by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
This series profiles the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Breaking Bread. Learn more about the Breaking Bread volume here. Click this link to order Breaking Bread and previous volumes. See also our profiles of Trust contributors and profiles of Metamorphosis contributors.
Kaz Sussman, an Oregonian poet with roots in New York, contributed “temples of salt” to Whole Terrain’s Breaking Bread volume. In it, he evokes memories of pickled and preserved food from his Jewish childhood neighborhood, “remnants / of a distant culture tied to my / tongue.” Comparing these Old World staples to the currently en vogue fresh produce of stylish grocers, Sussman comments on the necessity of pickled and preserved foods in his community of origin: “temples / of salt, a moveable feast for those / often forced to move.” In the following interview, we learn more about what drew Sussman to poetry, and his links to the Old World and the New.
Whole Terrain: How did you become interested in writing poetry?
Kaz Sussman: Words have always been a comfort to me. I was the kid who was always drawn to the local library — two blocks away, across the tracks from our tenement apartment. Writing and poetry naturally evolved through the quiet joy of reading, since poetry is so often language distilled into concentrated (and consecrated!) meaning. I’ve read many fine definitions of poetry and the need to write; over time I’ve discovered that my need is personal, unexpected discovery.
Thinking back on it, I recall my junior high school English teacher putting on some jazzy music and asking everyone in the class to extemporaneously write about what they felt when hearing the music. I recall writing about the rain falling on a lonely street. On a later day, the teacher took me aside and offered me the opportunity to write poems instead of other class assignments. I said yes. I’ve written poetry ever since, learning quite a bit more while at City College of New York.
However, I’ve learned most about myself and my poetry through accumulated experiences in elemental situations: being in the aftermath of numerous natural disasters as a responder, living in a tent while building a home from lumber I was salvaging from abandoned structures, the acceptance necessary in gardening, and learning to parent and grandparent. Eventually, this gathered experience has revealed itself as the spine of my poetry.
I’m an ex-New Yorker, fortunate to have found my way to Oregon way back in the last century. I’m a third generation carpenter, and have designed and built my own homes over these many years. At times it’s as if I am living in my abandoned poems, repurposed.
WT: I love this as an image. Can you tell us a little more about what it means? What is it about the process of building your homes that feels like writing poetry, or the process of writing poetry that reminds you of your homes?
KS: I’m mostly an intuitive builder, taking my cues from the surrounding space and interior atmospheres. In building, I often use salvaged materials. In poetry, I work inward: from the lyrical, incubating snatch of image towards the mystery of veiled intention. Much of my work in both areas is akin to emotional spelunking, feeling my way through the unknown dark, gathering up the aggregate of experience for future contemplation. I am drawn to incantation and the ricochet of wordplay, attempting enjambment to lure the eye further down the page, and deploying ambiguity to whisper of alternative meaning. My intent is to distill from my wonder a spark of deeper reflection. I advocate for poetry that leaves the back door ajar, should the reader’s imagination choose to enter.
When building a home, I often have to wait and stare for a while, watching the light change through the day, combining practical use with emotional relevance. Often I almost succeed, yet physical realities necessitate compromises, and projects are left for another day or new inspiration. How many of us have poems temporarily abandoned as they struggle for relevance and honesty?
My work is that of the witness attempting to send dispatches back from the edge of perception. I am kin to the grizzled survivor just back from a journey to the End of Time, to the rogue mullah calling the tribe to come out and play, to the cackling madman in the marsh who speaks toad talk in iambic pentameter.
WT: What drew you to the theme of “breaking bread”?
KS: I’ve wanted to be published in your journal for a while now, and was fortunate that this theme was chosen. I have unsuccessfully submitted in the past. I had recently written my poem and then when I saw your theme, I submitted and was fortunate to be included.
WT: What inspired the particular piece you submitted, “temples of salt”?
KS: I grew up in a walk-up tenement, which had an icebox rather than a refrigerator. The iceman would make his rounds, ice blocks saddled on a leather shoulder pad and held by long tongs. Other peddlers would pass through. The mothers would call down to them from their open windows. It was a time before microgreens and live food. The best foods were those that kept well and were seasoned liberally.
In those days, before Starbucks, the corner stores were what we called “appetizer stores,” and were filled with preserved foods brought from other lands or created by those first generation immigrants still connected to Old World tastes and recipes.
This short poem spans a lot of time. As an old guy and as a gardener now, I often wonder at the way so much has changed. These days, the classic foods of immigrant cultures are found frozen in adulterated and appropriated versions in our markets, culled from their ethnic tradition: hummus, kimchi, tacos, Americanized and mass-produced.
On a deeper level, through the poem, I am alluding to the fact that immigrants have often been persecuted refugees. The “unleavened bread” I speak of, the matzo, is a reminder of an enslaved population not having time to let their bread rise before rushing to escape from Egypt. The “jewelry in the seams” image that follows refers to the Jews fleeing the Nazis during WWII, sewing the family’s valuables into their clothing. The tragic refugee crisis continues these days, and xenophobic religion, greed, the stifling aspects of insular culture, and vague manipulated fear still run rampant.
Although I have been a committed atheist for a long time, I am still a product of a specific cultural identity. My taste buds and history still inform my life and poetry.
WT: I’d like to hear more about this. What does it mean to you to have taste buds and genealogical history that link you to the Old World but to not believe the same things or live in the same places? What is it like to be connected viscerally but not in other ways to your family’s historical community?
KS: Wow, this is a huge topic. It’s interesting that you zoomed in on it. I’ll try a brief answer.
Our taste buds and recalled scents/aromas are fiercely linked to memory (recall Proust’s cookie). There seems to be a disconnect in modern, Americanized, surburbanish households where the traditions of motherland cooking have disappeared along with multigenerational co-housing. In today’s immigrant or working families, the parents need to work. In homes with multigenerational co-housing, grandmothers are often cooking and watching the children, and the homes become filled with the scent of the Old Country (and not so much fast food).
In my situation, I still have a strong taste for the foods; however, the religious aspects certainly did not “take.” There is a huge difference between the wonders of a cultural food history versus the atrocities that many of these same cultures espouse and enact in the names of their gods. To me, religion often seems like the trail of goodies that leads to the witch’s gingerbread house.
WT: When you think of the twin directions of our breaking bread theme—reconciliation or interdependence around a meal, and the broken food system—what are you drawn to work on?
KS: I worked as a disaster responder through FEMA for many years and got to see just how quickly our system can break down, and how those we might call “city folks” are totally dependent on that system. The further my work took me into the countryside or bayous, the more I found folks who did not let their ruined homes or loss of utilities destroy their lives. They still knew how to hunt and fish and garden and make do. I’ve noticed in the big cities if, by the next morning after a snowstorm, the city hasn’t plowed a path from their doorstep to the nearest conveniences, they want the mayor recalled. Country folk just put another log on the fire—as I am about to do right now.
I have seen too much grief to hold were it not for the cataplasm of writing. These experiences inform my poetry, which I approach as a witness and as a phenomenist. Expanding from the root of experience I seek broader implication, and have learned that the search for personal truth is a salvation to writers who continually tinker with their work as if it were a carburetor just a bit out of tune.
WT: What writing project or environmental practice are you working on now?
KS: I’m an old guy and have been thinking about the past quite a bit. I’ve started a long, multi-segment piece, a “family album” where I’m looking at old family photos and using them as prompts for a series of incidental reflections. I have been gardening more and learning how to better extend my harvest. On the surface, these are separate joys, yet isn’t everything of importance ultimately connected?
Bio: Kaz Sussman is a carpenter, living in a home he has built in Oregon from abandoned poems. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kingpin Chess, Nimrod Journal, Whitefish Review, Prodigal, Pacific Review, and Gastronomica, among other publications. His website is www.kazsussman.com.