Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Elana Wolff

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Elana Wolff

Elana Wolff is the author of Startled Night (Guernica Editions), as well as several other collections, including You Speak to Me in Trees, which won the 2008 F.G. Bressani Prize for Poetry.

Elana talks with Open Book about the Jungian shadow, writing groups and reading Ondaatje's latest book.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Startled Night.

Elana Wolff:

Startled Night includes poems written for the most part during my years of training in therapeutic art and early work in the field. A few of the pieces are directly ekphrastic; that is, verbal representations of visual representations. Some bear witness to the naturalistic and circumstantial, others to charged and exceptional states. All hinge to a whole as the fruit of threshold experience on a slow journey toward integration.


How does the concept of the shadow figure in your book?


The shadow is the dark corner, the part of the self we often fail to see and get to know. According to Jungian Robert Johnson, we all acquire a shadow early on in life through the acculturation process. By adulthood we’re ‘certifiably divided’ — we have the socially- and personally-acceptable aspects of our personality, and then the parts we hide, or try to hide. William Blake spoke of the need to reconcile the two sides. He said that we should go to heaven for form, to hell for energy, and marry the two. The creative act acknowledges the whole of reality — the wholesome, the beautiful, the illuminated. Also the ugly, the fractured, the destructive and the destroyed. Terrible beauty, too, and the paradox of ‘this is that’. The poems in Startled Night address the dark/light polarity, the energy of the shadow and the salience of its creative integration for personal and interpersonal well-being.


What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice in your writing?


George Elliot Clarke wrote a penetrating review of my previous collection, You Speak to Me in Trees. He said, and I quote, “Wolff’s lyrics showcase a world of constant, ironic and dreadful surprise. Her sensibility is attuned to reversals, and she chooses sharply cut images to communicate her plain-toned shock at the unexpected inconsistencies and awry events. Every incident is potentially stunning, in either an aggressive (negative) or passive (positive) fashion. Wolff’s world possesses this precise doubleness...” Clarke picked up on the thread of doubleness, even in its earlier, less explicit iteration. He couldn’t have been more perceptive. The double, the doppelgänger, the twin — are recurring figures in my poems. My work has unfolded, I would say, in an overarching sense, as an expedition toward whole personhood and transformative love. And the decisive moment is perpetual, so the tale cannot be finite. There’s the wound, the astonishment, and the struggle — which is a spiritual struggle — to constantly revise. Increasingly, elements of ‘magic’ and ‘accident’ also play into the fray.


How have your experiences in community art and your other professional pursuits informed your writing?


Many of my experiences in art — individual and social — have served as a conduit to writing. They’ve also offered up a rich spread of subject matter. There are several pieces in Startled Night dedicated to art colleagues whose teachings, fellowship, and presence have moved me profoundly. My other professional pursuits — editing and mentoring younger writers — have informed my writing no less meaningfully. There’s a poem titled “On Editing” in Startled Night — dedicated to a gifted young writer whose first and second books I edited—that speaks to the powerful resonance of finding oneself ‘embedded’ in another’s work. J.D. Salinger said that “writing as an art is experience magnified.” I would say that any experience — professional or otherwise — can be the raw material of writing: It’s the work of the writer, through the alchemy of style, to transmute private and personal experience into art. When the transmutation is successful, the experience of the reader — or the viewer, in the case of visual art — can be electrically transpersonal. Editing and mentoring, especially, have not only informed my writing, they’ve transformed the quality of my reading, my way of giving and receiving criticism and my engagement in creative and co-creative relationship.


What genre or period of poetry are you most drawn to as a reader?


I’m drawn to poetry of any genre and period that reaches into my mind and psyche. I mentioned William Blake. I’ve also been drawn to Sappho, to the Miłoszes—Czesław and Oskar (in translation). I’ve long loved the poetry of Jack Gilbert, Robert Hass, Seamus Heaney, Jane Kenyon and Louise Glück. Also Mark Strand, Robert Pinsky, Charles Simic, Anne Carson, Charles Wright, Franz Wright, Dan Chiasson and C. D. Wright. I’m drawn to poetry that pulls me in, spurs me on and draws me back. I want to be suffused, inspired, transported.


Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?


My husband has deeply influenced my life — writing and otherwise — and he often appears in my poems, though usually not ‘in person’. Local poets Laura Lush and Robert Priest were important mentors in the late 1990s when I first started writing poetry with passion and discipline. Antonio D’Alfonso, founder of Guernica Editions and publisher for thirty-three years, has been a huge force in my writing life — he took me on as a Guernica author in 2000 and has remained an astute reader, editor and, most recently, translator of my work. My colleagues in the Long Dash writing group provide regular feedback, good company, and all-round support — I wouldn’t want to do without them. Artist Regine Kurek has been an active influence on my artistic development since 2002, and I look forward to continued learning and collaboration. Then there are the dead great loves: Franz Kafka(1883-1924) and W.G. Sebald (1944-2001), whose work, for me, is inexhaustible.


Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?


I recently read The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje and thoroughly enjoyed it, though I can’t say I wish I’d written it. I always appreciate Ondaatje’s telling — as much if not more than the actual story, the hit-home lines like: “What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power,” and “ was painful to realize that nothing was permanent, not even an ocean liner...because in a breaker’s yard you discover anything can have a new life, be reborn as part of a car or railway carriage, or a shovel blade. You take that older life and you link it to a stranger.” Yes!


What are you working on now?


I’m fortunate to belong to a longstanding writing group. When possible, most of us meet weekly, which keeps us in the ink. So I’m always working or reworking a poem. Right now I’m also involved in editing the Poet to Poet anthology, to be published by Guernica in 2012, and I’ve got a translation project on the go.

Elana Wolff is the author of four collections of poetry with Guernica: Birdheart (2001), Mask (2003), You Speak to Me in Trees (2006), winner of the 2008 F.G. Bressani Prize for Poetry, and Startled Night. Elana is also co-author with the late poet, Malca Litovitz, of Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness, Duologue and Rengas (2008). A collection of short essays on contemporary poems, titled Implicate Me, was released with Guernica in 2010. Elana has taught English as a Second Language at York University in Toronto and at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She currently divides her time between writing, editing, and facilitating therapeutic community art.

For more information about Startled Night please visit the Guernica Editions website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.


I look forward to your current book's recognition of your shadow. As much as we strive to share and connect with others through our lightness, we have a collective dark side in common which needs not to be denied, yet openly embraced. I am delighted that you have chosen this as inspirational exploration in your work. In your thorough interview above this particular quote perked my attention- "Go the heaven for form, to hell for energy, and marry the two." I salute honest expression.

What I love about Elana's writing is its thoughtfulness, its thought-fullness. You come to know and trust as a reader that nothing is said flippantly, there is such attentiveness. I see that quality again in this interview. "The tale cannot be finite" -- Elana's approach to writing is to engage the reader, to invite the reader to participate in the process. Writer and reader are in the tale together... All the best, Elana, with Startled Night.

In a photograph, it is the shadow that can give the subject strength and stability.
How interesting that you have examined it's role, through your art and writing. It sounds like this book will be another "must read".

Your description of the shadow and its role in art is powerful. Some painter (I forget which one) said that geunuinely original creations are usually perceived as ugly at first... because, I imagine, they are pushing the bounds of the previously-accepted definition of "beautiful." I value the times in my own writing when I reach that point. I'm lookign forward to seeing you new book.

It is always a privilege to have new and deeper insight into your intellectual and poetic process.

Another fascinating interview with Elana Wolff. Now we learn this talented poet is also trained in therapeutic art. How she incorporates the visual with the verbal has me looking forward to her latest book with even more interest.

Great interview, Elana! Can't wait to read your new book.

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