'Elephant' Woman Meets 'Elephant' Man

Laura Albert in Conversation With Poet Kenneth Sherman

Alexandra Dean Grossi

By Laura Albert

Published December 26, 2012.
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Kenneth Sherman’s collection of poems “Words For Elephant Man” was first published in 1983 and has just been rereleased by Porcupine’s Quill. It reads with the richness typical of a painting or a novel — so moving at times that I found myself weeping. It is hard to keep in mind that one is not hearing the actual voice of the so-called “Elephant Man” Joseph Merrick, so strongly felt is the authenticity of the outsider who longs to be welcomed in, which Sherman renders with restrained, elegant strokes. I felt I had taken an emotional and visual journey — something I’ve come to expect from reading a novel, but not always from a collection of poems.

Laura Albert: What inspired the re-release of this book?

Kenneth Sherman: “Words for Elephant Man” has been kept in print for 30 years. It is a unique book of poetry, as the text is interspersed with etchings by the well-known print-maker, George Raab, that help to evoke Merrick’s period, the Victorian age. My current publishers are renowned for their exquisitely produced books of literature and approached me about an upgraded edition.

Why is the book pertinent now?

There is undoubtedly something timeless about Joseph Merrick’s story, which is one of compassion and dignity in an impossible struggle with misfortune. And yet it is particularly pertinent today for two reasons. The increased use of electronic social media is working to eliminate the sense of individuality that was embedded in our older print culture. I believe this book reminds us of the nobility of the individual; it’s an affirmation of our essential humanity. The second reason is subtler. Alienation is a product of any technological society and yet this alienation is being hidden, or glossed over, by social media. Chat rooms are no cure. Merrick’s tribulations are a reminder of our essential aloneness.

As I read “Words for Elephant Man” I felt I was completely inside of Joseph Merrick’s head. It captures the sense of alienation and longing to belong so very poignantly. You have written about the Jewish outsider in “What the Furies Bring,” which examines several Jewish writers on the outside. I can’t help feeling that your acute sensitivity to outsiders in general is informed by your work about the Jew as outsider. The end of the poem “Everything” reminded me of the Jews who originally ran the Hollywood studios and had the tools to tell stories but also accommodated the dualism of being a Jew.


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