Apr/May 2005  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Eve Rifkah

Interview by Colleen Mondor

I recently had the opportunity to converse with Eve Rifkah, author of At The Leprosarium (reviewed in this issue). We didn't waste any time getting to the subject of her latest work.  


EG     What is it about lepers that interests you?

ER     I see leper as a metaphor for outsider. Outsiders can be anyone living in exile, shut out from family, being at the wrong end of the economic spectrum, or having a frightening disease. Today, people with AIDS  and gays are treated as lepers. They are those who are feared.

EG     Fear is a powerful emotion.

ER     Yes, fear is a powerful emotion. Fear of differences comes out of  ignorance and results in cruelty.

EG     How do you feel about  people who define others by their differences?

ER     To paraphrase e. e. cummings, the greatest evil comes from ignorance.

EG     Did your  thoughts or feelings change  about lepers or the idea of being an outcast since writing the chapbook?

ER     No. I believe that most of us are outcasts or lepers in different ways—for some of us the wall of sanity on which we balance is narrower than others. For some it is a tightrope. Some fall off. I was an outcast for my entire childhood due to a family situation that was beyond my control. Some wounds are not visible. But  the hidden wounds gave me a great sense of empathy for those outcasts who are physically haunted due to no fault of their own. I hope this sense of empathy comes out in poems like this one:

Outcast Ghazal

Clackers and bells in medieval times announced the lepers
Sonorous sounds screamed the coming of lepers

In 1905 the children shout throw stones clackers and bells
Frighten the frightened the outcast the leper

The grocer boy drops parcels on stoop and runs
The fisherman dragged from home named a leper

A pregnant woman cries for her babes
Cast away to foster care, away from her the leper

A Chinaman removed from his boiling vats
North of Boston sent to work in the colony, one more leper

With another from his land who left wife and child
Now scrubbing linens, untouchable on the island of lepers

A sailor tried to escape to travel the waves
Bound for home detained with the rest of the lepers

Even God closed his eyes, called them Unclean
But Eve tells their stories, the island-bound family of lepers

For the first 5 patients sent to Penikese Leper Hospital, 11/18/05

EG     Would you be willing to reveal more about your childhood?

ER     It could make a book!  I grew up in Dorchester, Massachussetts, in a dysfunctional, low-income family. I began writing when I was seventeen. I was going to school in Quincy and had to stick around until the last class when my father picked me up. I would go to the music listening room in the public library and finish my homework and write. I began writing stream of conscious drifts with whatever thought went through my mind. Around when my son was a toddler, I began writing poetry. My feelings of self-worth and identity spin around being a creative person.

EG     Where did the feelings of being an outcast come from?

ER     My mother was crazy. Her illness had an effect on me. My father's birth mother was mentally ill. My grandfather left her when their second child was born. That girl was placed in foster care until my grandfather remarried seven years later. It was expected that I too would go crazy—genes and all. My father's step-mother was the wicked step-mom in Cinderella complete with the perfect daughters (though one suffered from mental illness) who had the perfect grandchildren (though one was schizophrenic and died in her thirties). I was  treated cruelly by her and ignored by everyone else except my dad's sister (the one who was in foster care) who was also treated as Cinderella - cleaning/cooking when she was very young.

EG     Do you mean your mother was mentally ill?

ER     There was no diagnosis—mental illness was rarely treated in my extended family  and skirted around—but yes, she was mentally ill and abusive. Her behavior got worse with age and diabetes.

EG     How did you learn about the leper hospital in Massachusetts?

ER     I first learned of the existence of Penikese Leprosarium many years ago in a film documentary shown on PBS. In 2002, I began  researching  information about the island and the people who lived there.

EG     How did you do this?

ER     On the internet I  discovered T. Buckley's book Island of Hope which is a loose history of Penikese Island. His book contains a list of all the patients, some (not always correct) data on the leper hospital, and brief bios of the patients and doctors. Most fascinating to me were the geographical and religious ranges of the patients. They were born in the United States, China, Japan, the Azores, Russia, Turkey, Latvia, India, Cape Verde, Trinidad, Barbados, Greece, Syria and Italy. They were Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist. This speck of glacial moraine became a tiny United Nations of outcasts.

And at  Harvard's Countway Medical Library in Boston,  I read Dr. Parker's (the physician on the island) medical records for three years (the only ones still existing) and Marion Parker's  (his wife) scrapbook. Marion saved every newspaper clipping about the hospital, the area, and leprosy.  

I also researched leprosy in biblical times and the middle ages and collected some very strange facts—i.e., only humans and aardvarks get leprosy, 95% of the human population is immune to the disease, the other 5% have a genetic deficiency that allows them to contract it.

EG     Are there geographical areas where leprosy  is common?

ER     It is more prevalent in Asia and Africa but circles the globe.

EG     Is it true that leprosy is caused by bacteria and can be dormant in a person for years?

ER     Yes—bacterium Mycobacterium leprae.  The incubation is quite long, estimated from a few weeks to twenty or even forty years.

EG     The images of lepers creates fear in many peoples' minds. Could you dismiss the physical ugliness of the illness as you  wrote?

ER     Today the word "leper" still brings fear to people, even though most Americans have never seen it (by the way, today it is called Hansen's Disease). I didn't think about the appearance of the patients, though. I was  interested in who they were.

EG     Have you been to Penikese Island? If yes, was this before or after writing the poems?

ER     Yes, I went there last summer after the book was finished. It was a very emotional experience for me. Standing over the graves, reading the names of the people I wrote about, made them suddenly real to me. I walked all over the tiny island; the bleakness even on a mid-July day sank into me, the lack of trees. During the time of the hospital, much of it was farmed with root vegetables, which limited where they could walk (the wind would have destroyed produce such as corn). There is no place to go to be out of sight, no real privacy outside of their rooms.

EG     Did the poems come easily?

ER     Yes and no. All the poems have been rewritten many times from the original drafts. I had a tough time beginning the poem "Morris." I knew I wanted a poem about Morris but couldn't latch onto an angle. One day I tried to take a nap, and as I laid down, Morris began speaking. He was writing a letter to his wife. Well, that ended any attempt at a nap. I had to get up and write Morris' letter.

EG     I imagine writing about people dying  from a disfiguring disease could be a highly charged experience. What did you focus on when writing a poem? Form or content or both?

ER     I focused on the voice first. What is the voice saying, what is the background of the voice, how would that voice sound? All of which creates the structure of the poem. For me, working on any long-term project is emotionally charged. Spending years working on a subject, I invest so much time, labor and anxiety into it that it becomes part of my life. I thought of the Penikese patients as my family. I am now on to a new family.

EG     Tell us about rewriting  the poems. How did you know when a poem was right?

ER     For me rewrites are mostly agony. Then comes a moment when it all fits into place. I read lines, and the sense of what I wrote jumps out at me, and I say, "How could I have written it that way?" I had an advisor at Vermont College, Robin Behn, who used notations on edits—GWS (goes without says) and OTT (over the  top). I use that formula all the time—it helps to edit.

EG     What was the most beneficial aspect  for you of studying writing at  the graduate level?

ER     A combination of knowing that what I was writing was being read by a thinking, intelligent reader, and the feedback that helped me cut away the chaff.  Coming from not having any degree to having an MFA, Vermont College was very important to me.

EG     No undergraduate degree? How did you go from no degree to an MFA?

ER     To apply for the MFA program, I sent a manuscript, an essay and 3 letters of recommendation. I think it is getting harder to get in to these programs now without a BA, which is sad.

EG     What has the general response been to the chapbook?  Have any relatives or people involved with the hospital  contacted you about it?

ER     Response has been wonderful on one hand. Carol Houck Smith, the editor of W. W. Norton's, had much praise for it, saying, "The book is eminently worthy of publication."  But Norton's wouldn't publish it.   

EG     You are talking about the full manuscript?

ER     Yes.

EG     The phrase "eminently worthy of publication" must have made you feel good. Nectar to a writer's ear.

ER     Well, yes, it did for awhile.

EG     Do you know why they wouldn't publish it?  

ER     Probably because it was a first book, but really I don't know. In terms of any relatives contacting me, I was contacted by the granddaughter of Isabelle Barros (Isabelle gave birth to a son at the colony). She wrote,

Your poem describing Isabelle giving birth to my Uncle Leo gave me goose bumps, and brought tears to my eyes.  It was so intuitive and touching.  You never even met the two people involved, yet you were able to express Isabelle's emotions with such magnificent sensitivity and clarity—it almost sounded as if you had been there.    I am grateful to you for giving them a voice through the gift of your poetry.

On the other hand, it has been rejected  by all the competitions  I entered so far. It was difficult getting individual poems accepted into journals. The response was that the poems work as a series.  However, eight of the poems have been published in journals.

EG     How many poems are in the full collection, Clackers and Bells? Did you write about the remaining  residents of the community in the collection ?

ER     There are 62 poems in the book. I wrote poems about 20 of the patients. There were 36 who spent time on the island, plus the two doctors and Mrs. Parker. Some were only there for a very short time, and a few I just didn't have enough information to go on. There is one fictitious character—Betsy the cook.

EG     One of the  appealing qualities of  your poems  in  At the Leprosarium  is the communal sense of reality they create.  Writing poetry can be an act of personal and or social expression.  How do you see yourself in this continuum of personal expression to social commentator?

ER     All creative acts come out of the need for expression. The lepers poems are indirectly social commentary. They are concerned with human existence, how people express themselves and form communities, and how people relate to those whom they fear for one  reason or another.

EG     Were the poems in your other chapbook,  Zodiac of the Misbegotten, persona poems? Do they have the same theme as At the Leprosarium?

ER     The  Zodiac poems aren't persona poems, but the outsider is definitely a theme among others. Here is one of the poems that does have an outsider theme:

Year of the Heron

Born in the year of the heron
a child plays alone

stands still as a garden ornament
waiting for the moment to strike
then casually     with a yawn
wanders away

born in the year of the heron
a child breathes the spoor of the universe
noting direction
time of day

born in the year of the heron
a child forms thoughts
from messages wafting in air

imagine castles and graves
weave visions with painted strokes
cipher directions in halfmoon light

a heron child is well behaved
eerily so

EG     Are there any poets or  prose  writers, who include  dramatic monologues in their work, who you admire?

ER     Nicole Cooley, in her book Afflicted Girls about the Salem Witch trials, and Susan Ludvigson's book that has a section on Camille Claudel, the French sculptor.

EG     What future projects do you have planned?

ER     At this time I am working on a book documenting the life of Suzanne Valadon, famous French artist and model, 1865-1938. I am combining poems about her life with epistolary (letter) poems that parallel my life with hers.

EG     I know your husband is also a poet. What is it like to live with another creative personality?

ER     What is it like... WONDERFUL!  If one of us gets up in the middle to night to write or wants to write away a weekend, that is 100% accepted by the other. We read and encourage each other and give solace when the rejections pile up. Michael is my  best editor. I know many women whose husbands view their writing as a hobby instead of a vocation.

EG     Has poetry been a healer to you?

ER     Yes, very much so. I used to be handicapped by shyness—hard to talk on the phone, go anyplace I hadn't been before, and I could not speak in public. I went from not being able to read a poem out loud in an empty house to experiencing much enjoyment doing readings. It also has transformed my life in that I am respected in the community—as a poet, as editor of Diner and founder of Poetry Oasis. I have been asked to lecture  at WPI and Nichols College. I will be giving a talk at Holy Cross this spring.  Diner is assigned reading in one of the classes there. All this has been a major boost to my self confidence.

EG     It sounds like your journey so far has been a challenge, and that you have overcome much through the power of perseverance and words.

ER     Thank you.


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