Marcela Sulak is the author of several books of poetry, nonfiction, and translation. She directs Bar-Ilan University’s graduate program in creative writing and edits the Ilanot Review. Zócalo’s March curator for the Poetry Curator Series, Sulak sat down in the green room where she explained why she thinks of poetry as a theater piece, the “most delightful” job she ever had, and imagining having one more coffee with the late poet Jean Valentine.
How has the pandemic affected how you think about or write poetry?
My partner and I had just moved in together [when the pandemic began]. We were living in a confined space, and there was no place that was mine. I didn't even have my own desk. I felt that I could not function in the kind of time-space the poetry demands. I couldn't break the line anymore. I love what Sabrina Orah Mark does in her Paris Review column—and so I just started writing parables in prose in little boxes, and that was really a wonderful and liberating experience. It allowed distance, time, and space that you didn't have when you're in the minute in the moment.
Who was your childhood hero?
My grandparents were just amazing because they spoke five languages. They picked up Spanish when they arrived [they were immigrants from Czechoslovakia during the time of the Habsburg monarchy] because everyone was speaking that. My grandfather played the accordion. I just loved how much they enjoyed one another. My grandparents, they were so deeply in love, they were so funny, and they could do anything. They could build houses with their bare hands. They could butcher animals. They could cook, and they all made us feel like we were their favorite.
What are you currently reading?
I'm reading a lot of nonfiction right now like Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People and Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings. Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art. In poetry, I've been reading a lot of translations of classics [by women]—I’ve loved Maria Dahvana Headley’s version of Beowulf and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey. I want to give a shout out to magazines. I really, really love the new Poetry. It has a great new look with the new editor Adrian Matejka. There are people from all over the world in those pages, and the poetry is so exciting. I’ve been really loving that and World Literature Today.
Where’s a place that you haven’t visited yet but want to?
Portugal. Before I decided to become a grownup and join the working force and get a real job, I worked as a research assistant in Venezuela, and part of the job was to research the history of the Sephardic Jews of the Caribbean. Most of them emigrated from Portugal, and so I’ve always wanted to go.
What was it like being a research assistant in Venezuela?
I had a master’s degree in English. I knew how to do research, but I wasn't really qualified to do this research about the Spanish golden-era trade in South America. But I did speak Spanish, and I did know both the Catholic traditions and Jewish ones. I was working with Jonathan Israel at the University College in London, so I knew that he wouldn't let anything happen that was wrong in the book. One day I was in Curaçao, and I wanted to find a library that was open only like four hours a day. It wasn't open on that particular day. The next day, I went to get a taxi, and the driver's like, “Hey, are you that woman that was looking for information? Here's a cookbook.” And he gave me the Curaçao Jewish cookbook that the community had made, and he was carrying it around, in case he picked me up that day, which he did. That was probably the strangest and most delightful job I’ve ever had.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Read everything. Also, in fourth grade, somebody took me seriously and gave me a book of poetic forms and started telling me things, like, “There isn’t a narrative situation here, you need to frame it.” I like to think of a poem now as a theater piece, and you have to arrange the scenery before you step in.
If you had to pick another career path, what would you be doing with your life?
I grew up on a rice farm, with people that were working with their own hands and living off the land. My father’s a farmer. My mother sewed all our clothes and made all our food. My great-grandmother was a midwife. I always loved that idea of midwifery and herbal medicine.
As a translator, what is one thing you wish more people knew about translation work?
It is an act of generosity and passion. There's no one right way to do a translation. And a translation is never done. You just get to the point where you feel that this iteration of the poem is working. The next six months, you could do it again, and you could do it differently. So a translation is exciting because it makes the poem a conversation, just like the conversation we're having now. You could ask me a different question tomorrow, and I would answer it a slightly different way. It's still there, but it changes.
Who would be your dream dinner guest, whether someone who is still alive or dead?
Jean Valentine. She died recently. We had been speaking about her coming to Israel. I love her work ever since her book Lucy. Because of where I live now on the Mediterranean, where all of history is basically happened all the time, I've really been interested recently in deep history and in Neanderthals and early humans and the migration of people. When she died, I felt her that morning, and she came kind of in spirit and had coffee with me. I would really actually like to see her again. I want to ask her about Lucy, and about what it's like now where she is.