I don't think we're in danger of the world ending. On the other hand, the world as we know it is most definitely in critical condition.
Yoni Hammer-Kossoy is a poet, translator, and educator. Winner of the 2020 Andrea Moriah Prize in Poetry, his writing appears in numerous international journals and anthologies. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Yoni has lived with his family in Jerusalem for the last 25 years. The Book of Noah, published by Grayson Books, is his first full-length poetry collection.
There's a first time for everything and this interview is one of them. It so happens that I teach at Machon Lev with today's guest Yoni Hammer-Kossoy. As I teach in the evenings, there is minimal socializing, if at all. Normally, I arrive a few minutes before class and leave immediately after. But last semester for various reasons, I arrived a half an hour before class and actually had a chance to meet some of my colleagues (note to self: good idea to meet co-workers occassionally). Turns out, small world, one of them is also a writer who also studied in the Bar Ilan Creative Writing program and the rest, as they say, is history. So without further delay, please welcome poet and EFL teaching colleague, Yoni Hammer-Kossoy to gilagreenwrites.
GG: Whose idea was the cover? Please tell me about it.
YHK: When the publisher asked if I had any requests for the cover I said that the only thing I didn't want was an image of a man with a beard standing on a boat. That would have closed things off too much, signaled that the book was only about Noah, which of course it is to a certain extent but I also want my collection to resonate beyond the Noah story. In the end I simply loved the proposal that the publisher sent – kudos to Cindy Stewart (the graphic artist) for getting it right!
GG: How did you come to be so inspired by the story of Noah? What is it that you find compelling enough to write about? Clearly it is a hint that Noah was on the precipice of the end of the/his world, and we may be in a similar position right now. Am I in the right direction? If so, what came first, your interest in Noah or your interest in the state of the world today?
YHK: Wow, there's so much to say about Noah I could write a book about him…
What came first is my interest in Noah, especially his silence in the course of the biblical story. In part, this is a function of biblical narrative, which is purposely terse and leaves ample space for interpretation. But even so, Noah is an extreme case: he never says a thing before or during the flood, or during the time on the ark, or even in the flood's aftermath. I kept picturing a reporter (stone tablet and stylus in hand) coming up to Noah while he's building his ark, asking him about the hows and whys of what he's doing, and Noah simply responding, "no comment."
Then, a few years ago, I started writing poems about the gloomy state of the world: the environmental crisis, global warming, sixth extinction, etc. They were mostly terrible, and the especially bad ones were like listening to that unhinged guy at a party, you know, the one you humor for a minute or two just before moving on to get another drink and hang out with people who actually know how to have fun.
Finally at some point these two strands started coming together for me. One catalyst was actually COVID, where everyone had to build their own ark and ride out the storm, so to speak. But another was my desire to find a compelling way to write about crisis, and the more I tried to discover what Noah might have said and done, the more it gave me ways to think and write about our own contemporary issues.
One other point I'd like to add: for now anyway, I don't think we're in danger of the world ending. On the other hand, the world as we know it is most definitely in critical condition. There is so much to grieve about already and even more to fear about the future, but my hope is that reminding ourselves about what truly matters, we as individuals and societies will figure out how to protect what we love in the world.
GG: Could you tell us something about your writing process?
YHK: In my mind a crucial aspect of writing is reading…so I read omnivorously and voraciously – maybe not Harlequin novels, but pretty much everything else. I love words, and immersing my synapses in words and ideas definitely helps me make leaps and connections in my own writing.
I don't have a specific time or place or daily word count, and I certainly don't have a favorite pen or wait around for some kind of muse to knock at the door. I write when I can and I try to make that as often as I can. I also try to be kind to myself about what "counts" as writing – sometimes this is as little as writing a passing idea or image, or a link to an article with a line or two about why I think that article is interesting. What's important for me is to get that first impulse down on screen or paper – there's something about that act which starts a process in my subconscious that builds and connects ideas.
When I do have time to sit and write for an extended stretch, I almost never start by saying, ok now I'm going to write a poem about x. Usually I'll have a phrase or a few images to get me started, but the less I try to boss around a poem, and the more I listen to what a poem is trying to say to me, the better it is (for me and the poem). Furthermore, I try hard to just write a first draft without self-correcting and critiquing along the way. Easier said than done, of course, but I think it helps to assume that a poem needs to go through many drafts before reaching a state I can be happy with. (Note that I didn't say "done", since in my mind it's always possible to keep tinkering with a poem, but here too is an important lesson in trying to be happy with what you have.) Those very, very (did I say very?) rare occasions when a poem comes out fully formed and ready for the world are simply gifts. A source of wonderment indeed.
GG: When it comes to language choice, I've interviewed other Jewish poets who tell me they take marketability into account (I will put link below to this so people don't go out of your interview). For example, if they live in a place where few people know what a mezuzah is, they do not use this word. They do not wish to limit their readership. It has been pointed out that poetry by Sandra Cisneros for example, is sprinkled with Spanish words that some non-Spanish speakers might see as a "keep-out sign". Please share your view on this subject.
YHK: If we're talking about marketability, I'm much less worried about specific words, and much more concerned with getting past the stigma of poetry being "hard to understand" or "obscure" or whatever other baggage people have left over from High School English. Specific words can always be googled and I trust that anyone who cares enough to know what a mezuzah is (or in the case of my book, "gopher wood" or "Kvernufoss" or more details about the Noah story, to name just a few examples) will try and find out. So in a sense I think non-English words can also be a "welcome" sign where I, as a poet, am inviting readers to join me in a relationship.
GG: Has any of your work been translated into Hebrew? What are you working on now?
YHK: No. And even though you didn't ask, I've written some poems in Hebrew, but nothing I'd care to share with the world. Maybe after living a few more decades in Israel something readable in Hebrew will come out.
Currently I'm working on a few translation projects of Hebrew poetry to English. I'm also enjoying the freedom of writing my own poetry without it being directed to a specific topic or collection. I've got plenty of possible ideas but right now it's like I'm throwing spaghetti at the kitchen ceiling and seeing what sticks. It's a lot of fun and I highly recommend it!
GG: Does your work as a translator make you a better poet? Are you ever worried you will infuse your own poetic style in your translations?
YHK: Absolutely makes me a better poet. Translation has all the things I love about poetry: listening to another person's voice, understanding how their words move on the page, trying to figure out the best way to reflect and say what they're saying. There have also been times when I've been "stuck" in my own writing but translation has helped unstick me exactly because it keeps me engaged so intimately with words.
And worry isn't the right word…I don't think there's such a thing as a translation that isn't infused at some level with aspects of the translator. But if that gets in the way of the original poet's voice, then I'm not doing my job and it won't be a good translation.
GG: Please feel free to choose a couple of lines from your poems here to discuss or to add an excerpt or a poem.
YHK: Here are a few…
From the "Dear Noah" at the beginning of the collection: "I am trying to find a voice that doesn't push away, that hews close to beauty, but my optimism has become like a last rhino in captivity." Which pretty much gets at what I'm trying to do in this collection, as well as the challenges of being realistic in the face of contemporary challenges.
Another is the opening question of "Disappearing ABCs": "And what might my children's children say / about their old board books and blocks / crammed full of catastrophic loss?" I think the next few years are a crossroads for what living in the world is going to be like for decades to come. We could be handing on a world full of catastrophic loss, or we could be handing on a world full of hope and potential. There's still time for us to decide what it's going to be and act to make it a reality.
Yoni, your work gives all of us so much beauty and so much to think about. Thank you for joining me here today on gilagreenwrites. Mazaltov on your first publication, hopefully the first of many to come!
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