Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Baila Ellenbogen

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Ten Questions, with Baila Ellenbogen

Baila Ellenbogen talks to Open Book about writing as a way of life: how writers do it, why it matters and where to begin. Her research into the process of writing poetry is blended with life experience and her own poetic spark to produce her first collection, Footsteps on the Ceiling, published this fall with Guernica Editions.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new poetry collection, Footsteps on the Ceiling.

Baila Ellenbogen:

This collection includes poetry that I have written over the past ten years of my life while I went through some rather significant changes. During this time I was very much involved in bringing up my small children (who are not so small anymore) while pursuing a second degree and a future career. There were times when I felt overwhelmed and troubled by the conflicts I faced and the responsibilities that I had to prioritize, and the part of me that enjoyed the simple and fulfilling moments of just watching my children as they grew and changed. I think the poetry in this collection certainly reflects these life changes and how I was facing a juncture of growth and reflection.

OB:

This is your first book of poetry. What has your experience of the publishing process for this book been like?

BE:

I tried for years to market my poetry to literary magazines and these efforts were met with very limited success. While I have written almost daily and can be quite productive, I find it hard to make the time to repeatedly send out submissions to magazines that may not respond for a year, and even then, may state that although no notice was given, they were not accepting submissions at that time. Other responses I received seemed arbitrary: the poem didn’t fit their typesetting, even though they liked it. To be fair, I also perhaps did not commit as much time as I needed to re-sending my poetry.

In the end, this manuscript became available to my editor through my contact with her in the context of my research at OISE. I came to know a lot of poets in Toronto and became somewhat known in terms of my thoughts about poetry writing and my interest in exploring this as psychological/educational research. Perhaps my reputation as a researcher became an introduction to my poetry, and pushed it forward into the right hands. After a fortuitous turn of events I was able to pass it on to my current editor and left it up to her to decide its future; at this point, it seemed, the quality of poetry had reached a level where it could speak for itself, and the manuscript was accepted. Guernica has been extremely generous in terms of its support of my work and the time they have put into helping shape it into the book it has become.

OB:

Did you set out to write this collection with a particular theme or set of ideas in mind, or did the unifying thread for the book emerge as you wrote?

BE:

I am pretty certain this emerged as I wrote. These poems reflect a movement or development in my life through the years that I wrote them. As such, they are filled with the content of my days: parenting, working, going to school, struggling with memories of childhood, of old friends, and grappling with current relationships and past commitments. This was not intentional, and took some work, in fact, with my editor, to make sure it came together in a cohesive and impactful way.

OB:

You conducted some fascinating research at OISE in which you examined the ways in which poets write. How did you conduct this research, and what did you find out?

BE:

This is a question that could take a long time to answer! In a nutshell, I met with a sample of experienced writers and the same number of novice writers, and I presented them with the same writing tasks. Then I requested that they talk about their thoughts as they wrote (a difficult thing to do, actually). I created transcripts of this data and analyzed it for re-occurring themes or explanations.

What I found was that experienced poetry writers employed significantly more comments about the playful, flexible and associative way of interacting with language than did novices, and that expert writers were more aware than novice poets that revision in poetry writing was an ongoing dynamic process. While many of the novices knew this to be the case in other areas of their writing lives, they had not extended it to poetry. This study comprised my thesis, but it is actually still in progress, so final results are not yet officially available.

OB:

Do you find yourself thinking about the cognitive and creative processes that must be going on in your own mind as you write, or are you able to leave that aside comes to your writing own poetry?

BE:

That is a very good question. When I write poetry, I do so in a very similar way to that explained and reflected upon by the more experienced writers in the study. It is not a matter of reflecting on how my brain is working, but of recognizing and affirming that yes, this playful, associative, repetitive process of digging up images, thoughts and words is the path I want to be on when I am writing. And again, recursive, repetitive editing is the way these pieces develop.

OB:

Who are your first readers? Who do you go to for feedback on your work?

BE:

I email my poetry to different people. Very often I will send it off to my poet-friend Karen Shenfeld. But I also enjoy sharing it with my husband, parents or other friends, especially if I am trying to say something meaningful that I think is part of our mutual experience. Sometimes I also just sit on my poetry for a year, tweaking it now and then, before I think of sharing it. Just recently I have been in the process of joining/creating a writing group as a venue to share and critique our poetry.

OB:

Who are your favourite poets?

BE:

My favourite poets are probably Michael Ondaatje, David McFadden, Anne Michaels, Sylvia Plath, Don McKay, Jan Zwicky, some Anne Carson, some Adrienne Rich, — oh, and just so much other stuff I read all the time. But those are names I will return to over and over for comfort and guidance and a feeling of a shared community of words and language.

OB:

Your MA is in Child and School Clinical Psychology. Do you think that kids in schools today are offered enough opportunities to express themselves creatively?

BE:

I am not sure about creativity in general — but I know for sure that they are not taught to write poetry in a way that my research supports. The bottom line, and a message I would like to eventually extend out of my OISE research “tower” and into school curricula, is that poetry writing cannot be taught in the same way we teach students how to read poetry! Poetry reading instruction involves learning how to identify and understand literary conventions such as metaphor, similes, alliteration, metre, etc., etc.

But writing poetry is not taught by presenting an assignment where a student has to write a poem that “includes three poetic conventions”! To learn, or even to just begin to learn to write poetry, I think teachers need to understand the importance of providing frequent writing exercises that can inspire students to explore areas of flexibility, facility, experimentation and playfulness with words and language.

OB:

Were you an avid reader and writer as a child yourself?

BE:

Yes and yes. I read, but I only began, really, after I was 10. And I wrote non-stop. Writing has always been my way of making sense of my experiences and transforming them, when they seem to lack meaning or comfort, into something that makes sense to me or seems beautiful.

OB:

Do you have any new projects in mind?

BE:

I am working on my next manuscript of poetry. I am continuing to complete the research initiative at OISE.


Baila Ellenbogen is a poet and psychoeducational consultant who resides in Vaughan with her family. She has just completed her Master’s Degree in Child and School Clinical Psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where her research focused on poetry composition and investigating the cognitive and creative processes that underlie the way experienced poets write. In Footsteps on the Ceiling, her first collection of poems, Baila Ellenbogen brings together the planes of experience and intellectual curiosity.

For more information about Footsteps on the Ceiling please visit the Guernica Editions website.

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

4 comments

I am a reader of poetry, not a writer. After reading the interview with Baila Ellenbogen I am even more impressed with how dedicated the writers of poetry are to their craft. I have several Guernica books in my library and plan to add this one by Baila to my collection.

An exciting perspective on living life fully and putting into written expression all that that entails. Having read Baila Ellenbogen's poetry and then the personal insights shared in this interview, it is no wonder she is seen as an unusually talented upcoming writer to be watched. This interview adds a dimension of understanding, a layer of context to the poetry that makes it even more meaningful.

Baila, though I know you well. And though you have, over the past few years, shown me drafts of your wonderful poems (as you so mention above), I was utterly intrigued by this interview. It's fascinating to read how your two professional sides came gloriously together to help bring your poetry to the world. I hope that some teachers read this interview, so that they will learn from your research and your own creative experience, and will change how the writing of poetry is taught to children.

Thank you for this thoughtful and compelling interview, Erin; Baila. I'm particularly intrigued by your research findings and insights on creative writing processes, Baila, and am hopeful that you'll be able to make a mark-- through your work in the field-- on the way poetry writing is taught to children. With all the things you have on your plate, though: husband, six young children, graduate study, and a full-time position as a psychoeducational consultant, I don't know how you find the time to read and write poetry yourself. Fortunately, you do.

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