By Andrei Bucaliou and Nicole Yeager
M.G. Leibowitz is the author of Hypatia at the Museum (Finishing Line Press), winner of the 2019 New Women’s Voices Chapbook Competition. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Foundry, The Journal, and West Branch, among others. She lives in New York City.
West Branch: One of the most striking aspects of your work is the way you allow works of visual art to speak to us from the page; your poetry often seems to contain thousands of brushstrokes in each carefully considered word. What role does visual art play in your life—in terms of both your personal identity and your identity as a writer.
M.G. Leibowitz: I’m not a visual artist myself (more of a doodle-on-the-margins kind of a person), but I love paintings, photography, sculpture, etc. At the time I began writing the poems that would become Hypatia at the Museum, I was spending a lot of time—both in class and outside it—trying to understand the outer limits of what art can do.
I had taken a class on the work of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and was enthralled by his idea of ethics as encounter, specifically as an encounter that shapes who we are. But Levinas—and this is something not many people know—is suspicious of art. He sees it as a sort of “false transcendence,” an experience that mimics the ethical encounter in a lot of ways, but lacks the other person needed to give the experience meaning. So for him, art is an escape from our obligations to other people, a way to exist—solipsistically—outside of real time and space.
This wasn’t a new critique when Levinas made it, but it was new to me when I read his essay “Reality and its Shadow.” And I found it pretty devastating.
That’s not to say it ever really occurred to me to, you know, stop writing poetry or enjoying art, but I did desperately want to figure out a way in which I could defend art from what I saw as a pretty cutting critique.
This was all sort of floating around in the background of my mind at the time I started working on the first poems in the collection, and I think it’s part of why I gravitated toward writing poems in conversation with other works of art. I certainly didn’t set out consciously to respond to Levinas with my poetry. It was more that I sensed my own poetry was more interesting and more vibrant when it was in dialogue with something, when it came from a kind of encounter with another work of art.
WB: In “Women on the Peat Moor,” you imagine an exchange between the women in the painting and Van der Weele, presumably the Hague School painter who influenced Van Gogh. Nowhere in the text of the poem is the painting’s creator mentioned. How do the women, Van Gogh, and Van der Weele inform this poem, and how do you, as the poet, fit into the dialogue of the poem?
MGL: While researching this painting, I stumbled across a source that mentioned that, though only two figures are visible in the scene now, Van Gogh had originally painted four. It’s been suggested that maybe the change was prompted by the advice Van der Weele had given him to limit the number of figures in his composition. There was something funny to me about this idea, almost ridiculous. Harvesting peat without heavy machinery is exhausting, demanding labor. And the fussiness of this painterly directive to limit the number of figures in a composition seems so at odds with the messy practicalities of the labor itself.
A lot of what I was trying to do with Hypatia, especially the ekphrastic poems, was to play with activity, passivity, and gender. The women depicted in Women on the Peat Moor look almost passive, their bodies shapeless and bent, almost like they themselves are peat stacks, a part of the landscape. But the painting—at least as part of Van Gogh’s larger project to “examine and draw everything that’s part of a peasant’s life”—hangs on them. It wouldn’t be at all the same painting if it showed an empty moor. And so I asked myself, well, what might the women being painted have had to say about Van der Weele’s fussy directive? And in my imagination, they were good-natured about it, but in this way that was a little patronizing, that showed them to be far more worldly than the painter, like, okay, you know and we know he’s being silly, but why not just soothe the insistent child, why not just give him what he wants?
WB: Activity, passivity, and gender can be considered vital elements of all poetry and art —the activity, passivity, and gender of the artist, of the observer, and of the elements of the work itself. How would you say these three factors influence you as a writer? What other core factors drive your writing?
MGL: I’m a big fan of the critic and essayist Geoff Dyer, and I especially love this one essay where he discusses his reasons for writing a book about jazz, despite lacking any credentials—either academic or musical—that might have qualified him for the project. He writes that he loves jazz but finds it “infinitely mysterious.” Then he adds, “If I’d known what I needed to know before writing the book, I would have had no interest in doing so. Instead of being a journey of discovery, writing the book would have been a tedious clerical task, a transcription of the known.”
The idea of a “journey of discovery” is a very active imagining of the writing process, and perhaps even a stereotypically gendered one. But the more I read Dyer’s essay, the more I notice the other element that motivates him. It isn’t just curiosity that drives Dyer, not just the desire to master, but also the almost senseless love he has for jazz, a love that he can’t really understand.
One of my other favorite writers, Elif Batuman, writes about this extensively in her book The Possessed, which deals, in part, with her love of Russian literature. At one point, she writes, “I now understand that love is a rare and valuable thing, and you don’t get to choose its object. You just go around getting hung up on all the least convenient things . . .” And I think there’s some real truth to this, that there’s an element of passivity to love—and to art—a willingness to simply be enthralled (Batuman would say “possessed”) and to respond to that feeling, that is just as necessary to creation as an “active” pursuit of an answer.
Both of these creative drivers—love and discovery—are central to my writing process, and both played a major role in the poems that make up Hypatia, many of which are poetic responses to visual artworks or poems or songs that somehow moved me. But I found that the best poems I wrote also involved a lot of research, active searching, trying to understand—why did this piece of art make me feel like this? What was it able to do or say, and how?
WB: The collection’s titular poem, “Hypatia at the Museum,” features Hypatia, the Hellenistic philosopher and mathematician, and Artemisia Gentileschi, the Italian Renaissance painter, who left their mark on human history despite vicious opposition and violence. Many of your other poems in this collection explore the theme of womanhood, some through artworks and some more personally. How does your “love and discovery” of these works and figures enable and channel your voice as a woman?
MGL: Oh, I’m so glad you asked this because it allows me to clear up what was, most likely, a sticking point for readers of that particular poem.
There is a very famous painting by Artemisia Gentileschi titled “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” at the Uffizi (by the way, check out their amazing TikTok, if you haven’t already), but there’s also at least one other of the same subject. It’s a much more obscure and kind of terrible painting by a man named Giampietrino, who painted St. Catherine—standing naked and serene—before a background of fire and destruction.
One of the lesser-known facts about St. Catherine is that her life story, as we know it, is most likely a composite legend, based in part on the life of the mathematician and philosopher Hypatia. Hypatia, a pagan, was murdered by a Christian mob. And many scholars suspect that the life (and especially death) of St. Catherine of Alexandria was borrowed from Hypatia’s story, with the key facts switched—so a Christian martyr and a pagan mob.
Writing over women’s lives to serve a useful narrative isn’t an especially unusual occurrence, historically speaking. But it was something I was hyper-aware of while writing the poems in the collection, whether personal, fictional, or ekphrastic. And so I tried to take that as a mandate to really exercise my own voice and to write about even things that aren’t seen as especially “poetic”—like IUDs or Flickr.
WB: We notice you use a wide range of poetic forms in this collection— a more structured pantoum form in “Unio Mystica” to couplets in “Pentimento” and tercets in “In the Prepatent Period” to a more exploratory use of caesuras and white space in “Sovereignty” and “Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes.” How do form as well as literary devices figure in your writing process?
MGL: It’s true, at least for me, that constraint breeds creativity. When I set out to write a pantoum, or an abecedarian, or a found poem, the constraints of the form help stop me from falling back on my poetic crutches—those techniques or phrases that I so frequently and thoughtlessly turn to.
Plus, a well-chosen form can work together with language to create or enhance meaning. So a pantoum’s repetition is great for a speaker who may be ruminating on something. And using “found” materials for a poem can be a way to add a level of irony to what would otherwise be sincere, or to point out something in the original text that others might have missed.
I don’t want to give the impression that I always begin a poem already knowing its final form. Sometimes I write something in couplets and then find that the poem really needs the kind of propulsion generated by tercets, or the density of a prose poem. Often—and this is an idea I learned from Eduardo C. Corral—the final stage of writing involves pouring the poem into different formal containers and seeing where it settles best.
WB: Could you tell us about how your academic background and personal experience shaped your approach to writing and art?
MGL: I grew up in a Modern Orthodox Jewish home, which is to say that though my family looked not all that dissimilar from the general public, religious observance permeated every aspect of our lives, from the way we washed our hands upon waking, to the last words we spoke before going to sleep. Much of my formal education was spent reading Jewish texts—the Torah, of course—but also commentaries on it, and the books of the prophets, and codes of Jewish law, and religious philosophy. All these studies involved looking beneath the surface of texts, a practice that gave me a deep appreciation for writing that functions on multiple levels.
In college, I studied religion not just from the lens of text and law, but also as a subjective experience. I read first-hand accounts of religious transcendence and was intrigued by how difficult they were to communicate, conceptualize, and understand.
The person who really broke this open for me is the Hebrew poet known as Zelda, who I studied in a class on modern Jewish mystics. Zelda, whose life and work I discussed in an article a couple of years back, wrote poems that seem to capture core facets of religious experience—but without ever saying them directly. You can’t say them directly, in most cases, because most of our speech narrows meaning. But poetry, and certain types of religious speech, have a way of gesturing at truth without actually delineating (and thereby limiting) it.
I love a lot of things about poetry. But this power to gesture at the ineffable and mysterious, to communicate the full weight of a paradox, to “say” in one stroke and “unsay” in the next—to me, that’s poetry is at its best.
WB: What literary projects and/or endeavors are you working on now and what are your goals for the future?
MGL: My next project is a collection of humorous, lightly philosophical nonfiction essays about family, love, and obligation. I’m still early in the writing process, but it’s been wonderful giving myself permission to try something new. Humor, for example, is something I love reading, but never really experimented with in my own work. But I’m learning—mostly by reading people like Geoff Dyer, David Rakoff, and Meghan Daum—that a well-placed joke is one of the most useful tools available to any writer (and especially those who write about themselves).
M.G. Leibowitz’s poems “Women on the Peat Moor” and “The World” appear in West Branch 94, Fall 2020 in the print issue.