MADELEINE BECKMAN'S INTERVIEW WITH ELLEN HINSEY
Ellen Hinsey is a poet, essayist and long-form journalist. She has published six books of poetry and translation, and her work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Irish Times. Her last book, Update on the Descent, written out of her experience at an international war crimes tribunal, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series.
Hinsey has been the recipient of a number of honors including an American Academy in Berlin Fellowship, Lannan Foundation Award, and the Yale University Series Poetry Award.
This interview was conducted between New York and Paris – where Hinsey lives. —Madeleine Beckman
Madeleine Beckman: What are you currently working on?
Ellen Hinsey: For the last number of years I have been working on books that are at the crossroads of poetry, transitional justice, civil society, spirituality and ethics. My last book, Update on the Descent, came out of my experience at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, where I listened to witness sessions. I am currently writing a new volume of poetry (The Illegal Age) that deals with such issues, as well as a book of essays on democracy and memory in Central and Eastern Europe, called Mastering the Past: Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe and the Rise of Illiberalism.
Mastering the Past addresses the Central and Eastern European transition to democracy, but more particularly, specific recent events—the 2010 Polish presidential plane crash, the 2011 Hungarian constitutional crisis, Vaclav Havel's death and legacy, the Russian civic "awakening"— critical developments that reveal political dynamics twenty-five years after the upheavals of 1989. The book has involved ten years of research and interviews, and has greatly affected my thinking about politics, ethics and literature.
MB: History and ethics fill your work; both are complex subjects and can mean many things. What specifically are you interested in conveying in terms of “ethics” in your work?
EH: In the last half-century, ethics has come under considerable attack. In America, in particular, it has become commonplace to say that it is impossible to affirm any kind of ethical structure. This, of course, is terribly dangerous. One of the paradoxes of the post-war period is that countries that physically suffered less during the Second World War and the post-war period—and were freest intellectually—have been the most cynical. On the other hand, countries that suffered terribly—for instance Poland or Czechoslovakia—have conversely been the staunchest defenders and innovators in the area of ethics. I'm thinking of intellectuals such as Arendt, Levinas, Patočka or Havel, or poets such as Miłosz, Szymborska or Venclova.
I think this phenomena of "ethics at the bottom," i.e. ethics that arise out of conditions of near annihilation, is something essential, and something that challenges the structure of post-modern thought. It is at once extremely complex and of the utmost simplicity, i.e. the fact that the human spirit can find a way, under the worst of circumstances, to reaffirm the possibility for human decency, an understanding of the good, the ability to tell the truth and the potential to love.
MB: You deal with tough material; how do pace yourself so as not to plummet?
EH: For me, writing is essentially a dialogue in the sense that we are always in the process of experiencing things outside of ourselves—whether it is the natural world, "the other," or our attempt to comprehend what Havel calls "what reigns above." Perhaps because I understand writing in this sense of being led into the world, I find that, despite how difficult, corrupt and frightening the world is, there is always a way in which it is redeemed in the encounter.
MB: The weave of the natural world, humans, and the acts that occur within your myriad settings create an almost unbearable (at least to this reader) space—
EH: As we have been discussing, I think that the world exerts an almost unbearable pressure on us. We live under the weight of external forces, world events, calamities, and of our own inner struggle with the range of human emotions: hope, desire, sexuality, fear, spirituality. These worlds are constantly turning inside us. Poetry is a reflection of this chaotic space, up from which insight, like a miraculous talking fish, occasionally surfaces from our lived experience.
MB: How do you get distance to re-enter that space to continue work on the poem?
EH: I am a slow writer, and poems take a while to finish. Over time poetry becomes something ever more mysterious, less object-like, less a manifestation of the "I" (a suspect character at best) and more of a divination. Like standing before a film developing tray, you have to wait until all the darks and lights have appeared—and you have to check that, like a divine manifestation, something has not suddenly emerged, unsuspected, in the background. In general, poetry seems to be one of the art forms that is the least responsive to individual will. As Mandelstam wrote, I am not entirely sure that we are the "masters of the word;" rather the living word, like us, wanders freely, agitated, seeking temporary shelter.
MB: As a follow-up to that question, do you consciously balance your difficult subject matter with the grace, beauty, and wonder in the world?
EH: I guess in the sense that I try to accurately portray the world in its chaos and multiplicity, I consciously try to do justice to both the beauty and the terror.
MB: Does working on one poem catapult you into another or do you require down time?
EH: Sometimes poems do come in series; this has been my experience most recently, though it is not always the case. But no doubt this has to do with the way life has its own inner sequences, and to the extent that poems are a record of this, they tend to have a thematic nature, and begin to speak among themselves.
MB: How does translation influence your own work?
EH: The experience of living in another language has been essential for me. My reasons for living in Europe are personal ones, which have to do with my family's tragedies. However, after a time, I came to understand that the displacement I experienced here seemed to reflect an inner sense of "homelessness" in my constitution. Though it may sound paradoxical, it is at times possible to feel more at home in homelessness than in "arrival." To live on the periphery of languages is a crucial part of that. Each day one maneuvers between understanding and the unknown. This is a space of interest to me, a space of constant challenge. Translation work understood in these terms is always a bridge between worlds, a dialogue across frontiers that is imperfect, but compelling.
MB: How do you choose what you want to translate?
EH: Translation is connected to the issues we've spoken about earlier. I think translators gravitate towards texts that feel necessary to them; ones that carry a person further along their own path.
MB: Are you currently teaching? And if yes, how has your approach to teaching changed over the years and why?
EH: I have taught for many years at Skidmore College's overseas program in Paris. In general my impression is that students have a real need to express themselves, and increasingly feel a desire to be released from the burden of technology. A few years ago I taught a seminar on the Metaphysical Poets, and while this doesn't sound like a likely outcome, one of the effects of reading 17th century poetry and philosophy was that the students wanted to discuss the extent to which they feel desensitized.
This brings us back to ethics. University students have a "spontaneous" sense of justice—a sense of outrage at war, at discrimination. The experience of poetry with its "truth telling" is critical for them. To quote Havel again, "Goodwill longs to be recognized and cultivated. For it to develop and have an impact it must hear that the world does not ridicule it."
Madeleine Beckman is a poet, fiction and nonfiction writer. She is Nonfiction Editor for IthacaLit, and a Contributing Reviewer for the Bellevue Literary Review. Her work has been published in books, journals, anthologies, and online. She is the recipient of awards and grants, including a Poetry Society of America Award, a New York Foundation for the Arts Award, and a grant from Irish Arts Council of Ireland. Her poetry collection, Dead Boyfriends, was recently reissued by Limoges Press, Madeleine teaches in the Medicine & Humanism Program/NYU Medical School and privately.