by Ruth Panofsky
Inanna Publications, 100 pp.
Ruth Panofsky interviewed by Ariel Gordon
Uniting Lyric with Image: An Interview with Ruth Panofsky
by Ariel Gordon
It has been nearly fifty years since Adele Wiseman’s novel, Crackpot, was published. Widely considered to be a classic of Canadian literature, the 1974 book was set in Winnipeg’s North End. It featured Hoda, the much-loved daughter of blind Danile and hunchbacked Rahel, Russian Jewish immigrants to Canada.
After Rahel’s early death, teenage Hoda struggles to support her family cleaning houses while also attending school. She becomes a sex worker but also a neighbourhood institution, a fixture at weddings and funerals. She breaks every taboo—she is loud and fat and she enjoys having sex, not to mention having a child outside of marriage—but she manages to take care of her friends and family.
Last May, Ruth Panofsky, an award-winning poet and an English professor at Ryerson University, published Radiant Shards: Hoda’s North End Poems, a long narrative poem that invokes Crackpot and Hoda.
Ariel Gordon, a Winnipeg- based poet, conducted this interview with Panofsky over email.
Ariel Gordon: What do you want people to know about Radiant Shards: Hoda’s North End Poems?
Ruth Panofsky: Radiant Shards is a creative project that brings together the fictional, the real, and the poetic. Fictional in that the character of Hoda originates with novelist Adele Wiseman. Real in that there was once such a figure as Hoda, a sex worker who serviced the boys and men of North End Winnipeg, and real in that my book includes archival photographs of the North End – although they are used with artistic licence. And poetic, in that Radiant Shards, as a book-length lyric poem, imagines the interior life of Wiseman’s protagonist.
AG: You’ve written several books on Adele Wiseman, literary criticism and collections of letters. What was it like to work creatively with her most famous novel?
RP: Honestly, it felt natural – as if I had been preparing for precisely this kind of creative project throughout my many years of working on Wiseman. My interest in Wiseman and my poetic voice emerged at around the same time in my life, so it feels appropriate that they are joined in this project.
AG: What were your goals for this book?
RP: I wanted to pay homage to a character who had taken hold of my imagination and had become a literary companion. One way to do so, I thought, would be to try to give Hoda a first-person voice. You see, Crackpot is written in the third-person and, even though the narrative is closely aligned with Hoda’s perspective, she does not speak for herself. I wanted to try to imagine what it might have been like to live through the hardships and challenges she faced. I wanted to enter the inner life of this remarkable character, to imagine her feelings, her strength, her reliance. In fact, I felt called to do so. So, I’ve tried to write a book-length poem that is true to my idea of Hoda, unites lyric and image, and is beautiful to read.
AG: What was it like taking on tough/sweet/fearless Hoda?
RP: Since I wanted to get her “right,” I tried to “enter” Hoda’s world. I reread Crackpot for the umpteenth time. I visited the Archives of Manitoba, the City of Winnipeg Archives, the University of Manitoba’s Archives and Special Collections, and the Jewish Heritage of Western Canada, where I conducted research into Jewish Winnipeg and studied photographs of Jewish life in the city’s North End. I retraced Hoda’s steps by visiting the North End. Today’s North End is very different from Hoda’s North End, but there are sights, landmarks, and street corners where her spirit lingers. I needed to prepare myself because I knew I was about to touch Hoda’s suffering soul and that would be difficult. But it was also moving to be able to share in her trials and exhilarating to be able to give her a voice.
AG: Radiant Shards is your third collection of poetry and fourteenth book. What have you learned about your process so far or do you have a new process for every project?
RP: Since I am a poet, an editor, and a scholar, process largely depends on which hat I am wearing – although research informs all my projects. My poetry mines my imagination and personal life, past and present. I write poems as they arise in my mind, then spend a lot of time revising individual poems and shaping a manuscript. My edited collections of letters, poems, and prose have required a deep grasp of original materials and immersion in each project. As an editor, I determine how best to either select or collect and then assemble materials, and what sort of apparatus might be needed to assist readers. My monographs are always based on extensive archival research and interviews. I tend to present papers at academic conferences, revise and rework those papers into book chapters, and continually revise each monograph until the moment of submission. Truly, I never feel as if any book is “finished.” I could continue tinkering forever, but that’s impractical.
AG: Tell me about the other book you released this year, The New Spice Box: Contemporary Jewish Writing?
RP: The New Spice Box is an anthology of short fiction, personal essays, and poetry by Jewish writers from a broad range of cultural backgrounds. Much of the work in the collection is recent and reflects a diversity of experience and voice. It features stories by David Bezmozgis, Mireille Silcoff, and Ayelet Tsabari; excerpts from memoirs by Bernice Eisenstein and Alison Pick; and poems by Isa Milman, Jacob Scheier, and Adam Sol. The materials I selected for The New Spice Box are contemporary in focus and show that Jewish literary tradition, Jewish experience, and Jewish identity can be expressed in innumerable ways.
AG: What was it like launching two books during the pandemic?
RP: It’s been unusual, to say the least. Radiant Shards was published in April, right at the start of the pandemic. First, I had to learn how to use online platforms and then I had to get used to participating in online events. In April, I took part in #CanadaPerforms, co-sponsored by the National Arts Centre and Facebook Canada. In June, I video-recorded a reading for my publisher, Inanna Publications. I also participated in a launch that was co-sponsored by Inanna and Toronto Lit-Up, part of the International Festival of Authors.
By September, when The New Spice Box was published, I was a veteran “Zoomer.” And since I knew everything was going to be online, I was much better prepared. In December, I video-recorded interviews for Concordia University’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies and the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies, and I hosted a celebration of the book – to coincide with Chanukah – sponsored by Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple.
In February 2021, Winnipeg’s Jewish Heritage Centre will be holding an event for Radiant Shards. In April 2021, as part of National Poetry Month, The New Spice Box will be officially launched at Toronto’s Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, and I will be giving a talk about the anthology to York University’s Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies.
It’s been disappointing not to be able to share my work with live audiences, but the digital reach is potentially wide and I’m grateful to be able to connect online.
AG: What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
RP: I’ve just finished reading the memoir Borders and Belonging by Mira Sucharov, another native Winnipegger. It’s a personal and political coming-of-age narrative. And I’m working on a new book of poems. These poems draw on my own life and experience, so right now I’m not channeling anyone’s voice but my own.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg/Treaty 1-based author. Her first two collections of poetry each won the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry at the Manitoba Book Awards. Her latest books are Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forest (Wolsak & Wynn, 2019) and TreeTalk (At Bay Press, 2020), a public poetry project that involves hanging poems in trees.
Ruth Panofsky is an award-winning poet who lives and writes in Toronto, where she teaches Canadian Literature and Culture at Ryerson University. Panofsky has become the authority on the history of publishing / authorship in Canada and Canadian Jewish literature. She has further specialized on the Macmillan Company of Canada and novelist Adele Wiseman, resulting in books like The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman (2006) and The Literary Legacy of the Macmillan Company of Canada: Making Books and Mapping Culture (2012). Her second collection of poetry, Laike and Nahum: A Poem in Two Voices, received the Helen and Stan Vine Canadian Jewish Book Award and she received a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Award for Radiant Shards.