Moving Words: An Interview with Deborah Kahan Kolb
I first encountered the magic that is Deborah Kahan Kolb when I interviewed her for another writing project.
Right away, I could tell that Deborah is something special. She combines the deep, sincere vulnerability of a poet with an intellect that flashes and cuts like a diamond—a combination that made her very difficult to keep up with during our conversations, by the way, as it seemed like every phrase she spoke was such a profound and well-put truth that I wanted to make sure I got it all written down right. (And yes, I could’ve recorded our conversations, but I find I process things better when I write them down. Or at least I did up until now.)
In talking to Deborah, I also discovered a brand-new art form, at least for me: that of videopoetry, or poetry turned into short films. So, when thinking of my first piece for Pipeline Artists—a platform for creatives of all kinds, aimed at transcending and blurring genres—I immediately thought of Deborah. I reached out to see if she’d be willing to talk with me again for this piece, and I was soon immersed in the new and wonderful world of visual poems.
As with so many artists, Deborah’s personal story is in itself deserving of a movie. She was born and raised in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, got married right out of high school, and had her first son right away. Pretty soon, however, she started to realize that this life looked a lot like the one her parents had led and probably their parents before them. It was a sweet and supportive group, she said, but also very insular and isolated. Deborah craved to know who she could become outside of the religious strictures she’d grown up with, to make her own choices, have her own agency.
So Deborah got a divorce, left the only family she’d ever known, and emerged into the “real” world as a very young, single mother. Working during the day and taking her son to classes at night, she gradually discovered who she really was—or, as she wrote in “Red Bird Rising,” a short story based on her upbringing: “She believe[d] she [could] see the faint flicker of flaming red wings shimmering at her back.”
Despite having left the Hasidic life, Deborah continued to explore what it means to be Jewish, both in a religious and a historical sense. The Holocaust in particular has been a frequent theme in her writing, because all four of her grandparents were in Nazi concentration camps. As she told me in our interview, it was “very much an imperative for me to carry the torch forward and be the bearer of witness after my grandparents … had all died.”
This bearing of witness includes a poem entitled “Re(vision),” written after Deborah and her new husband visited his 85-year-old uncle, Bernie, in Florida. Bernie was the only person left in either family who had survived the Holocaust, but this time, when they went to visit him, Deborah noticed that his arm no longer bore its Auschwitz tattoo.
“How could you do that?” Deborah asked. “Who’s going to bear witness now?”
To which Bernie answered, “I’m tired of the Nazis owning me. I wanted to start my life.”
Those words were a creative jumping off point of incredible potency for Deborah. After thinking about it some more, she realized that because the tattoo had been forced on Uncle Bernie in violence, he was the one who got to choose whether it stayed.
That led Deborah to wondering: what does it mean to have ownership of one’s own body? What is one’s responsibility to the greater whole versus oneself? She herself had had to destroy what she was in order to become something new. So, what if Uncle Bernie had to do the same? Wasn’t that his choice, as it had been hers?
And, following on that, a crucial question that has resonated for Deborah throughout her creative career: how to reach a larger audience with her message? With the living legacy dying out, how do we continue to tell Holocaust survivors’ stories in the most accessible way possible?
Deborah ended up sending “Re(vision),” the poem that resulted from this experience, to filmmaker Pearl Gluck. The two women shared common origins in the same Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn, which Pearl has also used to fuel a lifelong artistic exploration of identity, faith, and gender. Deborah felt that film would be a good way to “bridge the artistic divide” by reaching people who might not necessarily read poetry. Pearl agreed, and a videopoem was born.
Deborah worked with Pearl to produce a short film, Write Me, based on both her poem “Re(vision)” in combination with another, “After Auschwitz.” In the film—which I was lucky enough to watch from the comfort of my office, courtesy of the virtual Omaha Film Festival—we see scenes of an old woman (played by Lynn Cohen in one of her final roles) slowly, gently going about her day, interspersed with grittier, more hectic shots taken in a tattoo parlor.
There we see a young tattoo artist, her own arms covered in ink, silently helping other women cover up their old, faded tattoos. One of her subjects, heart thudding visibly under her skin as the camera focuses in on her stomach, has the words “Property of [a man’s name]” tattooed just above her pubic bone. Another has a bar code on the back of her neck, which she exposes to the tattoo artist for shaving in a moment of breathtaking vulnerability.
All the while, Deborah’s poem, “After Auschwitz,” is being read over the otherwise wordless film. It’s hard to tell at first how the two threads of story—this frail, elderly woman, who works at a library, and the young, motorcycle-riding tattoo artist—will intersect, but eventually we see the old woman pushing open the tattoo parlor door, equal amounts of fear and determination on her wrinkled face. When the artist comes over to her, the woman silently pushes up her sleeve to reveal a narrow, blue-veined arm, four faded digits still clearly tattooed on it just below the elbow. The movie closes as, without a word, the artist nods, closes the woman’s hand in hers, and gently pulls her sleeve back down.
Eight minutes of movie, zero spoken lines, and I still can barely write about it without crying. The power inherent in Deborah’s words, the skill of the actors, the juxtaposition of the poem’s harsh, accusatory lyricism with the everyday actions of the characters, and oh, that final reveal—even though I already knew what was coming, still it slayed me.
That impact was doubled when I learned that, in 2018, Pearl released a film about sex trafficking. Again, without a single word of dialogue, Write Me draws a clear line between the “ownership” the Nazis claimed over their victims’ bodies and the “ownership” modern sex traffickers exert over theirs. Those young women getting their tattoos covered up in Write Me were removing their own branding, also received in violence, and by doing so reclaiming their bodies and lives as their own. Talk about a gut punch. So much meaning, so much history, all conveyed in this deceptively simple package.
Deborah describes her poem “After Auschwitz” as a “call to poets to write for the people who can’t write for themselves”—we give life through our writing, she says. The poem and the film both end with the words “Write me,” which becomes a deliciously ambiguous homophone when read out loud. Deborah is urging us as writers, as creatives, to write/right ourselves even as we do the same for others.
Writing her own story has served Deborah well. Divorce would happen a third time in her life, to which her mother asked, "Who's going to want you now?"
Deborah simply responded, “It doesn’t matter who else is gonna want me. I want me.”
To my mind, she is a shining example of how best to fulfill that creative imperative—and she is not the only one inhabiting this brave new space between disciplines. During our conversation, she told me of an entire burgeoning art form centered around turning poetry into short films. Motion Poems is one of them, as is Moving Poems. Both are pioneers of a format they call videopoetry, “a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poetic juxtaposition of text with images and sound,” as described on the Moving Poems site.
Another group that Deborah alerted me to, the Visible Poetry Project, releases 30 visual poems over the 30 days of April, which is National Poetry Month. Their goal, implied by their organization’s name, is to “make poetry accessible, exploring how we can recreate and experience poems through the medium of film.”
After talking to Deborah and learning her story, after seeing Write Me, I could not be more excited about having discovered this new (to me) inter-genre artform. I have always loved poetry myself, even as a lovestruck teenager, when I recognized that it was a wonderful medium for pouring one’s heart out onto the page, using a minimum of carefully chosen words (don’t worry, I don’t try to write poetry anymore—I leave that up to the real artists, like Deborah). As a publishing professional, however, I know the realities of the market and how difficult it is to reach a larger audience.
To create a medium that brings words to life in a short, easily digestible format while still retaining all of their skill, their brutal beauty, their stark emotional punch?
Now that’s poetry.
*Feature Photo: Deborah Kahan Kolb / photo by Renee Dvir