By Bascove
New York, NY, USA

Rachel Hadas studied classics at Harvard, poetry at Johns Hopkins, and comparative literature at Princeton. Between college and graduate school she spent four years in Greece, an experience that surfaces variously in much of her work. Since 1981 she has taught in the English Department of the Newark (NJ) campus of Rutgers University, and has also taught courses in literature and writing at Columbia and Princeton, as well as serving on the poetry faculty of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the West Chester Poetry Conference. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, an Ingram Merrill Foundation grant in poetry, and an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Author of over 20 books of poetry, prose, and translations, her new book of poems, Questions in the Vestibule, was published by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press in the fall of 2016.

Shalom Gorewitz has received grants and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation; Fulbright Foundation; Asian Cultural Council; Arts America; New York State Council on the Arts; National Endowment for the Arts; America the Beautiful Foundation; Poets and Writers Fund; New York Foundation for the Arts. Celebrated at film festivals around the world, his work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, NYC; Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid; Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe, Germany; Itau Cultural Center, Sao Paulo, Brazil; Kowasaki Museum, Tokyo, Japan; Library of California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA; and Getty Museum Video Art Archive, LA, CA. He is a Professor of Video Art and New Media at Ramapo College of New Jersey.

BASCOVE: Rachel Hadas’s poems impart the experience of living the examined life. Certainly, many of the pieces in The Ache of Appetite, reflect the loss of a loved one and the painful disorientation that ensues. And yet the first poem in that volume is “Home Remedy” which begins with the strength that surfaces against that universal experience:

A poem need not be a diary
entry or letter, dream report, or shred
of the observations of a day,
nor thumbnail answer to what someone has said.

The last line is:

Cook, eat, read, and write:
think of a poem finally as the home
remedy for the ache of appetite.

Rachel, how does poetry structure your life? What brings you to the table to start writing a new poem?

Rachel Hadas: I’ve been writing poems for half a century, but that question is still hard to answer. I might hear a line in my head, or jot down an idea or an image or a sort of brain-storm cloud of scribbles. The mess will be combed out or shaped or pruned later.  As for the table you mention…hmm, I write in doctors’ waiting rooms, belted into airplane seats, and, propped up in bed, using the nifty little black and white folding table Shalom got for me four years ago. (Sometimes he brings me coffee, too.) Poetry is how I remember and understand and interpret life, how I cope, celebrate, mourn, or some mix. I like James Merrill’s phrase “the life raft of language.” 

BASCOVE: “The Tunnel: How to Get From One Place to Another,” a both thrilling and playful visual ride by Shalom Gorewitz, is almost hypnotic in its depiction of energy and speed. At the same time it seems to imply T.S. Eliot’s, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." How did this piece come about, Shalom? Did you already have an idea of where you were heading as you began to assemble and transpose images?

From THE TUNNEL by Shalom Gorewitz

Shalom Gorewitz: I decided to permutate one short clip recorded from the front window of the 7 train between two stops in Queens. At first an experiment in repetition and variation, it developed into an audio-visual essay about the experience of traveling through a subway tunnel from darkness to light, including the wandering thoughts of the rider consisting of short segments of music, fragments of poetry and text, and jokes presented as if they are happening in the mind, a thought process that I’m sure many commuters feel.                 

BASCOVE: Rachel absorbs the world around her with all senses open and gives everything back to us, not only through her own eyes but those of Sappho, Larkin, Valery, and Yeats, and others from the vast library of writers from various centuries and cultures she carries within her. (Shalom says she works on translations the way other people do Sudoku). Shalom’s work is divided between acutely political and social issues and stunning abstract color meditations. Yet could there be a more exquisite abstract meditation on a single word than Rachel’s “Inspissation”?

Definitions. Density. Conundrum.
Condensation. Etymology.
Abstraction and the hissing as of air
escaping And indeed, the atmosphere
becomes so thick that vision fogs 
up like a windshield in the wet.
Socked in: was this what the word meant? 

BASCOVE: Rachel, what brought about this reverie?

Rachel Hadas: I confess I don’t remember exactly when I wrote this poem, but the prompt was certainly that wonderfully dense noun about condensation which forms the title. Just as some of Emily Dickinson’s poems read like zany dictionary entries (“hope is the thing with feathers…”), so some of my work holds up a microscope to a particular word. Since the inauguration, I’ve been doing something similar with Virgil’s Aeneid, often spinning a meditation out of a brief, pregnant Latin phrase.

BASCOVE: Shalom, Your new video, “Almost Silent” opens with a candle-end’s faint light.  In this collage of images, graphics and film are layered, luminous color added, yet a unequivocal narrative emerges. Images of piracy and imperialism, watchfulness and passivity, follow. The last shot is of animals, being fed, but tightly tethered. Did you have a definitive direction as you began or did it evolve as it proceeded?

Shalom Gorewitz: Once I started with the candle, the direction began to reveal itself.  At its essence, film is always about time.  How much more time will my mother live after surgery?  How much time can we afford with a government in terminal chaos?  The turtle, sheep, and oxen are resonant with symbolism about passage; the pirate and US flags over the spinning globe and effigy of Uncle Sam are reminders of a sad and dangerous time.  The train is another symbol of time and death.  Images of Rachel sitting on a rock dangling her feet in a peaceful mountain brook express continuity and love.

BASCOVE: The purely abstract color videos are a form of visual poetry in themselves. “Clouds are Mountains,” with compositions using only the simplest amorphous forms of clouds, mountains, and the circle of the sun, is a slowly escalating riot of brilliant hues. How and when do you choose to create one of these very introspective films rather than one of the fiercer political pieces?

Shalom Gorewitz: Video can be the most public and private form of art.  On PBS, for example, there is a large general audience that, albeit momentarily, can be exposed to new ways of looking at things. At the same time, a DVD or video on a flash drive, can be shown to an intimate audience in a comfortable space. Since my earliest days as an artist working with electronics and computers, I have been making both kinds of videos. I sometimes make videos that are about color and light, as if they are the stars of an opera. Other times I add my voice to issues relating to the environment, militarism, and injustice.

BASCOVE: There is great diversity in both of your works, and they explore a multitude of universal concerns: philosophy, history, and politics, besides the complex emotions drawn from personal experiences. I can see how much you would have to share. How did the collaborations begin?

Rachel Hadas: We fell in love. We opened new worlds to each other and celebrated them – Shalom’s “Radiant Heart in the Year of the Snake” (February 2013), not a collaboration, still got that ball rolling for me – I was in his video, as it were. The thrill of even abstract mimesis! In May-June of that year, I was facing surgery, we
Rachel Hadas
made an offering to Yemaya, the Yoruba water goddess; Shalom videoed this ceremony; I then wrote a poem about the video, which he incorporated into the next version of the video. I think that’s how it went. The process was and is dialectical, but each video is different. Sometimes I say, “Make a video…” but I think most often Shalom is cooking and collaging images…he gallantly makes space for my words. Something like that. It’s unpredictable; always different, hard to describe.

Shalom Gorewitz: We met as members of a meditation group. After reading some of her poetry, memoir, and essays, I proposed we create the Rachel and Shalom Show, with a poster, to showcase work we were doing individually and what we hoped
Shalom Gorewitz
to do together. I had the good sense to video her ritual to Yemaya and used the material as a way to meditate during her surgery. In Vermont, I observed her working and decided to document the process of her writing. For some of our other pieces, I asked her to walk or stand in different locations. We mostly record the poems afterwards. I sometimes ask Rachel for a poem or aphorism that I can use in my personal videos. She wrote several amazing poems for a video “Elegy” my colleague Edouard Eloi and I produced about Stivenson Magloire, a Haitian artist who was assassinated for his political beliefs.

BASCOVE: When I first saw the video “But It’s True,” I was moved by its powerful sensuality. It’s said that it’s difficult to depict the act of an author thinking and writing on film. So it's fascinating to see how Shalom opens the video with shots of Rachel putting pen to paper through the semi-transparent barrier of a screen. As the poem progresses, the screen becomes more opaque, transmuting back and forth into pulsating, rain dappled water. Color changes from cool mauves and aqua to the heat of reds and cobalt, while we hear her voice reading the verses to completion. How did this film come about, was this the first time you worked together?

Rachel Hadas: August 2013, Shalom’s first visit to Vermont; I was writing on the porch and he was surreptitiously filming me through the screen. “Yemaya” was a month or two earlier, so no, this wasn’t the first time. The superposition of my poem “But It’s True,” one of many love poems I was writing that summer, and the opacity and torqueing and dappling later in the video – that is all Shalom’s magic.

Shalom Gorewitz: One works with colleagues and collaborates with lovers and friends.  Rachel and I make our art side by side. During the summer of 2013, I filmed her at a table where she often writes in and about Vermont, and in some of the places she loves to visit and even write about, like the Fairbanks Natural History Museum in St. Johnsbury. Thank you for noticing the gradual color shifts. After selecting a poem or Rachel writing a new one, I composed simple aural environments for the words and used wave forms to gently dissolve the physical, as the lover’s touch vibrates the soul.

BASCOVE: A recently completed video, “A Hymn to the Republic,” is an impassioned response to our current political situation. It feels like a seamless construction. Do you work on a piece continually until it’s finished? Were there discussions about what would be included in the images and text or did you work on them separately and integrate them afterwards?

Rachel Hadas: I remember urging Shalom on November 9 to make a political video, something he used to do before we met. We might have discussed text choices some, but most of this he conceived, refined, edited…. I think maybe the seamlessness you speak of is the art that conceals art. His work makes the countless choices all look so easy and inevitable.

Shalom Gorewitz: I actually recently re-edited the video and changed the title, so I guess that demonstrates that a work might never be completely finished. It is now called Davida and Gunlioth. The video shows modern versions of these Biblical adversaries preparing for battle while the soundtrack plays a densely-layered mix of drug advertisements and a scrolling text describes symptoms and anti-dotes for Dystrumpia. The process started when on the day after the elections, Rachel told me to stop making love videos and go back to the studio and make the kind of activist style videos I was known for. This was the first in a series of new short videos that are part of DTTV. Rachel wrote a poem about the day after the election, and it was easy to select part of it for the opening moments of the video.            

BASCOVE: Rachel, a poet fluent in several languages, including having Classical Greek at her fingertips, works with words on paper. Shalom, a visual artist, uses some of the most sophisticated technologies available to create his films. Have your working methods influenced each other?

Rachel Hadas: We’ve learned so much from each other that the answer has to be yes. Speaking for myself, even before I met Shalom I was getting sick of writing elegiac poems; was wanting to pare down the number of words in a poem; was leaning toward more surreal imagery; and was more fluently borrowing lines from other poets. I was getting ready for this enormous change. Of course I probably subsequently went on doing some of the things I had always done, but it’s as if I walked into a world of color, more space, more silence. (See my poem “Slow Green,” and indeed all the poems in the final section of Questions in the Vestibule – including “But It’s True.”)

I’m a very intuitive, seat-of-the-pants writer; when I’m working well I work fast, and am not always aware of the reasons behind my choices. I think Shalom is that way too. But how could we not bleed into each other’s working techniques? “My soul slipped out of me and into you.” More specifically, the kind of jump-cut in “A Poultice”, from a bruise on the head to weapons in space within one stanza, feels cinematic. The logic isn’t linear. Someone (I think it was Anthony Lane) wrote recently that the language of cinema is much more like poetry than like prose, which is one reason films of good novels are often terrible. We looked at each other: yes. Marilyn Monroe famously said she read poetry because it saved time. So does metaphor.

Shalom Gorewitz: Throughout my 47 years as a practicing artist, I’ve mostly used home-made and low cost technologies to work experimentally with video. I am inspired by Rachel’s ability to work in almost any setting, her memory for literature, and a generous attitude about sharing her work. She is a partner sensitive to my creative process as I record and edit images and sounds. Our styles and methods seem to parallel and complement each other.        

BASCOVE: Could you speak a bit about what the process of collaboration has brought to each of you?

Rachel Hadas: Joy and excitement and a bit of suspense. A sense of continually exploring new territory. As artists separately and certainly together, I like to think we’re a little hard to pin down.

Shalom Gorewitz: You mentioned “The Tunnel” earlier. I asked Rachel for a poem about tunnels and she immediately came up with the potent Hart Crane poem that includes the line “The photographs of Hades in the brain/ Are tunnels that re-wind themselves…”. More recently, I asked for a poem based on the question, What is more important the artist or the art? and she almost immediately provided a new poem that dramatically completes the “Elegy” for Stivenson Magloire. Through her patient guidance I’ve become more attuned with Stoicism, which is reflected in my life and work.

BASCOVE: What are you each excited about working on now?

Rachel Hadas: An animated film we conceived (long gestation!) late in 2013, about slavery, set in Africa in the 1700’s; Shalom wrote the script and I wrote poems as assigned. I have confidence this wonderful film will become a reality. I’ve always liked the idea of writing a play or a script if someone else provided the plot, and this project combines a historical/political topic of hot interest, color and beauty and pathos. Our interest in West African religion…what else can I say?

There are also other projects including a video about the murdered Haitian painter Stivenson Magloire which are closer to completion. We may be working on a series of elegies for artists. Our 2015 video “Backdrop: Merrill in Stonington,” shot in James Merrill’s house, is a kind of elegy. Shalom uses my father Moses Hadas’s recording of Plato (in a Folkways LP from the 1950s) as part of the sound track of his 2015 “Other Truths: Greece Under Water.” I could go on and on. One of the many thrilling aspects of our ongoing collaboration is that nothing seems to be wasted.

Shalom Gorewitz: We unexpectedly co-wrote the script about slavery from the perspective of a young girl in Africa during the 1740’s that is now in pre-production at an animation studio in Ghana. We’re working with an amazing group of mostly Ghanaian artists to create a feature length animation suitable for international audiences. This spring we’re going to a family wedding in Israel and I imagine that will generate some creative heat. I’m working on more short pieces for DTTV and putting together elements for an upcoming mini-retrospective at Beton7 in Athens, Greece this spring.



A Poultice

Turmeric, rosemary: blend with rum.
Winter is fading, spring will come,

snow will melt, and leaves set in.
Rosemary, turmeric: shake in gin.

Turmeric, bourbon, rosemary:
a blue-green bruise leaks toward my eye

(a week ago I bumped my head).
I swab and bathe it.  The bruise will fade

faster with this concoction
recommended by my son.

Soak a cloth and wipe the place.
Weapons are poised to fight in space.

Refugees packed in lifeboats drown.
Cyber attacks: the system’s down,

an outage no one can repair.
The turmeric has stained my hair.

The pillow smells of alcohol.
Wind and rain and petals fall.

Sunday excursion: Hamilton Grange,
the empty streets subdued and strange,

the widowed house perched in its park.
White petals gleam in the gathering dark.

April this year is cool and slow.
The stain seeps toward my left eyebrow.

Care for the hurt place: soak, swab, wrap.
And then, before I take a nap,

dab the spot with oil of myrrh.
The poultice: patience and desire.

Turmeric, rosemary, and rum:
My love and I are rocked in time.

The motion lulls us, we forget
the bruise, the wound, the doom, the threat.

[Originally published in the New Yorker, February 9, 2016, “A Poultice” will be included in the upcoming collection, Love and Dread.]

Slow Green

The elements were stark: a winter wall,
snow, ice, snapped wrist. Through the break
I could just glimpse the color of the bone.
But the cold and white, the January crust,
weren’t the whole story. Seasons turn,
bones knit, a secret stirs beneath the snow.

I told myself
my cast, like winter, wouldn’t last forever.
But there was no way to envision this
country of velvet silence on the far
side of a gate I had unlatched in sleep.
A nameless angel’s finger to his lips:

unscaffolded by language, hold the thought?
Not thought, not word. Rather breath. A vow.
Sunlight this late August afternoon
tips its slow green syrup to the lawn.
Mercy so deep I never knew till now.
The break is mended. Here I am with you.

[From Questions in the Vestibule, TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2016]



Bascove is an artist and author. Her works of the bridges of New York City have been the subject of solo and group shows for over thirty years and are in numerous public and private collections.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.