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LIDIA VIANU -- LEAH FRITZ
Home is anywhere you decide it should be
Interview with LEAH FRITZ (born 31 May 1931), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: The same as Ruth Fainlight, you came from New York to London. Two more Americans turned English are Sylvia Plath and Eva Salzman.
LEAH FRITZ: And the late Michael Donaghy, among others, though I’m a permanent resident here and not a citizen. Strangely, Eva, Michael and I turned up in London around the same time. I’ve read with both of them publicly, with Eva at the Barbican Library, with Michael at Lauderdale House. Perhaps what we all had in common was an understanding of New York nuance, quite different from what the British mean when they say ‘irony,’ but something like a family sense of humour. Like everyone else in the large poetry circle here, we miss Michael who, as I’m sure you know, died suddenly at the age of 50 last year. He was a superb poet who was much loved for his personal qualities of warmth and kindness, as well as for his genius.
LV. What does it feel like to live in England after having been born and educated in America? Is society different?
LF. Yes, but it depends on where you live in each country as to the kinds of differences you will encounter. Until the 9/11 tragedy, New Yorkers were barely considered citizens of the United States by people in the hinterlands. Then suddenly we were loved, until my compatriots in that city (I was already here, of course) held up signs saying ‘not in my name,’ in opposition to many of Bush’s policies. In Britain there is some anti-American feeling, but poets here generally recognise themselves as belonging to the international nation of poets, which is one of the international nations I belong to.
LV. What is your profession? Where do your main interests go?
LF. I regard myself as a professional writer, although I don’t earn a living from that. I’m also a housewife! My interests are in my work, my family, the world, everything...
LV. Is poetry a calling, a refuge, an alternative?
LF. It’s simply what I do. I don’t question it. As it turned out, it became the fulcrum for my social life in Britain, as well.
LV. I understand you are involved in politics.
LF. I’m not now.
LV. How would you define your position in both directions?
L.F. I take it, by that question, you mean poetry and politics. In poetry, I have no position.
These days I’m interested in writing formal verse for the most part. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it adds to the pleasure of writing certain constraints which make it a bit more challenging. After all, I’ve been writing poems since I was eight years old, so imposing difficulties may be a way of keeping me fascinated with the discipline. But as an admirer of poetry, my taste is definitely eclectic – and some of the best poems I have written, even recently, are in free verse.
In regard to politics, I am a feminist and a pacifist and against all forms of racism – but beyond that I tend to stick to local activism, if at all. I am, frankly, quite disillusioned with the results of past efforts to change the world. The place keeps getting worse and worse. Whatever efforts I do make, I want to have a chance of being effective, and so right now I am struggling against the closing down of a local poetry venue.
LV. One of your lines says, ‘poets are radioactive.’ Do you feel that way? Your poetry is not at all aggressive.
LF. Strange you should say that. One reviewer called me ‘dangerous.’ But radiation isn’t actually aggressive, is it? It doesn’t will the changes it causes; they just happen because of its nature. In that sense, I think the metaphor is apt.
LV. But it does betray a fighting awareness. Are you a fighter? If so, what for?
LF. I don’t relate to the word ‘fighting.’ I’m a pacifist. But I do believe in verbal persuasion in limited areas, as above.
LV. Quite a number of your poems deal with the condition of women ‘in a cage’. Could you describe your idea of feminism?
LF. I’m fascinated that you’ve noticed that. I recall using that image once in a very old prose-poem, but where else, I wonder? I wrote a prose book on feminism once. I may not agree now with everything I said then, but it’s a good reflection of what I thought in the 1970s – and much of what I still think, surely.
LV. One of your poems ends like this:
I am beginning to champion the cause
There is something to be said
for not becoming part of this,
one side or another,
whatever they do to you.
There is something to be said
for not encouraging them.
There is something to remembering
for not letting it become
for not becoming a martyr,
not letting yourself be used tomorrow
in another war.
For being so quiet that if you die
they won’t know
on either side.
And it won’t be in their war,
and it won’t be by their doing,
but just what happened anyway.
But just what happened anyway.
Someone who, like me, lived under communism for quite a number of years, would see in these lines a wonderful statement of independent opinion, the refusal to be anybody’s pawn.
LF. I’m glad you read it that way.
LV. What exactly moved you to write this?
LF. It was written in the 1980s at the request of Decoder, an Italian magazine. The funny thing is, the left-wing magazine objected to my attitude, but printed it anyway. Obviously I felt a keen disillusion with politics.
LV. You write about ‘the city I left an ocean ago.’ Any regrets about leaving New York?
LV. Do you intend to go to live back there?
LV. A stanza is angrily directed at male poets:
Among the Oxford poets listed in his book,
four are women, 34 men.
He complains in her anthology
60 per cent are women. No apology.
Good point. But there are a lot of women poets in Britain today. Is feminism still a necessary weapon?
LF. This is not directed at male poets but at a particular publisher, Oxford University Press. I admire and like many male poets. Again, ‘weapon.’ That’s not what it is. It’s a point of view. From where I stand, the world still looks lopsided in favour of men. Don’t you think so?
LV. Another poem states, ‘home is anywhere.’ Which might also mean nowhere. Do you feel at home in English letters?
LF. I feel that’s a positive statement. Home is anywhere you decide it should be and you make it home by caring for it. My two daughters have chosen other places to live. The factor of choice, in this instance, is important to me. And ‘nowhere’ is correct, too, as I feel one shouldn’t be ‘caged’ (if you like) in a particular place because you were born there. That’s probably a very American attitude, although one shared by Australians, too, and for that matter, many Britons. Maybe it has to do with speaking a language that is almost universal.
In regard to English letters, the way the English language is spoken/written in the U.S. and in Britain varies as much internally on a regional basis in both countries as it does between the two. I have learned new words and expressions since coming to Britain which I think enrich my writing. Perhaps more important is that, like Eva Salzman, Michael Donaghy and other Americans who have chosen to live and work in Britain, I feel very at home with British poets.
LV. Can poetry be a political weapon? It does not seem to be, in your case. Your opinions play second fiddle to lyricism in your poems. Did you intend it to be otherwise?
LF. No, I don’t see poetry as a weapon. Why should it be? I’m glad you feel my work is lyrical. I want it to sing. When I write prose, I write prose. When I write poems, I write poems. I hope what I’m thinking and feeling gets across, although people are free to make their own interpretations. If they are persuaded toward a point of view they think is implicit in my poems, good. If not, that’s o.k., too.
LV. If you could start all over again, where would you like to be born and what would you like to do with your life?
LF. New York is a good place to be born and grow up. I raised my own children there, and they think so, too. It’s zesty and has a lively mix of international flavours. Whatever your ethnic origins, you tend to feel more comfortable where your group exists in numbers and is influential in the community, and at this time no culture is dominant in that city. There is also a saying, ‘If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.’ So you go elsewhere and you’re not afraid. That is, you feel you know how to take care of yourself, and you speak your mind freely. If I had had the opportunity, I might have come to Britain sooner, though. It’s a softer place – but then, I do live in a quiet patch of London.
If I had my life to live over, I’d probably have more understanding of, and been kinder to, my parents and more sensitive toward my children – but who doesn’t wish that in old age? Otherwise, I’ve spent twenty very happy years here, and I almost feel my life in New York was a kind of preparation for this – but not really. I have very few regrets. I’m amazed I can say this, but it feels true.
POET'S NEW YORK
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: Were you born in New York? When? What was it like when you were a child?
LEAH FRITZ: Yes, I was born in New York. We moved to Brooklyn from Manhattan when I was small, and lived there until I was about five years old. I went to kindergarten there, and have many memories of it. One is that we lived near a synagogue, and since I was small and cute, my friends used to send me down into it when there was a wedding, because they would always give me cake to take to my friends. My sister was five years older, and I think I hung around with her and her friends a lot, although there was a little boy I played with across the street. Where we lived then was really quite suburban, but soon we moved back to Manhattan, which was ‘the city.’
LV. Is childhood in New York any different from childhood in a smaller town or in the country?
LF. Yes, I think it is somewhat different. In Manhattan, we were exposed to art at an early age. By 11, one of my ‘hang-outs’ was the Museum of Modern Art, and I also went to the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Natural History – all not far away. My own children were brought up in these places, too. I think New York is a brilliant place to bring up kids. It’s only when you get older, that you may want to leave.
LV. What did your house look like?
LF. I lived in several houses.The first I remember was the top floor apartment in a three-story red brick house in Brooklyn that my father built. He was an architect, and during the depression we were pretty broke, so he built a house for a cousin who was less broke, and we got the top floor apartment. That was very nice. My uncle George lived with us, and we had a young woman who lived there, too, and did the cleaning and took care of me. She was a Polish American from a mining town in Pennsylvania. I loved her a lot. She left when I was four years old to ‘better’ herself: she became a waitress. My mother kept up with her, and later Anna married and did very well. We had a large terrace at the back of our apartment there, which made it very pleasant. Eventually, my parents bought a house on the West Side of Manhattan. My father had an office there, and we used the ground floor and the first floor for our home. We had a back garden, so we lived differently from most people in Manhattan who usually live in apartments. We rented out the rest (it was five stories altogether) as small apartments, at low rentals – but they paid our mortgage.
LV. Was it typical of New York architecture? What is, in your opinion, typical of New York architecture? Do New Yorkers love their housing comfort?
LF. The house we lived in on the West Side of Manhattan was limestone and Victorian. My father altered it to suit us. It was typical of that kind of architecture. Manhattan is, as everyone knows, basically a bunch of canyons between skyscrapers, but there are many limestone and brownstone houses five stories high that still exist in between. Yes, of course, New Yorkers like comfort! Who doesn’t?
LV. Could you feel as a child that New York was a multicultural city? Did you fit in easily or did you feel an outsider?
LF. I didn’t think about multiculturalism as a child. White and black people lived in different parts of the city then, and in my neighbourhood – both in Brooklyn and later in Manhattan – most people were Jewish, although there were many who were not. There were many refugees from the holocaust in Manhattan when I was growing up. Although in general I ‘fit in’ with the other children, I felt in some ways an outsider because of personality differences. For one thing, I was considered something of an ‘intellectual,’ which was frowned on by some children. I was sociable, on the one hand, but did have my head in the clouds often. To a great extent I lived in my own world. I must say, though, that I was never a true introvert, nor was I, generally speaking, an unhappy child. Every summer I went to camp in the countryside, and there I did often feel unhappy because I was poor at sports.
LV. As a teenager in New York, what was your cultural life? TV? Theatres? Movies?
LF. Not TV. That came later. I did go to the theatre, but more often to the movies, which were much less expensive. I would say the museums and libraries were very important. At the Museum of Modern Art I saw foreign movies and old silent films which made a great impression.
LV. As a student and later, what magazines did you like to read?
LF. The New Yorker was my favourite.
LV. When did you become interested in New York’s literary life and what places did you go to, what New York reviews did you read?
LF. In my late teens I became involved with artists and writers socially. I worked at the Museum of Modern Art for a while. I spent a lot of time in Greenwich Village, had artist boyfriends... I wrote poetry from the time I was eight and always thought I’d be a writer. I read the reviews in The New Yorker, the New York Times, The Village Voice (which I later wrote for, along with other publications, but I rarely did reviews).
LV. Was it uncomfortable at all to live in a place which was a melting pot of all nationalities? Did you ever feel uncomfortably different from anyone?
LF. No, except in ways described above.
LV. Could you describe the social classes in New York? Have they changed since your were a child? Which do you belong to?
LF. I find it difficult to answer this question. I guess I was ‘middle class.’ But I was never conscious of class then. Not even when I was grown up and worked in Harlem, where class differences should have been obvious. I was aware of poor and not poor and rich – but never in an ideological sense. The racial and sexual differentials seemed more urgent. In New York, poverty was more evident among African Americans and Hispanic Americans than among ‘whites,’ and seemed more a consequence of race/ethnicity than of class, so I was working to help correct that imbalance, and also the aggression against and misunderstanding of women.
LV. Why did you leave New York?
LF. For many complex reasons.
LV. Was it an easy decision?
LF. Surprisingly, yes.
LV. If you were to decide to come and live in London again, would you still do it?
LF. You bet I would!
LV. What was the impact of London on you? How old were you when you came to London?
LF. I was 54. It made me happy. I’ve made a whole life here. It’s probably the best place in the world to live. I’m very lucky.
LV. Who were your literary friends in New York and who are now your literary friends in London?
LF. My friends in New York were the important feminist writers. We’ve just lost one of them, Andrea Dworkin. There is Susan Brownmiller, Grace Paley, Robin Morgan, Shere Hite – many others. Sometimes I see them when I go there or they come here. My literary friends in London are a legion! A hundred poets, perhaps. The ones I am closest to are not at all well-known – neither am I! – but they do very fine work.
LV. Where do you feel more at home, London or New York?
LF. In London.
LV. Does your poetry have traces of New York imagery? What is the emblematic feature of New York in your soul?
LF. Of course, my New York background is evident in my work. I am a quintessential New Yorker – and proud of it. My accent is undeniable. The ‘emblematic feature’ is my sense that I can do or be anything I want to; in a word, freedom. And, I suppose, optimism. And, I suppose, street-smarts. That’s a certain caution in the streets, knowing how to relate to really bizarre situations and surviving them. But I say this with my fingers crossed and knocking on wood.
June 12, 2005