Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Ron Charach

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Ron Charach

Find out what inspires, confounds and delights today's Canadian poets by following our Poets in Profile series.

In Forgetting the Holocaust (Frontenac House), Ron Charach reflects on his life as a Jew raised in post-Holocaust Canada. A Toronto-based psychiatrist, Charach has published eight books of poetry and compiled an anthology of poems written exclusively by Canadian medical practitioners.

Ron Charach talks with Open Book about his new book and the poet's life.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Ron Charach:

As a kid, I heard a ditty by a British journalist, (who may have been a Soviet spy,) William Norman Ewer, that went: How odd of God/ To choose the Jews. This clever little gem of antisemitism really stuck in my craw. It wasn’t until years later that I heard a satisfying response, written with equal economy of line: It’s not so odd./ The Jews chose God.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


In elementary school, I was exposed to a great deal of Yiddish poetry, in the original Yiddish, not in translation, often in the form of a song. There was one called “The Partisan’s Song” that began: Zog nit keyn mol az du geyst dem letstn veg, which loosely translates to, “Never say you are heading off on your final road.” That remains an inspiration.

There was also the beauty of the Hebrew synagogue liturgy, and its translation, that I met during my time in a synagogue youth choir. These early wellsprings were more powerful for me than the English-language poetry I encountered in my formative years, i.e. all that Walter de la Mare and funny but inconsequential Dr. Seuss stuff. I never met really great children’s poems — such as Edgar Marriott’s “The Lion and Albert”, Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” or Samuel Foote’s “The Great Panjandrum” until I was an adult with kids of my own.


What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?


Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”. I live in a home whose backyard abuts on a nunnery. Any poem about watching laundry drying in the sun, especially one that closes with a reference to nuns trying to keep their difficult balance, renews my sense of personal wonder at the world just across our chain-link fence. Wilbur’s potent use of verbs is a wonder. Canadian poets whose works I often re-visit are Don Coles, Don McKay and Al Purdy, maybe because of their accessibility and how well they use humour.


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


My most likely source was experiencing medical school and working as a psychiatrist.

Perhaps the least likely were my father's temperamental outbursts, and the countless ways I have since tried to understand his motivation, his personal limitations, and the part I sometimes played in tripping these bouts of rage. A dentist friend once told me that it was more important to him to have his father’s respect than even his mother’s love. I can’t endorse that sentiment, but whenever I hear testimonies of those who deeply loved and respected their fathers, and felt that love and respect returned, they fill me with awe, and envy. How does that song go? Sometimes I feel like a fatherless child … ?


What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?


I tuck it away in a drawer, and pull it out a few weeks or months later, to see if it has lost its intransigence.


What was the last book of poetry that really knocked your socks off?


I often re-visit Philip Larkin’s High Windows, and The Collected Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, whose cover is a lovely watercolour she painted while living in Brazil, and Don Coles' book Landslides. Billy Collins's books reward the reader each time 'round, no matter how cleverly Marilyn Gear Pilling managed to skewer him.


What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?


The best thing is the delicious obscurity. You can say whatever you want. There may or may not be a reader. If you’re moved to write something deeply personal, and want no one to see it, put it in a poem, better yet, a surreal poem!

The worst thing is the painful obscurity. Perhaps my need for mirroring is why I sneak out frequently on my poetic muse, to dash off letters to all three major Canadian newspapers, and many American ones besides. But who knows? Perhaps I have what to say in prose...

Winnipeg-born Ron Charach is the author of eight books of poetry, among them Dungenessque, winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Award for Poetry in 2003. His work is widely published in national and international journals and anthologies of writing by doctors about their craft. He was contributing editor of The Naked Physician, the sole anthology of poetry by Canadian medical practitioners. A practicing psychiatrist now residing in Toronto, Charach combines a physician's candid eye for the foibles and betrayals of the body with a psychiatrist's compassion for the suffering of the mind. He creates poems around the memorable image, the anecdote that, on the surface, seems to say little, yet opens to reveal a great deal about the human condition. Ron's humanistic convictions regularly find voice in the letters pages of Canadian and American newspapers. Essays that define and elaborate on his liberal humanist views are found in his 2009 collection, Cowboys and Bleeding Hearts, from Wolsak & Wynn.

For more information about Forgetting the Holocaust please visit the Frontenac House website.

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

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