Véhicule Press
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John Kinsella Interviews George Ellenbogen

George Ellenbogen

Poet George Ellenbogen

John Kinsella is the author of more than 30 books. His poetry has won numerous awards in Australia, and he has held academic posts in Australia, Britain and the United States. Peripheral Light: New and Selected Poems, selected and introduced by Harold Bloom was published by WW Norton (2003). The poetry collection, The New Arcadia was published in 2005. He is the editor of the international literary journal, Salt, and is international editor of The Kenyon Review.

George Ellenbogen’s Morning Gothic: New and Selected Poems was published in September 2007 by Signal Editions—the poetry imprint at Véhicule Press.

The interview took place May 11, 2006 before John Kinsella wrote the introduction to Morning Gothic. Kinsella was in York, Western Australia; Ellenbogen in West Roxbury, just outside of Boston.

John Kinsella:

Movement is an important part of your work. You travel a great deal. This has obviously influenced subject matter in your poetry, but how do you think it has influenced the way your write poems?
Shifts in cultural perception, cultural interactivness are also pivotal. Could you reflect on this?

What does narrative mean to you poetically? How much does the "image" concern you?

George Ellenbogen:

Many questions, some of them puzzling. Let me ramble towards a response, at least to the first two questions on cultural perspectives and travel.

As you probably know, my parents migrated to Canada in the twenties, my mother from Gora Kalvaria (Hills of Calvary), a small town in Poland (before WWII 4000 Poles, 3000 Jews; when I visited twelve years ago 12,000 Poles, 4 Jews), my father from a hamlet in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which became part of Romania after WWI, the Soviet Union after WWII and now part of the Ukraine. I lived in Montreal until 1955, after that several places--the Arctic, Mexico, England, finally Boston, where I've added an American passport to my Canadian one.

In an interview for Le Temps (Tunis) ten years ago, I was asked to comment on the issues in current Canadian poetry and how I situated myself in the national literary scene. I felt-I still feel-that it's difficult to define the center of a national literature. On second, sometimes on first glance, one finds issues that are universal-falling in love, falling out of love, anxiety about the future, diminishing parents, frail children, etc. But as someone with roots to Montreal that have not entirely withered, I do find something distinctive in the Canadian landscape that works on the sensibility of several Canadian writers. I think it does for me. If you look at a map of Canada, you quickly realize that most of its population live in a narrow band that extends about a hundred miles north of the US border from Halifax to Vancouver. Beyond that is what Voltaire referred to in Candide as a "few acres of snow," a frozen uninhabited waste. That colossal absence is something I find energizing, a darkness I (we) lean against, as I remarked in Le Temps "It is a darkness they lean on, an isolation, a loneliness that surrounds them. The geography of a country is not only a poet's reality; it can become his metaphor, his way of moving between an audience he knows and a darkness he probes almost as a blind man, feeling his way. For many of them (and for me) this isolation defines the way they see their national state, their towns, themselves. It is as much a fact of life in their worlds as sociability is in Jane Austen's."

Outside of that broad connection to Canada's topography, I don't see myself fitting into a Canadian perspective except to acknowledge that a private northern waste hovers over much of my poetry as it tries to make sense of things. (But you can apply that observation to many non-Canadian poets.) Other than that my stimuli/anchor points come not so much from my position as a settler in Montreal (or Boston), but more from my position as a traveler, someone "with loose change and no official papers" (if I can steal a line from "Going by Rail"). A looker, an observer with less commitment to country than to people in general. And the loose change consists of many things including my European/Jewish roots, cherished books, remembered experiences. Travel too.

Travel is often a way of lighting the lamp rather then providing raw material for my work, though sometimes as in a recent trip to the Galapagos, it does that. But just as often, being in one place makes me aware of a place I have left and raises to the surface something carefully folded in storage. Years ago in the Arctic I found myself writing about south sea islands. Figure that!

But when I look at a poem like "Going by Rail," I realize there is something about the nature of movement, in this case a train, that has significance in the process of writing/conceiving.. I've had an affection for trains that goes back to my earliest book published in 1957. When I peer out the window, I feel as though I'm having a cinematic experience, with the odd sensations that the individual shots that whiz by the window frame are disconnected strips of film...and of course they are...until one seizes my imagination and makes me a part of its narrative.

The visual sensations that come through the train's window (to address your question on image and narrative) are images. Most simply vanish like unfertilized eggs. The others, fertilized by whatever-memory, imagination....can either stand by themselves (as they do the imagist poems of Pound, HD, and numerous others in the early 20th c or grow into other shapes, narratives for example.. I expect this process works for a lot of sedentary poets as well, poets who are able to travel without either moving their feet or taking trains. But for me, the motion of travel accelerates the process.

John Kinsella:

The visual is an important component of the poetry--both in terms of reacting to artwork, but also in 'ways of seeing' in the poetry. Comment?

Collaboration is also vital, and happens in subtle as well as overt levels. Comment?

George Ellenbogen:

I suspect that your questions about the visual and collaboration arise from "Worlds of Hélène Leneveu: A Correspondence." The visual for me has two kinds of significance. In a general way it confirms my own bias--that image is essential to poetry...echoing what Herbert Read said a long time ago about poetry being only as strong as its image (or was it metaphor? Doesn't matter...it works for both). Oddly enough, I am not a natural image maker; I have to work hard at it. (My normal disposition is to be carried away by sound-tradition of Marlowe to Dylan Thomas--which I find I have to guard against because when it surfaces it does so at the expense of image.)

But in addition to this implication of image there is another. In both the Leneveu series and "The Rhino Gate" visual comes through in two ways: 1), what I've explained above, visual as word pictures and 2) visual as a player, a voice that participates in a colloquy. The intro to "The Rhino Gate" observes that there is a text, the planter's wife's narrative, and a countertext, the material on the opposite side of the text, whether the material is visual (drawings and photos) or verbal (comments on flora and fauna, newspaper ads, Corfield report, etc.) Those photos and drawings are not merely pictures; they constitute a voice, so that, as the intro suggests, the poem work dramatically as a confrontation between text and countertext. The same relationship exists in the Leneveu series, suggested by the pun on "correspondence" in the title. In the colloquy that takes place between poem and illustration, both serve as means of seeing, of exploring.

So, if we're considering this piece to be one of collaboration, the collaboration is not so much between me and Hélène (as a matter of fact, I might alter her name), but between the poems and the illustrations.

John Kinsella:

History becomes metaphor in your work - figurative - but is always undeniable in its concreteness as well. Comment.

What was the inspiration behind Rhino Gate. It is your major work. How long did it take to write, where did you write it, and why did you write it. It has its own tone, and doesn't wear its influences from poetry loudly, but they are there. Comment?

Gender shifts in voices...?

George Ellenbogen:

Apropos of "The Rhino Gate," normally when I'm in a writing groove, working on several pieces at the same time, new poems will come, usually in chunks of a few lines, which I then build on bit by bit. Once I have a half dozen lines or so, I have an idea of what the poem is about and what it will look like in terms of form. Like Michelangelo's comment about seeing the finished sculpture within the block of stone. The composition of "The Rhino Gate" didn't follow this pattern. I started it in the summer of 1985 when I was in residence at the Karolyi Foundation in Vence, France. Sitting on the stone veranda in the back of my cottage, overlooking a densely wooded valley which separates Vence from the more celebrated St. Paul de Vence, the words "rhino gate" came to me. The phrase, as you can imagine, was totally enigmatic. But it was also haunting. Over the next few weeks, I added lines, with only a glimmer of where the poem was going, anticipating the sort of thing I usually turn out, a lyric between 25 and 60 lines. One day I scrambled down the valley, up the other side and walked onto the grounds of the Maeght Foundation, a splendid collection of 20th century paintings and sculpture, St. Paul de Vence's jewel. I was immediately struck by a Miro sculpture (p. 53 of “The Rhino Gate” in Morning Gothic) which has rhino features and, viewed sideways, can be seen as a gate, something that separates us from them (in the poem us becomes colonizers, security, order, rationality; them, the colonized, restiveness/rebellion, emotion). Clearly, what I saw around me was not going to let me give up on this piece. The writing and editing went on for five years. After a couple, I realized that there were so many references that needed explanation, that the poem would not work without footnoting ...and would be a drag to read with footnoting. It was then that I conceived the idea of having it work dramatically-ie text and countertext, with the countertext becoming a series of voices that respond, often obliquely, to the voice of the narrator. Incidentally, it was only when I was well into the poem, after a couple of years or so, that I realized that the narrator was a woman, the aging wife of an East African planter. I can't think of any other poem that I've written that has a female speaker...though I have fictionalized Hélène's voice in "Worlds...." I often remark when I give a reading that God on a Monday morning was handing poems out to a queue of poets, that the woman ahead of me left the line for a tuna fish sandwich, and that I got her poem "The Rhino Gate." It wasn't until the final year of working on the poem that I got a clear sense of how it all fitted together. I was sitting on a stool on the Serengeti, while my fellow travelers were taking a siesta, and the resonances of the concept "rhino gate" came through to me as though they had been etched in the sky -something that physically separates into categories of us/them, haves/have nots/ ...the list goes on.

It occurs to me that I didn't address the reason for writing the poem...or perhaps I did. The preceding paragraphs suggest I was impelled...and I was. But I do find some of the concerns that exist in several of my other poems-the spectacle of people feeding on people, the awareness of powerlessness. The interesting twist here is that the powerful come to discover that they are powerless. They can only wait.

I'm currently working on a memoir of my old Montreal neighborhood. It shifts between confessions of the neighborhood and autobiography, covering the period from earliest memories to when I went off to university in 1951. I remember that in addition to composition, history and geography were the subjects that appealed most because they removed me from the grimness of my elementary school and introduced me to a world outside my neighborhood ghetto (I believe 99% of the neighbors on my block were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.) They were my exoticism in an unexotic world. My leftist history teacher in my first year at Baron Byng High School got me to see history in other than exotic lights. But along with appreciating the complexities that she introduced, I remained-still remain-- attracted by the remoteness of earlier periods and off-shore places. And, of course, the abundance of material out there is there for the shaping, for serving as a glass through which to see ourselves, our time.

When those of my poems rooted in the past begin with a specific concrete moment, eg. the woman with the missing forearm in the train compartment ("Night Train to Zagreb"), it is easy to be concrete; the same applies to the Gora Kalvaria poem, constructed from some of my mother's recollections and my own observations. In several of these poems, my own observation comes into play, supplies several of the images: a trip to Auschwitz in "Drizzle of Faces...," an exhibition of photos at the MFA on lynchings in America in "Approaching a Photographic...," the opening take of a high school cadet parade in Montreal in the film "The Apprenticeship of Dudy Kravitz" in "Homecoming," a documentary on ORT in "The Last ORT Classes." At other times, as in the twin terza rima poems, "The Invasion" and "The Emergence" I find myself consulting memories of things I have seen, read, heard. Often the poem is presented in such a way as to leave the locale ambiguous. So although "Morning Gothic" could be set in the old Soviet Union, it could also be set in a Latin American country. By virtue of its title, "Daydream" seems to refer more specifically to the period of the Stalinist purges. But what I find in most of these despite the maneuverings of history is the situation that the powerless face when confronted by power.

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