Geula Geurts: Thank you for agreeing to meet with me this early morning to discuss your poetry.
Marcela Sulak: And thank you.
GG: I’d like to start off with a question that intrigues me about poets in general, something I’m always curious about. How would you describe your mood when you write poetry?
MS: Well, there are different moods for different kinds of poems or genres of writing. The poems in my forthcoming collection City of Skypapers are a kind of morning ritual, or even a morning prayer. I tried to enter them with absolute openness, as if encountering a blank page. While writing them, it felt to me that the mood of each piece could be radically different. Some days I’d be obsessing about something specific, and other days I’d just be looking at the ducks in the Yarkon river, and some days I’d be wondering about the people I’m sitting next to on the bus.
GG: That’s a lovely daily writing ritual. It feels very appropriate for us to talk about your poems in the morning, and in a sukkah, surrounded by a green garden.
MS: Yes, Sukkot is definitely a favorite holiday. I’m very much drawn to the yearly cycle and rhythm of the land, the harvest seasons and all they involve.
GG: Your poems are indeed very much grounded in harvest imagery, vegetables, fruit, plants. They seem to naturally recur throughout your poems, often as organic background “props,” even when they aren’t the center of the poem. How do you explain this?
MS: In my first book “Immigrant,” I was interested in how people are changed by the plants and nature around them, and vice versa. How the plants around them create sacred rituals or holidays. And in my second book, with laws and rules governing eating and social behavior.
I actually grew up on a rice farm, in a family that sustained itself. We had a garden, chickens, a cow; my mom sewed our clothes. We were commercially almost independent. So, I’m accustomed to apprehending the world that way. To ask myself, what’s growing on it, when is it in season? I grew up sensitive to sunrise, sunset, seasons. I learned to mark them by what was growing. I’ve also moved around a lot as an adult, and the natural world has always been the one stable thing in my life. I’ve frequently exchanged languages and countries, so I ordered myself through the natural world. Eating is actively consuming the natural world, it’s a constant everywhere, a communion with the world. Eating also brings people together, there is an intimacy.
GG: I can sense this in your poem “Shekhinah, a prayer” where you write:
When I break the first egg, break the second, the chickens
do not pause in their pecking, the insects in the grass
continue to hide behind their blades. Companion
is still one who shares my bread.
It feels like the imagery of the natural world imbues your poems with spirituality, sometimes even religion.
MS: True. I think that the Jewish yearly cycle itself is grounded in the garden, is in constant conversation with the harvest. Look at Sukkot, Pesach, Shavuot; the rhythms of the land take on ritualistic and religious meaning.
GG: I’ve noticed that “place” is also an important factor in your poems. In “Skypapers” your home-setting of Tel Aviv is central. The mundane, everyday factors of city life: the market, the bus, the river, the garden, the kitchen.
MS: In this book I didn’t have one general theme, but I wanted the collection to be a set of daily poems. My everyday life entails a morning run to the sea, or to my vegetable garden and orchard, a bus commute or bicycle ride to work, or cooking in my kitchen. And there is ritual there too. Much of Jewish custom is grounded in the fine details of the day to day, from kashrut to raising children.
GG: The poem sequence which starts with the line “To get here today” seems to be grounded in poetic form, yet the language feels like a natural flow, a stream of consciousness. Can you explain what poetic choices you’ve made there?
MS: The idea of these daily meditation poems was also to mimic how the mind works. I mainly wrote on the bus or while walking in the city. I tried to remember my thinking process, from one thought to the next, to observe my mental process. I did this as a practice every day for six months. I wrote it all down in the form of a block. And only afterwards did I shape the poem into form, with either the ottava rima structure, or sonnet sequences. Cutting the block of free writing into form forced me to eliminate non-essential parts of the poem, the debris you delete when form asks for rhyme. Poetic form is like a hanger on which the dress of the poem takes shape.
GG: What a wonderful answer on poetic craft! To conclude, would you say you’ve ended up writing a collection of love-poems to Tel Aviv?
MS: Ha! Let’s just say that Tel-Aviv and I are in a complicated relationship, an open relationship maybe. I never dreamed of living here, but I can say that I’m growing into the city. Since I started leasing the vegetable garden plot and orchard, and running by the river, I’ve found nature and peace within the city structures. I feel more expanded now. I don’t know if I’ll always live in Tel Aviv. Perhaps these are more poems that embody the act of falling in love with a city, learning the self within the city.