Friday, 27 January 2012
For poetry enthusiasts across Canada and the globe, The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011 (Tightrope Book, 2011) is one anthology that mustn’t go unread. Under the tutelage and guidance of esteemed poet and series editor, Molly Peacock, this year’s crop of the top 50 poems is impressive. As with each edition in the series, Peacock appoints a guest editor to "literally" read through the stacks of fifty different literary journals and magazines, which for the most part, publish multiple issues each year. To most, whittling down thousands of poems to a top list of fifty might seem like a monumental task.
This year’s guest editor, Priscila Uppal, admits her decision to take on the editorship for this project was a no-brainer from the very start, even though the project involved countless hours of reading, comprising a best fifty shortlist, then another fifty poems for the longlist, and then finally writing an introduction and trying to make sense of the entire experience.
Uppal was a bit perplexed as to what criteria she should use in choosing the “best” poetry of the year, but admits to not being able to get a certain song out of her head, "TV II," by 90’s industrial grunge band, Ministry (a band she readily admired throughout her teen years), which ultimately helped to clarify her dilemma of...how do I possible do this?. The songs lyrics screamed the kind of mantra that seemingly relates well to what constitutes a well-written poem.
Tell me something I don’t know
Show me something I can’t use
Push the button
Connect the goddamn dots
Although, Uppal acknowledges that our poetry publishing scene is exciting, healthy, and fascinating, but at the same time, she points out it is still a little too conservative for her tastes. She concludes that it might be due to an over-reliance on government funding and other financial support for journals, or that many journals are too attached to university Creative Writing programs, or that editorial boards frequently means editorial consensus. She quips that far too many poems are utterly forgettable, over-workshopped or imitations of poems already published in the thousands, poems demonstrating some poetic skill but rarely poetic life, they’re either indulging in uninteresting narcissism or resting on safe topics in a complacent manner, and fall into the category she calls “competent irrelevance.”
With that being said, Uppal doesn’t want to come across as being over-critical of Canadian poetry, and admits to reading these kinds of poems in journals from all over the world as well. She would simply like to challenge more journals to take more risk, be unafraid of engaging a more diverse audience, being more relevant, and pushing poetry to new levels.
Uppal’s choices for top 50 poems of 2011 are somewhat diverse, refreshing, and do flavour on the side of experimental and avant-garde in many ways. She has included visual poems from Derek Beaulieu “Untitled” and Christian Bok “Odalisques,” a form that Beaulieu best describes in this way, “With visual poems I concentrate on the smallest particles of language and how they can interact. Each poem allows the particles to dance with each other along the lines of design and shape instead of meaning and definitions. Visual poetry allows the reader to make their own meanings.”
I have included two of my personal favourites from Uppal’s top 50, the first coming from Ken Babstock, a poet described as a rising star, a supernova in the Candian poetry community. Babstock had this to say about his poem, “As Marginalia in John Claire’s ‘To the Rural Muse,” “My own poem contains its Redux or Coles Notes or EEG in the lines’ end-words, it now seems, after the fact, unhappily. So a wise reader could remain on the surface of the right margin and devote the time she’s saved to something worthwhile. The illness is a bout of blood poisoning from boyhood. So there! And “…with scars where its talons used to be.”
As Marginalia in John Claire’s ‘To the Rural Muse’
I wasn’t finished. From as far back
as I can recall having heard a voice in my skull
I’ve wanted to die, or change, or die
changing. Hexagonal window, the moon
penned in it, and a segmented swarm sucking
up peonies. Heat off tar shingles
in June as the blood in one arm
blackened, thickened, went blearily toxic,
I exited earth up an IV tube.
The wall-mounted paper dispenser
narrating nightmares of scare, sores fell
from fingers – get well petals – and grew
back puce. Slug of little light, the bedrail
gleamed. Warmed yoghurt, a summons
button and visual aphasia. Now I’ve no spit,
no hospice and admit nothing, or
for long stretches, only that what happened
was all that ever could have happened.
Reeds curtain where land becomes lake,
if such a limit exists, and ducks aren’t
taken by pike mid-thought.
Michelle Barker’s poem “Black Sheep” is also quite impressive and is a theme poem written in answer to a call for submissions put out by Vallum. Barker describes her poem in this way, “I wanted to look behind the façade at the rebel in a quiet moment, the truth of what it feels like to be left out.”
In the end I can tell you
being the black sheep
of the family
is not what it promises
motorcycle bad boys
an enticing tattoo
whiskey straight up
an electric guitar
and of course
sideways looks from the family
that secretly you think
you would savour
but it isn’t like that
it is a door
closing on family gatherings
without you –
you get the details second hand
it is seeing the wedding photos
(they couldn’t invite you –
it would have caused a scene)
it is a bell ringing far away
and more specifically
it is your name
and so yet again you stiffen
your upper lip
take your stand
(for a worthy cause)
tell yourself that renegade
has a certain ring to it
and quietly draw the curtains
on the small window
There are many familiar names in this year’s top 50, from, Dionne Brand, Lorna Crozier, Barry Dempster, John Barton, Steven Heighton, Karen Solie, A.F. Moritz, and David Seymour, to poets who are not so well known, but quickly on the rise in the Canadian poetry scene like Jon Paul Fiorentino, Daniel Scott Tysdal, Sandy Pool, Onjana Yawnghwe to name just a few. In summation, this year’s edition of The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2011 is an eclectic and diverse collection of Canadian poetry, and would make a wonderful addition to anyone’s bookshelf.
Bio – Priscila Uppal is a poet, novelist, and York University professor. Her publications include Ontological Necessities (shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize), Traumatology, Successful Tragedies (Bloodaxe Books, UK), Winter Sport: Poems (written while acting as Canadian Athletes Now poet-in-residence for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games), the novels The Divine Economy of Salvation and To Whom It May Concern, and the study We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy. Time Out London recently dubbed her “Canada’s coolest poet.” Visit priscilauppal.ca
Bio – Molly Peacock is the author of six volumes of poetry, including The Second Blush, a memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece, and a one-woman show in poems, “The Shimmering Verge.” She is a contributing editor of the Literary Review of Canada and a faculty mentor at the Spalding MFA Program. Her latest work of nonfiction is The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life's Work at 72.
Thursday, 19 January 2012
In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 – D-Day, and with the sun barely visible, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy across a perimeter of 80 kilometres of mostly flat, sandy beach. The greatest seaborne invasion in history was underway, with the primary mission of beginning the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. The Americans had Utah and Omaha beaches to the west, the British forces had Gold in the middle, the Canadians had Juno Beach, and the British to the east advanced to Sword Beach. Within two hours of storming Juno, the German defences had been shattered and Canadian troops had established a stronghold of the beachhead.
There has been a lot written of D-Day, many movies have been made, but that initial 24-hour period would prove to only be the beginning of a blood-filled campaign of battles that encompassed the summer months of 1944, whereby the Canadian troops showed unrelenting courage and superior fighting skills, which carried the day and ultimately brought victory.
On July 4, 1944, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division took hold of the village of Carpiquet, France, after an extended bloody fight. Breakout From Juno (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010) is the third book of the Juno series written by one of the premier Canadian historical writers, Mark Zuehlke, and documents the untold story between July 4 – August 21, 1944. Zuehlke eloquently narrates the intensity of each battle from a Canadian perspective, highlighting the 3rd Division battles against Hitler’s finest forces, and the 2nd Infantry and 4th Armoured Divisions banding together to fight relentlessly, surprising the heavily entrenched German troops.
We had the great pleasure of interviewing Mark Zuehlke about the latest book in his Canadian Battle Series, Breakout From Juno.
TTQ – Breakout From Juno is the ninth and newest book in your Canadian Battle Series and encapsulates the two months (July 4 - August 21, 1944) following the D-Day Invasion. Where did your fascination for writing about Canada's role in World War II come from and why did you feel it important to document and highlight the period two months after D-Day?
Mark Zuehlke – I grew up with a fascination for military history, particularly that of the two world wars. My great uncle, Fred Zuehlke, had quite an influence on me. He was a World War I veteran who lost an arm at Vimy Ridge. During World War II he worked at the veteran’s hospital in Vancouver helping returning amputee veterans adapt to their handicaps. An uncle of mine was also a tanker with the Lord Strathcona Horse Regiment in Italy during World War II. When I became a journalist, my fascination remained, but there was little opportunity to explore it professionally. Eventually, I was in a Legion in Kelowna one Remembrance Day and several veterans were talking about their experiences in the Battle of Ortona. I realized with some embarrassment that I had no real knowledge of this battle. When I went looking for a book on it, I discovered one had yet to be written. So, I set about changing that. Although I didn’t know it at the time that was the birth of what is now The Canadian Battle Series.
Regarding the two months after D-Day, I had noticed that, because of the intensity of the fighting on June 6, there was a marked tendency in histories of the Normandy Campaign to cast the last two months into a shadow of brevity. Yet the fighting during this period was incredibly violent and costly for Canada’s troops. I also saw that, as is true for much of World War II history, that the Canadian role in this campaign had been largely ignored or reduced to a virtual footnote by American and British historians. At the same time, most Canadian histories dealing with this period were overly brief and reduced it largely to a summary. So, I wanted to give the period, which included the full debut of First Canadian Army on the battlefield, its proper due.
TTQ – How difficult was the process of researching the book, as it's said that little documentation exists for the two month period following D-Day? What resources did you primarily rely on to write Breakout From Juno?
Mark Zuehlke – One of the things that’s fascinating about writing this kind of history is the research. I had heard this myth of their being little documentation as well and was worried about that. Until I actually got into the archives at Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence and the Library and Archives Canada – both in Ottawa – that is and discovered the opposite. Not that you could just look up Normandy in the catalogues and there it all was. Instead it required some deep sleuthing, searching records of one regiment after another to find the material. What I ended up with was a vast collection – thousands of pages – of interviews conducted by army historians with participants in the various battles of the period, written reports by participants, and a lot of analyses of the battles that were written in the weeks immediately after they ended. This was valuable stuff because it was generated when memories were fresh. I also found a lot of veteran interviews that delved into their Normandy campaign experiences. Unfortunately, there are ever fewer veterans to interview these days who are not only alive, but have a good memory of events. But thankfully I did quite extensive interviews with many veterans years ago, as did many other people whose material I am able to access. So, that richness of the personal story is there in spades. Then the trick is to analyze all the stories, there are often contradictions, and rationalize everything to create a readable and accurate narrative of events. That’s the wordsmith part of the task and where I have an advantage over most historians. Although I have a history degree, my livelihood was always earned from being a journalist and professional writer. So, I know how to take factual material and shape it as a story, particularly so because I have also written novels and this means understanding how dialogue, character, scene setting and all such stuff builds a rich narrative that will engage readers.
TTQ – Did you manage to visit Normandy and Juno Beach while doing your research, and if so, what was that experience like for you and to what extent did it help you in writing the book?
Mark Zuehlke – I had made a point of visiting the battlefields that I am writing about. I visited Normandy on three separate occasions. The last time was 2010 and specifically for this book. My partner and I spent two weeks driving and walking in the footsteps that the Canadians took in those two months of war. In doing so, one comes to appreciate the terrain and other physical challenges, and realities that the troops had to cope with and also understand. Take Verrières Ridge, for example, to the Canadian sensibility this is not a ridge at all. No steep incline and no great height. Yet five battalions, most famously the Black Watch of Montreal, were butchered advancing up it. Many accounts, such as the CBC documentary on the battle that was part of the infamous Valour and the Horror series, have the Black Watch scaling the face of the ridge under heavy fire from German SS troops and hence the slaughter. Never mind that there were no SS troops there that day, but the ridge rises only 121 feet over a distance of 3,280 feet. Not something easily scaled! Instead, it was a slow, hard slog up that gradual rise without a stitch of cover available. You stand on the summit of the ridge today and it’s no mystery why the Black Watch were cut to pieces on July 15, 1944. The ground is still virtually as it was then. And that’s why it’s so important to walk the battlefields you are going to write about.
TTQ – You describe in the book that the period between July 4 - August 21, 1944 as "the greatest cataclysm of combat on the western European front during all of World War II." How brutal and bloody was the battle field between those two months as compared to D-Day itself?
Mark Zuehlke – The battlefield during those two months was a nightmare of violence. Thousands of troops, tanks, and artillery were crammed into a quite narrow landscape. And the Germans always had the advantage of being on slightly higher ground than the Canadians coming towards them. There was an absence of cover because it was mostly wide open wheat fields in this sector of Normandy. Little of the bocage hedgerows that were both a curse and a blessing for the British and American troops fighting more to the west, so our troops advanced generally straight in to the open. Most of the time they were fighting the SS divisions and other armoured divisions constituting the elite German troops in Normandy, so the fighting was especially fierce. Virtually every regiment that came ashore on June 6 in the leading assault wave had a single day during the July-August campaign where they suffered their heaviest casualty rate of the entire war – including D-Day. And when that day was over they had to keep going no matter how battered their regiment was. There was always another fight ahead. It is this continuity of battle that makes these two months unique in the Canadian army experience of World War II.
TTQ – Would you agree that the Canadians coming off Juno Beach faced some of the most fearsome of Germany's troops? What were those German troops like and how highly trained were they?
Mark Zuehlke – The initial forces defending Juno Beach weren’t fearsome. They were a coastal defence division, which means they were not especially well trained or highly motivated to die for their Fuhrer. But they enjoyed great advantage in defensive positions. Covering the beach was a well-constructed system of concrete pillboxes and other works. They fought very well from these and inflicted heavy casualties. As the Canadians advanced inland on June 6 they were still fighting this division until close to the day’s end. But these Germans had developed a layered defensive system and so were always fighting from strong defensive positions. That’s what made D-Day costly for Canada, which faced the second most heavily defended beach and the second hardest fight on June 6 of the Allies landed that day. The Americans at Omaha had a harder fight, but the Canadians were second in line. The story of June 6 is, of course, told in my Juno Beach. It was the next day that the fierce and highly trained German troops arrived in the form of three Panzer divisions. These were directed against the Canadians with the express purpose of driving them back into the sea in order to shatter the Normandy beachhead. On either side of Juno Beach were the two British beaches. The strategy was to eliminate the Canadians and then hook out either side to vanquish the British. After that, they could advance at a more leisurely pace to pinch out the American beaches and voila win the campaign. The Canadians were most heavily struck by the entirety of the 12th SS Hitler Youth Division in the centre, with elements of the two Panzer divisions in the flanks. For six days the fate of the invasion, told in Holding Juno, was in balance. But the Canadians prevailed. That in turn led to the two months of Breakout From Juno, where they again often faced the 12th SS. The Hitler Youth had been raised entirely under the Nazi system and inculcated in the belief of the Aryan people, and Germans in particular being supermen – a twisting of Nietzschean philosophy – were undefeatable. So, it was a rude awakening to see their comrades being killed by Canadians and to discover that they could be beaten. This contributed to the murders of Canadian prisoners over the six day period of June 7 to 12. The Hitler Youth and other Panzer division troops were a very tough bunch. They were well trained and highly motivated.
TTQ – How many Canadians fought during D-Day and the two months thereafter and how significant was the casualty rate?
Mark Zuehlke – There were approximately 125,000 Canadians in First Canadian Army at any given time with more waiting at reinforcement depots to fill spots left by casualties. But this figure is somewhat misleading because a disproportionate number of troops were engaged in support roles to the actual fighting troops. Each division fielded about 16,000 fighting troops and had 25,000 supporting these men. The actual number of Canadians on the sharp end of the three divisions and single armoured brigade numbered about 52,500 during the Normandy campaign. From June 6 to the closing of the Falaise Gap on August 21, total casualties were 18,444 of which 5,021 were fatal. That’s about a 28% casualty rate, which is disproportionately high and attests to the ferocity of the fighting that Canadian troops faced.
TTQ - How significantly do you think the German forces underestimated the capabilities of Canada's forces and do you think that the major turning point to the war?
Mark Zuehlke – By the time of D-Day, the Germans were not likely to underestimate the Canadians. Canada had already developed a reputation in the Sicily and Italian campaigns for being a very tough and skilled adversary. It was the Germans, who during Operation Husky in Sicily, gave 1st Canadian Infantry Division’s its nickname The Red Patch devils, because their divisional shoulder flash was a red patch. They were soon monitoring the movement of the Canadians in Italy because they knew that where the Canadians showed up in the line the next offensive was likely to fall. The problem the Germans faced initially in Normandy was differentiating the Canadians from the British troops around them. When they launched their offensive against Juno Beach on June 7 their intelligence was unclear on whether it was defended by Canadian or British troops. The victory’s achieved by the British and Canadian troops in front of Caen during July and August, I think, constituted the beginning of the end for Germany. What the Germans had hoped to achieve was a containment of the Allies on the Normandy beaches and that strategy began unraveling the moment the Canadian and British troops started breaking out on July 4. When Caen fell the writing was on the wall. And when Canadians launched Operation Totalize on August 7 and punched through German defensive lines in a night assault all hopes of maintaining the ring of steel around the Allies were shattered.
TTQ – Talk a bit more about the significance of Canada’s role in Operation Totalize and why the Canadian forces were able to have more success than the British troops, and what do you think might have happened had the Germans been able to have defeated the Canadians and maintained control of the beach?
Mark Zuehlke – Ah, here we are at Totalize (see above). Totalize succeeded because Lt. Gen. Guy Simonds noted the reasons for the British failure just the week before. At the time he said, “When it’s our turn, we’ll go in at night.” So, the night attack idea was set. Then he came up with the idea – now commonplace – of advancing the infantry forward in concert with the tanks inside armoured personnel carriers. The Allies didn’t have APC’s then, so these had to be invented and produced right there on the battlefield. Canadian engineers and mechanics did that by reconfiguring Priest self-propelled artillery guns into what they dubbed Kangaroos. Always before, the Allied infantry had to advance on foot behind the tanks and they would either be outrun and left behind or the tanks would be slowed down to a crawl to keep pace with the infantry. You can’t have rapid outbreaks that way. So, Totalize was an innovative tactical feat. I’m not a huge Guy Simonds fan, but Totalize was his moment in the sun and deservedly so.
Had Totalize failed I think the German grip on the beachhead would have possibly tightened again. It could have been months before the breakout developed and the war would have been prolonged as a consequence. The Germans hoped the Allies would lose heart and sue for a conditional German surrender which would not include the Soviet Union. They would then be free to fight the Russians to a standstill and salvage their fortunes on that front. This was a fallow hope, but one that guided their strategic decisions through to virtually the end.
TTQ – What kind of feedback have you received from veteran Canadian soldiers concerning Breakout From Juno and your other books in the Canadian Battle Series?
Mark Zuehlke – One veteran I’ve enjoyed following in Juno Beach, Holding Juno and Breakout From Juno is Major Lochart “Lochie” Fulton of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. He was in the assault wave on June 6 and earned a DSO for courage there. On July 4 the Winnipeg’s attacked Carpiquet Airfield in a disastrous attack to seize the hangars on its western edge. The 12th SS had turned the hangars into fortresses and actually had tanks firing from inside them. Fulton and his men advanced through waist-high wheat across dead flat ground. Despite losing most of his company, he was able to gain control of one of the hangars. But his men could not be reinforced. He personally went back across that open and fire swept ground to try and organize the reinforcement, but it was hopeless. So, he went back again to his men and then led them back under fire. July 4 was when the regiment lost more men than on any other day and many more than on June 6. “What had we accomplished?” he asked later. “Possibly the Germans recognized our intention to take Carpiquet and that we would be back. But at what cost!” Lochie was a very brave soldier who went through to the end of the war. But he was not unique. There were thousands like him.
The feedback from veterans is one of the most gratifying parts of writing this series. I get a lot of positive response. Often veterans say that reading my books help them to understand and put in context their personal experiences. Many say that I get to the truth of what it was like to go through those battles.
TTQ – How many more books do you have left to write in your Canadian Battle Series and have you decided what battles you will write about?
Mark Zuehlke – There will be at least two more books in the series. I am currently working on one about the Dieppe Raid of 1942 and am committed to doing one on the Rhineland Campaign. There might be at least two more after that. Those are still in the discussion stages, so I shouldn’t expand on them at this point.
Bio – Mark Zuehlke is the author of the critically acclaimed Canadian Battle Series published by Douglas & McIntyre On to Victory: The Canadian Liberation of the Netherlands (March 23 – May, 5, 1945), Operation Husky: The Canadian Invasion of Sicily (July 10 – August 7, 1943), Terrible Victory: First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign (September 13 – November 6, 1944), Holding Juno: Canada’s Heroic Defence of the D-Day Beaches (June 7 – 12, 1944), Juno Beach: Canada’s D-DAY Victory: June 6, 1944, The Gothic Line: Canada’s Month of Hell in World War II Italy, The Liri Valley: Canada’s World War II Breakthrough to Rome, Ortona: Canada’s Epic World War II Battle and many other books. Having worked as a journalist, been educated as a historian, and written award-winning fiction, he draws on these varied experiences and skills to bring history to life for a general audience. He resides in Victoria, British Columbia and can be found at http://www.zuehlke.ca/.
*Note - All Photos used with the permission of Douglas & McIntyre Publishers Inc and Library and Archives Canada.
Thursday, 12 January 2012
Send us your BEST poetry (4-6 poems), short stories (1-2 stories max, 500-3000 words per story), artwork, and photographs. We prefer that you copy and paste your poetry into the body of your email or send as ONE attachment in word.doc format. Send ALL short story submissions as a word doc. attachment. Any poetry or short story submissions sent as multiple attachments or not in word.doc will NOT be read. DO NOT submit your work as a docx file. It will NOT be read.
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Friday, 6 January 2012
Elana Wolff is a highly accomplished poet who divides her time between writing, editing, and therapeutic art. She has published five collections of poetry with Guernica Editions: Birdheart (2001), Mask (2003), You Speak to Me in Trees (2006), Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness: Duologue and Rengas (2008), and Startled Night (2011). Her third collection You Speak to Me in Trees, was awarded the 2008 F.G. Bressani Prize for Poetry. She has taught English as a Second Language at York University in Toronto and at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Wolff’s latest collection Startled Night has been lauded as an integration of art, image, and word, combined with the mysterious energy of the dark shadow that lingers in all of us, unexplained, and often times misunderstood. Wolff writes of a need to reconcile the most acceptable aspects of our personality with the parts that we consciously or subconsciously try to hide. Her poetry reeks of irony, twisted surprises, and unexpected truths, giving credence to the fact that Startled Night is worthy of some attention. Many of the poems in Startled Night have appeared in numerous literary journals including The Antigonish Review, Canadian Literature, Carousel, Contemporary Verse 2, Existere, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, The Nashwaak Review, Other Voices, The Paterson Literary Review, Lichen Arts & Letters Preview, Taddle Creek Magazine, The Toronto Quarterly, Vallum, The Windsor Review, Dream Catcher, and FreeFall Magazine.
FISHING WITH DEAN BARLOW
We went down to the zipperlip
with our one, two, three little wishes –
hooks, lines, sacrifices
and summer-solstice time.
Sat there at the water’s edge
and waited for the fish. I didn’t know
how little a boy could have to say,
but his fingers were pretty nimble
and he hooked the bait for us both.
I felt his breath; it stunk of mud.
At least it seemed to be his breath –
could have been the water-hole,
earthworms, or the bucket.
From the side of my eye, I saw
the sketchy freckles on his nose –
blurred to watery blots.
Not like mine – all separate
and peppery. His arms
and legs were skinny-long,
soft blonde hair on his shins.
I saw this, too, from the side of my eye;
looked askance at my own shin hair
and wanted madly to hide it;
tucked my legs beneath me, making it
hard to hold the pole. Dragonflies
skimmed the water, shimmering pink
and evening-blue – so beautifully I forgot
my legs, our freckles, and the stench.
And in the tug of a simultaneous catch,
the bone of our strangeness broke.
*Note – Fishing With Dean Barlow was published in Contemporary Verse 2.
A woman went for a walk at dawn and came
to an iron bridge – high, yet in the river
below the sky appeared
so close. As if she could have
stooped and touched its hue. By the river
stood a wood of densely-fretted firs.
For years she’d longed
to fall, be caught.
How beckoning, she thought,
and off she leapt.
The branches broke
her fall. Winded,
she returned to earth.
Not a soul had seen the leap,
nor the ragged landing.
She met a man with a camera
on the path back into the city.
You’re wearing fir, he laughed
and asked if he could take her picture.
Sun arose, prodigiously,
and rinsed the heavens red -
he fell to his knees instead:
How would we stop from bowing
down, if the sky were always this vermillion.
*Note – Aubade was also published in The Paterson Literary Review.
TTQ – Your latest collection of poetry, Startled Night (Guernica Editions, 2011), has been described as integrating the shadow, of coming into personhood and love—through the process of encounter and crisis; also through the chiaroscuro of art, image, and word. How difficult was it for you personally to fully identify your own shadow and then integrate it into your new collection of poems? Was writing this book a kind of self-indulgent journey into trying to discover more about your own darker self and to what degree did that journey change you as a writer?
Elana Wolff - Well, you’ve quoted part of the blurb on the back cover of my book and followed up with three questions. So I’ll address the partial quote first. I’d like to add, to be more precise, that the poems in Startled Night “plumb the work of integrating the shadow.” As such, they represent part of a process—they are markers on a way, if you will. They are not meant to indicate the way, nor are they representations of a completion. Most of the pieces in the collection were written during a long period of upheaval. I was forced to take a sabbatical from teaching at York University, for medical reasons, and then led by unexpected beckoning to embark upon a course of training in therapeutic art and biography that lasted for six years. I never did return to York, but instead turned to writing, editing, mentoring, and working as a therapeutic community-art designer and facilitator. Writing poetry accompanied me along the way, but not till the latter part of 2010 did I start to think of the accumulating pieces as comprising a book. So to answer your first and second questions: No, I did not set out on a journey led by an idea of “trying to discover my darker self” and “then integrate it into a new collection of poems.” There was no advance idea; the description of the expedition arose inductively out of the work. And more than “indulging” the shadow, I’ve tended to resist it—in various calculating ways. So at no point in my poems do I “identify [my] shadow.” Artist Paul Klee wrote that “all art is memory of our dark origins.” This statement resonates with me deeply. There is no way to create what does not involve self; there is no creation that is fully impersonal, and no creation that is totally light-filled. We are all creatures born to-and-of creativity, out of the dark and into the dark-and-light. This is a universal condition. And our lives are continuously dealing us materials—desolating and otherwise. I take both, the dark and the light, and blend, dramatize, and juxtapose. So there are ‘sendup pieces’ in Startled Night, like “Two in Raluca’s Waiting Room,” (first published in The Toronto Quarterly)—a glosa that pokes fun at the double, and “What Becomes of Us”—a piece written in the manner of a Robert Pinsky poem that comically recounts a double-suicide; plus several other ‘imaginary disaster pieces’, alongside lyrical and incantatory poems, ‘documentary’ art poems, skewed narratives, and dream sequences. So to answer your third question, To what degree has this journey changed me as a writer, I would say that it has opened my stylistic scope and deepened my concern for the integrity of personhood, as well as for the role of art in the relationship between Self and Other in community. American poet Louise Glück, whose work has long been a beacon and standard for me, has spoken of “art in the service of spirit.” This is a beautiful idea, and through continuing shadow-work in visual art and writing I’m seeing how this idea lives in the world.
TTQ – George Elliot Clarke has written this about you: "Wolff's work recalls that of U.S. poet Marianne Moore. There are the plotted indents and line-lengths, the same detonating denotations." How plotted and painstaking is your deciding on the structure, rhythm, and context in which you write each poem and is there a particular poet that has inspired you and your style of writing?
Elana Wolff – I do labour over my poems. I have a sense of making them—of attending to sound, syllable, metre, line breaks and white space, as much as to semantics. I’m an inveterate reviser too—as you have an inkling of: I requested a word-substitution—“littoral”—to the poem “Red, White, Black and Blue” (included in Startled Night) after you’d accepted it for publication in The Toronto Quarterly. Thankfully, you honoured my request. (“It was shallow at the littoral, as physical / as skin.”)
Having said this, however, elements of ‘magic’ and ‘randomness’ have lately been feeding more and more into my writing process. Sometimes an image or line or part of a poem will ‘come’ to me, as if out of reverie. Or sometimes I’ll misread a line of another person’s poem and I’ll have an unexpected ‘gift-line’ of my own. Recently I read two exquisite collections—one, titled Carapace (Palimpsest Press, 2011), by an old York U. colleague and early poetry mentor, Laura Lush, whom I happened to be reading with at P.K. Page tribute event. I’ve always loved Laura’s work and this new collection, her first in many years, inspired me to write a sequence of intuitive ‘response poems’. I’ve never written this way before—spontaneously, quickly, completely associatively. None of the old labour pains. The other exquisite collection, of a completely different aesthetic, is Groundwork (Biblioasis, 2011), by Amanda Jernigan. I met Amanda at a LiT LiVe reading in Hamilton. She’d come to hear me read my suite of poems, “Meridian,” which won the 2011 GritLit Award for Poetry. She, Gary Barwin and Chris Pannell had been the judges. As a token of gratitude and appreciation, I gifted her a copy of Startled Night. She, in turn, sent me a copy of her new volume. Groundwork is Amanda’s first collection, but with this book she’s arrived fully-formed, shimmering, and mythical.
TTQ – When do you know that you have written a poem that is worthy of publication?
Elana Wolff - I’m fortunate to be part of a longstanding writing group, the Long Dash group. We meet weekly, as schedules permit, to read each other our poems, offer comradeship, conversation, and fair and honest criticism. We’re all very individual in our styles and approaches, yet there’s a great synergy, and trust among us, and we take each other’s feedback seriously. I think it’s important to get peer feedback. If my peers appreciate a poem, I have no qualms about submitting it for consideration for publication. However, just because a poem gets published in a journal does not, for me, mean that it’s ‘worthy’ of inclusion in a collection of my own. I’ve had many poems published in anthologies, papers, and magazines that I’ve not included in my collections. The reviser and editor in me is fairly relentless, and what worked for me at one time and for one context doesn’t necessarily work at another time in a different context.
TTQ – How much has your experience as an editor for other writer's poetry collections helped or hindered you in becoming a better poet yourself, and how difficult was it for you in accepting criticism and feedback from your editor for Startled Night, Michael Mirolla?
Elana Wolff – Editing other people’s work has been hugely important for me. Apart from keeping me deeply connected and committed to the writing community, it forces me to constantly sharpen my reading and interpersonal skills, and has provided fuel for writing and life. Most of my editing experiences have been gratifying, even when they’ve been challenging. I’ve had a few clearly unpleasant experiences, but I can’t say that these have hindered me personally or professionally. They’re part of the learning curve. As far as the editing of Startled Night is concerned, I had two editors—fitting for a book that deals with the double. Antonio D’Alfonso (Guernica’s founder) was my first reader. In addition to making insightful overall comments, he gave helpful recommendations regarding the ordering of the pieces and suggested the title, drawn from the poem “Art Sometimes Makes Me Vague” (in which an alter ego makes an appearance). Michael Mirolla, who gets the editing credit, read my manuscript with great care and precision, challenged me on a number of passages, word choices, and asked that I remove a poem, which I did. He took issue, for example, with my use of the word “dragonfly” in two separate poems. He felt that the word could be ‘safely’ used in one poem only and that if I retained it in two poems, readers would think that I simply couldn’t come up with an alternate word. My first instinct was to resist, but I didn’t. And thanks to my colleague, John Oughton, with whom I shared this anecdote, I have “dragonfly” in one poem (“Fishing With Dean Barlow”) and its relative, the “damselfly,” in another (“Parker’s Point”). Michael also requested that I ‘lose’ the word “earnest” from a line in the poem “Re: Collage, Searching for a Name Thereof.” He felt that word was simply too “earnest” in this context. Here, too, I relented, and substituted “frank” for “earnest”—even though the “earnest” version of the poem had been published in The Fiddlehead. So what was acceptable to one editor was not acceptable to another. These are little things, really, but they are the stuff that editing is made of. And I have to say that I’m deeply grateful for readers like Antonio and Michael, who’ve made me stand up for what I’ve written, and have pushed me to know my work, and polish it.
TTQ – What is your opinion of the current poetry scene in Toronto and what would you suggest be done to get more people reading and/or writing poetry?
Elana Wolff – Toronto has a very vibrant poetry scene. There are cliques, to be sure. But this is inevitable. I laud the organizers of reading series like The Art Bar, Livewords, Hot-Sauced Words, Open Stage, Plasticine, Draft, and others, who devote their time and energy to openly promoting established and emerging poets of all ‘inflections’. The best way to get the word ‘out there’ is to read it and have it heard. The best way to be a better writer is to be a better reader.
*Note - Book cover artwork by Michael Abraham.