The ProsenPeople

Leaving Mother Moldova

Friday, April 08, 2011 | Permalink

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of the new poetry chapbook Russian for Lovers. Earlier this week she wrote about she wrote about the origin of Russian for Lovers and the poetry writing process.  She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

It’s not my story to tell so I haven’t really been telling it. The struggle was my parents’, who lost their careers and started from scratch in a new country, and more my sister’s than mine, having been thrust into an American public high school with an accent and a bad case of culture shock. Over the years I’d been collecting bits and pieces of the narrative: how bad things got towards the end, Jewish homes broken into, families beaten, demonstrations in public squares, the slogan “We will drown the Soviets in Jewish blood!”

Moldova’s independence brought with it a heightened phase of anti-Semitism, and I remember my father installing a big steel door to our apartment, in case anyone tried to break in. I also vaguely remember having to keep acid by the door as a means of protection. I remember a tank and the earthquakes, I remember finally getting cable before we left. Selling everything off, leaving things behind. A little green piano I still regret leaving, a squeaky red shoe. The car ride to the train station, already narrating my last glance back at the apartment. The train, the big airplane, eating bologna and American cheese for the first time, throwing up. Then the arrival, and nobody knew how to ask where the bathrooms were. My sister piecing together some lines of English.

I found out last month we came here as refugees. I was too young to know it then.

This was May of 1991, and for the most part I was along for the ride. I remember the fear was palpable, moments felt dramatic. I entered into a cut consciousness because my everyday had changed so much. I like to think this contrast helped me remember things better.

But the real work of immigration fell on my family. This is their story. I think mine will have more to do with acculturation, issues of translation and class identification, juxtaposing Old World values and anxieties with 21st century rights and modes of expression, even questioning these freedoms and figuring out how to place myself within Judaism, given my family’s history, my grandmother’s survival of the Holocaust, my naturalness with spoken Yiddish, and my desires as a writer and as a woman.

Russian for Lovers is a step in that direction, perhaps a failed attempt at addressing politics, love, distance, language. It’s also about failures of communication, home, attempts, family relations. If nothing else, I want it to figure as a primer in the general scope of these questions, in the hopes that if I learn the basic language of this kind of discourse I could engage with the material more thoroughly and sincerely.

Maybe, in time, I could be ready to tell my family’s story, too.

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of Russian for Lovers.

The Poetry Writing Process

Wednesday, April 06, 2011 | Permalink

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of the new poetry chapbook Russian for Lovers. In her earlier post, she wrote about the origin of Russian for Lovers. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

A confession about my writing/editing process: I have none. Which is to say, I wish I could say something about how regimented I’d been with this project, working a select number of days on select letters, sending drafts to my editor for proofing, receiving feedback, editing, sending them back. The truth is this was my first real long thing up for publication, so I’m surprised it’s even finished, let alone published.

As soon as I get an idea, I obsess over it, work on it religiously for a while, then come to a point that resembles a crossroads. Then I don’t know where to go. So ordinarily I put it aside until one fine day I figure it will come to me. Because Liz, my dear friend and editor at Argos Books, got invested in the project, I couldn’t put it aside for too long. I vowed to myself that I’d work on it last summer, but of course that didn’t happen.

There was only a brief glimmer of promise when I did a series of performances at the Infringement Festival in Buffalo, NY. My first performance had to do with conjuring up my memories of the old country, immigration and acculturation. My second performance was a brief Russian alphabet lesson, and the third component was a reading from the manuscript so far. I figured this would help me imagine the project and I was right to a certain extent. I worked on Russian for Lovers during this one-week stretch. But the progress was slow and not enough to make me feel good about the end product.

Then school happened again. Liz was a great motivating force, and I had no excuses anymore because I was given a deadline. I ended up rewriting the beginning letters as themes and threads started emerging towards the middle and end of the alphabet.

I’m still not satisfied with the last pieces but Liz gave me permission and appreciated the chapbook form for being a little more ragged. And naturally it doesn’t really feel ‘done’ but that’s a certain year-long frame of mind of entering into these questions and I like to think it marks the beginning of my engagement with longer projects and my own history.

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of Russian for Lovers. Come back all week to read her blog posts.

The Origin of Russian for Lovers

Monday, April 04, 2011 | Permalink

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of the new poetry chapbook Russian for Lovers. She will be blogging all week for the Visiting Scribe.

It was my first semester in the MFA program and I was having a hard time, as can be the case. I was in the shower one day and it occurred to me I wanted to write an alphabet book to help my American lover learn Russian faster.

He’d been expressing interest in the language, picking up some words and phrases here and there, so I figured I could work out a little side-project from all the MFA work I was supposed to be doing. I planned on going letter by letter, making each poem revolve around the sound of that letter so he could learn it better.

I started composing A in the shower. I wanted to have the letter A be the only vowel in the piece. Needless to say, when I put it to the page it didn’t look as good as it sounded in my head while it was being shampooed. So I scrapped that idea and allowed other vowels in. A ended up having many different versions; I had to go back and re-do the beginning a bunch of times.

Russian for Lovers was originally only about love; it was supposed to be about a long-distance relationship and a communication divide. Soon enough I started thinking about larger ideas like the fact that we speak Russian in my house, my family’s journey to the States, my own relationship with my place of birth.

Interestingly, I’d never written poems about these questions before. And then “Love in Moldova” came out of me, and it sounded angry and hurt and I figured there was an emotional core to this project that extended beyond a personal relationship to a loved one and into more political and cultural concerns.

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of Russian for Lovers. Come back all week to read her blog posts.

JBC Bookshelf: Poetry Edition

Thursday, February 03, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Poetry collections from Canada, New Jersey, Russia (via NY), New Hampshire, and the Bay Area…

Singing Me Home, Carol Lipszyc (October 2010, Inanna Publications)

from “Hebrew School”, p. 5

We chase pin-point dots
up, down and around
the topography of black, square script.

“Follow the Ni-kku-dot, children,
marry vowels to the consonants,
and sound the words out. . . .”

God’s Optimism, Yehoshua November (November 2010, Main Street Rag)

“How a Place Becomes Holy”, p.25

Sometimes a man
will start crying in the middle of the street,
without knowing why or for whom.
It is as thought someone else is standing there,
holding his briefcase, wearing hist coat.

And from beneath the rust of years,
come to his tongue the words of his childhood:
“I’m sorry,” and “god,” and “Do not be far from me.”

And just as suddenly the tears are gone,
and the man walks back into his life,
and the place where he cried becomes holy.

Russian for Lovers, Marina Blitshteyn (February 2011, Argos Books)

“Э”, p. 34

then
“what can you tell me about the jewish question?”
“do you miss the land or the language the most?”
“whose story are you speaking now?”
“do you know anyone with a soviet fetish?”
“how many friends did you leave there?”
“when did you become a citizen?”
“where is your accent?”
“why did you come?”

Working in Flour, Jeff Friedman (January 2011, Carnegie Mellon University Press)

from “I Did It”, p. 13

I took all the free samples
at the chocolate shop
even though the lady
behind the counter frowned
after my first handful
and tried to wrest
the basket from my grip. I walked out
without buying a single chocolate,
though I had sat there for hours
sipping hot water through a straw.
I know what you think: I give Jews
a bad name, even though I’m small
and furry like a nice pet,
except for the hackles
and jagged teeth,
which sometimes wound my lips.

Chapter & Verse: Poems of Jewish Identity, Dan Belm, Rose Black, Chana Bloch, Rafaella Del Bourgo, Margaret Kaufman, Jacqueline Kudler, Melanie Maier, Murray Silverstein, Susan Terris, Sim Warkov (January 2011, Conflux Press)

Sim Warkov’s “Sabbath at Starbucks in Los Gatos”, p. 23

. . . and lanky fillies in low-slung jeans
swish by my table
Asian tattoos two inches above the cleft
abs taut as all hell–
and I rally to their full-frontal views
and I’m in awe of these fragrant pagans
flaunting their youth arm’s length
from small-town Daddy Mommy
Father Joe and Sister Teresa
and I jazz the secular English
at the very hour my grandfather
the Zaydeh would be studying
a page of Talmud in Hebraic Aramaic
at a shul near Burrows Avenue
when I was a kid in corduroy britches.