JAMES STRECKER: If you were asked for 50 words for an encyclopedia to summarize what you do, or have done, in the arts, what would you say?
ELLEN S. JAFFE: I write poetry, fiction and other prose, and plays, some of it published, and am a teacher of children and adults, encouraging them to express themselves in language. I have participated in writing and arts communities in the places where I’ve lived; some of my poems were written with a political purpose.
JS: What important beliefs do you express in or through your work?
ESJ: The belief that we are all part of the human race, and can connect empathically. I also believe we have connections with the natural world (animals, plants, weather) and with science and the arts, and that writers and other artists can help make other people aware of this. I believe that writers can bear witness to other people’s experiences of suffering, injustice, and love, as well as to our own, and that creativity can – often – help us define the nuances of our lives, both the ordinary and the extreme.
JS: Name two people, living or dead, whom you admire a great deal and tell us why for each one.
ESJ: 1) My great-grandmother, Mary Becker Axelrod, who came to New York from Lithuania at age 14, to join her parents and brothers already there, and who was a nurturing, loving figure in my family, especially for my mother and for me, as well as many cousins. She gave me a sense of my roots and a love for family (even though she did not speak much of her early life). I always felt welcome and a sense of belonging and unconditional love in her home (she died at about 91, when I was 18).
2)Margaret Laurence, Canadian writer, for her honest and moving writing, and her sense of Canadian writers as a supportive, connected group (I hesitate, now, to use her word “tribe.”). I appreciate that she actually wrote me a personal letter – 5 typed lines, in 1984 – after I wrote her a “fan letter” and sent her a photograph of my husband’s grandmother in the prairies who reminded me of Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel. I was honoured to receive permission to adapt her children’s book Jason’s Quest into a play; I only found out about this book shortly after her death, but I wish she could have seen the play – and perhaps given me comments.
JS: How have you changed since you began to do creative work?
ESJ: I have been writing and doing creative work since childhood, so it is hard to imagine life without this work. I know that I feel better when I do some writing during the day; it helps me focus and feel more centered. I also find that, as I become more daring and push for more honesty in my writing, I am more honest and have more of a voice in my personal and social life.
JS: What are your biggest challenges as a creative person?
ESJ: Time and money, and these are not as challenging for me as for many people. Time – using my time well and wisely; and balancing writing, personal, and other-work life. It’s not so much writer’s block as sometimes procrastination – which comes from not facing both the fears and the work that needs to be done. Money – earning/making enough money to have time to write (I try to live economically, and have been helped emotionally and financially by my parents and other relatives). Other challenges: ex-husband who did not support my writing; and now aging – wanting to get more work done while I still have health and time.
JS: Please describe at least one major turning point in your life.
ESJ: One major one was deciding to move to Canada, and also to leave the U.S. This actually happened in stages: first, I left the U.S. (where I was born and grew up) for political and personal reasons in 1972, going to study and live in England for a year, which turned into almost 7 years. I was enjoying my work and life there, but had not actually decided to live there. Then, in 1978, I met a Canadian; we decided to live together, then marry, and I came to live in Canada in 1979 (near London, Ontario); our son was born in 1980 (Having a child has been another major turning point, of course.) I then had two miscarriages, 1982 and 1983, and the marriage began unravelling for several reasons, including my husband’s anger. In 1987-88 I participated in a year-long writing workshop with bill bissett, which got me back into writing…and eventually this, with the support of friends, helped me separate permanently from my husband in 1989. I then made the decision to stay in Canada, partly for our son’s sake but mainly because I like living here, felt good about the social system and health care, and knew I did not want to return to the U.S. I was already a permanent resident and became a Canadian citizen in 1993. Interestingly, I also began getting more involved in the writing community, especially in Hamilton, at this time; I began going to more writing workshops, as well as publishing in anthologies and doing readings. I also began teaching workshops in schools and to women’s groups, which I found very meaningful. I moved to Hamilton in 2000, the same week I signed my first book contract (for Writing Your Way: Creating a Personal Journal), and also the week I met my current partner, another ex-pat American (the brother of a friend in a writing workshop I attended in New York State); he had been living in Canada since 1971. Since then, I have written and published several more books and had writing published in journals and anthologies, met many other writers and joined writers’ organizations (e.g. The Writers’ Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, CANSCAIP, TOPS, PEN), and done more teaching, especially in community organizations. I also feel better living in a country which, despite some faults (most notably, treatment of Indigenous people past and present) is more open-minded and caring, closer to “a just society.” My son has grown up well in Canada, attended university, worked as a social worker for several years, and recently joined the RCMP – now working in Nunavut!
JS: What are the hardest things for an outsider to understand about what you do?
ESJ: Why it matters. (Do you have a real job or are you just writing?) Where do you get your ideas? And realizing that it’s hard work, but can be done: You mean you wrote that whole book?
JS: How and why did you begin to do creative work in the first place?
ESJ: As an only child, I began writing stories and poems and drawing pictures very early (around 4 or 5); I also learned to read early on, and loved reading. I realised recently that my family did not tell many stories about their own history (I treasured the ones I heard), and perhaps I wrote stories to fill that void – even though many were made up, about other people; also, there were secrets in my family, and perhaps I wanted to find out the truth. I also loved the sounds of words, playing with words and forms; I got a deep satisfaction from writing (even a school project). Another writer has said that she began writing because she could not talk to people easily, and even when she could talk more comfortably, she still enjoyed writing: this applies to me, too. I find that writing is a different process, as there are ways of saying things in poetry and fiction you can’t “tell” in a story. I think writing comes both from the outside world (what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch, experience) and from inner dreams, imagination, “what if’s” – and these merge like a moebius strip. One last thing: I think I really began to see myself as a “writer” – although I’d been writing for a long time – in the 1990s, through attending intensive residential writing groups with other women, and feeling part of a community.
JS: What haven’t you attempted as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?
ESJ: I would like to do a sequel to my young/adult novel Feast of Lights. I have had this in mind for some years, and have made a few starts, but need concentrated time to work on it, and perhaps some travel for research. I would also like to do another book of poetry, stretching the boundaries of what I have done already. And I am working on a play about aging and relationships.
JS: What are your most meaningful achievements?
ESJ: Some of the poems I’ve written, including “Water Children,” about loss of unborn children; the poems about my mother and father, and my great-grandmother; political poems, especially several I wrote about the Vietnam War, which were published and which also helped me see how the arts can influence the wider world; in prose, Feast of Lights, and a few short stories. And all the teaching I have done, both with young people – starting with The Voice of the Children, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn NY in the late 1960s and then in schools in Ontario – and also with people in community organizations, including Gilda’s Club for people living with cancer, and Among Friends for people living with mental health issues. I did not know I could “teach” writing – I think it is not teaching, but opening doors, creating that special space.
JS: What advice would you give a young person who would like to do what you do?
ESJ: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Today, the internet and social media give young people a very different way of communicating, so I am not sure how I would advise them about that. In work with students in schools (including elementary and high schools), I see that young people still like to actually write on paper – though in high school and later they are also using their phones to write, and combining visuals and music with words.
JS: Of what value are critics?
ESJ: Do you mean critics of finished work, or editors? I have had good experiences working with editors, who made helpful comments about poetry and, even more, about fiction and non-fiction; many of these comments and suggestions greatly improved the finished work, and made me see things from a new and valuable perspective. On the other hand, there have been a few comments by editors and writing friends that do not seem to understand what the work is about, so I can let those go. I have done some editing myself, and try to help the work embody the author’s intention and voice, and be more clear. I think critics/reviewers of finished books, plays, etc. can lead potential readers to work they would enjoy or find interesting, by both new and more well-known writers, and also point out difficulties in these works (of course, the reader of the review must remember she is reading one person’s opinion – reviews often vary in their appraisal).
JS: What do you ask of your audience?
ESJ: To listen to the work (or hear it in their mind as they read it on the page), to be moved, to feel some identification – even though they will bring their own experiences and points of view to the work, so their reactions may be different from what I felt/thought when I wrote the poem or story. In this sense, writing and reading/listening is always a dialogue, even a silent one. I enjoy hearing comments that expand my sense of the poems and stories I have written – and I can also see new things in them as I look at them again or read them aloud, months or years after writing.
JS: What specifically would you change about what goes on in the world and the arts?
ESJ: This is such a vast question. Do you mean the world AND the arts, or the world OF the arts? – both, in fact, are huge. Obviously, in the world I would like there to be more peace, justice, equal distribution of wealth, and more concern with and empowering of human rights. I am encouraged by changes in the art world, with people from different communities having more of a voice – Indigenous (including restoration of languages), international, disabled, LGBTQ, women. It is easier to have access to arts through the internet and technology – but I think it is important not to lose the immediacy and intimacy of live performances (theatre, dance, poetry and prose readings, similar events), on a local as well as large scale. It is important to encourage art in the community (starting with schools) as well as in large, expensive centres in urban areas. I think it is also important to provide enough funding for artists to do their creative work, including education and mentoring, and to encourage artists to work together.
JS: If you could relive one experience from your creative life, what would it be and why would you do so?
ESJ: This is a difficult question, as it is really the current writing project or the next new project that interests me. I would like to go back to Moose Factory, Ontario, where I spent a week in 2008 as an Artist in Education, with a grant from the Ontario Arts Council; I liked working with the students and teachers, learning about the land and water and people, but a week was not nearly long enough. If I could relive my later childhood, I would talk to my great-grandmother more and see if she would tell me about her life as a child in Lithuania and immigration to the U.S. at age 14.
JS: Tell us what it feels like to be a figure who is presented somehow in the media. What effect does this presence have on you?
ESJ: Although I am presented in the media (for publication, awards, giving talks, etc.), I am certainly not as well-known as many people. I feel more aware of my public presence when people remember me from a workshop I gave, even years before, or a poem they heard or that I wrote for them at an event (recently, a woman I happened to sit next to at a reading reminded me of a one-minute poem that I wrote for her baby daughter at a women’s fair in Hamilton; the daughter is now 17 and she still has the poem.) I actually have come to enjoy having a public presence at readings and sharing my work with an audience. And although I do not over-use “social media,” I sometimes like putting a poem or photo out there, and seeing the response, from people I know and also do not know. It is sometimes hard, especially if one writes personal poems, to draw the line between private and personal experience, but I also think writing helps people learn how to present aspects of personal experience in a way that lets others empathize and also deal with their own experiences.
JS: Name two places you would like to visit, one you haven’t been to and one to experience again and briefly tell us why.
ESJ: a) New Mexico – I have been there before, and love the light, the land, the presence of Indigenous people, and the history (including the troubling history of the development of the atomic bomb); there are places in the state I would like to see again and new places I would like to explore.
b) I would like to go to Cape Dorset to visit my son and also to see that Northern part of Canada, its land and people and art, and also the long light days (I would go in spring/summer, not winter with the long nights – though that could be interesting, as well as challenging). I would like to see the north now, during this precarious period of climate change.
JS: Please tell us about one or more projects that you have been working on, are preparing, or have recently completed. Why do they matter to you and why should they matter to us?
ESJ: I am working on a play about a relationship between two people in an assisted living residence – their growing love and connection, and the inevitability of parting; what we lose in aging and what we still keep of our inner lives, emotions, needs (including sexuality), and courage. This matters to me as my friends and I are aging, and also as I saw my mother age and lose her health, spending her last years in assisted living – where she began writing poetry. As more and more Canadians age (the over-65 population is becoming a large percentage of our population), this is an important subject, for the people who are aging, their families (children, grandchildren), the people who care for them – and the people who make policy. It is interesting to be part of the baby-boomers’ generation, who also were part of the 60s, where we let go of many older traditions and inhibitions. Who are we now, in our 70s and 80s? (of course, earlier generations also felt they were the “modern,” liberated generation). Just as I wrote about babies and the experiences of childbirth and parenting earlier in my life (not so much because I “decided” to so, but because the poems came to me through my own and others’ lives), I find I am now writing more about aging, remembering and forgetting, and the experiences of illness and loss. However, I have written about lost and dying babies and children for a long time, as this was part of my mother’s experience and so mine as a child, and also became mine later as an adult, when I had two miscarriages after my son’s birth. So writing about loss has been part of my writing for a long time; “Water Children,” the title poem of my first book – published by Mini Mocho Press – dealt with loss of an unborn child, and the love between mother and child, even in grief.
JS: Let’s talk about the state of the arts in today’s society, including the forms in which you work. What specifically gives you hope and what specifically do you find depressing?
ESJ: I think I responded to this in question 14. I am hopeful at seeing younger artists and writers, and also people from many different communities un-silencing their voices. There is still a way to go, but things are progressing. The internet may help us get around censorship and intimidation, and also financial constraints; it can encourage individuality but also promote trends and sameness. I am glad to hear more spoken word poetry at actual events. Although it is getting harder to publish books in paper, and much is now accessible on line, I think many people still like the feel of physical books and words on paper; these may become rarer and more specialized, but I hope will not disappear altogether. I am depressed by censorship of any kind (including the recent cancelling of financial support by certain organizations for New York’s “Shakespeare in the Park” because of objections to their current production of Julius Caesar, in which Caesar is portrayed as having a resemblance to Donald Trump.) There were also recent physical protests to this play by one or more audience members – fortunately no one was hurt. As someone has said, “Theatre is a place where you know no person will be actually harmed, no matter what violence occurs onstage.” This is actually true of all the arts, and is good to keep in mind.
JS: Finally, what do you yourself find to be the most intriguing and/or surprising thing about you?
ESJ: How do I answer this? When my son was young, he had a Sesame Street book called “Bert and Ernie Go to the Museum,” The pair look at all the exhibits – paintings, stamps, suits of armour, dinosaurs, etc. – and then come to a door marked “Everything Else.” Oh boy! They race through the door – and find themselves in the outside world! I hope I can continue to be surprised by life and people; to find new connections; to love, learn, and grow; to enjoy the daily-ness of each day and “cultivating my own garden” while still being involved in the adventures of the wider world – including the world of science and of the arts. I love being a mother, wish I were a grandmother – but that may be an unfulfilled wish. Also, people may not know I have also worked as a psychotherapist and studied/practiced Shamanic healing. These two professions involve healing, and I think they, like writing, also involve a sense of play in its deepest sense.