How does bilingualism serve or shape a work of art — and what effect might it have on our relationship to language, to each other? In this intimate conversation with Julie R. Enszer, Jewish lesbian poet Irena Klepfisz tries her hand at answering these and other questions.
Julie R. Enszer: Irena, I am so thrilled about Her Birth and Later Years: New and Collected Poems, 1971 – 2021. It’s been a number of years since your last published poetry collection. Tell me how this one came into being.
Irena Klepfisz: Well, Julie, you’re more responsible than anyone else. For a long time and a variety of reasons, I had stopped trying to publish poetry but did continue writing it. About two years ago, I reviewed what I’d written and put together a manuscript. You read it and suggested I send it to Wesleyan, who said it was too short. So I expanded it into a collection of my complete poems beginning in 1971.
JRE: One of the things that dazzles me about this book is how many of the new poems respond to earlier ones, rather than simply adding to the narrative of your life or reflecting on your father’s history in Poland. I think of the poem “Grief changes and doesn’t.” Do you see your work as part of one longer, extended conversation? Or do you approach your poems more singularly?
IK: When I start a new piece, I’m totally focused on it and the present moment. I never think about whether I’ve written about this subject before. I have no sense of extending or amplifying an earlier theme. To me, it’s fresh, with no consciousness of previous poems on that subject. Of course, when I was proofing the final manuscript for Her Birth, I recognized recurring topics — my father, for example. I think many early poems are saturated with grief — grief for a lost parent and family, grief for a lost way of life. I think that grief never goes away completely. But the illnesses and deaths of Judy and my mother and then most recently of old friends like Elana Dykewomon and Meredith Tax — those formed a new kind of grief.
JRE: The dedications to “Bashert” may be your most famous lines of poetry — anthologized, quoted, on a video on the internet, and as a meme in social media. Will you talk a bit about its origin?
IK: The whole autobiographical prose poem “Bashert” (around fifteen pages) first appeared in Sinister Wisdom (1982), which at the time was edited by Michelle Cliff and Adrienne Rich. The opening parts — a dedication to those who died and those who survived — have become well-known and incorporated into various Jewish rituals and Holocaust commemorations. But perhaps because it was first published in a lesbian magazine in 1982, I initially received many requests from partners and friends of gay men who had died of AIDS for permission to read it at their funerals and memorials. I think its Jewish resonance took longer to be recognized.
Sometimes people mistake the dedications for the entire poem. Through “Bashert,” I was trying to understand four critical moments in my life, beginning in 1944 in Poland during the war and ending in 1981 in upstate New York. I wanted to understand how I moved from being a hidden child, to an immigrant child survivor, to a white teacher, and to simply a Jew. It took a very long time to unfold. As I remember it, I wrote the dedications after all four sections were finished. The lists for both dedications were quite long and took some time to pare down.
At the time that I wrote “Bashert,” women were experimenting with different styles. I remember when I was working on Conditions, we often didn’t know how to categorize pieces that were submitted, couldn’t identify their genre. Reading works like Judy Grahn’s “Common Woman Poems” and “Edward the Dyke” was eye-opening and very freeing. They break away from traditional norms. “Bashert” was a poetic experiment. I wanted to see how far I could push prose into poetry or poetry into prose. The last section is the only one with any kind of rhythm that one could label “traditionally” poetic. Still, “Bashert” is a poem and was easily accepted by female readers.
When I start a new piece, I’m totally focused on it and the present moment. I never think about whether I’ve written about this subject before.
JRE: In your acknowledgements, you credit Gloria Anzaldúa for encouraging you “to think about the possibilities of bilingual poetry.” Anzaldúa, now of blessed memory, contributed so much, blending Spanish and English in her writing, exploring hybridities, mixing genre, and contributing to what scholars now call autotheory, where critical analysis emerges from self-examination. Can you say more about Anzaldúa’s influence on you?
IK: Gloria Anzaldúa and I first met in the early eighties, when we were teaching three-week-long women’s writing workshops at UC Santa Cruz and sharing a suite. We knew each other’s work from “the movement” and Conditions magazine, but until that first summer, we’d never actually met. It evolved into a wonderful exchange.
Here she was, a Chicana dyke from Texas rooted in Spanish, and here I was, a Jewish dyke and immigrant rooted in English. Both of us were “othered” by the mainstream culture and our own minority communities. We did a few readings together and were amused by people’s assumptions. Most, for example, assumed Gloria was the immigrant (she spoke with a Spanish accent) and I the American-born (heavy Bronx accent). I remember that once, someone tried to ask Gloria, very delicately, how long “her people” had been in this country. Without missing a beat, Gloria said: Oh, about four hundred years.
Anyway, we talked about our upbringings, our relationships to other Latinas and Jews and, eventually, other languages. I remember arguing with Gloria about her refusal to translate Spanish so that parts of her writing remained inaccessible to non-Spanish speaking people like me. But she wouldn’t back down. At some point I mentioned that the community in which I was raised spoke mostly Yiddish, that my mother insisted I attend Yiddish shuls every afternoon and, later, mitlshul (high school) on weekends. Also, I had done postgraduate work in Yiddish language and culture at YIVO and had even taught a number of summer Yiddish language courses at Columbia.
Gloria found all this incredibly weird. And when I started to think about it, I saw it as odd, too. Barely any Yiddish had entered my poetry. In one early poem, I’d used the word rebetsin (rabbi’s wife), and of course there was “Bashert.” It’s a Yiddish word that’s very nuanced, with no English equivalent. In the last section of “Bashert,” I did use a few pejorative Yiddish labels. But that’s all.
Those discussions with Gloria challenged me. She never gave me a directive. But she did make me think about and question my relationship to Yiddish culture — what that relationship could mean now that I was no longer fluent. So I decided to experiment writing bilingual poetry. “Etlekhe verter oyf mame-loshn / A Few Words in the Mother Tongue” was my first attempt. In the years since, I’ve returned to this experiment using Yiddish in different poems and with varying degrees of success.
But I want to emphasize that my bilingualism differed from Gloria’s. Yes, non-Spanish speaking readers couldn’t understand the Spanish passages. But there were millions of Spanish speakers who could. Yiddish, on the other hand, was barely known outside of the Hasidic community (and it had no interest in secular Yiddish culture). I knew that many Eastern European Jews came from families that used Yiddish when they didn’t want children to understand. I couldn’t count on readers, even the Jewish ones, to understand the Yiddish on their own. Yet I wanted my readers to understand all the Yiddish in my poems. So either through context or direct translation, I always made any Yiddish in my prose or poetry accessible to every reader.
Some have even called me a Yiddish writer — which of course I’m not. But I kind of understand it. I think when someone calls me that, they’re expressing their own longing to be an active participant in a Yiddish world that was lost to them.
JRE: You are one of the early scholars to recover and translate works by Yiddish female writers. Can you talk about how that work influences this collection?
IK: I don’t know how the research on Yiddish female writers, intellectuals, and activists influenced me, only that it did. Probably it made me feel closer to the world they inhabited. I never thought I could just jump into that world because I felt limited; I’m not truly bilingual. But I did feel I could make a connection — for myself and for others — and perhaps serve as a bridge between that world and the present one.
I’m aware that many people really enjoy my bilingual poetry. Some have even called me a Yiddish writer — which of course I’m not. But I kind of understand it. I think when someone calls me that, they’re expressing their own longing to be an active participant in a Yiddish world that was lost to them. So when people read a poem of mine with Yiddish that they do understand, they feel they’re part of that world, too — they’re no longer outsiders.
JRE: Your body of work also consists of essays. Can you talk a bit about the different impulses serving your poetry and prose?
IK: One of the big surprises of my life is how comfortable I’ve become with prose. At age eight, English was my fourth language. From the start, I had a lot of trouble with English grammar, which still plagued me in graduate school. In high school, English was my worst subject. For the first three years, I was in all honors classes. But at the end of my third year, they took me out of honors English and put me into a regular class. That’s how bad I was.
When I became an activist, I felt a need to explain my positions and beliefs and was forced into writing essays. Initially it was extremely hard. Over the years, though, it’s become easier. Today, it doesn’t feel that problematic.
Conceiving of a poem is for me an almost physical experience, a tightness in my chest that I can ease only by starting to write. Here’s an example. Forty years ago, in 1974, I wrote a poem called “about my father.” The last time I saw my father, Michal, I was one-and-a-half, and he was killed a few months later. I never got to know him. “about my father” lists eleven facts — everything I knew. But in 2017, I discovered his school file in the Warsaw Polytechnic. Suddenly I had many, many new facts — his place of birth, transcripts, and handwritten notes to the school.
So I incorporated these new findings into “about my father” and even read the new version at a Holocaust memorial. But I realized as I was reading that the text was no longer a poem. It was a list. What moved me to write the poem was my sorrow over how little I knew. The original poem is about what I knew and what I didn’t know. So I decided to save the content of this longer “list” for an essay or perhaps another poem. But “about my father” had to stay as it was — a poem rooted in its time, in 1974. And I ended up using the 2017 discovery in “March 1939: Warsaw, Poland,” a very different poem that appears in Her Birth and Later Years.
Julie R. Enszer is the author of four poetry collections, including Avowed, and the editor of OutWrite: The Speeches that Shaped LGBTQ Literary Culture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Selected Poems by Lynn Lonidier, The Complete Works of Pat Parker, and Sister Love: The Letters of Audre Lorde and Pat Parker 1974 – 1989. Enszer edits and publishes Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.