Sound and Sight: Karen Shenfeld

In the hands of a master poet, words become pliable, syntax malleable, and imagery juxtaposed, concentrating the mind like a still forest pool into which a single pebble falls, the ripples resplendent with silence and understanding.

Karen Shenfeld has been writing poetry and prose her whole adult life. With four books of published poetry, countless magazine articles and reviews, and three documentary films, Shenfeld has immersed herself in an art form that few dare to explore. Her poetry by Ella is compelling and provocative, alluring, and deeply touching. She delves thoroughly into the relationships of family, loved ones, and the astounding impressions she gathers from her extensive world travels.

Growing up in an upper Bathurst neighborhood in Toronto, Shenfeld marveled at the diversity of cultures and the variety of people that she intermingled with, a characteristic trait of many who later in life become itinerant travellers.

From her earliest recollections, she fell in love with language and writing. “I think I write about my childhood because that’s intertwined with my Jewish identity and I guess the first poetry that I read was really at Hebrew school when we were reading the Old Testament. And I still find the language and cadence of the Old Testament to be of great beauty and of great power, and of great mystical resonance and transcendence.”

Enamored by the mystery of poetry and its power to communicate refined impressions directly, astonishingly, to a reader’s inner sanctum, Shenfeld followed her passion to York University and studied with renowned Canadian poet Irving Layton. Layton was a “thrilling teacher” who espoused the philosophy that poets are prophets, heralded in ancient cultures as destined to be divine conduits and spokespersons, pointing toward some truth unknown or perhaps some sound unheard.

A poet must find the skill to employ language—ordinary words—to speak directly to the heart, somehow bypassing so-called rational thought. It’s almost as if the poet twists words into another dialect—one that the Irish singer Van Morrison called “the inarticulate speech of the heart”.

“As a poet, I tend to be like Wordsworth, I tend not to write about things right in the moment but rather about things collected in tranquility, that can be transformed, in a way, by my imagination. I like for things to percolate and maybe, hopefully, write about things in a way that is more transcendent”, says Shenfeld.

William Wordsworth (April 7, 1770 – April 23, 1850) was an English Romantic poet who, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, helped to launch the Romantic Age in poetry.

Shenfeld published her first book of poetry, The Law of Return, in 1999 with Guernica Editions, which led to publication of two more books, The Fertile Crescent in 2005 and My Father’s Hands Spoke In Yiddish in 2010. She was awarded the Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry in 2001 for The Law of Return. Her poems received notice in countries throughout the world and many are included in well-known journals and anthologies.

Ekstasis Editions released her newest book To Measure the World in March 2020. Based in Victoria, BC, Ekstasis is highly regarded for their poetry publications. Changing publishers represents a major transition for Shenfeld as an author. In its multifaceted themes, she wrestles with the weight of the past and the frailties of human love.

Through most of her life, Shenfeld has been a relentless explorer, making incredible journeys through the Sahara desert, the Congo River, and India. Much of her poetry by her is inspired by such travels.

On The Isle of Wight by Karen Shenfeld

A kind of dyslexia
or ODD, perhaps:
You read the map,
plug in the GPS Then,
without fail, steer
left instead of right.
Right instead of left.
Or circle round

the only round about
as if we have all day.
“But we do,” you say.
“Never mind,” you say.

“The Needles to Bembridge
is close as A to B.
On the IOW,
we can’t stray far away.

“Don’t be cross, my love;
it’s plain, there’s no wrong way.
If we miss the road,
we’ll take the little lane.”

desde To Measure the World, © Karen Shenfeld, 2021

Hear Karen read this poem:

“I had a long-standing connection with Muskoka because, like many nice Jewish girls from Toronto, we are sent as children to summer camp. I actually attended summer camp for the entire summer from the ages of 12 to 19. So those are very formative years and I loved camp and I definitely got an attachment to the landscape, the lakes, the forests, the trees—the iconic things about Muskoka. And I definitely remember that even from the time I was twelve, when summer would end, and after eight/nine weeks I’d have to go home, I would just be bawling my eyes out, all the way home on the camp bus, ” says Shenfeld of her long love affair with Huntsville and its surroundings.

Seven years ago, Shenfeld and her partner Jim McCuaig, an accomplished guitarist and songwriter as well as a kindred traveler himself, settled in Magnetawan where, as Shenfeld might say, the stars are ever just as bright as one could imagine.

Poetry is an art that strips a moment down to its essence, takes the pure impulse of time and space, heartbeat and breath, and adds insight. Karen Shenfeld is a lifelong craftsperson and a recognized master. Find her books by her and spend some time with the phrases she works so hard to transport your inner eye to, the beauty that surrounds us in everything we see, touch, and feel.

Listen to Karen Shenfeld read “Hamman” from The Fertile Crescent::

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