By Kelsey Block
The RCAH Center for Poetry welcomed Canadian Poet and Memoirist George Ellenbogen to East Lansing last week. During his visit, Ellenbogen visited several classes, conducted workshops, and gave readings of his work.
Ellenbogen studied as an undergraduate at McGill University. He said he had begun working toward his Master of Arts degree when he realized his heart just wasn’t in it.
“I was bored out of my skull. I told my folks I was going to drop out of school, that I was going up to the arctic the next day and that I was going to become a poet,” Ellenbogen said. “I was up there for six months. I would work any job that paid. When I’d saved enough money, I’d quit, and write until I ran out of money.”
Ellenbogen said he eventually obtained his Master of Arts degree from Universite de Montreal. After he became a father, Ellenbogen decided that his on-the-fly lifestyle wasn’t sustainable enough to raise a family, so he began teaching at Bentley University.
“At some point, when I thought, ‘How am I going to earn my living?’” he said. “I thought, ‘Hey, they pay you for talking about books that you like, about poems that you like? I would do that for free!’”
He said he didn’t have a specific moment of inspiration – he simply always knew he wanted to be a writer.
“Sometimes in retrospect you can look back and say: ‘This is what motivated me to choose,’” the 78-year-old writer said. “The fact is there have probably been tons of things that I wanted to do. Clearly there’s a satisfaction in writing. There really is a satisfaction in putting something into our time and space which wasn’t there before. Imagine what it’s like to create the earth.”
Ellenbogen said the writing process is all about stages. He said he generally works with anywhere from six to twelve drafts at a time.
“The idea is to keep pushing them ahead,” the Montreal native said. “Then when I’m working new things will come.”
When he’s finished with a poem, Ellenbogen said it’s important for him to change roles – from writer to editor.
“I’m no longer George Ellenbogen, the writer; I’m George Ellenbogen, the reader of my own poem. The idea is to be able to work at your own work objectively,” Ellenbogen stated. “Making changes should not be a personal thing … When you’re writing you’re so vulnerable, you put yourself out there. It’s important to develop that toughness of skin that allows you to weather criticism and reach the point where you aren’t defensive about it.”
A Stone in My Shoe is Ellenbogen’s first foray into memoir – he says he’s primarily a poet.
“I try to remember hard. You know, ‘What are the things that come up when I think about the past?” he said, bending over the table and gesturing with his hands to the shadows underneath it. “I can’t see it, basically, but it’s like there are these prisms that reflect. It’s through associations that I know my past.”
While travel has been influential in his work, Ellenbogen said he does not think it is absolutely necessary for a writer to travel.
“You read about places, and even if you don’t visit them with your feet, you visit them with your mind,” the poet said. “I don’t feel my world is limited to which borders I’ve crossed; I think it’s more than that. You read a lot and you enlarge your sensibility and you travel to places your feet have never been.”
Ellenbogen’s work has been translated into French and German.
“If you’re working with a loom, you’ve got to have an affection for the material, for the process,” Ellenbogen said. “Writers have to be activated by sounds, by words, by the visual aspect of words, the oral aspect, the intellectual aspect. If a person doesn’t have that, he’s not a writer, and he should do something else.”
Ellenbogen even offered up some advice for aspiring writers.
“Don’t get discouraged,” he said. “Stick with it. It’s a tough business. You put yourself out there. There are always people out there to say discouraging things, people to put you down. It’s very important to develop a mental toughness that enables you to grow.”