Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

At the Desk: Ellen S. Jaffe

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Ellen S. Jaffe is a poet, playwright, novelist and educator living in Hamilton, Ontario. Her latest collection of poems Skinny-Dipping with the Muse (Guernica Editions) is forthcoming in May.

Skinny-Dipping with the Muse is a collection of poems, divided into four sections, that relate to the author's experience of diving "into the destructive element" (in the words of Joseph Conrad). The poems are representative of the process of connecting with the "creative spirit" in a playful, spontaneous and emotionally rich way. Author Ron Charach says of the collection, "Ellen Jaffe is one of our most intimate poets. Her heart lets in both dark and light, and she knows which rules to break and which to keep."

Today, Ellen S. Jaffe joins us as part of Open Book's At The Desk series, in which writers speak about their creative processes and the workspaces that inspire them, telling the stories behind the books that sits on our shelves and in our hands.

Today she talks with Open Book about a precious gift framed on the wall near her desk, what she listens to while writing and the books she keeps in her workspace.


I am primarily a poet, but also write fiction, plays, and occasional non-fiction, and my writing process changes accordingly. I tend to write poems in longhand, at home or wherever I happen to be ? cafe, hiking trail, GO train, airplane. So it helps to have a notebook with me, though I use anything handy ? old envelopes, backs of chequebooks, etc. Once, when I heard a poem in my mind while driving to work, I pulled over to the side of the highway to scribble down some lines. Soon a police officer approached my car and asked politely if anything was wrong. ?I?m just writing a poem,? I explained. He looked puzzled but, still polite, went on his way.

I usually start prose at the computer, but sometimes work on stories while I am out. Whatever the genre, I like to transcribe handwritten drafts onto my desktop computer as soon as possible. This makes them feel more real, less ephemeral, and lets me move into the process of rewriting. I start this on the computer and then print out a draft so I can do more work by hand. I love revision as I have something concrete to work and play with.

My current workspace ? in the small house in Hamilton where I?ve lived on my own for nine years -- suits me well. My study/office is at the back of the house, directly off the kitchen. I can stir soup or refill my coffee cup without going far from my desk. Even better, the office faces the back garden. Sitting at my desk, I can see cedar trees and sky through windows on both the south and east walls, or walk onto the deck through glass patio doors, also on the east. The natural light is wonderful, and often there?s a squirrel or a cardinal. Right now I?m looking at snow, but in spring and summer I can see?fifty shades of green? (as I wrote in a poem), as well as flowers, and go outside when I need a break. The cat wanders in and out, too.

On the wall near my desk, safely framed, is a precious gift: a hand-typed letter from Margaret Laurence, written in 1984 in response to a ?fan letter? I sent her about The Stone Angel. I?d included a photograph of my son (then age two) with his paternal great-grandmother on the porch of her weathered clapboard house in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Grandma Greta reminded me so much of Hagar Shipley that I had to send the picture. I cherish Margaret Laurence?s reply, in which she said she ?saw such a lot in that photo? and was glad that her book spoke to me. Her reaching out to an unknown writer keeps inspiring me.

Three bookshelves line the wall behind the desk, and there are more books in the other rooms of the house. Here, I keep books by writers I especially love as well as dictionaries, references, books on writing, journals, books for children, and copies of my work and writing by friends. On top of one bookshelf is a pair of photos: my grandmother Rose in kindergarten, Newark, New Jersey, 1900, and me in nursery school, New York City, 1948. Much of my work is about family, so these photos are especially meaningful. There?s also a birthday card from a close friend (?Thinking of You?), among other mementoes ? stones, pottery, a Native basket, an old wooden box for pens.

I like listening to the radio while I work; sometimes music is better; sometimes I half-listen to a talk show, perking up when I hear something interesting. I play CD?s, too, but radio brings in that touch of the outside world, and I like being surprised by the host?s choice of music.

When I wrote my YA novel Feast of Lights, I taped up pictures about the project -- a synagogue in Kensington Market, immigrants on shipboard. I didn?t do this for my new poetry collection, Skinny-Dipping with the Muse (Guernica Editions, 2014), but I did keep revising the poems, working between different drafts on the computer, printing copies. I accumulate too many papers on my desk and every so often excavate the piles, recycling, occasionally unearthing some essential document.
The previous owner left a chipped white ceramic plaque on one wall, with the word ?WELCOME? and five birds on a branch. ?Kitsch,? but I?ve kept it there. Welcome to ideas and imagination, words, friends, nature. Welcome, whatever comes next...
-Ellen S. Jaffe

Born in New York City, Ellen S. Jaffe came to Canada in 1979. Her published books include Writing Your Way: Creating a Personal Journal; Water Children (poetry); Feast of Lights: a young adult novel; and Syntymalauluja/Birth Songs, a selection of poems translated into Finnish. She has also written and produced plays for children and adults. She lives in Hamilton where she is active in the city?s literary scene.

For more information about Skinny-Dipping with the Muse please visit the Guernica Editions website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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