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Elana Wolff on Collaborating and Connecting With Malca Litovitz

elana wolffmalcalitovitzIn a touching essay written by Elana Wolff as part of Brick Books’ “Celebration of Canadian Poetry”, Elana reflects on the power of collaboration and the lasting influence of her friend and poet Malca Litovitz. Elana and Malca together wrote Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness (Duologues and Rengas), which is composed of poems that are written in lines that alternate between the two authors. Malca Litovitz passed away on July 18th, 2015.

Elana begins by referring to the latest book by Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two, in which Shenk “discredits the idea of the atomized self and solitary genius…and extols the dyad as the primary creative unit”. Elana begins by explaining that she “saw creativity – particularly in the field of writing – as an individual pursuit; solitary and self-contained. Then came Malca Litovitz and things shifted”.

Elana continues to describe how she met Malca, stating: “Malca and I met in the fall of 2003 shortly before the release of our second poetry collections with Guernica. The attraction was fast and natural”. As soon as they met, they each became interested in collaborating with one another. One project that they aimed to achieve was a book-length “triologue” with another Guernica poet, Merle Nudelman, but these plans were put aside when Malca fell ill with metastatic cancer.

Throughout the chemotherapy, Malca remained “resolute”. Elana explains, “she returned to teaching at Seneca College, kept busy with family and friends, and continued to write and think affirmatively”. It was during this time that Elana and Malca began to create rengas together, “poems written line-by-alternating line”. Elana says the following about the challenges of this process, “Malca’s notion of freefall renga writing – sitting across from one another at the same table, passing the pen back and forth, releasing the censor, trusting the process and letting the lines ‘come in’ – was completely foreign to me. I didn’t write extemporaneously, and for me privacy was a requirement. I needed solitude – to think, deliberate, and craft the work. I couldn’t conceive of penning anything worthwhile ‘in-the-moment’, with another. And if the muse arrived, she was for me alone. Why would I give anyone else one of my inspired lines…Writing was personal, solitary, deliberative…proprietary”.

Elana and Malca wrote their final renga together on Friday July 8, 2005 at The Toronto Hospital, “sitting side by side, passing the paper back and forth”. Before Malca passed, she described these rengas as “her ‘lifeline’”. Elana states, “This was more than metaphorical. On the day of her funeral, her husband told me that Malca was ‘first and foremost a writer’”.

Wolff concludes her essay by reflecting on her collaboration with Malca in terms of Joshua Wolf Shenk’s “six essential stages” that he presents in Power of Two. Of these, the last is “Interruption”. Elana says the following, “death, of course, is the big interruption…On one of my last visits to Malca at Baycrest Hospital, I sat by her bedside as she addressed me indirectly through her doctor. ‘I have no renga line for Elana today,’ she told him. The doctor answered for me, ‘I don’t think Elana minds that you don’t have a line’”.

Malca Litovitz was a full-time teacher of English literature and creative writing for 25 years, in addition to being an editor, critic, performer, mentor, and award-winning poet. She was the author of At the Moonbeam Café and To Light, To Water, which won the 2000 Jewish National Book Award. An endowment for the Malca Litovitz Prize in creative writing has been established at Seneca-College Toronto. A copy of Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness is included in the award.

Elana Wolff has published four collections of poetry with Guernica Editions, including You Speak to Me in Trees, awarded the F.G. Bressani Prize for Poetry. She is also the author of Implicate Me, a collection of essays on contemporary poems, and co-editor with Julie Roorda of Poet to Poet: Poems written to poets and the stories that inspired them. A bilingual edition of her selected poems, Helleborus & Alchémille (Éditions du Noroît), was awarded the 2014 John Glassco Prize for Translation (translator: Stéphanie Roesler). Elana has taught English for Academic Purposes at York University in Toronto and at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She currently divides her professional time between writing, editing, and designing and facilitating therapeutic community art courses.

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