Sharon Berg Interviews Elana Wolff
Sharon Berg It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to interview you about your latest book, Elana. Thank you for giving your time to this process. Many reviews of your work over the years have pointed to your handling of mysticism in your poetry and the fact that one can read multiple meanings from your lines. Michael Greenstein says in his review of Shape Taking in the Miramichi Reader (03/2022) that you’re dealing with ‘shape shifting’, a thought that your book title also suggests. However, Greenstein also says your work “revisits Kafka through bilingual wordplay, shape taking from German to English with abundant alliteration and internal rhyme.” Was that leaning toward form/technique your intention or a surprise as your poems took shape?
Elana Wolff I’m attentive to things that are hard to crack or impossible to resolve. The mystic, mysterious and enigmatic fascinate me—small daily amazements and synchronicities that intimate connections between people, the natural world, and the beyond. I find coincidence and the mysteriousness of transformation both life-affirming and artistically inspiring. Shape shifting in the folkloric or speculative fiction sense of physically transforming oneself through innate superhuman ability is not what my writing is about.
As for Kafka, he looms large in my thought-scape. The bilingual wordplay that Michael Greenstein cites in his review refers to the poem “Tacitly / Translating” in which I interpolate German words from a late, little-known Kafka text I translated for a creative nonfiction piece that’s part of my forthcoming Kafka-quest work, Faithfully Seeking Franz. The bilingual mix in the poem is a case of cross-fertilization.
Most of the pieces in Shape Taking were written during the pandemic, and they reflect, perhaps, in formal and technical terms, a striving to contend inventively with the uncertainties of a new global strangeness, along with a profound personal crisis.
SB Lynn Tait suggests you take “us on a wild ride, wonderfully strange yet familiar, reminding the reader of childhood, hidden memories, seasons and storms past... parts of the small moments of our lives” (LCP website, poets.ca/review). But you also explore language in the parallel you create between buildings from childhood being torn down, and with the giggle at saying Etobicoke and its earlier, lost name, “Wadopika / in Ojibwa. A language neither he nor I would know.” Was it your intention that readers would be able to make such different but parallel connections with their own childhood and experience of language through your poems?
EW I never know what to expect from readers of my poems. “Etobicoke,” like many of my pieces, brings together disparate elements—re/membered fragments, current thoughts, concerns and feelings, and storyline fictionalized by time and device. “Etobicoke” also owes a debt of gratitude to one of my favourite Jack Gilbert poems, “Trying to Have Something Left Over,” from his masterful 1997 collection, The Great Fires.
SB Memory has been said by experts to be ever-changing, and this thought comes up as I read your poems, many of which seem to point out the flux in our sense of reality and the instability of certainty. Yet, it seems you draw strongly on memory. Can you offer your thoughts on the use of memory in your poems?
EW I do draw on memory—in writing, and in everyday life. We all do. Without memory we wouldn’t be capable of ordering a single thought. Our lives would be muddles of meaningless moments without any notion of a past. About a quarter of the poems in Shape Taking contain reference to distant memory. These poems represent a kind of poetic truth—truth filtered through imagination, reconstruction, and device. They may relate only a fraction of actuality, yet in them I’ve striven for authenticity. Telling involves embellishment, which often brings discovery of things that until the writing of the poem, remained untapped. W.G. Sebald has said that this is what writing is about: “discovering the unseen.”
SB Titles are often difficult to come up with, though some authors seem to begin there. What was your experience in developing a title for this book?
EW My original title was Where Will We Be Brought, which is a line from the poem “Tear Near the Knot”—a piece I wrote in response to a writing prompt that Hoa Nguyen shared online during the early days of the first Covid-19 lockdown. Antonio D’Alfonso, the founding publisher of Guernica Editions, and one of my longstanding mentors, suggested Shape Taking instead, which is the title of one of the darker, more elliptical poems in the book, so I had reservations. But I did see that the latter title better embraces the overall thrust and nub of the collection, and is easier to remember, so I went with it. I don’t regret it.
SB Is Shape Taking a book that seemed to lay itself out on the page quickly, almost as if it were channelled, or did you put a lot of effort into its structure and the developmental process for it? Please elaborate.
EW In large part, the poems in Shape Taking were my creative response to the strange exigencies of the pandemic, and they (the poems) did come up quite quickly. The word “channelled,” however, which carries a spiritualist connotation of a process whereby a person allows herself to be a vehicle for communication from beyond, is probably too occult a descriptor for my processes. And no matter how unusual the impetus for the poem, as in “Bird in the House” for example; or how uncanny the subject matter—as in the ‘visitations’ related in “Sotto Voce”, the crafting of each piece entails rigorous technical and aesthetic detailing.
SB Authors speak of creating multiple drafts when they are working on a book. Can you share your experience? Did the length of Shape Taking change dramatically at any point in time after you completed the first draft? Please explain.
EW I constantly revise my poems; redraft and reorder as I assemble a collection. In the case of Shape Taking, the title (as mentioned) was changed at the final iteration. There was some reordering of the poems at that stage as well. Minimal changes to the text were made after the manuscript was accepted for publication.
SB Something that often interests readers is knowing how much of a certain work is invented and how much is autobiographical or parallel to the author’s experience. Would you care to share your approach/thoughts on this aspect of your readers’ curiosity?
EW Many of the poems in Shape Taking contain aspects of autobiography—filtered and adapted for the sake of discretion and/or in service of the work. And yet a purely fictional, non-autobiographical piece like “Portico,” which was written to conform to a form and evoke an idea, makes use of true family names for the sake of keeping to rhythm and approximating actuality.
SB Is there a certain book, a collection of works, or a literary movement that inspired you to begin work to map out Shape Taking? What was the initial inspiration, even if it’s something that should oppress writing on this topic or in this style?
EW The writings and life of Franz Kafka are an abiding influence. But I read eclectically and write like a magpie—gathering from here and there. There’s an initial find, which leads to another, and another. Things accumulate. I exercise imagination, draw and build connections, make something of the materials. Shape Taking was not mapped from any one inspiration, and the most pleasurable part of it was the chancing, the discovery through crafting.
SB Please describe the central idea that links all of the parts in Shape Taking and why you felt it was important to address this in contemporary times.
EW The more I looked at my pieces, the more I realized that my binding concern was with shape—the self-contained and inner/outer-connected nature of things. Antonio helped me see this. The interplay and dialectic of “worlds enmeshed” (from “China Red”); “All around us / things still not / uncovered, ventilating— / floaters on the waters of disquiet” (from “A Swimmer Turns Her Head”); “Lightning / slic[ing] close to our bones / glow[ing] in us, like calcite. / Time / becomes sabbatical / a flywheel” (from “Timepiece). The idea, too, that “Poetry mends / if you use it well” (from “Tear Near the Knot”). The latter message was returned to me by the fortuitousness of Hua’s poetry prompt. Putting stock in the restorative power of poetry, backing the reality of the world of poetry, which can be said to be synchronic with the living world, has been and continues to be of compelling importance to me.
SB How does Shape Taking fit in the stream of all of your literary works? Is there some fundamental difference between this book and your prior work?
EW Shape Taking is more experimental than my prior work. Yet to a reader familiar with my work, it’s probably recognizable as an unfolding, especially from my two previous collections, Everything Reminds You of Something Else (Guernica Editions, 2017), and Swoon (Guernica Editions, 2020). The notion of a deep connectivity of things; the propensity of the human mind to seek pattern/shape and identify likeness; metaphysical questioning and attentiveness to the mythopoeic and transcendent in everyday life are through-lines.
SB Thank you for taking the time to share your process and your thoughts about Shape Taking with us through this interview, Elana. And all the best to you in your work on your next volume, the forthcoming Kafka-quest work, Faithfully Seeking Franz.
EW Thank you, too, Sharon, for giving your time and attention to my work, and for the well wishes. Your kind diligence is much appreciated.
Elana Wolff lives and works in Thornhill, Ontario—the traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee and Huron-Wendat First Nations. Her poems have recently appeared (or will soon appear) in Arc Poetry Magazine, Bear Review, Canadian Literature, CV2, FreeFall, Galaxy Brain, Literary Review of Canada, Montréal Serai (accompanied by her artwork), The New Quarterly, Pinhole Poetry, Prairie Fire, Taddle Creek, and The Mantle (nominated for a 2022 Pushcart Prize). Her collection, SWOON, won the 2020 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Poetry. Her cross-genre Kafka-quest work, FAITHFULLY SEEKING FRANZ, is forthcoming with Guernica Editions.
Sharon Berg is a poet, a fiction author, and an historian of First Nations education in Canada. She's published her poetry in periodicals across Canada, as well as in the USA, Mexico, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, India, and Australia. Her first two books were poetry published by Borealis Press (To a Young Horse, 1979) and Coach House Press (The Body Labyrinth, 1984). This was followed by two audio cassette tapes from Gallery 101 (Tape 5, 1985) and Public Energies (Black Moths 1986). She also published three chapbooks with Big Pond Rumours Press in 2006, 2016 & 2017. Her fiction appeared in journals in Canada and the USA. Porcupine's Quill released her debut fiction collection Naming the Shadows in the Fall of 2019. Her cross-genre history The Name Unspoken: Wandering Spirit Survival School was published in 2019 by Big Pond Rumours Press and received a Bronze 2020 IPPY Award for Best Regional Nonfiction in Canada East. She lives in Charlottetown, Newfoundland, Canada.