For José Kozer, a Jewish-Cuban poet who settled in a small Florida town, exile is less a location than a method of unfolding, lyrically—unpacking one’s baggage of languages, influences, troubles, and odd biographical facts. In one of his poems, he writes, “I am the first and last Cuban generation.” Indeed, a son of Eastern European immigrants, grandson of the founder of the first Cuban Ashkenazi synagogue, he left Cuba at the age of 20 on ideological grounds.
In 2002, after a 42-year separation, Kozer received a reluctant invitation to Cuba for a weeklong visit. Afterward, he started writing a poem every day, ritualistically, and has continued to do so until now, despite having been a prolific poet before. “I am surrounded by voices, ghosts, memories, fantasies. I fantasize 24 hours a day, and that makes you into a fantasy yourself. It’s a form a happiness,” he told me recently, as he prepared for his reading at the San Francisco State University Poetry Center.
Suspended between worlds, Kozer is still known only to a relatively small circle of English-speaking poetry aficionados. At the same time, he is perceived with much suspicion back in the homeland. The bulk of his readership is scattered across Latin America.
In 2013, Kozer received the prestigious Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Prize, along with much-deserved acclaim. A number of volumes of Kozer’s work recently have been translated. Some translations are available in various online magazines, including, notably, those by Mark Weiss and Peter Boyle.
At the Poetry Center, the reading started with Kozer’s recitation of his poems in Spanish—a bold choice, considering that much of his audience was composed of English-speakers. Then a few translators came up to read, and, per maestro’s instructions, they did not read the same set of poems. This wasn’t about translation, but movement between worlds, poetry’s exilic music and eccentricity. I picked out a few Spanish words here and there, but gradually understood the point behind the arrangement: Deprived of meaning, I viscerally perceived the form and rhythm of Kozer’s work and, later, listening to translations, saw the rhythmic shadow of another language, the counterpoint of suspension. The meaning appears, as an excerpt from a poem below hints, entering sideways:
A crab, I move sideways.
Aside and then some, with enormous effort, I am an arthritic unicorn, it’s the seventieth birthday of the virgin holding the mirror.
The middle ear I inherited from the mute dog of the island of Cuba; it’s 12:10, the world is mapped out, map of the map of God (he has
taken his time), it’s a free hand he gave us (a mischievous God): to invest in Creation’s beings under the rubric of omission, reducing them, naming them, calling the crow crow and the calf beetle: God, mischievous, certainly.
[Translation: Mark Weiss]
Now 76, Kozer speaks flawless, if eccentric, English. Even so, he told me, he’d never write a word of poetry in English—it is simply inconceivable. Before the reading, I sat down with Kozer at the Poetry Center to talk about his Jewish-Cuban roots, his exile, and his approach to language.
You must have grown up with various languages or dialects around—how did that influence your own sound?
I grew up in Spanish—but two types of Spanish: one, my mother’s, which was very Cuban, middle-class, Havana 1940-1950s, and my father’s, which was a broken, macaronic Spanish, because he never learned Spanish well. His language was really Yiddish, and none other. From my mother’s parents, I heard Yiddish constantly. So it is the question of language, which is, on one hand, deteriorated, technically speaking, and on the other hand, very pristine, precise. This goes together with what happened in my family. On my mother’s side there was no Holocaust because they all left in time, but on my father’s side—he left early for various reasons—all of his brothers and his parents were killed in Auschwitz and the Warsaw ghetto. My father’s deterioration of language goes very well with deterioration of his family. I didn’t realize this as a young man but eventually it came together. This duality, I think, is what created difficulty in my life as a man growing up in Havana, but at the same time it enriched me tremendously, opened me up. My poetry is a desire for totality—which, of course, is an impossibility—but the need for the absolute, omniscient, omnipotent, the total language is in me.
Growing up, basically, in two languages—Spanish and Yiddish, one being written from left to right, and the other from right to left—I’ve always said, jokingly, that it’s amazing I’m not cross-eyed.
What does exile mean to you?
I understand it as a nontragic, joyful situation. I am a Jew. Diaspora has been with me for 5,000 years. We—the ones who left Cuba—are still looked upon very negatively by the Cuban community. We’re still the worms, the fascists. We’re associated with all this garbage, which is so unfair and so untrue. What, we have to bless the Bolsheviks now? Please. Cuban Revolution is a total failure, and if you don’t know it by now you’re a fool. So, in a sense, the opportunity of having left my country at the age of 20, having lived bilingually, and in New York City in the 1960s—you have no idea what that meant! How rich we felt being poor, how happy being unhappy. It was a great moment in the history of this country, in the history of New York City.
‘Since I’m not a practicing Jew or a practicing Buddhist, my only way of praying—and I believe in praying!—is poetry.’
Whereas the idea of exile is used many times opportunistically to indicate tragedy and a tragic life, I’ve made the opposite speech: There’s nothing tragic about exile, at least for me. It has been a living experience, an opening up. If I would have stayed in Cuba, my poetry would be of a totally different nature, if I even continued writing—it would have been a very limited, and less crazy, ambiguous, complex spiderweb poetry that I produce.
What informs your composition process?
I am involved with the process. If I had written one poem that was perfect and absolute, I would write no more. But I’ve never reached that because I’m not a god. Thus, the constancy of writing is the impossibility of writing. The continuity of writing is the discontinuity of reaching that perfection to which you aim. The mystical route to perfection is very real.
You invoke God often and in various, irreconcilable contexts. What is this god of your poems?
It’s like the issue of death. Wittgenstein was told he had a week to live. His answer was, “Good.” That’s all he said. Nothing you can do. Waste of time. The same thing with God. Do I believe in God? The authentic answer is “I don’t know.” And if you say, “So you’re an agnostic?” I’ll answer, “Please don’t label it,” because agnosticism is nothing but a mild form of atheism. It does not clarify anything, either. God is the issue. Death is the issue. There’s no other issue for the living. This is the only issue that is real. The rest is unreal. And the only issue that is real is the issue of which nothing can be said.
The idea of death is very cleansing. Some people say “there isn’t a poem of yours that doesn’t have the word death in it.” So what? It’s not an obsession, it’s not a psychological thing—it goes beyond that. It’s a spiritual reality. The reality of realities where you’re facing your own termination. If there’s no God, no afterlife—well, we’re in a different story, aren’t we?
This line of yours: “It’s impossible to stop praying.” Tell me more about that.
Poetry is nothing but a prayer. A sutra. For me, over the past 15 years, poetry has become a form of daily prayer. Since I’m not a practicing Jew or a practicing Buddhist, my only way of praying—and I believe in praying!—is poetry. Every poem, in a way, is a form of addressing the All-Knowing. Let’s not call it God, let’s not call anything, but there’s an unknown universe of which we know nothing, of which the more we know the less we know, to which one has to address oneself. It’s become a práctica, a ritual in my life—I write every day, early in the morning, for 20-30 minutes, maximum. The next day I clean and correct the poem.
Content aside, in what stylistic ways do Jewish and Buddhist ideas influence your poetry?
The poetry that was done with Jewish [framework] in mind, is extremely intense, passionate, and language-oriented—because the Jew is language-oriented—and basically very painful and dramatic. Perhaps overdramatic, and tragic.
The Jewish prayer is painful. The Jew prays moving, singing, screaming, crying. He tears himself in front of God. He suffers. The Oriental prayer is motionless, static, tranquil—there’s no gesture, even. Those two things are what made my poetry move in a fragmented, nonlinear, but also unified, fashion.
The God of Israel is terrifying. How weird, how strange! The Old Testament is difficult to stomach. In Buddhism, you have the opposite. Here in San Francisco, we saw a group of Buddhist monks traveling to Los Angeles. Their tunics [exude] repose. When I see an Orthodox Jew with peyos, the kaftan—these people are wild! They’re biblical! The way they must make love, the way they must make business—it’s the craziest! Because the God of Israel is so demanding. Whereas Buddha—of course, he’s demanding too, but in a different way; he is more subtle. He’s this fat thing that we can visualize, with the earlobes. The posture. Can you visualize the God of Israel? Two different worlds, which, if we could unify—that would be very good.
To read more of Jake Marmer’s encounters with modern poets for Tablet magazine, click here.
Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). His jazz-klezmer-poetry record Hermeneutic Stomp was released by Blue Thread Music in 2013.