Robert Yerachmiel Sniderman (RYS): My relationship to you and to your recent book Written After a Massacre in the Year 2018 is rooted in seeing you read right after the 2016 election. It was in the days after you won the National Book Award for The Performance of Becoming Human, directly following the election. I was working at the Tucson Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center and my friend Sol Davis, who was the director, attended the reading too. We both agreed to invite you to come see the museum, and I remember him telling me how he received you and your son Lorenzo there. I remember he articulated later you had told him that once you won the National Book Award, people suddenly began framing you as a Jewish poet.
Daniel Borzutzky (DB): You know I try to remember back to that time. I think I was referring to a couple of different publications that made an announcement or contacted me at that time. One was a Chilean-Jewish magazine and the other one might’ve been an Israeli one. So there was a bit of claiming of these multiple backgrounds as well in ways that I wasn’t necessarily accustomed to.
RYS: All your work, your politicization, far exceeds the Trump moment, obviously, but in that moment, in a larger cultural sense, especially for American Jews, the time of the election instigated a particular political awakening of agitation. PROTOCOLS was formed and IfNotNow, for instance, and then Never Again Action, so especially for my generation. This coincided with attention coming to your work through the National Book Award. I’m wondering what that moment was like for you as a Jewish poet?
DB: So the book wins the National Book Award — an important moment I think for small presses as well, the first small press to do that — and one of the responses was that somehow the book was predictive of the Trump election or somehow foresaw it. I felt very frustrated by that. In one way, it was true. But every time that was said to me I had to insist that the book was written in the liberal Obama years and that all of the anti-immigrant violence and rhetoric in the book was a product of 2012 – 2014, and of before that of course, not of what happened after 2016. We could draw a line between them, but to do so would be to assume that none of this would have happened under a liberal Democrat, and the truth is that the violence of that moment that I was depicting was not in response to Trump. It was probably more of a response to a liberal looking away from right wing aggression toward immigrants on the one hand, and on the other, being complicit in it. And that was as true nationally as it was in Chicago in very complicated ways. So, that’s my first way of answering the question about the particular moment. I don’t know if there was any more of an awareness of Jewishness then. While my writing had focused more particularly on Latin America up to that time than it had on Jewishness per se, one’s identity as a Jew is not separable from the way I think and the way I move around the world. So, I think if anything I was bringing a kind of Jewish awareness or mindscape to what I was writing about, not so much in a conscious way but because it’s who I am.
RYS: I have the Race Capitalism Justice issue of the Boston Review here, which has been a valuable text for me, with your poem, “Lake Michigan Scene 22.” And there’s this moment in that poem:
I’m on a coroner’s table and a priest comes in to offer me absolution
and I tell him I don’t want it because I am Jewish and they tell me I
have no choice and the priest blesses my body so that I can leave the
never-ending trauma of earth for the paradisiacal joy of heaven
Then they choke me until I die
And I am lying on the table dead and once more learning how to suffer
I haven’t read all of your books, but I don’t recall references to a Jewish body or being a Jewish person in the books preceding these two. Maybe I’m wrong. I do see a political space culminating, after the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, in very direct ways for you. It collapses what, using your own language, we would call the “rotten carcass economy of the Americas” and Jewish bodies in a way that, honestly, I don’t see a lot of people writing about or making work about.
DB: There’s a few references to Jewishness or a Jewish speaker in The Performance of Becoming Human, and maybe before that, but yeah, I think you’re right. I think where you’re going is that after the shooting in Pittsburgh — (breathes) that’s when the kind of change in 2016 maybe took place. And again not to an extent that I was consciously trying to do anything, but in terms of the grief, shock, and anger I was in. I kind of spent all my writing life writing about violence, and, when it hit home in this way, I was really — and I don’t know if anyone can be prepared but — unprepared for how much it would affect me, the pain and shock that I felt after that. As I mention in the after note, there’s both a coming together in the murder, of anti-Jewishness and anti-Latin American migration, in the murderer’s statement. That he was targeting HIAS because of HIAS’s assistance to migrants coming from Central America. And so, while I don’t mean to say that these people are the same in any way, I do mean to say that I saw my identity as a Latin American and a Jew, and a Latin American Jew, targeted in two ways at that particular moment.
RYS: In one of the title poems of the last series, “Written After a Massacre in the Year 2018,” there’s a line, “I’m irrevocably changed by the massacre but I cannot talk about that today.” In the after note, you mention how you spent a lot of time considering whether you should even mention the name of the massacre, of the specific massacre, given the ways in which different types of catastrophe, in this case mass shootings within a white supremacist context, are prioritized over others. But of course you decide to name the massacre, in the after note and throughout the book. And in the last series there’s a wrestling with, and deconstruction of, and living with, the function of antisemitism within what you call “the rotten carcass economy,” bringing the specific massacre into these images of neoliberal dictatorship, disappearances, incarcerations, and interrogations. And in this, there’s this “I” that in all your work represents a really complicated collective, in my reading at least. So to go back to the line that I started with — “I’m irrevocably changed by the massacre but I cannot talk about that today” — I’m wondering whether you can talk about that. (laughs) Yeah, about that, that inability to talk, and then this poem being a talking.
DB: The entire last section of the book was written in a matter of weeks and was written through the pain and rage of that moment. I can in retrospect perform some kind of analysis of it, but, in the moment, I was writing through that experience very directly. As I was writing it, I think I was just very much understanding that there was no way to quantify the source. Not the source but where the writing was coming from. That it emerged out of that grief and that pain. This combination of trying to say something about what was going on and at the same time knowing that speech was completely inadequate, poetry was completely inadequate, and that survival in a certain mode, or survival and persistence — that we have to find a way of not being consumed by that violence in order to move on. All those things were swirling about in that rush of writing, where poetry and language were not going to capture a whole lot but that I didn’t have much of a choice. That was my means of trying to figure it out.
RYS: In the back of the book, where it says, “Daniel Borzutzky pens an incandescent indictment of capitalism’s moral decay,” I really want to add, “for the seventh time,” or for however many times you’ve written or translated, and then add, “in a long line of poets doing the same thing.” In what you just said, of not being able to write but doing it anyway, this is a disposition that you’ve confronted as a translator in Raúl Zurita’s work.
DB: Let me go back to something from the beginning. Your question was a very different one, but another thing that happened at that time was suddenly a kind of awareness of poetry being more political than before. There was this slate of articles about the return of political poetry. There was one in the New York Times about political poetry being hip and new. In the time immediately following the election, it was largely irritating. Irritating in the sense that suddenly because the Trump moment felt so blatantly offensive, there was a liberal awakening that gave a liberal poet permission to be political, or something like that. So, on the one hand, because this moment is so bad, poets are trying to write politically again. Which of course is a vast misunderstanding of so many different things: one, a tradition and history of political poetry that began long before that moment, and two, the notion that the problem began there, that the problem needing to be addressed began at that particular time. So I assume that there was a larger sort of literary change that happened after 2016 at least for a while, a move away from the purely aesthetic value of institutionalized poetry to one in which there was the expectation of commenting on the political moment.
RYS: I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about your family’s flight from Chile and their life there.
DB: It was my parents. My grandparents remained there. In many ways it’s not going to be a remarkable story. The fringes of it, surrounding it, are global, but my parents came to the US when they were very young. My father came to study in 1970 or ‘71. By the time he finished, the coup had taken place in Chile, and they decided to stay in the US.
RYS: They stayed essentially because of the coup, the dictatorship?
DB: Yeah, I think that’s a fair thing to say. They stayed because of it. Both of my grandfathers, in very different ways, were socialists, certainly, and had affiliations with Allende. My maternal grandfather had worked as a bureaucrat in the Allende government, and nothing happened directly to him, though I think he lived with a lot of fear, and his very close friends were arrested or exiled. And my other grandfather had participated in the founding of the Socialist Party with Allende long before that but eventually fell out with him before Allende became President. He was an old school Socialist Zionist who was very involved with the Jewish community in Chile, and I think he fell out with Allende in part because the Socialist Party had expressed solidarity with Palestine, or something like that. He died when I was very young, so I don’t know these stories very well. He wrote biographies of Jewish intellectuals, like Freud and others, but also wrote for a Zionist newspaper or something like that. Both sides of my family had affiliations with Allende, but like I said the reason my parents came was to study and they ended up remaining. Everybody in Chile knows someone who was affected by the coup, by the military dictatorship. There was no way around it.
RYS: What was it like for you growing up in Pittsburgh then?. Because you’re growing up during the dictatorship, right, that’s happening over in Chile, the conditions about which you would be translating later through Zurita and others are unfolding and you’re in Pittsburgh, in this diaspora, and then going to the Tree of Life Synagogue. Did you struggle to understand what was happening?
DB: As a child I had a very limited understanding. We had visited Chile a few times during the dictatorship. And I continued to go to Chile every few years until my grandmothers died, in 2005 or so. In Pittsburgh I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood and was surrounded by Jewish people, but I felt much more Jewish when I went to Chile where Jews make up like .24% of the population. Because there I was surrounded. You know, I had no Jewish family in Pittsburgh. And my grandmother who remained in Chile and lived to 97 only socialized with Jews and was very communally Jewish in a way I didn’t know anybody to be like in Pittsburgh, even though I was surrounded by Jews there. I only heard Yiddish when I was in Santiago. My parents didn’t speak it at home.
I don’t know at which point I became aware of the dictatorship. I do know that I went to Chile in 1987. In 1988, there was a referendum, a yes-no vote on whether Pinochet should stay in power. I think YES was if you want Pinochet to stay in power and NO if you want new elections. NO barely won. I remember being in Chile as that campaign was happening. I was 14. Pinochet is replaced in 1990. So that might have been my first awareness of what was going on, and that was at the end of it. So I don’t think I knew much about it growing up as a child. I had a very different upbringing.
RYS: When did you find out about the conditions of which you write so aggressively and persistently?
DB: After that! I guess as I began to develop as an adult, I began to learn more and more about Chile. On the one hand, I was asking lots of questions and doing lots of research. On the other hand, as I started writing, I was translating at the same time, and through translation, through my interaction with Chilean writers, I began to both understand more about what was going on but also about how writers respond to it, and how deeply affected were the cultures and people. The other part of it comes when I moved to Chicago and began to think about the Chicago School of Economics as the economic brain behind the dictatorship, behind the dictatorship’s mass privatizations. Mass interconnectivity began to cement itself to me as important and made me develop this understanding that, on the one hand, Chicago helped create a neoliberal Chile and, on the other hand, a neoliberal Chile helped to create the kind of neoliberal practices happening in Chicago in the 2000s, including the mass closing of public schools among other things.
RYS: Your work constantly evokes these intersections of power and empire. Where one lives suddenly becomes the condition and birthplace of violent structures elsewhere, at times very far away. I could really pick out any line. “You carry a bag of stones around your neck and the stones are the state that raised you//You carry a corpse around your neck and the corpse is the state that raised you.” It’s something that I think a lot about as a performance artist, something that I think becomes particularly real when — and you can speak to this more than I can — when you’re in a diasporic situation, when you’re in a diasporic family, when something mundane in front of you holds something happening elsewhere, you know, and there’s this feeling like, in all of your work, of this hauntedness of everything around us, and even in the speculative moments which pervade the mundane as well — being in the situation of bondage, like in Lake Michigan, being in this world that’s at once actually happening, that’s actually happening, and that’s also being invented in this nightmare. But that the nightmare is real — where “the bag of stones [are] around your neck and the stones are the state” — this way in which power, through reality and nightmare, constantly in a revolving glass door adorn these images or becomes the language or the way language tries to cry out to us.
DB: Look, part of it is, I don’t know anymore… I’ve had questions before, like, “Why do you write about what you write about?” I don’t think I have a choice really. I mean I guess I could write about trees or whatever. But if I wrote about trees the same thing would happen. One writes about what one is concerned with the most, what one cares about the most. And I think over the years this is what has been it. The intersection of economic violence and state and police violence as it’s taking place here and as it exists on a continuum of violence throughout the Americas.
“Written After a Massacre in the Year 2018”
They dream of a massacre that can take place in public and private
at the same time
They like to watch us as we look into each other’s empty faces
They like to hear us say that was the one I loved
We forget our bondage
We are not yet dead
We are at the border of the before and the after
Soon we will cross through the door and become subjects of an
endless detective novel that began in the fifteenth century
We are parasites and we will always be silent because silence is the
traditional tactic of our people
We are parasites and we are silent and even when we are dead the
country will remain in our voracious parasite-hands
Why have they protected you for so long the authoritative bodies
ask us right before they kill us
Why have they protected your parasitic bodies for so many centuries
They want us to answer this question even though we can only be silent
We dream that if we give the right answer then perhaps they will not kill us
But then they disappear us
And when they disappear us they tell us we are savages with the audacity
to have forgotten our own bondage
You are a voracious colony of parasitic savages who poison the people
with your fingers that reek of money
Your fingers are the ghosts of money your mouths are the ghosts of
money your tongues are the tongues of memory
They shove money into our mouths because they know that even when
we are dead we will have the power to control the media and the bank
They take us to the dump and load our bodies into a container with cars
that have been obliterated in the toxic dumping ground
They disappear us in the toxic dumping ground
They drop us into the scrap-metal heap
They ghost-wash us in the scrap-metal heap and plaster our bodies
against the compressed cars
We are with the metal now and soon they will take us to be recycled
This is the iron waste ground of the industrial dead zone where they stick
the parasitic bodies who lived slobbering over money and scheming to
control the state
They crush us into the stacked cars and we hear the disappeared cries of
the bodies we wanted to become
We are the privatized parasites of death and we will miss ourselves so
much when we are gone
They force us to survive but the shithole won’t let us be nothing
—from Daniel Borzutzky, Written After a Massacre in the Year 2018 (Coffee House Press, 2021)
RYS: Anti-Jewish violence finds its place in this much larger catastrophe in your book, which Cecilia Vicuña points out, reading into your language and the name of the synagogue, “We are shooting the Tree of Life.” When I read the book, I smell in it and I experience the nightmare but also the utopia of a kind of solidarity. You write: “They crush us into the stacked cars and we hear the disappeared cries of/the bodies we wanted to become.” That “we” is Jews, but there’s so many different kinds of people, different kinds of populations, who at different moments end up being in that we, or in that I, being on a certain side of perpetration. It does feel like there’s this thing that happens when I read your work where I experience a necessary collectivity. That we’re implicated in violence we don’t see, or that’s not necessarily happening to us, but is. And I think that’s hard to do, because there are real critiques on writing from positions one hasn’t lived through, on exploiting others’ suffering, and questions of dark tourism.
DB: To me, your last point is of an important conversation, but I feel that often the message some people take from it is that you shouldn’t even try, that there’s no use trying to understand others’ experiences because you’ll never properly capture it or you don’t have the right to write about it. And it seems to me that that misses something really important. We often lose sight of the fact that if one doesn’t try to write about the various types of violence one sees going on out of the fear of getting it wrong or getting one’s positionality wrong, then the alternative is a kind of silence that also seems problematic. Hopefully that conversation can be had in more complex ways, where it’s not simply about the authenticity of representation but about the ways one can write about violence or the ways one can write about the discriminations and sufferings they see going on, and that acknowledging them in realistic ways without violating other peoples’ subjectivities.