I have to ask: “Is the gun real?” Ayala Sella nods. “Everyone asks that,” she says, referring to the photo on the cover of soliloquies of a crosswalker, her debut book of poetry (Wasteland Press). The photo is a family snap, taken by her mother. In it a three-year-old Ayala sits happily on a picnic blanket, a German Shepherd dog with lapping tongue happily stands guard to her right, and her father, in relaxed repose, sleeps with his shirt half-pulled up, revealing a softening stomach, and on it a black-metal revolver.
The emotional juxtaposition engendered by the cover photo is a good choice for the book. Ayala’s poetry contains a similar bipolarity – a mix of the sweet and the sour, an underlying message that the harshness of life need not consume its beauty; in fact, it can reveal it.
A collection of poetry in four parts, soliloquies of a crosswalker includes poems written throughout Israel and New York City between 1995 and 2011. The book chronicles Ayala’s restlessness and lack of good fortune between these two locales, from a college student, to an art history instructor, to a hotel receptionist and fruit-factory packer, to a high school English teacher. She turns twenty, moves to Brooklyn and adopts two cats. Later, she returns to live in the Holy Land after twenty years, adopts two dogs in the Upper Galilee, gets thrown out of a couple kibbutzim, and lives in nine homes. There is a lot of beer and any number of failed attempts, before her return, again, to Brooklyn.
Ayala, when I speak with her, admits to the rootless nature of her life, the back and forth to Israel and also throughout the United States, but does not consider this transience a problem, a crutch to claim dysfunction or instability. If anything, her nomadic years have formed her identity, stabilized it, evidenced by her confident, straightforward, and unpretentious manner as we talk. “I did not struggle much in writing the poems,” she says. “Perhaps it was easier because I was writing for myself, as a way to express what I was feeling in the moment. It was only later that I began to consider publishing the poems. Then I was faced with a challenge: how to organize the poems, which I had created over many years. What I finally ended up doing is laying them all out in a bed and going through them as if I was piecing together a puzzle. It was an intense experience, almost as if I was reliving the past. But it felt good when it came together; helped me gain even more perspective on my life and who I am as a person.”
Ayala is now working hard to promote her book, doing readings throughout New York City and submitting her poems for publication in literary journals (she has work forthcoming in New York Quarterly). “It’s not easy for me,” she says. “My nature is to be reserved, but I know it is important for the book’s success and my growth as a writer to gain exposure, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
After the interview I page through her book, reread the poems, am struck again by the economy of language, the exacting detail, the subtle strength of the words, the blunt rhythms. It is a powerful, contrasting book –one that will hold your attention, keep you still and reading in your chair, ground your thoughts, perhaps even while the author is on the move.
Ayala Sella was born in Israel and moved to the United States at the age of four. She has spent the past years traveling between these two countries and currently lives in Brooklyn. She will be participating in the monthly storytelling series at The Bodega on Sunday, August 7th, and will be reading at the Bowery Poetry Club August 9th, at Bluestockings Bookstore on August 18th, at Cafe Orwell on August 28th, and as part of the Guerrilla Reading Series at Bar on A on August 31st.
More of John McCaffrey’s writings can be accessed at www.jamccaffrey.com.