The Whole Megillah (TWM): How did you come to write this book? What was the inspiration? Why Hannah Senesh?
Courtney Druz (CD): I didn’t know at first that I was going to write about Hannah Senesh.
Since finishing my previous book, I’d been writing various unsatisfying poems and fragments that seemed to hover just in front of something, but I couldn’t see what it was or how to get there. Then came Sefirat HaOmer, the period of the Jewish calendar marking the spiritual and historical significance of each day between Passover and Shavuot. Echoing that counting process in my writing was a method of finding direction.
Yom HaShoah, whose full official name in Israel means “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day,” falls towards the end of the second week of the Omer. I started writing about Hannah in connection to that day, and suddenly everything came together. I’d been thinking about the relationship between an individual life and collective history, and Hannah Senesh embodied and transcended the themes I was trying to explore. I realized then that I needed to write a whole book about her.
TWM: Not only did Sefirat HaOmer provide the initial prompt for writing this book, but it continued to provide the structure throughout. Did that present any specific challenges? Why did you keep that as your organizing and title strategy?
CD: This structure was essential for me. The concept of the Omer itself involves the same ideas as does the consideration of Hannah’s life story. The forty-nine days of the Omer combine the forward direction of history with those perpetually generative elements underlying it. And that’s a characteristically poetic structure, simultaneously repetitive and new. The challenge of working with it is the challenge of writing poetry, in the sense that you really can’t make poetry without engaging somehow with that paradox.
When I write I’m motivated not by narrative but by words. Trying to make sense of Hannah’s extraordinary life through a chronological framework only kept it impossibly distant from me. But looking at it through the seven words naming the sefirot let me begin to learn from her in a more personal way.
TWM: This is a beautifully designed book. You’re a graphic designer. How did you develop the look and feel of the book?
CD: Thank you! Making visual art has always been important to me, and I’m something of a visual thinker. That sounds like it contradicts what I said about words, but I don’t think it does. I just understand ideas more spatially than sequentially. That’s why I’m drawn to structures like this, and why the visual form of the book is an indispensable part of its content. It’s the modernist architectural principle of keeping the structure visible.
The cover design was also something I started imagining early in the writing, once I recognized the centrality of fractals to this book. The star is a recurring motif in these poems, and depicting the emergence of a Magen David shape within the Koch Snowflake fractal felt especially resonant.
TWM: Now let’s talk about poetry. When did you start writing poetry? What kinds of poetry are you attracted to?
CD: I started writing poetry around the age of thirteen. I was a reader and the child of readers; poetry was always around me growing up. When I was little my dad read me everything whimsical and rhyming, from Dr. Seuss to Victorian children’s poems, and it all stayed in my head. He sang folk songs and my mom, a former English teacher, introduced me to the classics that I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered until much older. So when I reached adolescence it was natural not only to keep reading, but to find I’d grown my own linguistic music that needed to get out.
I was first attracted to the way certain words strung together would magically transmit a kind of charged feeling, a vital but indefinable meaning beyond the literal meaning of the words. And that’s still primary for me, but as an adult I’m also concerned with what that meaning is. I’d say my favorite poetry investigates reality via serious playfulness at the level of the word.
TWM: A fair number of the poems in this collection had been previously published. Did you know all along you’d have a full collection? Tell us about your strategy for individual poems.
CD: I envisioned this book as a unified sequence from the start. I didn’t write it in linear order, but the overall pattern is a kind of poetic form, substantial as the form of a sonnet. In particular, the story of Hannah Senesh comes out most clearly when the whole set is there. But I also recognized early on that the poems can work separately, and I made a point to submit individual poems to journals whenever I could.
As for actually writing the poems, it would be disingenuous to pretend I have a “strategy.” I’ll be drawn to certain ideas, feelings, images, rhythms, and words, and I’ll try to find how they relate.
TWM: Do you work with a critique group?
CD: No, I need to be alone with the poem.
TWM: What poets inspire you?
CD: I’ve been inspired by many different poets at different times in my life, but Gerard Manley Hopkins stays with me wherever I go.
About Courtney Druz
Courtney Druz is the author of four books of poetry including The Ritual Word, an exploration of the Book of Psalms in the context of contemporary experience, and The Light and the Light, bringing Paul Celan’s Die Niemandsrose to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. She holds a degree in Religious Studies from Brown University and a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and has worked in architecture and graphic design. She was born in Boston, and lives in Israel with her husband and three children.
Courtney’s newest book, The Hannah Senesh Set, is inspired by the life of Hungarian-born Zionist heroine Hannah Senesh, a poet and agriculturalist most remembered for her daring WWII parachute mission into Nazi territory, where she was captured and executed at the age of twenty-three. For more information, please visit her website.