major part of that is simply that the classics and older living poets dominated teachers’ syllabi and the shelves of my local library and bookstore (it wasn’t until after I finished my MFA that online journals became predominant in the literary world). Because poets from the classics and older contemporary poets were who I read in those formative years of shaping my poetic voice, they still influence my work to some degree. For instance, Fernando Pessoa has influenced all of my persona poems in one way or another. Similarly, I am aware of Matsuo Basho’s voice every time that I attempt to write a haiku.

3. What is the role of the nature imagery in “They Become Stars”?

Because They Become Stars is in chronological order and about the Holocaust, a lot of the nature imagery deals with the seasons—stifling summer or deadly cold of winter. In the way that a drying plant needs water for its leaves to refresh, I needed hope about half way through the book and relied upon nature images in a poem about the Chinese Consul General of Vienna who saved lives by issuing visas to Jews for safe travel to the Shanghai Ghetto, where inhabitants were never sent to Nazi concentration camps. I thought about articles I had recently read regarding animals helping babies of other species survive and used those in the poem. Sure, we are all humans, but cultures from one country to another can be so vastly different that prejudices thrive. When I read about the Shanghai Ghetto, I enjoyed reading that anti-Semitism was essentially non-existent in the Chinese and Japanese (who occupied Shanghai during World War II) cultures and knew that needed to be included in my chapbook.

Conversely, Nazi propaganda used images of animals to dehumanize Jews in Germany and in other occupied countries. The poem that contains the most natural imagery, “Bloody Sunday Massacre of 10,000 Jews,” is in response to a Nazi propaganda poster that dehumanizes Jews. In my opinion, the widespread dehumanization in images and literature at the time (and for years leading up to the Holocaust) contributed to that event of Nazis making men dig their own graves and Nazis shooting thousands of men in their heads, which was similar to many other pogroms that occurred during the Holocaust. Since the poster is of an image of a man morphing into an insect, I used insect imagery—Conopidae (thick-headed flies) exploiting and eventually killing bumblebees—to describe the Nazis’ horrific mistreatment of Jews.

4.  What is your daily writing routine?

After my children have gone to sleep, I read a little while before I begin writing or revising. Because reading other poets often inspires me to revise or draft an entirely new poem, I usually have my laptop open even if I am reading a print journal or book of poems. I have a personal goal of writing for at least 15 minutes a day, which is not daunting and a manageable amount of time even if I am tired. Sometimes I only write a single line or revise by cutting out a stanza. However, once I start writing, I rarely pay attention to the clock.

As I write, I read lines aloud. Since I revise as I draft poems, I save some of the cut lines into a separate file. If I am inspired during the day, I jot down lines or stanzas into my phone. When I type out an entire poem on my phone, it ends up being about one of my children, since I spend the day with them. However, sometimes I will type out something on my phone that I see in the trees behind my house or on a walk in the woods. When that happens, the lines are simply images. They rarely become an entire poem.

Another goal of mine is to draft one new poem a week. If I don’t meet that goal, then I usually end up writing more than one poem the week after, particularly if I am starting a series of poems with a similar theme. For instance, when I first started writing They Become Stars, I drafted three of those poems in one week. Ultimately, it depends on the subject matter in how much I let it go through my head before I begin writing a poem. Sometimes I think about a poem for a day or two before I start drafting it.

5. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

Whenever I write a poem that uses accessible language, I am influenced by Robert Frost. When I write poems about the Jewish experience, I am influenced by Marge Piercy. The way that she unapologetically uses Hebrew words in her work, lets me know that I can use Yiddish or Hebrew words in my own poems. Additionally, when I use first person point of view in poetry (which is quite often), Walt Whitman influences me. With Whitman, his “I” is not just a personal “I,” but an American “I.” Similarly, when I write a poem using “I” from a victim’s perspective, it’s not meant to be only a single voice but also a collection of voices that perished as the result of a specific event during the Holocaust.

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

Mark Irwin’s ability to navigate through lyricism with brilliant metaphors inspires me. There are certain poems of his that I have read a number of times. Each time, they mean something different to me. Additionally, I love the way that Francesca Bell writes a persona poem for not holding anything back in describing gruesome events and/or people. I particularly enjoy reading Cole Swensen’s work, because she pays attention to not just the music of a poem, but also how the eye moves. Many of her poems are brilliant works of art for using space on the page to hold pauses. I love the way that Joshua Mensch describes his own personal horrific experiences, conjuring many different emotions. Many of his lines will make me laugh and cry at the same time. The courage that he brings to his work is inspiring, and the way that he uses repetition to build tension is brilliant. I love the way that Terrance Hayes takes ownership of the sonnet. Taking an old form that is used so often because of its brevity and making it his own is refreshing. Additionally, I enjoy Elizabeth Knapp’s use of pop culture in her prose poems. It is difficult to write about events that everyone knows of such as Kurt Cobain’s death in a way where the reader learns something new or sees it in a completely different way.

7. Why did you arrange the poems chronologically?

Excellent question! The first poems that I wrote for the chapbook had similar titles. To make sure that I wasn’t confusing readers and ground them in a historical context, they worked well with a date attached. As I continued to write more poems for the chapbook, I kept a timeline in mind. It just so happened that the chronological order helped establish an arc. The only poem that is not technically in chronological order is “Consul General Feng-Shan Ho and Rabbi Shimon Sholom Kalish Discuss the Jewish Question,” because I felt like there needed to be some hope about halfway into the book. I purposely left the date out of that poem, because I thought it needed to be clear that throughout the Holocaust, some non-Jews helped Jews escape.

8. The titles of the poems are very documentary like. Why did you decide that this should be so?

For some of the titles, I wanted to make sure that readers understood the historical significance without having to look at the notes. It was also important to me that my poems not be taken out of context and turned into the opposite of what I intended. As a Jew, it’s extremely important to me that my writing not come off as promoting hate speech or anti-Semitism. I got the idea of how to handle those titles from reading James Wright’s work. Many of his titles provide information that is needed to understand a poem better.

9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

To become a writer, you need to open yourself up to inspiration. This can come from reading books and journals in your genre. However, it’s also important to read work outside of your genre—to see the world from the journalist’s, philosopher’s, novelist’s, and historian’s perspectives. Inspiration can come not just from reading a great book, poem, short story, or article; but it can also come from witnessing an event or viewing an incredible work of art. To write characters that connect with your audience, you need to have empathy. Reading about other cultures and viewing artwork helps a writer develop empathy.

To become a published writer, you need to read the journals where you want your work published and develop a thick skin. I would tell someone who wants to become a published writer to use Duotrope and sites like it to help them choose where to submit work. I wish I had known of Duotrope when I first started submitting to know what the acceptance rates were for my favorite journals. When I first started writing, I didn’t realize how much rejection would simply be part of getting my poetry published. I have learned not to take rejection or criticism of my work personally. Instead, I see it as necessary for growth and enjoy receiving criticism that helps me revise.

10. How important are the depiction of the five senses in “They Become Stars”?

The senses were very important to me as I wrote They Become Stars. I thought about sensory overload in crowded spaces and hunger in particular as I wrote many of the poems for the chapbook. Being in a crowded space causes the senses to be heightened. For instance, perfumes and body odor in an elevator intensify as more people enter, packing themselves together. Unlike the families forced to live in Nazi ghettos, packed into cattle cars, and sent to various concentration camps; I am privileged to be able to step out of an elevator and into the open air, to not sleep in a room full of eight other people (which was what conditions were like in many of the ghettos), to sleep in a quiet room all by myself if I am not feeling well. I am privileged to be able to eat whatever I want, but the hungrier I am, the more I think about flavors and the more heightened my sense of taste is when I finally eat.

11. The first poem looks at a child through the perpetrators eyes, the second is a graphc account from a child’s perspective. How important is the depiction of children in the book?

The depiction of children in They Become Stars was extremely important to me. Humans tend to show more empathy towards children than they do adults. There is an instinct to protect them or the idea of harming children horrifies people more than if a crime is committed against an adult. Knowing that the Nazis murdered over a million children is disgusting but also overwhelming. It is hard to imagine what a single face looked like, what a single life was like. As I wrote the chapbook, I tried to put faces and experiences to that overwhelming number.

12. Why did you decide to include three poems called “Chaim Rumkowski On Hunger”, two with different dates, 1938 and 1944?

Because Rumkowski was in a powerful position in the ghetto and was a horrible human being, he used food to exploit other inhabitants of the ghetto. Those three poems work together to show a progression of his appetite for power.

13. Moishe, is written like a torturer’s instruction manual.

There’s no telling how many women and children Rumkowski sexually abused. Even if he only did that to one child, he deserved any of those methods of dying mentioned in the poem. When I wrote the Moishe poem, I had been writing about Rumkowski off and on for almost a year. It honestly felt good to write that poem, since his actions had psychologically weighed on me during that time. After I finished that poem, I felt closure with him as a character in my work.

14. What is the significance of “fire” in the book?

When I used fire images in the chapbook, I was trying to describe the destruction of the Holocaust with authenticity. Since firepits and crematoria were the main methods of body disposal in Auschwitz (instead of proper burials), it was important for smoke and fire to be included in the chapbook. I wanted to show that in the midst of smelling and seeing smoke from burning bodies, Chaim Rumkowski would conjure a memory of something that brought happiness or hope to him. It seemed plausible to me that his mind would work that way, because he knew of what happened at Auschwitz and had witnessed so many inhabitants of the ghetto starve to death or die from disease. However, while he was surrounded by that destruction, he continued to believe that he was saving Jews from annihilation.

15. There are a lot of musical terms in the poems?

When I first started reading up on Chaim Rumkowski, I stumbled upon the account of a girl who inspired the Miriam poems. Even though she was a young girl, she brought her instrument with her to Rumkowski’s orphanage shortly before the war and played quite well. Since music was such an important part of her life and brought her joy, I thought a person like her would hear music in voices and nature. I thought about her a lot as I wrote the entire chapbook, so whenever I used a musical term, I was paying homage to her.

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

I recently finished a full-length collection that includes some of the poems from They Become Stars, but I am still in the process of polishing it. I also recently finished a chapbook of elegies and am currently drafting a second full-length collection that will include many of them.

17. What do you want the reader of “They Become Stars” to leave with once they have read it?

I would like readers to understand that even though 11,000,000 is an overwhelming number of people to die in the Holocaust, each of those people had a name, face, and story. Some of their stories were complicated and ugly, some beautiful, but all of them were tragic. My greatest hope is that readers will be inspired to read more history books and articles that explore the Holocaust and other important events that have influenced how humans currently interact with each other politically, socially, and globally.

Thank you for allowing me to participate in an interview for The Wombwell Rainbow. It is a wonderful site, dedicated to supporting so many writers, and I am honored to be a contributor.

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