Living on That Land: A Conversation with Elana Bell
part of our Emerging Poets Interview Series
by Eric Higgins
Elana Bell’s first collection of poetry, Eyes, Stones, was chosen by Fanny Howe for the 2011 Walt Whitman Award and published by Louisiana State University Press in 2012. Her work has recently appeared in Harvard Review, Massachusetts Review, CALYX Journal, and elsewhere. Elana has led creative writing workshops for women in prison, for educators, for high school students in Israel, Palestine, and throughout the five boroughs of New York City, as well as for the pioneering peace building and leadership organization Seeds of Peace. She is writer-in-residence at the Bronx Academy of Letters and lives in Brooklyn. Read two new poems and a reprinted poem by Elana Bell.
Eric Higgins: Naming figures prominently in the book [Eyes, Stones], especially in the first five poems. There is naming the land in dream and “in blood and ink,” but also a quasi-mythical recounting of how some principal recurring characters (Arafat and Jabotinsky, for instance) received their names. In many cases, the poems associate a name or the process of naming with defiance and violence (knife, scraping, armor, pinning someone’s throat with a boot). With that in mind, do you see your own title, Eyes, Stones, more as departing from or reinforcing that pattern? Like so much of the naming in the book, violent or otherwise, does the name Eyes, Stones carry a burden?
Elana Bell: Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things has a quote, “Once you have seen you cannot unsee.” Although I was not thinking of this quote directly while writing this book, I think it captures some of the layers I am intending with the word “eyes” in the title. That is, as a reference to bearing witness. And once you have seen, the question becomes, what is your responsibility? There are many things I have seen in my travels to Israel and Palestine, some violent, some achingly beautiful, like the girl in Aida refugee camp chasing after our bus, arms outstretched . . . often mundane things appear more beautiful in the context of struggle. In Israel and Palestine, struggle is a consequence of living on that land. Also, because many of the poems in the book are written in persona, it isn’t just my eyes bearing witness, but the “eyes” of the people that I have met or researched or imagined throughout the process.
The word stones functions on several levels in the title and throughout the book. First, on the level of literal object—it is almost impossible to think of the land of Israel and Palestine without thinking of the stones. They are absolutely emblematic of the place. When I think of Jerusalem, I think of the huge white stones and the particular light reflecting off them. The stones are also a very concrete aspect of the human history on that land. There are buildings made of stone which are thousands of years old. Of course, stones also represent a kind of violence. They have become symbolic as the weapon of resistance that Palestinians use against Israeli soldiers.
Putting the two words together in the title is also intended to bring to mind the contrast in their texture. Eyes are soft; stones are hard. Stones are seemingly permanent, lasting through many periods of human history, while eyes belong to the body, to human beings who live and witness, then die. As writers, I believe it is among our tasks to see the world and then to translate that witnessing into words.
EH: By including the voices of Jabotinsky, Arafat, Michalya, Zosha (your grandmother), Amal, and even the land itself, you’ve set the stage for a series of almost dialogic exchanges, but it doesn’t necessarily appear that the personae are addressing each other. Are you employing mimesis here to illustrate the history of the conflict? Or are you simply leaving room in the poems for individual voices to differentiate themselves, despite the degree to which their concerns are entangled?
EB: Although these individual voices are not always directly addressing each other, I definitely see them as being in conversation with each other, as well as with the speaker in the non-persona poems—let’s call her the “traveler.” I think that the ways the persona poems are placed has a great impact on their relationship to each other, as well as to the traveler’s journey and the reader’s experience. That being said, I do feel that the voices differentiate themselves as individuals. I also think it is important to say that while individual voices or characters are connected to certain narratives (Israeli, Palestinian, American-Jewish, Biblical, etc.) they do not “represent” that entire narrative, but rather one particular facet, filtered through my voice or pen. In the same way that one could say this book is “about” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it would be more accurate to say that it is about my journey of wrestling with this conflict and its history given my own particular background, my experience of the land, and my (shifting) understanding of the conflict.
EH: From what I understand, you interviewed Palestinians and Israelis in the course of writing this book. Can you talk about that experience? How did you find interviewees, and where did you conduct the interviews? What was the tenor of those interviews?
EB: When I spoke to my grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, she always claimed that it was her hope for Israel that kept her alive through the war. I was awed that a place she’d never even seen (and my grandmother was not religious) could nourish her through the horror of that experience. When I began the process of interviewing people, I did not initially realize that I was writing a book of poetry. Rather, given my own history and a very powerful experience travelling to Israel for the first time as an adult, I was compelled to deepen my understanding of people’s relationships to that land. As my awareness expanded, I began to see that this particular land holds power and significance for so many people—Jews, Muslims, Christians, Palestinians, Americans . . . In the beginning I only had access to family and friends in Israel, most of whom came from America and shared my background. As I returned to the country multiple times, I began to broaden my experiences. One of the seminal moments that shifted my perception was a trip I took to the West Bank with Siraj, a Palestinian organization doing non-violent resistance against the occupation. I began to meet and speak to other young Palestinians and Jews engaged in social justice work. I also talked to people who simply were living their lives in the midst of a very difficult situation. I wasn’t looking for a particular person or story. Most people were eager to talk to me and share the passion they have for their homeland. At a certain point, I started writing poems inspired by what I was hearing. Most often, very little of the text was actually taken directly from the interview. It was more a seed that gave me an idea or a feeling for a poem. For example, the poem “On a Hilltop at the Nassar Farm” is inspired by a real woman and her family farm in the West Bank. She told me the story of how one of her uncles never married because he was “married to the land.” I kept trying to write a poem about this uncle I had never met. At a certain point, I realized that she had also never married, that she had devoted her entire life to being a steward for her family’s land, fighting to keep and care for it. And that is when I was able to write that poem, one of the most meaningful in the book for me personally.
EH: And then, given your own reading apart from the interviews, I’m imagining you had notes and transcripts galore. How did you sift through that research to arrive at these poems? Were you writing poems immediately after the interviews? Were you able to buffer your own views from what you heard?
EB: It was not a linear process. I would be thinking about someone, a historical figure like Arafat, for example. I began reading his biography and came across an interesting story his sister told about how as a child he would often skip school and create these elaborate scenarios for the other neighborhood children in which they were soldiers and he was the general. I found this fascinating given what and who he became.
I travelled to Israel and Palestine many times during the writing of this book. For my last trip, when I was already deep into the process and aware that I was making a book, I was given a grant to stay for several months. Before I left, when I was trying to figure out how to integrate all of the information and viewpoints into something cohesive, a good friend said to me, “You don’t have to worry about all of that right now. Right now, your mandate is to listen.” So that is what I tried to do. I tried to listen not just with my ears but with all of my senses. Not only to words, but to the experience of my body. I journaled every day. I spoke to many people who generously opened their homes and shared their stories with me, some of which were not directly included in the text, but which absolutely informed my understanding and experience of the place. It wasn’t until I was back home in New York that I was really able to process the information and begin to write the poems. As far as whether I was able to buffer my own views from what I heard and read, the answer is that although this book is connected to a highly charged political issue, my intent is for the poems to stand on their own as poems. Taken as a collection, I intend for them to create their own world, albeit shadowed by politics and history.
EH: The book is divided into three sections, and the third section seems to align most with the present. Yet there is a pleasant surprise in the rather unchronological order of the poems. Poems set in the 1920s and 1940s are sprinkled both at the beginning and in the middle of the book. This loosely impressionistic handling of time seems like a craft choice, but it’s also probably the meeting point of your own poetic ambition weighed against the desire to render political and social histories accurately. Because you were constructing such a thoroughly researched book, did you have reservations about folding time artfully rather than realistically?
EB: The manuscript went through many revisions before arriving at the final version that now makes up the collection. There is probably a previous version in which the poems are ordered more chronologically. However, because this book is more the story of my journey into the land, its history and its people, told through poems, rather than a chronological history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I didn’t feel bound by time as the organizing principal. I placed poems next to each other and in the various sections as a way of creating tension, sometimes through character, sometimes through imagery, sometimes through sound. I was more concerned with having the poems talk to each other than with adhering to the boundaries of chronological time and space.
EH: In the last decade of his life, the poet Mahmoud Darwish, who you quote a few times in the book, said “I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanize, and I think that the illusion is very necessary to push poets to be involved and to believe, but now I think that poetry changes only the poet.” Do you agree with Darwish here that poetry’s capacity to transform is powerful but perhaps narrow in who it affects? And have you, by way of example, changed by writing this book and by reading it in front of audiences?
EB: I both agree and disagree. Speaking personally, I know that the writing (and what led to the writing) of this book has changed me tremendously. I was forced—or invited—to take another people’s story into my body and consciousness. During this process, I lived with two narratives inside me, at times a very painful and confusing experience, especially given my family history and the different communities I am a part of. This was a huge shift for me and has profoundly impacted my life and the work that I do as an artist and educator. That said, as poets, or writers in general, I don’t think we really know what the impact of our work is. How can we? I know that there have been poems, Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living” and Carolyn Forché’s poem “Ourselves or Nothing,” for example, that have catalyzed me tremendously and made me want to work for a better world.
For the book release in May, I collaborated on a multi-media presentation of the poems in Eyes, Stones, along with live music and dance. After the performance, several people spoke to me about the power of hearing those stories—the two narratives—right up against each other. An Israeli woman came up to me and said it was clear to her that the work was coming from a place of deep love and that is what made it possible for her to hear and be moved by it. Another woman, Palestinian, said how much it meant to her to hear a Jewish woman sharing the stories of Palestinians alongside her own history. Who knows how that experience will impact these women, even in small ways, and how that might ripple out?
EH: Picking up on the previous question: for readers who are relatively removed from the region, what would you say has been the role of poetry in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Has poetry accomplished anything there, and might it do so in the future?
EB: Mahmoud Darwish is a national hero for the Palestinian people. Many know his words by heart. Yehuda Amichai, who writes very complex poems about his fractured experience as an Israeli, is a poet that Israelis celebrate. Young soldiers sometimes take his poems with them into battle for comfort. And those are just two examples . . . How do you measure accomplishment? In my mind, anything that adds to people’s willingness to hold nuance and complexity is key to creating a shift in perception and maybe, hopefully, that leads to action.
Eric Higgins has poems appearing in or forthcoming from Barrow Street, Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Mid-American Review, New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. A recent Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the recipient of a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, he holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston, where he was awarded the Inprint Verlaine Prize in Poetry. (12/2012)