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Cecilia Woloch: California Poets Part 2, Five Poems

Cecilia Woloch

February 23rd, 2021

California Poets: Part II

Cecilia Woloch

Five Poems


for Carine

We walk along the shore and laugh about not being young anymore —

a lucky thing for us, I think, because everyone has to be beautiful now,

if not in life, then in photographs, and not in the way we were beautiful,

once, my friend and I, with our matching laughs, our matching frizzy

drunken hair, now growing in silvery at the roots, losing its natural curl.

And if we’re honest, it’s a relief that no one even looks at us as we pass,

talking a mile a minute, too loud, striding to keep our hips from ache —

but oh what ships these hips have sunk, what ship-wrecked loves

we’ve given up — not for lack of wanting but because we’d rather laugh,

stretch our calves on the rusting railing of the pier that smells of piss,

watch the gulls, the shirtless men, the half-nude women on bicycles.

Later, I’ll hear my friend’s husband’s snore through the bedroom door

she’s left ajar — or it’s my friend who’s snoring in there, dreaming

her weird dreams, cloak and claw, that she’s forgotten how to get back

to the lovely old hotel she loved — a place in St. Petersburg, perhaps,

where she stands on a balcony and waves to her son passing by

in the street below, who’s a grown man now, who doesn’t stop,

or turn to wave, though he’s seen her there. Oh what loves we’ve lived,

and given life to, and our beauty, in beauty now moving away from us.

Gaviota Avenue

This, too, is America. This avenue in Long Beach, California, called Gaviota

Seagull in Spanish — where trash cans stand at the curb, overflowing,

and an old man sits on a stoop with both feet in the dirt of a ragged garden,

silently smoking a cigarette; the women on porches, the dogs behind fences

barking at shadows, barking at nothing, plastic toys scattered around the yards,

junk cars parked in the alleys and driveways, shiny cars parked along the street,

a homeless drunk zigzagging down the sidewalk, sirens wailing, music spilling

from open windows mi amor into the blue, blue air, palms dropping rotting fronds,

crazed squirrels scampering up the trunks, litter blowing around in the breeze

and then just ahead the long silver horizon where ocean meets sky as I turn

down Rose Street, down Cherry Avenue, past the park where bodies lie sprawled

in the grass, some sleeping, some awake, bodies hard at play on a patch of asphalt,

chests bare, glistening with sweat, and here’s the Pacific, stinking of seaweed

and gasoline, so I breathe it in — pure America, where the dog shit isn’t picked up,

where the blossoms of trees I can’t name brush my shoulders, my temples, as I pass.


I wanted to write a love poem, unabashed.

I wanted, stepping into the meadow,

to bend down and kiss the tips of grass

and then I wanted to take it with me,

the meadow, everywhere I went.

So I plucked a buttercup, a sprig of what

I thought was yarrow, once, and then,

some blue and purple flowers,

and made of my plunder a small bouquet.

I wanted my foot on the stones in the river

where my grandmother's foot had stepped,

then to lie on my back in the sun

and let the butterflies swarm my hair.

I wanted to piss in the dirt, and did —

crouching behind a willow, next to the river

in waist-deep green — to put my body

into the body of that earth, as fluid, gold.

And then I wanted the storm that came

with its blue-black wind and sheets of rain

to tear me back into the sky.


And then one day, so many have gone

to wherever they go, and the river shines —

a slurring of green between the trees;

a faint gold light on the other side.

The breeze here, a soft breeze, but dark

one spirit flies in as another flies out

as if someone’s hands you can’t quite see

but remember exactly pass near your face.

A kind man whose memory slips, whose mind

keeps slipping, he says — toward what? —

tells you, The hardest thing is stepping across;

to let go, and go, to be let go of.

And those you’ve loved who’ve disappeared

— more rain sometimes than the ground can absorb —

want your tears no more than they want

to turn back in their leaving, the clothes they wore.


I’ve got this sister who runs a beauty shop

in a little house at the side of a highway

between two small Kentucky towns —

the town where we grew up

(gas station, laundromat, railroad tracks)

and the town that's the county seat

(courthouse, barbershop, funeral home)

the middle of nowhere,

my friend from Los Angeles laughed

when I drove him past the place:

a red brick house set out in a field,

an acre of land, with a sign in front:

Head South Hair and Tanning,

a couple of palm trees painted on.

That little house is always packed,

the screen door banging when anyone comes —

friends who drop in for a trim, or to tan,

or teenaged girls wanting perms for the prom

or teen-aged girls with infants in arms

needing to heat up bottles of milk.

There’s an old guy named Tennessee

who stops by just to shoot the breeze;

and a young guy, who’ll maybe cut the grass,

or (someday) flush out the septic tank,

or fix the front porch railing

that's hanging on by a rusted screw.

There’s the ex-cop who kisses my sister

on the cheek each time he goes,

and the neighbor who crosses the field,

arms full of corn and tomatoes and squash,

stuff from his garden he leaves on her stoop.

Some come with plates of home-made food—

biscuits and gravy; cornbread and beans —

in case she hasn’t had supper yet.

Some come with checks

they can't cover till payday;

some leave crumpled one dollar bills

on my sister’s cluttered desk.

My sister fixes hair all day

but she doesn’t charge enough

to make enough to stay out of the red.

So she lives in that little house,

the field in back where her grandkids run,

ragged with yellow wildflowers —

Just weeds, my sister shrugs

when I ask their names,

Just a bunch of weeds.

She needs new glasses and new shoes.

She needs insurance, she says, a good man.

She wants the highway that runs past the place

to bring me home again.


November 6th, 2021

California Poets Interview Series:

Cecilia Woloch, Poet, Writer, Educator

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: You’re among the few poets writing today whose work has received considerable attention in both the US and Europe. Given your experience on both continents, have you noticed any fundamental differences, and perhaps even similarities, in the way Americans perceive and consume poetry compared to their European counterparts?

CW: I’m not even sure we have “counterparts” in Europe. Things seem to me to work so differently here, although of course even when I spend months at a time in one place in Europe—as I’m doing now—I’m in some sense still an outsider, so this might look different to me from inside.

The word that stands out to me in your question is “consume;” the U.S. is so deeply a consumer culture, and that’s still less true in Europe, although it’s becoming more so all the time. But it seems to me that poetry is less of a commodity in Europe, that being a poet here is not so much a career or a business, and that poets in Europe are much less apt to adopt the kind of business model that many poets in the U.S. have adopted—the “branding” and self-promotion via social media, the striving for visibility and status as way to sell more books and do more readings and workshops, to achieve a position in academia, which in the U.S. has adopted the corporate model, too. And there’s the whole po-biz thing of blurbs and marketing and glamorous author photos that seems to have emerged from the proliferation of MFA programs—and there are very few of those kinds of programs outside of the U.S.

So, I would say that, in Europe, poetry is less of a means to an end. It’s not that there isn’t competition and ambition among the European poets I know—a Polish friend told me, years ago, that Polish poetry is “full of little mafias”— but that the focus is more literary. It’s a generalization, I realize, but it seems to me that literature is taken more seriously here, and thus criticism is more serious, and taken more seriously, because the stakes are less personal and more cultural. I also have the impression, through my teaching in MFA programs, that younger American poets tend to read their contemporaries much more than they read the great poets of the English tradition, and more than they read poetry in translation. I think that makes for a kind of myopia.

That said, there’s also an openness in American poetry that you don’t find elsewhere, and that’s not unrelated to that business model. The idea that anyone can become a poet, that you don’t have to be born into it, that you can study and learn the craft and pull yourself up by the proverbial bootstraps—that’s an American thing. And I think it’s at least part of the reason why there’s such diversity in American poetry, such richness, so many different kinds of voices and perspectives. And all the above-mentioned striving among American poets means that there’s a lot of activity, there are a lot of readings and small presses and conferences and workshops, and that activity generates a lot of energy and a certain amount of excitement. So, I guess it’s an old-world vs. new-world kind of difference, still.

Just now, re-reading your question, I wondered if what you were asking had more to do with how audiences in the U.S. and in Europe “perceive and consume” poetry? In that case, I would say that the audience for American poetry is mostly poets—people who write, or would like to write, poetry, themselves. I think that audience might listen differently, and read differently, than a more general audience would. I do this myself: I often read other poets’ work looking for how poems work. So, there’s a kind of striving in that, too, to learn more, to improve, to appreciate and be moved (or not) by another poet’s craft and accomplishment. That more general poetry audience, where it exists in the U.S., seems to come to poetry also for reasons I would call personal—for self-understanding, assurance, comfort, revelation, for something “relatable”—or they come expecting to be entertained.

In places like Poland, it seems to me that there’s more of a general audience for poetry, and that poetry is received as if it matters beyond the personal—again, as if it matters culturally, even historically. There’s a quality of listening I notice when I give readings here that’s different; it seems to me that audiences aren’t listening only for the language, the tropes, aren’t expecting to be dazzled or entertained, but are really listening for the substance of what the poems are saying, and expecting to find something there that matters, not only to their personal lives, but to their understanding of life, something that matters deeply and urgently. Now, I could be misreading this, because, as I’ve said, even in places where I spend months at a time, I’m a foreigner, a guest, and so I experience everything through that lens. That quality of intense listening I sense may only have to do with the fact that non-native English speakers have to listen much harder to understand the language. But there’s always a question-and-answer period after readings in Europe, and the questions I get—from other poets as well as from nonpoets—are always questions of substance, about the substance of the poems. They’re bigger questions.

DG: As a recipient of a Fulbright fellowship—a rare and distinctive honor, indeed—you’ll soon be heading off to Poland, a nation that boasts an incredible literary legacy: Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, and Adam Zagajewski are only some of the big names I mention, mainly due to their popularity in the US. Will your research, in some ways, deal with the legacy of these writers or does the fellowship entail something else?

CW: I think the legacies of these three poets are in very good hands already. Miłosz and Zagajewski were such presences in American poetry that their work is already widely familiar to American poetry audiences, as is Szymborska’s work, thanks to the attention the Nobel prize brought to her work. I think my own efforts could be better spent trying to shine some light on poets less well-known to American audiences, poets whose sensibilities and experiences might be less familiar, too. I’d love to help create a wider audience for the work of poets like Jerzy Ficowski, Ginczanka, Papusza, Lesmian, and to more contemporary and younger Polish poets. I recently curated a special Poland issue of the Atlanta Review, which is due for publication in the spring of 2022, and which includes work—in English translation by various translators—of some of these poets less well known in the U.S., some of them well-established here, like Ewa Lipska and Jacek Gutorow, and some who are less well known but whose work I find really exciting, like Grazyna Wojcieszko and Malgorzata Lebda. The editor of the Atlanta Review, in fact, requested that I focus on emerging rather than well-known poets.

The challenge, of course, is in the translations. I think there’s work that’s so dependent on the nuances and peculiarities of the original language that it’s really difficult to approximate it in another language. That must account, in some part, for which poets get translated and become more widely known and which don’t. Some of my Polish friends have expressed to me that they’re surprised by the Polish poets who’ve achieved popularity and a wide readership in the U.S., while others whose work is esteemed here remain unknown in the U.S. I’ve also learned that the politics involved in translation can be fraught.

But, here again, I may have misread your question! My Fulbright project involves teaching contemporary American literature with a creative writing component, and teaching creative writing with a literature component, at the University of Rzeszów. I’ll also be speaking at conferences and giving public readings around the country— especially performances based on Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem, which will involve collaboration with Roma musicians, dancers and theatre artists—and I hope to launch a bilingual reading series in Rzeszów that will bring poets from around the country here to present their work in Polish, with translations read by English speakers.

DG: Apart from your own writing, which has certainly been shaped by your Polish and Roma roots, you’ve embraced these identities on a personal level as well. Can you give readers some insights into how this unique background shapes both your personal and creative identity, and what it means to not only be an American, but an American writer with a very vivid, living connection to the old world?

CW: Honestly, I’ve never been able to feel that I’m truly “American;” I don’t even know how that would feel. I tried, as a child, but it felt false to me, and made me feel false to myself. I don’t think either of my parents felt themselves to be fully American, either; although both were born in the U.S., they were the children of immigrants who were never able to really assimilate, maybe because they’d come from places that weren’t firmly or clearly anchored on any map. My mother’s parents came from what we now think of as Poland, but they’d emigrated at a time when Poland didn’t exist as a nation, when there was no place called Poland on the map, because it had been partitioned and swallowed up by the Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. And my father’s family had come from the Carpathian borderlands, which was even more problematic, because the people who inhabited that area, who were originally nomadic, didn’t have a fixed national identity, didn’t have an identity that conformed to any geo-ethnic borders, didn’t have a nation, and when they settled, they created communities that were very clan-based, but that also included exiles and refugees from places like Armenia and the Ottoman empire, as well as Jews and Roma. So, these were sort of outsider communities, where there was just no single, clear identity, and that ended up having tragic consequences.

Since childhood, I’ve identified most strongly with my immediate and extended family—it’s a thing in my family, a kind of clan mentality—and those worlds outside of the family, like school, felt like foreign countries to me as a child. I felt I didn’t belong there, which was painful, even though I didn’t really want to belong, because those worlds seemed constrained and dull to me, seemed like places where you could get trapped. My first husband said that I had a pathological fear of boredom and a pathological fear of the suburbs. I couldn’t argue with that.

I have a big problem with the whole idea of national identity—I just don’t subscribe to that idea, which seems to me to be based on something man-made, at best, and false and dangerous, at worst. I also have a more vague problem with group identities, in general. Maybe because I’ve had such a strong sense of belonging within my family, I’ve never needed to feel that kind of belonging to a nation, which seems so abstract to me, anyway.

All of this no doubt has some bearing on the fact that it was only when I started spending long periods traveling, especially in Europe, that I felt myself at home in the larger world. As Kunitz wrote, “I have a tribe, but my tribe is scattered.” And, as Virginia Woolf wrote, “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” Which could be, and has been, interpreted by others as the manifestation of my “Gypsy-ness,” some attribute of my vaguely Roma roots. I feel pretty at home in Poland, but I don’t feel myself to be Polish. Not at all. Although, when I was growing up, my maternal relatives in Pittsburgh embraced a Polish-American identity, that Polish-American working-class culture bore little resemblance to the Polish culture I found—not just in the cities but in the villages and the countryside—when I started to visit Poland.

What I think is that the way I’ve lived my life—the travel, the constant movement, the immersion in other landscapes and other sensibilities, the exposure to other languages and other ways of being—and a really visceral sense of connection to the spiritual and physical world of the Carpathians—to the liminal space of the borderlands and to the histories of erasure—have shaped my sense of myself as well as my writing, what you’ve called my “personal and creative identity.” I think we carry what we carry, in terms of history, but we also make ourselves up.

DG: You won a Pushcart Prize for your long poem, “Reign of Embers,” published in Volume I of The American Journal of Poetry; it opens with Bertolt Brecht’s poem, “Motto,” which serves as the epigraph: “In the dark times / Will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.” You wrote the poem in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, and today, given the situation in Afghanistan, the dark times only seem to be approaching ever nearer. In your view, how close has humanity come to living in the total absence of light, or are we already at that point? In other words, did you write the poem as an attempt to prevent the ultimate disaster, or did you already consider it a song about the darkness?

CW: No, no, I may get frightened, but I’m not that pessimistic. I’m a Pollyanna, at heart. “Hope for the best,” my father told me, almost the last words he ever said to me. Once, a poet I know leaned across the table and whispered conspiratorially, asking didn’t I think we were living in the end times? It made me furious, frankly. There are so many children and young people I love, how could I say to them, there won’t be a world for you, how could I even think that? Anyone who truly loves a child, a young person, can’t allow themselves the luxury of thinking that the world is completely ruined and it’s nothing but darkness from here on out, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Really, that seems completely irresponsible to me.

I wrote the poems that became “Reign of Embers” first of all just to try to reckon, on a personal level, on a soul level, with what I saw happening in the world. I wrote them out of personal necessity and a sense of terrifying urgency. If I had any other agenda, maybe it was to raise an alarm about what was happening, and why it was happening—to reckon with what we’d wrought and allowed to be wrought—in the hope that, in reckoning with it, we might be able to find our way back to being human together, or forward to becoming more fully human. The fact is that we’re still singing, in a dark time; the creative impulse seems to become even more urgent in dark times, and that, in itself, seems hopeful to me. The creative force is the life force and it’s stronger than we are, stronger than any of us are, individually.

DG: Your work has been translated into numerous languages—German, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Polish, French, and others. How do you feel about translation? Do you believe, like many, that a great deal is always lost, or have you found that effective translators have, in many cases, been able to resolve difficult sentences or phrases, and perhaps even, made them better than the original?

CW: I think that a translation is always a version, for better and for worse; some things get lost in translation and some get found, because every language is different and operates differently, with different grammar and syntax, layers of music and meaning constantly interacting and shifting, so there’s no such thing as an exact translation of anything, let alone a poem. If you think of a poem, itself, in its original version, as a translation of experience and perception and feeling and something ineffable into language, then the translation is always imperfect to begin with —or not imperfect, maybe, but not ever permanently capturing whatever it’s about. I love that Witter Bynner quote: “Words are hoops through which to leap upon meanings, which are horses’ backs, bare, moving.” I do think it’s true, though, that some poems translate better than others into other languages, or more easily. I think a gifted translator can even “improve” upon an original version of a poem, capturing what may have been only gestured toward in the original. Also, once a Polish translator made a mistake in translating one of my poems that improved the poem so much that I changed the original to match it.

DG: Do you think language is a product of culture or does culture emerge from a language? To draw a humorous example, the typical Russian will almost never smile at strangers and be far more comfortable with silence around friends than the average Italian, whose tendencies are exactly the opposite, even though both their languages exhibit similar registers of complexity, making their potential for expression roughly the same. As a poet whose had the chance to travel extensively, do you think languages really impact our behavior to a great extent, or is it more about the place in which any given language is situated? And could it, perhaps comically, merely be a matter of weather—freezing cold and scorching sun?

CW: I think it moves both ways, though I lean toward the notion that language is a product of the culture from which it emerges and continues to emerge—again, both are always in flux, both language and culture are living things, constantly changing and interacting. But I’m not a linguist, so I don’t know if I can make any pronouncements about this.

DG: If you had to choose one poem that could make a person either indifferent or oblivious to poetry fall in love with the craft, which work would it be, and why?

CW: Robert Hayden’s poem, Those Winter Sundays, is a poem with such an ache in it, an ache I think we all recognize: the ache of wishing we’d loved better those who loved us all along, imperfect as they were, and their love, and what did we even know of love, then, of its “austere and lonely offices?” The language of the poem is so direct, the imagery so clear, and it says what it says with such dignity and grace and precision and concision. I can’t imagine anyone not being moved by this poem.

Author Bio:

Cecilia Woloch is the author of six collections of poems and a novel. Her honors include fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, CEC/ArtsLink International and the Center for International Theatre Development; her work has also received a Pushcart Prize and been included in the Best American Poetry Series. The text of her second book, Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem, has been translated into several languages and presented in multi-disciplinary performances across the U.S. and Europe. She was born in Pittsburgh, raised in rural Kentucky, and has traveled the world as a teacher and writer.


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