Adina Kopinsky: I feel your sense of humor throughout Birthright, you often use it as a way to grapple with serious subjects, such as politics and infertility. Some of my favorite poems in this collection are “Kaddish for My Uterus” and “A Single Woman of Valor.” These poems each take a traditional Jewish text and personalize them with a winking irreverence that uses both the emotions of the text and the emotions of the speaker to grapple with topics otherwise quite difficult to discuss, such as a hysterectomy and coming to terms with living alone. In “The O-Word” you question the Israeli Occupation in the single rhymed poem in your collection, using a childlike evocation to balance a very adult line of questioning. Are you a humorous person in real life? I know, as writers, our persona on the page can be quite different than our social persona. Do you use humor as a conscious choice in poetry or do you find the poems evolve, or birth themselves, that way?
Erika Dreifus: First, thank you for taking the time to read Birthright, and for the generous questions here.
I think it’s fair to say that I have a pretty good sense of humor. I love to laugh. I love reading comic literature. I don’t consider myself to be an especially funny person in a performative sense (my younger sister is the official stand-up comic in the family). But humor matters to and sustains me.
In the poems that you’ve cited, I’d say that they evolved, but they had some basic direction from the start. I didn’t set out to write them with the “winking irreverence” that you’ve discerned, but they more or less emerged that way. (One note, though: There’s actually one other rhymed poem in the book. And there would have been a third had I not opted to remove it nearly at the last moment.)
AK: Can you tell us more about the intriguing story about the Joseph and Mary great-grandparents you mention in “Black Sheep in the World to Come”? Joseph is revealed as an abusive husband, but why is Mary also considered a black sheep by the speaker of the poem?
ED: For those who haven’t yet read it, it may be helpful to know that the poem envisions a reunion in the “world to come” with my grandparents and their parents. Joseph and Mary are my maternal grandfather’s parents. Of my three grandparents, that grandfather is the only one of my grandparents who was born in this country. More significant for this poem, he is also the only one with whom I didn’t have a particularly close relationship. My other grandparents all shared with me so much about their pasts, and their family histories, and that clearly left an impression. With Joseph and Mary, there’s really mostly absence, and what I do know, as your question suggests, isn’t all that heartening.
Joseph is certainly the primary “black sheep” (singular) of the poem. Mary—not so much. What I’m wondering about at the end of the poem—whether they regret “the world that was”—is not only a world in which Joseph was an abusive husband, but also one in which Mary, though she lived another ten years after my mother’s birth, never even met this granddaughter. What separates them from all of the others referenced in the poem is that the sense of connection and bondedness that I have with everyone else—all of the grandparents and great-grandparents, biological and adoptive—is missing. That’s what sets them—both of them—apart.
AK: You write proudly about your Judaism and describe your relationship with Israel as “my mother always said: / be loyal to your sister.” In “Questions for the Critics” you ask if the media would appreciate more Israelis dying as compensation for Palestinian suffering. “Pharaoh’s Daughter Addresses Linda Sarsour” asks how Jewish self-determination is different than Arab self-determination. Considering how polarizing a discussion about Israel can be, did speaking out loud about your support ever terrify you?
ED: If I didn’t already have experience speaking up on these subjects—if I hadn’t already written letters to editors and essays and blog comments—it might have been more daunting. But this isn’t new to me. Maybe I’ve become braver over time, especially as I’ve seen the discussion (such as it is) degrade. Speaking up has simply become increasingly important.
I’m also at a place in my life where I worry less about the professional risks that accompany identifying myself as someone who believes that a) the state of Israel should exist and b) the fact that there is, to date, no established state of Palestine is by no means entirely Israel’s fault. It shouldn’t be problematic to hold or express these beliefs—nor should such beliefs be assumed to exclude concerns for Palestinians’ well-being—but somehow, within both academia and publishing (and where those areas overlap), that’s where we seem to be.
If I were a younger and/or more ambitious writer, aiming for tenure or other professional markers, yes, I might be terrified that I was endangering my career by publishing these poems and alienating would-be colleagues, editors, and/or fellowship/prize juries. I certainly don’t welcome conflict, and I prefer not to spar with anyone. But I’m in a position where if I do feel compelled to speak up—as I have in those poems—I have less to lose.
AK: Can you tell us more about what brought you to poetry? In your website bio you write that you first came to poetry in 2007, after many years as a fiction and non-fiction writer. What prompted the change?
ED: Well, I did write what I considered to be “poems” as a child and adolescent, and poetry appeared on many of the syllabi for my literature classes. But all of my writing-workshop experience was in prose. My first two book-length projects—a doctoral dissertation in history and a novel manuscript (both of them still unpublished!)—were prose works. When I earned an MFA, it was in fiction.
But the MFA program also had a poetry track, and everyone—poets and fictionists—took some of the same craft seminars and attended the same readings. The MFA program helped show me how poets worked. And I was intrigued.
In 2007 I left freelancing for a full-time university staff job. A lot of change accompanied that transition, including noticeable shifts in my schedule and attention patterns. It seemed to be a ripe time to enroll in an online poetry class. So I did. And here we are!
AK: Can you tell me about your worst and best rejection?
ED: What an interesting question. I assume that we’re talking about poetry, here. Somehow, the rejections have blurred over time. There have simply been so many of them. (In 2017, I tracked all of my poetry submissions and their outcomes—there were 69 rejections just that year, just for poetry.)
The “best” rejections are invariably those that demonstrate that the editor has engaged with the work in some way, seems truly regretful not to be publishing it, and similarly seems sincere in encouraging future submissions. And maybe the worst rejections are those that simply never arrive—like the contest submissions that you find out didn’t make it out of the pile only when you run across a public announcement of the contest winner/finalists.
AK: What are you up to next? You’ve written about how it’s taken 12 years to assemble and publish Birthright; do you expect to put together a new collection? Do you expect your next collection to take equally as long?
ED: I didn’t realize from the outset that I was working toward this collection, and I don’t yet have any idea if I have another collection in my future. There are some other projects brewing, but nothing I can say much about just yet.
AK: In this collection, you merge many identities, such as Judaism, kinship and family history, Torah study, and existing in a woman’s body. Do you find that poetry lends itself to this multiplicity of identities? Does your prose similarly weave these disparate themes or is it your poetry that specifically invites this kind of complexity?
ED: That’s a great question. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about how material finds its genre (or sub-genre—I’ve often interrogated how a fiction writer knows that something is destined for story rather than novel form, and so forth). I’d like to think that my prose can be as textured as you find the poetry to be.
AK: I’d like to thank you for writing “The End of the Lines.” It is a powerful and heartbreaking poem, one that chronicles the speaker’s need to come to terms with having no children. You write “to think of all the bloodstreams that have run into the sea / of this single self, the generations of genes flowing down / through the centuries.” You wear scar tissue with pride throughout many of the poems in this collection and I find that inspirational. Keats said that poetry should appear as “almost a remembrance” and I feel a shiver of recognition as I read this poem. Thank you.