Isa Milman’s Prairie Kaddish (Coteau 2008) is a creative documentation and voyage into the historical lives of Jewish settlers. What began at a graveyard near Lipton, Saskatchewan, unfolds as a narrative exploration of identity and the human condition. The confluence of immigrants alongside residing First Nations Peoples resonates through the lens of the contemporary visitor. The montage of various traditions overlaps into a book that works as a house to contain the memories, and as prayer to honour those that built and rebuilt their lives while struggling to survive before and after the prairies.
In the year I said Kaddish for my father, my mother asked me to design his tombstone. It would be simple, modest in decoration, but would record these essential facts: Eliyahu, his Hebrew name; the names of his parents, Yisroel, the Cohen, and Esther Leah Lewin; the place and dates that he entered and left his world
1. In the introduction to the poems, you suggest that you were a different person before you wrote Prairie Kaddish. In what ways did writing this book change you?
The most significant change was my appreciation of continuity in Jewish experience, and where I fit in the collective story. History came alive for me in an indescribable way. What was remote and inert became vibrant, present, and connected. Like a giant quilt that unfolded, I could see the whole thing for the first time, whereas before, I only saw one scrap of it. Beyond Jewish history, I learned about the history of Canada, developed an appreciation of the Native people and their experience, and had truly healing moments, through my relationship with Father Martin, in the realm of Jewish-Christian relations. My love of Yiddish came alive, along with the desire to speak it, read it, and write it. And I got especially close to my mother, as the book was an enormous gift to her and her beloveds—in a sense I spoke for her, in the language she didn’t have, and told her truths, which needed to be told. One of my biggest regrets is that she didn’t live to hold the book in her hands, and get the nakhes (a wonderful Jewish word, more than satisfaction, usually related to pride) of its acclaim.
2. Poet Carl Phillips believes that “the truest poetry speaks to us not as documentation—which is the business of prose—but as confirmation—echo.” Do you agree or disagree? Why or why not?
I’m not sure that documentation is solely the business of prose. What is story telling? Does it not echo as well? I’ve developed a far more elastic approach to language, through the writing of Prairie Kaddish, and I credit Don McKay for this. Early on, he asked me why I chose poetry as the form to tell this story, and he gave me permission to use prose too. He gave me a graphic appreciation—drawing a cross of X and Y axes. The long horizontal he called prose, the vertical drop, poetry. It was really a graphic of time, in the form of narrative. Sentences traveled along the X, poetry was tighter, more of the moment. I took it all, the long and narrow, and played on the page. It was liberating, and served me very well for what I was trying to accomplish—
3. Our instinct as humans is to try to rationalize experience. How did you begin to makes sense of the varying experiences in the book? Do you see your poetry as continuing shared traditions of human experience (such as the grave house as a book of poems)?
Your question here is so pertinent, in my mind, to the work of poetry—it’s expressing the universal human experience that’s the territory of the best, most effective poetry. Even though the story is particular and specific, it’s the recognition that we find, and relate to in the deepest sense, that makes poetry work. It was a great challenge to speak, often in a foreign language, and yet convey some universal truths. In a sense, finding the relationship between the Cree grave houses and the Jewish ones was a redemptive experience. It spoke to those huge forces at work, forces that most often we don’t recognize, even when they’re right in front of our faces. As an immigrant, transplanted from one foreign-ness, and another, and another; from a tribe of oppressed and near annihilated people, I found connections, and began to understand the necessity of forgiveness, and loving kindness as the fundamental work of repair.
4. How important was the montage of poetic form, combining subliterary text with differing traditions, to tell this story?
If you’re referring to the historical materials I incorporated into the work—fragments of letters, ledger pages, pamphlets, etc. I’d say they were as important as bones are important. The ‘frequently asked questions’ section worked so well because we gained the original premise of the immigration, and it was like scaffolding to flesh out the stories, and have fun with them. That the original Yiddish was there to use was also extremely important, and being able to reproduce it just thrills me.
5. The immigrant experience is very much a human one, of suffering and alienation. Do you see the poetry as mediation, or as witness to this experience?
I like to think that my poetry moved beyond witnessing to mediation of the suffering and alienation of the immigrant experience. I was very moved by the memoirs and accounts that I read, particularly in the joy of liberation from oppression, and survival by the work of one’s own hands, and in community. It was revelatory.
6. In your book, you address a specific point in history and the poems resonate with many people’s history. Did the research appear daunting, or as an integral part of the writing process? Did you find that writing the language of prayer/poetry/identity provided you with a spiritual journey of your own?
I absolutely loved the research, both on the ground– seeking out the sites, the geography, and the witnesses who shared their memories, as well as the time I spent in the archives, digging up these treasures I had no idea existed. Hurray for all those who save the relics, papers, photos, ephemera. I think I would have been happy as an historian, if I had chosen that profession. I’ve always had a reverence for what’s left behind—most likely because I was born into a family that had virtually nothing that survived.
7. Who would you consider your influences in poetry? Which poets do you read on a regular basis?
A tough question to answer. So many poets have influenced me, and certain poems have had tremendous resonance for me. Allen Ginsberg, Yehuda Amichai, Paul Celan, Sharon Olds, Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, Don McKay, Jane Kenyon have all caused me to shiver in appreciation and awe, and I’m leaving many others out.
8. How did you begin to write poetry? Did you have any mentors that helped you or that continue to provide you with ongoing support in your writing?
I began writing at university, but never took it seriously, nor developed a craft. Years later, after my marriage broke up, and my children were young, I began to write to console myself, escape into a place where I could create, stretch, and play with language. I found a similar release and excitement with visual language, and worked to create images, through painting and works on paper. I had very little time to work in a sustained way. My move to Victoria liberated me from a full-time job, so for the first time since I was a young woman, I was able to apply myself. I didn’t know the wealth of the writing community I’d landed in—in a sense I hit the jackpot as far as mentoring goes. My most significant mentors are Patrick Lane, one of Canada’s most brilliant and generous teachers; Don McKay, equally gifted, and Anne Simpson, a gorgeous poet who is also an excellent mentor. I’m also part of a great poetry group—we give each other lots of support and ideas.
9. Could you describe a bit of your writing process? Do you seclude yourself to write, or do your words thrive in a noisy cafe?
I have a beautiful study where I sit myself down to write, from time to time. I compose on my laptop—there’s something very clean and easy about it— I’m very messy when writing on paper—I’m not a fluent writer, but start, wipe out, start again.
10. What are your future writing plans? Do you have any projects/manuscripts on the go?
Lately I haven’t been writing much at all, and don’t know what my next project will be. It’s the fallow period. I’m also spending much time on promotion—which publishers don’t have time nor means to do. I’m thinking of trying my hand at prose—a memoir perhaps, something non-fiction. I’m opening myself to the next project—after 5 years on Prairie Kaddish, I’m ready to find the next thing. Maybe it’s staring me in the face.