“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.
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.