Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The WAR Series: Writers as Readers, with Elana Wolff

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Elana Wolff

If you think you know what a flip book is, you haven't seen A Hunger Artist & Other Stories; Poems and Songs of Love (Guernica Editions), a collaborative effort in translation between Elana and Menachem Wolff and Thor Polson.

One side of the volume gives readers a new translation of Franz Kafka's iconic short story collection A Country Doctor and A Hunger Artist, while the other side is a translation from the Hebrew of poems by Kafka's friend Georg Mordechai Langer, originally titled Piyyutim ve-Shirei Yedidot (translated as Poems and Songs of Love). One of the poems by Langer (who was gay and to whom Kafka was a beloved mentor) is a passionate elegy to Kafka. Guernica's innovative flip book marks the first time Langer’s work is available in English, and sheds light on an intense and rarely-referenced relationship between two great writers.

Today we speak to Elana, who in addition to her work as a translator is an acclaimed poet and editor. She joins us to take on the The WAR Series: Writers As Readers questionnaire, which gives writers an opportunity to talk about the books that shaped them, from first loves to new favourites.

Read on to hear about Elana's early reading of an often-overlooked Canadian icon, her experience of finding her voice in another's writing, and the Struggle that swept her up.

You can catch Elana in person at the INSPIRE! Book International Book Fair on Sunday, November 16, 2014, where she will be signing copies of A Hunger Artist & Other Stories; Poems and Songs of Love from 2:00pm to 2:30pm.


The WAR Series, Writers as Readers

The first book I remember reading on my own:
A lavishly-illustrated edition of Mother Goose when I was about three. I’m not sure if I actually read it though. I’d heard it read so many times, I knew it by heart and I remember being able to follow along with my finger.

A book that made me cry:
Charlotte’s Web. Still does. Those last lines get me every time.

The first adult book I read:
I read Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna novels when I was eleven or twelve and the melodramatic family relationships felt very adult to me at the time.

A book that made me laugh out loud:
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated. His screen adaptation is even funnier.

The book I have re-read many times:
Kafka’s The Trial. Actually almost everything by Kafka.

A book I feel like I should have read, but haven't:

The book I would give my seventeen year old self, if I could:
Right now, if I were seventeen I think I’d want poetry by Matthew Dickman — say Mayakovsky’s Revolver. It’s youthful and soulful. Also playfully dangerous. As for prose, I’d give myself most of Hermann Hesse’s oeuvre. I did at the time, and it was good. But now it doesn’t resonate the same way.

A book I feel strongly influenced me as a writer and why:
Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris felt like my own stark dark voice speaking up to me when I first read it as an ‘emerging’ writer of poetry. Kafka has been with me the longest though and has influenced me in more amorphous ways.

The best book I read in the past six months:
The first three volumes in translation of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume My Struggle. I can’t say I love Knausgaard’s writing the way I love the writing of W.G. Sebald, Halldór Laxness and Orhan Pamuk (Do I need to mention FK again), but I couldn’t put him (it) down.

The book I plan on reading next:
David Bezmozgis’s The Betrayers.

A possible title for my autobiography:
Maybe Shadowraker

Elana Wolff has published four collections of poetry with Guernica Editions, including You Speak to Me in Trees, awarded the F.G. Bressani Prize for Poetry. She is also the author of Implicate Me, a collection of essays on contemporary poems; co-author with the late Malca Litovitz of Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness (Duologue and Rengas); and co-editor with Julie Roorda of Poet to Poet: Poems written to poets and the stories that inspired them. A bilingual edition of her selected poems, Helleborus & Alchémille (Éditions du Noroît), was awarded the 2014 John Glassco Prize for Translation (translator: Stéphanie Roesler). Elana has taught English for Academic Purposes at York University in Toronto and at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She currently divides her professional time between writing, editing, and designing and facilitating therapeutic community art courses.


Thank you for the warm commendation of our new book, Majlinda, and for your reflection on the "essential energy that keeps life away from the horror of what is degrading." Georg Mordechai Langer certainly exemplified that energy, though unfortunately it did not bring him relief from rejection-- not as a poet, nor as a partner.

It’s definitely a great book of a unique structure and content. While I was reading the poems of Georg Mordechai Langer couldn’t help but recalling an ancient masterpiece, ‘Symposium” (first half of 4th century BC) by Plato that defines the concept of Platonic love. Plato in fact was writing about homosexual love all along his book. But to a good reader’s surprise, that could be the last thing to think of. The depth and complexity of speeches takes you to the core of love concept, which is never good or bad itself, but the essential energy that keeps life away from the horror of what is degrading.
I could easily relate this to love poems of G.M Langer for Kafka;the passion, the awe, the worship that stay with you after reading them. They maybe not the greatest love poems on earth, but definitely they are the most sincere ones, written in a time when homosexuality was perhaps considered as a plague. So much for the progress of human society ( comparing to the time when Plato wrote)
Thanks Elana and Menachem for the outstanding work.

Hi, Thor! Well there you go— another synchronicity. Hermann Hesse had a huge impact on me in my teens. Steppenwolf, Demian, Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund, Peter Camenzind— the novels I related to most— are all works of journey, personal crisis, and pursuit of self-actualization. They were the perfect tonic for a seeking teen who longed to read beyond the high school course lists— to visit the dark exotic, the spiritually adventurous. There's great redemptive energy in Hesse’s work, too, which I’m sure I experienced at the time. Also faith in art as way of knowing, though I was probably not fully aware of this aspect back then. Interestingly, I reread many of Hesse’s novels a few years ago, and Siddhartha— probably Hesse’s most enduring bestseller— was the one that least stood the test of time for me. Most of the others, too, resonated more nostalgically than immediately. They felt more traditional than exotic and almost pedantic rather than rebellious/adventurous, with the exception of Steppenwolf, in which I discovered the theme of homesickness. And this came to provide the impetus for a therapeutic art course I offer on a rotating basis in the community.

Hello, Elana! For some reason, we didn't get around to talking about Hesse when we met to give the book presentation in Vancouver, Washington. Since Hesse is one of my favorite authors, I'd like to know what appeals to you about his writing. Thanks! Thor Polson

Thank you, Freewill. Yet I feel the quest for Langer isn't over...

Having read your new flip book, I am constantly amazed by the depth and breadth of your commitment to uncovering the details of another's life, as you did for Georg Mordechai Langer. The book is a stunning tribute to both Kafka and to Langer. And reading your answers here, reminds me how eclectic your tastes are and how interested you are in exploring new worlds via the books and writers you read. Appreciate your sharing so much of yourself with us all.

If you pick up the book, Gun, you could start your Kafka reading with Thor Polson's sensitive new translation of the story "A Hunger Artist," which Kafka proofed on his death bed. The book was published soon after he died-- from TB that had gone from his lungs to his larynx. Official cause of death: starvation.

Elana, thank you for your book purchase info regarding my location in NYC.
It's very interesting that Kafka has had such a lengthy and broad influence on so many writers since his publishings. I must confess that I've known of Kafka for a long time, though have yet to read any one of his books. I am truly inspired now to do so, thanks to your insights. All the best with your new book, Elana. I also commend Menachem Wolff on his collaboration and contributions.

Glad to hear you enjoyed the launch reading, Karen, and that you like the flip format for the Kafka/Langer work. Guernica publisher Michael Mirolla gets the credit for that (and so much more).
I can't say that any of my writing achievements are "great." Everything I write is less than what I'm after and the work is ongoing. The quest that led to the Langer translation (and beyond) has been thrilling, though, and the opportunity to work collaboratively with Menachem a uniquely rewarding and lively experience.
In poetry (as mentioned) one of the living writers I connect to most is Louise Gluck. I would add to the short list: Anne Carson, Laura Lush, C.D. Wright, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Mark Strand. Among living prose writers, Orhan Pamuk (in translation) would be at the top of my list, along with Michael Ondaatje. Both appeal to the romantic and the convoluted in me.

Hi Elana,

Thank you for sharing this exciting interview with your fans.
I was fortunate enough to be at your book reading last month, and to get a glimpse into your collaborative work with Manachem. The book has a lot of heart & soul in it's translation, and the flip book style allows for the merging of two different thoughts.

I would like to pose two questions to you:
1) What has been your greatest achievement as a writer to date?
2) Is there a living writer, whose style of writing you connect with most?

Many thanks!

Thanks for your interest, Gun. You can get the book through any local bookstore or on Amazon.
As for Kafka, what draws me to his work (in a nutshell) is the timeless, parabolic, enigmatic quality of the writing, the taut precision, the dry humour. It's writing that doesn't simply tell a story for entertainment's sake. It baffles and sears and demands re-reading. Even when you're not reading Kafka, you're reading him through others. There's hardly a modernist writer he hasn't touched.

Hello Elana,

I am very intrigued by the concept of your recent book and look forward to purchasing it soon. I live in New York. Can you please guide me as to where it's best to buy a copy?

You say- "Actually almost everything by Kafka." I'd like to know what it is that draws you most to Kafka's body of work over other writers that you've also enjoyed reading?

Thank you.

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