Mark Halperin: "One test that you’ve written something honestly is feeling that you don’t want to show it to the person it’s about.”
Greatest Hits: 1967-2000; Pudding House Publications, 2000; $8.95
Near and Far; March Street Press, 2001; $6
Time as Distance; New Issues, Western Michigan University, 2001; $14
FROM THE JACKET OF TIME AS DISTANCE We leave old lives, Mark Halperin says, “the way I put down a glass” — but those old lives have a way of continuing to invent our new ones, just as global weather patterns predict and shape one’s daily round. In his latest collection, Halperin explores some of his and our various lives, traveling along a timeline from Yakima, Washington, and Tallinn, Pennsylvania, back to Tallinn, Estonia, deep into his own Russian-Jewish ancestry. Along that timeline he and we all live, still, always: for Halperin, time strands and estranges us; it streamlines and brings us together. These are poems that travel their immense distances very quietly, without gimmicks, but with saving heart and irresistible grace. (Nancy Eimers)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Halperin was bom in 1940 in New York City to a dentist father and housewife mother. Halperin received his undergraduate degree in physics from Bard College in 1960. At Bard, Halperin studied physics, and when he graduated, he went to work in a research lab in Connecticut. In 1964 he returned to college, receiving his MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa in 1966.
On the day that we talked, I asked Halperin about his switch from science to poetry.
“I learned about poetry by taking one of those required introductory classes in college — breadth requirements. I started writing because it seemed to me I felt things the way the people I was reading did, maybe even more so. I thought I could express it better than they did. By the time I realized how poorly I wrote, it was too late to stop; I was hooked. So when I read poetry it was a kind of escape; it wasn’t just fun, it was where I wasn’t supposed to be, not the math or physics I was supposed to be reading.”
Halperin has taught at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, since 1966. As to what he teaches at Central, Halperin said, “I teach at a small university, so I teach everything— general education classes, intro to poetry, folklore, the Russian novel, poetry writing, and sometimes seminars.”
Halperin and his wife, the painter Bobbie Halperin, married in 1966, are parents to one son. Although he has lived in the Ellensburg area for twice as long as anywhere else, Halperin said that an Ellens-burgian, born and raised in the area, once said to him, “You’ll never be from here.” Halperin added, “I may travel in order to have a place I can say I’ve come from. I’ve spent time in Mexico and Italy. At various points I’ve taught in Arizona, Japan, Estonia, and Russia; the last, thanks to a Fulbright grant and several exchanges.”
When Halperin is not teaching or writing, reading or traveling, he fishes. “Fishing,” he said, “occupies me completely, physically and mentally both, but in a way that’s very different from other activities. You’re very, very attentive to what’s on the water, which dictates choosing your fly and how the water’s moving, the wind — you’ve got all of that — and then, there’s the matter of getting the fly there, of casting, avoiding drag. And then, as someone’s said, T rout five in lovely places.’ ”
Halperin is author of several collections, including The Measure of Islands. His poems and his translations of the poems by others regularly appear in magazines and journals.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: In the poem, “Growing Up,” in Near and Far, Halperin writes:
- My Father, the Spy
I believed my father was a spy. He had been born in Russia, he had an accent, and he was older than other dads, which confirmed it. He was always disappearing into the basement — to work, he said. I guessed he sent secret messages to Moscow late at night. If they caught him, I would defend him, but I knew what he was doing was wrong. I loved him though he was a spy.
During our conversation, Halperin had mentioned that growing up, as he did, during the McCarthy and Cold War eras, with a father who was Russian, had its complications. “You’re living in two worlds,” Halperin said. “You’re living in a public one, and you believe it, you believe that the Russians are your enemies. And you’re living in a private world where this Russian is the father you love.”
The poem, “Growing Up,” continues with this:
- My Father, the Foreigner
My father wasn’t a spy, though he did spend a lot of time in the basement, where he worked on plaster casts, the furnace and making cabinets. He could have been thinking. Maybe English didn’t feel comfortable or we didn’t in those days, in his late forties. Then I was almost grown and he was old. He stayed upstairs, even more a mystery. Polite, handsome in an Old World way, with generous, deep, sad eyes, he could be mercilessly ironic with me.
I asked Halperin how old his father was when he was bom.
“Forty-five. My mother was 20 years younger, a first-generation American, who, he believed, I think, knew better than he what to do. He was also, by nature, very quiet.”
“When did he come to America?”
“He came to America just before the Revolution, I think He always had these friends who would come around the house, strange people to me, whose attraction seemed to be that they spoke Russian.”
I asked, “Would there be hot tea and the samovar and the drinking of tea strained through the sugar cubes that one held in one’s mouth?” “Yes. There are stories I heard as a kid that started off, ‘We were so poor that..With my uncle it went, ‘I was so poor I had to carry 40 pounds of BX cable through the streets.’ My father’s version was, ‘We were so poor that we couldn’t afford lumps of sugar for everyone, so we would buy one lump of sugar, hang it over the samovar, and everyone would drink tea looking at it.’ I think there’s a Russian verb for drinking tea strained through a lump of sugar. And it could be the story’s apocryphal or even standard. I don’t know.”
“Do you think that, when you were a youngster, your father looked foreign to your friends?”
“I don’t know if he looked foreign to my friends. When he was a kid, he stole a ride on the postman’s horse. The horse was blind, as they frequently were, not much good for anything but delivering the mail, and it dragged him through a fire. The result was that he had a swirl of ivory-like scar tissue from his chest to his waist, and I just assumed when I was a kid that your body looked like that when you got older, like growing a beard. He was strange all the way for me.” I asked if Halperin’s father were affectionate with him. Did he, for instance, hold young Mark in his lap?
“You have to remember, I don’t know who he is; I can’t recognize him until I’m five years old, six years old. I mean, I can’t think back past then. Which means he was already 50. My father was a gymnast, and I recall him chinning in the doorway and making his bicep jump to amaze my friends.”
I asked, about Halperin’s father, if he read books.
“Once in a while. He didn’t read a lot of books. But in those days it wasn’t easy to buy Russian books, and I found a store that the FBI probably kept under surveillance. I bought him a copy of Lermontov; about two years later, after I bought the book, I asked my mother where the book was; and she told me he’d given it away. He knew most of Lermontov by heart, so a book wasn’t really something he needed.”
“Did that surprise you, that he knew the Lermontov?”
“Yes, it did. It surprised me that he knew it. It hurt me a little bit that he gave the book away. My family wasn’t much on books. There were three other books of poetry. One was John Clare. Another was Edna St. Vincent Millay. And the third was Shakespeare. That was it. The other books he had were some Reader’s Digest condensed volumes and the like. So when my father got a little tipsy and spouted reams of Lermontov, maybe the most romantic Russian poet, it was pretty amazing.”
Halperin regularly translates poems from Russian to English. I asked him about his translation work. He answered that he had a “routine” he did, about translation, and I asked him to tell me this routine.
“I think that translation is the purest form of writing. In translation, you’re given images, you’re given thoughts, ideas, not the language they’re embedded in. So it’s creating a voice. That can be confusing to some people who have never done it because they think the voice is there and you have to ‘capture it.’ I don’t' agree. The translator makes up something that’s never existed — like any writer — and here it’s an existence for the writer in another realm. But for the person doing the translation, the problems all have to do with expressing, finding a language that’s appropriate; all images are there already, the translator has to bring them across. Translate means ‘to carry across.’ “I love working at it because of the feeling of going from nothing to something, which is one of the thrills of writing poems or essays, except that you’re not “expressing” yourself; the other side of it is the anonymity you are avoiding the ego. It’s a little bit like playing traditional music. You’re the vehicle through which the music is broadcast.”
“You’re the player.”
“Yes,” said Halperin, “you’re the player. The music comes out. Well, translating is like that too. Not your ideas or your instinct; it’s somebody else’s, but you’re the one that makes it five, you’re the voice. So, it’s doubly selfless. There aren’t really beloved translators. You screw up; it’s your fault; you do a good job — it shows how good the author is.”
Did Halperin translate from English into Russian?
“No. First of all, you know, I started studying Russian when I was in my late 40s, and it doesn’t matter how good I get, I’ll never get good enough. And then, with very few exceptions, it’s a bad idea to translate into anything but your native language.”
Halperin said that he started studying Russian on two different occasions. “First, I started in my 20s. But I quit—not much talent for it and it took a lot of time—and then when I started again it was because I wanted to read Osip Mandelstam, or that’s what I told myself; but I think it was also because of the connection to my father.”
“To be,” I asked, “in his world?”
“I have two good jokes about that. My mother was worried about me when I wanted to go to Russia; she thought it was a dangerous place, so she would ask me why I was going. The first time I said it was so that when I saw my father in heaven, I could speak Russian to him. She had no doubt where my father was, but she asked me, ‘What makes you think you’re going to heaven?’ The second time I told her, she said, ‘You know your father, you’ll say something to him in Russian, and he’ll say “What’s the matter, my English isn’t good enough for you?’ ”
“But no, I don’t translate into Russian except when I’m helping someone, certainly pot literary translation. Although it happened once under duress. I was at a party in St. Petersburg, and someone
asked me to say one of my poems— Russians all seem to know their work by heart — which I did.”
When Halperin is in Russia, does he write poems in English?
“Of course. I have more time. I tend to be lonely. And actually ifyou’re lonely in Russia there aren’t as many things to do; it makes you feel like a teenager again. Then you complain there’s nothing interesting to do.”
I asked Halperin about his poem, “The Suddenness of Beauty”
“Part of the occasion of the poem would be connected with my being in Estonia. When I react to the poem, I place it in Tallinn, the capital. Because that’s kind of a remote place. And I think that, seeing all these beautiful people. But it was the city, so old and yet cutoff. Why are all these people here when there’s relatively little for them, or rather, they could have more; they could get snatched up by people who snatch up beautiful people? Then it occurred to me that the distribution of beauty is fairly even. You know, all the beautiful people aren’t in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago; they’re all over the place. And at any moment you’re apt to see one of them.” I said that I liked about this poem how, line after line, it so inevitably unfolds.
“Auden,” said Halperin, “said that you shouldn’t be able to anticipate where the poem is going. But after it gets there it should seem inevitable.”
I asked if Halperin read his poems aloud to himself.
“I do. I read them out loud. I read them to my wife, too, when
I’m finished, and when I’m reading them to myself out loud I change them. But then when I read them to her, I often hear things that I’d missed before. I don’t know why it should be easier to pick out problems; maybe I just stumble.”
“ ‘All Right,’ ” I said, “this is such an upsetting poem. It puts a reader through a terrible experience.”
Halperin did not disagree. “I used to tell students that one test that you’ve written something honestly, is, at least in some cases, feeling that you don’t want to show it to the person it’s about.” “Did you show this to the person about whom it is written?” “I didn’t show this particular poem to him, but I gave him the book. But he never commented on the poem.”
For me, I said, one of the interesting aspects of “All Right” was the heaviness of both the action and the sounds of the poem.
He plops down in the chair, his meat hanging from him, sacked eyes drooping, even the webs that lie between his fingers weighted.
“It starts off,” said Halperin, “with the physical, both an action that the man in the poem performs and a bit of description of his appearance.”
“And all those B sounds,” I said, reading:
They beat him
back into his bedroom — his son, his boarder, their friends —
“And that one rhymes, too. I think that probably adds to the feeling of its being clotted.”
I asked about “Splinter”.
“Based on a true incident. I think I just got interested in the splinter itself; you don’t expect it; it’s not a much-visited subject, and the more I paid attention to what I had done, the more involved it became; you know it finally gets to the thing about cancer. It’s kind of loopy, which is a quality that I like; I mean, it goes off in directions that seem unrelated to its start, if that makes sense.”
Also, I said, it has a light ending. It’s funny.
“I think that a lot of the things I write are funny, but they aren’t just ha-ha funny; they’re more mixed, and I don’t know if you get people paying attention. And there I am, spending all this time* and I know that I’m expecting a lot of readers, so why should they laugh at a side issue. And yet, that’s part of it too. You have to push yourself into a tight spot and then work your way out, and that’s the enjoyable part, working out what has to happen, seeing how you’ll extricate yourself and the poem. I’m probably the only person in the world who subscribes to Spinoza’s coherence theory of truth. The more accepted notion is that words are true when they correspond to a set of events. He seemed to believe that they’re true when they hold together.”
I asked Halperin if there were a question or questions I should ask him that I had not asked. “Yes,” he said, “you should ask if I get pleasure from writing...”
“Do you, do you get pleasure out of writing?”
“I do. Because I have this thing about making something, constructing something that’s stable, but it’s more about the doing than the result. That makes it like fishing. You can get confused about the writing and the result of it, get worried about reaction, or lack of reaction. It’s easy to see what other people have gotten and, if you don’t get the same thing, feel jealous. It’s human, and I’m as guilty as the next. But the pleasure you derive from writing is from the activity, not the reward, and, to the extent that you can, I think you should try to keep those separate.”