Place in writing and in life: geography, memory, story

Several weeks ago I gave  a talk to the Lit Chat group in Hamilton on the role of place in writing – in memory and in story. This included imaginary and mythical places – the land of fairy tales, “once upon a time,”  “a galaxy far, far, away,”  Tolkien’s Shire and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts  It also included real places we can find on a map and journey to, in our minds or in so-called real life, public places about which we can agree on some features, but for which we each can have our own story.  I was especially interested in places whose names alone tell a story and highlight a traumatic experience of many people and various places—Auschwitz, Wounded Knee, Roben Island, Birmingham (Alabama), Gettsyburg, Flanders Fields, Hiroshima, to name a few.  Even though, for example, the Holocaust and the Nax And I also talked about personal, private places that tell individual stories, often remembered from childhood: the Bird Sanctuary one of my friends remembers from the Baltimore of his childhood –  not an official bird sanctuary but a wooded area behind a church where he and his friends would climb trees, see birds, and have adventures involving pirates and buried treasure.  I had my birch tree with 4 trunks behind the playground fence in Central Park, providing a lap where I could sit, look up at the leaves and sky, and be both alone and part of the nature around me.  I don’t think I had a special name for it, but it was a special place.

This summer and fall, I have been travelling more than usual, so I have actually been to several places, both new to me and familiar, and this has led me to think even more about place and its role in our stories. Continue reading

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The Value of Poetry

Late summer and early fall….a good time for taking stock and new beginnings.  August 31 is also the anniversary (yahrzeit, in Yiddish) of my mother’s death in 2009, so a special time for reflection.  Earlier this week, I told a good friend that this was the “anniversary week” for my mother and I was feeling fragile.  Almost immediately, he texted me a link to this website:

which turned out to be an article, with examples, about “mathexpressive poetry” by Bob Grumman.  I won’t try to paraphrase the article here — you need to read it — but, in essence, this is poetry depicting mathematical processes like long division and multiplication to show the relationships between words and images, not numbers.  It is partly a visual poetry, but depends on the evocative and symbolic meanings of words and the resonances between them.   The article was a challenging and fascinating read, but what stood out for me was that, as I finished it, I felt a tremendous sense of joy and release.

Why did this happen? I wondered.  How could reading an article about a new kind of poetry make me feel this way?

At one point, the author remarks that “I felt no work not an attempt at friendship with those encountering it was poetry…”  In other words, a poem is an act of friendship, an encounter. I think there are actually several encounters reverberating in a poem: the writer’s encounter with the experience (inner and outer) that inspired the poem, the writer finding the right language with which to make the poem, and the reader’s encounter with the words on the page — which connect to his or her own experience.    When I looked up “friend” in my trusty etymological dictionary, I found that it is related to the word “free,” which in its Old English, Old Norse, Old High German, and even Sanskrit roots also means “peace” and “love.” Joy Harjo, Native American poet, has said: “Ultimately, a poem has an electrical force field, which is love.” (Note that she uses a scientific concept as a metaphor to express her thought.) Her statement seems akin to Grumman’s remark about friendship.  And it connects, I think, to a poem written by a woman in a Toronto residence for street people, which contains this line:  “It’s not possible to love art without love.”  She adds that “it (love) wouldn’t not know that we want it.”

All of this is “telling a truth, but telling it slant” — in Emily Dickinson’s words, quoted by Grumman.  At this moment, reading an article about a new kind of poetry– which uses the elegant, beautiful processes of math, such as long division, to show how words, ideas, and images connect — touched a place deep within me: that place where making art = making love = making friends = play and delight.   Grumman talked about everything from “a thunderstorm’s tearing up the day” (reminding me of a poem I wrote to my friend Malca Litovitz, in which I mentioned her poem about rain breaking open the day) to ships and friendship.

Knowing that I write poetry, my friend might well have sent me this link any day of the year.  But he sent it on this particular day, to cheer me up, an act of friendship.  I think he knew, intuitively, that it would have that effect — even though I wasn’t sure, at first, why I should read this article called “summerthings.”  After reading it, I was struck, yet again, by how rich the life of the imagination is, and how art and emotion are so intricately and intimately interwoven, in an equation that shows us the value (in every sense of the word) of poetry.    And I think my mother would understand this, too. Thanks/Gracias/Namaste

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working family stories and treasures

gr-grandmother's home
Mary Axelrod lived here

Concurrent with the Jewish Literary Festival is an ongoing project called WFST, about the working lives of the Jewish community in Hamilton.  The project is taking place in various locations around Hamilton. There will a final exhibit of many of the artworks and stories produced during the project at the YouMe Gallery, 330 James St. North, in October 2012.  Watch this space for more details. Mary Axelrod, Ellen’s great-grandmother, lived in this house on Rivington St. in NYC as a young girl, after immigrating from Russia.  Many Jewish immigrants to Hamilton lived in similar surroundings on James St. North and vicintiy.


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cBook Launch for Letters & Pictures from the Old Suitcase

Fan by Holly Briesmaster, at a group exhibit by “Sixis” at the Papermill Gallery, Todmorden Mills, Toronto, in March 2012.

Please join Ellen at the Book Launch for Letters & Pictures from the Old Suitcase: at the 3rd Hamilton Jewish Literary Festival

Where: Temple Anshe Sholom, 215 Cline Avenue North, Hamilton, Ontario When: Sunday June 3, 2012, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m



From Sinai to the Shtetl….” and “Letters & Pictures from the Old Suitcase

These two anthologies are the beginning of a potentially ongoing series edited by Ellen S. Jaffe and Lil Blume and published by our own organization, Pinking Shears Publications. The contributing authors are Jewish writers, mainly from Canada with a few from the U.S., and the stories, poems, and commentaries are ways of reflecting on and defining the Jewish experience of immigration and settling in Canada, based on our personal and family histories. We acknowledge the support of Temple Anshe Sholom and of Allegra Marketing Print Mail through their FootPRINTS fund.

Please download thePDF for more details on the Festival

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