Katherine Hollander is an historian and poet whose work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Literary Imagination, New German Critique, The Brecht Yearbook and elsewhere. Her first book of poems, My German Dictionary, won the fourteenth annual Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize from The Waywiser Press.
Dora Malech’s most recent book of poems is Flourish (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2020), and her poems have appeared in publications that include The New Yorker, Poetry, and Best American Poetry. She is an assistant professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
Katherine Hollander: Can we start by saying a little something about what we’re doing with this project?
Dora Malech: Sounds good to me! If I’m remembering correctly, you wrote a social media post to which I responded, wanting to do some sort of project that focused on new books of poetry whose authors can’t get out and celebrate or start conversations in person around their new books, because of the global pandemic. What were your initial thoughts or ideas in that regard?
KH: I think it was around the time that a few events that I’d been invited to do had canceled. These weren’t things I had planned for myself, but readings that had seemed to come up organically—by meeting someone at a reading, another poet, who would say, Hey, come read with me, when my new book comes out! It felt so lovely, like such generosity—I met about half a dozen wonderful poets this way—and then, of course, we had to postpone and then cancel. And I was aware of missing those opportunities but also of not being able to pass on that enthusiasm and generosity to others...
DM: I had been feeling similarly. My first reading from my new book of poetry, Flourish, was set for Thursday, March 12, with another Baltimore poet, Elizabeth Hazen, reading from her new book Girls Like Us, at a new location of a local bookstore called Greedy Reads. That Tuesday, I taught my last in-person class, and Johns Hopkins shut things down that evening. We canceled the reading, of course, but at that point there was still that sheepish feeling, like, are we all overreacting? Now, of course, I’m very glad none of us pushed to keep it going. Anyhow, I’ve been trying to harness some of that in-person energy online, and I was delighted when you suggested a project around new books. I’m particularly glad, in light of your comment about passing on the enthusiasm and generosity, that we’re interviewing poets who are in turn interviewing other poets. It feels more like a community.
KH: Yes! When my book came out—this was in November, so I feel really lucky that I did get to do about half of the readings I had scheduled—I was surprised in the best way by the way that, for lack of a better term, the “poetry community” (which I know is vast and varied!) sort-of took me in and lifted me up. It was a feeling of welcome and celebration, not just from poets I’d known a long time, but from new friends and colleagues. I’m really excited about the kind of branching interviews we have set up, with poets reaching out and interviewing other poets. It’ll be a little like a kinship tree!
DM: In studying poets of the past, we think so much about kinship and “groups” and “movements,” but when it’s closer to home, generationally, it just feels like friends. I like looking at those friendships through a more serious lens and making those conversations among friends public. Thanks for working with me on this! There are, however, so many voices we can’t include, since we’re limiting this conversation to poets with new books, and we’re putting it together in a limited time frame. Can I ask you who you would include in your kinship tree, even outside of this project?
KH: Oh! Sure, although I feel terror because I know I will forget someone important. In my work as an historian I actually do study intellectual networks and there are so many well-meaning ways to erase beloved collaborators. Historians of the future: You’re going to need to come in and clean up whatever I’m about to say! My first and dearest teacher, T. Hunter Wilson, who was for nearly five decades the poet and creative writing teacher at Marlboro College, is probably where my kinship tree always begins and returns to. Even all this time later, I found myself holding my breath a little talking to him about the book, his discerning judgment is so good. Later teachers, Louise Glück and Robert Pinsky; Robert has been such a champion of this book. Franklin Reeve. Sheila Gray Jordan. My closest poetry companion Chloe Martinez, and real comrades like Josh Mehigan, Brandy Barents, Sarah Green, Regan Huff, and Cate Marvin. Some friends, like Scott Sell and Talia Neffson, who don’t primarily write poems anymore—Talia I’ve known since adolescence and she now writes wondrous YA novels. Cory Nelson, who is a professor at USC, and the most attuned, supportive, sympathetic reader, whose eyes I’ve been lucky to have on my poems for 20 years. Somerville poets I admire, like Sandra Lim, Tanya Larkin, and Nicole Terez Dutton. Lovely new friendships that have come about since the book, with Jeffrey Harrison, David Blair, and Naomi Shihab Nye. And then some friends, like Elaine Johanson, who I’ll be interviewing later.
DM: I completely relate to that anxiety! I don’t want to miss anyone, and somehow these questions and investigations can feel zero-sum, like whoever’s included in one moment means someone else isn’t. Which isn’t the case at all. I fully understand that your tree has many more roots and branches! Though now that we’re talking about “genealogy,” I’m thinking of your beautiful poem “Why I Don’t Do Genealogical Research” in My German Dictionary. Knowing you’re a historian as well as a poet, one might go into your book expecting a certain kind of “information,” which I think your book subverts or complicates with its lyricism. What was that process like for you, in terms of self-as-historian writing a book of poetry, as opposed to scholarship? Or self-as-poet doing scholarly research, for that matter?
KH: Thank you for the compliment! That was the poem in the book that frightened me the most in writing it. I knew it would be so easy to get it so wrong and have it be monstrously offensive. Speaking of teachers, I had another teacher, a great historian and mentor of mine, who I kept in mind when I was writing that poem. I just thought, if I can write this so it won’t offend him, I’ll have succeeded. As for the process of the book...
DM: Sorry to interrupt—it is definitely a daring poem in that regard! Even calling it “beautiful” (which it is) felt not quite right to me. It takes this big imaginative leap that feels very taboo (imagining the souls of dead children, potentially dead relatives traveling into new and surprising bodies), but its absolute tenderness keeps it from coming anywhere near shock value. Anyhow, please go on!
KH: Thank you! I do find it really hard to put into words how the work I do as a poet is different from the work I do as an historian—imaginatively, intellectually. It makes me think so often of what Randall Jarrell said (and I’m paraphrasing) about how critics treat poets the way judges treat a pig at a bacon-judging contest: “Go away, pig, what do you know about bacon?” But in this case, I am 100% the pig. I feel as if the poems are of me, but I can rarely get my arms around how they walk around in the world (and that is a tortured metaphor for sure). I think, though, that what My German Dictionary is not is a “project book” (and this is not to put down project books per se). I didn’t set out to write a book about Central European history and culture. The book is what was made by me and of me as I was becoming a guardian, a professional rememberer—that is an historian—responsible for that material.
DM: That’s really beautiful. (Well, the part about being a guardian and professional rememberer is; the part about the pig is gruesome!) I admire so much that you have this book with the weight of the past—historical, familial, and personal—pressing against it, and there’s clearly that sense of responsibility, but the poems themselves have almost a levity, in the sense that they make these imaginative leaps, and feel almost a kinship with fabulism or Eastern European surrealism at times. To sound like “that guy” in a Q&A, that’s more of a comment than a question, I suppose. Though I am certainly curious if you see yourself in that tradition?
KH: I love “that guy.” Yes! I do. I was given one of those big art books as a child—I just checked the date, my family always writes in books, and I was ten—of Marc Chagall’s paintings. And I remember I would just look and look. This was, obviously, before the internet and being able to see so many images online at will—I would just stare at those paintings. There’s a deep sorrow but also a deep joy and whimsy and soulfulness there. And mystery. And connection between beings. But violence and tragedy, too.
I’m realizing that, although I love language and that there are poems and poets I so love—and in that tradition that you’re mentioning of course!—so much of what animates me as a poet is the image. May I ask you some questions about your work, which I think of as—maybe by contrast, although maybe not, and you can correct me—very much concerned with sound?
DM: Absolutely. And yes, I would definitely say that sound is kernel, catalyst, etcetera, for me.
KH: I’ve been struck, in reading Flourish, by the ways it’s different from your previous books. I have also been reading your first book, Shore Ordered Ocean, which is astounding in its technical virtuosity—in that book, it feels like you’re seeing what you can do with language, what you can make language do. And of course, with Stet, you prove it—you can make language do anything! In Flourish, there are still linguistic pyrotechnics, there’s still complex sonic rigor, but the poems feel looser, more conversational. Could you say something about that?
DM: It seems like a contradiction, but I will admit that I really made a concerted effort in Flourish to push myself into a looser, more conversational realm. I love sonic density in the poems that I read, but I also never want that to become a kind of hiding. I don’t want any register of speech or language to feel off limits. There are poets I read, who I love, but I also feel like I read them to “keep myself honest.” Elizabeth Bishop, for example. Poets who create the sense, especially in longer poems, of a mind in motion, correcting itself, moving back and forth in memory. This is incredibly challenging, and it requires work with syntax and tone and so much more. So as I was working on the really tight, dense, often fragmented constraint-based poems of Stet, I was pushing myself into a very different place with Flourish. I don’t want to have to choose between modes, though I do want to try to compartmentalize them less.
KH: It’s interesting that you say that sonic density (or virtuosity?) can be a kind of hiding. I’d love to hear more what you mean by that. It also leads me to something I’d been wondering about. Even if it’s less pronounced than in the other books of yours I’ve read, there is still so much wordplay in Flourish—like in “Personal Device,” that moment of “let’s say imago (like/the night is Jung).” HA! We’ve only met in person a couple of times—I have to ask, are you this punny in real life? Is this kind of wordplay a private cognitive pleasure that comes out in your poems, or are you doing this in your conversational speech?
DM: No one’s going to want to hang out with me post-quarantine if I admit to being that punny in person. But I will admit that my mind is always moving in that direction, making connections like that. I believe in my own right to my own pleasure, so I would never tell myself to stop doing what I enjoy! But it does make me put a lot of pressure on each poem during the revision process to make sure that I believe in its import as well as its impulse. But the title, Flourish, is partly a nod to that impulse toward the ornate, toward maximalism.
KH: We should probably all submit our poems to that kind of rigor in revision. A friend recently reminded me that during a big joyous reading at my local bookstore, Porter Square Books, I was asked something about the clarity of the images in the book and I said (and I have no memory of saying this, I was having such a great time I feel like I basically blacked out) something like “Well, I worked on them a long time til they were good.”
DM: That’s the secret! You got it! Speaking of Porter Square Books, I read there with some other poets for the Still Life with Poem anthology, and I embarrassed myself too! The folks there were so lovely, and they gave each reader a water bottle that says something like “I read at Porter Square Books.” They handed it to me, and I yelled, “It even has water in it!” Somehow, that seemed like the sweetest, most generous thing. Water! It certainly revealed the usual bar for a poet’s compensation.
KH: Porter Square Books is truly the best, everyone should check out their daily newsletter (started since the pandemic), it is glorious. But isn’t this kind of the secret of poetry, that on the one hand you just work til it’s good and on the other hand you are a pig who has no idea what poems are made of? Maybe that’s just me. And I say this as someone who is fond of all animals, including pigs. Like the dichotomy between craft and mystery.
DM: Yes, and for me, both come back to a kind of embodied knowledge. Like, both the “worked” and the “felt” come back to tuning in to other kinds of knowing than are usually dignified. I love it. And I love that your title points toward one kind of knowledge (the ordered information of the dictionary), but then the poems insist on the idiosyncratic, poetic way of inhabiting knowledge.
KH: I like that a lot! I feel like I kind of want you to explain my book to me (I won’t actually ask you to do that, though) since I often feel I don’t know how to explain it, and also because you are a kind of godmother to this book as an editor at Waywiser.
DM: I wish that role came with a wand.
KH: Wouldn’t that be great? I think you would use it responsibly. With a flourish!
DM: Well, despite my “say” being far from the final one in that process, I certainly take reading manuscripts seriously. That’s another role that I think can keep a sense of community, despite social distancing and so forth. We talked about bookstores; presses, similarly, are keeping a sense of community alive despite everything. I like that we have so many different presses featured in these interviews.
KH: Me too. And I feel that Waywiser is an especially lovely community. I’m glad of it. Speaking of the broader circle of interviews we’re creating here, maybe I’ll ask you one of the “shared” questions?
DM: Yes! Let’s talk about those before we end our conversation together.
KH: Here’s one that I’m especially curious about. Right now it seems as if people are turning to poems more than ever. What single poem from your book—or what theme or quality that runs through the book—would you most like to offer readers in this moment? Why?
DM: Hmmm... I suppose perhaps the quality of attention? I was going to say pleasure, since I mentioned it before, but I think that throughout the collection, close attention is what unlocks connections, raises complications, reveals pleasures. Attention to language, but also attention to the world, especially the natural world. Personally, I’m feeling numb and overwhelmed most days, and while I want and need to absorb the news constantly, the moments when I feel most present and alive and capable are the ones when I’m focusing back in on detail around me or a detail in a poem. What about you?
KH: Oh, I like that so much—the quality of attention, attentiveness. That is just right, and lovely.
I think in My German Dictionary there may be, in some poems, the offer of some consolation in this ruined world of ours that has so much suffering in it. I’d like to offer that comfort—and at the same time, I think in some poems, there is an austerity, an unwillingness to let go of judgment, a needing to hold the space to say how bad things can get. And not wanting to let us wiggle away from that. Walter Benjamin (well, somebody had to mention him, right?) says that the middle class is always saying, “Well, it can’t get worse than this!” and of course it can.
DM: I agree that your book doesn’t shy away from the sweep of history, but its own attention to specificity reminds us that those who “lived through history” were doing just what we’re doing, trying to live lives. It’s sobering. (And it’s not a conversation until someone mentions Benjamin.)
KH: Hmm, yes. To all of it. Specificity is important to me because I am, in all ways, a particularist. As a poet and as an historian. Maybe it connects to that beautiful attentiveness you talked about? And “living through” is what we hope to do, but the truth is, many people don’t.
DM: And it hurts to face it, but some of us “living our lives” really is zero-sum, if living our lives means looking away from what the powers that be are doing.
Sorry. This got away from poetry a little.
KH: That’s okay! Here’s another one, that specifically relates to just what you were getting at: Our books of poetry are entering the world in a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes. What other events—personal or historical—shaped the writing of your book, and how does the current moment make you read or think about your own book differently?
And, just to get it in there under the wire before we have to go, I really want to know your answer to this one: What’s a question you would want to be asked about your new book, and how would you answer it?
DM: There are poems in my book that are particularly influenced by living in America during the last decade. There’s a poem “Lake Roland Park” that most directly addresses both police brutality and hate crimes, but other poems are more implicitly infused with questions of violence, privilege, and reckoning, as well as questions of belonging and community. The current moment makes me notice all of the places that touch, intimacy, and connection (or the lack thereof) appear.
And as for a question I would want to be asked about the new book... I’m going to cheat and say that I’d love to be asked what I’m working on now, after Flourish! Mostly because I’ve been trying to write some poems about Judaism, since it’s something I haven’t really been able to address as I’d want to. I’m coming at it (probably not surprisingly) through the lens of learning Hebrew language. I don’t know if it’s a whole project—it might just be a few individual poems. But I thought of it because of your book’s opening lines in the poem “Confession (Invitation),” which I relate to so, so much:
I couldn’t be a good Jew, so I tried
to be a good historian. I couldn’t be
a good historian, so I wrote poems.
KH: Oh! Yes, it’s funny—I always say that in fact that sequence is completely in the wrong order, it happened exactly the opposite from how I say it does. But yes, I struggled for a very long time with all of this and now sometimes I think, Well, huh, I guess I just put it all there in the first poem. Whoops, guess that cat is out of the bag. I was having a conversation about that poem during a Q & A and I found myself talking about “the impossibility of being a good Jew,” but then I had to check myself and be like, “Then again, I don’t try very hard.” I’m so glad you relate, though!
I’m in awe of your prolific-ness! And I just want to acknowledge that I do feel in Flourish that tension between danger and harm on the one hand, and this kind of, well, yes, prolific flowering and flourishing. And the discomfort in that tension.
DM: I interviewed Ilya Kaminsky last year, and he described what he called a particularly “American silence” in the face of state violence. But we also make a lot of noise so we don’t have to hear the silence. Anyhow, the idea of being a “good” anything is such an interesting one, and one that I instinctively push against. Maybe that’s why I love poetry; the rules are most interesting as they’re being broken. How would you answer those questions?
KH: About how I read the book differently now: I’m chagrined at how little there is of the 1918 flu in there. There is a lot of the Great War, and the pandemic is absent. And that is at some level a result I think of something that we as historians need to look at and correct. We know more people died from the flu than during the whole war itself, but at some level—and I say this without rancor for any historian or towards the profession and subfield, and with respect for those historians who do study the flu—but at some level we treat it as a footnote. I’m humbled by that. When I lecture on the Great War and it comes to the flu, I think I have only a couple of slides on it.
As for the other question, I can’t really think of what I’d like to be asked, because then I would have to answer it! And I would just say, go ask Dora Malech, she’s got my number. I mean, like, she’s got all the insights.
DM: Ha! Well, I’m honored and happy to be the world’s foremost authority on the poetry of Katherine Hollander... for the time being. Seriously though, this has been such a pleasure talking with you, and I’m so glad that your brilliant book of poems is out in the world for all to read.
KH: That is really kind. This has been such a fun, terrific conversation for me, too, and I’m looking forward to more. I can’t wait to read your new poems . . . and go back to your already-published ones, too. I think they really reward rereading. There is just so much in there—like energy packed inside a seed! I love it. Thank you for talking!
DM: Thank you too! And take care.
KH: Yes. Stay safe and healthy.
Find Katherine Hollander’s My German Dictionary here.
Find Dora Malech’s Flourish here.