Interview with Rachel Mennies
Author of The GLad Hand of God Points Backwards
Interviewed by Kallie Falandays
The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards is your first poetry book. Can you tell us a bit about the process? What did this manuscript look like in its first conception? What was it like when you got the news that you were the Walt McDonald First Book Winner? How did you celebrate?
In its earliest versions, the manuscript existed as my MFA thesis—I imagine these days that's true for many first books. It took me about a year from graduation to feel like the collection had grown and been reordered and reshaped enough to speak as a book, and from there I entered the contest circuit and sent to several open reading periods as well. It took another year and a half, all told, and probably between 25-30 submissions before the collection won the Walt McDonald prize.
As for the news of its acceptance: my husband and I had left for our honeymoon after I'd had a steady stretch of contest rejections on the book, and I was feeling like, upon returning, that I would have some serious thinking to do about the book's next path. Stuck and a little unsure. We were staying in Santorini, in Greece, in a room with terrible Wi-Fi—and we'd decided as some sort of millennials'-romantic gesture not to bring our cell service over from America either. So here we are planted on a rock in the middle of the sea, and I finally open my computer and get everything connected, after days of trying, and there's the acceptance email from Texas Tech in my inbox asking if the book was still available. And when we landed, I learned I'd missed a couple calls from their editor as well...it was a great moment, and a great place to celebrate, cloistered from social media and home and all of the rest of that well-meaning, but often too-loud noise.
In your introduction, Robert A. Fink questions, "Why should we read this book? What will it teach us about ourselves?" Fink poses that your book "reconstructs what it means Jewish, what it means Jewish woman, from Eve to the present..." If you had to give someone a one-sentence reason to read your book, what might you say?
I promise you poems about Mel Brooks and sex and death and lots of food, in all sorts of varied combinations.
The first poem in your collection, "How to Make Yourself Remembered" starts with the line "Bury the trinkets first." What inspired this line? In a way, do you think your book attempts to "Make [itself] Remembered?" so that some excavator might pull out "[its] relics whole"?
This poem began from a place of personal frustration—I had, and continue to have, a challenging time collecting and archiving the stories of what happened to my family during the Holocaust and in the years immediately after. What we *do* have—especially from my grandmother, who's a centerpiece of this book—is a lot of stuff—the sort of stuff you might find in a museum—or just sitting in a drawer at home. Nothing special, per se, but for the place and time it originates in. Spoons, stamps, socks, Reichmarks, receipts from my great-grandfather's shop that somehow made it over. This poem came out of that frustration and also out of the awe of the existence of these items: as a way to make use of all the stuff that can't directly speak, but still carries so much weight.
Your book is broken up into 5 sections. How and when, did you conceive of this order? What was that process like for you?
My first complete draft of the collection, once it evolved from thesis to book, traced a much more overtly chronological order than does the final version. It seemed like a logical strategy at the outset, but the more I revisited it, the more that order felt false—we've learned so much about our family history "out of time," through the barbs of trauma, and trying to set that all "correct" ended up ringing false to me. A dear friend of mine and fellow poet, Sarah Blake, also took a crack at reordering it at this stage—fresh eyes, and eyes you trust, are a marvelous gift in this process—and her notes combined with mine took the book to its current sections. From there, I decided to name these sections, because they do feel to me like smaller, complete discrete units in the book. Naming them helped realize this mechanism further for me.
My favorite poems in your collection are "Philadelphia Woman" and "Rapture." What is your favorite poem in the collection?
That's a great question. I'm sure this answer will change over time—it has, throughout the process—but right now, I'd say my favorite poem in the book is also "Rapture." That poem exists outside many of the book's main narratives, and feels to me immersed entirely in the singular attention of the risks and rewards of sinning: of lust, of heat. Maybe just because it's getting so cold here, knowing I won't get to eat a really good peach again until next July, here in Pittsburgh. Maybe it's that missing heat.
Do you think someone has to be familiar with Jewish history to understand or get something out of your collection?
I hear this question asked often, in its various versions, of many poetry books immersed in exploring an identity—whether that's one of religion, race, gender—it's a great question, and I think those of us working flush against our identity in our work have our own different reasons for doing so. I think Jews will hear music in the liturgy where those who don't know the Hebrew prayers might not; non-Jews might spend a bit more time in the glossary, that sort of thing. I see the shared identity, there, as an extra layer of connection—but not one necessary to understanding the poems or finding resonance with the collection. I do hope that those readers unfamiliar with the Holocaust in particular find reason to read more about this history after reading the book: that the book performs an act of awareness of this genocide, as we lose many of our remaining survivors to old age.
Many of your poems include events or stories that seem to have actually happened or events that have been told to you. What was this journey of reconstruction like for you and how do you think we can reconstruct our histories?
I touched on this above, but—fraught. Rewarding, and fraught. Trauma, whether personal or "global"—that is, across an entire community—compromises retelling at every turn. Trying to push my grandmother to remember parts of her childhood sometimes felt menacing; other times, it felt like there was no work more necessary in existence for me to do. Practically, I often recorded our conversations on my iPhone; I went to the Holocaust Museum in DC and the Jewish Museum in Berlin and wandered around where we thought my great-grandfather's shop used to be, also in Berlin, and my family's apartment before everything was bombed to the ground during WWII—I tried to work as a historian, and sometimes that led me to truth and sometimes it led me nowhere, in terms of my own family history, but opened up the broader discussion for me in a crucial way.
Here's my best crack at a DIY How to Reconstruct Your History Kit: read as much as you can—hear what others have to say about your history. If it happened to a generation above you, or several generations above—that is, if you're testifying on behalf of others' lived experience, even if its resulting impact affects your daily life directly—listen. Hear the things you don't want to hear. If your grandmother insists that watching the Nazis march during the Berlin Olympics while she was nine, wearing the yellow star, was "no big deal," then believe her. If she sometimes speaks a word of German instead of English, don't correct her. If she weeps while remembering your grandfather, even if she's in the middle of lying to you, comfort her anyway. Understand that you can never own these stories—that they don't exist for you, or for your art, even though you might feel it necessary to your core to tell them. Write it all down, then go back and write it another way, if you have to. And another, and another.
What are some books you were reading when you wrote The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards?
I read books by Jewish poets, certainly—I grew up in love with reading Ginsberg, a poet of wild earthy immigrant Judaism. I read Maxine Kumin, Alicia Ostriker, much by my mentor Robin Becker. I also read a good deal of work, deliberately, by women poets beyond a particular Jewish praxis. I read books immersed in the storytelling of personal history/identity—Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon's Black Swan comes to mind, as does Louise Glück's Wild Iris. I also read a lot during graduate school, of course, including collections in a course dedicated to reading first books by poets. I found that hugely informative, as a sort of meta-analysis of the task at hand—what is a first book, actually? Does it have a distinct shape?
What are you currently working on now?
I'm working on a second manuscript, also a collection of poetry. I certainly see some overlap, thematically, with my first book—I'd say that this next nebulous set of poems deals with gender and the female body in many ways similar to The Glad Hand. These poems focus more particularly on the stakes of marriage, on the consequences of coming-of-age as a teenage girl and having never really recovered, I think, from the traumas embedded in that process. Perhaps these newer poems deal with trauma in a way that's more local or embodied by an individual, where The Glad Hand looks to record a community or family trauma. The new work is definitely still in the fog right now, but inching slowly towards some sort of clarity (I hope).
What advice do you have for poets who are working on their first collection?
Ah! My answer to this question has changed, too, over time, but as I pull this new collection slowly out of the dirt, I'd say: find your best readers, and be their best reader, too, and keep each other active through the highs and lows of the writing and revision and submitting processes that all recycle with that first book manuscript. Especially for those writers who graduate from MFA programs and suddenly have this heap of poems and a missing cohort—that period of time can feel bewildering. I remember this quite well. What pulled me through that first confusing time are those dear reader-friends and fellow poets doing the same hard work, and who've helped to craft in my writing as I've helped to craft theirs.