Contributor Interview: Marcela Sulak

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.


Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

My piece “Physicians in the Dark” was written at the beginning of a virtual correspondence and acquaintanceship between me and a young father/teacher from Gaza who was trying to rebuild a community library after the last Gaza/Israel war/battle/exchange of fire (I’m not really even sure what to call it). In fact, we never discussed how the library happened to be destroyed. But that summer, Gaza was without electricity and we in Tel Aviv were trying to set up a reading in which he would skype in, to raise money for his library.

After the successful reading/fundraising, we kept in touch. We skyped. We showed one another our streets with the video camera. It is very very difficult for Israelis and Gazans to communicate, and this man has been very brave. But with very limited electricity, people were falling sick. His very young daughter fell sick and was hospitalized. He was desperate for medicine–the hospitals were out.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

The title comes from Wallace Steven’s “Of Modern Poetry” in which the poem is an artist who is also a “metaphysician in the dark.” In the case of my friend, this line was warped into “physicians in the dark.” For that is his reality, hospitals running on limited generators, and his reality changes mine, too.

I draw on Wallace Stevens because, since living in Israel, seeking out difficult encounters and maintaining them, forces you to rethink everything–as in the poem “of modern poetry.” But when you move ideas into a different physical space and physical reality, when your very building material for the world changes, so do your ideas.

Today it was the time of year to teach Wallace Stevens again. One of my students came up to me later and said, “Wallace Stevens wouldn’t write that like if he weren’t white. He’s a wonderful poet. but he’s a very white poet.”

I see what he means.

But my favorite line from the poem is:

“for metaphysicians in the dark are busy moving

sets behind the scenes,”

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

The advice I’d give young or beginning, or old, or continuing, or middle aged or mid-career writers is exactly the same: read a lot and take public transportation, take walks, observe the life around you.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

The other thing about this poem–and the “strange/funny/interesting” thing about myself (it’s a strange thing to be asked–to name a “strange/funny/interesting thing. “The most basic things about myself people find strange or interesting–my growing up on a rice farm in Texas. To me it was neither strange or any more interesting than anything else). But anyway, one of the major leitmotifs of this poem was inspired by the Prague Black Light Theater. Where stage hands dressed in black move scenery around with the lights off, so it looks like the objects are floating. I translate from Czech. It was both my parents’ mother tongue, though now they speak English.

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

Currently I am translating two Israeli poets–Eli Eliahu and Sharron Hass. And I’ve completed a memoir in flash called “Drawn that Way” about translating fairy tales, growing up on a farm, and religious conversion. I’m also trying to get a collection of octava rima poems published. They were written while riding public transportation and running along the river every day.

Marcela Sulak’s poetry includes Decency and Immigrant. She’s co-edited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. Her fourth translation, Twenty Girls to Envy Me: Selected Poems of Orit Gidaliwas nominated for the 2017 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She hosts the podcast “Israel in Translation,” edits The Ilanot Review, and teaches at Bar-Ilan University.

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