Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Q&A with Erika Dreifus

Erika Dreifus, photo by Jody Christopherson
Erika Dreifus is the author of Birthright, a debut poetry collection. She is also the author of Quiet Americans: Stories. She lives in New York.

Q: You write, “In many ways, Birthright has been a lifetime work-in-progress. But more technically speaking, work on these poems began in 2007; the book that you’re reading now developed over 12 years...” Do you think your style changed at all over the years you worked on the poems?

A: Such an interesting question. If the style changed, I’m less conscious of that than I am of shifts—expansions—in subject matter.

When I began writing these poems, for example, I was not yet engaged in the close study of sacred texts that led to many of the book’s midrashic pieces. I suspect that my essential stylistic tendencies have remained more or less constant, for better or for worse (let’s hope, for better!).

Q: Do you see particular themes running through the collection?

A: I do. The overall theme may be best summarized as “legacy.” But the book approaches this theme through multiple streams: genetic/biological, historical, religious, and literary.

I’m hoping that through these poems, which emanate from my own experience of inheritance, the poems suggest ways in which all of us may be influenced in how we perceive ourselves and process the world around us.

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the poems would appear?

A: First, I revisited some of the collections on my bookshelves and studied how those books had been organized and sequenced. Then, I assembled a draft manuscript for a poetry-manuscript workshop that I attended at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Postgraduate Writers’ Conference (PWC).

The feedback from other writers in the workshop and, then, my individual meeting with workshop instructor Kathleen Graber, were both extremely helpful.

For instance, I’d initially tried to cluster poems together by general theme: all the family-history-focused poems together; all the biblical/religious-ritual poems together; etc.

But I was often stymied because a number of the poems reflected more than one of the book’s primary subjects—I couldn’t decide where to assign them. And then, some clusters seemed to outweigh others.

Kathleen helped me realize that Birthright could be a book without categories, that I should allow the poems the freedom to mix and mingle, as it were. She helped me understand the value of placing certain ostensibly “unrelated” poems side-by-side, and she offered some specific suggestions.

I returned home and reorganized the manuscript, mixing things up as Kathleen had advised.

Then I asked another poet, Matthew Lippman, to consult on the new version. I had taken two online classes with Matthew back when I began this entire poetry-writing project. I knew him to be an excellent teacher, and I knew that he understood my work. He added his suggestions, and eventually, the order was settled.

Q: How was the collection's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: It’s common for the title of one poem within a collection to lend itself to the entire work. “Birthright” seemed to me a title that would lead readers smoothly into the pages that follow, a title with connotations and resonances with so many of the themes and topics within.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: This fall finds me having returned, at long last, to the undergraduate classroom. I’m teaching a new course on 21st-century Jewish literature, so the dominant form that my writing seems to be taking these days is that of the “comment on student essays.”

Between that and other commitments, and the work involved with launching Birthright, I’m not expecting to progress much on my “own” writing projects until the semester ends. Please stay tuned!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m fairly active on social media, where, as my Twitter bio notes, I tend to focus on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.” I’d love to connect with readers on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Goodreads. Please say hello!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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