Rubbing a pummeled sky: A Conversation with Yerra Sugarman about Aunt Bird – curated by Tiffany Troy

Yerra Sugarman is the author of three poetry collections: Forms of Gone, which received PEN American Center’s Joyce Osterweil Award for poetry; The Bag of Broken Glass, poems from which were awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship; and, most recently, Aunt Bird, a hybrid collection comprised of lyric poems, prose poems, and lyric essays published by Four Way Books in February 2022. Her chapbook From Her Lips Like Steam was published by the Aureole Press at the University of Toledo in December 2019. Her poetry, translations, and critical articles have appeared in Ploughshares, Colorado Review, The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature, The Nation, AGNI, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, among other journals. She holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston.

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem, “[I have nothing to see her with]”, set up the collection that follows?

Yerra Sugarman: “[I have nothing to see her with]” sets the book in motion as an exploration of a lost and silenced life, that of my Aunt Feiga Maler, who, when she was twenty-three, was murdered by the Nazis in the Kraków Ghetto during the Holocaust. The exploration proceeds through the book’s multiple poetic modes, forms, and genres; in fact, Aunt Bird has been described as a book-length elegy, to mention one particular genre. The book includes personification poems, such as those which give human characteristics to the letters of the Yiddish and Hebrew alphabet. There are also poems of witness (which I call poems of vicarious witness); surreal poems that unveil the unconscious mind in a dream-like style; persona poems, also known as dramatic monologues, that take on the voice of a real or imagined character; and documentary poems. Contained in Aunt Bird,are, additionally, lyric essays, prayers, and invocations that call on higher powers—muses, God, the dead—for assistance. The dead of the Holocaust are, in fact, truly my muses. I hope that isn’t inappropriate for me to say, but it has always been that way, and continues to be so for me. 

That first poem asks a question because it is impossible to comprehend genocide, and the human capacity to inflict suffering on others. The speaker is shocked, and also bewildered, into questioning and grasping her aunt’s fate. The search for meaning begins with startled inquiry, and, after all, consists mostly, as the poet Wayne Koestenbaum observes in his commentary on the back cover of the book, of “layers of conjecture, surmise, lament.” The multiple poetic practices that I decided to use, those I mentioned earlier, freed me up a bit: the way, in which, for example, that first poem allowed me to ask a question, and then liberated me into a book full of speculation. Using that multiplicity of poetic approaches gave me a kind of permission to do whatever I needed, within ethical boundaries, in order to understand what happened to my aunt, and to imagine the person she might have been had she not been murdered. The freedoms of form allowed for the risks I took with content.

I utilized documentary poems: those which employ preexisting cultural documents and archival materials. I used records kept by the Nazis, photographs, sometimes sections of books by other authors, family chronicles, and testimonies that recount my aunt’s life and fate. 

That first poem allowed me to delve into the unknown in many ways. Although there’s an element of the known clarified by the documents that I discovered, I wanted to also capture specific moments by looking not solely at the past, but also at current issues of local, national, and global significance. Directly or indirectly, that first question led me into a partially documentary mode, as well as into the imaginary, dream mode, and it contextualizes the whole sustained elegy. The documentary mode or genre, along with the others, I hope, is my way of creating poems that plead for social and political change and equity.

Tiffany Troy: I agree and deeply admire how Aunt Bird explores what is unknown, rather than try to pin it down. What initially drew you into writing about Aunt Bird?

Yerra Sugarman: I had, as a student, explored the poet Muriel Rukeyser and her text, The Book of the Dead, which she wrote in response to one of the worst industrial catastrophes in American history: the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster, which took place in 1931 in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Rukeyser was an innovator of the documentary poetic genre. In The Book of the Dead, she makes us of court transcripts, survivor interviews, and other investigative materials. Also, reading Charles Reznikoff’s publication, Holocaust, made me ask myself, “How do you approach this sort of testimonial poetry, poetry of witness, or vicarious witness in a certain sense?” Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead was published in 1936, and Reznikoff’s Holocaust in 1975. Other than the titles of the twelve parts of his book, none of the words in it are Reznikoff’s; they are all the rhythms of actual testimony taken from the U.S. government’s record of the trials of Nazi criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunal and the transcripts of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. Both of these texts, made me interested in how we can, as poets, talk about history.

Tiffany Troy: You wrote of your mother’s grief in losing her sister, and compared it to the grief in being unable to bury the dead in the Iliad. What drew you into writing about Feiga specifically?

Yerra Sugarman: I started off referring to Reznikoff and Rukeyser because I was very interested in this historical mode, that is, in approaching poetry through the lens of history.

What drew me to writing about my aunt? I tried, because I don’t know where her remains are buried, to pay tribute to her by erecting a monument—a headstone—made of words: by honoring her in a book of poems, the poems the material from which the headstone is constructed. 

I grew up the daughter of Holocaust survivors, or survivors of the Shoah, as it is referred to in Hebrew, in a community of survivors. I had very few relatives, and I knew very little about my relatives who were murdered by the Nazis. I thought, when I was a child, this was the way life was: that all people had experienced horrible, inhumane events at the hands of other people, and that their surviving descendants were left with almost no family members as a result of brutality. 

I also thought people came with numbers on their arms. The reason I assumed this was because survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp had numbers tattooed on their left forearm, serial numbers shockingly branded onto their bodies by the Nazis for identification purposes. In the community of my childhood, there were Auschwitz survivors with whom I was close, and so my assumption: to know adults who had had serial numbers branded on their arms was not unusual, as if the violent branding of human beings were normal.

In my community, too, people lived with, and suffered from, the fact that their loved ones had died in extermination camps by gas in gas chambers, then the bodies were burned in pits, pyres, or in crematorium furnaces. Some bodies were also buried in mass graves, and later burned, or not. Of course, the dead, whether murdered by gas or by other means, had no gravestones, no place marking, remembering, and honoring their individual lives. I wanted the book to be a headstone for my aunt, as I mentioned earlier, a monument commemorating her, although I had never met her.

I discovered the fact of her life because one day, when I was a little girl, I found a picture of a young woman standing at the top of a soaring staircase; she was gripping the handrail. I asked my mother who the woman in the photo was, and she answered that this was one of her sisters. She had two others, and this sister’s name was Feiga, the Yiddish word for bird. I was fascinated by the awe with which my mother recalled Feiga. 

Holocaust survivors, at least my parents and many of their friends, spoke of their experiences, if they spoke of them at all, in fragments. My mother told me in bits and pieces over time that my Aunt Feiga, who was the second eldest sister, was very scholarly and interested in books; she became a teacher. I identified with her. 

In 2006, I did an Internet search, through which I found information about Feiga. At that time, and to my knowledge, there was very little documentation on the Internet about people murdered by the Nazis. I found a page of testimony about my aunt in the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names at Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The testimony was provided by a cousin, Malka Anshel Shnitzer: it was a form testifying to Feiga’s life and death in Malka’s handwriting, or so it seemed. It was baffling to me, miraculous, really, to find this. My work toward the book started then.

In 2020, I found more information about my Aunt Feiga in the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was, actually, a Nazi document which Feiga herself appears to have filled out: a form completed by the Jewish inhabitants of Kraków, Poland, in 1940 in response to a Nazi order. In 2008, I traveled to the city. I did so specifically because I wanted to work on some sort of poetry collection, but I didn’t know, exactly, what it would be. In 2011 and 2012, I wrote much of the first draft of Aunt Bird and put it aside because I was worried about the ethicality of appropriating the material, about the morality of the whole project: a text in which I try to understand the horribly ineffable—what happened to Feiga—and in which I also give her a voice, although I had no true idea of what she thought, what she dreamed of, what she suffered.

Tiffany Troy: Do you want to speak about that?

Yerra Sugarman: Oh, absolutely. There were people who didn’t know me well, who, after reading parts of the project, wondered if I understood its moral complexities. I’d done a lot of research in relation to Holocaust representation and the representation of genocide and trauma. The moral principles at stake loomed over me the entire time I wrote Aunt Bird.

It’s something that the Israeli author and Holocaust survivor Aaron Appelfeld, discusses during an interview many years ago with Irving Howe. Appelfeld essentially stated in Yiddish, that you cannot ethically, cannot effectively, represent the Holocaust directly; you shouldn’t dare, he cautioned. 

Now, what does appropriation mean? 

For me, appropriation is what authors do, frequently, in imagining characters, situations, scenes, plots. This doesn’t mean that what is referred to as “cultural appropriation,” that is, when members of a majority group assume cultural elements of a minority group in exploitative ways, should be tolerated at all. I am thinking, instead, in terms of an author creatively and respectfully using well-research material in order to make a work of art that enlightens its readers. 

How did I translate this into poetry? 

I was really trying to represent my aunt’s particular experience. 

Elie Wiesel said that the only true witnesses of the Holocaust were the people who died during the Shoah. It was a big problem, then, to represent my aunt by means of my vicarious witness, through stories told to me about her, and the testimony I found. But I had to weigh the problem of silencing my aunt completely with at least creating a prism of her life.

I didn’t pick up the manuscript again until 2019. I took it out of the figurative “drawer” on my computer because of what was going on in America and around the world with the rise of far right-wing extremism, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, antiimmigrant sentiments and actions. It felt like it might be timely to bring out Aunt Bird,although there was the issue of taking on, or appropriating, someone’s voice, and, of course, it was impossible for me to understand the kind of suffering Feiga had endured, the kind of life she had lived.

Tiffany Troy: Documentary poetry is fundamentally written by the survivors, who put themselves in the shoes of the dead in some way. You touch a lot upon the questions that it raises, and you successfully utilize the different poetic forms to tell your aunt’s story from your vantage point. The beginning poems of the sequence, for instance, very clearly identify your role as the niece looking upon your aunt. That allowed me as a reader to understand the broader trauma, intergenerational trauma, from the Holocaust rooted and contextualized in the specific character of Aunt Feiga and the broader suffering of the Jewish people at the time.

Do the different poetic forms lend themselves to the different ways in which you proceed through the narrative?

Yerra Sugarman: I think the forms liberated the poems into entering that perilous territory of appropriation, and also into the perilous genre of elegy itself. Elegy is poetry that can elevate somebody else’s tragedy into music, into song: in other words, it can use another person’s suffering to create a work of art. As I mentioned earlier, the varieties of forms I employed opened me up to taking risks with content, such as the risk that writing elegies engenders.

I engaged in this very strange melding of surrealism, imagistic poetry, persona poems, documentary poems, and open form poems with varied line lengths. I also used the lyric essay. I felt an opening to do so after having studied with Marilyn Hacker, Phillis Levin, and Molly Peacock, among other poets, who are pivotal in the ways in which they make use of received forms, and metrical poetry. I was very aware of shifting line lengths in my work, and of being a little formally erratic in Aunt Bird.  But, interestingly, studying with those poets, and the formal knowledge that they imparted to me, gave me a kind of dispensation, an exemption from preconceived ideas, the freedom to experiment with forms. That freedom liberated the content of the book.

Tiffany Troy: Yes, and I particularly love how there are prose blocks for more factual sections that proceed more rapidly and spaced-out monostiches that gave me pause to reflect.

Yerra Sugarman: It’s funny how poetry and even the lyric essay (which is arguable as to its status as a form—is it poetry or prose, a kind of creative nonfiction?) liberated me into taking the risk of crossing what is thought of as forbidden borders.

Tiffany Troy: There are recurring motifs that I noticed in Aunt Bird: the birds, the fruits and flowers, the sky, and the alphabet. 

How do you create variation with each iteration? In what ways do the motifs bridge or showcase the erasure/ rejection with the Holocaust that you document?

Yerra Sugarman: I do use, and sometimes personify, those motifs to avoid cliche, or to avoid—to borrow Hannah Arendt’s word—“banality.” In the case of Holocaust representation, I try confronting the problem of how to prevent the reader from becoming too accustomed and inured to the horror of genocide, or to think skeptically, “Oh, she’s going to talk about the trauma of the Holocaust,” as if it were a worn-out subject matter in art.

As I mentioned earlier, in relation to Aaron Appelfeld’s caveat, any meaningful literature on the Holocaust, Maus by Art Spiegelman, for example, finds fresh ways of approaching this unspeakably horrifying event to keep it from being forgotten, and, in a sense, to keep it consecrated. I also think about Theodor Adorno’s warning. He famously said, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This can be understood to mean that to sing—to write lyric poetry after the fact of the Nazi extermination camps—is an ethical violation. In other words, how dare anyone use this event for the purpose of making art? 

But I interpret Adorno’s words to suggest that to enter into this territory, the subject matter of the Holocaust, and to represent it in art, one must proceed with caution, with an awareness of the risks involved. Another risk an artist takes is the danger of making use of stock, hackneyed, or cliched imagery, overly-familiar representations, which would, I think, inevitably lead to erasure of a consciousness about the Holocaust. The readers or audiences, seeing the same, overly-used images again and again, become numb to them, or prefer to avoid them. The motifs I employ, and the ways in which I present them, are attempts at invigorating and making “fresh” the content, so that it is not forgotten or turned away from. 

How do you keep it fresh? 

I think of Auden’s poem “Refugee Blues” in which the birds mentioned are free, but Hitler’s victims are not. The seemingly innocuous natural world in the poem is simply its usual self, while this horror happens, while people are traumatized, violence perpetrated against them, while they are being annihilated. I wonder, “How could the scenic natural world have been indifferent?” I try to give it a chance to bear witness, if you will.

There are the recurrent ideas or the larger themes of memory and grief, and how to make grief “habitable” (a term I took from the poet Eavan Boland), how to use the past as a lens through which to see the present, and how to integrate the grief over and memory of that past into our daily lives, so as not to repeat the horrors.  I’ll mention, ironically perhaps, a very controversial literary critic and theorist: Paul de Man. After he died some of his writings, previously unspoken of, were rediscovered and they turned out to be pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish propaganda he had written for a wartime French newspaper. But he conceives of the term “ruthless forgetting,” which I find memorable. I want the everyday world around us, daily life, to counteract the way in which our culture utilizes the anodyne of amnesia to ruthlessly forget. 

I engage with those motifs as a means of forestalling that sort of “callous forgetting,” to make grief something we could live with productively daily, fold into the rituals of our quotidian lives. I thought a lot of the scholar Judith Butler and her theory concerning valuable means of grieving: to have a deeper understanding of mourning and violence that could, then, inspire a “quest for global justice and solidarity.” 

I do want to say, in reference to my utilization of the alphabet, especially the Yiddish alphabet (Yiddish is a different language from Hebrew, but frequently uses the same script), it—the Yiddish language—was a casualty of war, if you will. There is a resurgence of it now, but for a long time Yiddish was considered “a dead language” because of the great number of  European Jews who had used it, and who were killed during the Shoah. The language itself suffered an annihilation. Yiddish was my first language, so it was important to me to have letters of the its alphabet be characters in the book.

Tiffany Troy: There is such tremendous sorrow captured with a refocusing on the natural world, with the hibiscus red sky and the pale blue handkerchief of the sky. Your poems show us how nature is gorgeous even amidst this insanity, both back then and now, and how ruthless forgetting is a part of our daily lives.

How does translation play a role in the collection? There’s literal translation, of course, but also the translation in persona poems, and the translation of the grief that you feel into the poetic sequence. 

Yerra Sugarman: The art of translation, literally, is very important to me, because I do translate poetry from Yiddish into English. I’ve translated some French poetry as well, but, as I mentioned, Yiddish was my first language, so I focus on it. In a way, I’m always translating from Yiddish into English, even in my daily speech, whether it’s indirectly, unconsciously, I listen for Yiddish’s tones and modulations in my mind. The way I speak is inflected by Yiddish, and my emotional relationship to it. Translation became important to me, because, until the Holocaust and the annihilation of six million European Jews, Yiddish was the everyday tongue of eleven to thirteen million Jewish people worldwide. Continuing to engage with Yiddish in my poetry is my way of keeping the language alive, of breathing new life into it from the perspective of a secular Jewish woman.

Translating Yiddish, along with my specific experience of the language, especially having grown up among Holocaust survivors who always spoke it amongst themselves, became a way to honor lost—annihilated—European Jewry, the people murdered, the culture erased, and of avoiding committing the violence that is forgetting itself.

Getting back to appropriation, I felt, and feel, a very close identification with my aunt, but, of course, she was mainly part of my childhood imagination initially. I wanted to give her a chance to speak, when I became an adult. I used what little I knew of her, and even the photograph in my mother’s album of Feiga, which I saw when I was young. 

I knew my aunt aspired to do something that men usually did, which was to study the Torah, and to be a scholar. From there, I imagined her as someone who’d grown up in a religious household, and who had the same feelings many of us have. In the act of appropriating her life, I was engaged in an act of translation. 

I had to translate my life in relationship to hers. I started out with the notion of how she “blossomed” in my room because it was in my bedroom, in 2006, that I discovered archival information about her on the Internet. There’s a kind of childlike tone to my exploration of Feiga’s life, a kind of innocence, and she has a certain innocence as a character in my book.

Then how do you translate the whole thing? The whole unspeakable event and how it affected Feiga? 

Well, you don’t. 

As Wayne Koestenbaum astutely wrote, Aunt Bird is so much about surmise and conjecture, based on a monumental fact of history. 

How do you translate that? How do you translate those whom we call ghosts or spirits, or the dead? 

Tiffany Troy: Do you have any closing thoughts that you want to share with your readers?

Yerra Sugarman: I want to return to this notion of “ruthless forgetting.” I hope somehow that we find a means as a people, a culture, a world, not to succumb to this cultural ethos, this spirit of our time prescribing to us a dangerous anodyne: that painkilling drug of forgetting. 

It’s one factor only, obviously, but it’s a huge factor that results in genocides, in crimes against humanity when we go into a state of amnesia. As painful as it can be to remember, I hope we can find a way to achieve what Judith Butler suggests, to integrate mourning into our lives in order to give rise to “global justice.”

There is a great deal of discourse that considers the poetry of mourning and refers to diverse texts about mourning itself. Freud, for example, wants mourning to be “healthy.” He means one should find resolution, and replace the deceased with another object of love. Many poets want mourning to be anti-elegiac, to not idealize the dead, as so much post-World War II American poetry has been. I hope that our mourning can be real, and, somehow, that it can be used as a means to inspire solidarity and a quest for global equity, as Butler suggests it could be.