Mark Strand in Jerusalem, May 2011.(Rahel Jaskow/Flickr)
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What Is Missing

Mark Strand, the former poet laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner, has given up poetry and turned to making art. He talks about his work, Jewish mothers, absence, and Israel.

Bridget Kevane
June 29, 2011
Mark Strand in Jerusalem, May 2011.(Rahel Jaskow/Flickr)

Mark Strand has stopped writing poetry. Again. The first time he quit, the hiatus lasted five years, and, Strand says, it was agony. This time, “I have nothing left to say,” he explains. Strand, 77, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, has instead returned to his first love: art; he is creating a series of collages. He is also writing short, fun prose pieces and a memoir about his parents. He still gives talks about his poetry all over the world, including in Jerusalem in May. I heard him read his poetry in Madrid, Spain, in the summer of 2010. I then interviewed him twice in New York City, once in October 2010 and again in February 2011.

You often talk about how meditative poetry is and how important it is for finding out who one is. What have you found out?

I find out certain things that repeat and keep coming back. I have a proclivity for certain gambits, references for certain words. And in that way I have some insight into how I work. But it’s hard to draw conclusions about who I am. What I find in my own work, reading it back or writing it, is not anything more than any astute critic would find out. And so to say that I know only as much as a shrewd critic would know is not saying much.

One of Richard Howard’s essays talks about the absence in your poetry, and many critics after that refer to the absence.

When someone’s written a poem [“Keeping Things Whole”] that begins, “Wherever I am, I am. In a field I am the absence of field. This is always the case. Wherever I am, I am what is missing,” it’s easy to conjecture this guy is obsessed with absence. In essence it suggests the world could get along very well without him, that the imposition of consciousness is a negative factor because he is what is missing wherever he goes. He becomes, one could say, a negative influence. He disrupts the orderly. Absence is part of everything. You could say that the desire to be missed is a preoccupation with absence.

What do you love about poetry? Do you wake up and can’t wait to start writing?

Rarely. When I’m going strong I can’t wait to wake up and start. Without having something promising to work on, life would be pretty boring. With nothing to do, with nothing I like doing, why wake up in the morning? What I like about writing is its incision, the fact that language is operating at its fullest. Words and poems exist on multiple levels. Poetry is a way of feeling deeply without being threatened. The other thing about poetry, why I like writing it, is I like making things up. I like writing a sentence or a few words and wondering where they’re going to go. How can I create meaning, or the illusion of meaning, out of these words, words that have never been used in this particular order ever before and may not be used so again.

You mentioned working on a memoir about your parents. Tell me about your father.

For a number of years I grew up with a story of my father. My father would tell the story of his mother dying at childbirth and of him living with his father and grandmother in Cleveland. His father was a steel-mill worker. But his grandmother died when he was 5, and his father had no way of taking care of him. So, he put him in a Catholic orphanage.

But he was Jewish.

Yes. That is something that apparently is not so uncommon. Even though there was a Jewish orphanage in Cleveland at the time, it’s possible that the Catholic orphanage was better. It’s possible that it was cheaper. It’s possible that religion didn’t make that much difference to his father. But anyway, his father died when he was 10, and my father left the orphanage and became a street kid, sleeping outside most of the year under a bridge in Cleveland, selling newspapers, eventually getting a job writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

He had no other family?

No. None. This is the story he told my mother and the story I grew up with. And then he went to Mexico to make his fortune at 15. Made a small fortune and lost it. Then traveled around the world doing different things, mainly as a journalist. All of it is false. Whatever I’ve just told you never happened.

Are you serious?

In the late ’90s I wrote to the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act to find out what the government had on my parents, because they’d been Communists. In the report I received was a detail that my father had been in prison in San Quentin. Sentenced to four years in San Quentin Penitentiary for grand theft when he was 19 years old. He picked up a wallet that someone had left lying around. And he hid it. The guy found it missing. They went looking for my father and they found him. And he showed them where the money was. My father was something of a wise guy. The law took a dislike to him, so they threw him the maximum punishment.

That’s the real story.

That is the real story. Also, at the trial it was revealed that my father’s father had disappeared when he was 2 years old; his mother claimed that his father had died. His mother didn’t die in childbirth. In fact, his mother had remarried and was alive until 1949, at which time I was 15. There were other discrepancies. My father’s father at the time of his disappearance was listed as a salesman, not as a steel-mill worker. When my father later went to Mexico at 15, I think that he must have heard that his father was there. Mexico’s an odd place to go from Cleveland when you’re 15, unless you have a very good reason to go. My father would claim, “Well, there was the oil boom.” And he thought he could make some money in Tampico.

And your mother?

Born in New York, grew up in Quebec City. Spoke Yiddish, French, English. Very artistic. Wanted to be a sculptor. Came to New York, married the Yiddish poet Alex Katz so that he could get citizenship. That lasted about two years. Then she went back to Montreal, where she met my father. Later, she got a degree in pre-Columbian archaeology at San Marcos in Lima. And she did it in Spanish. My mother was a terrific influence on me. She was the one who would take me to museums, she was the one who would look at art books with me, she was the one who would read poems to me. This in lieu of going to synagogue, or doing any of the standard stuff that Jewish people do, religious Jews. I’m trying to be absolutely clear about the place of Jewishness in my psychic development.

Did her Jewish identity in any way define her as a mother?

I don’t think my mother qualifies as a Jewish mother exactly because she was so aristocratic. When they say Jewish mother I think of the shtetl. The ladies or the women in Brooklyn saying their prayers. And she was very aristocratic, wore tailored clothes, spoke beautifully and evenly and very good-looking. But I think unhappiness killed her. My parents were blacklisted, then kicked out of Mexico. From there they went to Nova Scotia. My father managed my uncle’s furniture store, which was already failing. My mother wasn’t an archaeologist anymore. She became a school teacher. They didn’t have an upper-middle-class life. They slipped to the lower middle class.

You called your parents Jews of a certain stripe in an interview. What does that mean?

Well, they were cultural Jews. If pressed I say we’re Jewish. Secular Jews. But believers in socialist causes. God didn’t exist. Josef Stalin was as close to God as anyone could come for my parents. They were sectarian, American Communists, but finally benign. Communism was their religion, which would probably not be their religion today. However, to me the idea of socialism is not abhorrent. In fact, I believe in some kind of social democracy, of socialized medicine, a socialized transportation system, and free enterprise at the same time.

What was your father like?

He demanded a lot of attention. So, growing up I felt oddly in competition with him. I competed for my mother’s affection, which I never felt I got enough of. And so, in some way I resented and loved my father at the same time. And I really was rather cool toward my mother, whom I felt was cool toward me. Although in retrospect I realized she really wasn’t. She was largely the reason I went to art school and then became a poet. I think my father harbored ambitions to be a writer. In fact, he described himself to the judge at his trial when he was 19 as a writer. And my mother, of course, wanted to be an artist. In some ways I fulfilled hopes that they each had for themselves.

The lies, or falsehoods, or however you’d like to call it, that your father told the family, the truths that were hidden, the stories that he created, do they resonate with your creative endeavors, as a creator of poetry?

Absolutely. There is a definite relationship. My father was a fabricator, and I’m a fabricator. He told stories about his life; I simply tell stories. Now it’s hard to do what my father did because everything is available on the Internet. It would be impossible for me to invent a past that never existed and pass it off as the real thing, nor would I want to. I rather like the way things have turned out for myself. I do what I want. I write, I make collages, I have friends, I’m free. I will say this about the United States, it’s allowed me a tremendous amount of freedom. It’s made it possible for someone like me to get by comfortably without being rich. In another country, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to do what I’ve done.

Tell me about your feelings toward Israel.

I have mixed feelings about Israel. I don’t think that the right-wing, religious Jews of Israel have been fair to the Palestinians. I think they’ve created an underclass, and I think they’ve behaved belligerently and aggressively with the settlements. I think they really believe that they are the chosen people, and I don’t think any people should feel they are the chosen people. I think that anyone who is born is a chosen person, by the mere fact of their having been born. But to set one group over another group, I think, is a mistake. How will a solution to the settlements be found? I don’t know what’s going to happen. Recently, I had a conversation with an Israeli. I said, “It’s great what’s happening in Egypt, that they’ve gotten rid of Mubarak. How do you feel about that?” And she said, “Well, I’m a little worried. Mubarak was a dictator, that’s for sure, but he was our dictator.” Now we have Iran, and Yemen, and more.

Is Israel important to you?

No. The Jewish state is not important to me, but it’s important to a lot of Jews who take Judaism much more seriously.

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.”

Do you feel like you’re betraying him in any way?

Yes, I do, I do feel I am betraying him. I feel, on the other hand, betrayed by him, although I understand why, the need to dissemble and keep the truth from his family. I think it’s finally all harmless. My parents are dead; no harm can come to them. My father is one of the nameless legions of people who were born, lived, and died without a trace. My mother too. In some sense, it’s a way of resurrecting them. Betrayal, resurrection, also an act of relinquishing a childhood vision of my parents, and assuming a more realistic, grownup view.

Bridget Kevane is a professor of Latin American and Latino literature at Montana State University in Bozeman. Her work has appeared in ZEEK, the Forward, and Brain, Child, among other publications.

Bridget Kevane is a professor of Latin American and Latino literature at Montana State University in Bozeman. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, ZEEK, the Forward, and Brain, Child, among other publications.

Bridget Kevane is a professor of Latin American and Latino literature at Montana State University in Bozeman. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, ZEEK, the Forward, and Brain, Child, among other publications.