Alisha Kaplan is a Canadian poet and narrative medicine practitioner. She has an MFA in Poetry from New York University and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. Kaplan is on the Narrative-Based Medicine Team at the University of Toronto and is a workshop facilitator with the Writers Collective of Canada. Her writing has appeared in Fence, DIAGRAM, PRISM International, Carousel, The New Quarterly, and elsewhere. Honours she has received include the Hippocrates Prize in Poetry and Medicine, a Rona Jaffe Fellowship, and winning the Eden Mills Writers Festival Literary Contest. Her debut collection of poems, Qorbanot: Offerings, a collaboration with artist Tobi Kahn, is the winner of the Gerald Lampert Memorial Prize from the League of Canadian Poets. Kaplan splits her time between Toronto, New York, and Bela Farm where she grows garlic, harvests honey and wild plant medicine, and hosts barn dances.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I may need a few more years to properly answer that question. From my current position in time, I can see that writing my book helped me to process much of the guilt, shame, and anger I had held onto from my religious upbringing and generational trauma from the Holocaust. It was a real journey that took me to a place where I realized I could create my own rituals and write my own prayers (which poems can be, and often are).
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I wrote a lot of (terrible) poetry as a kid and angsty teen. In undergrad, when I began to consider a writing career, I actually wrote more prose poetry and short stories than poetry. But from the beginning, I was a poet first.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It’s a snail-paced process. Draft after draft after draft. Sometimes a writing project takes shape in my mind before it touches down on paper. Sometimes the paper gives it shape. Then I need to live with the lines, turn them over on my tongue, leave them be and return to them.
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I like having projects. Though, I might have a notion of what a project is going to be, and it ends up roving in an unexpected direction or revealing itself as something else. My writing process is a bit unusual; I can best describe it as “foraging.” I like to gather from different sources—sometimes my own, sometimes others’—and collage it all into a poem or longer work. I rarely have a poem in my mind that I then linearly write. I move around the lines or the pieces like a puzzle.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Despite being shy, I do enjoy doing readings—if I’m in the right emotional state. For instance, when my book came out, I was feeling very vulnerable about it and found myself wanting to retreat into the darkest corner rather than get up on a stage. Now, a year later, I feel the pull to share my work face to face, in real time and space. I also love collaborating with musicians, dancers, and artists in performance.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Prevailing concerns I have are: What do we hear in the silence? And how do the words live off the page?
Some of the questions I worked to answer in Qorbanot were: What does it mean to “offer”? How do I translate the ancient practice of sacrificial offering into my life in the 21st century? How can a poem be an offering, or a book an altar upon which I place what I have to give? What does it mean to write one’s own sacred texts? What is it about giving up something that makes it a meaningful act of worship? Why the obsession with purity laws in Judaism, and how has this affected the way we relate to animal bodies and our own bodies? How do we reconcile these ancient, fleshly, violent rituals with Judaism and, more broadly, Western religion today? Do humans have an inherent tendency toward violence? Can we find parallels to sacrifice in recent history, such as war, politics or environmental issues?
The main question currently occupying my writer’s mind is: How can we find more language around suicide to better express its nuances, complexities, and diverse motivations? I’ve also been contemplating the relationship between depression and anger. And I’ve been grappling with how to share my story in a way that serves as a resource for others and, at the same time, protects my own vulnerability.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I don’t think the writer has one role. There are so many different kinds of writers with different roles they can take on. A writer can serve as a lighthouse illuminating the moment in which we are living. The writer can be a dreamer, a prophet. The writer can be a court jester. The writer can offer medicine. And some writers have a role for themselves alone, to which the rest of the world is not privy.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential. A good editor can see what I can’t, from over there.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I try to keep in mind this line from the poem “How to Be Perfect” by Ron Padgett: “Hope for everything. Expect nothing.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories)? What do you see as the appeal?
These days I’m moving more between poetry and non-fiction, and I find that the writing takes on the form that it needs to be in.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
These days there is no typical day. When I am in more of a routine, which I like to be, I usually begin with a workout or yoga and meditation. Then, before I turn on my phone, look at my email, and let the demands of the day flood in, I sit with a cup of tea in my favourite cafe and write until my brain hurts.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I find that conversations or workshops with friends and fellow poets best helps to unstick my writing. And movement—going for a walk does wonders, especially somewhere full of trees and plants. Or total stillness—I like lying on the floor. It grounds all that cerebral work and offers a new perspective. A solution tends to arrive in one of those situations.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Depends on the season. Depends on the home. At the moment, it’s beeswax.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Most definitely nature, which includes all of the above. I get a lot of inspiration from weeds, bees, trees, and soil. I spend as much time as I can on my farm, Bela Farm, which is now bursting with colour, song, scents, and creativity. The other day I was picking tiny wild strawberries that grow all over the farm, and fragments of a poem grew in my head as I crawled on my knees through the grass, searching for berries.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Today, they include: Anne Carson. Rosemary Tonks. Louise Glück. Sylvia Plath. Kavanagh and Heaney. Ada Limón. Basho and Buson. Sappho. Blake. H.D. The list is, of course, much longer. And the truth is, probably more than those giants, the writers who are most important for my work and my life are my poet friends, who constantly inspire.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to write a book-length poem. I want to create a support system for women with mysterious chronic illnesses and to build the field of Environmental Narrative Medicine. I want to be a mother. And I’d like to be the bassist in a moderately famous rock band.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
If I hadn’t become a writer, I might have ended up being a psychiatrist or a midwife. Or a farmer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It was what I was drawn to, again and again.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The best book I have read this year—maybe in years—is When We Cease to Understand the World by Chilean writer Benjamín Labatut.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a lyric essay about suicide—a search for better language for suicide. It’s a hybrid of prose, poetry, and image that intertwines Kurt Cobain’s story with mine.