canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


In December 2003, Antonio D’Alfonso, Editor/Publisher of Guernica Editions, launched three new collections of poetry by Toronto writers: 
  • Borrowed Light by Merle Nudelman, 
  • Mask by Elana Wolff, and 
  • At the Moonbean Café by Malca Litovitz. 

In the following three-way interview, conducted in winter 2004, the authors discuss inspiration, influences, and motifs in their work:


Merle Nudelman Malca Litovitz Elana Wolff


In her first poetry collection, Borrowed Light, Merle Nudelman considers the themes of love, loss and memory in the context of the lives of two Holocaust survivors, her parents.

EW: What motivated you in writing the poems in Borrowed Light?

MN: Some months after my mother’s death, she came to me in a dream. I held on to that moment in the poem "The Visit" and felt a reconnection that inspired me to write about her life. I wanted to enter my mother’s skin. When my father died suddenly not long after, I expanded this exploration and quest for understanding to my father’s reality.

EW: You are a child of Holocaust survivors – part of a generation that has grown up in a vastly different postwar culture. How do you conceive of your role as a poet of this ‘second generation’?

MN: Through my poems, I honour my parents’ experiences and recall the lost. I’m sensitive to the lessons of the Holocaust – the importance of tolerance, vigilance and of giving voice to trauma and pain as well as joy and triumph.

EW: Do you subscribe to the notion that trauma can be transmitted? If so, what specifically gets transmitted and how do you deal with it in poetry?

MN: My parents, who were very protective and loving, unwittingly transmitted their fear, grief and sadness together with a sense of vulnerability. As a child I became aware that most of our family had been slaughtered during the War, that my parents had survived unspeakable hardships, and that they continued to mourn their many losses.

Many of the poems in Borrowed Light look at a moment from my parents’ perspective overlaid with my own reaction. The poem "August Morn," for example, deals with my father’s lifelong grieving for his parents and sisters. It also reflects my lost belief in a safe and caring world. Poetry allows me to step into moments (real and imagined), to explore the feelings and images that arise, and to enter other levels of truth.

EW: To what extent can you say that the poems in Borrowed Light are about memory? Are they also about witnessing?

MN: In many of the poems I reflect upon memories – my parents’ memories as told to me, my memories of different life stages and relational issues. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I bear witness by sharing my parents’ stories and by reflecting upon the ripple effect of trauma. As a poet, I witness and respond to the unfolding of events and experiences.

EW: What were your literary influences as you were working on these poems? Were you affected by any voices in particular? Did you have the benefit of a mentor or a writing circle that provided you with regular feedback?

MN: For Borrowed Light my goal was to write poems with honesty, simplicity, and strength. In this regard, my literary influences were Carolyn Forché, Sharon Olds, Sylvia Plath, and Lorna Crozier. I was fortunate during the completion and editing of this book to work with the poet/writer Laura Lush, and to have the benefit of regular meetings with a small circle of poets.

EW: Ordering the poems in one’s collection and selecting a title can be deceptively simple tasks. How did you decide what to put in and, perhaps, leave out of your collection? How did you come to settle on the title Borrowed Light?

MN: I included poems that work together to achieve a narrative effect – a sort of "long poem" about both my mother and father where my own story weaves in and out like a ribbon through braided hair. Antonio guided me in the ordering of the poems and in the choice of title.

As for the title, the words "borrowed light" appear in the poem "Wedding Day" where they refer to the photographer’s floodlight as well as to the bittersweet aspect of the day. The title resonates on three levels – the physical, psychological and spiritual. It speaks to the interplay of light and darkness in the world generally and in my parents’ lives specifically.


The poems in Elana Wolff’s second collection, Mask, take their inspiration from the life and work of Berlin artist Charlotte Salomon who created a unique fictionalized autobiography-in-paint called Life? or Theatre? in 1941-42, one year before she perished at Auschwitz.

ML: In the Foreword to your collection you relate that your impetus to writing the poems in Mask came from seeing an exhibit of Charlotte Salomon’s work at the Art Gallery of Ontario during the summer of 2000. What aspect of her art did you find the most inspiring?

EW: The impact of that exhibit was huge. The idea that a young Jewish woman had created an opus of almost a thousand gouache storyboards during the throes of World War Two— that the work had survived her— and that I was witnessing it half a century later, astonished me. I can’t say any single aspect inspired me. The existential question posed in Charlotte’s title Life? or Theatre? intrigued me immediately— so did her combinative concept of a play-in-paint-with-music. I was moved by her intimate and revelatory story, set against momentous times— by her fauvist, filmic images— by her dynamic, symbolic use of colour. Seeing that exhibit was an immersion experience for me— I felt implicated by it. I was inspired by the intense experience of the Other, as if our lives had somehow intersected.

ML: Were you affected by any particular literary influences as you were writing the poems in Mask?

Definitely. There are several poets whose work I return to, and I quote from a few of them in Mask. Of these, Louise Glück is the poet whose poems have marked me the most. Her declarative voice, shark-like insights, and spare and piercing language are paradigmatic for me. Primo Levi, particularly his inexhaustible books Survival in Auschwitz, The Periodic Table and The Drowned and the Saved, were also deeply influential.

ML: Ordering the poems in a collection and selecting a title can be onerous tasks. How did you come to choose the title Mask? Did ordering the poems ever present a challenge for you?

EW: My original title was The Way to Make a Mask, but Antonio nixed that when I submitted the first version of the manuscript in spring of 2002. He suggested I shorten it to Mask and I agreed. Mask is brief, crisp and evocative. It encompasses a number of notions that I explore in the poems, including personae and artifice— also identity. I wanted my title to complement Charlotte’s Life? or Theatre? too, and I believe it does.

As for ordering, this was one of my biggest challenges. I initially conceived of a three-part format— following the three acts in Charlotte’s work. Antonio felt this was too rigid, and cerebral. He wanted a seamless, cinematic type of presentation— one that would allow the reader to draw the connections between poems. I’m grateful for his insight.

ML: Can you comment on the life-affirming and life-negating aspects of the artist figure in your book?

EW: Negation and affirmation of life are very much at the core of Charlotte’s art. The suicides of all the women in her immediate family form a motif throughout her work, as does the sense that her fate was preordained. Charlotte completed Life? or Theatre? a year before she was deported to Auschwitz, yet she presents a very clear vision that she saw what was coming. Several of the poems in Mask acknowledge the life-negating aspects of the artist, yet all in all, the collection embraces the restorative and redemptive properties of art.

ML: In your poem "Valediction" you write: "Out of the heft of memory/ she constructs the whole affair,/ the man she thinks she loves above/ existence is a notion." Comment on the theme of transience and idealization of love in your work.

EW: In this poem, "the man she thinks she loves" is Alfred Wolfsohn, called Amadeus Daberlohn in Life? or Theatre? — one of the key figures in Charlotte’s life, romantically and artistically. Wolfsohn came to the Salomon house as voice-trainer to her opera-singer stepmother, Paula. Charlotte depicts him as her lover, though it’s not certain he actually was. He did, however, encourage Charlotte in her artistic pursuits. Wolfsohn the man, and his ideas on the relationship of the soul to creativity, are idealized in her work. In the lines you quote from my poem, I juxtapose two notions: one, that the idea of love exceeds, and is often more potent than the experience of romantic love; and two, that all of life is a dramaturgy.


Malca Litovitz is the author of To Light, To Water (Toronto: Lugus, 1998; Spanish translation by Alexis Cabrera, 1999). At the Moonbean Café is mainly a chronicle of love.

MN: What motivated you to write the poems collected in At the Moonbean Café? The themes of love and loss reappear separately or entwined like rope. What is the role of these themes in your poetry?

ML: I primarily wanted to capture the joy inherent in a love relationship that includes sexual ecstasy, mystical communion, and poetic revelation. However, such a relationship may also resemble a string of pearls without the string. In other words, it may consist of beautiful moments in isolation without a connecting thread, so it is fragile. Some of this transient nature of love is captured in my poem, "Seed Pearls," where I write:

"What awakens me?
You are sleeping elsewhere…
I can no more ask you to be there
than call a dream to life."

MN: You write sensitive love poems that are both lyrical and erotic. What are the challenges to you as a poet in writing erotic poetry?

ML: The challenge is to find the right balance between being overly explicit and too subtle. If the image is too familiar or coarse, it will not move the reader. If the image is obscure or overly private, the reader may not follow. Once, I made a reference to a piece of jewelry in a poem called "Black Tights" from To Light, To Water:

"Our love making fills the car:
I curl about you
you find my cameo
play jazz on my body."

Within the context of the work, the word "cameo" can be taken literally or connote something more implicit.

MN: To what extent are the poems in At the Moonbean Café about memory and its quotidian significance for life? Are they also about witnessing?

ML: There are specific memories in all of my poems that are played with and reconfigured in my imagination. For example, in my poem, "The Birth of Poems," I write, "Newborn poems from the gold lamp/ with the twisted angel's body/ enter the white world, wild and crying." I have a lamp I inherited from a wonderful, literary aunt. I was remembering her when I wrote the poem. Writing makes one a witness to one's own emotions and thought processes.

MN: What were your literary influences as you were working on these poems? Were you affected by any voices in particular? Did you have the benefit of a mentor or writing circle that provided you with regular feedback?

ML: I read a lot of sacred love poetry, everyone from Yehudi Amichai to Pablo Neruda and Rumi. I’m also blessed to have some wonderful poets in my circle of friends. I showed some of these poems to Ruth Panofsky, Karen Shenfeld, Susan Helwig, and others, and found their editorial suggestions enormously helpful. Most of all, I had the great pleasure of working with Antonio.

MN: Ordering the poems in one's collection and selecting a title can be difficult tasks. How did you decide what to put in or leave out of your collection? And how did you settle on the title At the Moonbean Café?

ML: Antonio encouraged me to produce a narrative sequence of lyrical poems. I selected and arranged the poems to create a chronological arc in order to give the reader a sense of an unfolding love story.

Choosing a title was very challenging, as it had to be original and somehow in keeping with the work itself. The title comes from a poem in the collection and refers to a small coffee shop in Kensington Market: The Moonbean Café. This title, for me, is also reminiscent of an exquisite photograph by Brassai of two lovers sipping coffee in a Parisian café.







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