An Interview with Elana Wolff

Elana Wolff lives and works in Thornhill, Ontario—the traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee and Huron-Wendat First Nations. Her poems and creative nonfiction have been published widely in Canada and internationally, recently in Arc online (Awards of Awesomeness), Bear Review (forthcoming), Best Canadian Poetry 2021, Canadian Literature, The Dalhousie Review, Grain, Montréal Serai, Taddle Creek 25th  Anniversary Issue (forthcoming), Sepia, Vallum, White Wall Review, and ZooAnthology (forthcoming). Her collection, SWOON (Guernica Editions), won the 2020 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Poetry. Her newest collection is SHAPE TAKING (Ekstasis Editions, 2021).

You can read her poem One Act with the Night Wolf in the October 2022 issue of Pinhole Poetry.


Would you like to tell us a little bit more about your poem? For instance, how or why you wrote it, or perhaps provide some extra context?


“One Act with the Night Wolf” is constructed as a one-sided conversation, “one act” as it were, involving the speaker and “Lupu,” the wolf—an inner aspect I suppose—seeing that I’m a Wolff. The poem plays on a motif that’s recurrent for me: of posing questions, either rhetorical, which work at triggering a response of empathy in the reader, or questions for which there’s no pat answer. The aim is to pose probing, inquisitive questions (also to vary rhythm in the text)—not necessarily to require answers.


Do you have a collection of poetry or even a single poem that acts as a touchstone or a lodestar?

I’m touched by too many collections, too many poems, to declare for just one. But I can say that when I first read Louise Glück’s poem “Mock Orange” from The Triumph of Achilles, I was blown away by the sheer declarative ferocity and austere beauty of her voice. That poem, and her work as a whole, are among my beacons.


If you didn’t write poetry, how do you think you might access the same fulfillments that poetry offers in your life?


When I’m not writing poetry, I’m reading, or writing prose, or editing, or translating, or painting, or playing music, or, or, or … Poetry isn’t composed in a vacuum. It’s intimately connected to the many sources of fulfillment in my life, to non-fulfillment as well.


How do you revise your work?

I’m a perpetual reviser. If there’s any aspect of a poem that gives me pause—a line break, a syllabic count, a tone, a gist, an innuendo, I can’t consider it done. And even when I think I’m done, I’m often not.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new collection of poetry—the title still tentative. I’m also finalizing the draft of my hybrid Kafka-quest work, Faithfully Seeking Franz, to be released with Guernica Editions in 2023.

How or where or with what does a poem begin?

A poem can begin anywhere. In bed, in a dream, in the garden, in the car, while walking, while talking, while reading, while thinking … It can start with a title idea, a word, a phrase, a line, an image. Just as poetry can be about anything, it can begin anywhere, anyhow. It’s freewheeling.

Are there other art forms that inspire or inform your poetry?

Visual art in the main. I collaborated for a number of years, along with my colleagues in the Long Dash group, with studio artists of the Women’s Art Association of Canada, and have written a good number of poems inspired and informed by paintings. I’m also a painter myself and for twelve years (until COVID) I worked in the community, designing and facilitating social art courses for older adults. These processes have no doubt, directly or indirectly, informed my poetry.


How do you make space for poetry in your daily routine?

I claim it.


What are you reading or watching or listening to lately that intrigues or inspires you?

I’ve been reading Olga Tokarczuk. I just finished her novel Primeval and Other Times and have been struck by the synchronicity of our thinking. What happens when you write something, then find it written elsewhere—not in the same words exactly, but close enough …


Have you ever received advice (or has there been something you’ve learned on your own) about writing or revising poems that has made you a better poet? What was it?

Long ago my editor, founding publisher of Guernica Editions, Antonio D’Alfonso, told me to get out of my head. When I was shaping my second collection, Mask, inspired by the life and work of Berlin artist Charlotte Salomon, who was murdered at Auschwitz at twenty-six, I was strong on the idea of having two sections, a coda, and a fairly chronological unfolding. Antonio felt I was being rigid. He
told me to throw the pages into the air and see where they fall, to work intuitively in reshaping the manuscript. I thought he was half-joking, but I tried it, and it was hugely freeing. I got down on the floor, out of my head, and let myself loose of the sections. Antonio was often brusque, tough with me, I felt. His praise came with a pinch, sometimes a punch (not literally of course). But I’m tremendously grateful for his toughness and for the opportunities he’s given me over the years as a writer.


Why is the poetic form the best fit for your writing?

Poetry is one fit for my writing, often the best, as I value distillation, heightened use of language, and the compression of the small form. But if I need to develop a story, engage different players and voices, weave in threads and/or documentation, then creative nonfiction is the better fit.


Do you belong to a writer’s group? If not, where do you find poetry community and feedback?

I’ve been part of the Long Dash writing group for upwards of twenty years now. Our composition has changed in time, but some of us have been in the group since its beginnings, or near beginnings. We aim to meet on a weekly basis, as schedules permit, to read our work and offer and receive feedback. We give readings as a group and have engaged in a long-term collaboration with studio artists of the Women’s Art Association of Canada, as mentioned. With the pandemic, we shifted to Zoom and have not yet returned to in-person meetings. Zoom has actually served us well and we’ve maintained our close ties. I also receive important feedback from individual poetry friends. Community and feedback are essential, as is solitude.


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