A Voice that is Home: An Interview with Cecilia Woloch by Heather Hartley

Cecilia Woloch is the author of three collections of poetry, Sacrifice (1997), Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem (2002), and most recently Late (2004). She is the founding director of Summer Poetry in Idyllwild and of The Paris Poetry Workshop. Her recent awards include Georgia Author of the Year in Poetry (2004), a California Arts Council Individual Artist’s Fellowship (2002) and the Isaac W. Bernheim Foundation Writing Fellowship (2002) among many others. Active in the Los Angeles literary community for more than twenty years, Cecilia has conducted poetry workshops for thousands of children, young people, and adults in venues and institutions throughout the United States and Europe, ranging from public schools and universities to prisons and hospitals. She's a member of the core faculty of the MFA in Writing Program at Western Connecticut State University. She continues to travel widely and is currently at work on a memoir.


as if I’ve plunged
into the heart
of this, Our Lady, Queen
Of Angels,
risen up
to fly again—Tsiganka,
that I am,
wheeling and turning
west and west
until west turns
to east again,
until I’ve circled back
to home, to where
the world, at last,
—Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem

Café les Philosophes, rue Vieille du Temple, 4th arrondissement, Paris

In a café rooted in the center of the incredibly historical and gorgeous Marais district, Cecilia Woloch and I spent two and a half hours talking, laughing and discussing everything from the use of classical forms in her poems to the different ways in which language migrates to the perfect pair of pink Parisian strappy sandals for summer. But our conversation inevitably returned to questions of travel—big and small, obsessive and aching and wonderful. Traveling is a leitmotif throughout her work—explored in its complexities as well as its simplicity—be it a trip across the street with family or a journey to the other side of the world alone: “and the horses would carry us, carry us home / —two borrowed horses, two local boys, / my sister and I—just to be close to that danger, desire—” (“Bareback Pantoum”).

Riding horses in the deep woods of rural Kentucky, crossing the mysterious Carpathians, running across the grands boulevards in Paris or navigating the immense, flat freeways of Los Angeles, Cecilia Woloch is at home in the world—because the world is her home. She confesses: “Between the States and Europe, I have about half a dozen different homes . . .”

Many titles of her poems reflect this innate urge and deeply-rooted desire to travel as well as the multifaceted idea of home: “Easter, Trying My Wings,” “The Open Door into the World,” “The Passionate Suitcase,” “Hades,” “Waking Elsewhere,” “Bareback Pantoum” and the entire book Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem. A somewhat Nomadic, gypsy life renews and inspires her: “I just feel most alive when I’m en route.” As a child, maps fascinated her and, reading Woloch’s three books and listening to her speak, this hardly comes as a surprise. “I think / of how I’ve flown / across the world / and never found / a single line / that I could trace / (the lines on maps / are only lines) / a name that answered / to my name, / a place that held me / hard between its borders / whispered to me: / stay” (Tsigan).

As a traveler, you have to be able to communicate—not just with words, but sometimes with what goes beyond language—gestures, facial expressions, warmth, openness—to communicate with others—much like what happens in poetry: “You plumb the depths of experience . . . in touch with a part of the self that is accessible to all and come back with an artifact, a poem, and, somehow, truth comes across.” And, truths can be communicated through a foreign language even if you are not fluent: “It’s sound more than sense that counts . . . I love the sounds of foreign words . . . There’s a physical quality, a texture, to them. Sometimes there’s just no other way to say it.” Poetry is palpable, peripatetic.

And then, you can’t forget “The Passionate Suitcase,” a prose poem in her most recent collection Late, the title of which is a fitting metaphor for Woloch’s profound, visceral relationship to travel. “I fall out the door on my way to you with the passionate suitcase that I’ve carried so long flapping its one broken arm in the breeze. It spills all the words in the street like coins” (“The Passionate Suitcase).

What follows is an interview with a brilliant, sensitive, independent poet and traveler ready to share her passionate suitcase and its contents with readers, students, children, writers and other travelers. And, perhaps more special still, she is willing to share her home: “I lean back in a shaft of sunlight, listen: /this is her voice, this is home” (Tsigan).

Could you say that your travels through the US and the world have helped to assuage some of the usual, unusual and visceral questions of identity or have your travels engendered more questions and unknowns? And if so, what kind(s)?

Oh, definitely, both things are true! My travels make me feel more at home in the world and more at home in my own skin, maybe BECAUSE they make me more aware that I don't really know what or who I am. This is truer the further abroad I travel. In some way, when I'm in a place that's really strange to me—when I don't know the language or the customs or the geography that surrounds me—I feel more self-contained, more a sense that my home is within myself. At the same time, there's more of a sense of just being part of the sea of humanity, a way that those barriers—language, culture, borders—seem to dissolve. Once, when I was at a festival in the Carpathians, I remember telling my friend Sarah Luczaj that I felt like the tiniest drop in the biggest bucket in the world; I felt utterly insignificant and utterly marvelous. She said she understood exactly what I meant. Of course, she's a traveler too. I don't know if I should even mention that I seldom have that feeling while traveling in the US, though I've done a lot of traveling around the US. I feel most of this has been said before, but it's become such a monoculture, the landscape has been so homogenized by corporate culture that, in a lot of places in the US, I feel like I'm nowhere at all. It's actually much more disorienting, on some level, than being in a foreign country, and I feel more out of place, more like a stranger. There's also a way that we seem to walk around being invisible to one another in America. Or maybe it's that we DRIVE around so much? But it's hard to feel as if you exist to yourself when you don't feel as if you exist to those around you, I think.

---‘What tongue is in his mouth? What tongue in mine?’ When I read this in your second book Tsigan The Gypsy Poem, I thought of so many different ways to understand and think about this line including of course the idea of mother tongue and foreign tongue. At the risk of sounding silly, what does ‘tongue’ in the context of Tsigan (and by extension poetry in general) mean to you?

Well, the speaker of Tsigan is having an all-night conversation with a man who speaks many languages, and also turns out to share her connection to the Roma. So "tongue" here has to do with language, with how language does or doesn't define us -- what IS the "mother tongue" of any of us, given how we migrate, how language migrates? -- And it also has to do with how we relate via language, and what's beneath language -- the breath, the body. "Tongue" here also has to do with her complicated and deep attraction to this man and to what he's telling her, or trying to tell her. So it's sexual, too, as language is and isn’t sexual. And it's phrased as a question because it's a question of identity and also because sexual attraction has to do with curiosity -- how would it feel to be in this person's arms, to taste his breath ...? There's also the rather delicious frustration of not quite knowing, of each of us being in some way unknowable to the other.

---‘Can you ever imagine, as in Tsigan, a place that has whispered to you to stay? What would that mean for you? What is home for you?

Well, I can IMAGINE it but so far, no one place has whispered that to me. I do feel at home in a lot of places; I feel as if I have a number of homes. Los Angeles is one, because I've spent so many years there, and so many of my friends are there. But probably Kentucky is the place that feels most like home to me, because that's where my family is, and they're rooted there, and I love that landscape, tragic as it is in some places. I also think having this huge, close-knit, loving family is a real luxury. A friend of mine pointed out to me that I can go anywhere, because I always have a place to come back to, and that "place" is my family. One of my sisters laughs and tells people, "Why does Cecilia need pots and pans and furniture, when she has us?" It's like in that poem near the end of Tsigan, where I'm hearing my mother's voice on the other end of the phone line and realize that her VOICE is "home." So it comes back to language, too, and to our stories, our histories, the history we share.

And I have other homes that seem to be places that have "claimed" me, whether I wanted to be claimed or not. Idyllwild, in the mountains of southern California, where I've spent every summer for the past 15 years is one of those places. I always have the sense that I'm coming home when I drive up into those mountains. And I feel very much at home in Paris. I can just walk the streets here and feel that I belong. And I feel very rooted in Poland somehow—maybe that's ancestral, that claim. I love the landscape of the Carpathians and it speaks to me; I can actually hear it. I also have the sense that some people there have claimed me as one of their own. The first time I went to that festival I was talking about, I ended up dancing in a meadow like a wild woman with two little girls. The next year, when I went back, those same little girls came running toward me as soon as I arrived, calling my name, as if I were some long-lost fairy godmother and they'd been waiting for me all year. And the matriarch of a gypsy clan there grabbed me and kissed me and laughed. And it seemed to me a lot of old women were looking at me in a way that said, "You're one of us. Don't try to deny it." Of course, I don't even speak the same language as these people, but that doesn't seem to matter. Last spring, I went back to Poland after what had been a very difficult year, a year of grief that had left me feeling shattered and disconnected. And a couple of days after I arrived, there was a moment when I swear I felt my soul fly back into my body. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was a visceral sensation. I just felt suddenly and inexplicably whole again.

So I guess what I'm looking for, in terms of a home or homes, might be that place or those places where I feel that sense of connection to myself and to the world around me. But for me, the key to that feeling seems to lie in motion. I just feel most alive when I'm en route. The idea of staying in one place for a long time actually kind of terrifies me.

Who are some of your preferred poets and why? I think I could count Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva among them?

Yes, Akhmatova has been very important to me—her life as well as her work, the lessons they offer about integrity and beauty and love. It may sound absurd, but I slept with her collected poems under my pillow during one of the most difficult months of my life, and even dreamt of her, and felt I drew strength from that. She'd lived through worse, and when asked if she could describe it, gave that miraculous answer, "Yes, I can." Her example is a gift to all of us.

I feel I have a similar relationship with H.D., whose life I also admire. She wrote, in my opinion, her most beautiful poems and some of the most beautiful poems in the language while the bombs were falling around her during the London blitz. Her "Trilogy," in my opinion, makes Eliot's "Wasteland" look like a long, incoherent whine. I think she was and is too easily dismissed by the male poetry establishment.

Sharon Doubiago is a contemporary poet whose work and life have provided important examples to me, too, and another woman poet whose work doesn't get the attention I feel it deserves. Her book Hard Country changed my life, and my way of seeing the world, and poetry.

Of course there are male poets, too, whose work I love and admire. W.S. Merwin—also an example of extraordinary artistic and personal integrity, I think. And Walt Whitman, whose work I return to again and again, for its energy and wild love. And where would any of us be without Rilke, and Lorca, and Langston Hughes, and their vision of humanity? And I love the shattered beauty of Saphho's fragments, especially Anne Carson's versions of them, and I think Anne Carson is truly a genius, though I seldom use that word to describe anyone (except for my nephew, Jesse!). I could go on and on . . . I think I'm pretty catholic in my tastes, and a promiscuous reader of poetry. I try to keep an open mind and an open heart, and to let things move me and stimulate me in all kinds of ways.

How can you reveal and/or make a poem understandable to a child?

I think children just "get" poetry on a visceral level, if the poetry's true and if it's presented to them as something they CAN understand. Think of the ways children use language when language is still new to them—they're natural poets, and they naturally understand the magic of language. Of course, I learned to read out loud to children from my mother's example, so I try to infuse it with a lot of energy, use the full range of my voice, gestures, etc., and try to make it fun to listen to. In front of a classroom full of six-year-olds, I've been known to turn pirouettes while reciting poems, without even realizing that I'm doing it. I think they just sense my excitement about the words and so they join right in and share that excitement. I've heard kids on a schoolyard shouting out (yes) haiku by Issa. And there was one kid who used to run across the playground yelling lines from Gregory Corso's poem "Marriage:" "Penguin dust! Bring me penguin dust!" Imagine getting paid for that kind of work!

Do you remember the subject (and title) of the first poem that you wrote and actually considered a poem? What compelled you to write it?

I remember it vividly—maybe most poets do? This is such a clear memory for me, such a visceral memory. I was 19 years old. I'd been reading and writing poetry for a while, since high school, and I'd been in love with words—especially with the sounds of words, their music, forever. So I was a freshman in college, in Lexington, Kentucky, and one of my classmates there was Ben Bealmear, who'd been my best friend since we were fourteen, whose family was kind of like an extension of my family, and whose mother, "Ms. B.", had been my first creative writing teacher, at Bullitt Central High School in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. She was the person who first breathed over my little attempts at poetry and said, "You can do it." I remember feeling, even at 16, that she had more faith in me than I'd ever have in myself.

We got a call one winter morning in Lexington that Ben's father had died suddenly, of a heart attack, while he was chopping wood behind their house. I remember that it was freezing, there was a bad snowstorm, but we all packed up—I drove with Ben's girlfriend, in her jeep—and headed back to Shepherdsville. We got to the house, which was already full of people, and I just made a beeline for Ms. B. and flew into her arms. The funeral was the next day, I think, and it was the first funeral I'd ever been to. That night, back at my own parent’s house, I wrote a poem about the drive up there, for Ms. B. I remember when I finished it feeling a little bit scared about what I'd done—the end of the poem was a surprise to me, I didn't even really understand it—and I remember feeling that, after writing for years, this was the first real poem I'd ever written. Maybe I knew, at that moment, what I was in for. I knew I'd have to try to do this again and again, to get to that place of not-knowing and beauty and loss, where I could say something to someone I loved that couldn't say in any other way. The poem was published in the college literary magazine and won a prize from the Kentucky Arts Council that spring. Ms. B. died a couple of years ago. Before she died she told me about a zillion times that I was "her claim to fame." My most recent book is dedicated to her, as well as to my father.

What difference do you see—or in fact do you see a difference—in the role that poetry plays in the US in contrast with the role that it plays in Europe?

I think I could only answer that question fairly if I were a European poet. But being an American poet in Europe has some real advantages over being an American poet in America, in my experience. One isn't seen as a freak here, or as self-indulgent, but as someone who's doing work that matters somehow. In Europe, audiences seem to me much more serious and engaged with the work when they hear it, and they don't seem to expect to be "entertained"—as I fear American audiences often do—but to be stimulated and challenged by what they hear, and given an opportunity to respond. They expect to participate and not just be spectators at poetry readings. I love the question-and-answer period that usually follows a poetry reading in Europe. I recently read for a standing-room-only crowd in an English-language bookstore in Geneva, where I'd never read before, and where the audience couldn't have possibly had much prior knowledge of my work. The level of attention was astounding, and the questions asked afterwards were really probing, and the discussion that followed was fascinating. It's just a more interactive experience than giving a reading in America has been for me, and it gets me thinking about my work in new ways. And yes it makes me feel as if the role of the poet is a more important role than I'd thought.

There's also the phenomenon, especially in Eastern Europe, of people finding out that you're a poet and wanting to invite you into their home, feed you, take care of you—I don't think this is just me? But I feel like some kind of strange treasure when I'm in Poland, for example. Even people who don't understand a word of English seem to listen with deep attention, even reverence—-though I'm lucky to have Polish translators and friends who are native speakers to read the Polish versions, too. One of the highlights of my life as a poet, thus far, was giving a reading in the rain behind an old wooden church at that festival in the Carpathians. I was reading from the manuscript for Tsigan, which hadn't been published yet, a poem about my father showing me this place on a map—the place my grandmother had come from—that I didn't believe actually existed. And at that moment I looked up, and saw, to my own amazement, that I was standing in that very place, that dreamed-of place that I thought had been erased from the map. And there was a small group of people standing in a semi-circle in the grass, some with umbrellas and others just ignoring the rain, some crouching and a few even kneeling, and though I was sure they couldn't understand a word I was saying, I swear they were looking at me with such love and tenderness, as if I were—had always been—one of their own. As if they'd been waiting for me to come home, and I had.