Interview: Sophia Holtz

Image by Eleanor Leonne Bennett

We talk to Sophia Holtz about nuclear weapons and poetry. Her poems appeared in Neon #31.

Can you tell us a bit more about the events described in your poem “Operation Teapot, Shot Apple-2, 1955”? What is the significance of the title?

The title is the same as that of a nuclear weapons test that took place at the Nevada Test Site in 1955. It was one of several tests where the US Army built a model town to test the structural effects of the bomb and then filmed the various stages of explosion and destruction. You can find some of these films online — I used one for the Shot Apple-2 test as a jumping off point for writing this piece.

You mention in your biography that you are writing a book of poems about “nuclear weapons testing, radioactivity and atomic kitsch”. How is that going? What lead to your interest in this subject area?

The entire project actually began as my undergraduate thesis work at Hampshire College. When I began my thesis, I knew I wanted to work on something rooted in history, but also on something relevant enough that it would keep my interest throughout the year. Nuclear weapons have drastically changed the face of foreign policy. I think partly because I came of age during the Bush administration, where the excuse of “Weapons Of Mass Destruction” led us into two wars, I felt the need for a better understanding of what the term WMD actually meant. By the end of the year, I had produced a body of work I was satisfied with, but was also feeling burned out — I did not anticipate wanting to continue working on it, but I have. What began as something focused in the policy and history of the Atmospheric Testing Era has shifted closer to the cultural history and kitsch from that period of time — so I’ve been looking a lot more at B-movies and other low-brow artifacts from that period. I’ve also been trying to examine my own thoughts about all of this. The point I’ve kept returning to throughout is the idea of making the bomb real, into something I can actually grasp intellectually rather than this huge abstraction it always seems to become elsewhere.

What kind of research have you done about nuclear weapons and radioactivity? What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned while looking into this topic?

I’ve done a lot of research on the history of the US testing program, focusing mainly on the period of time before the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, after which all testing moved underground. I’ve done some research on downwinders (people and communities exposed to fallout and radioactive contamination) in both the United States and abroad, and the trials and suits leading to the Radiation Contamination Exposure Act of 1990. I’ve also read a lot of really interesting cultural criticism about the Cold War Era. What I did not expect was how interesting people’s relationship to radiation was before the Manhattan Project — specifically the idea of “radioactive cures”. I was doing research on Marie Curie and her life’s work and found that soon after she discovered the element radium, many people became convinced that radiation was a sort of cure-all. People started putting radioactive elements in everything — there was a period of time where you could get radioactive toothpaste, bath salts, skin cream. People would even go to hot springs where the radiation in the water was proclaimed curative. Horrifying and fascinating.

Tell us more about your performance poetry. Is there a difference between the work you write for performance and that for publication? Do you aspire to do one more than the other?

For me, one isn’t very different from the other. I never intend to write one thing just for performance and one thing just for the page — everything needs to be able to work in both arenas. And so, when I’m writing, I’m only thinking about whatever I’m writing about, and then I’m thinking about revision. If, after all of that, it happens to turn out that something I’ve written could work well performed, I memorize it and work on the performance, then bring it to slams. Really, I think it’s very important to read everything out loud, and to pay attention to how you read, so that people will listen to you when you read any piece — I’m very against reading in a monotone, reading with an utter lack of interest. Words should be read like the writer cares enough to have written them. No matter what it is, for me the piece needs to be able to work both on the page and out loud.

Is any of your other work available to read online? Do you have a website where readers can find out more about you?

Another poem from the nuclear series is up on Side B Magazine‘s website with an interview. I have other work forthcoming at Muzzle magazine. You can visit www.sophiaholtz.com for more information about upcoming shows, publications, and other news.

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Sophia Holtz grew up in New York and lives in Somerville, MA. She graduated from Hampshire College in 2011, where she first became interested in performing poetry, and has featured throughout the north-eastern United States. She is currently working on a collection of poems on nuclear weapons testing, radioactivity, and atomic kitsch.