Marcela Sulak was born and raised on a rice farm in South Texas. I was born and raised on a rice farm in Eastern Arkansas. So, right away, I was drawn to her work. I got ahold of a copy of her first full-length collection Immigrant and was really impressed with it. I found her poetry to be very sensual and evocative, in a way that many poets attempt but few achieve. She was gracious enough to answer a few questions for me:
Me: How did you come to writing?
Marcela Sulak: Before I could read, my mother read to me. My mother also gave me a great appreciation for language because she always used the most fascinating verbs when setting us to chores. We were never to “give” the chickens our table scraps. We were always told to “fling” them or to “toss” them, for example. We looked forward to hearing how we were to dust the house and vacuum. My siblings and I tried to come up with better verbs for chores, and to anticipate her choices.
I grew up on a rice farm five miles outside of a town of about 250, so characters in books were often as real to me as the people around me. So it was natural to turn to theater, in which boundaries are blurred. On our farm, we had a two-story barn that my father and uncles no longer used, that we children commandeered. I wrote plays and we—my three siblings and three cousins who lived down the road—acted in them, using the barn’s trap door to great effect. I was not the oldest cousin, so I had to make the plays enticing to my older cousins, which meant they’d get the lead roles. Which meant I paid careful attention to subsidiary roles. This is great training for writing poetry.
Me: In Immigrant, you trace the histories of several civilizations through certain foods, like radishes. What is it about these foods or these cultures that interests you?
Sulak: My grandfather began rice farming in the first years it was introduced into Texas, in the 1920s, I believe. Much of the land was virgin land, meaning that no one had ever farmed it before. Nearby was cotton and sugar cane. I was fascinated by the way crops changed the landscape and the culture of a place. When I lived in Venezuela, I got to observe how class struggles played out in terms of who was given propriety over the land. I spent time on the llanos with a friend who was a biologist. I spent time with indigenous peoples on the Brazilian and Venezuelan borders, and listened to them explain their social structures in terms of the gendering of agricultural tasks (women grew yams and yucca. It was not men’s work). In the Czech Republic, I was fascinated by how you could take a walk and come home laden with all the food you needed for a meal (fruit on the roadsides, planted during the soviet years, chamomile, mushrooms). How the herbs had their own stories and healing properties. I suppose plants have always seemed alive to me. They have stories, and I loved hearing them.
Me: I have to say I’m drawn to the fact that you grew up on a rice farm in Texas. I grew up on one in Arkansas. Do you write about rice farming (or just farming) much? What sort of reactions have you gotten to it?
Sulak: All my life I have heard about Arkansas rice, but until now, I’d never met an Arkansas rice farmer, so I hope we can talk in greater detail about your farm.
In each of my books (chapbook, Immigrant, and now, the new one) I seem to have a Texas farm section. Finally, a friend and colleague told me, “you need to write your next book about rice farming in Texas.” So I’ve started research. But I’m a little nervous about it. My family has very strong opinions about such things as accuracy when it comes to depicting family stories. I generally tend to use stories as I use cookbooks—as suggestions for raw material.
Until recently, though, literature did not reflect the world if you lived in Texas. Standard fare in books published in American literary centers—Boston or New York in the North East, Chicago in the Mid-west—depicted things like snow! The first time I saw snow I was 22 years old and living in South Bend Indiana for grad school. They depict the changing of the leaves, four seasons, apple trees, subways or the elevated rail, commuter trains, maple syrup. When I read books set in Texas (I came late to Katherine Anne Porter), I feel a shock of recognition, as if some part of my life has been validated. That’s the reaction I’ve had from people who live in communities depicted in Immigrant. It’s a relief.
Me: Why “Immigrant”?
Sulak: Who isn’t an immigrant, or a descendent of immigrants? Almost no one in the world. And if we ate only foods that were indigenous to the lands on which we live, you’d be eating only corn, squash, beans, tomatoes, chocolate, and that’s only if you were lucky enough to have been born in Mexico. I wanted to show how connected all are to one another by virtue of the fact we are all immigrants—even the most seemingly permanent features of our cultural landscapes have been carried from somewhere else, too.
Me: Your writing is very evocative and appeals to the senses, while also engaging the mind with complex ideas. Which is more important for a poet, do you think?
Sulak: Thank you!
What is an object without an idea? We don’t even notice objects if they do not embody ideas or feelings. I think of a poem as an object that has been reconciled with its idea. The most potent poetry of ideas is often full of things: Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore, whose poetry is really about the mind at work. There are very few poets--Rosemary Waldrop (Driven to Abstraction) or Ellen Hinsey (Update on the Descent) that can write convincingly about abstract ideas without resorting to the senses.
I think through my senses. Sometimes I only know that I have an idea because of the way I feel, physically. I feel it in my body. So when I write, I hope that objects—sights, sounds, taste, smells--serve as portals to invite the reader into the world. They have to allow the reader to enter, and they must allow the reader to construct a reality for herself in that world. Generous poems share their bounty with the reader, and don’t ask readers to account for how they used this bounty.
Once I gave my students an exercise based on Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks and Two Talks. They were to walk for 60 minutes a day, and write down 60 sentences in the course of each walk. Just observations. Not reflections. One of the students read her observations to the class, and everyone responded with a version of “Wow, you really do not get along with your mother, do you?” She was shocked. She was, in fact, going through a tough spot, but she had no idea how we got that from her observations of a walk through a rose garden in Jerusalem.
Me: Would you mind telling me a little about your writing process: do you write every day, do you have a specific routine, etc.?
Sulak: I try to journal every day when I get back from biking my 5-year-old daughter to school. Before my daughter was born, I would journal for about half an hour in bed before my mind became engaged in other things. I try to journal in a way that would be interesting to read. But the content can be anything—the etymology of a word, a new strategy for dealing with motorcycles in the bike lanes in Tel Aviv, a draft of a poem, a recipe.
I try to set aside at least an hour for some kind of creative writing, either translation or poetry. When I say I spend days writing, I mean revising. It is rare I spend days simply creating something completely new.
But semesters in which I teach academic subjects, I usually reserve my writing days for critical articles. Then I will save Friday mornings, when my daughter is in school only half a day, for poetry. Sometimes, when I am working on academic articles, my mind goes off in tangents. I used to use a lot of footnotes, but now I collect the footnotes and put them in a file called “scraps,” and they are often where my poems come from.
But I always carry my notebook with me, everywhere and always. You never know when you’ll see or hear something that you must write down, in case you can use it later. I use about 5% of what I write down, probably. But the discipline of attentiveness, of being in the moment, is why I do it.
Me: What has the process of publishing a book been like? Have you enjoyed working with Black Lawrence Press?
Sulak: I love Black Lawrence Press. They are young, energetic, bursting with new ideas, and enthusiastic. Before I found them, I sent my little book to the requisite competitions for about three years, and was always a finalist in 3 or 4 each year. I discovered BLP’s open reading period and sent to them because I liked their catalog and have read almost every book of poetry they publish. Sometimes I’ve taught their books. The press feels like home.
Me: What’s your favorite poem from the book and why?
Sulak: Each of the poems serves a different function in the book, so it is difficult for me to answer that question, but I can say what I like most about the book’s reception is that people have noted that the poems never “exoticize,” and one reviewer said the book was light years ahead of current U.S. policies on immigration. That makes me happy because, though I wasn’t aware of the political implications of what I was writing at the time, I do believe that in so many countries, immigrants are the ones who do the hardest work and are often most loyal to their adopted countries, and though they are as much a part of the culture and social fabric as anyone else, they are so often feared and treated as scapegoats. I wanted to show how we are all, in a very real sense, immigrants, and I tried to do this by depicting the migration of fruits and vegetables through the world, and the importance of said fruits and vegetables to national or communal identities.
Me: Who are you reading? Who are your inspirations?
Sulak: At this very moment, I am reading the Israeli poet, Orit Gidali, whose work I am translating into English. Her work shows how “words carry with them the traces they have been,” by virtue of the fact it is in Hebrew. So her words carry on their backs Babylon, Egypt, Talmud, and they track biblical and diaspora sand all over her twenty-first century kitchen, bedroom, and through airport transit lounges. I also find the Arab-Israeli Taha Muhammad Ali’s So What? New and Selected Poems, translated by Peter Cole, emotionally intelligent and incredibly moving. Sadly, the Nazareth-based poet just passed away last year. Recently I’ve loved Heather Christle’s What is Amazing. Other poets whose recent work stays with me: Sabrina Orah Mark, Rachel Zucker, Steve Gehrke, Terrance Hayes, A. Van Jordan, Takashi Hiriade.
Me: What else are you working on now?
Sulak: I usually have several kinds of projects going at once, and I rotate focus on them, depending on deadlines or moods or schedules. I have just finished a poetry manuscript called (for now) The Ladies’ Guide to Hebrew, based loosely on 18th century manuals of etiquette, and also on etymologies of Hebrew words. Having moved to Israel 2 ½ years ago, I am still grappling with learning the language, but I love that Hebrew words are so thingy.
I am translating two volumes of the Israeli poet Orit Gidali, and through the process of translating, I have also responded with many of the poems that are in The Ladies’ Guide.
Finally, there’s an academic study of foreign and immigrant poets living in New York in the 1920s, writing what they considered “American” poetry, but often in languages other than English. I am interested in their depictions of time-space, and in their use of scientific discoveries, especially relativity, as well as their responses to technology.
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