News and Interviews

Poets in Profile: Elana Wolff on Alice Oswald, Perfect Couplets, and Glorious Misunderstandings


Toronto-based poet Elana Wolff should be no stranger to the Canadian poetry community. Her previous five books of poetry, all published through Toronto-via-Montreal mainstay Guernica Editions, have garnered her significant critical praise, with her collection You Speak to Me in Trees netting her the F.G. Bressani Prize for Poetry

Wolff's newest offering, Swoon (Guernica Editions), is a profound and beautiful meditation on the swoon as life-cycle, exploring its sweeping ups and downs, pits and valleys, triumphs and tragedies. Weaving together bits of the past with observations on dreams, art, travel, and the unconscious rhythms of the natural world, Swoon delivers an effortlessly intoxicating trip into the moments that define existence.

We're very excited to have Elana at Open Book today, where she discusses the inspiration of "accidental derangements", the dual importance of a poem's first and last lines, and the brilliance of British poet Alice Oswald


Open Book:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

Elana Wolff:

In early childhood, I had an illustrated Mother Goose book that I carried around like a rag doll. I knew the rhymes by heart before I could read them. I would recite them in my best ‘soapbox voice’ and people would listen. My favourite was “Who Killed Cock Robin”: Who killed Cock Robin? I, said the sparrow, with my bow and arrow. I killed Cock Robin. Who saw him die? I, said the fly, with my little eye, I saw him die…Cock Robin infused in me a feeling for rhythm, rhyme, drama, and diction — the incantatory and declamatory power of the word.  


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


I’ve had unusual insights from misreading and mistranslation. Especially in reading Hebrew as a second language, my eyes can bounce from left to right and I see words in reverse, or as anagrams. These ‘accidental derangements’ and their resulting associations have been exciting, surprising, and even revelatory.    


Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?


I’ve done both. My first three collections, Birdheart, Mask, and You Speak to Me in Trees, were written with quite specific parameters and subject matter in mind. The poems in my fourth collection were written during years of training in therapeutic/social art and my early work in the field. I was evolving an inductive, phenomenological approach to social art and this filtered into my writing as well. I struggled in coming to a title for the poems I’d assembled. Startled Night, from a line in one of the art-process poems, was suggested by my editor, then-publisher of Guernica Editions, Antonio D’Alfonso. Only afterwards, did I see the word “art” in the middle of Startled. For my fifth collection, I had a working title in place from the get-go — Everything Reminds You of Something Else, and it stuck. The poems in this volume were largely written as stand-alone pieces, yet they speak collectively to the notion of a deep connectivity of things and the propensity of the human mind to seek pattern and identify likeness. The poems in my newly-released volume, Swoon, coalesce around the motif of the swoon in its various movements, nuances, and intimations — experiential, mythopoeic, and metaphorical. Early into shaping the collection, I became attuned to the swoon as a recurring ‘life theme’ and this became the guiding impulse for the work.  


What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?


The opening line of a poem is important for grabbing attention, setting a tone or register, or indicating intent. An opening line that appeals impels a reader to read on. A closing line can provide a crucial component of understanding or resolution, a takeaway message, or aural reverberation. With some poems, the first and last lines even can be juxtaposed to compose a fortuitous nugget of compressed effect. Take for example Sonia Di Placido’s “Death Fruit” from Exaltation in Cadmium Red (Guernica Editions, 2012) — a poem of six, six-line stanzas. The first line reads: “I watched it all blow away, every stone.” The final line reads: “survived. The kitchen floor is purple marbled dust.”

If set as a couplet, the first and last lines elicit an internal image of stone surviving as marbled dust:

I watched it all blow away, every stone

survived. The kitchen floor is purple marbled dust.


Similarly, “Bridge” — a poem of four, three-line stanzas from Allan Briesmaster’s The Long Bond: Collected and Selected New Poems (Guernica Editions, 2019) — can be distilled to a first- and-last-line couplet of haiku-like balance and grace:


            Here, hitting stride along the bridge of scars,

            till the whole span melts away without trace.


Of course, distilling of this kind doesn’t work with every poem, and even when it does, both reader and writer will still want what was elided to be restored. Which is another way of saying that a poem is all-of-a piece, and that’s the way I prefer to think of it. Every word, caesura, line-break, and diacritical mark has its particular importance in serving the work as a whole. Ranking first and last lines is a bit like ranking body parts. A head can’t live on its own, neither can feet.   


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


I came to Alice Oswald’s collection, Falling Awake (W.W. Norton, 2016), after it won the International Griffin Poetry Prize in 2017. It felt and still feels like a kindred address. Each piece in this slim volume (twenty-four poems) is a wonder of unforced technical excellence. Form breaks into a new music, the familiar sizzles, and the natural world — water, swan, fox, flies, beans, blackbird, badger, breeze, and circadian rhythms — dip into the preternatural and mythic. There are “shrieked-mouthed blooms,” “hours on bird-thin legs,” a “first faint breeze of unrest”… so bodiless, so barely there / that I can only see you through starlings / whom you try this way and that like an uncomfortable coat / and then abandon.” In “Severed Head Floating Downriver,” a poem about the part of the Orpheus story in which the hero of superhuman musical skill continues on singing and forgetting after he’s been torn to pieces by the Maenads: “matter is eating my mind,” writes Oswald as Orpheus, “I am in a river … floating between the speechless reeds … the water wears my masks … I call    I call… if only a child on a bridge would hoik me out.” That word hoik — doing the work of yank, extract, and redeem — jolts the mythic into the immediate. Oswald is subtle, sane, sage, and wildly surprising. I can read Alice Oswald without ever becoming discouraged.


Elana Wolff has published six solo collections of poetry with Guernica Editions, including You Speak to Me in Trees, awarded the F.G. Bressani Prize for Poetry, and, most recently, Swoon. She is also the author of Implicate Me, a collection of essays on contemporary poems; co-author with the late Malca Litovitz of Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness (Duologue and Rengas); co-editor with Julie Roorda of Poet to Poet: Poems written to poets and the stories that inspired them; and co-translator with Menachem Wolff of Poems and Songs of Love by Georg by Mordechai Langer (from Hebrew), half of the joint volume, A Hunger Artist and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka, translated by Thor Polson (from German). A bilingual edition of Elana’s selected poems, Helleborus & Alchémille (Éditions du Noroît) was awarded the 2014 John Glassco Prize for Translation (translator: Stéphanie Roesler). Elana has taught English for Academic Purposes at York University in Toronto and at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She currently divides her professional time between writing poetry and creative nonfiction, editing, and designing and facilitating social art courses.

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The poems in Swoon speak to the steady wending of a life's thematic drama: the falling / rising permutations across biographical phases. Indications are filtered through relationship, encounter, art, the natural world, and dream. Associations coalesce in a rhythmic clocking of feeling / thought. Randomness and accident may have a part to play, destiny and mystery, too; suggestion of a plot. There's storyline unfolding that resists a denouement.