Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Kenneth Sherman

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Kenneth Sherman

For each book that sits on our shelves or rests in our hands, a writer has spent countless hours researching, organizing, writing and rewriting. In Open Book’s At The Desk series, writers tell us about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them.

Kenneth Sherman is the author of Words for Elephant Man (Porcupine's Quill), a collection of poetry which examines the life and fate of Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man.

Kenneth talks with Open Book about his work space, discussing the postcards he's received from writer friends over the years, to which he often returns for inspiration.
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There is a cork bulletin board above my writing desk, on which I’ve tacked, over the years, postcards and photographs. I don’t look at these while I am writing. But I do like to look at them after I have written, especially if the work has gone well.

I feel strongest about postcards from writers who are gone. There’s one from Gwendolyn Macewen that shows a Japanese woodblock print of a bijinga (beautiful woman). She is most likely a courtesan and she wears a grey, peach-fringed kimono. Her small hands are clasped in a gesture of joy. The print was executed by Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806), a master of the Ukiyoe style and on the back, Gwen, in sepia fountain-pen ink, confirms that she will write on my behalf to the Canada Council. She signs off with “Good luck!” I once invited Gwen to read to the English students at the college where I taught. The Gwen I knew was shy, vulnerable, but she became another person when she read her poetry aloud in the “Russian style” — that is, by heart. Carried by the power of the poetry and the swell of its cadences, she projected confidence and joy.

Up in the right hand corner of the board there’s a card from the poet and critic, Eli Mandel, sent from his visit to Dachau, Germany’s notorious concentration camp. It’s a photo of Nandor Glid’s monument honouring the victims: a stark sculpture melding charred bodies, fence posts and barbed wire. Glid, a Serbian Jew, lost his entire family in the Shoah; he survived by escaping from a concentration camp and joining the National Liberation Movement. He fought against the Germans throughout the war and was wounded several times. Eli writes: “Dear Ken, This is not the card I’d send to anyone, but you, above all, know what it is. We were at the Dachau camp on a cold, bleak, sinister day.” He goes on to say that aside from Dachau, his European trip has been “wonderful.” He’s given a reading in “a freezing cold Crusader church” in Sicily and now he is “bathing in warm Roman sunlight.”

Poet Miriam Waddington’s postcard advertises her book Apartment Seven: Essays Selected and New. I had written a favourable review of the book for the journal Viewpoints. Miriam writes: “That was a terrific piece of analysis of Apt 7! It’s nice to have someone who has actually read and understood a book, write about it.” The card is dated Oct 29, 1990; I had spent time with Miriam at the Peterborough poetry festival the preceding spring and grew to appreciate her biting wit. I am especially fond of the card because it is addressed, not to me, but to Joseph Sherman, a Maritime poet with the same surname, five years my senior. An understandable error that makes the card all the more precious.

At the top of the board, there’s a photo of me and Irving Layton taken at Montreal’s Jewish Public Library the last time Irving and I read together. It’s the fall of 1995 and the photo shows the two of us seated in the front row of the hall. Irving is eighty-three. Later that year he will split up with his fifth wife. He looks pale, drawn, and needs some assistance climbing the steps to the podium. Despite his infirmities, he gives a passionate reading, and walks off the stage without help.

Among the other items: A picture postcard I brought back with me from a 1974 trip to Mahabalipuram, in southeast India, shows the stone-relief of Arjuna’s penance: elephants, flying monkeys, serpent gods. A 1988 birthday card my brother sent from Tampa, Florida pictures Elvis, Janis Joplin and Marilyn Monroe sharing a bed in Heartbreak Hotel. There’s a strip of four pics featuring me and Marie in our late twenties mugging for the photo-booth camera, taken at Union Station, 1979. I’m so young, I hardly recognize myself. An anniversary card M gave me: Bogart and Bergman — eyes locked — sip champagne. It’s from before our time. Casablanca. 1942.

— Kenneth Sherman

Kenneth Sherman was born in Toronto in 1950. He has a BA from York University, where he studied with Eli Mandel and Irving Layton, and an MA in English Literature from the University of Toronto. While a student at York, Sherman co-founded and edited the literary journal Waves. From 1974-1975 he travelled extensively through Asia. He is a full-time faculty member at Sheridan College where he teaches Communications; he also teaches a course in creative writing at the University of Toronto.

In 1982, Sherman was writer-in-residence at Trent University. In 1986 he was invited by the Chinese government to lecture on contemporary Canadian literature at universities and government institutions in Beijing. In 1988, he received a Canada Council grant to travel through Poland and Russia. This experience inspired several of the essays in his book Void and Voice (1998). Sherman, author of the acclaimed Words for Elephant Man, and The Well: New and Selected Poems, lives in Toronto with his wife, Marie, an artist.

For more information about Words for Elephant Man please visit the Porcupine's Quill website.

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

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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