TAIJE SILVERMAN is the author of Houses Are Fields and co-translator of Selected Poems of Giovanni Pascoli, which was shortlisted for the John Florio Prize. Silverman’s poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, the Kenyon Review, and Best American Poetry. She lives in Philadelphia.
Sarah Madaris: Taije, it’s an honor and a privilege to speak with you about your work and your new collection Now You Can Join the Others. I was really fascinated by your arrangement in this collection and was wondering if you could share some thoughts. What informed the choice of opening this collection with “Grief”?
Taije Silverman: I opened the collection with “Grief” because I wanted to announce the collection’s contradictions. It’s entitled “Grief,” but about the opposite of grief: new motherhood, seeds, collective song. It’s also about the fallacy of opposites. Dichotomies dissolve in this poem into the sound of cicadas, and into the limbo of childbirth.
And “Grief” engages themes that run throughout the collection, from its preoccupation with kinds of time, to motherhood and motherlessness, to the communal impulse embedded in our will to survive.
SM: I’m interested in knowing more about what this process of creation looked like for you. How far apart were the first and last additions to this collection written?
TS: Lord. I think the earliest poem in this book is “What You Don’t Remember.” That must have been 2007. Although I wrote “Philtrum” around the same time, after the poet Constance Merritt shared what she’d learned about a Talmudic myth that explains the groove between our nose and lips— instructing me, in her strict way, to write a poem about it.
The last poem I wrote for this book is “But I Didn’t Look at Her.” That poem, too, began as an email to Constance Merritt. After you sexually harass a bald man in a steakhouse because he’s made fun of the #metoo movement, you want to confess. I worried that if I didn’t tell someone what I’d done, I might just begin wandering the steakhouses of Philadelphia, grabbing men’s paunches and talking about their penises. Though I suppose there’s still time.
SM: What does your writing and revision process entail?
TS: Boats of drafts. Fragments and fill in the blanks. Whittling. Patience. Some of the poems were missing their centers when I first wrote them. I wrote the last two lines of “Lesson” on the same day I began the poem, after my father died. I’d moved everything out of his apartment in Buenos Aires and then traveled to a glacier in Patagonia. I wrote the first draft of the poem there. I knew something needed to happen before the whales die at the end, but the preceding lines—with the image of those tunnels of air that humpbacks create—didn’t come until three years later, and in a different season, on a blooming hillside in Italy.
Other poems come more entirely, but I’ll tweak them through twenty or thirty revisions to get a phrase right, or realize I really don’t need a stanza. I had finished a whole draft of “Harp Jazz” and was in the middle of a yoga practice when I thought of the lines “my blue balloon, my funny friend, my walkabout through palm trees.” I left my mat to write them down.
SM: What did the naming of this collection look like? Did you know you wanted to use this title when you first wrote the poem, “Now You Can Join the Others,” or did this overall title emerge as the collection was arranged?
TS: I didn’t know this would become the title of the book, no. That poem itself was untitled for years.
I wrote it after seeing someone with whom I’d been in love, and wasn’t anymore. I hadn’t let myself speak to him in a decade—and in those years, I imagined I was still in love with him. After my parents died, I imagined him as the soul out there somewhere tethering me to the world.
When we saw each other after ten years, the lack of recognition was instant. The person I had loved didn’t live in the well I had been peering down all that time, to see my reflection. And I had to say goodbye—not so much to a man I had loved, with his skin and eyelashes and voice, but to the afterlife I had created, to a sensation of absence I had cherished. I wrote “Now You Can Join the Others” to his absence. Or to absence itself, to its lure. I wanted to explain to the well that there are other forms of water. And that they seek each other out, under our layers of ground.
As the poems in the book came together, I saw they almost all wanted to offer this explanation. The others (in the poem and in the book) are the dead: the real skin and hair bodies whom I have loved the most and who are not, now. And the others are the farther dead, too—the ones who watched Moses receive his rock, at the end of “Tiresias Too.” The others are those who live beside me, and who instruct and infuriate with their notmeness … whether a German psychic healer, a husband, or a five-year-old whose older brother saw someone get beheaded at Chuck E. Cheese. The others are the chorus—of cicadas, of history, of the community which calls us back from our personal grief. In ancient Greek theater, the chorus sometimes speaks in the first person singular. All these “I” voices, crowded together on the stage in their masks, making the story continue.
SM: I did some research on your work before beginning this collection and was interested in your engagement with translation and language, such as your work on DoubleSpeak. I was happy to see the manifestation of that involvement and that facet of your identity in “Things My Father Brought to Buenos Aires,” and then again in “Lingua.” I love that this collection is described as tracing things that are “evasive as language,” and I was wondering if you could share anything about how you pin down the language you want to use in your work; for example, what helps you decide when to use a word in another language and when to include or redact the translation for that word?
TS: I like your term “pin down.” I like the violence of it, its impulse for dominance over the transient. I think of pinned butterfly wings under glass—how little sense of an actual butterfly those wings capture. Meaning moves constantly between listeners, but words don’t. Words are single wings, pinned down. They suggest the marvel of meaning as much as they mark the moment of its demise.
I began “Lingua” in Rome as I was just beginning to really learn Italian. Hearing the sounds of words before I could process what they signified was an almost synesthetic experience; the sounds became images. When I am asked “why,” I think instantly toward the question of why. But when I am asked “perché,” I picture the word—I hear the crunch of the word’s sound, how it breaks in the middle—before I process its meaning as a question.
“Things My Father Brought to Buenos Aires” began on the floor of my father’s closet in Buenos Aires, where he had moved from the U.S. to make this new life for himself when my mother died.
When I went down to move everything out after his death, ten years later, I found this locked closet filled with treasure—tucked between tax returns and property titles and Spanish language notebooks. A single earring from a pair my mother used to wear in the 1970s. A harlequin doll my sister had loved when she was five. The wooden box he had built for my whisk and bowl, when I began taking Japanese tea ceremony lessons. He had brought my mother’s paint palette, each color named in her handwriting beside flakes of pigment from the last time she had used it.
It felt shocking to find these familiar objects there. It felt shocking to be alone in his home, with no one to tell, as I found it. The aloneness of being there, suddenly surprised by my childhood treasures, and needing to throw out my father’s toothbrush, and sell his bed.
His handwritten lessons in those Spanish notebooks were shocking, too. He seemed to be leaving me a guide. I knew him, in that handwriting… printed onto a little scrap of paper with the word kissing on one side and then, as his translation for it, the word for “hiding”—escondiendo—in Spanish on the other side. His verb conjugations were messages. I went. I need to go. Let me go. I kept the language in the poem as I found it in the notebooks. What is your age, in the other – he didn’t finish the question. Early drafts were pages long. So many treasures, things, all this evidence of our presence that was now evidence of absence. A person’s disappearance is a mystery. I felt the Spanish phrases beside his translations in those notebooks as an acknowledgement of the mystery, embedding language into the opacity of loss.
DoubleSpeak is great. I’m just the faculty advisor. The students who run the journal come from everywhere in the world, and the work they publish is excellent. Send work to them, if you translate poems.
SM: I immediately latched on to “The Poem About Chuck E. Cheese a Friend Posted on Facebook” – the title alone grabbed me, but then I was really captivated by your ability to challenge themes like police brutality, violence, and religion through this narrative framing of a child’s birthday party. I was wondering if you could speak to the decisions that make this poem feel so timeless; were there deliberate choices that maintain this effect?
TS: I wish the poem didn’t feel timeless. Each year on my son’s birthday I feel aware that Trayvon Martin is not turning a year older. I’m celebrating and guilty and proud and angry. We are not encouraged to hold opposing feelings at once, or to search out the connections between narratives that fuel them.
So many voices inhabit the poem. I hear them speak in me, contradict and replace and expand my own. The voice of the friend who posted Campbell McGrath’s poem… the voice of Campbell McGrath… the voices of my son and his classmate learning different values for language… the voice of the CNN anchor who calls Daniel Pearl a hero… the voice of Maimonides … the voices of strangers on Facebook…
Writing the poem, I could almost physically feel these overlapping voices, with their variously angled ways of being in the world. I think this multiplicity of voices moves through time differently. They make a web of sorts, that stretches time open in all directions instead of adhering to a more linear chronology. The genizah (the sacred documents stuffed for nine centuries into a synagogue in Cairo) manifest that web literally.
SM: Speaking of timelessness, your collection alludes to anything from Greek mythology to social media. I think this exploration of temporality is one of the key elements of this collection, and I was wondering if there is a certain time period that you have a particular interest or fascination with?
TS: I’m fascinated by how time periods seep into and change each other. How the home of Thomas Jefferson was treated as a temple during my childhood and is now correctly understood as a slave labor camp. I’m fascinated by the malleability of our understanding.
My interest in history is always personal. I care about Solon’s founding of Athens mostly as it pertains to my own marriage, in “And They Lived.” Federico Garcia Lorca’s death came into “Dome of the Rock, Rock of the Tunnel” because I’m scared of fascism. I became interested in Spinoza while writing “Tiresias Too” because his exile from his Jewish community in seventeenth century Amsterdam made me think of my father, and how the anger in my father’s agnosticism felt tangential to faith.
SM: Thank you for sharing so many thoughts about this collection with me. Some closing things that I’m curious about – What does your writing space look like? Do you maintain a certain kind of office or other space, or does writing happen sort of on-the-fly for you?
TS: I do write in my office, but usually not first drafts. I write first drafts in bed, or sitting on museum floors, or in trains. Mostly bed.
SM: Do you tend to share your works-in-progress with anyone?
TS: Always. But if I share a poem before I’ve finished a first draft, I lose its energy. Something like film exposed prematurely to light: there’s a certain seal I have to sense before the draft can afford someone else’s reaction. Once I know I’ve got my first draft, I’ll send it to a friend—one of several, who are more lifelines than friends.
SM: And, of course, the age-old question: coffee or tea (or something else entirely)?
TS: Both. Coffee every morning, with milk and honey. On occasional lazy weekends, I make chai. I like lapsang souchong, too, with tons of honey. Chamomile with lemon and honey. Maybe a little rum. I’m also a fan of many something-else-entirelys. More is more. Honey.