Our Mothers Ourselves

Anne Halley -- Feminist Poet and Mother of Three

May 24, 2020 Katie Hafner Season 1 Episode 3
Our Mothers Ourselves
Anne Halley -- Feminist Poet and Mother of Three
Chapters
Our Mothers Ourselves
Anne Halley -- Feminist Poet and Mother of Three
May 24, 2020 Season 1 Episode 3
Katie Hafner


Katie talks with art historian Peter Chametzky about his mother, the feminist poet Anne Halley, whose family fled Nazi Germany for the United States  in the 1930s. Halley's Holocaust poems are haunting and precise. Her "housewife" poems are by turns funny and searing. 

Show Notes Transcript


Katie talks with art historian Peter Chametzky about his mother, the feminist poet Anne Halley, whose family fled Nazi Germany for the United States  in the 1930s. Halley's Holocaust poems are haunting and precise. Her "housewife" poems are by turns funny and searing. 

Katie Hafner :

Welcome to Our Mothers Ourselves. My guest today is Peter Chametzky. He's here to talk with me about his mother, the very wonderful poet Anne Halley. Halley came to my attention after I did a show a couple of weeks ago, about one of my high school teachers in Amherst, Massachusetts. A friend from Amherst heard that show and she said, "You should talk to Peter Chametzky about his mother." To which I said, "Who is Peter Chametzky's mother?" Anne Halley was born in Germany in 1928. Her parents were both doctors and her father was Jewish. He fled the Nazis in 1936 and was joined by the rest of his family a couple of years later. Anne and her twin sister Renata were nine years old when they arrived. Halley's first volume of poems "Between Wars, and Other Poems," was published in 1965. Her poems about the Holocaust are haunting and precise. The ones she calls her housewife poems are searing. She died in 2004. Peter Chametzky is the youngest of Halley's three sons. He's a professor of art history at the University of South Carolina, and he's the author of the forthcoming book, "Turks, Jews and other Germans in Contemporary Art." Peter Chametzky, I want to thank you so much for being here to talk with me about your mother Anne Halley.

Peter Chametzky :

You're welcome, Katie. Thanks for asking me.

Katie Hafner :

I want to jump right in and have you read a poem that you've picked out. I have to tell you, I keep thinking it's called "Sunday in the Park with the Germans." Yeah, this is not Sondheim. It's a very, it's a it's a heavy poem. So why don't you give me some context and then go straight into the reading.

Peter Chametzky :

Okay, this is a poem, I'm really only going to read the first stanza of three. It's called "Germans in the Sunday Park." It's from my mother's first book "Between Wars, and Other Poems," which was published in 1965. And it has a lot to do with her childhood, between First and Second World Wars in Germany. And I picked this poem out because I think mom would have wanted me to be a little personal and self promotional to I actually use this stanza in the last chapter of a book that I've just written, that's called "Turks, Jews and other Germans in Contemporary Art." And I've just sent a version of it back to MIT Press, which is planning to publish it in the fall of 2021. So that's my self-promotion there. And I use it in the chapter that's called Spaces and Times. And it's about specific spaces in Germany that evoke historical times and in many cases, say, the Holocaust. And I write about an artist in Dresden named Marianne Kahnemann, a contemporary German Jewish artist who's done a piece that are it's three benches in different parks in Dresden. And next to the benches, there are bronze plaques in the ground that quote the Law of 1940 that banned Jews from public parks. And so that's, I bring it in there in this this part of the poem and I just say at that point in the book that her piece reminded me of this poem, "Germans in the Sunday Park." Germans in the Sunday Park, Ein Volk, family whose speech I try to hear all common places. They're blonde enough, like me, plain people we would have called them, at home, between wars. When gracious in possession we could grow learned, good, lucky. Could buy some knowledge cheap. Sniff the sour baby and turnip steam. The curtain beds and hallways, stale air from housework rags. Moisture from swamps, under Alfreda's apron, and the arms rattling our pails and coal. She ate fast and wore drab. Meanwhile, I learned in school, don't look at all at naked heads sheared of their lice and pride. That's the end of the first stanza. So yeah, they're in the Sunday Park. And yeah, it does remind now of Sondheim, kind of very common and beloved space in Germany, and usually well-tended places. Where people of various different classes, ethnicities, and today races mingle, but there's this idea of a certain division between them in the poem. Who are the actual Germans? Are the Jews German? And then at the end of that stanza there is that kind of foreshadowing of the Holocaust with the sheared heads and the feeling of pride being stripped, as well as looking for lice.

Katie Hafner :

Yes, sheared heads is is such an enduring image from the Holocaust, isn't it?

Peter Chametzky :

Yes. Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

Tell me what you know about her childhood.

Peter Chametzky :

Um, she had a good early childhood, funny enough and I guess you're asking that because, I mean, we jump to the chase. She had to flee Nazi Germany. But she was born in 1928. In Bremerhaven, Germany, which is a port city up in the north. Both of her parents were doctors. They were both general practitioners. My grandfather was Jewish. My grandmother was not, but she grew up in a, you know, comfortable environment. She had a twin sister, an older brother, a loving aunt. And so it was really kind of idyllic. The irony of it is she was born on November 9th, that's prior to we think of November 9th, perhaps as the the Reich's Kristallnacht, the pogrom in November of 1938. But the reason that happened then was that that was the date that the Weimar Republic was declared after the First World War. It's a date that the Nazis then went out and celebrated after they came to power in 1933. So in her earliest memory, some of our earlier memories when she's five, six years old, she thought these big Nazi celebrations and marches were in honor of her and her sister's birthday. So that's how kind of sheltered she was. But she was a little kid.

Katie Hafner :

There's something that we're going to get to later, which is a recording of your mother doing a reading. And the woman who introduces her who acts as the host, says, when she's giving biographical information about your mother, she says, "Oh, yes, she was the daughter of a Jewish father and German mother." And I thought, "Isn't that interesting that she put it that way?"

Peter Chametzky :

I know. Yeah. It's this idea that there are Germans and there are Jews. That's certainly what people would have thought in Nazi Germany, and we try not to continue those types of thinking. I mean, my grandfather was about as German as you could be. Now, he was a World War One veteran as a doctor. He was in a Jewish crushing dueling fraternity when he was in medical school. And he probably would have In Germany, but according to the stories I heard, it was really her who insisted that they needed to leave as well as the police chief in Bremerhaven, who was a friend of my grandfather's who recommended at a certain point that it wasn't wise for him to stay any longer. My grandfather left in 1936. My grandmother followed in '37, they brought their son but they thought, since they weren't yet settled, that wouldn't be right to bring the two little girls. They had been staying with their aunt, who was my grandmother's sister, so a non-Jewish aunt in Bremerhaven. And so, you know, and they were still going to school there. I do know, at some point, the officials came to her and said, "Oh, how can you be taken care of these two girls, you know, mature, who have a job. Maybe we need, maybe the state needs to take care of them." And that did not happen. She was able to protect them. My mother went to, she gets to the United States in 1938 does her, you know, end of elementary school, junior high, high school and at 16 she and her sister Renata both went to Wellesley.

Katie Hafner :

16? Was that common?

Peter Chametzky :

They were just ready to go, I guess. And, and I, my understanding then is like my grandparents went in and talked to the principal of the school and they said "Yes, Max, their older brother will go to Harvard, and the girls will go to Wellesley." So then she became she really became a writer. She had been writing already, but she had a great writing teacher and mentor at Wellesley, Mary Doyle Curran and then she went to the University of Minnesota to pursue a PhD in English. In 1949. My father arrived the next year from Brooklyn College, I believe, I'm not sure if this is the first time they met but my mother was the grad assistant in a class that Robert Penn Warren, the writer, was teaching. And I think my father was in the class.

Katie Hafner :

What is your earliest memory, from your point of view as a little kid, of your mother producing poetry?

Peter Chametzky :

That's a good question. It's hard for me to say. I mean, I was born in 1958. You know, I remember her first book coming out in 1965, when I was six or seven. Between Wars, and Other Poems.

Katie Hafner :

And so did you try to understand what she was doing in her poetry? How would you describe what you as a small child understood, and now what you came to understand later?

Peter Chametzky :

Yeah, that's a good question. I understood the words I didn't understand the meaning. It's pretty straightforward English, though with a German in it. Often, but there were I always say there's one poem in that first book Between Wars, and Other Poems, which is, starts with the line, "you can eat your cake and have it, but only if you eat to vomit." And my brothers and I always thought that was such a funny line, funny poem, but it's not a funny poem at all. You know, it's totally about, you know, it's a Holocaust related poem.

Katie Hafner :

So what does that first line mean?

Peter Chametzky :

Well, I mean, it means that you can, has to do with rescue, restitution and so forth. Things that happen after the war, when you know, my grandparents got a little bit of money for the house that they had lost in Bremerhaven. You can enjoy something, I think. You can, yeah, take the money, but it's always going to be a little bit sickening. The reason that you're getting it.

Katie Hafner :

Oh, wow. So, do you have a memory of where she would go to write in the house or what her rhythm her writing?

Peter Chametzky :

She wrote at night, if we're talking about the period, you know, through the '60s, you know, we had three boys. I was born in '58. My two older brothers, one born in '53, one born in '56. So, you know, there was a lot of stuff going on in the house, my father was teaching intensively at the university, and she and she was somewhat she didn't see what she was doing as being this sacred calling, you know, like, I am the great artist, don't bother me, and I think she was way too much of a feminist from early on, to behave in that way. Not that a feminist necessarily couldn't, but I know you know, Andrew was steeped in and rejecting a kind of German notion, you know, the idea like Thomas Mann would, you know, lock in himself his study and the kids they were not allowed to come in until called and so forth. Yeah, she totally, I think, rejected that kind of idea that, you know, I and she wrote poems about that too. In fact, particularly in her second book, The Bearded Mother, were there she writes poems that are funny kind of making fun of this whole idea of the divine inspiration. I think she saw it more as, you know, her vocation or profession, something that she was trained to do, and he needed to do certainly do it. I don't think anyone does any art, unless they feel like they have to do it. But I don't think he was not something that that banished us from her existence or that.

Katie Hafner :

And what's your memory of how your father reacted to her poetry or gave her space to be a poet?

Peter Chametzky :

Well, I think he loved it. I know he loved it. And I think he, you know, he was very supportive of her writing, you know, and if anything, probably wanted her to, you know, do more, be more. And this is probably would be a kind of typical thing to, you know, be more proactive, as they say today in terms of, you know, advancing her career, promoting her career, I think maybe early on, maybe even later, you know, she wouldn't want him to, you know, read and critique what she was doing, and probably vice versa too. He was an English professor. One line I remember though, from that kind of family lore is that when my mother was studying with and working with Penn Warren, that apparently he said in a class one day, "I don't know if Miss Halley knows more than the rest of us, but she certainly writes it better."

Katie Hafner :

Did she read poetry to you and when you were kids?

Peter Chametzky :

Well rhymes and things like that. You know, she wasn't reading us, either her poetry or you know, serious poets. Certainly plenty of Nursery Rhymes, plenty of Mother Goose. And Edward Lear, the nonsense books of Edward Lear. Yeah, she read to us and so did my father.

Katie Hafner :

When you were growing up, did she seem like other moms who, you know would greet you after school with a plate of cookies?

Peter Chametzky :

She baked a little she was not a big baker. Yes. And no. I mean, she did the regular mom stuff, cooking dinner cleaning thing, but I always felt like she was a little bit different, though. And you said at the beginning that we're both from Amherst. So I think you would notice the difference between you know, the town gown and the intellectuals and oh, there's more but my mother was very, and my father they were very comfortable with everybody, I'd say and something I said before, you know, my mother was from very early on a feminist. And she, you know, treated pretty much everyone the same. She was not in awe of the great, you know, professors and writers. And I remember saying once late in life saying, "Yeah, you know, maybe we should have taught you more about, you know, how to hammer nails or something." We sort of thought that language was enough. And she was kind of starting to question that whether language was enough.

Katie Hafner :

Mm hmm. Do you happen to know if she admired another Amherst townie? Emily Dickinson-

Peter Chametzky :

Emily? Oh, sure. Oh, yeah, definitely.

Katie Hafner :

Of course. Who wouldn't?

Peter Chametzky :

Course.

Katie Hafner :

Right? Okay, so we I've got this cued up. Got so you sent me something from 1965 that was a reading that your mom did. I guess at UMass, right?

Peter Chametzky :

WFCR5 college radio. Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

Right. And back in 1965 it was called four college radio.

Peter Chametzky :

Right. Hampshire didn't exist yet, right?

Katie Hafner :

Hampshire didn't exist yet. So um, I was gonna play that for you this one poem that isolated but the woman who's hosting it, and I don't know who that is. She said, she was quoting a critic who said poems are most powerful when they're autobiographical. And so, your mother introduced these, as she said, "Well, I do have some," You know, she had before that she read some of these very dark poems about about Germany and the Holocaust and the rise of the Nazis. And then she said, "Well, I do have some housewife poems."

Peter Chametzky :

Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

So as long as we're talking about your mother as a mom, I thought we would play this. And one thing that you said, and maybe you could remark on this before we play it, is that you said that her voice in this sounds different than what it developed into.

Peter Chametzky :

Yeah, it might be what it was in 1965. And I just don't remember it. And of course, when you're with someone year after year after year, you don't really notice how their voice is changing. But I think there's a little bit of, you know, performativity going on there, you know, of coming out of the '50s background of you know, what a poetic voice should sound like and I think, later on, her reading voice sounded just kind of more like her own and was. Anyway, I think it's a good reading, but go ahead.

Katie Hafner :

Yeah. And also, she said in this that she didn't give her poems titles. That like Dickinson, the first line tended to be the title. So here we go:

Anne Halley :

I have some what I call housewife poems.

Radio Host :

Good, let's have a housewife poem.

Anne Halley :

This is actually a kind of prayer or spiritual exercise. Dear God, the day is gray. My house is not in order. Lord, the dust sifts through my rooms and with my fear I sweep mortality. Outwear my brooms, but not this leaning floor which lasts and groans. I walking here still loathe the labors I would love and hate the self. I cannot move. And God, I know the unshined boards, the flaking ceiling, various stains that not all these distempered goods, the greasy cloths, the jagged tins, the dog that paws the garbage cans. I know what labor brings love and pains my blood goodwill, yet will not give the knot of hair that clogs the drains clots in my throat, my dying, thrive. The refuse, Lord, that I put out, burns, in vast pits incessantly. All piecemeal, death, trash, undevout and sullen sacrifice to Thee.

Katie Hafner :

Okay, before we get into some of the imagery in that poem like the clogged sink clotting in her throat, I have to tell you that I was sitting there listening to this thinking, "Okay, there's your mother sitting in the radio studio. And is she thinking to herself as she reads this poem? 'Oh, crap. Did I forget to take the roast beef out of the oven?'" My question here, you know, some of that imagery is really powerful.

Peter Chametzky :

Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

And this would this would seem to be a woman who didn't really she really did not love the housewives' lot.

Peter Chametzky :

Yeah, I don't think she didn't love doing it though. She took she took pleasure in getting things cleaner, like anyone does. Different that this this particular poem, I remember that it got attention at that time. Because I can remember it. And I'm not sure exactly why. It's a wonderful poem, but why this one got picked out, particularly for that attention, somebody else could figure that out. I'm not an expert on poetry. It's interesting all the invocations to God and the Lord in it. You know, my mother was not religious. And I think I mentioned to you before that, like looking for some things about her or looking to see if I could find something online, you know, some publication or something, I ran across one of these paper mills, places where students can buy, you know, term papers, and I could see, you know, the first page of one that they were offering that was about this poem. So apparently, someone in a writing class must have been teaching this at some point if they thought that some paper should get ground out and it interpreted that Anne was a Puritan upset about, you know, her relationship to God.

Katie Hafner :

Did she believe in God?

Peter Chametzky :

You know, I don't think she believed in God. But I think she liked the idea of God, as God has been represented in art and in literature. I also see this poem, and again, I'm not an expert on poetry, it's sort of fitting into certain I see it kind of like in T. S. Eliot kind of tradition, like, Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, or something, this direct address from the speaker and a certain amount of foreboding in it. But but but I think important delay, certainly from a woman's point of view, and that's something that she was doing from very early on in her poetry and I think took some criticism for it all that, oh, what's all this kitchen sink imagery?

Katie Hafner :

So when you were little and people would say what do your parents do, what was your answer?

Peter Chametzky :

Professor, I was I had a little lisp. My father is a professor. And although he said no don't say that just say I'm a teacher. My mother was also teaching at the time of Between Wars, she was teaching part time at the university. I think they had a rule that you couldn't have a married couple on the same faculty as full-time faculty. And so the women could never be full-time. She-

Katie Hafner :

Hold on one second, let's go back for a sec. You said you couldn't have a couple on the same faculty. So the women couldn't be full time?

Peter Chametzky :

That was the assumption then that, you know, the wives were kind of just the trailing spouse.

Katie Hafner :

Harrumph!

Peter Chametzky :

Yeah. Well, I agree. Well, she, anyway, she taught at Holyoke Community College for about 10 years or so and founded their writing program. And I think she was very committed to that, to the types of students she was teaching there, you know, working classmates from Holyoke, and again, her, her mentor, Mary, came out of the working class in Holyoke and wrote this great Holyoke novel that gets taught in a lot of women's studies courses now. Remarkable novel on the Parish and the Hill. And then she resigned at a certain point when her writing career seemed to be kind of taking off, and that's when a story called The Kaiser's Horses got accepted by the New Yorker and got to the end, as soon as it got accepted by the New Yorker, she got like, contacted by literary agent. She got a contract for a novel with Random House. And she wrote the novel, and the story got to the very point of being, you know, in the galleys in the New Yorker typeface and everything, and they never published it. And I don't know whatever happened with that, but they never published it. And then when she delivered her, her book to Random House, they didn't publish it either. And it was like something had happened. If anybody ever really does some academic research on my mother, they should maybe try to get into those files at the New Yorker and find out what happened, because that really sucked.

Katie Hafner :

Do you think Random House dropped the novel because the story didn't get published?

Peter Chametzky :

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think I think their, I think their excuse was, "Oh, it's not the novel we thought it would be." And that may be true. But, you know, Jesus, don't you like, you know, you look into these things, you read the person's or, you know, I think they were thinking it was going to be a more, my mother was a, you know, a modernist type writer. This wasn't going to be, you know, kind of quick, easy read. A light read. You know, it's gonna be more along the lines of, you know, Virginia Woolf then along the lines of I don't know who I don't want to compare it to anyone. So, you know, she was experimenting with language. So yeah, they decided it wasn't what they wanted. I think if the New Yorker had published the story, but yeah, I think it would have been different. Maybe we'll still get it. Maybe we'll get published. I just had a friend in Germany, who's a translator said, "Oh, I just found in her files, a copy of that. Do you want me to translate a few pages?" And then maybe I'll and she's also a writer, show it to my agent and see if some German presses interested in a translation. I said, "Sure." And she has a, you know, there are people in Germany, that's where there's been a little bit of academic writing about her work. And there are people there who are very supportive, and because he was very supportive of a lot of, particularly women, academics and women in general, early in their careers, many of whom then later became, you know, ever famous, esteemed. I've heard a few of them say, "Oh, yeah, your mother was the first person who took me seriously." And I think I think for a certain generation of German women, maybe she was a kind of substitute mother figure. And one who was also an intellectual and a writer, and supportive.

Katie Hafner :

Tell me if you could point to one thing you wish she could see in your life now, what would it be?

Peter Chametzky :

Hmm. Well, I think, you know, my, my daughter growing up, though, her one granddaughter and her for her to be able to read Halley's poetry. That would be great. Though not to neglect the boys either. She loved them too. I would like for her to have been able to read my forthcoming book, that would be interesting. But yeah, just normal. Just life things. You know have another Thanksgiving. Another Passover. Yeah, we all miss that.

Katie Hafner :

Well, what a life. Tell me one, I'm going to ask you one last question. At the end of her life, did she say ever say, "No, I had, it's been a wonderful life..."

Peter Chametzky :

Unfortunately, no. But but the way she died is that, you know she was- She got multiple myeloma, cancer of the blood and bone marrow, and it really was diagnosed too late. So things went very quickly, and she had been fine. You know, she was totally fine until like the spring of 2004. And then, you know, she started feeling crummy. And then they got this diagnosis. And she died in July. But yeah, I don't think unfortunately, I don't think she really got a chance to be retrospective like that. But she would have said that and she was very brave person. And she did. She had said many times, I think I said before she was a little bit fatalistic, morbid. And she had said previously now, you know before she got cancer that she was not afraid of dying. And I think I don't think she said it like that she said I am not afraid of not existing. So in a kind of existential way she sent in the idea of nothingness. And again, I think that was rooted in her past that she, though, you know, she's not someone who went through, you know, the deep horrors of the Holocaust herself. She's not a survivor of a concentration or death camp. But I think she always felt that kind of survivor's guilt that she had gotten out and others had not.

Katie Hafner :

I want to thank you so much for for doing this, Peter. It was really eye-opening.

Peter Chametzky :

Yeah, it's interesting and probably... Yeah, not something I could have done. Maybe I could have done ten years ago. Okay. But yeah, it's been over fifteen years now since she died. So, yeah.

Katie Hafner :

You mean not something you could have done-

Peter Chametzky :

Well, you know, emotionally and just kind of thinking about this. That loss and a life lived and... but she would have been the first to say, you know, this is not a tragedy.

Katie Hafner :

Peter Chametzky. Thank you so much for talking to me about your mom.

Peter Chametzky :

Thank you. Thank you, Katie.

Katie Hafner :

And that's it this week for Our Mothers Ourselves. I had editing help this week from Rachel Shanor. Andrea Perry composed and performed out theme song, and our artist in residence is Paula Mangin. I'm your host Katie Hafner. Have a great week and stay safe. (This transcript was proofread by Benjy Wachter. Thank you, Benjy!)