'Elephant' Woman Meets 'Elephant' Man

Laura Albert in Conversation With Poet Kenneth Sherman

Alexandra Dean Grossi

By Laura Albert

Published December 26, 2012.
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Why was literature so important?

I came from a dysfunctional middle-class family. Reading and writing were godsends. They comforted me in my aloneness. They confirmed my innermost feelings. I’m not sure I would have survived the maddening tensions of my household without the grace of literature.

Did your family support your being a writer?

No. My family prized materialism and was suspicious of art. My parents feared openness and emotional honesty. Serious writing tries to get at the underlying truths and so they felt threatened by my interest. And of course there was the issue of livelihood. They worried for my future. In this they were right. Most artists struggle financially. It’s quite a trick to pursue one’s art and still make a living.

How did you find your “voice”?

There are young writers who immediately find they have a voice. Others struggle to see it emerge. For some it is a complex process. The Montreal Jewish poet Irving Layton, who had mentored Leonard Cohen, came to teach in Toronto and I was fortunate to study with him and become his friend. He was brash, opinionated and controversial. Imagine Norman Mailer as a poet. Layton’s voice was loud and satiric. My first two books reflect his influence. But with my third book, “Words for Elephant Man,” I discovered my personal voice. It was a voice given to irony and understatement. Sometimes brushing up against a strong influence such as Layton helps you find your way.

Why do you think so many Jews are attracted to and thrive in the arts? Especially with the drive our grandparents and parents had for economic security?

We are a people taught to revere creativity and affirm life. Our God is above all else a supreme creator. There are sections of the Bible that deal with the law and there are parts that are strictly narrative, but much of the Bible is poetry — the greatest poetry ever written. To read the book of Genesis in the original Hebrew is a mind-blowing experience. With the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, the Jewish poets set a standard for lyric poetry that is difficult to surpass. Proverbs is tremendous epigrammatic poetry.


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