Quatrain Questions: Ella Zeltserman

Ella Zeltserman chats about exile and toska in this Quatrain Question interview.

Your first collection, small things left behind (University of Alberta Press) dealt with the very personal story of your flight from the former Soviet Union decades before. Here in The Air is Elastic, you continue to examine themes of exile and expulsion, this time, about others. What is it about the idea of flight from one’s home that keeps you coming back to it?

I am in tune with the condition of exile. I am an immigrant myself and experience the emotions of leaving everything that one knows behind. It’s usually a gambit of feelings all mixed up. It could be happiness and sadness, feelings of loss and hope at the same time. Exile can come in various guises: it could be forced or voluntary, like refugees fleeing a war-torn country, or a young adult leaving home and just moving to a different city.  They may experience similar emotions of loss, of a disappearing past, of the fragility of human life, despite vastly different circumstances leading to their exile. One of the strongest reactions I had to my poem “release” was from a woman who, in her youth, moved from a small town in Saskatchewan to Edmonton. She completely identified with the sense of losing one’s parents forever that I explore in my poem.   

Looking at exile from perspective of human emotions, it’s one of the most common human experiences. In some ways we are nomads; we move, in our day and age, more than ever. It used to be wars, natural disaster, religious persecution that forced us on a road. Now we move often to find a better job, to live in a more exciting city, to join a loved one.  Unfortunately, wars, natural and man-made disasters, religious and racial persecutions are still with us. As such, the feelings generated by an exile are always with us.

In my book The Air Is Elastic, I talk about historical exile, about expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. In my travels through Spain, being in towns from which Jewish life was erased, I identify with exiles, with the past which is no more.  The truths of my own experience become interwoven with theirs, the historical becomes the present and sufferings of one minority group become universal, and speak to all of us.

Tell us about toska, and its timeliness. You preface your latest collection with its definition. How does this quality feed your creativity?

Toska is a somewhat quintessential Russian feeling. It is a part of culture, part of everyday experiences, part of ordinary conversations.

It is the recognition of the impossibility of reaching perfection, desires, and happiness. It is the recognition of longing as part of human life; longing for youth, for love, for a past, for a person. Often a longing is for something beyond our daily experience, beyond accessible reality, longing that we can’t identify, and such longing is insatiable. I, like any human being, experience these feelings at different moments in my life and these emotions feed my poetry. Poems reflect these insatiable longings, these unappeasable heartaches.  And in some way, to be human is to experience toska.

You have several longer sequences in The Air is Elastic. What is it about a topic that makes you want to structurally explore its themes over a longer form?air is elastic9780888016331

I like the long poem form. It allows me to explore different facets of the same event or feeling. Certain topics, like twilight, have fascinated me since my early youth and I keep writing about it. In some ways, it’s an atmospheric event, but at the same time it’s an emotional event ─ my reaction to the end of the day. This repetitive, predictable daily event brings forth a myriad of feelings; some are complimentary, some are contradictory—separate from each other, but one whole at the same time. The long poem is a perfect vehicle to explore that whole gamut of emotions hidden in this one daily occurrence.

To write a long poem is like turning a brilliantly cut diamond, where each cut reflects light independently, but at the same time, creates the whole diamond effect from one piece of stone.

Brodksy makes 4 appearances in your collection. What is it about his work you find inspiring?

The presence of Josef Brodsky in my poems is merely a reflection of his presence in my life. His words support me, they resonate in my soul with a profound effect.

There is a commonality of experience. Brodsky was born and grew up in Leningrad /St. Petersburg, did not accept Soviet ideology, emigrated from USSR, and wrote poetry where the major themes are exile, disappearance of past, time, death, toska. It is a poetic landscape close to my own, written on a canvas of familiar cultural lamp posts.

His life is an inspiration to me. He rose above the predicaments of an exiled poet. The Soviet Government forcing him into exile fully expected him to disappear into nothingness.

It is a testament of his strength as a human being and a poet that he built a new life in a new world, that his poetic voice not only didn’t die (as KGB fully expected), but blossomed, despite limitations of language, and rose high enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

He wrote poetry in Russian and essays in English, mastering the language to perfection, and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his essays. I read and reread his essays at different points of my life.

He gave countless interviews during his short life. His comments on the events of his life, on literature, culture, place of poetry in our lives, his insights into human condition, all of this fascinates me, giving endless food to my thinking.

He is simply one of the poets (A. Akhmatova is another one) with whom I have had a lifelong, fascinating conversation.