Interview with writer George Ellenbogen

After the creative writing workshop which was held from the 24th of May until the 26th, 2015, I had the pleasure of interviewing the Canadian memoirist and poet George Ellenbogen. The questions mainly revolved around his journey as a memoirist and poet, as a teacher of literature, the problems and challenges he faced as a writer, the new projects he’s currently working on and his advices to all young aspiring writers!

When did you find out that you wanted to be a writer?

I was an undergraduate at McGill University in my second year, when I took a course in Comparative European literature which was taught by one of the older and established Canadian poets and I decided there and then that writing was going to be a central activity of my life. I had no idea as to how I was going to earn my living, but I knew that writing, specifically writing poetry, was going to play a central role in my life. I have been writing a variety of other genres, but I keep coming back to poetry and I expect it will always be a kind of harbor for me.

How did you start? Did you start with establishing a writing routine?

Once I decided I was going to become a poet, I simply started writing. I would not say that I established a routine; even now I would say that I don’t have a routine. There are occasions when I am writing at an artist colony, which are places that host writers, composers and sculptors. I do then settle into a routine, which usually includes writing, reading and walking. […] But I work best when I am reading. And my reading is unpredictable. […] I generally like readings that convey other realities such as travel literature, histories, biographies, autobiographies.

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For example, if you’re reading biographies or autobiographies, if you’re moving into other geographical zones, or dipping into other historical periods, it is in a sense like exploring some part of the solar system, you are moving to another reality and it makes you more aware of where you have come from and the reality that you live in, because so often we walk in and out of our realities kind of jaded, inattentive. We spend our lives there with so much that we don’t notice. I worked in the Arctic for 6 months and while I was there, I never wrote anything that accentuated cold weather, but I found myself writing poems, at least partially, about areas that had warm climates. So, I think it is a question of being in a place which alerts you and awakens you to its opposite.

As you already know, writing is not an easy profession, so what are the problems or the challenges you faced as a writer and how did you overcome that?

As I mentioned in class, I identified a problem, although I’m not sure I’ve overcome it. Often, writers either have a disposition towards the visual or the oral […] and some writers are truly blessed as they are equally strong in both the visual and the oral. I tend to gravitate towards the oral, and I find my tendency to be carried away by sound and since I have to resist that when I am writing seriously, I spend a lot of time reading works that accentuate the visual and in the case of poets, poets that accentuate the visual [Theodore Roethke, William Carlos Williams] and avoid oral poets [Dylan Thomas]. I am haunted by sounds and my actual tendency is to go there at the expense of the visual. So, as a kind of antidote or a medicine I am prescribing for myself, I try to do a lot of readings that accentuate the visual.

What was the most difficult book for you to write from your published works? Was it the autobiography “A Stone in My Shoe” since it was more of a personal story?

Sometimes a book is a real struggle, yet this book was both fun to write and also a book that came rather easily. My poetry collection, on the other hand, includes some poems were easy to write and came in virtually one setting and others were more difficult and came in a period of couple of years.

There is a series of poems I am currently working on with a painter, which will be a series of 10 poems. It is a kind of dialogue between painting and poem; painter and poet. It will also be a verbal dialogue between a created George Ellenbogen and a created Tont Clayden. I have done that previously with a French illustrative painter, Helene Leneveu. It begins with one of her illustrations which I respond to and then she responds to my response and so on. It was a series of 15 paintings that I corresponded with, a kind of long distance correspondence between two people and I very much liked it. I find myself more interested in such projects  than the lyrics I started writing, poems of forty or sixty lines with a defined, confessional speaker, I like more the experimental works like the painting-poem kind of dialogue, for example, „The Rhino Gate”, which combines a text (a woman story) with the opposite side as a counter-text which consists of other voices, verbal or visual, who are listening to the main character as she thinks aloud, hearing her thoughts, and they respond either directly or obliquely. So, it is a kind of drama between text and counter-text, and the project I am currently working on is turning this into a theatre piece to be presented on the stage. So, this work is a challenge for me as I am working in an area where I have a very limited experience. In terms of plays, my experience is as a spectator, only a part of the audience. I only attempted to write a play once 55 to 60 years ago. I think I now address literary problems more intelligently. I‘m more aware of the pitfalls and I’m more critical of my own work. So, I am giving myself an opportunity here. I have done what I consider a reasonably good draft and I will share it with a former colleague who is a very successful dramatist and we’ll see where it goes.

Being a writer, how can one succeed as writer?

That’s difficult. I remember a quote from a movie called Chariots of Fire, it says: “you cannot put in what God left out.” So I would say, there really has to be some ability first and it would express itself in the passion one feels for letters, for words because that’s what a writer is going to be doing; arranging words on a page. Then, there has to be commitment; there has to be self-discipline. Also, you cannot be defensive about your work. At the same time, you have to be able to detach yourself from your work so that you can look at it critically and make changes and also accept others’ comments about your work and not simply dismiss them. Also, the willingness to stay in and keep working until you’ve made the right choice, discovered the means of getting at that uniqueness that’s still in darkness.

Being a teacher of poetry, how did that help you as writer?

There were both a positive and a negative side to it. Starting with the positive side: I published my first book when I was 21 years old and I was so full of myself, thinking “what a wonderful writer I am,” not a good attitude. We had mentors who were the father figures of an avant-garde movement in Montreal who were really indulgent of myself and others as they wanted to be encouraging. So, the result of going through graduate school and having professors looking at your work, criticizing it, and then as a teacher, looking at the work of others built some self-discipline, in my case making me look at my own work more critically

As for the negative side: I taught aside from the standard literature courses, creative writing courses, which I enjoyed...and still do. But I found out that I was putting a lot of my creative energy into my students’ works rather than my own work. I found since I have been retired that I did a lot more work. On the other hand, I really do enjoy going into class and talking about writing, particular pieces of work, writers and the problems of writing.

What about your teaching experience here in Germany? How is it different to teach students from a different culture?

I have taught in North America and also I read a lot around Europe, especially in Germany. But in Germany, I found out that students are incredibly mature and responsible. Students knew exactly why they are there and they are vigorous in bringing all their mental faculties into the game. In discussions, students were not simply parroting what I am saying, but thinking independently and also confident enough in several cases to challenge or to modify what I was saying. And I very much appreciated that and I am sure any teacher would.

For all the young aspiring writers reading our interview, what is the one advice you would give to someone who wants to take writing seriously?

Do it! Bakers bake, seamstresses sew, writers write. This is the bottom line of any activity. Write and keep writing. Sometimes it’s very difficult, so set up a writing routine and try to do something each day.

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The interview was conducted by Nermine Abdulhafiz
Photos by Maryam Mardani