Books In Conversation
JUDITH BAUMEL with Catherine Parnell
(Arrowsmith , 2019)
I no longer recall which walk of life brought me to Judith Baumel’s door, a porta I walked through years ago only to be humbled and dazzled by her words, her life. A poet, essayist, teacher, and traveler, Baumel is a modern-day seeker, wresting meaning out of the past and holding it up to the present. I am amazed by the way her brain works—the associations she draws from a single observation. Take, for example, her posts on social media: a tree with a gash in it becomes a “grimacing tree,” swallows flying are “doing their amazing hydraulic thing,” and finally, upon seeing a stone fascist eagle atop an entryway in Rome, “our eyes insist our hearts and mind remember.” As reviewer Drew Swinger wrote in Consequence Magazine, “… how can one not recommend a poet for whom the salt in a Sicilian eatery ‘tasted of sacrifice’? This is a poet who is restlessly tinkering and extending the bounds of her art.”
Baumel is on a journey, and her poems mark time and space. What follows is a conversation about the place and meaning of poetry today, including poetic meet-ups with Virgil, Ovid and Theocritus, and a stroll through Italy and the Bronx. Passeggiate. Walk with us.
Catherine Parnell (Rail): Every time I turn around you’re going to or coming back from Italy. Why Italy?
Judith Baumel: Italy is my happy place and my mysterious love. The art above all moves and provokes me. The people are wonderful. Italy is a country where every five miles you can find a new village which is different from every village you’ve ever seen before. It will have amazing art, an interesting history, a special food, a particular custom and you realize you will never know everything about this country. You could say the same thing about each neighborhood in the big cities.
Rail: I visited you in Castiglione del Lago in Umbria and was captivated by the depth of your knowledge and the level of familiarity with the area. I’ll never forget swimming in the clay-like lake, thinking about the history of the region. You have a special affinity for that area—how did that come about?
Baumel: My oldest and dearest friend in Italy, Fernando Cialini, lives in Perugia and has a family house on Lake Trasimeno. I’ve written about Naraò and the area in every one of my books. “Privately-in-Public and Not Publicly-in-Private” has just one line but it brings back the summers when my kids swam in the lake. You know how shallow and murky it is. My kids did not like to go barefoot in it. But the silt and mud would suck their sandals off and there was a lot of drama around that.
Rail: You posted images on Instagram the year you were in Italy on sabbatical. What do they (the photographs) have to do with your own artistic and creative "reckoning"? What was being captured and why? How did it bleed into your poetry?
Baumel: It was two years ago. I was living alone in Italy and I set myself the practice of writing at least 250 words of a letter to my friends every day. I posted that letter to Facebook along with a single photo from my day before. I felt free to be discursive, silly, dead serious, full of awe, to report on my ordinary frustrations living in a foreign county and my inspirations living in such a beautiful country. I felt very noisy in those letters. On Instagram I decided to be silent. I posted one picture of something I had seen the day before. I usually shared a closeup of a hand from a work of art. Most of those hands were holding books or pens or tools or textiles. Sometimes I shared an image of a circle. It felt oddly profound to me. I was looking very closely at something very human. But when I got home, I discovered that my followers couldn't make sense of what I was doing. Most of the "likes" it turns out were sympathy votes, at best.
Rail: Sympathy votes? I know when I looked at your photographs I was looking for detail, and your images were very much on my mind earlier this fall. I moderated a panel on the complexities of war at the Boston Book Festival 2019, and one of the panelists was Maaza Mengiste, author of The Shadow King (2019). One of the characters in her novel is an Italian military photographer during the 1935 Italo-Ethiopian War. Mengiste said (in a tweet), “I’m fascinated by what’s visible and what remains invisible, but may still be discernible. I want this book to consider the concept of #photography—and more broadly, the concept of image—and complicate it by thinking about it as a weapon of #war.” How does this speak to the imagery in your book, some of which address war?
Baumel: Oh dear. That’s a horrible blot on Italian history which Italians still struggle with, not always well. And regarding what is visible and invisible, the iconography of Fascism still punctuates the visual landscape of Rome. One example is the Gioventù Italiana de Littorio (GIL) building near my apartment in Trastevere. GIL was the Fascist Youth Organization. The 1933 center is one of architect Luigi Moretti's first major projects and it’s beautiful. It had been closed for a while and reopened as a regional cultural center while I lived in the neighborhood. The renovation was weird. But weirdest of all was they kept the huge marble relief running the height of the central atrium. It declares the famous Mussolini slogan "Noi Tireremo Diritto.” Rough translation: “We Shall Go Forward.”
Rail: The title of your book shouts “international” to me, as well as the idea of passage. Tell me more about the title of your book.
Baumel: It means “Strolls” in Italian. You’ve seen passeggiate in Italian movies. They are those pre-dinner strolls to see and to be seen. You get up from your afternoon nap, dress, and walk up the main street of town stopping maybe for a chat, a coffee, an aperetivo. It still happens, even in big cities, and it’s such a contrast to the American rush, rush rush. The word reminds me of the Yiddish for strolls: “Shpatzirn.” These nice sibilants extending our sound as if the swish of the walk were inherent in the word. My grandmother was a dressmaker and she understood a good shpatzir. Oh, one other thing. I saw once an etymology that says the Yiddish word comes from the Italian, “spaziare” or “space.” Possible. I want to believe this because it confirms what I love about the way language seeps and spills around the globe.
Rail: You’ve chosen to write pastoral poems. Why?
Baumel: Classical pastoral poems are dialogue poems between stock characters. The soldier and the farmer, the city slicker and the country bumpkin, the man and the woman, etc. I love the possibilities that playing with character opened up.
Rail: And so much of your poetry focuses on the classics, the ancients, the myths, the history. Why this looking back? Why Virgil? Why do you think he matters in today's world?
Baumel: Virgil matters. Virgil matters so much. Homer matters too. Theocritus. The Bible. Everything that we are experiencing in Trump’s America and Erdoğan’s, Kim Jong-un’s, Al-Assad’s, Netanyahu’s, Putin’s, Orban’s world happened before. We need the long view of the poets who saw and described, who saw and understood, who saw and fought, who saw and comforted.
The personal answer to “Why Virgil?” is a combination of happy accident and lucky destiny. The happy accident came in my first trip to Sicily. I use poetry and fiction as travel guides to new places. So I cracked open my Theocritus, Virgil, Ovid and discovered that the landscape descriptions were often precise. And even better, I discovered that local people talked about the events and places of these ancient stories as if they were recent history. It’s like being in Israel and having someone point out the cave where King David cut a piece of King Saul’s robe.
The destiny is that I was a student of Robert Fitzgerald when he was completing his translation of The Aeneid. He and I talked, a bit, about the project. And we talked a lot about his ideas about translation. Fitzgerald shaped me as a poet and I’m always discovering new ways his influence shows. By the way, Fitzgerald had a house near Trasimeno.
Rail: Any other teachers who influenced you?
Baumel: I feel that I’m lucky enough to have come up in a glittering time. Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Shore, Peggy Ellsberg were my teachers. And in the crowd around them were people who have been lifelong teachers: Gail Mazur, Lloyd Schwartz, Frank Bidart. Pretty lucky, no? And I haven’t even mentioned my fellow students who were already formed poets and went on to publish poetry and other books. Mary Jo Salter, Megan Marshall, George Colt, Carol Moldaw, Miriam Sagan, Marty [Martin] Edmunds, who is another Arrowsmith author, to name just a few.
Rail: A glittering time as opposed to a time when mirrors are being smashed and truth is devalued or lost in the name of fake news, right? Does poetry tell a truth history cannot?
Baumel: First I want to step away from any idea of truth (multiple, relative, definitive, etc.) as an abstract noun. But I think I know what you mean. I'm always trying to find out what happened. I love reading journalism and history and especially biography where I can learn the where and the who and the how. Poetry tells you all these things by engaging with the features of language. Poetry depends on the particularities of sound – sometimes lovely and sometimes strange –. Poetry requires the possibilities of silence, the history of words, the many kinds of resemblances and distortions our many languages offer. Even such simple poetic phrases as "To be or not to be that is the question" (Shakespeare, Hamlet) or "Rose is a rose is a rose" (Gertrude Stein, "Sacred Emily" deliver information through their matchy-matchy rhythms and sound play.
Rail: Matchy-matchy—I love that. As citizens of this country we reap benefits, but we also have obligations. A match, right? So, what is the obligation of the poet in a time of cultural chaos—violence towards women, immigrants, Jews, and anyone perceived as “other”? How does civic responsibility match up with creative effort? How do current events affect your life and work? Are you as sleepless as the rest of us?
Baumel: To the extent that the poet is a citizen, the poet has an obligation to do what she can to counter the cultural violence. And to the extent that the citizen is a poet, writing is the work that is most meaningful. I’ve struggled in the last few years to have an optimism that poetry can “make a difference” or “help” which is something my students feel convinced is a proper goal. On the other hand, I am dedicated to being a witness to our broken world. Those Facebook posts we talked about before (When I was on sabbatical in Italy during 2017–2018) kept circling around my sense that I had run away from Trump’s America and found myself absorbing Italy’s long political and artistic history of countering tyranny. Cat, do you remember when you asked me to develop my post about dry wall building in Tuscany for Consequence Magazine, it turned into a commentary on how literary walls can teach us something about Trump’s big beautiful wall? And do you know that your nudge then helped me understand the memoir I’m writing. I’m halfway through. I’m pretty sure it will look at the poets and the painters who have been witness to political horrors.
Rail: Publishing the piece about wall building in Tuscany gave me a chance to rethink the idea of walls. It's basic. They divide; they imprison; they support; they contain. But look at the work that goes into the building of the wall itself, and from there move to the idea of BUILDING. Who are you looking at in your memoir?
Baumel: Right. I’m working with Virgil, the small-town kid from the provinces who made good and then did bad in the big city. He died trying to get back to the center of the Empire. Dante, of course, who offers a kind of encyclopedia to the landscapes, to the stories and characters in the history of Italy. Giacomo Leopardi. And then the 20th century—Carlo Levi, Primo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante. Also Iris Origo an Anglo-American who was an unlikely and very brave resistor to the Fascists. These are just a small few. Some of the painters that I’m thinking about are Giotto, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio. Lorenzetti’s “Good Government/Bad Government” frescoes in Siena are astonishing.
Rail: Let's back up a little. Draw a line between Virgil, the times we live in, and one of your poems. How does it help us to know what happened before? Does that have the power to change us? For example, when faced with LGBTQ issues, I often think of Corydon's sheer emotion in Eclogues. The truth of the emotion gives me strength, which is much needed in these times when people are being chopped off at the knees. I guess I'm wondering how you carry the poets who "matter" in your work and in your life.
Baumel: Throughout the Eclogues Virgil is asking what’s the point of poetry, and what’s the collateral damage of war. Lines 11–13 of the ninth Eclogue pretty much sum this up. David Ferry has it as “What can music do/Against the weapons of soldiers? When eagles come,/Tell me what doves can possibly do about it?” I pretty much stole those lines for the beginning of “For Major Adam McKeown.” The poem grew out of letters between me and a friend who was stationed in Djibouti. He’s a writer and a professor of Shakespeare and also a committed Marine reservist. He was stationed in the desert on a bleak but secure international base. It was so hot there, that the gift boxes had to have a special kind of chocolate that wouldn’t melt. He couldn’t tell me what he was doing but it was pretty clear to me they were operating drones. So our letters were a bit coded, skirting around the moral hazards in favor of talking about birds. Once, after he came back I saw in his car trunk his super-duper bulletproof vest. I didn’t know what it was; he had to identify it. He talked about how incredibly uncomfortable it was, he’d paid for it himself and now, back home he kept it available just in case. Just in case? I realized our worlds were really different.
“After the Battle of Long Island, the Battle of Pell’s Point” has me as a dispossessed Meliboeus trying to come to terms with 9/11. It’s almost exactly what happened to me that day. I was already out on Long Island teaching my 9 a.m. class. I couldn’t get home to the Bronx and my own kids (Pell’s Point) because all the bridges in the tri-state area were shut. It was hard to know what I felt and what I thought that day. I still have too many conflicting ideas. So I imagined a Tityrus who was offering me, as happens in the first Eclogue, small creature comforts. But wait! Hold on! Life is not normal! People are being taken out of their cars and shot dead, or what did you say, Cat?—chopped off at the knees! How do we reconcile this? I think we don’t.
“I Too Was Loved by Daphne” is about the last days of a friend who died of ALS. “On the Deaths of Boys” started with a true story of three teens who drowned trying to row across the Sound to Hart Island from the Bronx. They were in my son’s circle and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I was about as grief stricken as one can be without actually being in mourning. In the poem I’m talking to the Fates, the ones that spin and measure and cut our lives. Milton’s outrage and refusal to accept fate in “Lycidas” is the model here. And if you don’t know what Hart Island is, well, it’s got an incredible history. It’s currently the potter’s field for New York. And the teens who are locked up in Rikers Island Detention Center are brought over to dig the graves and bury the bodies. Can I talk about Rikers Island? I better not get started, I’m so glad it’s being closed.
On the very other side of the spectrum is the life-affirming “Siracusa” which talks about my meeting a trans woman who was the ticket taker at the Fountain of Arethusa in Ortygia, Siracusa. This seemed a perfect coincidence, or maybe it was more than that. The Fountain marks the site where Arethusa escaped the river God Alpheus by transforming into a fresh-water stream. Ovid offers one version of the story. Virgil makes it a bit darker in the Georgics.
Rail: Tell me about the characters and conversations in your poems.
Baumel: Using characters means that I can debate with myself the varieties of responses to the world. Sort of like Wallace Stevens writing “I was of three minds/Like a tree/ In which there are three blackbirds.” And true conversation enables people to think differently and change their minds.
Rail: Your NYC launch was at St. John’s in the Village with a concert of songs by Sidney Boquiren featuring soprano Amber Evans. Boquiren’s songs are settings of three poems in the book and there’s one song by Tom Cipullo from your first book. How did this all come about?
Baumel: A friend of mine has recently become Rector of St. John’s in the Village. That’s Greenwich Village, with its tradition of art and social activism. Everywhere Graeme has served he’s been dedicated to creating new music. I think that’s a really important part of the modern Anglican church in which he was trained.
Do you know of the annual Christmas Eve program at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, “A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”? The poet Frederick Morgan told me about the program years ago. When he stopped being able to attend he would listen to the radio broadcast. They commission a new carol every year. My friend George Szirtes wrote the 2015 poem “The Flight.” It’s an incredible poem about the world-wide refugee crisis. As a Jew, George had to leave Hungary in 1956. He translates from Hungarian and has been an advocate for democracy in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) for a long time. Before Hungary completely shut its doors, George worked at the railroad stations and barricades, helping refugees.
I’ve wandered away from your question about how my poetry came to be set to music. I want to say it’s important to me because beauty is a spiritual good and a strong spirit can fight for justice in the world. It’s why I will one day go to the Lessons and Carols. Meanwhile, on a side note, two years ago I got to see my godson married in the King’s College chapel in front of the Peter Paul Rubens’s Adoration of the Magi (1633–34) which is only opened for special occasions. It was a really special occasion.
Right, right. OK. Back to the music. When Graeme told me the Church would like to commission new music that sets my poems I immediately thought of Sidney. He is a friend and colleague at Adelphi. I love his music. He collaborates with all sorts of artists. He is brilliant and brave and woke. The Washington Post called his work “distinctive … with strong, clear musical lines [that] move jagged emotional tension to lyrical.”
Rail: All of us struggle with finding time to write, and I know you’re exceptionally busy. How do you balance reading and writing, family, and work—and then find time to relax?
Baumel: I don’t think about balance and never have. I’m an up and down kind of person so I do most things in spurts, usually at the last minute. I’ve been teaching full time for over 30 years. I built the MFA program and ran it. I could only write during January and a part of the summer. Being at a residency like Yaddo or Saltonstall (my two favorites) is an incredible gift because the only thing I have to think about is my reading and my writing and my naps. After my kids were born I had to take a long hiatus on that kind of luxury. I also helped take care of my parents as they aged. Five years ago I was up at Saltonstall in Ithaca, New York in January. I got a phone call that my father was failing and I should get home as soon as possible. It wasn’t easy—there had been a heavy snow and the colony plow wasn’t due until morning. As I dug my car out I kept thinking that this is what life is. There’s always something more important than the writing.
Rail: As a writer, where is your artistic home?
Baumel: What do you mean?
I prefer to write in bed and tend to structure my day the way Edith Wharton did. Drafts and dreams and notes first. Letters next. Polishing work after that. Lots of reading in between, and something that Edith Wharton never took advantage of, a few rounds of “Two Dots” on my phone.
Rail: No, I meant is there a place on earth that pulls at your heart? For example, much of my work explores my odd mixed world, which is to say in my heart I'm Canadian, but legally I'm an American born in the South because my father was in the Air Force. My Canadian mother never let me forget that Canada is my true home, and when I sit down to write, my eyes go across the border. Where do your eyes go?
Baumel: I’m a Bronx girl. Born, raised, and residing (as a local cable TV ad for a personal injury lawyer declares). I’ve written about The Bronx in all my books. I can’t count the ways I love the borough. There is extraordinary natural beauty, for example the Botanical Garden has the only old growth, pre-Columbian forest in the city. The Hudson River is a flyway for migrating birds and the inlets at Pelham Bay are home to rare water birds. History—Anne Hutchinson, the homes of New York State governors, the first American born saint Mother Seton, JFK, Sonia Sotomayor. So much great literature. Wild geological formations that shape our vistas. The borough offers wonderful art and a street life that enlivens. I admit that the food is not as good as Queens. In sum, the Bronx is much more than Charlotte Street and “The Bronx is Burning” and the barren neighborhoods that Robert Moses devastated.
Rail: An attachment to community, to neighborhoods – that’s something we all seek, but don’t always find. I often hear from writers looking for community, for support, for like-minded souls. What would you suggest? What's going on in the literary community these days? Which groups do you find most helpful and supportive, and why?
Baumel: I think that formal groups such as The Poetry Society of America and AWP, to name two that I have served, offer a helpful structure for writers who are coming up and looking for community. But I also think it’s important for young writers to build their own roads. They should build the roads they want to walk on, the ones they need that are not yet built. My publisher, Askold Melnyczuk, famously started Agni in his basement. AWP was started on a shoestring by writers who realized that the venerable MLA wasn’t going to meet their needs as teachers. It’s instructive to read about how Harriet Monroe invented Poetry magazine. Heck, pretty much any institution you can think of was once upon a time just a glimmer in the eye of a determined person.
Rail: Speaking of community, I’ve had the rare good fortune to be working with David Ferry on his translation of The Aeneid (2017), and not long ago I asked if I might read him your “Passeggiate and Cena in Erice” (Book V of The Aeneid). When I finished he sat back in his chair, eyes wide, and said, “Beautiful.” He refused to elaborate, just said “Beautiful” again. I was thrilled, but curious, so the other day I asked him why “beautiful” and why poetry matters. He referenced Wordsworth (ah, the pleasure), and then we got into a heated discussion about what readers bring to a poem and what they leave with. In the end, David said. “The experience itself matters—the experience of reading the poem.” “That's not an answer,” I told him. “Give me something solid,” to which he said, “Just shut the fuck up and read the poem.” So, what do you think YOUR readers bring to your work, and what do you want them to leave with…
Baumel: Wow. The best compliment. And coming from that great man. Just, Wow. His words are beautiful. If my readers would say that their experience of my poetry is “beautiful” that would be great. And more than enough. I can’t know what my readers bring to my work but I hope the work offers enough gestures and layers and music that my readers can find something to connect to.
Judith Baumel is a poet, critic and translator. She is Professor of English and Founding Director of the Creative Writing Program at Adelphi University. She has served as president of The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, director of The Poetry Society of America and a Fulbright Scholar in Italy. Her books are The Weight of Numbers (1988), for which she won The Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, Now (1996), The Kangaroo Girl (2011) and Passeggiate (2019).