Michele Lesko: We're very lucky to have these unpublished poems that reflect your interest in the issues surrounding the state of our planet's waters. Please tell us about the work you've been doing related to water.
Gail Holst-Warhaft: For me, most things begin with poetry and music. On a trip to Greece about five years ago, I discovered that no one could drink the water on the island of Aigina, where I’d lived for two years. Farmers had drilled deep into the ground to irrigate their trees, and salt had intruded into the water supply. I soon discovered that this situation was common to almost all the islands of Greece, and that tankers were delivering fresh water all summer long. I thought of a song I knew about the importance of hospitality, and offering the stranger water, whether he was a thief or Christ himself. So I returned to Cornell, found out who were the water experts on the campus and began working on water scarcity in the Mediterranean. I now teach a course on water scarcity with a Cornell hydrologist, and we have a project on the island of Crete, trying to improve water management. As Poet Laureate, I worked with students at South Seneca School and LACS in Ithaca to link my interest in water to poetry.
ML: The tone of the poems is never pedantic. You beautifully connect the water to real experiences to which anyone can relate, bringing awareness to our relationship with water in a way that draws the reader to experience it for herself or himself. In writing these poems, did you have an arc in mind, or did they come together with your experiences while also contemplating the water issues?
GHW: When I am working and thinking about something, poems suggest themselves – I didn’t think of writing water poems, but my days were often full of discussion and reading about water, and I tried to think what my strongest memories of water were.
ML: You travel often, tell us how that affects your writing, please.
GHW: Yes, I’ve traveled for most of my life and in many countries. I find it endlessly fascinating and stimulating. You can write poetry without travel, but for me it is a bank of memories and ideas that I draw on. Each new journey inspires a poem or two.
ML: As Director of the Mediterranean Initiative and Faculty Associate of the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future, do you find ways in which poetry can generate learning experiences for the public?
GHW: Yes, I have always brought poetry into my classes, even when I am teaching engineers. It is something students don’t forget. I often use Cavafy’s “Ithaca” to begin a class. It surprises me that so few Cornell students have read it. The poem says so much about literal and metaphorical travel, and it makes students realize that this town is named for the oldest poem in western literature. I like to bring poets and singers of poetry to perform here when I can.
ML: Your studies of the Near East & the Classics is a fairly constant thread in your work. How does this background inform and enrich your experience of writing poetry?
GHW: The literature that has survived from ancient times is the basis of so much later literature. Without some knowledge of it you simply can’t understand the references in modern literature – think of Pound, Joyce, Eliot. I think we all need a background in ancient mythology so that we can weave our own modern myths. If I write in the voice of Penelope, I presume my readers are familiar with the Odyssey. The Greek myths and the Bible are still the sources of our western literary imagination.
ML: Grief is also a silken thread weaving the Greek laments into your poems. Do you feel these stories are a constant in our lives?
GHW: I don’t know how much grief is a constant in the lives of young people. When we reach a certain age we all have losses that we carry with us. My loss was unusual – you don’t expect to lose a child in this era, but it was once the most common of losses. I found that women’s traditional laments for the dead were the only poetry that spoke to me when I was overwhelmed by grief.
ML: How important is your musical background to your writing?
GHW: I can’t imagine a life without music. Sometimes I write directly about music, but it is also important for the rhythm and shape of poetry, for the sounds of words. I try to make poems that are musical.
ML: In what ways do you order your writing life in terms of getting down to the craft aspect of putting together a collection such as Penelope's Confession?
GHW: I’m not a very well-organized writer. Writing the Penelope poems came in a rush of inspiration, and I simply stole time from whatever I was doing to write them. Family and work interrupt writing, but I think a certain degree of impediment may be good for writers.
ML: How do your musical life, your activism and your work as a Cornell professor balance with your work as a poet?
GHW: Perhaps I’ve already answered this. Music is something you have to do a little of every day or you see yourself slipping. It’s not the same with writing poetry. I think you should write when you have something to say. There are others who just write every day. Some days I get on with the water activism, others I try to leave an hour or two for poetry. Being asked for a poem is a way to make me drop everything and write.
ML: What do you find fascinating and what do you find difficult in translating?
GHW: Translating is a secret passion for me. It is easier than writing your own poetry in some ways because you don’t cast around for something to say. On the other hand it’s a creative process, or it should be. I spent five years translating the complete poems of a Greek poet I love called Nikos Kavadias. It was a wonderful apprenticeship for becoming a poet. You have to read so carefully before you even start. And then you have to capture a particular poetic voice and make it your own. It’s like putting on someone else’s skin.
ML: In closing, please tell us a bit about your experience as the Tompkins County Poet Laureate.
GHW: Oh, that was a wonderful experience and a lot of work. I said to myself that I would only take on the position if I could use it to do something for the community, so I took on two projects, one each year. The first one was on immigrants to Ithaca and their nostalgia for countries they could often not return to. The second was on water and involved visits to schools to talk to children about water, particularly water-scarcity and how poetry and water could be linked. In both cases the poems that were produced were very moving, and I was able to use some funds from my program at Cornell to turn them into small anthologies that I could give back to the poets. It may sound a little pretentious to say you are a “poet laureate,” but if you think of it as a way to take poetry into the community, it may have some value.