"'Interview with Poet Burt Kimmelman' by John Wisniewski," AM FM Magazine , August 2016 (click here). 

Interview excerpts (from poetry is volume 2 by George Quasha), Spring 2015 (click here). 

"'Arrangements of Language: An Interview with Burt Kimmelman' by Eric Hoffman," Rain Taxi , Fall 2014 (click here). 

"15 Questions: An Interview with Burt Kimmelman [by Geoffrey Gatza]," BXtraordinary, In Conversation with BX Authors, BlazeVOX, June 2013 (click here). 

"Burt Kimmelman in Conversation with George Spencer" (dir. Mitch Corber), first of a two-part video for Poetry Thin Air, shot at the historicGathering of the Tribes on the Lower East Side, New York City,12 May 2011 (Part I, click here or here; Part II, click here), interview by George Spencer, Directed by Mitch Corber

"Burt Kimmelman in Conversation with Tom Fink," in Jacket 40 (click here).

“Poetry and Dialogue with Burt Kimmelman” (Interview by Students at St. John’sUniversity), published in Critiphoria Dialogues, Spring 2008 (click here)


"The Crowd Inside Me: Michael Lally in Conversation with Burt Kimmelman," in Jacket2 (click here).

Harriet Zinnes Interview at Poets House, Spring 2012 (click here).

"A Conversation about Living Root between Michael Heller and Burt Kimmelman," Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 21.1 (Fall 2002): 111-15 (see text below).



"A Conversation about Living Root between Michael Heller and Burt Kimmelman"

(published in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 21.1 [Fall 2002]: 111-15)

BK: A thematic and aesthetic agenda of Living Root is the uniting of, a making whole of what has been torn apart, a world of fragments, which is perhaps accomplished through the book's ongoing meditation on ritual.Your own life, especially your early years, was one of dislocation and parental illnesses, which in a way parallels the history of your family's passage across the Atlantic Ocean to America from Poland, which also, the book seems to suggest, is an artistic parallel to, even as it is a historic part of, the Jewish Diaspora. Indeed, this memoir finds ritual taking many forms, in your discussions of poetry, religious heritage, ethnic heritage, and personal relationships, as well as in your contemplation of ritual's nature itself. Was the writing of Living Root, which took a number of years, now in hindsight a sort of ritual as well?

MH: Ritual and the undoing of ritual are at the heart of the book. I took ritual to be a kind of protection, like a soul being sheltered, placed under a bell jar, enclosed within the sacred. But I had come into that ritual space by the accidents of birth, upbringing, environment. It was not truly my own; in that sense, the bell jar also stifled. And given the life around me, my mother's non-belief, my father's uneasy relationship with his grandfather, the Rabbi, writ large, I was seeing cracks and flaws in that ritual space, in the conventions and acts of faith that I had not truly made my own. At the same time, the aspects of Jewish tradition which deeply drew my allegiance were those involving writing and rewriting, midrash, commentary upon commentary, all those activities which allowed one to re-imagine the meaning and space of the rituals. And, in truth, as I began and wrote, a kind of Proustian involuntary memory kept taking place, ignited into language, as it were, by the artifacts, the picture albums and letters, the detritus of my parents' lives, which I had acquired after their deaths. And the parallels which you mention, the large-scale movement of the Diaspora, and the scattering of one, Michael Heller, outside the house of his received rituals, were part of the substance of that matrix of old yellowed paper, curling photographs and what came to me unbidden out of my past.

BK: In other words, from early on you have been an outsider — not unlike those in the scriptural tradition whose faithful are devoted to words, words that stand apart from things — even to the extent that the most intimate details of your own origins are both within you and apart from you somehow?

MH: As I wrote in the memoir, “I am remembering then, not for the sake of what was, but, in a sense in order to be.” As I reflected on the sheer unaccountability of origins, their arbitrariness, their unchosen quality, the “quantum mechanics,” as I put it, of autobiography, I sensed also my going out toward much that is in tradition and in the histories I was exposed to of my family and of the Jews and of poetry. The act of reflection on the details of one's life in this sense is dynamic in much the same manner that the literal words of the Bible become dynamic once subjected to the ongoing process of Talmudic or midrashic reflection. The Ba'al Shem Tov says that memory is the secret of redemption, and Yosef Yerushalmi, in Zakhor, reminds us that Jews, while not the fathers of history, are “the fathers of meaning in history.” I would hope that on a small, personal level, my work is in that tradition.

BK: But doesn't this mean that you, as a Jew, as both a reader and writer, are begging the question implied by your memoir's title: how is there a “living root” if one sees oneself as in some sense an indirect outgrowth of family and heritage?

MH: In the book I speak of “the juncture,” the “boundary membrane” of the root where “what is dead and what is alive are indistinguishable.” I could not trace myself to the roots alone. What I keep finding is an evolution with respect to those roots, a rethinking and re-imagining. If nothing else, an elaborate scheme to avoid thinking of myself as pre-destined.

BK: As for the past — setting aside the idea of a destiny — you acknowledge that both family and heritage apparently have been infiltrated by your reflections on them, your explorations, and what is more they have been about the simultaneous removal from, and the one-and-the-sameness of, experience — thus your concern in your memoir for the Kabbalistic devekuth or adhesion as well as your professed devotion to Walter Benjamin's life and work, particularly his notion of replication, although this may not be quite the right word.

MH: You are perhaps thinking of Benjamin's essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” but that is not the work which is significant here. Rather, for the purposes of the memoir, such concepts as his “chips of messianic time” and his thinking about the principle of montage deeply influenced me. I can't remember that I actually use the phrase in Living Root, but the idea was implicit in the work. (I mention this in an interview published in Talisman magazine [no. 11, Fall 1993, p. 120].) The non-linearity of the book is based on seeking a “spiritual” rather than “temporal” ordering of a life. Benjamin's revelatory “messianic chip” is, like Proust's madeleine, the thing/event/artifact which opens a floodgate of autobiography and the energy associated with it. My method was to let the family albums, the letters, the orts and crumbs of my family history, speak to me in a like manner. Such over-hearings have very much to do with the genesis of the book, as in the first pages, begun in thinking about the contrasts between my grandfather and my father performing the Passover service. My grandfather's ease and comfort speaking to his God compared to my father's disease and caution astonished me. My hearing them opened up all sorts of questions in my mind about religion and faith and, of course, about ritual. It was no longer a dead thing to me, but a deep telling marker of one's commitment and psychology. Thus to my mind, the idea of “writing,” which you stress, needs to be related to the larger Jewish thing of commentary and its auditory equivalent, overhearing, as in Gershom Scholem' s observation that “revelation is something overheard.”

BK: Benjamin writes, as you quote him in Living Root, of the photograph as the “posthumous moment.” You contextualize your concern with your ancestry by way of a book of old photos of pre-war Bialystok (in Poland) that you acquired when still a young man. You write, early on in the memoir, of your desire to “compel memory and history to coincide.” They may only coincide in this book, which is an act of writing, no?

MH: Writing is THE gathering, the making of connections, transforming the chronicler's bald list of events or the found items in the scrapbook into a life, a presence for the author and the reader. Making those posthumous moments part of one's present life and giving that life a measure of futurity as well as pastness.

BK: And a literary tradition flows through you, Michael Heller, through your entrance into the sensorium of experience that was both literary but also simply visceral? For instance, your boyhood is influenced by your older cousin Arthur who reads to you and your sister Tena from the Iliad, and in your awareness as you would drift into sleep you “felt the battle for Troy occurring on the borders of my consciousness, itself a vast dark plain like the one before that ancient city.” No mere words here? There is likewise, as you report, the mingling of prayerful incantation with Passover food and wine. Even the subtle ethnic prejudices you encounter directly as a boy in Miami Beach, your recollection of them, mingle with the passed-along documentations of the Shoah in response to which your grief is real albeit it is ultimately mediated by writing. You are, therefore, real as a reader and writer. Is this not, looking at what has come before, a Jewish destiny?

MH: Arthur, my cousin, my adopted brother — his parents had died while he was in his teens and my family took him in — was the first intellectual person I knew. Not only were those nightly readings of poetry immensely important but so were his radical political opinions, although, as I explain in the memoir, the flatness of the often ideological speech he used never came close to the “visceral” power of Homer or any of the other poets he introduced to me. So that was a lesson in itself about levels of speech. And in the late Forties, the Shoah was still rumor, still barely defined. No one, least of all a young self-involved boy in sunny Miami Beach, could imagine its enormities. But there was this atmosphere of something terrible having taken place, like a pall or cloud, which would later surround everything. I reacted to antisemitism with anger and even some curiosity about who'd dare it on me. Only later, long after I started to write, and on visits to my parents, when I would go through their memorabilia, through the books and photos on Bialystok, did I sense I could use a word like Holocaust or Shoah in my work.

I'm leery of the term “Jewish destiny,” unless one means it in a historical sense, from the outside, so to speak.And even then, one can see in reading Living Root that much of its writing has been an interrogation of those two words, neither accepting nor rejecting them, but rather making use of them as I try to re-imagine or even re-invent myself. But, of course, someone will say, “that's very Jewish!” So perhaps in spite of my efforts, there is a little Jewish hunchback inside of me, as there was one named “dialectical materialism” in Benjamin's chess-winning puppet in the opening paragraph of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Unlike Benjamin's hunchback, I'm a lousy chess player.

BK: Well, surely there is for you an operative dialectic inspired by Benjamin, as we have been saying. Living Root includes your beautiful poem “Constellations of Waking” that addresses his suicide in 1940 when on the run from Nazism. And in a note for the poem you speak of his idea that knowledge is external to something essential in us. To be sure, he believed in, as you write, “the allegorical nature of all text and history.” Do we see in this the conceptual precursor of your self-realization through the writing of Living Root? In your “boundary membrane” metaphor, which admits of an intercourse, there is the intermingling of the dead and the living, of the tradition outside of you, one which you critically embrace.

MH: I refer to that externality, but I don't say that this is to leave us missing something essential. Quite the opposite. Benjamin saw our lives happening moment by moment, and language as bonding us to the things of the world as they took place. But he was deeply resistant to the already discredited ideas of innate human nature. Remember, the idea of innateness, Aryan or Jewish, played an important role in the Nazis' racialist theories. The allegories are the multiple meanings, multiple stories, including one's own, which writing and history offer up to us. The idea of a univocal text or literalist reading of even the most spiritual document was anathema to Benjamin. In the book, I refer to Benjamin as “the patron saint” of the work. And you know I've written a libretto for an opera based on his life. So yes, he is central to the book. But he is by no means its only “precursor.” There are poets like George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Carl Rakosi, not to mention all the writers and thinkers in my rather off-handed “Works Cited,” those listed and unlisted (indeed, I beg forgiveness from those not mentioned) who must also be acknowledged as co-authors.

BK: Yet in some sense Benjamin seems to be, although he precedes you and can set an example for you, your allegorical Other. Now, I say this because of your final comment in the note to the Benjamin poem — one I hope you might enlarge upon — that “[t]he contemporary notion of the disappearance of the author which he anticipated in word and deed, culminating in death by his own hand as he sought to escape the Nazis, would seem to provide the Jewish-born (as opposed to the Israeli-born) writer with an exemplary if cautionary tale.”

MH: That note, which has generated some controversy, was my way, perhaps clumsily, of enjambing a number of themes. Benjamin somewhat anticipates Foucault in seeing the author as a locus of historical and cultural forces. Remember that, for Benjamin, the ideal critical work consisted solely of citations, that the critic would exist primarily as an arranger of those quotes, and that that arrangement would show forth, like a Poundian vortex, the luminous moment of history in which it was constructed. Faced with capture, possibly torture and murder by the Gestapo, and fearing that he, sickly and without much physical strength, would hinder his companions as they sought again to cross into Spain, his suicide has, in some sense, an illuminating logic to it beyond despair or desperation. Benjamin elected the Diaspora as his arena of activity, despite Scholem's urging him to emigrate to what was then Palestine. As late as 1939, he was claiming that “there are still things to be done in Europe,” this in the knowledge of what fate awaited Jews in Europe. So even near the end, the Diaspora for Benjamin was not a place of alienation but a place from which to re-engage the old texts. In my recently published essay, “Diasporic Poetics,” which borrows some material from the memoir, I refer to Emmanuel Levinas' remark that Jewishness is not a metaphor but a “category of understanding.” He goes on to suggest what this idea might mean for a poet: “Is it certain a true poet occupies a place? Is the poet not that which, in the eminent sense of the term, loses its [sic] place, ceases occupation, precisely, and is thus the very opening of space …” and “displays the bottomlessness or the excellence, the heaven that in it [sic] is possible ….” For me, this is almost a siren call to be in the Diaspora — I'm sure it was the call Benjamin, that most poetic of thinkers, kept hearing. In this regard, Living Root is my attempt to enlarge my own category of understanding, to find in my life, my family history, my work as a poet and writer, and my surroundings, the heaven that is possible.

Copyright of Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies is the property of Purdue University Press and its content may not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.