The Last Jew in Afghanistan | A Conversation with M.E. Silverman

In this interview, Andrew Gillis asks the poet M.E. Silverman (@MESilverman_BLP and Blue Lyra Press) about his most recent book, The Floating Door, particularly regarding Silverman’s fascination with Zablon Simintov of Afghanistan, the thought process behind choices he made in his poetry, and how Jewish life in America compares to Jewish life in Afghanistan. Silverman also shares about his new poetry.

Gillis: What were some of your influences for writing poetry?

Silverman: I think we are influenced both good and bad by our poetry workshop mentors. They get in your head and make you question your own muse in both good and bad ways. For me, that would be John Wood, former teacher at McNeese State University in Louisiana and Kate Daniels, my undergraduate mentor at LSU.  But some of the poets I lean on for inspiration, who I read and re-read include Jane Kenyon, Philip Levine, Li-Young Lee, Denise Duhamel, James Wright, Rachel Wetzsteon, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Edward Hirsch, Sarah Hannah, Morri Creech, Amy Fleury, Ellen Bass, and so many others. I will read just about anything coming from Southern Illinois Press or Graywolf Press.

Gillis: In the second section of the book, you mention a man named Zablon Simintov. What was it about this person that drew you to him? What makes him such an interesting person to write about?

Silverman: Really great question! I came across his name in an article and found him fascinating. His wife and children moved to Israel over 15 years ago; he stayed behind in Afghanistan. He is the last living Jew in an entire country which once not long ago had almost one million! I often find the theme of extinction and the last fascinating. For non-literary fiction I often read post-apocalyptic novels, and I think it just weaved into my work.

Gillis: The name of the book, The Floating Door, is an interesting title for this book. What brought about the title for this book? Were there any other titles in mind before this one? What do you mean by a “floating door” in relation to the poems in the book?

Silverman: Previously it had been called The Last Jew but smart folks at the Colrain Conference suggested it might be too narrow, and there are also non-Jewish readers who may enjoy the work so I should get a broader title. So instead of naming the book after a single poem and just one of the themes in the book, I looked towards the images and metaphors. A floating door seemed like it hinted at extinction but also at the magical realism which is found in my book. You can find the title in one of my favorite poems, “Hurricane Dreams,” where I end with “yet still willing to go through the floating door.” There, the image hints at the divine and heaven. But as a title to the book, it creates a bit of mystery and hints at the other running themes. So now I like to name my manuscripts not after a single poem but after a single idea or image. My next book will be called Because We Are Human, which comes from a line in a poem called “9:54 a.m.”.

Gillis: The poem “The Mermaid Meets Mud Angel” alternates between poetry stanza form and paragraph form. What’s going on with that?

Silverman: That poem has been hanging around since I first started writing in 1993. Originally, it was part of my thesis for graduate school as 10 different poems. They were not as strong on their own so I put them together and kept their original forms for two reasons. 1) It’s the form they were in and I often revert to prose format as a way to increase a sense of narrative, to put story-telling back into poetry. 2) It gave it a feeling of time passing, of time stretching out. Since the Mud Angel is symbolic (to me) of failure and disconnection over a lifetime of things not going one’s way, it helped to create this over-time effect. I never do say if the Mud Angel is real or not. It can be both a metaphor for the farmer father’s failures and an actual angel. Same with the mermaid. Is she crazy or is she really a mermaid? To echo that mystery and sentiment, it seemed right to have it in alternating form between reality and fantasy, between poetry and prose. But the real question is: did I realize this when I put these together, when I went to publish it? No, I honestly did not. I trusted my inner muse and it wasn’t until later upon reflecting on the manuscript that I did all that for a reason.

Gillis: In a number of your poems, you italicize certain phrases, outside of Jewish terms, such as: “I pull out my worn wallet & head for the exit to my right in a field of sunlight between two pines” (p. 17), “she steps around torn petals / from flowers, delicate yellow, / delicate soft green, / makes her way / toward a wheat field, / swaying in spring, / boundless as the ocean” (p. 44), and “‘For you,’ he says, / ‘everything under a sky”  (p. 45), just to name a few examples. I understand that some poets do this for emphasis, but what is it about these lines that require such emphasis?

Silverman: Interesting. No one has ever asked me that. I thought it was clear. Italics are quoted words from other sources. Mostly!!! I thought about having a Notes section before the Glossary but it felt like too much and opted for the Glossary instead. The lines on page 17 come from James Wright, who the poem is dedicated to. The lines on page 44 and 45 come from Van Gogh; the poem has an epigraph from Van Gogh. The italics on page 19 are actually internal dialogue or what she is thinking about him. What is funny is that I cut the line from Rilke on page 47 but accidentally left the title “Ending on a Line from Rilke.” The italics on page 51 is for effect. The italics on page 64 are there to serve as a pretend list, as if I am quoting from a play (imaginary of course) about the last synagogue. However there is a mistake: the last lines weren’t supposed to be in italics, but it sort of works since it continues from the list part of the poem. The same thing happened again on page 70 and again on page 62. Only “chai” should be in italics but I did not catch it in the proofs. Only “shofar” should be in italics. It seems to create a sense of something whispered, a secret, and I am not too bothered by mistakes whether by me or the editor—none of us are perfect; we just strive for the impossible perfection.

Gillis: Some lines in the poem “Spaces” have spaces between words on the same line. (Ex. “the one that             starts slowly”.) The same is done at the beginning of “Yellow.” What is the purpose for the awkward spacing in these lines?

Silverman: In “Spaces,” it is about a father staying behind while his family leaves, and the space growing between them. It seemed appropriate to put in breathing spaces. You have a careful eye. I wonder if others notice these “inconsistencies”? Well, the spacing in “Yellow” is another error. It should read like this without the double ‘as legs’ and with the couplets consistent throughout:

Streets with cracks
Cautions as long as legs

Gardens on fire
Escapes          
    
A newsstand, a tobacco shop
A liquor store, the blinking

Gillis: The book’s two sections give contrasting views of Jewish life in America as opposed to Jewish life in Kabul. From your own experiences, how has growing up as a Jewish American contrasted with what you experienced in Afghanistan with Zablon Simintov?

Silverman: Ha! Wow, that is a compliment! I have never left the U.S.! I did research the same way Bram Stoker researched a European country he never went to, except I used the internet and he, brochures. In fact, I was embarrassingly mispronouncing some of the words, including the capital city, until a soldier stationed over there pointed out my errors! I had to find out about the second to last Jew who died before Simintov, Ishaq Levin, to write the poem on page 66, and I came across things like street names and the name of the cafe, Balkh Bastan. I found as many images as I could and read lots of articles about him until I discovered things like the name of the streets, things they ate, and my favorite discovery: the Patience Stone at a mini circus in Kabul. How could I not include something like that? I just finished writing a poem about Holocaust shoes floating up, dancing, and leaving the D.C. museum, so why not a stone that thinks and talks?

Gillis: In the first section of the book, you wrote responses to common sayings such as “step on a crack, break your mamma’s back” and “you’re going to dig a hole to China.” What brought out these responses? Are they meant to be sarcastic or something else entirely?

Silverman: I almost didn’t include this series in the book, these responses. My editor persuaded me to keep them in as I really saw them as a whole section by themselves in the next book, but then I didn’t keep them together and spread them around. They serve as a nice parallel between the Kabul poems and the American suburbia poems. I am not sure I would call them. Old wives tales? That’s what Sarah Nipp called them in another interview. Maybe they are. There are several series running through the book. One, magical realism Jewish family poems; two, a series about a farmer (Mud Angels) and a mermaid; three, the “response to” poems, which are more humor poems that address suburbia; and a series about the actual last Jew in Afghanistan who is still living there, despite the fact his family left a decade ago. But I think what you are essentially asking is what inspired me to come up with these “response” poems? What moved me to put pen to paper, word to line? There is no specific thing or moment to answer that. One gets inspired by their muse and their environment and their own personal history. I did not know much about my roots or feel connected to them in a strong way. But the more I worked on the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, the more I read work by other Jewish American poets, the more I began to think about my roots and before I knew it, American suburbia and Jewish magical realism combined together, forming these response poems and the other magical realism poems.

Ultimately, I think they all serve as a metaphor. “Hurricane Dreams” turn the terrible events of Hurricane Katrina into something biblical where a boy is being saved by his Dad, a boy filled with belief and obedience and love for his Dad the way Isaac did for his own father. In “Response to Step on a Crack,” a kid comes to terms with an abusive parent but also feels that same inner rage. The gum poem is meant to take the old wives tale and just to be silly and think about, “What if it were true?” Do we know the meaning behind “The Emperor of Ice Cream” by Wallace Stevens? No, but it is fun to read. “It’s Getting Harder and Harder to Leave the House” and “I Can’t Get Off the Couch” start to think about what if these inanimate household objects are personified. While some are just silly and they take an idea to the extreme, like chocolate causes acne, other poems become an extended metaphor of suburban life, like “You’re Going to Dig a Hole to China.” In that poem, kids start digging and soon the whole neighborhood gets into it.

Gillis: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the book that I haven’t asked you yet?

Silverman: Well, I am pretty excited about this book just getting nominated for Georgia Author of the Year, if I can brag for a moment, and my other project is wrapping up,  New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust. It is a one-of-a-kind anthology where writers write an ekphrastic poem about a photo taken from the Holocaust. We have fiction, flash, poetry and essays. It is also an anthology of diverse writers from all backgrounds!

But as far as the book itself goes, I try to incorporate truth and Truth into the poems. There really is a last Jew, my sister in “Dear Sister Dreydel” really did all those things, and although the grandmother survivor from Auschwitz wasn’t my grandmother, she was a woman I interviewed in the early 90s. Every poem has kernels of truth in them, realism, and like my favorite artwork, Realism, these narrative poems take on a greater Truth, a bigger meaning, when the poet (i.e. me) starts building the foundation with something that the poet knows and has experienced. Of course, a writer can write an amazing poem without having any experience in the subject, and every line is one fiction after another, but how many of those last past the writer’s lifetime?

Thank you for taking so much careful detailed attention to my work, as it means more to me than you know.

the floating door

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