'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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As far as narrative poetry goes: does anything in Western literature reach the heights of Job or Jonah? Many of the early Jewish immigrants to New York and Montreal wrote their Yiddish novels and stories and poems in the evenings and weekends after their release from the stifling sweatshops. And even in the Warsaw Ghetto, where living conditions were unimaginable, Jews kept their cabarets and theaters going. They wrote their poems and songs and kept their diaries, even as they were being carted to the camps. In this I see an ultimate defiance: The Shoah proved that European Christian culture was by and large a death culture. But we, as a people, did not give ourselves over to pessimism.

As a Jew growing up, I was always encouraged to question, to explore and be curious about the Other. Do you see the arts as a way to live within another’s experience or to hold another way of framing?

Yes. As human beings, we are stuck with our cultural precepts, our social perspectives and prejudices. How does one break out? How does one get beyond the limitations of self? Drugs are a possibility, but they offer limited advancement. I think the most effective way to transcend ourselves is via art. Watching a play or reading a novel, you identify and your sympathies are broadened or turned in an unexpected direction. With poetry, the experience can be even more intense. As you read the poem you actually become, for that moment, the poet. You see the world through his or her eyes. You go through what the ancients termed “a metamorphosis.” Of course, art does not always offer a fresh view. Sometimes — and I think this is just as important — it helps you to remember some truth you had conveniently forgotten. Art has that therapeutic power to recapture your deepest self.

Do you believe that by creating art we invite the heart to go out and house itself in something other than its illusion of separateness?

Goethe wrote, “Humans can find no better retreat from the world than art, and humans can find no stronger link with the world than art” — a great saying, since it reflects the complex truth that for artist and audience, art is an isolating and bonding experience. The writer sits alone in her study, but in the end her book connects her to the many. A man sits alone in a chair reading the book, and when he is finished his sympathies for others are renewed.

What is the relationship between art and dreams?

To best answer this, let me refer to a poem I’ve already mentioned: Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” It touches upon many aspects we have discussed. At the start of the poem, the narrator feels “drowsy” and wonders if he’s been drugged. Then he hears the voice of the nightingale and he’s carried away to meditate eloquently on the passage of time, human suffering and death. Though his subject matter is sad, he’s carried along by the power of his language, just as the bird is carried along by its song. In the final stanza, the narrator awakes from his poetic reverie and regrets being returned to his “sole self.” He complains that his imagination cannot cheat reality, cannot undo the knowledge of death and suffering. And as he’s awakened, he wonders whether the preceding seven stanzas — perhaps the most brilliant poetry ever written — constitute poetic “vision” or mere “dream.” And he concludes by asking, “do I wake or sleep?” Keats is posing a great philosophical question: Is art an illusion, a means of avoiding the harsh truths, a kind of sleep? Or does art awaken us to reality? I am grateful that Keats made no attempt to answer his own question.

Laura Albert is the author of “Sarah” and “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” published under the name JT LeRoy. She wrote the screenplay for Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and has written for the HBO series “Deadwood.”


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