Interview: Ray Keifetz

A chance meeting with our friend Margery at one of our favorite local cafes led to Ray Keifetz's book, Night Farming in Bosnia, landing in our hands. Thank goodness. This is an important and beautiful volume of poetry. Its poems describe humanity and inhumanity alike, with deep feeling, tenderness, and hope. Reading this book is a journey of sorts, through history and war, through gardens and fields. "We must follow in full light / or no light / the gaze of the trees / down to the river."

We are so grateful to Ray for sharing his work with us, for answering our questions so thoughtfully, and for allowing us to reprint a selection of his poems here. If you like what you read here, you can order your own copy of Night Farming in Bosnia directly from the publisher, The Bitter Oleander Press.

NightFarmingInBosnia.jpg

Ray's poems and stories have appeared in The Ashland Creek Press, Bitter Oleander, Briar Cliff Review, Kestrel, The Louisville Review, Other Voices, and more and have twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets. Night Farming in Bosnia, his first poetry collection, grew out of the calamitous ending of the 20th century and the equally dark beginning of the 21st.


Literary North: We’re always interested in learning about an author’s writing and publishing process. Can you tell us a bit about how this—your first poetry collection—came about? Did you write the poems with a collection in mind, or did the poems reveal themselves as a collection at some point?

Ray Keifetz: To tell you the truth, a collection of poetry was for the longest time something I never thought I’d write. I was skeptical about applying a straightjacket, that is to say a book with its sequence of pages starting at number one, its expectation of a beginning, middle, and end, to a body of work that intrinsically possess none of those qualities. Poems are such solitary fish, particularly the good ones which invariably swim alone. For me writing a poem has always been an end in itself, a complete immersion, a bit like drowning.

“Night Farming in Bosnia,” the future title poem, made me think again. You might call it a turning point. For the first time I was writing about events not drawn directly from my immediate life but from the Zeitgeist itself, a sinkhole into which I’d fallen and where as a poet I was happy to remain. The next poem “Fresh Eggs” seemed to belong beside “Night Farming” on a facing page, a fantasy which years later actually came to pass. At a certain point I had written a core of poems dark and dense enough to cast a shadow. I began consciously to rewrite, to spread the shadows wider, to create a flow of linked images. A few brief examples:  While keeping true to the initial impulse of the poem, I rewrote the ending of “Into the Stream” to include “bloated swimmers” echoing the murder described earlier in “There Was Room in the River” and on the very next page placed “Scarecrow” whose limbs are “a dead man’s shirt and trousers.” And since the book’s first poem begins at the edge of the ocean, I ended the last poem on the banks of a river.

LN: Many of the poems in this book depict intense suffering contrasted with images of gardens, farming, and nature. How do you view the interconnection between human suffering and nature?

RK: The simple answer is with sadness. When I sit down to write, the beauty of the world is before me side by side with the wreckage. Specific connections though, such as those you note, have revealed themselves through the process itself, the grueling search for the “right” word and then following it wherever it may lead. The poem “Night Farming in Bosnia” for instance began as a depiction of famine in wartime. The chance phrase “and we are not moles” carried me beyond that specific war which a cease fire might end to the unending mother of war, the food chain. On the other hand, the opening poem, “High Tide” depicts the suffering of an injured sea gull witnessed by vultures upon whom the words “still and slack,” chosen originally for their sound and rhythm, confer an unexpected beneficence. I may also add that I do leave myself open to the elements, water, fire, and, when I can, emulate fairy tales and fables, many of which place our beginnings in a garden.

LN: "An Admission of Cures," the final poem in your book, feels like a balm, a signal of hope. What was the inspiration behind the poem? How long did it take you to write it, and what ideas were you grappling with as you wrote it?

RK: Thank you for asking me about this poem, one of the last to make it into the collection. My mother became very ill. After the hospital, she was sent to recuperate in a rehabilitation facility located within a nursing home. Most of the people one met were very old and feeble, but there were some younger ones as well, “the pale young woman talking to the grass." During my visits I noted down everything I saw including a pair of bald eagles (who never made it into the final poem) and the river, like a loving father, we gazed at for hours . . .  At the same time “Night Farming in Bosnia” was beginning to gel and I needed an ending, a coda as in a symphony.  I alternated between catastrophe and elegy. In the end I chose elegy. “Cures” then was the only poem I wrote both as an expression of a specific event, my mother’s long illness, and a culmination, a resolution of the many “illnesses” described in “Bosnia.” For a moment captured on a page, the cures had the upper hand. 

“An Admission of Cures,” from my mother’s initial illness to her death, took a little over a year to complete.  It was read at her memorial.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

RK: Perfect timing, because I actually did read something memorable: “Buffalo” by Eugenio Montale. I have a bilingual edition, Collected Poems 1920-1954, translated by Jonathan Galassi. With the help of Galassi’s translation and my own pitiful smattering of Italian I glimpse Montale’s magnificence. “Buffalo” describes a ferry landing, summer crowds, beaches, the blinding Mediterranean sun, and suddenly a word, an incantation “buffalo” — the blazing curtain, the laughter, the blaring music, torn apart, we see—

I won’t say what we see. I won’t say anything except I’ve been going back to this poem every few days; I can’t get past it.  With a nod to Harold Bloom, Montale is the poet breathing down my neck.
 

RayKeifetz.png

Night Farming in Bosnia

Drawn
by perfumed tomatoes,
dry rattling beans,
stalks, shoots, leaves,
whiffs and gleans,
we crawl in the dark
over furrows still steaming.
Hunger drives even moles
from their holes
and we are not moles.
We were farmers
when we planted these fields.
Overhead the threshing wings
an owl . . . a mouse . . . interrupts
our feeding.
We were farmers
when we poisoned the voles,
now we strip the furrows.
A whisper
runs through the night
there are farmers in the field.
There are farmers in the field.
They shine their lights.
Their scythes are sabers.
They gather us like flowers
for their vases.

 

The Grass is Hungry

The grass is hungry.
A restlessness stirs the weeds.
Rain and sun no longer suffice
and the darkest earth is spurned
like dirt. The trees
have grown greedy.

If we could bring them back to their senses
remind them how they used to drink
               simple rain,
how they endured the stinging stars
               without roofs,
how they gave up their leaves
               without complaint,
remind them of their vaunted patience,
that resignation of theirs of rootedness,
if we could bring them back to their senses
we might dare to cross our lawns again
and long into dusk go gathering lilies
as if we still lived
               in a garden.
 

    
 An Admission of Cures

The cures are all around us.

The pale young woman talking to the grass
was once a flower;
she could face only the sun.
Now she stares at everyone.
Before their admission
the sparrows singing through her hair
were silent in the gutter,
the weeping willows bent low
with listening
a husband and angry brothers . . .
And in the dining room
the meaningless food,
the noisy frogs at your table—
soon enough
they will be returned
to their ponds.
The scarecrows in the hall
are all but shadow.
They pass through us
and we through them
like leaves
from different autumns.
The telephone in your room
requires no answer.
The cures are everywhere—
in the pigeon wings
fanning your swollen feet,
in the woods' faded markings,
and on this beaten bench
where you sit and wait
the final sifting . . .

No mother, nothing
is calling. The wind
is not interested in us.
We must follow in full light
or no light
the gaze of the trees
down to the river.
Who can say
if those be swans or sails
and these still wide waters
the shortest route home
or to the sea?

 

—Ray Keifetz. Night Farming in Bosnia. Bitter Oleander Press, 2018.