Conversations with Contributors: Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach

Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach ( emigrated from Ukraine as a Jewish refugee when she was six years old. She is the author of three poetry collections: The Many Names for Mother, winner the Wick Poetry Prize (Kent State University Press, 2019); Don’t Touch the Bones (Lost Horse Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Idaho Poetry Prize; and 40 WEEKS, forthcoming from YesYes Books in 2022. Her recent poems appear in POETRYAmerican Poetry Review, and The Nation, among others. Julia is the editor of Construction Magazine. She holds an MFA from the University of Oregon and is completing her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Philly with her two kids, two cats, one dog, and one husband.


Chloe Elliott: One of my favourite poems in The Many Names for Mother is one of the earlier poems, “Why Walk When We Can Fly.” There is such an innocence at the beginning, particularly when you talk about your son, in this sort of mixed-metaphor-seraphim bog-roll toddler railing through the house. The tenderness and love captured is remarkable, and it actually reminded me of a Sinead Morrissey poem, “My Life According To You,” where she narrates her life from the perspective of her daughter. Do you look to your children for a lot of your poetry?

Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach: I think becoming a mother has made all of my poems in some way. Children are such natural poets, the way they make sense of the world is through metaphor, comparing one thing to another—in the poem, “In Everything, He Finds the Moon.” I just steal lines from my son—they’re his metaphors. I also think part of the reason we become parents is to see the world through the eyes of a child again. As poets, that’s what we’re always trying to do. To see the world in a way that makes a child walking around the house with toilet paper a miracle and Icarus falling from the sky. I think children just let our perspective become so much more imaginative, but at the same time, having children makes you think a lot about death when you’re seeing life—it’s a double-edged sword. At the same time, I think that now, everything I write is deeply enraptured with my children.

CE: In your poem “Dyada Voda,” you also get this sense of a new generation surging in—of our sons, and our sons’ sons knowing what we never taught them, “my son calls any body / of water—man, mister, / uncle water, uncle sea, uncle ocean, dyadya, not father / but close, though we / didn’t teach him this, and at the end of the poem what they innately know, that we could have never taught them, he is water and no matter how wide / I stretch my arms, I cannot hug or count, cannot / contain the whole of him.” We are sending our children into the new world, and they are probably more equipped to handle it than we ever were. And yet there is still love and fear, pride and terror. How should we, or how do you, find balance with this idea of our offspring going into the expanse?

JKD: I feel like that is what I am writing towards, that is the parent’s struggle since the beginning of time. Wanting them to experience everything as fully as possible, giving them the freedom to fall and the freedom to hurt themselves, because that’s how they learn. Being able to inhabit the point of view of the child as much as possible. My son said to me, it was so hurtful, in Russian, “Mama, I want you to be dead, I don’t want you to be here, I don’t love you, I want to play make-believe with Papa.” The instinct was to slam the door and walk away, to say, “You don’t want me here, fine.” But that was my adult sensibility getting hurt with his words. I tried to explain permanence to him—dead means gone. What he meant was, “I don’t want you here, because I want to play with Papa, and you being here means that I don’t get to do the thing that I want to do.” There’s this constant duality where they are unaware of what their tiny bodies can get into, and what their tiny words can do, how much their tiny bodies can get hurt, and how much their tiny words can hurt us. I think that’s a lot of what I am writing about. I just can’t stop writing about my children—whether it’s stealing from their words or what their bodies are going through, because it is inextricably tied to my body. So much of my poetry is tied to the body and what the body is experiencing.

CE: Exactly. The idea of teaching permanence—even for adults there’s a great deal we have to learn about how we use our words. For most people we are still trying to come to terms with what we say. We think our big bodies can produce big, assured words, but sometimes we do need to be spoken to like children.

JKD: Yeah, I think we both take for granted and don’t realize the power of words, if not to take action on a global scale, which they can, but even in our interpersonal tiny globes of connection, words really can do a lot.

CE: As a process, when writing, there is also a sense of raising, and of having to learn and reflect, much like motherhood. In “Other women don’t tell you,” I was struck by how much the line “he will become / a fish wrench back / towards water, your face / a fresh lake, his mouth gasping to drink” reminded me of the process of my own writing. The idea of the poem being a child, lurching back at you, and not knowing how to react; as this small-body entity that has a lot of autonomy, and frequently tells you it does not love you! Is there a sense of affinity between motherhood and the process of creating a poem?

JKD: Absolutely—you said it beautifully. I have my baby-baby, and my book-baby. The amount of care and energy that our bodies have put into the production of a single poem, and then a book of them that definitely does feel like labor. [Laughs] I’ve talked to a lot of writers in terms of that, I’ll ask them, “How’s your book gestating?” It just takes a lot longer than a human baby! Yeah, I mean it’s really very true, the sense that that poem is all about the connection between mother and child, that a part of you is always away from you, but is also always part of you, and I think that’s true for any poem you write. Once you’ve completed a poem and sent it out into the world, they’re not yours anymore—they’re for the reader. But at the same time, a part of you is in them always, very much the way a child is. My children are  forever a part of me, but they are so wholly themselves.

CE: You want the best for them, but also, who are you to dictate what they are going to say to another person?

JKD: When you write a poem, you think, Ha, this is what I’m trying to say with this poem. But usually they’ll want to say something completely different, often something much better than what you wanted to say in the first place! I love when a reader finds something in the poem that I haven’t seen. I think that’s such a gift to have someone experience your work that way.

CE: The Many Names for Mother starts off with “Drowned,” then “Light,” “Animal,” “Drowned Light Animal,” and finally the last chapter, “Home Eternal, Rising.” What does the order of the collection mean to you?

JKD: This collection was so long in the making—the gestation—an elephant’s, or a whale’s, it went through many different titles and orders because I was writing it before I had children. A fraction of the poems in it are before I became a mother. The collection started out very much about ancestry and the immigrant experience, with hints of where I am in the present. But the relationship between me and the present, and my family’s ancestral past, was tenuous at best. It didn’t coalesce until I was six-months pregnant walking around Auschwitz. For me, “Against Naming,” the opening poem of the book, did that work. It connected my ancestral past with my present experience, the transformation into motherhood. The collection goes backwards in a way, it starts with “Against Naming” and ends with “Inheritance,” which is one of the oldest poems in the collection. “Inheritance” and “Learning Yiddish” are some of the earliest poems I wrote during my MFA. The sequence of “Learning Yiddish” took me seven years to finish, starting it in the MFA, I kept working and tweaking it. “Inheritance” was written in my first year of the MFA program, and in a bizarre way, foreshadows me becoming a mother, before I was ever a mother, looking at this ancestry of passing trauma onto our children. I think the collection starts in kind of immediacy, and trails backwards and forwards, ebbs in time, and ends almost on kind of a deep-look at the past, and at the same time the future. My poems in general, and especially this collection, look at the intergenerational aspects of motherhood and the way they skew time. There is no single past, present, or future. The experience of motherhood is inherently intergenerational, it is all mothers to come and all mothers that came before.

CE: I like that, particularly in literature, we have this idea of the narrative, starting off at Point A, and end up at Point B, through some linear progression. We expect some kind of forward arc, when actually it takes more artistic skill and truth to say, We’re going to start here, but we might end up behind ourselves. 

JKD: I think so too. I read a lot of scholarship about trauma, and my dissertation is specifically about the Holocaust and the mode of writing and reading I have termed “lyric witness.” The dissertation itself is written in that mode. And my poetry, too—I write in the mode of “lyric witness.” That mode is predicated on the intergenerational temporality. To process trauma or to write about trauma, you have to forego the reliance on a narrative, because that is not genuine to traumatic experience. That’s why I use the term “lyric witness,” where the two terms are oppositional, “lyric” means the present moment, and “witness” has to do with a testimony, or a narrative. When you put those two together, their opposition is precisely what can happen through poetry. In a single instant, in a single musical moment you call all that came before and all that comes after.

CE: Speaking of generational temporality, there’s an interesting line: “What gets passed down through generations? What should be remembered? What forgotten.” I felt this line was particularly poignant in “Camp Means Field,” in the fractured narrative, trying to come to terms with the past and what grows in its place. Carrying the weight of family, memories, and generational trauma is a difficult task. How do we distinguish what should be remembered and what forgotten?

JKD: I think we can’t make those decisions. I don’t think they are conscious, at least. I don’t think we consciously make a decision on what can, or should be remembered or forgotten. Sometimes I think the things I feel called to write about are things I wish could be forgotten, or things I wish I didn’t have to replay over and over again. But because they’re playing over and over again, I have to write them down. Especially in Don’t Touch the Bones, out this month, I’m dealing with what is forgotten by the archive, all the names and stories of those who died in the Holocaust in the Soviet territories. The names of my ancestors, and particularly my great-grandfather, which I deal with in The Many Names for Mother, but Don’t Touch the Bones is even more so concerned with it. The way that we have institutions that claim to be bearers of truth and bearers of history, and there is so much left out. Poetry—even if it can’t fill the gap, because it can’t—can make us aware of these gaps. “Camp Means Field” in TMNfM relies on etymology and the reason I turn to etymology is because you think that turning to the origin of a word would help clarify things, but actually turning to it shows how broad they are, and how even language breaks down. When we try to draw a line from, like you said, Point A to Point B, make this linear progression happen, that even turning to etymology cannot recover. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and that’s also why that poem is very expansive—these long lines. In Don’t Touch The Bones, I have quite a few more poems like that, that are very long. There is something uncontainable about trying to grapple with this history, so I just let the words spread across the page, and let the spaces be breath-like pauses where you’re both overwhelmed by facing this page of language, but you also have these moments of inhale, exhale, or reprisal where you can have a moment of peace. You [the reader] might be filling in the space with whatever that is.

CE: Onto form, I love this title, “My Mother as a Failed Sonnet, or Maybe Just a Forest.” How important do you think form is to a poem? When we first learn about poetry as children, we’re taught the sonnet, the ode—very regimented forms. And then when we look at contemporary poetry, the form is still there, but it’s not as strict. How do you play with form, or use it to help you convey what you want to say?

JKD: So, for me, form is very, very important. I write about it in my dissertation. My first chapter is about the sonnet. It’s structured like a sonnet, looking at this chapbook, The Promised Bride, written by Jehanne Dubrow, a chapbook written from the point of view of Paul Celan’s Shulamith, and the whole chapbook is sonnets and villanelles. It’s talking-back to Adorno’s notion that it is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. Which he later, in a 1971 essay, said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I’m not going to take it back, but I am going to say that literature must resist this impulse.” If these forms of the perpetrator are the things that failed us, what do we have left? I think now, contemporary poetry is turning to some of those forms in order to reject the fact that it is form or structure that failed us. These forms can be very radical and what they can do is radical too. I often turn to form when I feel that it is a poem that is ultrapolitical. I think all poetry is political, but sometimes I do turn to form when I’m trying to say something that speaks to a particular political thing. I’m trying to say form is not a fascist impulse, that it is a radical and contemporary one, that can break form, even as it employs it. I’m as invested in writing a strict sonnet as I am in a giant, wide-line poem. I think that wide-line poem could not exist if I didn’t understand the way repetitions in a villanelle work, or repetitions in a pantoum. Don’t Touch The Bones has these big poems, pantoums, and a sequence of sonnets. When I asked Jehanne in an interview why she turns to sonnets, she said it is because she wanted a poem that could argue as rigorously as scholarship. So when writing about the Holocaust, she was using poetry, but making a rigorous argument. I often turn to form when I am trying to make a kind of political argument, because the form is built on it. That’s what form does—it gives you a structure, and you can play with it and subvert expectations. The expectation of argument is one that isn’t always there in free verse or a very personal lyric poem.

CE: When you write about experiences in Poland or talking about your ancestry, such as your great-grandmother, do you find yourself assuming a different voice? I moved a lot as a kid, and whenever I try to talk about my childhood, I struggle. I find that I write in a different voice than the voice I use to write about something happening to me now. Maybe as a defence mechanism, there will be a line where me as the current-poet will pip in, and the two voices will be so disjointed, like seeing yourself when you’re asleep, trying to reach out and wake your body up, but you can’t quite. I was wondering if you had a similar experience of disparate senses of self?

JKD: I was made most aware of it when my husband said to me, all of your childhood poems—you read them differently. There’s a very different music to the poems I’m writing about my childhood. Because I think those poems inherently rely on the music of Russian poetry, the poets I grew up hearing. They’ll have a lot more internal rhyme and the cadence sounds like that of Russian poems even though they are in English. Even without bringing in Cyrillic or Russian words, I’m not sure if I would say my voice is different, but the music definitely is. I think it connects to my current or past sensibilities of self and of poetry. Poems about the present embody more of a contemporary lyrical music whereas in my childhood poems, I feel like I can hear Akhmatova, I can hear Mandelstam, especially when I read them aloud.

CE: In your last poem, “Inheritance,” ends looking up into the clouds. When Don’t Touch the Bones comes out in March, where is it starting off? Is there a drawable thread between the two collections?

JKD: That’s a very interesting question. Don’t Touch The Bones is also structured through sections. The sections are Don’t Touch The Bones, “In the Earth,” “In The Air,” “In the Fire,” “In the Water,” “In the  Æther,” and “In The Body.” It’s broken up into these different places to look for bones. It starts looking in the earth, and then it moves to air and fire and water. It doesn’t end in the clouds—but goes to the Æther and comes back down to the body. If The Many Names for Mother goes backwards, Don’t Touch the Bones goes forward because it has glimpses of motherhood, but is much more ancestrally driven and really deals with my family’s immigrant experience and those fractured stories. There are very few whole stories, rather bits and pieces of story. It ends with learning from my son, from the way he looks at the world. Whereas The Many Names for Mother, the whole collection, is learning from the away my son sees the world, and it ends with me seeing the world. It’s a wonderful way for me to think about it—ending on inheritance did lead to the next collection—dealing with that inheritance in my family, my ancestry, but within my own body.


Chloe Elliott

Chloe Elliott is a first year undergrad at Durham University. She is on the Durham Slam Team where she works alongside, and under the mentorship of, her beloved team members, attempting to craft some nice words. She is the winner of the 2019 Timothy Corsellis Prize and is currently trying to figure out how to write a funny poem.

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