Monika Zobel’s collection of poems An Instrument for Leaving was published earlier this spring. A review of the book ran last month and can be found here. Recently, I interviewed Monika about her book, her influences, and the process of writing poetry for the inaugural issue of Old Northwest Review, which will be released this fall. Below is a preview of our exchange. – Brandon James Anderson
Brandon James Anderson: So much of your new book, An Instrument for Leaving, seems to focus on looking back on what’s been lost. Did you find your writing to be working in this vein before the decision to compile a collection? Did you know as you were writing these poems that a theme was taking shape?
Monika Zobel: While writing/revising the individual poems in this collection, which probably happened over a course of four years, I began to realize that certain images kept on inserting themselves into my lines. When I queried the manuscript for words such as “loss” and “lost,” the search would yield an obsessive amount of words. My first instinct was to keep “the loss” to a minimum, to attempt to write about different topics, to erase the loss, but to no avail.
Not only did I continue to write about loss, I was also drawn to it and searched for it in the writing of others, in my surroundings and daily routine. You could say, I began to embrace my obsession with loss and with that in mind revised and polished the book. The results were poems about loss of home as in the immigrant, loss of love in the case of the market woman or other speakers, and even loss of life in my version of Grimm’s “The Bremen Town Musicians.”
Maybe what makes loss so attractive to me is the fact that it has so many faces; that it can be destructive or even energizing; that it isolates but also brings people together. There is a reason why people have funerals when they lose a loved one – to share the loss. I always remember the opening of “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass: “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.” I think in that particular poem, loss turns into something very beautiful and astonishing. Like Hass says, loss has been around for a while and encompasses so many different emotional stages.
BJA: In my review, I mentioned several writers with whom I felt your collection aligns with thematically – Thomas Bernhard and, admittedly, my personal favorite author Milan Kundera. Adding in Brecht, these are all authors who could be considered “Eastern European” in origin. Is it fair to say you writing has been inspired by such writers? Who would you consider to be the heaviest influence on your writing?
MZ: Yes, most definitely. I have spent quite a bit of time with Kundera and Brecht, and I think I am especially drawn to authors that have written about exile, immigration, strangeness and the like. Actually, my absolute favorite writer is Kafka—the ordinary and grotesque at the same time. His aphorisms have definitely left a mark on me with their simplicity and matter-of-fact imagery. In terms of poetry, I am infatuated with and probably equally influenced by the works of Yehuda Amichai and Adam Zagajewski. Amichai—his metaphors surrounding the body are one of a kind, and Zagajewski—for his travel monologues. He’s a traveler and recorder of different cities, and I believe my obsession with birds began upon reading his poems.
Maybe one last name to mention would be Herta Müller who writes the most surprising and terrifying metaphors at this moment and who I recently had the pleasure of hearing read as part of the Poetry on the Road festival in Bremen. Müller is mostly-known for her novels, which are also very lyrical; but her poetry stems from the art of cutups, and therefore, adheres to no rules but beautiful madness. It’s no surprise that her poems in Vater telefoniert mit den Fliegen resemble ransom notes. Furniture suddenly turns into trees, father carries a soldier on his shoulders, and mother’s tongue is an ugly piece of fur. It’s all very strange and alarming, which I love. Strangeness makes the world more beautiful.