Ella Zeltserman is a Soviet-born poet living in Edmonton, Canada, where she is an active member of the local poetry community. Her poetry has been published in a number of anthologies and magazines. Her first poetry collection is small things left behind.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
small things left behind is my first poetry collection. I am not sure publishing it changed my life, but the process of writing the book did. I had these images, emotions and family stories inside me for a long, long time. Being finally able to put them into verse and onto paper felt very liberating. I have a sense of accomplishment as if I finally did something I meant to do for a while.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Poetry is the most natural form of expression for me. I grew up reading poetry. From Pushkin’s fairy tales read to me by my mother to Akhmatova’s and Brodsky’s poems that I read throughout my life on an almost daily basis. Even my attempts at prose come too poetic, with images dominating the text.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
The first draft of a poem comes very fast (or not at all). But the final version takes time. I often put the poem aside for it to settle; it may take a day or a year for the “final” version to take shape, there are no hard rules. Some poems come to a final version almost the same as how they are first written. Others end up different to the point of being unrecognizable. Some insignificant thought or image ends up being “the poem.” Again, no hard rules.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
The poems can come from anything: a sound I hear, a smell that triggers some memories, some visual images. In Akhmatova’s words: “if you only knew /from what kind of trash the verses grow/ without any shame”.
small things left behind was written mostly in 2008-2009. I did not sit down to write a book. It was a very productive writing period and after a while it became obvious that there was a major theme developing. I put the collection together in 2010 and sent it to Simon Fraser’s Writing Studio competition. It got on the short list. Happily it did not win and I worked on it for another year, editing and adding more poems. In 2011 I was lucky enough to be selected to participate in the Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium and work with Al Moritz. The final version of the book comes from that time.
I have a few suits of poems that were written at once. They are short, chapbook length. As a rule I write individual poems, that may or may not form a book.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy reading my poems. It is the sharing of the poem’s emotions with the audience that attracts me, the triggering of these emotions in the listeners, the sense of being heard and understood. There are times I find I don’t read well, that I don’t deliver, that I am not heard. It is very frustrating. The good part of that is it forces me to review a poem, to edit even a “finished” poem. I often read that poem again to see if the tweaking changed the audience response to the piece. In that sense performing is a part of my creative process.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t have a particular theory that I apply to my writing. I tend to think about the why and how of poetry, and the value of poetic expression in different cultures and times.
There are a number of topics that interest me and occupy my poetry. The fate of individual and families living in a totalitarian regime is one of them. They are denied freedom. What is freedom? Why do we seek it? These concerns underline my first book “small things left behind”. The book is published, but my interest is still there. I keep writing.
I consider myself a lyrical poet, still grappling with the life’s love-death-remembrance that constantly bubbles underneath our everyday (often mundane) going-on. My second manuscript (which is at the moment still searching for a publisher) came out of this minor obsession.
Another minor obsession: Why do people kill in the name of better, more ideal world? Terrorism is not a new phenomenon. It has been present throughout our history. There are periods that it catches minds like wild fire. I look at the time prior to the Russian Revolution and ponder why would a woman mathematician born into nobility or a poet see killing as a way to happiness for mankind. Poetry gives me a tool to explore, but the poems come slowly, so far too slowly to put a collection together.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I see myself as a poet, which in my mind is different from the general “writer”. I come from the period in Russian culture where poets were considered to be the oracles, the prophets. Poets, such as Evtushenko, were gathering stadiums full of listeners. I come from a culture where poets were imprisoned or killed for their verses, where readers were imprisoned or killed for reading their poetry. Despite that I live in a different culture and different times, the period and the culture I came from sets (and sometimes confuses) my attitude towards poetry and poets. Here and now, I think poets give voice to people who can’t speak. We hear more of the world and can put it into words.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find the process of working with an editor the essential experience. I am a perpetual editor, can’t leave the poem alone, nothing is final. Somebody has to stop me. Besides, I like to be questioned. I’ve been lucky to work with Peter Midgley. I found respect and understanding. It’s been a rewarding process.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Hard to choose. The one from Nikolai Ostrovsky I learned as part of the Soviet brainwashing at a very early age “Life is given once and you must live it such a way as not to feel torturing regrets for wasted years”. I always treated it with sarcasm and mocking. It is enough to say just a few words of the sentence and every former Soviet would start laughing. But I realize more and more that I apply it to my life, and Churchill’s “Never give in, never, never…”. These two gentlemen often bring me to a sharp corner. That’s where I remember The Beatles’ “Let it be, let it be”.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have any writing routine. It happens any time of the day, sometimes in a car in a parking lot, or in the doctor’s office. When I travel I often stop in the middle of the street to write something down. But I am most productive at my computer in my office at home. I am a late raiser. I don’t function well in the morning. I often get to my desk by noon.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I usually don’t do anything. Just wait until it comes back. Since I don’t work on a particular topic or book at any given time, I don’t feel the need to write more poems to finish the project, so I don’t feel stalled. There are simply times I don’t feel like writing. That time usually passes. As far as inspiration - it is inside.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Freshly baked yeast dough. Flowering Mock Orange. Keemun tea. Melting snow.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music. Paintings. Architecture. Autumn.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Jane Austen. Pushkin: I reread his Evgeny Onegin every 5-6 years and find a new meaning every time and am as taken by the beauty of his verse as when I was 15 years old. Anna Akhmatova. Josef Brodsky.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to learn to sing.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
For me it is the other way around. I have already been: an accountant, an auditor, systems analyst, caterer, glass artist, business owner. I came to Canada without any English. Writing was not in the cards. I am happy that I ended up being able to be myself – a poet.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I actually do a lot of something else, but nothing else engages my whole being the way writing poetry does. I feel truly alive as the words form in my head and then miraculously become a poem.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
A couple of books comes to mind: Olga Grushin Dream Life of Sukhanov and Vera by Stacy Schiff. Movies: Kaos, Character, The Return.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I see two books forming from what I am writing now.
The topic of individual/collective fates in the 20th century totalitarian countries continues to occupy me. I have written a number of poems about my family history. It started from “100 years of family guns” and as I continue I see the book growing out of it.
I have a lot of poems written while traveling that have a unifying theme and voice despite being written over a long period of time and in different countries. One day I hope it will become a book.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;