This is a Q&A with Karen Alkalay-Gut.
How did you get into writing initially?
5th grade. Teacher told us to write a story and I couldn’t stop.
A refugee poet lived with us when I was a little older and he noticed my scribbling. He warned me not to write if I could sleep at night without it. I’m an insomniac.
How did you come to have this man living with you?
My parents were refugees – fleeing from Lithuania to Danzig in the thirties, then from Danzig to Gloucester and then London.
After the war they moved to the United States and as their situation began to improve and they had space, they opened their house to various refugees. One of them was an illiterate Russian woman my mother employed to take care of the house while she worked long hours. To gain my respect, she used to tell me that she had a husband who was an important writer but he was imprisoned in Siberia. I never believed her, but my mother eventually found the poor man and brought him to Rochester.
His name was Israel Emiot, and he lived with us for a while, and afterward spent a lot of time with me because he recognized my hunger for writing.
What was your focus in school at the University of Rochester? Why?
I took intro to biology and because the teacher was so great I went on to study genetics and psychology. But when some wise adviser put me into a literature class I knew I was in love.
What drew you to genetics and psychology originally?
I’m still fascinated by genetics, by how very specific behavior characteristics move from generation to generation even when there is no contact between the generations. For example, I’ve discovered that there were writers in my family I had no idea existed. One man, Moshe Kaganovitz, wrote volumes about the partisans in Europe, but they don’t seem to be available except in Yiddish. Another, Pincas Kaganovich, was a Yiddish writer known as Der Nister (the Hidden One). Was there something in the genes? I have a granddaughter who quotes poems by heart. She’s only four. My mother did that all the time too. How does that gene combination travel?
What were your major learning moments in writing?
Every minute is potentially a major learning moment. I rarely get involved in workshops even though they are great fun. When I teach I get very inspired.
And when I sit in lectures, I write poems.
How did you go about moving from New York to Israel, what spurred that move?
I fell in love. With the country and a man.
How did you end up falling in love with someone so far away?
I had an Israeli pen pal when I was in high school – we wrote a lot until I sent him a photograph and he didn’t compliment me on it. I stopped writing.
Years later we met and fell in love. Then we got married and moved to Israel and I don’t think I understood how hard it was for him. We got divorced and I married another Israeli – almost 40 years ago. He stuck.
How did you know you wanted to teach?
I hated the idea of teaching for a few years, and then I grew to like it. And then, I loved it.
Today, I get a great kick out of it, but I do it only a few times a month.
If you hated the idea of teaching, why did you ever get into it?
I hated teaching because I believe people learn from interactions and I was put into a frontal teaching position. It was a job, one of many different kinds of jobs I had, including data processing in a mental hospital and teaching folk dancing in an old age home. But teaching kept getting offered to me and I really grew to like it when I began to feel more at home with getting to know people in large doses. I probably could have gone into some other profession, but who knows?
Why teach poetry?
I love teaching poetry because initially people think they don’t understand it, and when they do, it changes their lives.
Now retired, looking back, what were the key moments in your time teaching?
I don’t look back. I’ve got a rock band, a new book coming out, I’m learning to write poetry in Yiddish, I’m learning Arabic, and I’ve been giving talks about rock music and texts.
Where do you find inspiration?
All I need to write a poem is time.
What is your writing schedule?
I don’t have a very orderly life. I do some laundry, I write some poems about the laundry. I go to the movies, maybe I write a draft of a poem about the film. I go to rehearsal – they play a riff – sometimes I write about it.
Do you have to force yourself to write?
Nah. If it doesn’t come, there are other things to do.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
I enjoy it.
What do you mean when you say you enjoy writer’s block? That’s not a common response!
I don’t push it. If I don’t feel like writing I don’t. I know I’m picking up information and experiences for some more writing sometime in the future. I would never try to make a living by writing. That would be some form of prostitution for me. If you have to do it so you can pay the rent, its like selling your soul.
While teaching, how did you find the time to write?
I was inspired.
Now retired, do you find you’re able to write more?
I have more poetry-related activities.
How do you go about publishing?
That’s my weakness. I hate submitting. I prefer self-publishing. But I am fortunate that I get invitations to publish here and there.
What advice do you have to trying to publish poetry?
Find the places that publish poetry you like.
What’s your favorite of your own poems?
I like dramatic poems with a sense of humor. Here’s one example.
I am entirely unprotected
You are moving above me
in a form of congress
and I am thinking that the dream
of someday having a child with you
was born in the town Cervantes called home
that you will never
leave your wife
And this flat we have used
for our little meetings
is suddenly sordid
and you are really
as a lover
not very communicative
Even this meeting
to end in sex
and it is the wrong
time of month
a strangled cry
as if unwilling
to let your pleasure
and I shout what
have you done
and you slowly
turn to me
surprised I have a voice
I was thinking
of other things.
What’s your poetic voice like?
I don’t believe in a single poetry voice. I love the multiple possibilities in poetry.
Why do you write your own website?
I’m a control freak. Actually, I tried doing something more professional, but it’s too polished for me. I gave it up. My own website is pretty sleazy.
Born in London, England to refugee parents during World War II, raised in Rochester, N.Y., Karen Alkalay-Gut moved to Israel in 1972, just in time to get settled in for the Yom Kippur war. Most of her adult life has been spent teaching at Israeli Universities, primarily Tel Aviv University, and enjoying her family.