Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Shayna Maidel

Elana Wolff interviews Karen Shenfeld
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A Shayna Maidel

Elana Wolff:

You published your first book of poems, The Law of Return, when you were over 40. When and how did you first become conscious of the need to create poetry? Did it happen much earlier and did it simply take time to build up a collection and find a publisher? Or did it happen later in life?

Karen Shenfeld:

I actually started to write poetry when I was seven. If you’d asked me, back then, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" — like the director of the British documentary, 28 Up, asked his seven-year-old subjects — I’d have responded definitively: "When I grow up I'm going to be a poet."

I'm not sure why I wanted to be a poet; I think the idea of it appealed to my heightened sense of romance. I also remember reading, at school, the poems of Pauline Johnson and Archibald Lampman and loving them. They seemed, to me, to be filled with an ineffable mystery, the power of a spell. And I was tempted to try to create something that possessed that incandescent charge.

I did start to scribble down a few poems at a very young age, and I had my first poem published in a student's magazine the summer I turned 12. Somewhat later, during my undergraduate years, I studied the art and craft of poetry with Irving Layton at York University.

So, you ask, why was my first collection not published until I was over 40? Well, yes, it took me a long time until I felt I had enough poems that were strong enough to go into a book. I’ve never been a poet who can write a lot of poems in a single burst, or one who can write quickly, at all. I’m a very slow writer — be it poetry or prose. Until quite recently, that fact depressed me, and made me doubt the strength of my talent. I still struggle to accept and respect my own process.

Once I put my poems together in a collection, however, it didn't take me long before I found my publisher. Partly because I did some research and, correctly, intuited that Antonio D'Alfonso — the founder and editor of Guernica Editions — would appreciate my sensibility. I submitted my first manuscript to Guernica by mail back in January, 1998, having never spoken in person to Antonio. I was absolutely delighted when he wrote me back to say that he’d accepted it.

EW:

I had a similar, and very magical experience, when I submitted my first manuscript of poems to Antonio back in 1999, but that’s a story for another time.... The 34 poems in The Law of Return are, for the most part, very Jewish poems — indeed the book won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Poetry in 2001. These are spare, very polished, lyrically narrative poems about holidays, custom and ritual, family members: Bubby Risha, “Theatre Doctor” Zayda, your father and mother, your son — his birth (“Caesarean”), his “Circumcision.” The title poem, set in Kensington, is a loving tribute to your great-grandmother, Chaya. The poems are sprinkled with the Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish of your forbears — “an alte ferdt” (an old horse), “le’ hadlick nair” (to light a candle), “chlib, maslo” (bread, butter). Some of the terms can be figured out from context, but many cannot, and there’s no gloss at the back of the book. Would you say that this use of vernacular has made the work more accessible and appealing to an informed Jewish reader and less so to a wider audience, or not? Were you/are you very much aware of the reader when you’re writing?

KS:

Wow! That’s a lot of question. Well, perhaps the post-modernist’s adage is true: that what a reader ultimately takes away from a given text is what she brings to that text. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to hear this, but I was actually shocked that I won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for The Law of Return. Most of the poems in the book were inspired by my travels; I didn’t think it contained enough thematically Jewish material to be considered.

It may be true that the book’s title poem and others are, as you have defined them, “very Jewish poems.” But I would hope that they are so in the way that Allen Ginsburg’s poem, “Kaddish,” is also a very Jewish poem. Or, in the way that, say, Leonard Cohen’s pop hymn, ”Hallelujah” — with its metaphorically mixed references to the stories of David and Bat Sheva, and Samson — is Jewish.

What I mean to say is: Yes, my confrontation with, and reverence for, my familial and Jewish history, customs, traditions, holy texts and folklore, have informed some of my writing. But, I would hope that my poems, no matter what they are ostensibly about, express, on a less immediate level, universal truths, questions and emotions that could interest, provoke and delight readers, no matter their cultural background.

You specifically mention my use of terms from Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish. Well, I love words — their sounds, rhythms, colours, textures, odours — no matter what language they’re from. I don’t think my use of the vernacular makes my poetry less accessible to a wider audience, partly because I don’t think a reader has “to get” a poem in the same way that she might have “to get” an essay, or even a piece of fiction. I think you can “feel” the meaning of a poem — the way you can feel a piece of music.

As for a glossary, I think that, in the Internet age, glossaries are unnecessary. If you happened to see the review of my second book, The Fertile Crescent, that was written by Lynda Grace Phillipsen and published in the Summer 2006 issue of Books in Canada — unfortunately I don’t think it’s online — well, Ms. Phillipsen warned potential readers that, in cracking open that book, they should expect to come across unfamiliar vocabulary: words such as terebinth, madder, fennec, khamsin, erg, etc. — most of which are, in fact, English. In The Law of Return, I also use possibly unfamiliar words which are not drawn from my own culture — like ecdysiast, soubrette and mistral. I think that poetry is, at its heart, about The Word — which is, perhaps, an essentially Jewish philosophical conceit!

As for your question about awareness of the reader when I’m writing — my primary impetus to write a poem is always internal. But don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that poetry is a form of communication, and I do want my poems to make some sort of sense to someone other than myself. At a certain point, after I’ve written a piece, I try to “stand back from it” and try to read the poem as if someone else besides myself had written it. At that point, I think a lot about what the poem would convey to a reader.

I may have begun a poem with a certain intention, only to discover that what I’ve actually written expresses something completely different. Then I might decide to revise the poem again, to try to make it convey what I’d originally intended. More often than not, I might just try to perfect the poem I’ve written as best I can! I believe that the subconscious guides the poet to write what she really intended.

But back to the reader: After I’ve edited a poem, I usually not only think about an imaginary reader, but I often show the piece to several actual readers. My actual readers often include Kenneth Sherman, Fraser Sutherland and my husband, Stephen Watson — all of whom are discriminating readers, with good taste and editorial acumen. I’ve also, of late, shown my poems to Baila Ellenbogen, and to you!

So I suppose you might say that I write my poems with a well-read and well-educated reader in mind. But I don’t think a poet ever targets her writing, in the way that a marketer or a PR person targets a piece of communication. I certainly never try to target mine. Otherwise I might try to write in a style that’s more fashionable, or address subjects that are more du jour.

EW:

Well, your style is lyrical and the subjects you address are personal— and the personal may not be so “du jour.” As American poet-critic Dan Chiasson maintains, in his 2007 essay collection One Kind of Everything, our present poetic climate is omnivorous in its appetite for semantic indeterminacies and discourses on science and philosophy, but very narrow in terms of possible stances toward the self, identity and the category of experience we locate as “what happened.” Your work resides in that narrower space, and it’s a space to be attended to and defended. I have to say that it isn’t/wasn’t at all surprising to me that The Law of Return was awarded the 2001 Canadian Jewish Book Award. It’s a fine work and the very ground of it — as expressed in the title — is thematically focally Jewish, as are your wanderings (more about this later), and your identification of “The Word” with the heart of poetry. Perhaps the very specificity of your writing potentiates a wide appeal — many would hold that the only way to the universal is through the particular.

I want to stay with your first book a while longer — as it introduces themes and subjects that you remain with and develop in your subsequent work. The poems in The Law of Return center primarily on people, and I find the pieces about your relationship with your parents to be particularly poignant. The opening poem — “Yom Kippur” (Day of Atonement) — is about your father at prayer, at work and in the world. It reveals a tender father-daughter relationship as well as divisions of faith within the family. You write: “I sit beside him in the seat reserved / For the wife who doesn’t believe.” Your father is portrayed here as a traditional man — a man who attends synagogue on the holiest day of the Jewish year; your mother, the opposite. More clearly, in the poem, “Sabbath Queen”: “My mother does not light the candles. / ‘It’s nonsense,’ she says through tight lips... I cover my head with her lace scarf, recite the works...” One gets the clear sense from these pieces that your mother is not a believer and that you lean to your father’s sensibilities in matters of faith and observance. But maybe you’ve used some dramatic enhancement.... To what extent do you serve the piece when poeticizing real people and actual relationships? If subjective life is the material of lyric poetry, to what degree and in what manner do you, Karen Shenfeld, summon the personal into view?

KS:

I’ll begin my answer by retelling an anecdote that I once heard about Anton Chekhov — which I’m not sure is true. Evidently, in the days before one of Chekhov’s stories was set to appear in a literary journal, his friends would begin to grow nervous: they’d be wondering amongst themselves, in trepidation, which one of them was going to be the focus of Chekhov’s new work. The Russian master apparently based many of his stories directly on the lives and personal struggles of his closest friends. He even lifted some of their conversations verbatim. Not surprisingly, perhaps, some of the friends were not too pleased about being the fodder for Chekhov’s imagination, and, each time one of his stories was published, his social circle grew a little smaller.

I can’t remember exactly who told me this story. I think it was Irving Layton, when I took a short fiction class with him during my fourth year at York University. At any rate, I’m telling it to you now somewhat in self-defense, as a way of saying, Hey, I’m not the only writer who suffers from a lack of imagination!

Almost all my poems are based on truth — on something I’ve directly experienced, or on something someone else has experienced and told me about, or on something I’ve read about, which is, more often than not, related to something I’ve experienced. In reading the poems from my first book, you have, correctly, deduced certain truths about my relationship with my father and mother — which possess, I confess, some frightening Freudian aspects. You’ve also correctly deduced that there was tension in the home arising from my parents’ differing views on matters of faith and observance. And that I shared my father’s sensibilities.

That said, in the writing of my poetry, I do freely exaggerate, dramatize, embellish and downright lie! Once I start writing and editing a poem, I don’t care about telling the truth. I just want to write a good poem. And a good poem, I think, possesses its own kind of truth.

I’ll give you an example: in your question, you mention my poem, “Yom Kippur.” I started to compose it in my head while sitting beside my father in synagogue on Yom Kippur — The Day of Atonement. It was the year my father’s older brother died of a sudden heart attack. And my father, for the first time I think, was struck by his own sense of mortality. Just as I wrote in the poem, my father pointed to a stranger sitting in front of us in the congregation, and he asked me, poignantly, “Karen, do I look as old as that man?”

But there’s embellishment too. In the poem, I describe my father as dressed in white and wearing slippers on his feet — both of which are customs that are traditionally observed on Yom Kippur by Orthodox Jews. My dad, however, who wasn’t Orthodox, actually always wore a dark suit and leather shoes on Yom Kippur, and when he first read that poem, he called me up on the phone to protest. He said, “Karen, how come you made me so religious?” I answered him simply: “Dad, it’s not the truth! It’s a poem!”

EW:

While we’re on the topic of your father, let’s turn to your new, third collection, My Father’s Hand Spoke in Yiddish, which in many ways revisits the subjects and spirit of your first work. Again, the opening poem, “Brief Note to an Engineer” is a poem addressed to your father — I’m assuming this from the context, even though you don’t mention him directly. Again, the closeness is candid, and “against protocol” you wear his iron engineer’s ring. In the title poem, too, your father is remembered lovingly for his hands, and old-world ways. I’d like to quote the poem in full:

My father’s hands spoke in Yiddish,
the ganze megillah of curses,
complaints.

Ever in motion,
they argued with themselves.

Gai kochen aufen yam! my father’s
hands said. Go shit in the sea!

In the mamaloshen,
they spoke their last, impatient words,
rose palms up from the narrow bed —

Nu? Shoyn!
All right already!

then fell like bricks.

Their final kvetch
bemusing the angel of death.

Here the love radiates humour. And in this book the English translations of Yiddish expressions are either given within the poem, or in Notes at the back of the book — “ganze megillah” translates roughly as “the whole scroll” and “mamaloshen” is “mother tongue.” So, again, this is a very Jewish book — in fact it serves as a poetic document of sorts about growing up in Bathurst Manor — the north-central Toronto neighbourhood that was once predominantly Jewish, but has grown less so over the years as the community has migrated farther north.

Yet in addition to poems with Jewish titles and themes — the “Golem” poems, “The Maftir,” “The Standing Prayer,” “The Mazel Tov Club,” “Billie Holiday Sings My Yiddishe Mama” and “Sweetheart of Second Avenue,” — there’s also a very Canadian feel to the collection. For me, this comes through in the nature and winter poems, also in the pieces “On Reciting a Poem by Archibald Lampman” and “Canoeing Song” — wherein you “go canoeing with Pauline Johnson.” Did you set out to poetically document, in a sense, your experience of growing up Jewish-Canadian in suburban Toronto? Or should I say Canadian and Jewish? And do you see this as a Canadian collection? — However you define Canadian.

KS:

It seems that knowing the “back stories” that inspire poets to write is one of your pleasures. So, I’ll indulge you. First off, you’re right. The opening poem in my new book, “Brief Note to an Engineer,” is implicitly addressed to my father. He was not only a professional engineer, but a world-renowned expert in the field of urban air pollution. After his death, I tried to write a long narrative poem that would paint a portrait of him as a scientist. No matter how much I edited it, though, I was never satisfied — perhaps because at heart I’m not a narrative poet. Eventually, I cut the poem down to eight short lines about wearing his ring, which, truthfully, was what inspired me to try to write the poem in the first place.

You may be surprised to learn that my father was, in real life, far more “new world” than “old world”: highly educated, cosmopolitan and sophisticated. But still, there’s a lot of plain truth in the title poem of my new book. My dad did, indeed, speak Yiddish fluently, and I heard him conversing in Yiddish with his mother, my grandmother, all through my childhood. Furthermore, I actually wrote that poem while sitting in Sunnybrook Hospital as my father lay dying. And though I was filled with sadness — and though he really did lift his head and eyes toward the heavens — the poem turned out to possess a wry humour. In fact, I’m completely surprised by how much humour there is in my latest book — I don’t think of myself as a humorous poet. Perhaps it’s the Yiddish language, with the richness of its nuances, that took hold of me and took control.

Let me leap, now, to the end of your question. You ask if I set out to poetically document my experience of growing up Jewish-Canadian in suburban Toronto. Well, yes and no, or no and yes. My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish evolved slowly, over a period of five years or more — one poem more or less organically leading into the next. As a lyric poet, I don’t think I’m nearly as self-conscious, in terms of my politics or intent, as I think many post-modernist and language poets are. Early on in the process I did, however, read Barry Dempster’s book, The Words Wanting Out, and quite a few strong poems in that new-and-selected collection chronicle the poet’s experience of growing up in a Christian home in suburban Don Mills. I think I was inspired by Barry’s poems to try to explore my own suburban childhood.

Now, do I see my new book as a “Jewish collection” or as a “Canadian collection”? That’s a philosophical question, no? Because, as you note, it brings to the foreground the question of how one defines “Canadian” to begin with: a question that always takes me back, 35 years, to my first-year Humanities seminar at York University, in which we discussed the differences between the proverbial notion of the Canadian “mosaic” and the American “melting pot.” I think My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish is simultaneously both very Jewish, and very Canadian — and that bipolarity reflects the hyphenated-reality of my childhood, as well as the deeper reality of the Canadian mosaic. As I form these thoughts, I can’t but wonder what Nino Ricci would say if you asked him if Lives of the Saints was an Italian novel or a Canadian novel....

I think I’ll end this answer with two comments that my colleague, the poet and essayist, Kenneth Sherman, made when I sent my manuscript off to him to see if he would write a back-cover endorsement for me — which he did. In one email, he remarked that he really liked the poems I wrote that were inspired by my youthful admiration for the works of Archibald Lampman and Pauline Johnson. He said that they were subversive, because I, who am on some level, I guess, a Jewish writer, had laid my own claim to these iconic Canadian figures. In another message, however, he wrote to say that he found the title of my book, My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish, a bit “too Jewish.” He added: “I know poetry doesn’t attract as much attention as it should, but [the title] might be limiting.” In fact, I’d chosen two other titles for my book — My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish was the choice of Antonio D’Alfonso, my editor at Guernica. Though I’m usually argumentative — just ask my husband, Stephen! — I decided that, in this case, I would trust Antonio’s decision. I think we’ll just have to see what happens as the book finds its way into the world.

EW:

I’d agree with Kenneth Sherman that the title of your newest book, My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish, is indeed very Jewish. But I wouldn’t say it’s much more Jewish than the title of your first collection, The Law of Return. Nor would I say that your new collection is more Jewish in ground and feel than either your first or your enchanting second collection, The Fertile Crescent — in which you trace your wanderings in the Middle East and Africa. In the poems in The Fertile Crescent you speak in the voice of Sarah, wife of Abraham, quote the voice of God in Genesis 12:1— “Go to the Land I Will Show Thee,” and God again in Genesis 22:2 — “Take Thou Thy Son, Thy Only Son.” You write in spiritual terms — of miracles, doubt, the holy struggle; “Everything You Wanted to Know About ”Benjamin of Tudela.” You call up the ancient and the exotic: the tent, the well, the Shema — the centrepiece of Jewish prayer. Jewishness is part of your psyche, and what happens when you sit down to write, it seems, cannot but be sifted through the depths of your cultural and personal experience. In this way, as Ken Sherman has observed, Canadian icons like Pauline Johnson and Archibald Lampman become ‘subverted’ to your Jewish sensibilities in the poems “Canoeing Song” and “On Reciting a Poem by Archibald Lampman.” These are two of my favourite poems from My Fathers Hands Spoke in Yiddish, and both, I think, will lend well to being read in public. As you now embark upon the season of reading from your newly-launched book, have you thought about which pieces you’d like to showcase? Do you have favourites among your own poems? And is there such a thing as a public and a private poem for you — or poems that you consider too private to read in public?

KS:

Once again you’ve compressed a lot of ideas into your response and question/s. So I’ll ‘take it from the top’ and work my way down to your final question about the public and the private.

First off, you’re right. The titles of my first two books are also reflective of their thematically Jewish content. Though I haven’t had any long discussions with him, I think that what Kenneth Sherman may have been objecting to is the folksiness of the title, My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish. He may have felt that such a title is not representative of the collection as a whole. After some consideration, however, I decided that the title might encourage some people to pick up and read the book who might not have otherwise. And anything that encourages people to read poetry in this world is, in my opinion, a force for the good.

I’m glad you mentioned the Biblical poems that are part of my second collection, The Fertile Crescent — it did seem very natural for me to write those poems. I was sent by my parents — well, in fact, just by my father — to Hebrew school, three to five days a week, for nine years throughout my childhood and adolescence, as well as to a Jewish summer camp. The stories, images, cadences and mystery of the Jewish Bible and Jewish prayer are indeed what nurtured, shaped and still define, to some degree, my literary sensibility.

In speaking about those Biblical poems, I must, however, confess that I’m more of a self-conscious poet than I might like to admit. For almost 20 years, I had the opportunity to travel for extended periods of time, and my experiences in the Sahara and the Himalayas and elsewhere greatly informed my writing. Travelling was, for me — a child of the ‘60s, addicted to sensation — a legal narcotic, whose happy side-effect was inspiration! At the end of 20 years of travelling, however, the artist in me was consciously looking for a means to tie together my disparate experiences, and through poems, make them truly my own. My upbringing quite naturally led me to the Jewish construct of the “wandering Jew” and to linking my own journeys in the desert and elsewhere with those of Biblical figures and medieval Jewish travellers like Benjamin of Tudela.

Now, to tackle the questions at the end of your comments: Have I thought about what pieces from My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish I’d like to showcase in the coming months? Well, I like to showcase different poems at different readings. I usually choose the poems a day or so in advance and I practise reading them. When I plan a reading, I like to choose a selection that seems somehow cohesive. And it’s more as a reader than as a writer that I think of my audience. I know, for example, that some of my poems — such as the ones I wrote about the Yiddish performers Molly Picon and Fanny Brice — might, because of their subject matter, appeal more to an older Jewish audience than a younger, more diverse crowd. I also think that some poems, because of their length, complexity or level of abstraction, work better on the page than read aloud. A poetry reading is, after all, a performance. That said, I don’t like it when a poet’s performance overpowers her words.

It’s interesting to me, in light of this discussion, that you’ve brought up the poem I wrote about Pauline Johnson, whose work I discovered in class and loved as a child. Before writing that tribute poem, which doubles as a nature poem, I read a great deal about Ms. Johnson, whose original name was Tekahionwake. I found it fascinating to learn that, in the early 1900s, she travelled all over North America, and to England, and, dressed up in an aboriginal costume of her own design, she recited her poems at sold-out theatre venues. She was, in fact, a kind of vaudeville performer, just like Sophie Tucker, a red-hot Jewish mama with a great blues voice, who sang in black-face around the same time, and about whom I’ve also written in My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish. According to letters that Pauline Johnson wrote, she knew very well that her best poems, and her favourite poems, were not in fact the ones that she recited to packed audiences, but rather a series of quiet unrequited love poems and elegant poems steeped in Christianity that she wrote toward the end of her life when she was sick with breast cancer. I also now love those favourite poems of hers.

Do I have any favourite poems of my own? Well, I think my opinions about my poems are always in flux, depending upon my mood and depending upon whom I’m reading at the moment, and comparing myself with. Truthfully, I’m never completely happy with my own work.

Lastly: Have I written any poems that I think are too private to read in public? Not really — though I know that I often blush when I read one of my Sarah poems, which is quite erotic. I once read that poem to a Grade 12 English class, in a private parochial school — I wanted to make sure the kids didn’t fall asleep!

EW:

I’d like to close with a sixth ‘question.’ At the end of his recently-released autobiographical book of criticism, Beauty & Sadness, Trinidad-born, Toronto author André Alexis speaks of how the “failure” of his second novel, Asylum, “to please on a wide scale” — after the huge success of his first novel, Childhood — prompted him to reconsider what writing has meant to him and what he hopes to accomplish as a writer. Despite moments of deep self-doubt, he affirms his “commitment to the art form that has chosen him” and holds that he still has books he wants to write. You spoke earlier of doubting your process and of never being completely happy with your own work. Have you ever been shaken in your commitment to writing — by success, failure or any other factor — in the way that André Alexis speaks of? And in the bigger picture, what do you hope to accomplish in writing poetry?

KS:

I've often heard poets complain that they are writing in a vacuum: that they don't attract the attention of critics, reviewers, and the more mainstream media; that they are only read by a small coterie of their peers. Poets feel that they have to ‘graduate’ to writing a novel in order to achieve the renown of such writers as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels (all of whom, of course, began their careers as poets). Or at least pick up a guitar like Leonard Cohen did! To all those poets, I'll quote a line from Irving Layton: ”Whatever else poetry is freedom.” Unlike André Alexis, I'll never have to despair because my latest book of poetry failed “to please on a wider scale,” or garnered a negative review in a publication such as The Globe and Mail, jeopardizing the size of my next book advance! I'm free from all that!!

And even though I, at times, doubt my process and doubt my talent, and, even though, when I read over my poems, I think they're not nearly as strong as those, say, of Seamus Heaney or Derek Walcott, or a few dozen other poets whom I most admire, I know I'll write poetry as long as I have the strength to do so. For better or for worse, poetry has chosen me; I would not willingly forsake the muse. That's not to say that I might never in the future try to write a novel. I have, as you know, written journalism. And I've also worked in documentary films. My commitment to poetry, however, is existential. More than anything else, it defines for me who I am.

On a less serious note, I also really enjoy writing poetry; it's one of my life's greatest pleasures. Even on days when I'm struggling with it, I enjoy myself. It's taken forever, but I've finally and really come to understand that making art is about the process.

What do I hope to accomplish in writing poetry, beyond being engaged in the act? Well, I’m not the kind of poet who is attempting— like some of Canada’s language poets, such as Christian Bök — “to reinvent the poem.” I’m not that intellectual! As a lyric poet, I remain committed to using the modern form to delight, to convey ideas, emotions and themes and as a means of self-exploration and self-revelation. I also hope, however, that something about my voice is original.

As I said, poetry, for me, is about communication. So I'm always striving, through readings and publications, to reach other living beings. I never fail to feel thrilled when someone lets me know that they've been moved by something I've written. And even though I've not yet submitted my poetry to an online journal, I think, like many artists of different stripes, that the Internet is super because it can allow one to reach so many people, so easily. Who knows, for example, who's listening in on our conversation right at this very minute? A poetry enthusiast in Bangalore? Nairobi? Auckland?

In my wildest dreams, Elana, I'm not concerned about recognition in the here and now. What I long for — and what I think most artists really long for — is, of course, immortality. Even in my wildest dreams, however, I don't imagine that my name will ever be really well-known. But, I can conceive that, one day, 200 years from now, some student, specializing in Canadian poetry, will be searching for a subject to focus her doctoral thesis on. She'll be combing the Net, or searching the library stacks at the University of Toronto, and she'll come across my poetry and get turned on. Now that alone would be cool.


Karen Shenfeld has published three poetry collections with Guernica Editions: The Law of Return (1999), which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry in 2001, and The Fertile Crescent (2005), and most recently, My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish. Her poetry has appeared in national and international journals, and has been featured on CBC Radio. Karen has also brought her poetic sensibility to the writing of magazine stories, for such publications as Saturday Night and Toronto Life, and to the making of documentary films.

Elana Wolff has published three books of poetry with Guernica Editions: Birdheart, Mask and You Speak to Me in Trees, which was awarded the 2008 F. G. Bressani Prize for Poetry. Her most recent book, Implicate Me: Short Essays on Reading Contemporary Poems, was released with Guernica this summer; a fourth collection of poetry is forthcoming in 2011.


For more information about My Father's Hands Spoke In Yiddish, please visit the Guernica Editions website.

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

10 comments

Dear Open Book Readers,
I thought you might be interested in reading a response to "A Shayna Maidel" from celebrated NYC author, Richard Kalich, also a longtime friend of the family. With Dick’s kind permission, I’m “gluing and pasting” some of his comments, received via my mother. (Every writer needs a mother who is as tireless a literary-advocate as mine.)

“I read the interview. I mean I read ALL OF IT. Wow. You can tell the girls that that’s a novel in itself. Various thoughts:

One. Bobby [that’s Dick’s twin brother] and I are Cantor’s sons, mother was a PhD at Barnard. We rejected our father’s Orthodox religiosity virtually at birth. Certainly at five, six and seven we were telling our mother after the shul experience: Mom. These people (european orthodox) are MORONS! Our mother’s response: Shhhhh, your father’s a professional man.

Two. Much in the interview is ‘shared interest’ and of kindred spirit. For example, the phrases: Out of the particular comes the universal, and the reader gets from a work what he/she brings to it, I’ve been preaching all my life.

Three. The Anton Chekov post-mortem is analogous and telling to my own novel writing. Don’t tell anybody, but I, too, suffer from lack of imagination. Especially in my present novel: Penthouse F. (Check out Richard Kalich’s website-- www.richardkalich.com -- for information on his forthcoming novel, previous books, awards, screenplays, biography, etc.)

Four. Bobby’s and my Jewish heritage not only includes shul and religious tradition, but Molly Picon was a relative of ours, married to a Jacob Kalich. We also had a relative who was considered the greatest actress in the Yiddish Theater of her day. I think her name was Bertja Kalish.

Five. And MOST IMPORTANT: Reading Elana's interview of her Poet Friend validates, confirms, substantiates and lays claim to my life-long stance as a Bachelor. How can a man commit to one woman when so many are out there... "

What a delight to read! I was completely absorbed. It felt a little like being privy to the best kind of conversation at the next table (I think that's called eavesdropping...). I may read it again. This time with wine!

BTW, you describe some interesting takes on the title. FWIW, I find the strength is all in the words 'My Father's Hands', which draws me in immediately. That they 'Spoke in Yiddish' is brilliant... and I don't think it makes the title 'overly Jewish'. It merely suggests that HE was Jewish. For me, it's a father's hands speaking at all that's the focus. That's what gets to me. In other words, the title is perfect.

Anyway, well done. Lots of good points raised and much fodder for thought and discussion.

...Waiter!

The power of a true poet is to ignite the imagination, and spark memories. Thank you Elana and Karen, for sparking some beautiful childhood memories of my father and I.

A fascinating and in depth interview that has given me a better understanding and appreciation of how poets craft their art. It's interesting to read about the "back stories" behind the poems but how a good poem possesses its own truth.

I didn't know much about poetry before I read this article. I have learned a lot.

Mazel-tov, ladies. And may the spirit of Tekahionwake inspire the both of you.

This interview was a bit shocking. Seldom in Canada is the writing of poetry discussed so comprehensively and sensibly.

What a rich interview -- gives a lot of insight into both Karen's process and the way she understands her work. I can empathise as I'm a slow writer (of poetry) too -- I compare it to an oyster that takes a long time to grow a pearl from a grain of sand. The grins come from personal experience, but even if the reader doesn't understand the exact word or culture it draws on, the sheen of the pearl still gives it value.
John Oughton

Agadez: I'm so happy that you found it interesting to listen in on my conversation with Elana! I was deeply moved that she spent the time to read my work so closely.

A fascinating dialogue on artistic process and inspiration!

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