They Become Stars: History as Poetry

They Become Stars by Liz Marlow was the Slapering Hol Press’s 2019 Chapbook winner.

A Conversation with Deborah Kahan Kolb

When I first held Liz Marlow’s chapbook They Become Stars (Slapering Hol Press, 2020) in my hands, I was struck by the beauty of this finely crafted book. It’s a work of art to be carefully read and absorbed. The haunting photos, on the cover and throughout the slim volume, demand to be noticed, as Marlow’s poems about one of history’s darkest eras demand space in the reader’s heart and mind.

I reached out to the author to ask her about her inspiration and process for this work.

Deborah Kahan Kolb: First of all, congratulations on winning the 2019 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition. How would you describe your experience working with the editors of Slapering Hol Press as they shepherded your chapbook into being?

Liz Marlow: Thank you! I had an incredible experience working with the editors of Slapering Hol Press. They believed in my chapbook and provided solid suggestions for revision but gave me the creative license to revise as much as I wanted. However, I found that all of their suggestions and questions helped elevate my work in one way or another. Even if I thought that one of the editors might have misunderstood a line, I took it to heart and saw that the entire line or stanza was weak and needed to be revised. Even though the chapbook was published over a year ago, I have applied their general suggestions (such as playing more with enjambment and connecting images more thematically) to poems that I have recently drafted. I honestly could not have imagined a better experience.

DKK: Your work touches me deeply, not only because of its evident merit but because the subject speaks to me personally, as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. Many Holocaust poems I’ve come across treat the topic in overarching, all-encompassing terms. Yet you manage to individualize the general atrocities, even to the point of making this brutal time in history accessible, in a way, by detailing specific places, names, and dates. What inspired you to delve into the particular historical figure of Chaim Rumkowski?

LM: My great-grandparents’ brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and cousins did not have the means to come to the United States before World War II. As far as we know, all of those family members perished in the Holocaust, because my great-grandparents stopped receiving mail from family members in Europe shortly after Germany invaded Poland. I wanted to piece together what happened to them. As I researched towns in which I know for certain my family lived and potential ghettos where they might have been deported, I stumbled upon Chaim Rumkowski: Judenrat Chairman of the Łódź Ghetto. What drew me first to him was the fact that he was both a victim of Nazi exploitation and a sexual predator. Some historians believe that had the war ended a year before it did, he would have been considered a hero for how many Jews he saved, because the Łódź Ghetto was the last that the Nazis liquidated due to him establishing more than a hundred factories inside the ghetto for Nazi supplies. As arguably the most powerful Judenrat Chairman in Nazi Germany, there is no way of knowing exactly how many women and children he sexually molested. Therefore, as I read about him, I wanted to give those powerless children a voice in my work. My goal was to get as specific as I could so that a reader could not walk away without remembering what happened to these children. I wanted these dead children to regain power. Even though he was an extreme personality, there were many extreme situations during the Holocaust, and over two hundred thousand Jews were sent to the Łódź Ghetto throughout World War II. Since he was Judenrat Chairman of the ghetto from its establishment in October 1939 until its liquidation in August 1944, his influence and power affected all of those people.  Additionally, even though these poems are detailed with specific dates, the experiences are universal in many ways in how some people in power exploit the powerless and in how some individuals will do whatever it takes to survive difficult situations while others give up.

DKK: Throughout the collection, but especially for speakers Miriam and Shayna, you use strong, colorful images of candy and fruit: “green gummy bears,” “tart apples,” the colors and flavors of “candy pebbles” in “Miriam Arrives at Chaim Rumkowski’s Orphanage”; and “plump/like plums” and “overripe cherries” in “Shayna Sees Chaim Rumkowski for the First Time.” Can you describe the connection of these images to the work as a whole?

LM: Because most people who have read about the Holocaust remember images of Muselmänner—starving humans reduced to skin and bones, I thought that the juxtaposition of starvation with descriptions of types of food that Jews had little or no access to in the ghetto world (such as fruit), would emphasize that hunger. In my mind, a person like Shayna, in her hunger, would be obsessed with food and see it everywhere—even in people’s faces. Additionally, Chaim Rumkowski was known for sexually exploiting women and children in the ghetto and in the orphanage where he worked before the war. To me, that was an extra layer of horror during an already horrific time for Jews. As I read about him, what struck me the most was the fact that he had control over who received the limited special food items (such as candy and fruit) and used that control specifically for the exploitation of children. Therefore, I was drawn towards using candy throughout the chapbook to highlight that exploitation.

DKK: Music—its sound and texture, its instruments, its connection to memory—is another powerful vehicle that drives many of your poems. How do you use music to convey ideas as they relate to the sounds of the Holocaust?

LM: It was extremely important to me that music be a driving force in the chapbook, because I had based the character, Miriam, on a real young musician Holocaust victim who loved music and played extremely well for how young she was up until Rumkowski molested her. Because she haunted me while I wrote the chapbook, there were times that I tried to imagine how she would describe the world around her. For example, even though the child that Miriam was based on had already died (via a Nazi guard) when the Vel d’Hiv roundup took place, I had her in mind when I wrote the “sound” section of “Vel d’Hiv Roundup of 7,000 Jews Detained in a Cycling Arena.”

DKK: The ghostly photographs included in the book add an element of otherworldliness to a collection rooted in the specifics of the young victims’ lived realities, their suffering and terror. What do the photos of these children express and how do they add texture to your poems?

LM: Lynn Butler created the double exposure photographs used for the cover and pages in the chapbook, which include a Jewish orphanage in France where all but three of forty children died in Auschwitz, overlaid with those child victims. Because the first three poems of the chapbook take place in a Jewish orphanage in Łódź, I thought of Lynn Butler’s work as photopoetry to accompany my poems. Since the photos of the children are negatives, they are ghostly. Even though her photos are from a different orphanage than the one I wrote about, they are appropriate to me because out of over 10,000 known school children from the Łódź Ghetto, there were only 27 known survivors. Miriam is a ghost. Shayna is a ghost. The children dancing on the cover of my chapbook are ghosts. I tried to do what Lynn Butler did with her photos—put faces to child victims from the Holocaust. Lynn Butler’s photos of the children were originally included in The Children of Izieu: A Human Tragedy by Serge Klarsfeld. I am extremely grateful that she worked with Serge Klarsfeld and the editors at Slapering Hol Press so that those photos could be included in my chapbook.  

DKK: Tell us about the Stars in the title of your book. I suspect there’s more to the title than the obvious connection to the yellow “Jude” stars of Nazi Germany.

LM: The title came from a poem that was originally published in Wilderness House Literary Review. This poem was included as an introductory poem in earlier drafts of They Become Stars, but I ended up taking it out, because its form did not fit with the rest of the chapbook.

Exits

cities’ stale facades crumble
like stacks of crackers
roaches, rats got into
everyone
exits

on never-ending roads
made of death
marches
cattle cars
gas
vans

each pebble forming roads
represents a lost man
woman child stars
become them
as they
become
stars

I wanted readers to make connections to celebrity, since I am sure that a large part of why Chaim Rumkowski did what he did was to survive the war and be praised as a hero for saving so many lives due to the choices he made (or rather, the choices that Nazis encouraged him to make). He wanted the power and status that people associate with celebrity—this is why he rode through the ghetto in a horse-drawn carriage while other inhabitants were crawling and starving to death. Another reason for Stars was the obvious association with celestial bodies: 6,000,000 people who wore yellow stars died. That is such a large number that is like looking up at the sky in the desert and trying to count the stars.

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this interview. I am extremely grateful for you giving They Become Stars such a close read and coming up with such insightful questions.


Liz Marlow’s debut chapbook, They Become Stars, was the winner of the 2019 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition and was published in 2020. Additionally, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Bitter Oleander, The Rumpus, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee with her husband and two children. Find more at lizmarlow.com


Title: They Become Stars
Author: Liz Marlow
Publisher: Slapering Hol Press, 2020
Price: $15


Deborah Kahan Kolb is the author of Escape of Light and Windows and a Looking Glass, a finalist for the New Women’s Voices Chapbook Contest (Finishing Line Press). Much of her work is informed by the unique experiences and challenges of growing up in the insular world of Hasidic Judaism. Deborah is a two-time recipient, for poetry and fiction, of the Bronx Council on the Arts BRIO Award, and her work has been selected as a finalist for the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Award and an Honorable Mention for the 2019 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. Deborah is the producer of the award-winning short film Write Me, adapted from her poems. Her writing is published in 3Elements Review, Lunch TicketMom Egg Review, PRISMRise Up Review, The New Verse NewsVerse Daily, and others. Deborah is currently at work on a novel of linked short stories. For more, please visit deborahkahankolb.com.


Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe Online.

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