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Mark Strand Gives Up Poetry! Again!
In an strangely humorous interview with Tablet Magazine (“A New Read on Jewish Life”), 77-year-old poet Mark Strand explains that he has given up poetry to make art. Apparently this is the second renouncing (his first hiatus lasted five years): “I have nothing left to say,” he told Tablet; and continues to remark on Richard Howard’s writing of Strand’s focus on absence: “Absence is part of everything. You could say that the desire to be missed is a preoccupation with absence.” Strand also talks about the waking up in the morning to write (or not), the memoir he’s working on about his parents, his Jewishness (“That is something that apparently is not so uncommon”), how he feels about Israel, and more about his parents (some of which is true):
Are you hiding your Jewish identity? Are you from a certain generation that found it easy to eschew Judaism?
You can’t hide what doesn’t exist, or what exists in such a small way. If it were easier, I’d say I was Jewish. If somebody were to say, “What’s your religion?” I would say, that I am an atheist, but my parents were Jewish and atheist, and yes, I’m born to Jewish parents, and quite frankly I’m rather proud of it. But at the end of the day I just don’t think about Jewishness. I don’t think about not being Jewish, or being Jewish. I don’t really know what being Jewish is. I’ve only been to synagogue once or twice because of friends’ kids being bar mitzvahed.
So, you were never bar mitzvahed?
No. I had no Jewish education. The only church I went to, the only religious instruction I had, was in Cleveland, when I was 10 years old, I went to Presbyterian Sunday School because all the other kids went there. I quickly got bored; it seemed silly to me. I was already well on my way to becoming an atheist. If I have a country, it is the English language. It is American literature. The formation of whatever social or literary identity I have is dependent equally on factors that have nothing to do with being Jewish.
What I do think is Jewish about me is a certain sense of humor. I sometimes feel like a middle-European Jew. And I feel, of all writers, the greatest kinship with Kafka, his humor, his strangeness. There’s a peculiar depth to his short fiction which I feel tremendously drawn to. I am charmed by the Yiddish proverbs. So, in some sense, I feel a kind of Jewishness, but that’s only one aspect of my person.
Tell me about the memoir you’re working on about your parents. Why are you writing it?
For my kids. My father’s interesting, and my mother is interesting too, although the story isn’t really hers, it’s about him. To grow up in a household with a person who you depended on, and loved, and thought you knew, but didn’t know, who told stories about the past, all of which were false. I hadn’t a glimmer of the truth until after he died. I find it interesting how somebody could keep a secret for so long, the secret of his incarceration, and to invent another life that would make it impossible to know that he was ever in jail.
Why did it take you so long to get to this memoir?
It had to do with my reluctance to give up the fantasy that I had of my father. My father had become a mythological figure, all-powerful, all-knowing, God-like. When I was young, he had done everything, it seemed to me, that I wasn’t able to do and would never be allowed to do. He was free to do them. In other words, I was reluctant to give up the father I believed him to be. I was also reluctant to reveal his secret. He had worked his whole life to keep the truth hidden, and here I was, coming along, for no good reason except my own curiosity, ready to reveal his secret. My curiosity could have been revealed without my writing the book. But then I thought, “What a great story.”
You can read the full interview here.