Winter 2008

Table of Contents - Vol. IV, No. 4


Poetry    Interview    Translations    Fiction    Book Reviews

Christopher T. George


An Interview with Michael Salcman

Michael Salcman


CTG: You and I were participants in a local Baltimore workshop in the latter part of the 1970’s in which we met in each others’ homes, as well as both being members of the Maryland State Poetry Society (MSPS), of which I was an officer at the time. If you don’t mind me saying so, your poetry at that time had almost a “young man in a hurry” type quality, impressive images and strength of thought but perhaps not the steady and relaxed aspect that I see in your work now. Do you attribute the maturity you have achieved in your poetry to the influence of the poetry of your mentor, Thomas Lux, or to other influences?

MS: In brief, my early work and publications all date from 1963 through 1977. At that time, the best magazine that would publish me was Bitterroot in Brooklyn, New York. The editor was Menke Katz who was the leading poet published by The Smith. I of course came out of a medical and scientific milieu in which I had not met any writers or poets and had never spent any time in an English department. Hence my networking opportunities in the poetry world were close to nil (you and MSPS were it!). After I spent a little time with Menke at his cottage north of the city, he volunteered to send my first book manuscript to his publisher with his strong endorsement. I waited several weeks for a response and then got a three-page letter that said I was a “terrible poet” and that I “had no business writing poetry”. As you can imagine, I was emotionally crushed and did not write another word for 10 years! So I dropped out of MSPS and concentrated on my medical career. Eventually I authored almost 200 scientific and medical publications, and edited or authored six textbooks (the most recent in 2004); today I don’t write any imaginative prose other than art history and art criticism.

CTG: That was certainly a very cruel thing that publisher did in saying you could not write poetry. Editors and publishers should be more responsible and not send down opinions from on high as if they really know whether a writer has talent or not! I’m glad that your journey though had a happy ending and you did come back to writing poetry.

MS: After 10 years of silence, in 1987 I began to write the occasional poem in secret. From time to time, I would show a poem to an artist but I sent nothing out and didn’t even show the poems to my wife. One year at the Venice Biennale I met an art collector, Marc Strauss, who was a physician (an oncologist; my subspecialty was in malignant brain tumors) and a published poet. Marc grew up in Brooklyn as I had, and practiced at Boston University, where I had studied medicine. He said that I was crazy not to show my work to anyone and he volunteered to introduce me to the best teacher of poetry he had ever met—Tom Lux. In addition to one private session with Tom, I attended his Writers Seminars program at Sarah Lawrence College for the next 10 summers. There I had a chance to study with Tom, Stuart Dischell, Deborah Digges, Stephen Dobyns, Heather McHugh, Ellen Bryant Voigt and get to know many other poets including Billy Collins. Next to Tom, my most important mentor has been Dick Allen who I met at a Marc Strauss dinner party; the two of them have edited all of my book manuscripts and many individual poems.
Dick has never seen my work from 1963–1977 but Tom did when he picked poems for my first book. All of the poems he picked were from 1987 through 2002; he said to me that some day people would be interested in my “juvenelia” but that they were not good enough for the book. His theory is that the 10 wasted years were good for me, that I matured in my thinking processes, that I started to write out of pure love for the work and without any hope of publication, that somehow the authentic poems were "cooking" inside of me while my attention was directed elsewhere. So the change in the work was not due to Tom or Dick (I wish there were an Harry involved) but my poems came to Tom almost fully formed except that they were pock-marked by technical errors that any MFA student would have quickly discovered. Tom knew I was doing the right thing but that it only happened through intuition or because my ear heard it; he wanted to teach me how to do the right thing on purpose. My first real publications came in 1999 and 2000 (Comstock Review, Baltimore Review, and Cape Rock) as I recall. In the Comstock Review I noticed that one of the other poets had the same name as my childhood friend, the editor gave me Bob Cooperman’s address in Denver and since then Cooperman has been exchanging poems with me as well.

CTG: How much did your parents’ interests help shape your cultural pursuits? Was your father a physician? I am aware of course that in many families, the father or even the father and mother are often physicians, as are their offspring.

MS: My father was a mechanical engineer and, before the war, he studied to be a rabbi. My cousin Arnold was a professor of mathematics at the University of Cincinnati and my cousin Otto is a professor of mathematics in the Czech Republic. Our family was filled with engineers, mathematicians and ersatz rabbis. I am in fact the first physician. Now I have a daughter-in-law who is studying to be a radiologist but otherwise there is no line of doctors in the family. My step-mother’s first husband, before she married my father, was a physician. But this was long after I had already finished medical school. Some of the poems in The Clock Made of Confetti reference the interests and activities of my parents before the war and the Holocaust tore their world apart. Gentility, kindness, genuine emotion, an interest in Judaism and ethics, an interest in science and engineering, are my father’s contributions to my life and work. My mother is the source of my passion for art in all its many forms. Both of my parents contributed to my life as a scholar and my general thirst for knowledge.

CTG: Michael, one of the things I have been wondering about is how much your Czech background has influenced you. I have to think that coming from such a rich cultural background has fed into your endeavors in the areas of poetry and art. You must have been quite small when you left Czechoslovakia, but of course that doesn’t mean your cultural background would not help form you as an artist.

MS: I grew up in a very European household. My parents and my one surviving grandparent (my mother’s mother) spoke in English and Hungarian when they wished me to understand something (Hungarian was the French of central or Mittel Europa) and in Czech or Slovak when they wished to keep the information from me. My mother studied violin and ballet (there’s a great photograph of her in her ballet outfit) before the war, loved classical music and art. We lived very simply in a 6th floor apartment on 7th Street in Brooklyn, between Foster Avenue and Avenue H. My father started as a laborer in America. Special treats consisted of Mother taking me into Manhattan by subway to visit the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art or to go to a Broadway show. We saw Ethel Merman in the original production of “Gypsy”.
Mother would hold me in her lap and explain the pictures that she saw in her mind when music played on the radio. I remember especially a story about the old shoe cobbler who worked until the stars came out supposedly when the triangle rang in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. They loved Artur Rubinstein, Jewish opera stars (the former cantor Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters) and my Mother’s favorite, the great Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi. Every Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera played on the radio at home; I was free to leave the apartment but not to change the station! Mother vacuumed to Mozart. She also loved film and we frequently watched Million Dollar Movie together; I fell in love with black and white films.

CTG: Michael, have you been back to Czechoslovakia?

MS: When I was 60 I finally got a chance to go back to Prague. This event, together with the 80th birthday of my cousin Arnold, led to a recounting of his and my father’s adventures during the war and the impact of the Holocaust on our family. I’m currently working on my third collection titled Prague, and Beyond and unlike the first two it will be unified in theme and shape since two of the major poems (“1944” and “Prague Suite”) are actually cycles of 8 to 10 of my fractured sonnets or 14-liners. The book is devoted to Prague, the history of the Jews there, the Czech concept of time (i.e., Kafka) and my family’s history. Four of the ten parts in “1944” have been accepted by Poet Lore and my prose essay now set to conclude the book, like the inclusion of the prose section in Lowell’s Life Studies, will be published as “How I Missed the Prague Spring: A Sort of Memoir” in the Republic of Letters section of The South Carolina Review. Of course, I still have to find a publisher for The Enemy of Good Is Better!

CTG: My thought is that Czech background has influenced your interest in writing an eclectic type of poetry and also being an art critic.

MS: I don’t think my writing is very “eclectic” except in form. Most of it is anti-Confessional in nature; the “I” is not a prominent part of my poetry. The themes are almost always based on cultural issues; references to art and music and literature are frequent. Of course my knowledge of the brain and how it works also makes a contribution. How we interpret the artifacts of civilization is directly dependent on the equipment we use to interrogate them. The tone isn’t so much elitist (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) as it is aspirational, hoping that the attention of readers can be brought once again to the finest achievements of mankind. I tend to avoid the political in its narrowest contemporary sense and rely on the eternal verities of ethics and morality. Political art has an extremely short shelf-life and I’m not one for an art that is bound to the ephemeral.

CTG: One of the poems that I like most in The Clock Made of Confetti is the Ella Fitzgerald poem. I think your poem, “Ella,” compares favorably with Frank O’Hara’s poem Billie Holliday poem, “The Day Lady Died,” as a reaction to a jazz great at a moment in time. As you explained during your reading at Clayton’s Books a few months back in the “Two Heads” series, your poem about Dr. William Carlos Williams helping to give birth to Allen Ginsberg fictionalized the event to an extent, although I do find it fascinating that one notable poet could have enabled the birth of another.

MS: Thank you for liking the Ella and Dr. Williams poems. Many of the poets I’ve been around and studied with have written jazz-inflected poetry, Billy Collins and Tom Lux to name just two, and I’ve learned a lot from reading the work of Frank O’Hara. Of course, O’Hara worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art and carried out many joint projects with fine visual artists such as Larry Rivers and Baltimore’s own Grace Hartigan. Given the period of my childhood, the influence of the 1950s and 1960s is very strong. During that time, America developed the habit of having poets serve as major art critics; I’ve always found that artists accept me more easily as a writer when they don’t have to worry that “I draw little bit too”. I hate that sort of presumptious Sunday school expertise; like when some amateur comes up to me at a party and says “I’ve got this theory about how the brain works.” I try not to pull that on artists. They know I can’t draw and I know they have no interest in writing poetry; that sort of levels the field and we can be friends.


© Christopher T. George


The Poems of Michael Salcman


Finished, Not Abandoned

Small enough to make perfect,
line by line, word by word,
not like love—inaction matters
some, time to let things marinate
like fish and lemon on the tongue,
or garlic in a bouillabaise
as it simmers in a covered copper pan.
And with each breath I take, I think
again, “I can, I can.”


Genealogy of the Cat

The genealogy of the cat is unknown.
Even his close relatives deny him.
Already a god in Egypt,
alabaster with obsidian eyes, he hung out
with no one, watched the saber-toothed tiger
die, spurned its great serpent’s tooth
as too grotesque a weapon.
Although his genealogy contains
small bits of things common to us both
(atoms from Sirius, that dog star,
pre-cambrian plants and primitive mammals),
we still don’t know why
he trusts no one,
why he slinks through rooms
as if date palms and vines hang from our ceilings
and the lights were always out,
why he purrs equally at comfort and threat,
why he disguises himself as a boon companion
or despises his prey,
why he sees more of us in the dark
than we see of him, our faces glowing
in his golden pupils,
why he cleans himself all day
as if his own flesh were to his taste,
his small murderer’s hands weeping with saliva,
as if to say I can’t help it.


Necessary Speech

If I only had the learning I would write of love
in translation, speak of it in Greek
or ancient Hebrew, so that not even you
would raise an eyebrow or roll your mouth
in a rueful smile; I would play its notes
on a lyre strung with Latin verbs and boast
of you in Beowulf’s own Anglo-Saxon or
use the French of the troubadours
without rhyme or pattern until your gown
had slipped to your feet as you strolled outdoors
distracted, begging for another sonnet.


Murmuration on Mozart’s Musical Joke

Once thought to be a polytonal parody
of his pupils Sussmayr and Hummel
(or of his forgotten contemporaries
Gyrowetz and Duschek),
Mozart actually composed his Musical Joke
eight days after the burial of his pet starling.
He even read a poem of his own devising
and mourners sang hymns.
Tasteless in his timing,
Mozart premiered the complete satire
one month after the death of his father Leopold
and four years after the death of his pet.
It must have occurred to him (as it does to me)
that Don Giovanni and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
would benefit from the contrast in quality.
And although experts disagree as to why Mozart kept a starling,
the bird is known to ornithologists
for singing two songs at once and whistling off key.
When Mozart found it in a shop it sang in G-sharp
his Concerto in G.


Suppose You Miss the Lightning

“A poet is a man who manages...
to be struck by lightning five or six times.”
—Randall Jarrell

It can happen—a lifetime of standing out
in thunderstorms, your head drenched
with good intentions, no one about
to save you—and nothing happens,

not a single hit, never mind the five or six
you need to qualify, much less the dozen
devoutly wished to signal greatness with,
a place in the universe of wordsmiths as fixed

as Regulus is in the heavens.
But the poet who made this famous quip
himself is less read today and many have felt
his bitterness, returning free of a singe or rip

that might anoint them: if lightning glows
in death it does so faintly, struck off with the smell of prose.


© Michael Salcman




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