The Line Break Open Book Club discussion of Allison Davis’ book Poppy Seeds is now open! Watch the vlog on the Book Club page and check out the information and interview below! Send us your comments and questions on this post or on our brand new twitter feed @LineBreakOpen! We look forward to hearing from you. Also, next month’s Book Club pick is Sally Keith’s The Fact of the Matter. Buy it here or here.
Interact with the book:
- Buy the book on Amazon and Kent State University Press.
- Travel virtually to Vilnius, Lithuania.
- Bake some poppy seed delectables of your own! Lithuanian Poppy Seed Roll recipe, Old Family Lithuanian Poppy Seed Roll recipe
- Explore the poems of Charles Reznikoff.
- Learn all the words to “Heave Ho! My Lads, Heave Ho!“
Now hear from the author! Enjoy this insightful and incredibly interesting author interview with Allison Davis on her book Poppy Seeds.
+5: Allison Davis
1. One of my favorite themes in this book was the theme of language. The poems explore the usage and implications of language in several different ways. Many, such as “To Devorah Mazur” and “Gust Martin,” seemed to speak to the distancing effect that language can have over time and space when one is removed from the lands of their native tongue. Other poems, such as “Poppy Seeds” and “On a Theme by Moyshe Kulbak” and “Thinking About It From Here,” work to preserve the foreign language in an English poem, thus bringing it into our vernacular while allowing it to remain itself. There is also a strong theme of conflating language with sewing. Here I am thinking of “To Devorah Mazur” and “Occupation.” What impact and import did you find that language, particularly foreign languages and translation, held for this book as a whole? Were you consciously focused on how you used foreign languages and how you described the effects that language has on a person’s psychological state in the poems for this book? Is this topic something you are particularly interested in?
Code-switching from one language to another ties to my earliest understanding of communication. My mother inserts Greek words into English sentences, but when I was young, I wasn’t conscious that she was using two languages—I thought that it was all English. But one day, I understood that “Yia Yia” was not another English word for grandmother but a Greek word, a word that implied a history, that implied the passage of time and space. Language gained another dimension for me.
I didn’t know the word “code-swtich” until I began taking Yiddish classes, and I didn’t research its implications until I wrote a paper on Lenny Bruce and Abbie Hoffman. Their switches from English to Yiddish were often acts of rebellion. Switching from one language to another gained radical, cultural, and historical implications.
I think your observations about how foreign language serves as a distancer in some poems and preserver in others is fascinating. Because I’m not fluent in my ancestral languages (Greek and Yiddish), they serve as distancers for me, but they are the languages many of my grandparents were raised in. I believe language shapes how you understand the world, and I think that my upbringing was directly impacted by the languages in which my ancestors lived their lives.
I give all credit for the stitching metaphor to the language Harvey Shapiro uses when discussing Charles Reznikoff’s poetry— phrases like “the care and precision of his lines” and “his painstaking craftsmanship.” Reznikoff’s parents were milliners, and it is as if this “painstaking craftsmanship” was passed from generation to generation—one generation made neat lines of stitches and the next made neat lines of poetry. I love the idea that mentalities or theoretical skill sets can be hereditary—my father’s family owns a motel and my mother’s family owns a laundry, and I’ve inherited many of the skills I use in writing directly from these two lines of work and how they’ve shaped my own family’s outlook.
2. I was particularly drawn to your poems’ focus on and usage of the ocean as a physical presence and a metaphor. The ocean seems to work both as an insurmountable distance and barrier to homeland and love but also a conduit for a present day “I” to use to connect with a history and long gone ancestry. In “Poppy Seeds,” you write that “I crossed an ocean. It crossed me.” How important is this linkage between time, space and family to the poems in this book? In a world so connected as ours is now, does the ocean still figure as that large “whaleroad” that it used to and how is that important for your poems?
In Poppy Seeds, the ocean operates like language in that it is a boundary and a connector. It’s both at the same time—my great grandmother was fifteen, married, and pregnant when she crossed the Atlantic. It’s a difficult space.
The linkage between time, space, and family is important to the book. My understanding of time is shaped by research that I’ve done on time in Modernist Literature—I’m especially interested in thinkers like Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson and how their revolutionary ideas about time influence how we read time-obsessed authors like William Faulkner or T.S. Eliot.
But what ultimately draws me to time is its strangeness—it’s very surreal to me that we’re all the product of generations of strangers meeting and reproducing. It’s strange that many of my great grandparents don’t know that I exist yet I know about them. The realities of time are beyond invention. It’s the medium in which we live and think.
3. Distance seems especially important to the poems in this book. We read of lovers separated by church bells, “It rings/ the ache of distance//closing. But the church bells/are not for us.” And we read of a body possessed by it’s memory of another, “You went away,//but my body went farther:/dumb thing can’t measure.// It waits for the air above/ to grow empty and still.” The physical and psychological distance that comes with losing or separating from a person struck me very hard throughout this book, particularly the way in which your poems approached it. I did not feel that these were angry poems directed at ex-lovers as we often see in poetry. Your poems were much more subtle and profound in that you keyed in on the human ache of longing that never goes away. Do you consider your love poems in this book “love poems?” Did you highlight distance to emphasize the human need and constant search for connection or to enact and bring to life the experience of loss?
There are two kinds of distances juxtaposed in this book—a constant, inherited distance between my great grandparents and I, and a sudden, unstable distance created by a separation that resulted from geographic distance. Every poem has a velocity, and poems about lost love move in very interesting and startling ways. Sometimes the verb tenses get all mixed up because people feel old feelings in new moments, and this chaos makes chronological time and its logic somehow inaccurate when describing how the human mind experiences reality. So the distances in these love poems—both temporal and geographic—were not gradually or carefully built. They were deserts of distance suddenly thrown between people. I aspire to write a poem like “The Old Flame” by Robert Lowell—a poem that jumps around tonally and chronologically—a poem that accurately reflects the instability and uncertainty of the speaker.
4. Poppy Seeds is a great title and I loved the title poem in the book. I did, however, struggle to connect this idea and theme to the book as a whole. I played with the idea of poppy seeds and Jewish tradition and cuisine as a linkage to many of the poems, and prompted by Kathy Fagan’s blurb, I wondered if poppy seeds were a small hardness that does endure and cross time and space. Would you like to talk about how you see these objects, poppy seeds, as a connective tissue for the poems in your book?
There is a line in “Poppy Seeds” that associates the seed with vowels: “all of my vowels become poppy seeds,/Mother, his name was all vowels like poppy seeds/dotted over the yellow sun.” I wrote most of these poems while studying Yiddish in Lithuania. One of my favorite poets, Abba Kovner, was a forest partisan in Vilnius before becoming a Hebrew poet, so I brought a book of his poetry with me to Vilnius. In Hebrew, many of the vowels are dots. I was thinking about how if I was eating a poppy seed roll and some of the seeds fell on my book of Hebrew poems, I wouldn’t be able to tell between the poppy seeds and the vowels. In Lithuania, I was submerged in so many languages that one night I remember waking to the sound of heavy rain and, in my exhaustion, thinking that I needed to translate it into English, like it was homework that I forgot to do. I think that this conflation of poppy seeds with sounds and language represents the speaker’s state of mind—a speaker that sees vowels in seeds, seeds in vowels.
5. “Still” is one of my favorite poems in the book. I usually underline my favorite passages in poems but I couldn’t underline a single line of this one because I very quickly realized I would have to underline the entire poem. So I circled the title and made a note to talk to you about it. The body being “dumb” and separate from the intellect is beautiful. I love that another person’s body can be a “muscle of your memory.” You make the innateness and the uncontrollableness of emotions and memory come to life with this metaphor. I could feel memory. And then the “endless addition/ending in flood” brought the metaphor to a whole new and fresh level. The idea of the separation of mind and body is a strong theme throughout all of poetry, and I daresay mankind’s, entire history and yet you managed to make the conflict feel new again. The word “dumb” is also a word linked to speech and the lack of or inability to create it. Your poem gives voice to something that is both “dumb” to the body and verbal expression. How do you see poems as functioning in this manner? Do they give voice, do they give us answers, or do they simply state the questions? Why are our bodies and mouths “dumb” when our poetry is not?
I didn’t start writing poetry because I had something smart to say—I started writing because I often felt very intense in a very vague way, and language helped me to, if nothing else, outline the intensity so I could begin to approach it. I feel distant from my poetry, often as if someone else wrote it. People often think that poets must be very good with language, and maybe most are, but I started writing because I’m very bad with language. It takes me a lot of time and energy to make language even somewhat accurate to my experience. The page is kind of like the ocean to me in that respect—a difficult space that is both a barrier and a connector. And a space to fail—if nothing else, art is important as a placeholder for doubt in a world that is ever more concise and efficient—it is good to have a safe, public place where people can be imperfect, terrified, confused, heartbroken, real.