Photo: Carine Topal
Carine, a transplanted New Yorker, lives in the Southern California desert. Her work has appeared in numerous journals throughout the U.S. and Canada such as The Best of the Prose Poem, Scrivener Creative Review, Caliban, Greensboro Review, and many others. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2004, was awarded residency at Hedgebrook, and a fellowship to study in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2005. She won the 2007 Robert G. Cohn Prose Poetry Award from California Arts and Letters, from which a special edition chapbook, “Bed of Want,” was published. Her 3rd collection of poetry, “In the Heaven of Never Before,” was published in December, 2008, by Moon Tide Press. In the same year she was honored with the Excellence in Arts Award from the City of Torrance, California. In 2014 Carine won the Briar Cliff Review Poetry Contest and her new chapbook, Tattooed, won 1st prize in the Palettes and Quills 4th Biennial Chapbook Contest. Tattooed is forthcoming in Summer 2015. She teaches poetry and memoir in the Palm Springs and Los Angeles areas.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your earliest writing as a child?
Carine Topal: My parents never saved any of my writing. There may not have been anything to save! I was more interested in the visual arts, in particular, photography. My mother was an artist. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 15 years old.
Geosi Gyasi: Were there any signs as a child that you would one day grow to be a writer?
Carine Topal: Really no signs that writing was in my future. There were, however, indications that I’d be some sort of artist-in-angst! I always wanted to be a photo-journalist. Travel, shoot, and write.
Geosi Gyasi: How does it actually feel to be a writer?
Carine Topal: I don’t know what it’s like to feel other than a writer. I am proud of the art, of its power to heal, to resolve what the conscious mind is often incapable of resolving; I am always stirred at how poetry moves people in unexpected ways.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any regret becoming a writer?
Carine Topal: I earned an MA at New York University in the 70’s. My one regret is that I didn’t study at in the writing program with Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. At the time I went for my MA, I didn’t know that I could possibly make a living from writing/teaching poetry
Geosi Gyasi: Born and raised in New York City, do you think the city has changed in any particular way now?
Carine Topal: Actually, the city has changed in many positive ways. When I lived in the city, many areas of Manhattan were dangerous, filthy, untended to. The city is safe now, gentrified in places I’d never go to at night or during the daylight hours. There was a raw quality, however, that was grand and bohemian, and full of abandon; a quiet riot in the West Village, where I lived, but the nervousness was subterranean. Now that is gone or hard to find. But I do love the changes that make the city pedestrian-friendly, and the unexpected discoveries like the High Line that gentrified so many parts of the city. Of course, I could not afford to live in Manhattan anymore, and I’m not certain that I would choose to if I were a rich poet. (Is there such a person?)
Geosi Gyasi: Are there enough writers coming out of New York City?
Carine Topal: NYC has hosts an abundance of fabulous writers. Dave Eggers is one. He founded a poetry project in Brooklyn; there are poets, screen writers and novelists. Such as Eileen Myles and novelist T. Cooper. NYU has an extraordinary writing program with Sharon Olds at the helm. Sonia Sanchez, a veteran writer, is the quintessential New Yorican voice; the writers coming out of the New York Writers Workshop: Jacqueline Bishop, June Clark, Gail Eisenberg, and Doug Carr; and the New School writers, who are staples in the community and beyond. I studied with Colette Inez when the New School was not credited and called itself The New School of Social Research. Then there’s the NYC Poetry Festival, The Poetry Brothel, The Typewriter Project and The Poetry Society of NY which bring so many talented writers together from acound the boroughs.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you belong to any group of writers?
Carine Topal: I have been part of a group that meets monthly. Dorothy Barresi, a professor from Cal State Northridge, leads the workshop The group members are smart, accomplished poets. I’ve been a part of this group for several years. My thought about writing groups is that no matter how accomplished, how well-published, there is always a need for a second or third opinion; a need for forward movement in your craft. I get that inertia from the members of this group.
Geosi Gyasi: You have lived in Jerusalem, Israel, where you worked with Palestinian merchants. What actually took you to Israel?
Carine Topal: A lone survivor of the holocaust, my mother’s cousin, whom I call my Auntie, sailed on a ship in 1945 from somewhere in Italy to Haifa, Israel. She settled in Rechovot where she married and had two children. I visited twice a year for many years. I was close to the family and felt a part of the nation of Israel. I’m not a religious person, but I’m proud of my heritage. I traveled throughout the country and fell in love with the culture, which is not so much Jewish as it is Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. After graduating college, I announced to my parents that I would be moving, forever, to Israel. Upon saying good-bye to my father, he slipped me a $50.00 and said “Here, spend this on the Palestinian children.” I will never forget that. And so I did. I worked in the Palestinian souk (market) and lived in the Israeli world.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you briefly describe Bethlehem and West Bank where you worked and lived?
Carine Topal: Off-white buildings spotting the Mount of Olives. Jerusalem stone, as it’s called. Everything built from stone the color of sand. I remember the Palestinian workers breaking stones by hand; I remember the souks, the open markets, where lambs’ heads hung like hideous piñatas over make-shift racks. I remember the figs and dates and spices laid out like gemstones on a wooden table. I remember the photo I took of an 8 year old boy sitting beside his grandfather, wearing a Muslim cap and a long gown, behind them piles of watermelon for sale. I recall thinking that the grandfather’s head looked like the watermelon. I told him so, and it was translated into Arabic. The old man laughed a toothless laugh and shook my hand. Once I heard a bomb blast while I was dancing in a bar in Jerusalem. It came from Bethlehem, a few miles away. No one in the crowd looked startled.
I often visited homes in the West Bank with my boss/friend Omar Imam. He bought museum quality dresses from women in the villages. I went to their homes: clean, dirt swept floors covered here and there with colorful carpets. We sat on the floor, crossed our legs and drank tea with mint which was poured from 3 feet up, so it flowed like an amber waterfall. We were offered dates and goat’s milk. It was unkind and rude to turn anything away. You ate what was offered. I heard baa-ing from upstairs where the goats were being milked, and moments later, a small girl appeared down the stone stairs and brought me warm milk. I remember the people being kind, working hard, always trying to work a good bargain. They were proud but I knew they had been oppressed and stateless people for so many years. Working in the Old City in Jerusalem many years ago instilled in me a sympathy with the Palestinian people of that day. Of course, things are so different today, but I still believe in an autonomous Palestine. A two-state solution.
Geosi Gyasi: In your view, how would you describe New York City as against West Bank or Bethlehem?
Carine Topal: I can only compare them by saying that there are lots of Jews and lots of Arabs in all three places!
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any affinity for children with special needs?
Carine Topal: I earned a degree to teach severely emotionally disturbed children. For more than 20 years it was magic. I did write poetry with these children, those who could speak, and all through the years I anthologized their poems which were published by different school districts. So, actually, I reconsider my previous answer about regret and writing: I would not undo my career choice. Working with special needs children changed my world. And I put poetry into theirs.
Geosi Gyasi: Your first poetry collection, “God As Thief” was published in 1994 by The Amagansett Press. How long did it roughly take you to put the collection together?
Carine Topal: I wrote “God As Thief” over a period of 7 years. It was my first book. I look at it now as a reminder of how poetry saved me from a very deep sadness which paralyzed me. I was very proud to offer my parents this book as a way to communicate to them what was too difficult to say.
Geosi Gyasi: Why the title, “God As Thief”?
Carine Topal: We were 3 children in my family, including myself. My brother Russell, and his wife, just gave birth to a baby girl. Russell had a very rare form of cancer that even today could not be cured. He was 35 when he died, two weeks before his daughter was a year old. We were close in age, and close. He was a funny, loved, generous man. His friends called him Buddha. Six years later, just after giving birth to my son, Russell, my oldest brother, Brian, who suffered from diabetes for years, died at the age of 44. He married late in life, adopted two daughters, lost the use of a kidney, lost vision in one eye, and his body shut down on Labor Day. For many years, even after writing all these poems, poems that I still write today, that whoever god was, wherever god was, god stole the essence of living from my parents as well as my brothers. I carried this sadness and anger for many years. It followed me and I pulled it along like a little red wagon.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as your best poem in “God As Thief”?
Carine Topal: My best poems are not necessarily my favorite poems. My favorite poems are like my children who remind me of something important; something I didn’t know I knew. One such poem is “Mr. Fisher Feeds the Boarder Babies in Harlem.” I wrote this after reading a Life Magazine article about an elderly man from Harlem, who, every day, would volunteer to care for those infants who suffered the effects of drug withdrawal. He himself was physically challenged, but living alone he felt the need to be close to young lives. Hopefulness is what I found in this poem. Charity. Compassion and patience. I learned a great deal after I wrote this poem, and even more when I read it aloud at a performance.
Another favorite poem in the book is “The Netting,” which I wrote for my brother’s daughter, Michelle. This poem was a gift to my niece. The poem helped me connect to my niece and connected her to her father. It was a love poem to my brother and for his daughter.
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Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any found memories about your participation in the 2005 Hedgebrook residency?
Carine Topal: Memories of those weeks in spring, on Whidbey Island are vivid. What I loved was the convergence of what I was writing ((letters from Emily Dickinson) with the surroundings of sweet peas, pine trees, freshly grown vegetables that were picked for the meals. I collected flowers each day and brought them to my cottage, a craftsman cottage, one of 6 built to house the writers. I remember the meals we ate together and the long writing days of silence and concentration. One early morning, I sat at the window seat, looking out at the forest. A deer was nibbling on something a few feet away from me. We stared at one another for what seemed to be long minutes. I blinked first to get my camera and the doe ran off. This city girl had a country moment. Hedgebrook was a glorious experience. The women were writers from all over the U.S., diverse and talented. I wrote every day and left with a feeling of great satisfaction.
Geosi Gyasi: How different is your book, “In the Heaven of Never Before” from “God As Thief”?
Carine Topal: “God As Thief” was written out of a terrible, but necessary drive to relive my brothers’ lives somehow. The writing of the poems threw me into a protracted sadness that lasted beyond the publication of the book. “In the Heaven of Never Before” incorporates poems about the loss of both parents, reflections on what it means to be an orphan, a mother, a woman without the brothers she loved. But it does not have the sadness of “God As Thief.” “In the Heaven” also speaks to the immigrant shadow cast over me via the lives of my parents. All the untraceable history of our people. It is a larger book in scope. A more mature view of the world.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to send your then manuscript of “In the Heaven of Never Before” to the Moon Tide Press?
Carine Topal: I had faith in the poems from “In the Heaven,” and after a reading performance at Orange Coast College, I introduced myself to a publisher. I figured I could sell my wares as good as anyone else, so I approached Michael Miller, the poet and publisher of Moon Tide Press, who was in the audience and liked what he heard. He asked me to send him the entire manuscript, which I did. Soon after, he responded that he’d be honored to publish it. Working with Michael and his editors was easy, rewarding, and a good learning experience. Michael was patient, had a good sense of how the poems flowed, and had a good critical eye.
Geosi Gyasi: Besides writing, do you do any other work?
Carine Topal: I’m an amateur photographer, preferring black and white to color. I also play classical piano. For 5 years I played the cello, but my teacher passed away a few years ago; my heart was broken, and I never played the cello again. I’m sure Sevan Pegosyan, my teacher, is an unhappy fellow, banging on the harp “upstairs,” trying to get my attention. Pick up the cello and practice! The cello was work but I adored the instrument.
I was brought up listening to all the classical composers, to Broadway music, to Russian folksongs. My mother played the piano and the accordion. My father played the violin. I don’t know if you consider playing musical instruments work, but often times it can be.
I have been teaching a weekly poetry and memoir workshops in the South Bay for more than 20 years. My group of poets have been together for 10 years. Unfortunately, since I’ve moved to the desert, I can only manage a monthly workshop, but I look forward to working with this talented group of poets. I also teach occasional workshops in the Palm Springs area. I miss the regular teaching experience and I’m hoping to start a weekly workshop in the desert.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you even regard writing as work?
Carine Topal: Yes. It is work and it is painful and playful and gruesome and intimidating. But it is necessary. Life blood! I would not have it out of my life. It is who I am. It is what I want to do and have to do. Yes, writing is a job. You must show up!
Geosi Gyasi: Could you briefly describe your new book, “Tattooed” and explain why readers should look for it?
Carine Topal: Because 1/3 of the population surveyed believe that the Holocaust is a myth. Because the perpetrators, some still alive, are responsible and accountable for their sins. Because there are countries who still turn away, as they did 70 years ago, and do not support the capturing of those who killed systematically. Because people must speak out for those who can no longer tell their story. This is not only a “Jewish” story. The Holocaust is a lesson for humanity: do not turn away from what is unjust. Be a witness, bear witness to a social and moral injustice. And never think that it cannot happen again.
Geosi Gyasi: In your view, why do you think the Holocaust occurred?
Carine Topal: Propaganda, ignorance, dehumanization, and the willingness to blindly follow a charismatic leader are all factors for why the Holocaust took place.
It was a confluence of political and societal factors that allowed the Holocaust to occur. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Germany was in a state of economic despair. This allowed Hitler to rise to power and impose his will upon the German people. Over the years, active propaganda against Jews had a dramatic impact on the average German’s opinion of the Jewish people. Nazi propaganda instilled in the average German a general distrust of Jews. The Germans’ general indifference, or their blessing, helped the Nazis with their anti-semitic campaign. .
One final thing to consider about why the holocaust was allowed to happen is a sad fact of human nature. The Nazis had been denigrating and dehumanizing the Jews of Germany for nearly a decade before the Holocaust began. This probably had a dramatic effect on what people actually thought of the Jews. Many Germans considered the Jews to be a sub-race of humans, or barely human at all. This allowed them to feel little to no guilt when forcing them into labor camps and marching them to their deaths.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about the poetry and memoir workshops you conduct in the Los Angeles and Palm Springs area?
Carine Topal: For the last 20 years, I have been conducting poetry and memoir workshops in the South Bay. I taught workshops in Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach, and Torrance. At times the workshops were held in the home of one of the students; other times we were housed in cultural centers or libraries. Many of my current students have studied with me since the 1990’s. I also offer online mentoring for those writers who cannot attend my workshops. My poetry and memoir workshops are guided with exercises and prompts. My emphasis is not only on the making of a poem, but the reading of the poem. My thought is that if you truly hear what you are reading, you can train your ear to self-correct language, diction, syntax, and to pay attention to many elements of craft. When a poem is read to one’s self, the poet does not truly hear the dynamic of the piece.
In both my poetry workshop and the memoir workshop, the hope is to have fully realized poems or memoir shorts to submit for publication. Ideally, a chapbook or full manuscript will have been compiled. Many of my students have won prizes and awards; some have published widely in anthologies and journals; others have full manuscripts that have been published.