Adina Kopinsky: I want to talk about this book of yours, Don’t Touch the Bones. It’s a fascinating book. I read it multiple times over the past month. I want to hear about how you started writing Don’t Touch the Bones, about where the feelings and ideas came from, and what it took for you to get to a place where you realized it was actually not just some poems, but a book.
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach: So it’s kind of impossible to talk about that book without talking about The Many Names for Mother because it was all one arc. And I just had all of these poems about ancestry and immigration and I couldn’t quite connect them to who I was in the world. They were very much poems that were looking back. And then I became pregnant with my son and went on a trip to the death sites in Poland while pregnant. I also wrote “Against Naming” which is the opening poem of The Many Names for Mother which really cinched my past and my present. The process became about whittling away these ancestry and immigration poems from the book, while still leaving some but the book was still a lot more preoccupied with my present-day experience of motherhood and how my ancestry affects me as a mother. So, what I realized when I whittled away so many poems and wrote so many new ones is that I had a whole other book that was confidently entrenched in the past. It begins in the past and has moments of motherhood within it, whereas The Many Names for Mother goes the opposite direction, it begins in the present and then ends looking back at my great-grandfather. So it seems like a sequel or a prequel in a way. I think the collections are very much in conversation with each other, which is why they’re coming out one right after the other. I don’t think either of these books was really a project that I knew what I was getting myself into; they were accumulations of poems, surrounded around an obsession. Then it was about figuring out how they exist as a manuscript and the arc that these poems are forming.
AK: That’s so interesting to think about how one book can give birth to another, can splinter off into new directions. Is there another direction here in this family of The Many Names for Mother and Don’t Touch the Bones that is actually also waiting to be found?
JKD: I think writing 40 WEEKS was a response to that. Also, my poem “Against Naming” was a really big catalyst in understanding what the heck I really am doing as a poet. That poem starts, “let’s not name her or compare flesh to fruit” and 40 WEEKS is a response to that statement and names the body in terms of fruit every week. The 40 WEEKS poems I feel like are definitely a splintering of the “Other Women Don’t Tell You” series of poems which forms the core of The Many Names for Mother collection. Then, from within Don’t Touch the Bones, there’s only one poem that’s structured like an interview, “Translating My Grandfather’s Hunger,” but a project that I just started and really want to continue to do is both imagined and real interviews with my grandmother and grandfather and mother. I have this wonderful relative in New York that I went and talked to and really wanted to interview. And she just has these incredible stories and is very comfortable telling them, but she said, “oh no, I would never be interviewed this isn’t something for record purposes” So this would be a collection of hybrid poems and lyric essays tentatively titled “Intergenerational” written in both Russian and English. I’m not sure if you’ve read a lyric essay I wrote called “An Imagined Interview with Babushka Vera.” It’s published in VIDA and it’s an imagined interview with my great-grandmother where I let myself answer the question of, is it okay that I’m writing about you? I’m writing about you because you survived. And I imagined her answering the ways she doesn’t consider herself to be a survivor.
AK: That sounds really fascinating. I’m so happy you brought up that section of poetry about your grandfather, the pseudo interview. I want to link it back to what you opened your book with, which is the quote from Walter Benjamin, “memory creates the chain of tradition, which passes a happening from generation to generation. It starts the web, which all stories together form in the end.” I really found the whole section of “Translating Your Grandfather’s Hunger” so interesting because it seemed like a counterpoint to the whole book. This whole book is excavating memories and your grandfather is either not having the memories or avoiding the memories in many different psychological ways. And I wanted to talk more about the idea of memory as the basis for storytelling and the different ways that stories can manifest.
JKD: I think what I realized through poetry is that memory rejects storytelling, memory rejects narrative. For me, that’s why poetry is such a useful genre because within a lyric moment there’s no pressure to tell a story from point A to point B. So when I asked my grandfather to tell me about the past, part of his refusal is that he doesn’t have a narrative, he doesn’t have a point A to point B way of talking about it. And for him that’s a failure. But I think that’s a very productive failure. And these glimpses that we get, whether they are images, fragments, memory, or whether they’re metaphors, whatever it is, moments or emotions. Emotions are so vital to story and yet story does not depend to some extent on emotion. It depends on action. A linear progression. I think my poems are always struggling with and working to excavate the question of: how can we give glimpses of story without feeling the pressure to tell narrative? In fact, how can poems show us that traumatic memories in particular reject narrative. Paul Celan would say absolutely. That’s exactly what trauma does.
AK: I was thinking about Celan’s quote “no one can bear witness for the witness” while reading your collection because you are in many ways attempting to bear witness for the witness. You have a foot in both worlds. We are both of a generation that’s not living within that kind of trauma right now in our adult lives. So it’s always tricky to think about: how can I translate this other person’s experience onto the page into a way that the world can hear and understand?
JKD: This is what my dissertation is about, the lyric witness and that’s exactly what I distill: the rebellion against narrative or rejection of narrative. When I was initially writing the dissertation I didn’t want to make it a generational story, but the more I thought about it, the more it became obvious that the first generation, those directly traumatized by an actual event, couldn’t tell a linear narrative because they were deeply traumatized and traumatic memory comes to us fractured. Then the second generation were traumatized by their parents’ silence. And so they tried to recover narrative and they tried to tell the story from point A to point B because they felt that’s what they needed, to understand what their parents went through. Then when we come, the third generation, we embrace that initial rupture, that initial fracturing, while at the same time already having more access to the story through history, through the second generation, through the internet and through the canon of work that’s growing around the trauma. The third generation becomes this middle ground between complete rejection of narrative and complete embrace, wanting to get things right and clear. And of course, that’s a super reductive generational telling and there are tons of people that violate it within each generation, but I think there’s something helpful to seeing it this way. And for me, understanding my place as the grandchild of those who experienced the trauma.
AK: Can you talk about what bones represent? There’s a lot of obvious understandings throughout the book of what bones can represent, but I’m curious to hear your perspective. Particularly in the poem “Family Portrait as a Collection of Bones,” you list different collections that different members of your family have. And as I read that, I thought to myself, Julia is including herself by excluding herself because this is your collection. So I wanted to hear more about what these bones represent to you and what you’re collecting by telling the reader “don’t touch” and then spending the entire book attempting to touch.
JKD: So I think Don’t Touch the Bones is from the idea of: don’t go back to Poland, don’t go back to these places of atrocity, don’t look at the past. It’s an idea that I felt from a lot of my family members, both survivors and not. There’s “The Driftwood Pantoum” where my mom says, “you’re making your grandmother turn in the grave” and she does say this all the time to me: just let her lie, you can’t stop writing about our past. So it’s a reclaiming of that statement. I keep being told not to touch, so I’m going to tell you, reader, also don’t touch—but keep touching. Do it in spite of the negation. Like Freud said, every negation is just an invitation. As soon as you say not to do it, it puts the act right in your mind. I think that’s what it means to me in part. Also, if you’re going to touch, if you’re going to do this work, do it from a position that is very self-aware to not take ownership over atrocity. Because I think parts of the book also deal with this marketing aspect. This marketing of trauma and marketing of the Holocaust and the fact that there is a cache to it. There’s something to be earned from being in this privileged position of having survived or being a witness and I think one has to be very aware and cautious and call that out and in calling it out, in recognizing it, I’m trying to avoid doing the same. At the same time, I am publishing and ultimately selling a book about past trauma. I’m fully aware of that. But I can’t not do it. I have to write about it because I’m also being true to my own experience.
AK: I think it’s really interesting that in our generation there is a lot of literature of descendants trying to work this out as a history, as a story, as a memory. I really found your book and your take on it to be especially thought-provoking. So, thank you.
JKD: Thank you for taking so much time and reading the book so closely. It’s always so wonderful.
AK: Now that you’re forthcoming with your third book in this series, this trilogy of poetry. What are you working on next?
JKD: That’ll be the nonfiction. I also have a not-so-secret collection. I said I had all of these ancestry poems and then they became motherhood poems, but all the while I also had these poems dealing with having a partner with chronic illness, which I deal with a lot in my chapbook. So I have a whole collection devoted to being a partner to someone with chronic illness and chronic illness that exacerbated really drastically when I was 36 weeks pregnant. So you see it happening in the collection 40 WEEKS. It’s really quite strange to have written it as it was happening. Now I’m still writing poems that are both part of 40 WEEKS, but also part of Study of Scars, my new collection. Because poetry for me is so much about my experience of the world. And one thing is always connected with another.
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach came to the United States as a Jewish refugee in 1993, from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine, and grew up in the DC metro area suburb of Rockville, Maryland. She spent three years in Eugene, earning an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon is currently back east, working towards a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on contemporary poetry about the Holocaust, with a special focus on atrocity in former Soviet territories.
Julia is the author of The Many Names for Mother, selected by Ellen Bass as the winner of the 2018 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry prize, now available from Kent State University Press or other book retailers. Purchase her chapbook, The Bear Who Ate the Stars (Split Lip Press, 2014), before it goes out of print in 2020. Her second collection, Don’t Touch the Bones won the 2019 Idaho Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Lost Horse Press in March 2020. Look out for her newest collection, 40 WEEKS, forthcoming from YesYes Books in 2021. You can find her recent poems in POETRY, American Poetry Review, and The Nation, among others.
Julia lives in Philly with her two kids, two cats, one dog, and one husband. She edits Construction and occasionally writes Other women don’t tell you, a blog about motherhood.
Adina Kopinsky is a poet, writer, and multi-genre editor. Now living in Israel, she is originally from Venice, California and has a degree in English Literature from California State University, Northridge. She has work published or forthcoming in Rust + Moth, SWWIM Every Day, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry, among other publications.