This is a personal op-ed piece about my family connection to Kyiv and the refugee situation for Jews in Ukraine in the early decades of the 20th century and how that inflected my work on translating the poetry
of Nelly Sachs. It appears in the Jewish magazine, MOMENT. Thanks to Jody Bolz for asking for it.
A Letter to the Editor at the Washington Post about their obituary of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, the literary powerhouse who championed Nelly Sachs at Suhrkamp Verlag, and helped bring her to the prominence that led to her winning the Nobel Prize in 1966, thus ensuring her place in the canon of 20th century German poetry.
The Inner Loop Radio invited me to do a podcast on writing, inspiration, prompts, and such; I chose to talk about the ancient practice of imitatio and the classic anthology of poems from the T'ang and Sung dynasties translated by Red Pine.
The loss of Jay Hopler to cancer on June 15, 2022--it's impossible to put into words. Here is Kimberly Johnson's memorial, followed by a page of tributes I was honored to add to. Jay Hopler 1970-2022, Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha. I loved him.
Vienna-based writers Daniela Emminger & Nika Pfeifer have been creating a video journal that features writers talking about new and favorite books. I contributed to "episode" #6, a quick yap about Emily Dickinson and Nelly Sachs, who share a birthday. (I come in at 8:02).
Long-listed for the
2023 National Translation Award
Joshua Weiner’s formidable translations reveal Nelly Sachs as a powerful visionary poet, transcending her revered reputation as a “Holocaust poet.” Flight and Metamorphosis is a collection “where mystical artifice and natural objects join; where biblical prophecy and individual vision fuse; where concrete images transform with surrealistic fluidity…” Weiner grapples throughout with the sense of Geheimnis—the mystery, the secret, the deep dark yearning for home—at the heart of Sachs’ poetry. Without leaving the body, Sachs illuminates the world anew through her inner language of ciphers, at once universal and deeply personal: “Who dies/ here last/ will carry the grain of sun/ between his lips/ will thundercrack the night/ in death-throe rot.”
Major Jackson reads my poem "The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish" on The Slowdown podcast.
I collaborated with Daniel Lazar on a lyric constructed from fragments of my poems that we called "Dub Cento" later retitled "Each Petal a Portal". Daniel then worked with Brian Trahan on the composition and production at Funkhaus Studios in Berlin.
"Full of shifting surprises, mysteries and depths . . . [Sachs arrives] home as if longing is itself home, a domain of night, of oblivion, terror, also solace. The longing that Sachs diagnoses and expresses derives from the kind of violence and politics that many Americans can witness but may not know firsthand. Still, that longing, cloaked in existential darkness with glints of light and stripped of explicit context, has everything to do with our common humanity." ―Daisy Fried, The New York Times Book Review
“A more complete expression of what new generations of English-language readers will discover to be a great visionary poet . . . With an abstract, lyrical style, Sachs probes the limits of meaning in a universe where God has contracted ‘into Himself in order to create the world’ . . . The timeless lyricism of Flight and Metamorphosis may be what we need as war, atrocity, and exile return to Europe.” ―David Woo, Poetry Foundation
"Flight and Metamorphosis, originally published in 1959 and newly translated, with an indispensable introduction by the American poet Joshua Weiner, straddles Sachs’s career’s meridian, both in literal time and as its vital inflection point. It is also her first major collection published in English in its entirety, crucial for a poet marked by continuity who composed her books as integral wholes, each with an internal consistency that is lost when excerpted. --Richard Hegelman, Poetry Foundation
"This book is divine. Sachs’ poems are exquisitely crafted in German and in Weiner’s English, but they are also divine because Sachs and her latest translators are aware of a higher power in language . . . there are poems in Flight and Metamorphosis that express a mellow rapture and a poise that can only be called wise . . . Weiner has rendered the powerful, haunting poems of Flucht und Verwandlung in accessibly magisterial English. Flight and Metamorphosis will stand as a crucial contribution: the definitive English translation of this collection, one of the most powerful Sachs wrote." ―Stephan Delbos, B O D Y
"Readers will especially appreciate this translation of Flight and Metamorphosis for Weiner’s capacious and engaging introduction; he situates Sachs and her work broadly in twentieth-century literature . . . Reading Sachs’s poems, as we collectively roar through the twenty-first century, the resonances of her work are deeply meaningful. Sachs’s poems provide succor as we watch continued refugee crises resulting from both politics and climate catastrophes." ―Julie R. Enszer, Jewish Book Council
“Compressed power that, at its best, is starkly beautiful . . . There’s a rawness to many of these poems―a sense of exposure that extends to the physical . . . There’s certainly considerable power to the collection, a mature poet at work here. It’s good also to have this collection translated in its entirety―in contrast to the previous sampler-volumes of Sachs’s work―, as there is also a unity to the work . . . [Flight and Metamorphosis] certainly makes for a good introduction to this important poet.” ―M. A. Orthofer, The Complete Review
"This side-by-side edition of Flight and Metamorphosis, to which Weiner brings deep knowledge of both poetry and migration studies, has surprised me. It builds in a crescendo of trauma-inflected song that not only speaks from Sachs’ own postwar processing but also presses forward into our time as “those who come after,” to quote Brecht’s phrase from 1939. These poems, and their renderings in incisive, sometimes explosive English, do not generalize but generate sounds and images that model the stakes for contemporary poetry, too . . . Weiner’s translations achieve that rare balance of closeness to the source text’s intent and vivid presence in English.
--Heidi Hart, Consequences Forum
In this bilingual edition, Joshua Weiner not only provides fresh translations of the poems, he has also included notes on many of them and a helpful introduction. The notes are essential, especially for readers unfamiliar with the Zohar—the most important work of Jewish mysticism. --by Jill Peláez Baumgaertner, The Christian Century
Shugen Roshi, the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and head of the Mountains and Rivers Order, based a recent Dharma talk on a poem from Nelly Sachs' Flight and Metamorphosis. The recording is on the right.
This 2020 exchange with poet & scholar, Daniel Tiffany about lyric diction and kitsch was invited by Michael Schmidt, the editor of PN Review; he had seen one of my Facebook postings about a German response to Louise Glück's wining of the Nobel Prize, and the interest people had in thinking about some of the implications. It was exciting to have this chance to speak with Daniel. (The exchange begins on page 13 of the pdf).
In 2015, the poet & translator, Alexander Booth, put an old copy of Nelly Sachs's selected poems into my hands, which had long gone out of print. We were sitting in a café in Berlin, in Schöneberg, across the street from the building Nelly Sachs grew up in. At the time, I was working on a set of dispatches about the refugee situation in Germany, especially in Berlin, that would later become Berlin Notebook. Reading through Sachs's poems of the 1950's, I came to feel that she had left behind the persona of the suffering Jewish victim of Nazi atrocity that characterized her earlier work of the 1940's, and was writing more out of her own immediate situation as a refugee herself. They were powerful, mysterious, moving poems, that came out of a very personal interior and yet cosmogonic place, the paradoxical space of the infinite, which is neither inside nor outside. As I started to try my hand at translating a few of them, I felt myself moving more deeply into her experience. After several years of work at it (and with the help of Linda B. Parshall), the book is finally appearing for the first time in English in its entirety. It has been one of the great adventures of my life to enter Nelly Sachs's German and bring this work into English.
I spent the first part of the summer 2021 catching up with some books by Alice Oswald that had slipped by, including her longish poem, NOBODY, which is like a poetic midrash on The Odyssey. Then I found a first edition (w. intact jacket) of Lattimore's translation of The Odyssey at the Truro dump, one that I had never read, and got wonderfully lost in it. Then Regan Good asked if I might write something on Oswald for this issue of Interim, which I felt deeply impelled to do. That was pretty much the summer, one of serendipities and new thinking coming off the form and theory seminar on the long poem at Maryland from the spring. Nice when that happens, though it's not often. Thanks to Regan Good for the invitation to meaningful work. Plenty of great stuff in the special issue, including essays by Giles Goodland and Joyelle McSweeney, Martin Corless-Smith (who also writes, as I have, about Oswald's obsession with water), over two dozen poems, and art work, all in the key of Oswald.
A new poem i.m. Stanley Plumly.
Over time I came to realize that an entry from The Berlin Notebook (2016) contained a point of view that was, deep down, racist in the presumption of its white gaze. In June 2021, I wrote two poems that interrogate that presumption. Added to the excerpt, "Berlin Alexanderplatz, April 2016", the two poems create a kind of triptych that I hope critically examines, through poetry, the possibility of poetry as a medium of self-reflection,
self-criticism, and social conscience. The whole piece can be found on the Racial Imaginary Institute website, for their issue "On Nationalism: Borders & Belonging".
In summer 2014 I met with Steven Rajam of BBC Radio 3 to talk about the life and work of the poet Thom Gunn for a full length feature. The program ran on January 5th, 2015, and is now archived. I come in towards the end, after many stirring interviews with others, to talk about the last poem, 'Dancing David,' in Gunn's last book, Boss Cupid. I chose the poem, 'To Cupid,' to read out loud, but it didn't make the final cut. Stand outs by others include a wonderful reading of Gunn's great poems, 'Lament' (Tom Sleigh); 'Tamer & Hawk' and 'Touch' (Clive Wilmer); and 'The Hug' (read by Thom's partner, Mike Kitay). The program, 'Appropriate Measures,' is narrated by the novelist, Colm Tóibín.
The Canadian poet and one-man industry, rob mclennan, asked me to contribute to his column devoted to poets describing their writing days.
Here are some new poems at Manchester Review that I wrote while living in Berlin 2012-13 on the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship.
Deborah Ager and I had a conversation
in December 2013 about living in Berlin and writing poetry--a posting on the Best American Poetry blog. Deborah is the editor with M.E. Silverman of the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, which reprints 'Psalm,' the first poem in my first book.
Sixteen years ago, I asked Anne Winters if she would send me a poem for Tikkun; (I had been on the editorial staff, working on the poetry-end of things, since 1987, but had only recently taken on the role of poetry editor). Although she had published just one book of poetry – The Key to the City (1986) – it had widely established her reputation as a poet whose far-reaching originality was imbricated with startling detail, a formal plain-style virtuosity grounded in an ethical imagination that stays open to phenomenal mystery.
[This is the beginning of an essay about Winters' poem 'The Displaced of Captial,' that I wrote to help celebrate Tikkun's
Hallesches Tor U-bahn station, Berlin
Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees? started as a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking.
Berlin Notebook posted daily at The Los Angeles Review of Books through the month of February. LARB published the Notebook in fall 2016 as an e-book download from their homepage (as well as Amazon, B&N, iBooks, Kobo) with new material from a second visit in April 2016. Proceeds will be donated to the International Rescue Committee, that does so much to help refugees all over the world. You can also find Berlin Notebook at the newly re-launched LARB
site. Previously unpublished entries also appear in the summer 2016 issue of The Threepenny Review and Tikkun; and an excerpt of the book has been published at B O D Y.
The complexity of the refugee crisis in Germany is conveyed in this insightful narrative that tells the story not only of the refugees themselves, but also of a country, its history, and its culture. What began for poet Weiner (The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish) as a series of articles for a newspaper, written during his visit to Germany in October 2015 at the height of the refugee influx from Syria, turned into this updated “notebook” following his return to Germany to follow up on the crisis in April 2016. In this free-flowing narrative that includes interviews with a wide range of people, both refugees and Germans, Weiner reveals both the logistical and underlying ideological issues involved in refugee resettlement. Revealing how stereotypes oversimplify situations and beliefs, Weiner conveys the refugees’ dignity and also sheds light on Germany’s sociopolitical issues. Weiner’s lyrical and affecting writing style betrays his poetry background, complementing journalistic frankness that captures the richness of the people and the city and makes the strife all the more hard-hitting. This beautiful study and exploration of people and values possesses relevance far beyond Berlin.
-- starred review, Publishers Weekly
This is a pdf download of Berlin Notebook. If you buy it as an e-book, money goes to the International Rescue Committee. If you download here, please consider making a donation to the IRC.
Where Are the Refugees
Everything I Do I Do Good: Trumpoems
Everything I Do I Do Good: Trumpoems was published in spring 2018 on the 'Dispatches from the Poetry Wars' website as a virtual free chapbook that can be read in the flipbook format online, or downloaded as a pdf. Some of the poems originally appeared in the Resist Much/Obey Little anthology (below). Click on the pdf below the cover image to download a copy of it.
Ernest Suarez edited a section of Five Points called "Hot Rocks" that featured a new poem, a corrected essay on Thelonious Monk & Emily Dickinson, and an interview, which can be found here.
One of the first books I read after returning from Berlin in October 2015
was Anna Seghers' modern refugee novel, Transit. I couldn't stop thinking about it. That's when I know it's time to try to write something.
Joshua Mensch over at B O D Y helped me design this animated erasure translation of Goethe's poem 'Wandrers Nachtlied,' purportedly the most famous lyric in German.
This poem came out of obsessive listening to John Fahey's last recording, City of Refuge, and one of his most extraordinary earlier ones, America. I was also reading his great book, How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life. Fahey grew up in Takoma Park, not far from where I live in D.C. There was more than one kind of proximity that led me to this poem. Here it is, as a pdf download, from Literary Imagination, where it first appeared.
'City of Refuge:
Thomas Whyte asked me some questions for a mini-interview that ran over four weeks in June-July 2019.
In October 2017, Andrew Joron and I entered a correspond-ence that touched on subjects ranging from catastrophe, to surrealism, the irresponsible play of the imagination, utopianism, poem & world as ongoing process, translation, the relation between sound & silence, writing science fiction, and other stuff that makes you feel trippy. It was published by Chicago Review on their website.
One of the poems from the third book has been posted on the Tikkun magazine website. The poem takes place on the red line Metro in DC, although it could be any metro system in the world
--the NPR program 'Berlin Stories' also ran the poem last spring.
I read poems by Bertolt Brecht as part of a program sponsored by the Goethe-Institut in D.C. that included some scenes from Brecht's play, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, performed by Scena Theater under the direction of Robert McNamara.
In her 2016 AWP keynote address, Claudia Rankine discussed racial descrimination as it's experienced in institutions such as MFA programs, often in subtle ways that have to do with assumptions about representation, not just of racial identity, but of experiences formed in relation to that identity. She also got more personal, and reflected on her own biases. At some point, Claudia also read two poems of mine, called 'Cloak.' The first poem appeared in my second book (in 2006); the second poem is new--I discovered it by breaking open the clean lyric surface of the first version to look for a previously suppressed set of memories about a childhood friend who is Black. The two poems now exist side by side and appear in the AWP Writers Chronicle reprinting of Claudia's keynote address. An article about the keynote address appeared online at the culture site of New York magazine.
Brian Teare and I read in spring 2014 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. It's great to have him here on the east coast, where he's now teaching at Temple University. I think his new book, Companion Grasses (Omnidawn) is beautiful. This is an archived recording of the reading. Brian ends with a longish elegy for the poet Reginald Shepherd that I was quite touched by.
Here are some readings over the past several years that have been archived and made
available for viewing.
Here's a short essay about the great radical American poet, Thomas McGrath. It begins with an ancedote about my visit with him in Minneapolis during the Iran-Contra hearings. That interview, which I did for an MA thesis, later appeared in a special issue of TriQuarterly.
In 2005 I edited an issue of the journal TriQuarterly, with contributions from Elizabeth Arnold, Jennifer Clarvoe, Simone DiPiero, Elaine Equi, David Ferry, Major Jackson, Heather McHugh, Stanley Plumly, Claudia Rankine, Alan Shapiro, Merle Collins, and an essay on 'Lyric Thinking' by Robert von Hallberg, among others. You can find a digital copy of the issue below.
Three new poems in Manchester Review, one dedicated to the Cape-based artist, Bailey Bob Bailey, another to poet John Fitzpatrick, and the last about getting a phone call from Hong Kong.
The video of this reading in Poland, July 2013, is not very good; also I was reading without a mic, and deliberately slowly because I knew the audience was not fluent in English. But it was a fascinating reading to do, in a very cozy atmospheric fisherman's house near the port.
The photograph to the left is a well known image of the Wright Bros. at Kitty Hawk, NC, in December 1903, from the online National Archives in Washington DC. The link connects you to a reading of a poem I wrote in response to the image, as part of the National Archives Month celebration in October 2014. The text of the poem can be found at the Academy of American Poets website, linked here.
The Folger Shakespeare Library in D.C. featured poets writing in response to those plays on the theater's schedule. I shared the stage with Hayes Davis prior to a performance of Julius Caesar. Teri Cross Davis subsequently edited a special issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly that reprinted some of the poems read in that program.
Ernst Jandl (1925-2000) was one of the great post-WWII Austrian poets and playwrights, associated with the Wiener Gruppe. One of the most important avant-garde & experimental circles of European modernism, it included the poet Friederike Mayröcker, Jandl's life-long partner. His poem, 'the usual rilke,' is a series that both satirizes and pays homage to Rilke, one of the giants in German language poetry. The poem appeared in the summer translation issue of Poetry.
In 2021, Lian Yang's book, Anniversary Snow (Shearsman) won the Sarah Maguire prize from the Poetry Translation Centre in London. The principal translator of the book is Brian Holton. I worked with Lian on a triptych of poems about Nabokov's period of exile in Berlin, when he lived in Charlottenburg. Lian would go through the poem with me line by line, I would then work on it on my own, and we would go over it again; each poem took several such turns.
Anthony Madrid asked if I'd submit an essay to his issue of American Book Review, devoted to 'erotic poetry' (not his choice of topic). It sounded like a bad idea for an issue, but then I started thinking of Mina Loy's 'Songs to Johannes' and how I first read them as a teaching assistant for Thom Gunn's Modern Poetry course at Berkeley, and how sure I am that Loy's notorious sequence influenced Gunn's poem, 'To Cupid,' a great but little discussed poem from his last book. The essay practically wrote itself. A pdf of the essay is below, ready to download, as well as a link to the issue.
Back in 2006, Robert Pinsky, then U.S. Poet Laureate, wrote about my poem "Hanging Mobile", for his "Poet's Choice" cooumn. My dad came across the clipping, that I had lost.
LOY GUNN CUPID
In April 2014, Poetry Daily asked me to write something about Edmund Spenser; I chose sonnet 18.
Major Jackson, the poetry editor of the 2020 issue of Provincetown Arts, organized this reading in honor and in memory of founding editor, Chris Busa. The readers were drawn from that year's issue and included Jill Bialosky, Prageeta Sharma, Garrett Hongo, Sandra Lim, David Lehman, and others.
The Polish artist, Henryk Cześnik, recently exhibited a series of paintings at the Gdańsk Shakespeare Theater, inspired by Shakespeare's plays. Tadeusz Dabrowski invited poets from around the world to contribute a poem responding to one of the paintings. This is the one I chose, to pair with my poem, "The Winter's Tale," about watching my son play the role of the young prince in a student production at George Washington University in 2005. The pairings of paintings & poems were published as a book, Henry Cześnik and His Poets (Gdańsk, 2016). Some of the other poets include Dabrowski, Michael Krüger, Timothy Donnelly, D.A. Powell, and Tomasz Różycki. The paintings are startling in their violent affects, their dramas of dismemberment and suffering, and their layered revelations of being haunted.
On Day 1 of the CODEPINK #IraqTribunal, participants provided testimony on the lies that were used to invade Iraq. I read my poem, "To Disturb Profoundly the Senses," a kind of montage poem made of language taken from the so-called "Torture Memos" penned by the "Bush Six" in the Office of Legal Counsel. The poem can be found at the B O D Y literature website.
The Nervous Breakdown, an online journal, asked me to do a self-interview. "Have you ever done a self-interview before?" I asked myself. "Isn't that what writing is?" I answered. A weird but welcome opportunity to think again out loud about the idea of self as subject of self-inquiry.
The video on the right was taken at the 'Lunch Poems' reading series in the Morrison Library at UC Berkley in February 2015. I hadn't been in Berkeley since archival work at Bancroft on the book of essays about Thom Gunn. It was pretty redolent to be back on old stomping grounds for this reading. I read almost the whole of the longish poem, 'Rock Creek (II).' Seeing Doug Powell there at the reading was especially warm--he was the first one to read the poem a few years earlier up at the Vermont Studio Center, where I had just finished drafting it; his encouragment was a great boost.
In January 2011, the UMD Art Gallery launched a collaboration between local poets and artists. I was paired with John Foster, who made a set of silk screen broadsides that incorporated texts of poems.
My nephew, Noah, made this stopmotion adapt-ation of my poem, 'Searchlight,' with some schoolmates.
A reflection on my time at the Vermont Studio Center, thanks to an ASLCW fellowship in 2010.
The 2014 issue of TOPOS magazine arrived from Sopot, Poland, with a shockingly large pull-out poster of my poems translated by Tadeusz Dabrowski. My visit to Sopot two years ago stays with me: amber from the Baltic, where swans swim on the brackish surf; the crazy reading in an old renovated fishing cottage
in Gdynia, where I was grilled about Ashbery's negative influence on contemporary Polish poetry, and if I was proud to be an American, followed by dangerous rounds of a honey vodka chased by powerful lagers; visiting the spot where WWII started and Communism ended; and the oddity (for me) of bumming around a Polish seaside city.
A 2019 reading at the poetry festival in Aldeburgh, with Carmen Bugan and Greg Pardlo. And a reading and discussion of the late Tony Hoagland, with Kathryn Maris, Martin Shaw, and Peter Sansom.
I was interviewed by Tadeusz Dabrowski for Radio Gdańsk before a reading there in 2016.
Berlin-based impresario, musician, teacher, beer-hound, and all around mensch among Menschen, Daniel Lazar, interviewed me during the summer of 2021 in an epic two-part truffle hunt of the soul for his 'For a Living' podcast, which is inspired by the work and legacy of the great Studs Terkel.
The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish
No other poet of his generation is writing this masterfully and mindfully. What an intense, scrutinizing talent, what a fabulous, incomparable new book. —Terrance Hayes
Politics & Prose held a reading to celebrate the posthumous publication of the late Stanley Plumly's last volume, Middle Distance, in September 2020. Lindsay Bernal, Maud Casey, Michael Collier, Rita Dove, David Baker, Jill Bialosky, Patrick Philips: we each read a poem from the book, a bittersweet moment.
In 2015, the German artist, Anke Becker, invited me to contribute to "Fernweh" a mail-art project on the subject of "wanderlust"; in 2016 I then contributed to a companion exhibit, "Heimweh", on the subject of "homesickness".