Ms Elias was born in Korea, abandoned by her mother there, and subsequently adopted to America, where she married the late physicist Vic Elias. Raising four children in London, Ms Elias has also, for her 25 years here, been a member of the Sheila Martindale poetry workshop, which includes some of the best poets of the area, including John Tyndall, who was our featured poet in January, and David J. Paul who will read on June 5th. She is also a playwright.
For a sample of her poems, see: Seven Poems by D’vorah Elias.
(Editor: I’ve read the latest book by most of our featured poets so far, in preparation for their interviews, and, as an amateur poet, have been privileged to learn from all of them. Some have affected me, personally, more than others have. If I sound in my questions to Ms Elias more effusive than I have in other interviews, please take that with a grain of salt. Her poetry happens to suit me. Another poet would suit a different interviewer better. If only we had as many interviewers as interviewees, life would be a breeze! ....Stan Burfield, Poetry Night organizer.)
SB: The biggest emotional traumas in your life had a huge influence on your poetry. What were they? Did you have relatively happy interludes?
DE: I think the biggest trauma I suffered in my life was being abandoned as an infant by my biological mother. So much more is known today about the
The deaths of both my husband and my father were very traumatic for me. In the case of Vic, watching someone who was a very physically fit and vibrant man literally fade away to nothing from cancer was terrible. My father had been ill for about three years following a stroke. I took his death pretty hard because even though I had grown up with him, I never really knew him. We were only starting to get to know each other when he passed away.
SB: How would you describe your journey through different religious faiths from earliest recollections until now?
DE: I grew up Catholic but religion never played much of a role in my family. Yes, we celebrated Christmas and we almost always went to midnight mass but that was about it. My father had been raised in a traditional Japanese family as a Buddhist but religion was not very important to him. When he met my mother, who was a practicing Catholic and she asked him to convert so they could be married, he acquiesced, but I don’t think he ever really believed in the dogma of the faith.
When I was in high school I became very good friends with a boy named Bruce who also happened to be Jewish. He began to invite me to his house to celebrate certain Jewish holidays with him and his family. I attended many Passover seders at his home and began to become interested in the religion and began to study it. I finally went to meet with his rabbi to discuss the possibility of converting. He said I was too young and sent me away and said to come back in a year. I did. Again, the same response. So, at that point I decided that I would stop dating non-Jewish boys/men because I had decided that I wanted to live my life as a Jew so it made no sense to get romantically involved with someone who was not Jewish. A year or so later, I moved to Washington, DC and that’s where I met Vic, whom I later married. When he told me that he could not marry unless I was Jewish, I said, “This is a problem? I’ll convert.” So, I did and have been a practicing Jew ever since.
SB: When and why did you start writing poetry?
DE: I started writing poetry when I was a sophomore in high school because of the encouragement of a particular English teacher I had. He liked a lot of my creative writing pieces and suggested that I might enjoy writing some poetry. First I began to read some work by other poets. I read Robert Frost and Yeats, e.e. cummings and Rod McKuen. I remember also really liking the poetry of Bob Dylan and even Paul Simon. Even though they are song writers, I always thought their lyrics read like poetry. Gradually I began to start writing some of my own pieces, mostly as a way to deal with the tremendous amounts of teenage angst that I was trying to get through.
SB: What have been the biggest influences on your poetry over your life?
DE: I got involved with a writers’ workshop when we lived in Toronto through a continuing education class I took at a local college. One of the writers in the group was Pier Giorgio di Cicco who was a tremendous influence on my writing. I was also heavily influenced by the poetry of Roo Borson. Since moving to London, I joined what was initially known as The Creative Circus which was led by Marianne Micros. I am still a member of that group, though it no longer operates under that name and currently does not have a name, to the best of my knowledge. John Tyndall and John B. Lee are both members of that group and have been great influences on my writing. Their writing encourages me to strive to do my very best.
I have also been fairly influenced by Leonard Cohen of late. Especially his song lyrics.
SB: How has your poetry evolved?
DE: I think my poetry has evolved tremendously over the years. What started out as mostly an exercise in self-gratification has become works of great self-reflection and introspection. Writing really saved me during the two years that my husband was ill and dying. I’m not sure that most of the work I churned out during that time was such great poetry but writing definitely helped me keep things together as best I could. Most of my writing now is really a journey to help me try to understand myself better and get to know myself better. I’ve been trying to process many of the things that happened to me during my childhood.
SB: More than many poets I’ve read, your poems tend to combine a very expansive mind with intimate, personal content. The result is beautiful poetry that feels very alive. (For example 'Fireflies in a Jar’: poem #5). When you began moving away from your early writing “as an exercise in self-gratification”, did you try different poetic avenues? How did you reach the kind of writing you are doing now, which to me seems so pure? Did it take only a change in motivation, from self-gratification to self-reflection?
DE: I never experimented with different forms of writing and, in that regard, I think I am a very limited poet. Because my adoptive father was Japanese, at one time I thought I would try my hand at writing some haiku. It was an abysmal failure and I think that really discouraged me from attempting other forms of poetry. I think that my writing moved to a more introspective and self-reflective style because of all the therapy I’ve had over the years. I have really come to know myself very well because of it. Being in therapy has been the greatest gift I have ever received in my life because of that. So, I wouldn’t say that it was brought about by a change in motivation. More a change in my own perception of who I am and where I am going in my life if that makes any sense.
SB: Many of the poems in 'Ani’ look very closely into that pain and suffering you went through, and many look at yourself and the negative feelings you’ve had of yourself (for instance, 'Algonquin Park’, poem #2). Was it difficult to get yourself to do that? It would seem to be hard enough to look at your situation of living with a dying husband, but much harder to look at yourself when you had such loathing for yourself. Many people would simply want to distract themselves as much as possible. It must have taken a lot of strength. How did the writing save you? Did it distance you somehow from the problem?
DE: The poem “Algonquin Park” was written many years before Vic became ill. It was written at a time when I was very depressed. I actually ran away from home and got in my car and drove up to Algonquin Park for a few days just to get away from the chaos of my children and my married life. Later, my therapist told me that my writing was a form of “distraction” from the work I needed to do in therapy. He actually discouraged me a lot from writing. So, I guess you could say that my writing distanced me from my problems because when I would write I would tend to try to look at my problems from an analytical point of view instead of experiencing the feelings I was feeling. Writing that poem was not difficult, though. My writing saved me because it was the only way I could “experience” the pain I felt most of my life. Rather than allow myself to experience the pain in its totality, I would do just about anything to avoid it because I was always so afraid it would consume me. Writing about the way I was feeling was the only way I could process those intense feelings.
SB: Your poems deeply reflect a woman’s experience in life. I read one to my wife, who knows little of poetry, which begins, “Every woman is battered/tossed from stem to stern/by guilt...”. Her expressionless response was just, “She’s got that right.” Most of your poems come so strongly out of the feelings of a woman’s life in pain and turmoil that I’m very surprised that I, a typical man, can relate to them at all. Yet, just a few lines into any of your poems and I AM that woman. It’s been quite an incredible experience for me. Has this been a hope for you, or something you’ve striven for, that people very different from you could see your world through your eyes?
DE: This is not anything I have ever even remotely thought about or been aware I was trying to do. I think that when I've written poems I have just tried to convey the world as "I" see it, if that makes any sense. For example, my abandonment and subsequent adoption played a very heavy role in my development as a person and so many of the poems in Ani have to deal with that. Not because I want people to see the world through my eyes but because writing was the way I chose to process those experiences.
SB: Many, if not most, of your poems are multi-layered, like good poems in general. The ‘surface’ layer is always beautiful, precisely carved, in itself fulfilling to read, and often leaving one with an intuition or a feeling of mystery that is savoury in itself. Early on in my reading of the poems in ‘Ani’, I discovered what for me was a key: On my second reading of a poem, I would stop at the line or phrase or word that I hadn't gotten the first time around, that just seemed out of place, or sloppily edited. I would stop there because I knew you aren’t a sloppy editor, and so I would try very hard to figure out why you put that in. I analyzed like crazy. Then so often this would happen: I would suddenly realize there is only one reason it would be there, and if that was so, then... and if that was so, then... And suddenly the whole thing changes for me and what I have is not a simple layer, like I had in the first reading, but a whole, complex, alive situation, something too big to be described, but could only be pointed at. It’s like I untied a knot and in doing so a covering fell off of a dense, 3-D statue. It was thrilling. ... Okay, maybe in reality I’m just not a very perceptive reader. Others might see the full thing right from the beginning. But, at any rate, could you tell us something of your writing process? How do you get from A to B and back again, and why?
DE: I don’t think this is a conscious choice on my part. It’s just the way I tend to write. Unlike many other poets I know, I am not a writer who goes over my poems endlessly re-editing over and over again. Most of the poems in “Ani” are only second or third drafts. I think that I usually start with a general idea and try to figure out where I want to go with it. Then I’ll spend time trying to get to the feelings I experience when I think about the subject and then spend time trying to link the two. Most of my writing is not accompanied by a lot of poetic imagery. It tends to concentrate mostly on feelings that are evoked when I think about certain experiences. So, for me getting from A to B has more to do with how it “feels” than what it actually is. I don’t know if that makes much sense to you or not.
SB: What can we expect from you in the future?
DE: After my father died about 2 ½ years ago I found that every time I sat down at my computer to write, that I could not write anything but things about him. Vic and I took a trip to Hawaii with my parents about 12 years ago. My father had grown up there and I wanted to experience the islands with him and “see” them through his eyes. We spent three weeks there and it was the most remarkable trip imaginable. I have been working on a collection of poems about him and that trip and have about 17 finished. My father was always such an inscrutable enigma to me when I was a child and I thought that I didn’t know him at all. Writing these poems about him has informed me that I actually knew more about him than I ever realized. It’s been quite an interesting endeavour for me.
SB: When do you expect the new book might come out?
DE: I am hoping that my next book will be published by the middle of the summer. It will be published through an online publishing company called Smashwords.com and will be available as an e-book through Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com was terrible. My father had been ill for about three years following a stroke. I took his death pretty hard because even though I had grown up with him, I never really knew him. We were only starting to get to know each other when he passed away.