Joshua Corey is a poet, novelist, translator, and critic. Influenced by Charles Olson, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Duncan, Corey pushes formal structure towards fracture, engaging themes of failure, desire and the pastoral. His latest book, Hannah and the Master (MadHat Press, 2021), is his fifth full-length poetry collection which takes on the story between Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger and his Jewish protégé, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt.
Tiffany Troy: I’m excited to talk with you about your book. Your book involved a lot of research, and with Hannah Arendt, a lot of controversy. You did a terrific job balancing what “cannot be said,” in writing of how the atrocities that you described are “not poetic.” With more prose-like poems versus the lyrical poems and with characters like Hannah versus Hannah R., you build up a strange world but its strangeness is a master class of what poetry could be.
How do you strike the right balance between the poetic and the historical?
Joshua Corey: A moment ago you talked about silence in the context of feminist poetics and “what can’t be said.” When it comes to history I’m a little obsessed with what with “what can’t be said” and around the Holocaust in particular, where I have some direct family history. I’m increasingly concerned, alarmed, and disturbed by the erosion of historical memory that’s going. I don’t even want to mention her name, but look at someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene comparing a commonsense public health measure to the yellow stars that Jews like my two-year-old mother were forced to wear in the Budapest ghetto. It speaks to the need to remain in contact with history as a living thing that is moving in our bodies. I hope a book like this can be a model for that kind of engagement. Another thing I think about a lot is that the capital H of History gets conflated with the H of the Holocaust, and that can kind of block out other histories that are also extremely important. Poetry is one of the sacred places in which we can, whatever one’s background is, just bring history back to life. Otherwise, a lot of people have an interest to just not talk about it.
I just taught Rick Barot’s book, The Galleons, in a contemporary literature course. I don’t know if you know Rick or his work, but we were at Stanford together for a little while. I’ve admired his writing for a long time, and The Galleons is a work of lyric poetry that plays with the “poem including history,” which is how Ezra Pound describes the epic form. Rick has woven a larger post-colonial history and his Filipino heritage into this very personal lyrical history, centering on the figure of his grandmother. I read that book and I thought, well, he’s doing what I was trying to do in my book, but much more elegantly! Which is a typical of Rick.
TT: I love your answer about why the poetic form. There’s so much discourse about Hannah Arendt and her work, Eichmann in Jerusalem. You’re spot on in saying that poetry is a sacred space—that gets at some of the nuances in your collection, how it’s not about “people” but persons. Because of that, for me, the tale of Martin and Hannah come together. With the different conflicts between them, I feel like different conflicts that involved, obviously a German person and a German Jewish person, their relationship to each other, his role as her “master,” meaning “teacher,” but also meaning someone with power over her and also as an intellectual companion, and their affair with each other. It just brings up a million different things. A book of criticism may not be able to contain so many different multitudes and I feel the forums that you’ve chosen for the different sections of the book really talks about that as well.
How do you think Hannah and the Master add to that discourse?
JC: It’s interesting because what you’re saying makes me think of how in some ways to write this book allowed me to be kind of responsive and responsible to certain layers and less responsive and responsible to others. One of my many unfinished projects is a straight-up novel about Arendt and Heidegger, although even that is actually refracted through these other characters. I may go back to it, but what I found trying to write a novel was the need to be responsible to a certain kind of reader or at least my picture of a reader for whom like a table has to be laid, as it were. I was obscuring too much the thinking and feeling and that’s how I came up with this kind of weird mixed form and also why I think of it as occupying an almost Philip K. Dick-ish imaginative terrain.
By doing that, I’ve made a much more precarious landscape from our readers’ perspective, but I also feel like I was able to work out some things.
I’ve been fascinated with Arendt’s work for a long time, and like many people first became aware of her because of Eichmann in Jerusalem and the controversy around that. But then, I began to read a lot of her other work, like the wonderful essays in Men in Dark Times, and The Human Condition, a book that’s had a huge influence on my own sense of intellectual history. More recently, after I had written most of my book, after the 2016 election suddenly everyone was talking about The Origins of Totalitarianism, and that seemed to make the whole project kind of uncannily more urgent.
The relationship between Arendt and Heidegger fascinates me because it began in this very kind of conventional, overdetermined way between the charismatic male, the dark angel of philosophy, and his young, impressionable, but brilliant Jewish student. She never completely broke with him, even though she understood his culpability as a member of the Nazi party. They did reconcile after the war but she later wrote this really interesting text that I reference, a short piece called “Heidegger the Fox,” which tells a parable about a fox that traps himself as a means of trapping others. It’s that layer of irony, her sophistication of thought and brilliance as a writer, and the ways in which she almost in spite of herself draws upon this reservoir of romanticism, that draws me to her and made me want to turn her into an unlikely sort of romantic heroine figure.
When you read her political theory, the effect is to very much demystify with this cold crisp clarity, and yet she comes out of this romantic, idealist tradition. I suppose on some level, I identify with that kind of irreconcilable mix of critical and poetic thinking.
TT: You were inspired by your family’s direct connection to the Holocaust and your obsession with Hannah Arendt, but what specifically spurred you to start writing this collection?
JC: It really began in 2009 or 2010. It was a couple years into the Obama Administration and the optimism was already kind of starting to wear thin, with the Tea Party doing its thing, and I just had this intuition or sense of where we were headed, both politically and on a much more urgent scale with climate change. I felt like we were already in a kind of almost Weimar situation, a kind of 1930s situation where this kind of enormous evil is organizing and people were just kind of standing around going well, maybe it won’t be that bad, or you know technology will get us out of this mess, we’ll figure something out. Now that Trump is out of office it’s tempting to look back over the past five years and say that we had a very narrow escape! But we haven’t escaped anything.
We’re in a more Weimar-esque situation than ever, because we are living with a precarious and weak democratic government against which these Fascist forces are mobilizing. But when I started writing the book I already felt that we were staring down the barrel of this unthinkable and yet all too imaginable catastrophe and not very doing very much about it. So I said to myself, what tools do I have to come to grips with this, and for better or worse, the tools I have accumulated over the long term center on my consuming interest in what I sometimes think of as the Messiahs manqué of the 20th century, people like Walter Benjamin, Simone Weil and Franz Kafka, mostly Jewish figures from the early to mid-20th century who all seemed to have their fingers on the pulse of what was happening and what was going to happen. Arendt became the foremost figure in my mind, and at the same time, I was also in the kind of straight-up gossip sense fascinated about Arendt and Heidegger’s affair. On a personal level there’s a phrase that originated with the poet Dana Ward that Maggie Nelson takes up, the “many-gendered mothers of my heart,” a wonderful phrase for finding one’s ancestors creatively and in poetry. For me, Arendt is one of those mothers. It’s hard to see or grasp one’s mother as fully human, as a desiring being or just as a person in the world, and this is something I’ve tried to do with my own mother in other projects. I seem to be doing it doing all over again in this book, but in this really strange way.
TT: The idea of Arendt as mother is fascinating. How did you come up with the title? Why “Hannah” instead of “Arendt” and “the Master” instead of “Martin”?
JC: This book was originally going to be published by Ahsahta Press before they went under and my editor Janet Holmes gave me a little pushback around the title. She thought it was possibly infantilizing, possibly sexualizing, and I don’t deny those things, but in my mind at least these names are there for very particular reasons, I want Arendt to be “Hannah” because the Arendt of the book evolves from this rather fragile creature, and if you know anything about her early life, you’ll know that she had some pretty rough components there, including losing her own father at a pretty tender age to syphilis, of all things. And then she’s incredibly intelligent, but still very vulnerable, and she encounters Heidegger at the University of Marburg and she’s just completely bowled over by him. From that point of course she evolves into this incredibly clever and resourceful and funny (her sense of humor is easy to underestimate) person who worked on behalf of refugees, of which she eventually became one.
There’s an amazing incident which I barely touch on in the book, where she was actually arrested by the Gestapo, and she kind of managed to talk her way out of it, I think it was in Berlin. She used all of her tools, all her wiles and her allure, and she got this guy who was smitten with her to get her out of there and then she went to Paris and then eventually that she went to the States with her second husband.
So there are all those different Arendts before arrive at the grande intellectual dame, who taught at the University of Chicago and Bard and many other places, hanging out with people like Mary McCarthy, becoming part of that whole Partisan Review crowd. I wanted her to go through changes in the book in this science fictional kind of way, all these different avatars, so she’s Hannah R. in tribute to Asimov and she’s also a Blade Runner-style replicant and she ultimately becomes Hannah Furiosa because I love Mad Max Fury Road so much.
The first meaning of “master” is definitely teacher, like a schoolmaster, but I was really thinking of Paul Celan’s poem, “Death Fugue,” the first line of which is Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland (“Death is a master from Germany”). I wanted to resonate with Celan, who is a key figure in the book, divided into the allegorical identities of Poet and the Plagiarist (that’s also me, of course). Celan is a poet of difficult speech and so the encounter between him and Heidegger’s another thing I thought about a lot. One of the poems kind of obliquely retells the story of their meeting which happened after the war. Celan went to visit Heidegger in his famous hut in the Black Forest and tried to get him to say something, an acknowledgement if not an apology, but Heidegger notoriously never acknowledged his complicity in the Nazi disaster.
So the title suggests a teacher-student dynamic but also a hint of sado-masochism, which seems to have been present to a degree in that relationship. The Master is something that has to be internalized and overcome.
TT: Let’s turn to how you are able to create the different Hannahs. In what ways is the collection deeply rooted in the chronology of Hannah and Martin’s actual lives and in what ways do they deviate?
JC: As far as the chronology goes, the actual story of their lives as they were lived was always in the back of my mind and kind of in the book’s unconscious, as it were. But there’s this other narrative thread of “replicants” or “clones,” or whatever you want to call them. There is something almost holographic about it. Each section of the book contains the whole story in fragmented form, recombining history and the poetic. The image that comes to my mind of sand in water: you can agitate it, but the sand does not dissolve, right?
It literally doesn’t form a solution. But the movement of the sand is dependent upon the water and the water has been affected and made more visible by the sand, so that’s how I think of the mixture of history and poetics in this book. I attempt to be responsible to history and present it as history, without being academic. I have too much academic training, and for the last decade of my life I’ve been trying to unlearn the fussier parts of that while retaining the respect for the text—that’s the thing worth keeping from ten years of postgraduate training.
The history in the book is definitely at times reduced to these pretty gnomic fragments and one of the reasons I included a fairly substantial notes section was to give readers some access to the fuller context of the things I was referencing without resorting to actual footnotes. Whether this experiment succeeds or not it’s probably not for me to say.
TT: Hannah got herself into some trouble, so to speak, at least with some people for attempting to humanizing the Calibrator (Adolf Eichmann) and you obvious want to be responsible, but in some parts of your poems, just in some parts of Hannah’s own texts and it seemed there was humanization of someone who did evil deeds. I understood it as that the condemnation of evil doesn’t necessarily mean that the person has to be a demon.
How did you approach incorporating the Calibrator and his story?
JC: There is the image of Eichmann in his glass box in Jerusalem and the kind of dog and pony show he put on there was just so extraordinary.
Arendt, of course, has been harshly criticized, first for seeming to accuse the Jewish committees of collaborating in their own destruction, which led to the famous confrontation with her old friend Gershom Scholem who accused her of lacking Ahavath Israel (“love for the Jewish people”), and she made, depending on the day the either really resonant or really tone-deaf response: “I don’t love people, I love persons.” And “I can’t love the Jewish people because I belong to them,” which is a really interesting and overlooked and complicated thing to say.
More recently people have said Arendt was naïve because some people interpreted her description of Eichmann as lacking Nazi ideology and they point to evidence that shows that actually Eichmann did, and he was completely evil and just trying to save his life and so presented himself as this kind of empty bureaucratic vessel at the trial.
To me that’s not actually an interesting question whether or not he was truly evil in that ideological sense. I think that he was a human being, I think all of the atrocities that we know of are committed by human beings. And yet there’s a way in which those acts and the way we talk about them remove us from the human. One of my epigraphs comes from one of Paul Celan’s letters: “We live under dark skies and—there are few human beings.” which is very Heideggerian thing for him to say. What interests me is the ways in which you see this kind of agon between these Jewish thinkers and poets, who took so much from the German Romantic tradition, even drawing upon Heidegger’s work, but at the same time feeling themselves to be violently excluded, to the point of their own humanity being denied. On the one hand everybody’s a human being, even the most heinous among us. On the other hand, to be human is a kind of an achievement or a task. It’s a verb. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we kind of flicker between the human and the inhuman throughout the day. For instance, when I walk down the street and I’m thinking about something else, and someone asks me for money and I just keep walking. That is me switching off my humanity. And then sometimes, for whatever reason, someone will ask me for money and I’ll give it to them. I’ll actually see them. I’ll be knocked out of my own self interested concerns for just a moment.
On the one level, I just wanted to hang Eichmann with his own words, so to speak, because that section of the book is just crammed with direct quotations from him.
Arendt said that Eichmann’s real crime was not to think about what he was doing. She was very sensitive to the possibility of people refusing to think. For her, thinking always contains a bit of feeling, so when she accuses him of being unthinking, she’s also saying that he’s refusing to think with and of others. She wouldn’t reduce thoughtlessness to a lack of empathy, she’s not touchy-feely like that, but Eichmann in Jerusalem absolutely hums with indignation and black irony and we mustn’t miss the role that feeling plays in that work.
So that’s my kind of wondering answer to that question.
TT: You answer reminds me of what you said in the beginning, of the book’s resonances or relevance to the present day, when a lot of people are othering the opposition and dehumanizing their persons, which in turn, make it impossible to understand and change them for the better.
JC: We all contain monstrous impulses.
I’m just very wary of any impulse to divide between “us” and “them,” or to think in terms of tribes. Arendt, is one of the great thinkers against tribalism, and toward what she would call “politics,” which is the difficult work of living and contending with the other, without vioence. Does she does at times fail in that project in her own writings? Sure, she does. What she had to say about the efforts to integrate Little Rock was an appalling piece of writing, and shows a real blind spot about race in America. Nevertheless, Arendt is such a valuable and necessary antidote to that with-us-or-against-us that we’re immersed in right now. I do fool around on social media, but this book is pretty much the opposite of that.
TT: Thinking about how on some days Hannah’s thinking really resonates and on other’s it feels tone deaf, in “Words Deep Down in the Sea,” the speaker says that “Only poets, like beggars will celebrate birth.” In what ways do you think that the Poet is like the Plagiarist, meaning the Poet doesn’t really create anything new? In what ways does the Poet allow this collection to shed light on Hannah as well as humanity through Hannah through her replicants?
JC: One of the concepts I was playing with Arendt’s concept of natality, which is a really very simple idea. With the birth of every new human being, completely unsuspected possibilities are born as well. This concept is one of the most hopeful aspects in her thinking. I began to play a lot with the idea too of what is a replicant—they are not born but made, as a combinations of parts, and this book is very much a combination of parts.
Arendt never had children herself. She had students and she influenced people but there isn’t really an Arendt School. She really does stand out as this intensely energetic and troubling figure in the history of 20th century political thought.
You kind of put it best in your question. How can the new arise when all we’re ever do is combining old pieces of language together in new ways and trying to see, because that’s really all we have. And one of the mysteries of language really is how do we keep managing to generate new metaphors to deal with new situations? We don’t just invent new words—we create new metaphors or new meanings for old metaphors, and that’s what the book tries to do. Trying to understand the 21st century using tools that were made in the 20th century might seeing foolhardy or misguided but it’s also an attempt to say, well, these tools were forged under the most difficult conceivable circumstances, so let’s see if they can’t be made to produce something new in the new circumstance.
I sometimes feel like a book like this is just throwing down a lot of seed and it’ll be up to somebody else to actually grow something from that side.
TT: I guess we will never know. I think what poetry can do is to shed light on different possibilities and even the most difficult aspects of a character allows for seeing beyond what is true. For instance, is Eichmann just putting on a show or not when he says “Officialese is my only language”? Maybe just as you said, the more interesting question is how we turn on or off being a human, and this collection really speaks to that.
How does seeing and not seeing function in this collection, when people enabled the atrocities to happen by being blind?
JC: Heidegger is an idealist in every sense of that word and one of the reasons we have to grapple with Eichmann is that I fundamentally agree with Arendt’s thesis about him. Eichmann (or “the Calibrator,” which is a crude translation of his name), is a potential in all of us, to abandon the rationality of ends and substitute that for the rationality of means. What defines the unique horror of the Holocaust as opposed to other genocides is the high level of rationality turned toward this utterly irrational end. Heidegger the Master for me is a seemingly higher version of that, which is the capacity to abstract and idealize and stand at a distance from lived, embodied reality. To turn the fellow human beings with whom he lived and moved and had sex with into “Dasein” (“Being there,” ) represents his astonishing and terrifying capacity for abstraction in the name of thinking more clearly. If you’ve ever read a page of Heidegger you’ll know that “clarity” is achieved at a very high cost. But there’s a certain exhilaration to that kind of writing and sense of I’m going to put my arms around everything and I’m going to be intoxicated by these terms. Talking about the World, the Earth, and the World is Worlding, and poetically men dwells, and all that very heady stuff. That is a temptation for me, and maybe a temptation that poets are especially vulnerable to.
Another figure who is similar to Heidegger in some ways, although much more benign, at least overtly, is Ralph Waldo Emerson, with whom I wrestle a lot. I have two manuscripts that I have not yet published which wrestle with Emerson because he is another writer whose mode of writing I find incredibly intoxicating, because every sentence kind of dissolves the sentence that went before it. His idealism is even more astonishingly active in the writing itself on the level of syntax, so I love that. I also am profoundly uneasy about it and am suspicious of it.
Both Emerson and Heidegger share this cold clammy quality as personalities that I find disturbing, but maybe that’s just another way of that I’m always writing in some sense about myself, about capacities inside of me. I play with the idea of theater and the mask a little bit with this book because I’ve of cast all these different parts of myself as different characters, the different Hannahs and the Master and other kind of quasi-allegorical figures. The book can feel hard to talk about because I’ve taken this very public material and I’ve turned it into my dream life. In this way, that’s maybe not very translatable but fortunately it’s poetry, and you can do anything in poetry.
TT: That’s right. I love how you talk about capacity and abstraction. The first character that shows up in your collection is the WAVE. To me, the WAVE encapsulated so many different parts of Hannah and yourself, as the human wave of migration, with Hannah literally moving from Berlin to New York and to different cities, also the wave of political sentiments against Jewish individuals, the wave that is resurging in 2016, and the wave of emotion. How does the wave function in your collection and how do you grapple with the lyrical in the abstract versus the terrifying power of abstraction to allow for what happened in Nazi Germany?
JC: I mean certainly the wave of human migration is very present—Arendt wrote an essay called “We Refugees” and identified with that position and lived for years as a stateless person. As I putting the finishing touches in the book, we began to see the incredible hostility toward immigrants being ramped up with Trump coming down that escalator in 2015, and obviously we’re still living with that. The pandemic made it even more disturbing, with human beings being conflated with this virus. What I call “the wave” is disavowed human energy, human energy naturalized. I started thinking about the literal waves of rising seas. And what causes rising seas? There’s literally more energy in the atmosphere than there ought to be, that we have put there, and now we kind of turn around and say where are all these disasters, coming from? Who did this?
The wave is a figure in the book for the human choices that have led to terrible, relentless natural disaster-like consequences, consequences that are not in fact in the least “natural.”
Some of the reasons that people are migrating in great numbers today is because of climate change, and the places in the Global South that are becoming less habitable. I just read Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends and one of the things she does so incisively is to point out this incredibly obvious and yet rarely discussed fact which is that the wave of migrants coming from the so-called Northern Triangle are coming because those countries are unstable and they are unstable because of US policies. So it’s really not that hard to put A and B together and yet it’s so very rarely done.
Desperate human beings are treated as this problem that is somehow coming from “over there,” which must be contained by walls and cages. The most evil thing about evil, if I can put it that way, is not the evil deeds themselves, but their disavowal, their displacement, and the refusal of responsibility for the consequences of one’s choices.
TT: In the beginning, you talked about how your collection is inspired by the epic. How did you incorporate different literary, religious, and philosophical traditions into your work. For instance, Rahab the Harlot in conjunction with Martin’s Letters to Hannah in the section called “Hannahlieder / Red Thread”? How do you combine the different threads together.
JC: I wrote about Ezra Pound in my dissertation, focusing on The Pisan Cantos, and I really got Pound out of my system by doing that, but that’s probably where my fascination with poetically generative and yet heinous right-wing figures comes from. Pound and Heidegger are peas in a pod in that respect. But the poem including history, and the idea of the journey to the underworld is very present in The Cantos, in particular The Pisan Cantos where Pound to his own shock discovers what had been a literary enterprise suddenly turning very, very real—the shock of the real when he’s in that cage in Pisa is why that poem is still worth reading. Those cantos in particular are still incredibly moving as you can see the cracks in his facade where his humanity is still kind of quivering in those poems. Suddenly he is the object of history, not the subject, and he doesn’t like it one bit.
So the epic is kind of refracted there in a way that helps me think about the history-poetry conjunction.
And the idea of the journey to the Underworld, the katabasis or nekuia, is very present in my book. The Hannah figure has to go down before she can come up again with her new knowledge or wisdom. And there are different kinds or stages of going down, from section to section. The poems in the “Hannahlieder” section are homophonic translations of poems that Heidegger actually wrote. He wasn’t a great poet, and in some ways they’re much better Englished and roughed up. Reading through and against the grain, I found myself thinking about how some copies of the New Testament present the words of Jesus in red, and then I remembered the story of the red cord or thread that Rahab hung from her window to mark her house in the Book of Joshua—my name, obviously. Rahab is an interesting character because, like Arendt she belongs to but is not part of this community, and she ends up collaborating with the invaders, the Israelities, whom I conflate, just for fun, with the War Boys from Mad Max Fury Road. So it becomes the story of a proto-refugee who throws her lot in with the landless, but they’re also invaders, and it’s morally mixed and murky and complex. That’s why I try to be polyvocal: there’s Heidegger’s German or Heideggerese in which he makes these gnomic utterances, then there’s the English version in which I try to point up the will to power in his writing and its blind spots, and then there are the invader words that he doesn’t intend, the red thread through the section which becomes its own poem at the end, the “Hannah Aria,” in which Hannah slips the trap that the Master had laid for her.
TT: How do you make your choices within each section, but also outside of each section in terms of how do you choose to make more lyrical versus more prose-like? For instance, in “The Shields / Love Songs of Hannah R.” section, you have lyrical poems on the left page and then prose on the right page. In other sections, you have poems on the top half of the page, separated by a line, followed by a prose explanation or quotation on the bottom.
JC: So that makes me think of one of the sections, “The Shields / Love Song of Hannah R.” Here we have Arendt’s own words translated in different ways. The lyric poems are homophonic translations, this time of poems Arendt wrote as a very young woman, while she was still involved withHeidegger. The prose is a straight translation of a kind of strange autobiographical letter, called “The Shadows,” that she wrote and submitted to Heidegger while they were having their affair. It’s highly abstract and difficult to follow, so I had to work really hard at it and show it to a German-speaking friend to make sure I was getting it right. Arendt saw herself in Heidegger’s terms which were not at that time explicitly anti-Semitic but which basically excluded Arendt from Germanness. So she’s writing very critically about herself in the third person as this kind of “incomplete” and “inauthentic” (a real keyword for Heidegger) lost soul who is doomed he somehow saves her. It reads as her most anguished, vulnerable, tortured, and most self-deluded piece, and yet I think enters fairly intimately into the dilemma of the German Jew, which I relate to in the American situation to the problem of being American, assimilating into a myth that dissolves more subtle distinctions. The plight of the German Jew, trying to be more German than the Germans, strikes me as a bit similar to the delusion that grips, in the language of James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, “the people who think they are white.”
I tried in my homophonic translation to be true to the sounds, to bring over the sounds from the German into English, but also to preserve some of that anguish of translation, of the self-translation that goes into the lyric love poem. The prose is more literal but also more abstract. In that letter, she’s trying to speak the Master’s language, and then I create these parts that appear at the bottom of the page that operate more drily as outside commentary. I’m looking for ways to represent multiple voices and multiple vectors on the page, so this book represents a pretty restless series of different ways to create a dialogue by other means. In some ways, it is a transitional book that has helped me become more comfortable with characters in dialogue with each other, whereas I was very attached to the singular lyric I before this book, and so this is kind of me breaking out of that a little bit.
TT: Such a searing tale of Hannah in knowing that she could never be “authentic” without the Master swopping down to save her. Something I was struck by is how in “Affidavit of Identity in Lieu of a Passport,” Hannah basically tries to describe who she is and where she’s living and, at the time she was living I think Morningside Avenue.
JC: That’s a real document.
TT: And then there’s a poem talking about her being un-American in addition to another poem, “Nous Sommes Tous Les Juifs Allemands” (“We are all German Jews”). How does the American play—if at all—in this collection? It seems there’s German because that’s the native language of both Hannah and her so-called master. At the same time, the Poet as an American and sort of Hannah moving to New York for part of the time, her journey and her migration also play into the picture of the epic. In the Odyssey, Odysseus goes on this adventure to these different places, but he goes there as the conqueror and he never really loses his identity, whereas for me, Hannah, like a lot of refugees or immigrants are kind of lost in the sense that their homeland basically forsook them, which is why they had to leave in the first place. There’s the sadness, or I guess the hopelessness, that you were talking about Hannah writing “Shadow” to Heidegger, and Hannah’s account of herself through Heidegger’s eyes, then what is Hannah’s position as the heroine in this epic that you’ve woven together?
JC: I have to say I do disagree with you a little bit about Odysseus, because he actually wind up basically a refugee, a stateless person, literally naked, thrown up on the shores and having to kind of use his guile and his storytelling prowess to get some hospitality for himself. Arendt is a Odyssean figure in that way.
As far as American, French, and German, I find myself in a tradition that I associate with people like Henry James and other writers very much imaginatively caught between America and Europe. This partly comes from having a European mother, who conveyed to me that Europe was where real civilization was, as opposed to the New Jersey suburbs where I was growing up. At the same time, it was the source of the greatest barbarism. I find that contrast has conditioned my imagination and it seems like I’m always writing about Europeans in America or Americans in Europe and the dangerous innocence they have of the situations in which they find themselves, a theme in which I am also entangled.
TT: In closing, what are you working on today, and do you have anything you want to say to your readers of the world?
JC: I mentioned that pair of manuscripts that engages with Emerson and in particular, Emerson’s essay, “Experience,” which is his most un-Emersonian text—Robert Duncan said “I read my Emerson dark” and “Experience” is as dark as it gets. He’s grappling there for a sense of anything to stand on in the wake of having lost his young son Waldo, whom he loved absolutely. Emerson is often depicted as this kind of sunny optimistic American character, but in this essay he’s saying, I thought grief would put me in contact with reality, but it doesn’t. It’s a terrible kind of metaphysical elegy, and so are some of the poems in those books that engage with various losses.
I have another poet’s novel coming out this fall, my stab at autofiction, in which a lot of real things get mixed up with some not-so-real things. It centers on imagining the romance between my parents in 1960s New York. I’m just editing it right now and Spuyten Duyvil is going to publish that in the fall.
And from Hannah and the Master and these poet’s novels I’ve transitioned into writing the kind of thing I was really into when I was fifteen. So I’m finishing up this trilogy of straight-up science fiction novels and the one I’m working on now is about like this kind of AI werewolf and I’m having a lot of fun with that.
TT: Any closing thoughts?
JC: What I’m trying to offer readers in poetry is a space on the page where you can think poetically and combine these different elements and hopefully take some pleasure, and you know it’s not just a sober exercise in historiography, there’s a degree of drama to this book that I hope people will find pleasing.
I’ve come to recognize at age fifty that I have like two or three things that I’ve been interested in from the beginning and I’m going to keep being interested in those things. But I’m looking forward to finding new forms in which to kind of explore them and adventure in them and offer them to readers. I am curious about this next phase where I am trying to be a little more overtly focused on entertaining the reader than I have been in the past, so we’ll see how that goes.
Tiffany Troy is a poet, translator, and critic based in New York.