go fly a kite

“A kite is a victim you are sure of.
You love it because it pulls
gentle enough to call you master,
strong enough to call you fool;
because it lives
like a desperate trained falcon
in the high sweet air,
and you can always haul it down
to tame it in your drawer.”

—from ‘A Kite is a Victim’ (The Spice-Box of Earth), by Leonard Cohen”


(at)eleven with karen shenfeld — my father’s hands spoke in yiddish


“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our conciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.”
~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

I met Karen Shenfeld a couple of years ago through a series of events set in motion by a short post on Matilda about her lovely 2007 film— Il Giardino: The Gardens of Little Italy. To my surprise, she saw the post when she happened to be writer in residence at Open Book Toronto in December, 2009, from which vantage point we conducted a back and forth until we decided to meet for lunch in her College Street ‘hood. That it was winter didn’t matter—no gardens in bloom but one of her neighbours invited us into her house to see the most charming and amazing xmas display.

Ever since, I’ve had the feeling that where Karen Shenfeld goes, serendipity and the best kind of magic follows.

I was delighted when she agreed to a Q&A for my new (at)eleven feature on Matilda. Still evolving to some degree in my wee brain, but essentially meant to focus on writers and books, with a culinary slant. Because, in my world, good books inspire thoughts of food, and vice versa.


1.  I’m always curious about process. Where do you work best, do you have a writing routine, an ideal environment? And the all important question: what about blocks? Do you write through them, or do you feel they’re a necessary piece of the whole, a sign maybe that it’s time to step back for a bit and play?

KS:  I’m heliotropic. In the morning, I work at my kitchen table to catch the light of the eastern sky. In the early afternoon, I move to my west-facing study, which I confess looks like the study of a Victorian poetess: high ceiling, plaster mouldings, wood-burning fireplace, oak bookcase, Persian rug.

I tend to write from around 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, only stopping briefly to snack. And I often work on several projects at once: the writing of a poem, a magazine article, or a grant proposal; the editing of a documentary, etc.

Ah, blocks… Yuck! I’m a harsh taskmaster. I chain myself to my chair and force myself to work through blocks. I try not to quit working until I have something–at least a line or two. Even a word!

2. Here’s an even bigger question: how do you deal with the distraction of the Internet, Twitter, FaceBook, etc.?

KS:  I get distracted!

3. What were you reading when you were fifteen?

KS:  On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. I and Thou by Martin Buber. Shakespeare’s sonnets. The metaphysical poetry of John Donne and Andrew Marvell.

4. Are there certain themes that often appear in your work and surprise you?

KS:  I’m surprised by how often Jewish themes crop up in my works, because I don’t think of myself as particularly observant. (though, for complex reasons, which I can’t quite explain, even to myself, I do attend services at a tiny historic Toronto shul, a little ‘shteibele,’ many Saturday mornings, and I often light Sabbath candles on Friday night—a ritual, which, as I note in an early poem, my mother, a devout atheist, conscientiously  refused to do). I think Jewish themes crop up because, as a poet, I’m drawn to create works that somehow transcend the everyday.

5. My first taste of My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish was when the book opened to p. 41, ‘Sweetheart of Second Avenue’; I was immediately struck by the ‘sound’ of the language, the joy and playfulness of the structure and rhythms, the way you combine English and Yiddish (in several pieces), mixing the two in a way I’m guessing comes natural to your childhood memory of growing up with these two ‘sounds’, these two cultures, yes?

KS:  You’re absolutely right. On two counts. I did hear lots of Yiddish when I grew up. My father spoke solely in Yiddish to my paternal grandmother. And my parents also spoke in Yiddish to each other when they didn’t want my brother and I to understand what they were saying. (No wonder we kids picked up so many great words and expressions!) You’re also right in surmising that I grew up in two distinct cultures simultaneously: a distinctly Jewish culture and a 1950s/60s Canadian culture.

6. Your poem on reciting Archibald Lampman is one of my favourites. That reversible skirt! And the innocence expressed in that back and forth motion, ‘reversing’ from the power of reality to the power of poetry. Can you talk a little about early influences, or The Moment it occurred to you that poetry would be an important part of your life?

KS:  I can honestly say I wanted to be a poet for as long as I can remember, but I’m not really sure why! 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, as the poem you mentioned reveals, Archibald Lampman. Those poems seemed to contain the power of a spell. I was tempted to try to create something that possessed that incandescent charge.

I started to scribble down a few poems when I was around 10 or 11. Later, during my undergraduate years, I studied the art and craft of poetry with Irving Layton at York University. (I’m still influenced by Layton’s sense of aesthetics, and return often to his signature poems for pleasure and inspiration.) But, I don’t think I really began to write poetry in earnest, or truly realized that poetry was going to be an important part of my life, a defining part of my identity, until I’d finished school. After fourth year university, I went on a long trip to Europe and North Africa. It was then, within the confines of cheap hotel rooms, that I began to spend substantial time calling upon the muse and wrestling with words.

7. One of the things that surprised me most was how physical the reading felt. Very much a journey, not only across time but actual space, and the way those ‘spaces’ featured, not as backdrop, but prominent characters—Bathurst Manor, northern Ontario, Auschwitz-Birkenau, a classroom, a skating rink, the shade of a tree—diverse mini universes in their own right, yet connected to a distinct and singular path. Was this intentional, this visiting of ‘place’, or something that became apparent to you along the way, as being essential to the greater, internal, journey?

KS:  Carin, you’ve made me super happy, because the visiting of ‘place’, the revelation of the genius loci of Bathurst Manor, was indeed one of my conscious intents in writing My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish. What drew me to this? Perhaps because, as I said, I’m a traveller. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I was fortunate enough to spend years back-packing through Europe, Africa, India, and South America. I hitchhiked across the Sahara desert through Algeria. I rode the top of trucks transporting coffee and tea across Zaire. I trekked in Nepal and floated idly on a houseboat on Dal Lake in Kashmir. In my mid-thirties, however, I decided I wanted to have a child and travelling became more difficult. (My husband, mathematician Stephen Watson, and I didn’t mind taking our son, Oren, out of school for long periods of time. But we did mind that, as he grew older, he began to get very lonely for his friends on long trips away.) So, I guess what I’m saying in this perhaps roundabout way is that travelling initially inspired the writing of my poetry, and now, the writing of poetry itself has become a means for me to travel.

I probably should also tell you that I love reading poetry that’s about ‘place’. I love, for example, the poems of Seamus Heaney, Dannie Abse, and Douglas Dunn. And, yes, travelling, for me, both literally and metaphorically through poetry, is an exploration of the self.

8. Golems! I sense mystery, reverence (also a hint of fear?) mixed with humour—I’m intrigued. Can you share something of what this figure represents in the context of ‘the neighbourhood’?

KS:  I’m so glad you’ve asked me about the golem! Because the golem poems are truly at the heart of my book. (In fact, I originally wanted to call the book The Golem of Bathurst Manor, but my publisher, Antonio D’Alfonso, did not think that enough people would be familiar with the Jewish folkloric figure.) I was striving to use the golem in the book as a leitmotif to connect the luminescent Eastern European Jewish Old World, which was essentially destroyed in World War II, to the Jewish New World in suburban North America. I was also, through the use of humour, striving to reference the Jewish people’s eternal, very unhumorous struggle against anti-Semitism.

By the way, a Toronto indie band, by the name of KlezFactor, has coincidentally put out a CD of klezmer-infused jazz music called The Golem of Bathurst Manor. I listened to KlezFactor’s music on the band’s Myspace site and I think it’s great! The music is available for sale from CD Baby and iTunes.

9. ‘Elm Tree’ is, for me, one of the most powerful pieces in the collection. It feels like a vantage point from which the past is seen through wisdom, experience, love, and everything suddenly has a deeper meaning; a final inhalation before the slow exhale of the denouement. I would love to know the background to this poem.

KS:  Thanks so much for your sensitive reading of this and other poems! Bathurst Manor, the suburban neighbourhood in which I was raised, was built on previously cleared farmland. So that particular elm tree truly was, as the poem states, the ONLY tall tree standing for blocks and blocks from my house. It actually stood right across the street from me in the backyard of an ever so slightly older girlfriend named Linda Schatzker (with whom I have recently reconnected). I grew up of course long before the time of central air conditioning. So, on hot summer days, all the kids on the block would go into Linda’s backyard to play in the shade of the tree. I was absolutely shocked and saddened when the tree died, along with millions of elm trees in Europe and North America, from the terrible Dutch elm disease.

10. Why poetry?

KS:  I love the compression of poetry. The distillation. The transformation. The transcendence. The unconscious connections. The physicality. The intellectuality. The abstraction. The sound. The fury. The music. The rhythm.

11. Choices:

Coffee or Tea?  Cappuccino!

Bob Dylan or Dylan Thomas?
Carin! Do I have to choose between these two? I love them both! And I was just in Wales!

Desert or Ocean? Ocean.

Sweet or Savoury? Savoury.

Pen or Keyboard?
Both. I begin composing most poems on paper using a fine-point rolling pen. I used to write on narrow-ruled graph paper, but, a little while ago, a friend and colleague, the wonderful documentary filmmaker, Dany Chiasson, gave me as a present a Moleskin notebook. And, now, I really like writing the first drafts of poems in it. Once I’ve written the first draft, I revise the poem on the computer.

Primary or pastel? Mediterranean pastels.

Editor’s Note, aka Culinary Slant food and drink inspired by My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish:

a perfectly made espresso and a grilled cheese on matzo.

(To which KS added Campbell’s Tomato or Mushroom Soup—an after school staple in her mother’s kitchen!)


Karen Shenfeld has published three books of poetry with Guernica Editions: The Law of Return, 1999 (which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry in 2001), The Fertile Crescent, 2005 and, My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish (November, 2010). Her work has appeared in journals and magazines across North America, and in South Africa and Bangladesh. Her poetry has been featured on CBC Radio, and on the U.K.’s 39 Dover Street.

Her personal documentary, Il Giardino, The Gardens of Little Italy, was screened at the 2007 Planet in Focus Environmental Film & Video Festival. She is currently at work on two new documentary films and on writing her fourth book.

My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish, can be ordered on-line at Blue Heron Books. Support Indies!

From the Re-run Series: originally posted May, 2011.

no labels

Over at Fitch Happens, Sheree Fitch has written an interesting post on the question of what is children’s poetry? and why it’s even a question—in the end determining that “children’s poetry is poetry”… to which I say hallelujah, thank you and yes. I couldn’t agree more and would only add that society’s analysis of art, generally, combined with the impulse to categorize, complicate and impose labels on everything, serves no purpose that I can see except to make me tip over with the weight of it all.

Moving slightly beyond poetry—and if it must be defined—then, okay, what is a children’s book, story, poem, song…?

I suppose it’s something created with the child-nature in mind, however that doesn’t mean its appeal needs to be limited to children. I collect picture books because they’re gorgeous works of art on many levels and I love reading them for their whimsy, humour and joy as well as their philosophy and depth; they remind me of aspects of life, who we are, what’s important, in a way that nothing else does.

I’d like to think that children, also, are benefiting from reading outside the ages suggested on the backs of books—both higher and lower ages—and that teenagers are including both middle grade and adult books among their choices, and vice versa in all directions.

When we read as children, or are read to, we take away one thing, but if we dare to (are allowed to/allow ourselves to) come back to the same book as an older child, a teenager, an adult, we get something entirely different (or—also very nice—are reminded of the original insight). As with any art form, we take from it what we need at that moment.  When we read to our children, that’s one thing, but my hope is that we don’t read children’s books only because we have children, but because we were children, and because there’s bits of us from that enchanted time we’d be wise to try to hold onto.

Labels are useful for publishing houses, bookstores and libraries but we mustn’t let that limit our choices, for ourselves or our kids (or the gifts we give each other; I love giving picture books to adults).

Consider those merry chaps, those pre-label Grimm Brothers, who wrote at a time when stories weren’t specifically for children and whose stories can absolutely be consumed by all ages and then consider what’s been done to the original “faerie tale”— Disney is a good example of “kiddifying” work. In commercial hands stories quickly become shlock, so much candyfloss.

Maybe THAT’S what we’re talking about when we talk of “kid stuff”.

But that stuff isn’t the real goods—because real words are ageless. And because everyone knows once you’ve discovered the real thing you’ve discovered it for always.


From the Re-Run Series: orginally posted November, 2011.

spring fever

There’s nothing to explain why I’d make public this merry bit of drivel composed while drinking lapacho bark tea on the patio one morning, other than the kind of confused thinking brought about by elevated temperatures. Although, really, I’m fine, thank you.

But it’s spring and things can sometimes get silly.

So here’s my contribution…

I call it ‘Springing Forward and Back’, because, really, what else could it be called other than, perhaps, ‘Ode to Those [and you know who you are] Who are Each Year Surprised When Wildlife Returns to Their Prized Lawns and Gardens and Whose Noses Wrinkle at the Sight of Droppings Near the Hydrangeas as They Wonder Aloud Whatever to do About the Rabbits and Squirrels and Ducks Who Refuse to Stay Tucked Away in the Wilderness Where They Belong but Stubbornly Hang About Instead in Respectable Neighbourhoods That Were Fashionably Carved out of the Wilderness and are now NOT Wilderness and Who are Not Impressed with People Like Me Who Welcome Said Wildlife to our Un-Manicured and Un-Lawned Garden Because I Figure There is Enough at the Buffet for All of Us’.

But that seemed on the long side.

So, ‘Springing Forward and Back’ it is—

The garden has become a couples retreat
cardinals first, become regular guests
then the rabbit starts bring a date
(it looks serious)

now Ethel and Norman arrive
swim in the snow melt of tarp covered pool
(it looks serious)
preening wings, paddling feet

swim in the snow melt of tarp-covered pool
“over here!” rabbit calls to his date
preening wings, paddling feet
and the cardinals dine on black seed

“over here!” rabbit calls to his date
withered greens, water, feed, put to good purpose
and the cardinals dine on black seed
if not allowed to eat here they’d kill the prize orchids

withered greens, water, feed, put to good purpose
god forbid they bathe nude in the fountains!
if not allowed to eat here they’d kill the prize orchids
a retreat from the lawns, manicured, clipped

god forbid they bathe nude in the fountains!
yes, bring them, we say, your friends and your lovers
retreat from the lawns, manicured, clipped
spread your wings, fluff your fur and relax

The garden has become a couples retreat
cardinals first, become regular guests
then the rabbit starts bringing a date
(it looks serious)

what is

I don’t use the word ‘holy’ often, if ever. I prefer ‘miracle’, ‘gift’, ‘magic’. It comes down to the same thing of course. It’s a position more than a word, really. Whatever. Point is, this morning, the day after my ‘magic day’,  I opened one of the chapbooks I recently received and the poem staring at me had the [I thought] unfortunate title of : ‘What is Holy’. I read it anyway. Turns out it contains two lines that changed my DNA slightly.

What poems do.

Also proves that ‘magic’ cannot be contained to single days.

What is Holy 

 The white pages of a book.

The many ways a hand can open
     and close.

The brief darkness
     of a plane in front of the sun,
lives suspended overhead.

The way plants eat light—
     that is holy.

The endless voice of the ocean.

The streets of early morning
     when love lights shine from the windows
of the elderly.

The eyes of someone who has lost love.

It is in the breath, and gathers into
     small sounds:
bread, home, yes.

When you bite into an apple and taste rain.
     That is.

Rosemary Griebel (from  Yes, Frontenac House, 2011; and The Johnston House Literary Salon Series)

maybe the turtle

‘When Even The’  by Leonard Cohen

Your breasts are like.
Your thighs and your carriage.
I never thought.
Somewhere there must be.
It’s possible.
Summer has nothing.
Even Spring doesn’t.
Your feet are so.
It’s cruel to.
My defence is.
Summer certainly doesn’t.
And your.
If only.
Somewhere there must.

But the.
And the.
It’s enough to.
Soldiers don’t.
Maybe the turtle.
Maybe hieroglyphics.
But in your cold.
If I could.
If once more.
Slip or liquid.
But the.
And the.

Sometimes when.
Even tho’.
Yes even tho’.
They say suffering.
They say.
Okay then let’s.
The sign is.
The seal is.
The guarantee.
Oh but.
O cruel.
O blouse with.
This is what.
And why it isn’t.

But what do they.
What do they.
When even.
When even the.
Years will.
Death will.
But they won’t
Even if.
Even if the.
They never will.

O deceiver.
O deceptive.
Turn your eyes.
Incline your.
To the one who.
Rotten as.
Who does not.
Who never will.

But now your.
And your.
And these arms.
Which is lawless.
Which is blind.
If you come
If you find.
Then I.

Like all.
Like every.
If only.
If when.
Even though.
Even if.
Not for.
Not for.
But only.
But every.

If I could.
When the.
Then I.
Even if.
Even when.
I would.

mud pies and pure design

“What I Want to Say”  by Pat Schneider

Well, I was playing, see,
in the shadow of the tabernacle.
I was decorating mud pies
with little brown balls
I found scattered on the ground
like nuts, or berries.
Until some big boy came walking by
and laughed. Hey,
don’t you know you’re puttin’ goat doo
on your mud pies? I bet
you’re gonna eat ’em, too!

That day I made a major error
in my creative life.

What I want to say is this:
I liked those little balls
on my mud pies. I was a sculptor,
an artist, an architect. I was
making pure design in space and time.
But I quit
because a critic came along
and called it shit.

—from Another River, by Pat Schneider