Photo by Louise Lyshoj

On "Bread"

Alan Elyshevitz

Never before have I written anything for a blog, literary or otherwise, so let me begin by thanking North American Review for this opportunity and Dana Levin for selecting my poem “Bread” as the winner of the James Hearst Poetry Prize. “Bread,” I suppose, falls into the category of documentary poetry. More often than I’d like to admit, I have no ideas, nothing compelling about which to write. At such times, I may use a legal or historical document to lubricate my imagination or as the basis for a new poem. In the past, I have utilized a variety of original sources, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s secret message to Congress regarding the treatment of Native Americans and the so-called “torture memos” of the Bush, Jr. administration. In poems based on these documents, I attempted to reconfigure and undermine the intent of the original authors. In this way, documentary poetry may serve as an act of protest. It seems to me that much of contemporary American English has been co-opted by politics and commerce as a means of acquiring power and profit. One of the functions of my documentary poetry is to do my small part in reclaiming the language from these institutions. “Bread,” however, is different. Its foundational document is an entire book: Michael Jones’s Leningrad: State of Siege. As an amateur scholar of Russian and Soviet history, I have long been enthralled by the peculiar passions (not to mention the artistic achievements) of that nation’s people. Most striking, however, are the varied and seemingly interminable hardships Russians have endured. The Siege of Leningrad is a prime example: war and starvation; the corrupt political leadership contrasted with the transcendent humanity of individual citizens. In this poem, I’ve included facts and details from Jones’s book (which, to a great extent, is based on firsthand accounts of the siege) and knitted them together with connective tissue from my own imagination. The purpose here is not to oppose the abduction of language by dubious forces, but to document, in poetic form, the resilience of a people and culture under extraordinary pressures. As a side benefit, writing about such a dark subject helps me to appreciate more deeply my own blessedly dull life.

Alan Elyshevitz

Alan Elyshevitz is the author of a collection of stories, The Widows and Orphans Fund (SFA Press), and three poetry chapbooks, most recently Imaginary Planet (Cervena Barva). His poems have appeared in River Styx, Nimrod International Journal, and Water ̴ Stone Review, among many others. He is a two-time recipient of a fellowship in fiction writing from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Read "Bread," winner of the 2019 James Hearst Poetry Prize, here.