Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series – Karen Shenfeld

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Karen Shenfeld

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Karen Shenfeld was born in Vancouver, B.C. in 1970. She has published three books of poetry: The Law of Return (Guernica Editions, 1999), which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry in 2001, The Fertile Crescent (Guernica Editions, 2005) and, most recently, My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish (Guernica Editions, 2010). Her work has also appeared in well-known journals published in Canada, the United States, South Africa and Bangladesh, and she has given readings in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, England (at the home of Lord Tennyson) and South Africa (at the original Manenberg’s Jazz Café). Her poetry has been featured on CBC Radio and on 39 Dover Street, a short-wave literary radio programme produced on the Isle of Wight, U.K.

Shenfeld has also brought her poetic sensibility to the writing of magazine stories for such publications as Saturday Night and Toronto Life. Last December she acted as Open Book: Toronto’s Writer in Residence. 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 promoting her most recent book.

Her latest collection of poetry, My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish, recalls her growing up in the 1950’s neighbourhood referred to as Bathurst Manor, an area bounded by Finch, Sheppard, Bathurst and Wilson Heights in Toronto. Predominately a Jewish-Canadian neighbourhood, many who lived there were Holocaust survivors who managed to evoke the traditions of the Old World and folklore figures like the golem, a powerful Frankenstein-like creature whose image Shenfeld spies upon one day in Bathurst Manor, “cruising Wilmington Avenue in Rabbi Kelman’s / turquoise Chevrolet.” Shenfeld writes poems about the people who inspire her most, which is best illustrated in the title poem of the book, a poem she wrote while sitting in Sunnybrook Hospital at her dying father’s bedside. “Though I was filled with unbearable sadness,” she recalls, “the poem possesses wry humour. Sometimes poetry takes the writer, as well as the reader, to unexpected places.”

My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish

My father’s hands spoke in Yiddish,
the ganze megillah of curses,

Ever in motion,
they argued with themselves.

Gai kochen aufen yam! my father’s
hands said. Go shit in the sea!

In the mamaloshen,
they spoke their last, impatient words,
rose palms up from the narrow bed —

Nu? Shoyn!
All right already!

then fell like bricks.

Their final kvetch
bemusing the angel of death.

— Karen Shenfeld


TTQ- Your latest book of poems, My Father's Hands Spoke in Yiddish, describes your growing up in a suburban district of Toronto referred to as Bathurst Manor. What was it like growing up in Bathurst Manor back then, and what inspired you to write about a time in your life that you seemingly wanted to escape from? Why did you need to relive that?

KS- If you happened to catch the Coen Brothers’ recent film A Serious Man, then I think you will have some idea of what it was like to grow up in the north-central Toronto suburb of Bathurst Manor. “The Manor” was an iconic planned subdivision built on farmland, similar, to a certain degree, to New York’s famous Levittown. Depending upon the eye of the beholder, its emblematic landscape — ticky-tacky bungalows, bristling with TV antennae, floating on large, treeless lawns — could be viewed as a modern, utopian blend of the urban and rural, or as a desert, all the reek of life tucked and hidden indoors.

The other defining characteristic of Bathurst Manor was that it was, for the most part, settled by Jewish people, both first- and second-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe. Among them were many Holocaust survivors. When I grew up I thought that non-Jewish people lived in TV Land. They were the families of The Patty Duke Show and My Three Sons and, later on, of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. Real people were Jewish people who had escaped the gas chambers of Auschwitz. (BTW: poet Stuart Ross grew up there too, as did writer and filmmaker David Bezmozgis of Natasha and Other Stories — a generation later.)

The Manor was, for me as a young girl, and, I think, for most of the baby-boomers with whom I was raised, a paradise. Unlike young children today, we roamed freely, away from our parents’ gaze. Only later when I was a teenager did I want to escape its tidiness and cultural homogeneity, which I associated with sterility and repression.

Much later, however, when I chanced to visit the neighbourhood again, I recognized the supreme richness of its culture. And in My Father's Hands Spoke in Yiddish, I have attempted to create a wry, magic-realist world, which I hope will invite, and resonate with, the reader. I have also attempted to explore the development of the self.

TTQ- I have read that you don't consider yourself a prolific poet concerning the number of poems you normally write in a short period of time. You prefer instead to shape and reshape your poems over the course of an extended period of time. Is this an accurate analogy? What was your writing process like for My Father's Hands Spoke in Yiddish, and do you often find that you struggle with writer’s block?

KS- It’s not so much that I "prefer" to shape and reshape my poems over an extended period. I would far rather be a more spontaneous poet, who effervesces poem after poem! But, on the other hand, I don’t really struggle with writer’s block: It’s more accurate to say that my words don’t spray forth in a fountain; they come, instead, one by one, like a slowly but persistently dripping faucet. There are times when I get impatient and upset with my process. I try; however, to remind myself then that the making of art has a lot to do with process, and to accept, without judgment or dismay, that my own process is defined by a slower-than-average pace.

TTQ- Do you think that your use of vernacular resonates more with the Jewish reader and lessens the understanding of others who might read your book, and does that ultimately lessen your poetry's appeal to a wider audience?

KS- As an artist, I believe that, perhaps ironically, the more particular and specific you are in the creation of your art, the more universal that which you create will be. (Hey, Mordecai Richler’s books seem popular enough outside the Jewish community!) I love English-language poetry that’s borne of the vernacular — such as that written by Ireland’s Peter Fallon, St. Lucia’s Derek Walcott, or India’s Nissim Ezekial. Many strong Canadian poets also use the vernacular to bring alive their particular worlds: consider Newfoundland’s Mary Dalton or even Toronto’s Susan Helwig, especially in the poems in which she is writing about growing up on a dairy farm in southern Ontario.

Poetry is, I think, understood most deeply on an unconscious level, in the way that instrumental music is understood. So, even if a reader misses the literal meaning of a word or two, she can still absorb a poem’s core, which lies more in what’s not been said.

TTQ- What words of advice would you offer young aspiring poets who hope to make a career as a poet? Do you feel it's important that a young poet read their work regularly in front of a live audience for that immediate reaction?

KS- Here are a few words of advice: first of all, it’s darn near impossible to have a paying career as a poet! On a more serious note, I think you should write freely and playfully, and as much as possible, to discover your voice and the infinitely flexible power of the word. As well, you should read poetry, and read it voraciously. In that way, you will develop your own taste and editorial acumen. You should also seek out mentors, other poets whose work you admire, and whom you trust, to get some critical feedback.

Poetry is, indeed, a musical art form that’s meant to be read aloud. So, yes, you should read your work aloud, to yourself or, perhaps, to your lover or mentor — but not necessarily before a live audience. The immediate reaction of a live audience can be instructive; I have, however, found that certain kinds of poems — those that are humorous, more easily accessible and shorter — tend to go over better before a live audience than other poems that may in fact be just as, or even more, powerful. Many fine poets, such as Ireland’s John Montague, are painfully shy and have avoided the stage.

All that said, if you are not shy, and you enjoy performing, then, by all means, get up and read or recite your poems at every opportunity. (Happily, in Toronto, there are lots of open mic sessions.) You will undoubtedly make connections that, ultimately, will probably help you get published. You will also have a chance to make friends and become part of an enriching community that may serve your soul.

TTQ- How important is poetry in today's Canadian society? Do you think that Canadian poets today have become far too apathetic in regard to societal and political issues?

KS- I could probably write a book in answer to these questions!! I think that poetry has a secure place in the Canadian academic sphere, but does not penetrate mainstream popular culture — except perhaps via rap music (by performers such as K’naan) or the lyrics of Leonard Cohen songs (though I’m not completely sure if Cohen is popular enough to be dubbed mainstream).

Poets in Canada have, however, formed their own community, or regional communities, in big and smaller towns from Charlottetown to Victoria. And it’s an incredibly lively, variegated and ever-evolving community. In Toronto alone, you can go out to a poetry reading many nights of the week, and hear completely different styles of poetry. It’s almost impossible to keep up with the scene — especially if you want to find the time to write your own poems!

I don’t think that Canadian poets are apathetic. A fair number of marvelous Canadian poets grapple directly with societal and political issues: J.J. Steinfeld, Afua Cooper, Goran Simic, Keith Garebian, Dionne Brand, Kenneth Sherman, Gary Geddes, Tom Wayman, etc. (there are too many to name!) as well as numerous spoken-word poets whose works I am not too familiar with. If the personal can be deemed political then my list could go on and on. As Clara Blackwood stated, writing poetry, on any subject, is a political act.

Interestingly, in the past few weeks, a faith-based poet by the name of Jason Kinte got in touch with me. He is president of an organization called Toronto Poets, and he has just put together the week-long "gta faith summit" bringing poetry to the far reaches of Scarborough, Mississauga and Brampton to “increase the peace.” Having spoken to Jason, I can assure you that he is anything but apathetic!

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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