‘Us the Children of History’: Blanka Zizka on There
At first glance, Etel Adnan’s book-length poem There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other, isn’t a natural candidate for adaptation into a play. There are no clearly delineated characters, or dialogue, or plot.
But the Wilma HotHouse Company of actors and its innovative director Blanka Zizka aren’t known for easy, conventional, or boring theater. A diverse group of local actors who meet regularly for artistic training and bonding, HotHouse uses diverse theatrical texts to explore the emotional core of language and relationships.
Etel Adnan’s poem was the very first piece of writing the company read when it began in 2015. As part of the 2019 Fringe Festival, Wilma HotHouse adapts There into an evocative theater piece co-created by Blanka Zizka (Wilma’s artistic director) and visual arts pioneer Rosa Barba. FringeArts’ guide editor Christopher Munden spoke to Blanka in June of 2019 about the meanings and context of this seminal work of contemporary poetry.
Christopher Munden: When did you encounter the poem?
Blanka Zizka: Etel is a close friend of Theodoros Terzopoulos, the director of and Ajax and Antigone [which the Wilma produced in 2013 and 2015, respectively] and he suggested that I read her work. And it was sitting on my desk when I started to work on HotHouse.
One of the reasons for HotHouse was to bring people of different histories and experiences together, and to work as a community, as people who care for each other and create together even though our experiences are very different. So I was thinking that I couldn’t find text that I could work on, because so much of the texts nowadays are written out of identity.
Christopher Munden: “Written out of identity”? What do you mean by that?
Blanka Zizka: By that I mean, that you have, let’s say an Asian writer, and so they are writing about Asian history, and so they are writing for Asian characters, and then they are having to work with Asian actors. But I had an Asian actor, a Black actor, a Nuyorican actor, white actors, Jewish actors. So how do you find text for a company like this? You can do classics, but I don’t want to live within the classics, so when I started the HotHouse, I wanted to have text in my mind, and I was a little bit in a panic, because I didn’t know quite what it was. Then this poem was sitting on my desk and I thought: that is exactly what I want to do. So it was the beginning of HotHouse, this text.
Christopher Munden: What from the text?
Blanka Zizka: We started with the first chapter, which is really beautiful.
Christopher Munden: It is. I loved the ending, “I threw my memories out the window and they …”
Blanka Zizka: “… and they came back.” She’s very influenced by Sufi poetry. I don’t know too much about it, but Sufis believe that the path to God is through self-knowledge, and through love, and both of these elements are present in the poem. When I talked to Etel Adnan, she said to me—these aren’t her exact words—“if you ask me what the poem is about, it is about love”.
I threw my memories out the window and they came back, alien, beggars, and witches, leaving me standing like a sword. Is that why the sun is so bleak when it looks at us, and why is there so much love under the heat and the truth?
Chris Munden: Reading your season booklet, most shows have a several paragraph description, but There has only two sentences.
Blanka Zinka: It’s difficult because there is no plot, so how do you describe it?
Christopher Munden: And yet there’s so much going on in the poem. It’s written in 1997 but it‘s prescient. The things she’s talking about are what people have been thinking about in this new millennium: identity, belonging, citizenship.
Blanka Zizka: Are you a human being when you don’t have a nation?
Christopher Munden: And then the conflict of civilizations too. This might be presentist, that I’m putting our current times on it.
Blanka Zizka: It has been there all in the 20th century, that was the beginning of it all, and now we’re just now seeing the consequences of what has been started already. Like global warming, we had information about that in the 1950s. She’s writing about that too, it’s in the last line.
Then we were visited by a creature not named by any of the gods and we called it Death, and it took power over us, and autumn on that first day started to shed yellowish leaves on our beds; then the trees stared at their own bareness and we didn’t come to their aid, did we?
Blanka Zizka: Do you know a little about Etel’s history?
Christopher Munden: No, I suppose not.
Blanka Zizka: She’s 93 years old. Her father was a Syrian Muslim working for the Ottoman Empire, speaking Turkish at home. Her mother was an Orthodox Greek and they had to move out of Turkey, because Turkey became too nationalistic for mixed marriages. They moved to Lebanon, where she was born in 1925. So that informed her sense of belonging.
Christopher Munden: Was Lebanon a country then? A French mandate?
Blanka Zizka: Right, a French mandate. It was a country, but it was new, very new. She was brought up in a mix of languages, she went to French school and then she moved to the United States and started to write in English. She writes all her works in English because she found the rhythms of English more closer to what she feels her voice is. With my actors I’m trying to find how you go from printed text to that essential place out of which the language was born. And Etel talks about the same thing with her paintings and writing, that she’s trying to find that source before the words were born in her art, and communicate that.
Christopher Munden: It sounds like the poem resonates with you both for the content but also the …
Blanka Zizka: I would call it aesthetic.
Who are we, us the children of History, whose, which period, which side of History, the wars or the poems, the queens or the strangers, on which side of whose History are we going to be? Are we going to be?
Christopher Munden: What kind of conversations about the poem are you having in workshops and rehearsals.
Blanka Zizka: We are playing with a lot of different ideas about how to approach the poem, because it isn’t meant to be theater. But one of the reasons why I love the poem is in the past, poems were always an oral expression. With printing we have become readers instead of listeners.
Christopher Munden: And our experience of poetry…
Blanka Zizka: It’s very private. And I thought with this poem, I wanted to hear it with many people in the room, and have it resonate in a space, and I want to give that original purpose of poetry to this poem.
Christopher Munden: It lends itself to that because it’s personal, it’s talking about self, but it uses “we” and “you” a lot, as if it’s inviting others to hear it.
Blanka Zizka: But also there are all these different voices within one person all the time, and the poem explores this. It’s a constant dialectic. There’s a thought expressed and then a thought comes in opposition. And so I’m playing with this idea that my actors are the voices inside of this one person. So one could say “Where are we? where?” another “There is a where,” another “because we are stubbornly.”
Where are we? where? There is a where, because we are stubbornly, and have been, and who are we, if not you and me?
Christopher Munden: Before I talked to you, I wondered what the poem meant to me. And what I thought was that it talks about how we define ourselves in the world through comparison—self-other, here-there, citizen-foreigner—and she plays with the boundaries between those things, their superficiality, and how we use both the opposition and also the boundary to define ourselves.
Blanka Zizka: What is the other? “The Light and Darkness of the Self and of the Other.” The other can be many different things.
Christopher Munden: It’s not clear, because it’s not supposed to be clear.
Blanka Zizka: Right, it can be part of yourself. It can be the moon.
Christopher Munden: The way she talks about “we,” “you.” Is it a lover? reader? companion? It’s not constant.
Blanka Zizka: Sometimes the ocean can be ocean, but sometimes it can be emotion inside of you? All this mystery is contained inside of those verses, and so to everybody who is in the audience or anybody who reads it will be having their own conversation with it and it will be always different.
Christopher Munden: That’s true.
Blanka Zizka: I come from a country that was devastated by the First and Second World Wars and then Communism, so I have a tendency to see darker things in the poem. But as we were working on it, it became clearer to me how much she’s talking about that search for love and that trust of living. I think the closest comparison to this poem I can think of is the soliloquies of Hamlet, because they’re about thinking it through.
Christopher Munden: Yeah, he’s talking about similar stuff. And it’s a self-reflection. I think you’re right that people will very much get different things out of it, and that’s intentional, but it talks about things we all feel, these universalities.
Blanka Zizka: Campbell [O’Hare] said after we worked on it, “I’m like a different person after the workshops, spending all this time with this text.” I don’t know that we change people through theater, but what I am doing myself is spending a little bit listening more to my inner voice. It asks you to listen to yourself again, ask yourself questions on a daily basis, and if you’re going to bed, start to think about nice moments that happened during the day. I’m not talking about meditation, but just paying attention more, paying attention to your life.
Christopher Munden: Gurdjieffian. What’s the buzzword? Mindfulness.
Blanka Zizka: Yeah, mindfulness. We are constantly digesting too much information. What do we do with that? This poem gave me an idea of how to think about my life, how to spend my time better than just feeding myself information. One of the things that we are talking about at the HotHouse is the idea of resisting answers and asking questions instead. You can say that’s kind of why I love the poem, because these questions go deeper and wider, and they—without aiming at it—lead you into self-reflection.
Christopher Munden: Even then, it’s a framed self-reflection. It’s a self-reflection without isolation.
Blanka Zizka: That’s the thing,
Christopher Munden: Because the poem doesn’t allow us to think of ourselves in isolation.
Blanka Zizka: It says that life is everywhere. Like in the last verse: If you fail to aid the trees, you are also destroying your own life. That’s the sense of the poem. “Are we going to be alright?”
What is here?: a place or an idea, a circle focused in God’s eye, a cosmic wave’s frozen frame, transient, doomed?
Here, where the heat mollifies, when the body surrenders before solicitations could reach it, and there, where the temperature boils the mind and makes it explode into sudden action; here is the point of no return …
What: There: In the Light and the Darkness of the Self and of the Other
When: September 11–22, 2019
Where: The Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street
Created by Blanka Zizka and Rosa Barba with the Wilma HotHouse
Feature photo by Rosa Barba