An Interview with Anna Rabinowitz
The story begins with an abandoned shoebox poet Anna Rabinowitz found on a shelf in her parents' house. Filled with old photographs and letters, the contents of the box were all that remained of two families killed in the Holocaust. In an effort to give these absent ancestors voice, Rabinowitz wrote a book-length poem entitled Darkling. That book has now been transformed into an experimental opera produced by American Opera Projects, blending theater, poetry, and music.
Darkling is a non-narrative poem whose multiple voices and fragments and shards coalesce around the ancient acrostic form. An acrostic is a poem in which the first letter of each line, when read in sequence, spells out a name or a saying, or, in this case, another poem. Rabinowitz used Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Darkling Thrush” as the armature for her meditations on memory and loss. The result is an exploration of the ruptured lives the Holocaust left behind.
The stage adaptation of Darkling is just as startling and incorporates the talents of a diverse group of artists. Directed by Michael Comlish, with original music by Stefan Weisman and Lee Hoiby, this opera-theatre piece is a curious amalgamation of music and drama interwoven with pre-recorded poetry, soundscape, film footage, and projected images.
Performed in a three-sided theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, all the action takes place behind a black scrim box so that the performers appear to be contained within the widely spaced bars of a prison. Images of translated letters, photographs, lines from Darkling and video footage from the '20s and '30s are projected onto the scrim barrier. The result is a theater-work that eschews traditional narrative and even character, a work that more clearly embodies the poetry from which it sprang.
I recently met with poet Anna Rabinowitz at her Manhattan apartment to discuss Darkling (both opera and poem) as well as her forthcoming book of poetry, The Wanton Sublime.
How did it come about that your book-length poem was transformed into an experimental opera?
It was serendipity. American Opera Projects was doing a production of Marina, an opera about the life of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, whose libretto was written by Annie Finch. Tupelo Press, also publisher of Darkling, had just published one of Annie’s books and decided to have a book party for her in conjunction with the opening night festivities for Marina. At that party, Michael Comlish, who was Associate Producer of American Opera Projects, struck up a conversation with Ronni Leopold, a Tupelo Press Board member. She gave him a copy of Darkling and Michael just really fell in love with it. He felt that it was his opportunity to do something different in opera theater.
Darkling began with a shoebox of letters and photographs you found in your parents’ house. Did you have any other material before you began writing?
I also knew a few anecdotes, things my parents had mentioned here and there, but for the most part I didn’t know who the people I was writing about were -- a couple were identified by their letters, a couple were identified by something that had been scrawled on the back of the photo.
But in those days most of this stuff got swept under the rug. Nobody wanted to talk about it. The children weren’t supposed to know. I think being reminded of what was lost wasn’t very pleasant. So I heard very little.
My goal was to make the absent present. I wanted a sense of urgency and a sense of menace. These people were dislocated. They were separated from their families. I had some copies of letters (which are projected onto a screen during the performance) that had been returned. The Europeans had no idea that their relatives in America were writing to them. And the Americans didn’t know the Europeans were writing to them. They really thought they had been forgotten. One wrote: “Why have you forgotten me? Why don’t you remember me?” But the truth was that the mail never arrived. And then in the end they were gone. That was such a frantic obsessive time. In everyone’s lives. Every day looking through the lists of those who had survived. Calling people. Trying to make connections. Imagining that so-and-so might really be your relative or friend and then it turns out that that person is not. And you know when you’re a child you don’t really understand it. You just remember that it was a frantic time.
Writing Darkling was something that I had to do -- without making up any story, only using things that I knew -- but mainly trying to imagine how it could have felt, how my ancestors might have felt.
We have many Holocaust memoirs: we know all these hideous details; we’ve seen the most horrible film clips -- about what happened, how people looked. Most of it is unfathomable, but we know it. I don’t mean to suggest that this diminishes those memoirs in any way -- but it’s a story that’s known. I’m not a witness. I’m not going to repeat this story or try to repeat it. I didn’t want to create another narrative. So I needed to come at it in a different way, particularly since I didn’t have the details anyway.
How did you come to adopt the acrostic form?
I had been working on fragments of Darkling for a long time. I had the letters translated from Polish into English and I took the translations and made couplets out of them. But it really just wasn’t working.
Now, I’ve always been interested in form and one of the forms that I came across was the acrostic. The acrostic is an ancient form for remembering in which the first letter of each line spells out something -- a name, a message -- when read in sequence.
Around that time I went to hear Joseph Brodsky give a lecture at Columbia about Thomas Hardy, who was, next to Auden, his favorite poet. He spoke at length about “The Darkling Thrush” and I was very struck by that discussion. At one point I did write an acrostic based on Hardy’s line “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small.” The poem kept haunting me. And then one day I happened to notice that “The Darkling Thrush” had been dated January 1, 1900. I said to myself, well, Hardy was looking at the 19th century and you’re looking at the 20th century. You’ve got something in common here -- maybe I ought to use this structure, to use “The Darkling Thrush” as a kind of armature for the fragments I’d been playing with. So that’s really how I came to use this particular structure. The acrostic became the scaffolding.
I actually didn’t want to tell anybody at first. I tried to pay as little attention to Hardy’s work as possible, but I did feel that I had a lot in common with him, not only because he was looking back at a century, but because he was looking into a coppice gate. I felt as if I were looking into something the equivalent thereof. There was all this knotted and gnarled vegetation and I didn’t know how I was going to get through to it and create something that might be new. So I felt that commonality. But I did mind my distance. I didn’t want to be too influenced by what he was saying. It wasn’t until later that I began to look back, but when I finally realized there were very striking resonances between what he was saying and what I was saying.
And after a while I could not honor the left hand margin. It just didn’t work. I didn’t know what I was going to do because now I wasn’t really writing an acrostic anymore. But then I’ve always been willing to break the form. I said to myself this is the perfect form to break because you’re working with fragments, so why not let the acrostic be fragmentary as well?
Actually, the composer Stefan Weisman was so taken by the acrostic form that he actually used the armature to compose the music for the opera.
So then the structure wasn’t a restriction but a way of pulling the material together.
No, the structure was not a restriction. I’ve always been interested in structure and I think that constraints are liberating.
And I actually found out later that the ancients thought the acrostic could actually generate meaning.
So much of writing poetry is a private, solitary activity by nature. How did you navigate the collaborative effort of translating the poem into an opera?
Once it’s written it’s no longer solitary. It’s out there. But there are surprises. We spent a month early on doing improv. Michael Comlish copied lines from the poem, cut them up, put them into a hat and had the actors each choose one. One of the performers, Elzbieta Czyzewska, selected a fairly innocuous line, “1939: Remember us forever,” but when she read it it was totally transformed. Something happens when you take poetry off the page -- this kind of embodiment. An enactment. Things that might seem initially innocuous take on another life. Darkling had another life.
I have this quasi-insane mission to alter the face of poetry. And I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I feel that we have a problem. Not everyone agrees with me. I think that poetry is very marginalized in our society. I think that most inventive, new art forms are marginalized. We are married to the traditional, to the familiar. We are essentially a bit lazy. We want to be entertained. We want things to wash over us. We don’t really want to work very hard at understanding or thinking in new terms. Even though we give it lip service we don’t really want to do any of the work that might be necessary. We’re living in a world that’s bloated with so much. It’s not a quiet little world with only a few reference points -- quite the contrary. We have this enormous technological advancement going on. And whether we like it or not, this revolution is carrying us in the direction of a world where different aspects and genres -- like poetry and opera -- can interact.
And how do you see your role as the Editor of the literary journal American Arts & Letters in view of this new era? Has it had any influence on your own writing?
I’ve been the editor for fifteen years, but am no longer involved in the day-to-day operations. I’m now the Executive Editor. I frankly loved every bit of it and it’s certainly kept me abreast of what’s going on. So that’s been very valuable. But I don’t think it’s had anything to do specifically with my work. I think it relates to my work in the sense that I’m always interested in things that are new and in work that does interesting things linguistically. I like to read something that’s really going to surprise me or tell me something in a new way. I respect the well-made poem or the well-made play but I’m just not really interested in it.
You have a new book coming out in May, The Wanton Sublime, which takes as its focus Mary and the Annunciation. This is quite a departure in subject matter from Darkling, isn’t it?
I have a friend who’s a painter who has always said that she thought of herself as a conduit and I think in many ways I was just a conduit for this book. I had this project on the back burner for a long time, but I had to do Darkling first. For many years every time I went to a museum I’d collect postcards of the Annunciation. And what struck me about the Annunciation scene was that here was a young Jewish girl minding her own business; she’s told that she can be the mother of this divine creature and within moments she says yes. And it was expected -- as a woman she’s expected to be quiet and to respond with a yes. She might have all kinds of ideas about what she might want to be with her life, but something has come along.
It’s really about interruption. About how women’s lives are interrupted. That’s where I began, with this business of interruption, and how Mary might have felt and what the real truth might have been because maybe the truth that has been delivered to us may not be accurate. Because, let’s face it: we live in a postmodern world where we don’t believe anything.
But this book is about Mary and what’s most essential about Mary is that she’s a woman. True, she’s a mother and she has to learn to separate form her son and her son doesn’t really treat her that well because he has his father’s work to do. But she’s a woman. She’s multi-faceted and multi-named.
I knew it wasn’t going to be quite as serious as Darkling. I couldn’t do that again. It had to be lighter but I also wanted it to have a certain heightening of tone.
I had a lot of references from the research that I had done, but I decided at one point that I wasn’t going to have a book of references and a book of notes. I was going to write a book that was filled with lies. And as a poet I could get away with it. So I think of it as a book of sources, which is why the full title is The Wanton Sublime: A Florilegium of Whethers and Wonders. "Florilegium" is actually an old word that means “the flowers of literature.” So these are flowers that come from various sources.
Any plans to turn The Wanton Sublime into an opera too?
Michael was dying to see the manuscript, but I told him not to get distracted. I can’t imagine how they would do it, but anything is possible.
"Darkling” runs from February 26 to March 18 at Manhattan’s East 13th St. Theater. Panel discussions will follow the performances on March 4, 7, and 14. Tickets are available online from Ticket Central (www.ticketcentral) or by phone at 212-279-4200.