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Eve, Absinthe, Alice: A conversation with Ruth Kessler

The three poems set by composer Oliver Caplan as Eve, Absinthe, Alice - commissioned by the New Hampshire Master Chorale and to be premiered by the group in November 2016 – are from a cycle of 17 poems by Ruth Kessler, published under the title Fire Ashes Wings. They are part of a larger project giving voice to women in myths, art and literature. Kessler is a Polish-born poet who grew up in Israel and now lives in New York City.

Caplan selected the three poems for his composition. “Eve to Posterity” gives voice to the Biblical Eve as she ruminates on the blame

she bears for eating the forbidden fruit of the Apple of Knowledge and ponders whether she would do it again. "The Absinthe Drinker" depicts a nameless Parisian woman, painted by Edgar Degas, who escapes her dreary life through drinking the hallucinogenic green liquor. Alice is the beloved Lewis Carroll character whose journey through Wonderland is a rich metaphor for the curious and sometimes vexing trials of life and the struggle to hold onto a childlike wonder.

This is an edited version of a conversation that Richard Knox, a Master Chorale baritone, conducted with Kessler on November 5, 2016.

How did this collaboration come about?

Oliver and I met at an artist colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, in the early part of 2013. Oliver asked to see some of my poems. But the collaboration almost didn’t happen because of a mixup in mailboxes -- we realized only just before his departure that he never got the poems I had left him. Then there was a long period of trying to find a home for them. Finally he wrote me the good news – that he had found a commission. I was delighted: It’s basically breathing a new life into the poems, giving them a completely different dimension. I’ve never collaborated musically with anyone. And I was excited that it was Oliver because I thought his music beautiful.

How do you expect that hearing your poetry set to music will be different from reading it on the page?

I know it will be different, but I cannot envision really how it will come to life since I haven’t heard the music yet. I will hear it for the first time [at its premiere] on November 19. Oliver has been very collaborative and cooperative in the process. There was a fair amount of dialogue between us, and at one point he gave me an example of how he fleshed out an idea…[but] I cannot even begin to fathom all the ways in which [the music] will enrich the poetry. This said, let's keep in mind that poetry used to be an aural experience long before it became a visual one, so it will be fascinating to go back to that original mode.

Do you read or play music yourself?

No, unfortunately not. Even though I have a good ear for music in poetry, otherwise my musical ear is not very good.

Of course, in a major way poetry is music.

And that I’m extremely attuned to and extremely mindful of. Each poem for me starts with either an image or a phrase that is in a certain key and has a certain rhythm to it. And that key or rhythm is the touchstone of the poem. It really has to be maintained throughout the poem to give it its formal integrity and its coherence. I’m a firm believer that music really is paramount to poetry….

How did the collaboration go?

For example, he solicited my input on the place of male voices in poems that are written entirely from women’s point of view, since obviously the chorus has male singers. My opinion was that it is very different in each of the three poems. [Eve is obviously in a woman’s voice.] For the Absinthe drinker, there is equal room for male and female voices because it’s a poem that comes from a painting, right? So it’s a detached view, someone looking on the scene, appropriate for both male and female voices. Alice is a first-person, persona poem, primarily spoken from her point of view. But in it she views her adventures as a metaphor for the experience of going through life, which is common to all of us, regardless of gender. And there is a place where the Knight comes in, the last section of the poem. That was certainly a place where I thought a male presence was warranted. Oliver agreed with that.

The Knight is an important figure in the poem and the musical composition. He urges Alice not to lose her sense of wonder. Who is he?

In Alice in Wonderland there is actually a knight. He’s a comical and pathetic figure. I wanted the knight in my poem to be a knight in the original sense – someone of valor and importance and courage willing to fight for his values. At the same time, to me, in the original Alice, the Knight is the human figure, who has this human fallibility and human weakness about him. I didn’t think about it, but now that you ask, perhaps I subconsciously chose him to give the advice because of this duality.

The advice to…?

To never forget her childhood experience because this is what will enable her to be an artist. And on a larger scale I think childhood is extremely important because it’s a kind of hedge against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to use a quote from Hamlet. The wonder, the dreams, the imagination that we have experienced as part of childhood – if we relinquish that then the world is going to be a pretty dreary place. Childhood is an endless font of inspiration. And as human beings we need to remember what we were like in that state of openness to the world in a kind of unmediated way.

In Caplan’s piece, he brings Eve’s voice back at the end, saying all she ever wanted was to reach out, to reach further. Does that strike a note that you intended?

You know, when you create any work of art a very large part of it is unconscious, I believe. Then the audience comes, whether the reader or the listening audience, and finds in it interpretations you may or may not have thought about. So it doesn’t really matter what the artist intended. I think that’s the beauty of art – it lends itself to so many interpretations. And each interpretation enriches it by giving a different dimension. I think what Oliver did is his artistic domain and I’m glad he did what he did. I fully trust him as a composer.

The women in these three poems are wildly disparate. Caplan seems to tie them together by suggesting that it’s the impulse to be curious, to seek knowledge, to reach out – in short, to make art out of the raw materials of reality – that’s the key to understanding the juxtaposition.

I never asked Oliver why he chose these three poems; I always meant to. I was very intrigued by that choice. I think on a very superficial level, one could say that it represents the division of my book into three parts. The first part is Biblical myths and Greek myths – I call them myths but I mean mythic in the larger sense -- and that's where “Eve to Posterity” is. Then there is a smaller section of women in the visual arts, which includes the Absinthe Drinker. And then there is the literary part, which includes the Alice poem. But I’m not sure if he had a unifying theme in mind or whether he was just moved by the poems. I was personally very surprised he chose the Alice poem because it seems to me this would be a very difficult poem to set to music. It’s very dense and it’s one of the longer poems. And it’s also, I think, the least musical/melodic, in my rendition -- the way it reads on the page. As for seeing Eve as a kind of artist – she certainly created something that never existed before, for better or worse -- I suppose it could be a valid point of view. The Absinthe Drinker, to me, doesn't fit into this scheme, but as I said, once the poems are out they're open to anyone's interpretations.

Why did you embark on the project of giving voice to these mythic, artistic or literary female characters? To right wrongs?

The whole project started with one poem, the first poem of the book, “To the Swan.” It’s about Leda, who was raped by Zeus disguised as a swan. I’ve always felt that even though the poems by Yeats and Rilke about Leda and the Swan are great poems, they’re lacking in the sense that they are from the male point of view and they have a detached tone. There was none of the agony, the tragedy, the ambivalence that she feels. So this poem had to be rewritten from a female point of view, from Leda’s point of view. I, like other women poets before me, did not feel that the male treatment for this kind of experience was sufficient.

And then, Genesis doesn’t treat Eve kindly.

Nor does history. You know, all of these women that I wrote about, we know them through men’s eyes. I’m not trying to bring a feminist point of view here, I’m just trying to give representation to these women in the voice of women. I meant “Eve to Posterity” as a kind of cri de coeur. She’s fighting for the wrong done to women. But she’s fighting not only for women but for anyone’s right to be curious, to know, to relish the world. So it’s more humanist than feminist.

Do you consider yourself a feminist poet?

No. I believe that art is autonomous and it does not have to be harnessed to any political agenda. Because otherwise it runs the risk of being propaganda. I consider myself as a female poet writing from the female point of view, definitely. But I do not consider myself as bearing any flag or banner or having any specific agenda. And even though this project is meant to give voice to women – and you can see it has a feminist angle to it – I’m more concerned with the human part. Certainly more than the political part. So there is no agenda beyond giving women their due.

I can see how Eve and Alice have something in common – the artistic impulse, perhaps, to reach further and seek adventures. How does the Absinthe Drinker fit in this frame?

I’m not sure I can answer. Both during the collaboration [with Caplan] and in this conversation, I've been asked to give thought to things I may have been unaware of. It’s a very interesting experience. Certainly all three can be viewed as poems of memory. One of the things that may be relevant here is that of the three poems the Absinthe Drinker is the only one that is not a first-person poem. As a character she’s so dejected, on her way down, in such a state of oblivion and being forgotten, it’s fitting that she be viewed by someone rather than speak to us directly. How does she fit in? I really don’t know, except that her life has been the antithesis to the "reaching further" of the other two characters. Hers is a story of quiet desperation, about how life has been missed. Quiet in more than one sense: she is not even speaking out on her own behalf. Then there's this whole section about traveling. The setting of the painting reminded me of a train compartment. You see the two characters, she and the man, sitting at a large window. This brought to mind fellow travelers and her journey through life and the stations where she can no longer alight. In that sense you can say it may be tied to the rest in that all three characters are looking back on their life journey.

All three of these women are not exactly agents of their own lives. They’re acted upon.

That’s absolutely true -- but to a different degree for each. And that could lead to a larger question: to what extent are we masters of our own fate? And that, in turn, could perhaps be viewed as another unifying theme for Eve, Absinthe, Alice.

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