Award winning local poet Lee Sharkey is appearing on Thursday April 25 at 7:00 pm at the Farmington Public Library to read from and sign her book, Calendars of Fire.
Kenny: So, Lee, tell us three serious and true things about your new book and one brazen lie.
Lee: Calendars of Fire was written during a period when I lost three people who were dear to me in close succession: a former mate, my mentor in poetry, and a long-term friend. The poems were born of the pain of loss and the celebration of life which often—and rightly—follows in its wake.
The personal and the political realms commingle in Calendars, just as our minds move in a millisecond from personal concerns to political frustrations, from firsthand perceptions to memories and abstract reflection. One poem weaves narratives about my mother’s bone china, Russian typesetters on the brink of the 1917 revolution, and an Israeli prisoner held for ransom by Hamas militants.
I was also thinking about pronouns, who gets to be part of the “we” most of us use so casually and imprecisely in our writing and our speech. What would take to make an “us” out of me and the person that political alliances or religion or history makes alien and designates as the enemy?
Finally, there were the bats. I never intended them to enter the manuscript, no more than I intended for them to colonize the attic of my house, but there they were, swooping without warning into poem after poem, quick slices of ink across the page.
Kenny: So what’s all this I’ve been hearing about you and Vilnius?
Lee: Some years ago I fell in love with the poetry of Abraham Sutzkever, a brilliant and passionate artist whose work would be widely known had he not written in Yiddish, a language decimated along with its users during the Nazi Holocaust. When I won a small fellowship two years ago to attend a literary seminar in Sutzkever’s home city, Vilnius, I leapt (though not without some trepidation) at the chance. For three weeks I lived in a small apartment in the ghetto where the Jews of Vilnius has been penned in and selected for slaughter, where Sutzkever and his fellow writers and artists in the Yung Vilne group became the backbone of both physical and spiritual resistance. Three days ago I learned that I have won the Abraham Sutzkever Centennial Translation Prize, given for a poem written in response to Sutzkever’s work. The award will enable me to return this summer to Vilnius, where my poem will be read at the centennial celebration of his birth. My head is still in the clouds.
Kenny: Calendar of Fire has a terrific cover. How did you come up with it?
Lee: My friend, the wonderful visual artist Joan Braun, and I went to an exhibition at the Bates College Museum of the work of the Chinese artist Xiaoze Xie, which consisted largely of oil paintings of books and stacks of newspapers, many of them incorporating fragmentary images of violent conflict. I was particularly taken with a set of paintings of books with their pages spread that might, depending on your point of view, be either flying or falling. Last fall, when my editor at Tupelo Press asked me if I had any images in mind for the cover of Calendars, I send him a file I’d clipped from the web of one of the paintings, a golden book that seems to be on the point of combustion. Luckily, everyone at the press loved the painting and Ziaoze Xie, a poetry lover, was happy to have us use the image.
Kenny: Thanks Lee!
Lee: Absolutely I’ll see you at the Library!