PoetryEtc Featured Poet: Mark Weiss   

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Biographical Note 

I was born in 1943 and lived in my native New York, first Brooklyn, then Manhattan, then Brooklyn and Manhattan again, for all but four of the next 48 years–two years in school in Baltimore, a year in the forest of western Massachusetts, a year in Paris. Since then I have lived in Tucson, western Massachusetts again, and, for the last eight years, in San Diego.

From earliest childhood my year and my imagination was divided between urban and later suburban claustrophobia and summers in the freedom of what we called “the country.”  It was on a winter trip to “the country” that I wrote my first poem. I was eleven: it was December of 1954. The day before there had been a brief thaw, followed by a freezing-cold night, and the meltwater had formed a transparent sheath of ice coating the trees. It tinkled when the breeze took the branches, and glinted in the bright sunlight like a million diamonds. My mother told me that in Oregon, where we had lived briefly when my father was stationed there during the war, it was called a silver thaw. It was as much the exotic phrase as the beauty of the moment that caused me to write.

The war, in which my father had fought, dominated my life, and I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of the Holocaust, although nobody called it that then.  My family was only a generation away from the ghettos and shtetls of eastern Europe, and it was the merest accident that had carried us beyond harm. The neighborhood was full of men and women with haunted eyes and numbers on their arms. So the camps are never far from my thoughts. When the endless red scare of the 50s descended upon us we experienced it as the prologue to another pogrom.

As a child I learned Hebrew, mostly forgotten now, and read much of the Old Testament in the original. In the third grade I was supposed to translate Genesis 12, which is the beginning of the national epic. It was that evening that I became aware that I had fallen in love with language. “Get thee out of thy country , and from thy kindred” doesn’t do justice to the Hebrew “leh l’ha mey arztz’ha oomey ‘eretz aviha.”

It was a mythology in which I was included.

Every Sunday I went with the other kids to the children’s matinee at the local theater. There we learned the urban mythology of the film noir, which was credible enough to city kids, and also the American epic which was supposed to include us but clearly didn’t–we may have spent 40 years in the desert, but we certainly hadn’t crossed the plains in covered wagons. The movies taught us an eternal longing and an equally eternal sense of displacement.

Perhaps that sense of displacement is why my poetry tends towards observations of the internal and external worlds as if I had never lived in them.

Poetry, as I understand it, is a finding of one’s way through trackless forests of phenomena that only become information in the process of the voyage. The goal, it seems to me,  is to find a practice that allows the most phenomena to be visible without imposing a hierarchy. One constantly pushes at the edge of self and techne.

In recent years I have been exploring the material boundary line on which I live. Discovery of the other side of that frontier has led me to translating, which forced me to discover the Spanish language. Learning, as I have, primarily through contact has been something like a reprise of my first acquisition of language, in which a word remains forever associated with the circumstances of its acquisition. So I often find myself using an everyday word in conversation with the friend from whom I learned it.

Translation is an act of love, ands it’s also an act of transformation: as in acting, one becomes within the limits imposed by one’s own personhood another person, and one gets to do things it would never occur to one to have done.

I had a first-rate formal education, but my education as a poet has been, with the exception of one undergraduate workshop, more an apprentceship than otherwise. Armand Schwerner used to talk about the accidental curriculum that any life is. Mine has included the generosity of other poets. Charles Stein introduced me to the poetry of Williams, Pound, and the Black Mountain School. Gerritt Lansing introduced me to the New York School and honed my skills. And the city of New York surrounded me with the plastic arts and music. Each of my careers also enter the mix, whether film-making, university teaching, psychotherapy and social work, editing and publishing, or dealing in fine prints.

Not least, as well, raising my stepson Carlos Blackburn.

I have been very diffident about publishing, in books or in journals. My first full collection, Intimate Wilderness (there was a chapbook a year before) dates to 1976, my second, Fieldnotes (preceded by another chapbook) to 1995. In 2001 Chax Press published the chapbook Figures: 32 Poems.  The anthology Across the Line / Al otro lado: The Poetry of Baja California, which I coedited with Harry Polkinhorn, appeared in 2002. Current projects include an anthology of Cuban poetry, volumes of selections from the Cuban poets Gastón Baquero, Raúl Hernández Novás and José Kozer, and, with Harry Polkinhorn, a booklength poem by the Mexican poet Luis Cortés Bargalló.