Checking In: With Rona Shaffran

Rona Shaffran was a key organizer at Tree reading Series back when it was in Arts Court, Ottawa. She was in Chromatic Beliefs, and A Wall’s Sharp White, two outcomes of the Tree Masterclasses, and Barely Their in 2010, also a phafours press chapbook, and of course, her poetry collection.

PP: I remember that we tried to connect for an interview when your first poetry collection came out. Can you tell us now about it? 

Ignite by Rona Shaffran


Ignite,
 published in 2013 by Signature Editions, examines the life of one couple, but, at the same time, evokes universal experiences that we can all share. It’s a book length series of poems that tell a story in four voices – the woman’s, the man’s, an omniscient observer, and ‘we’ or ‘us’. Ignite was consistently well-reviewed. Here are excerpts from two of the reviews. The others are on my website http://www.ronashaffran.ca

“For Rona Shaffran, the ground beneath her feet is important. The linked poems in this collection present some of the most honest and true poetry I have read recently. Ignite opens with a sequence of poems bathed in mid-winter light. The heat in a relationship between a man and woman has gone cold, emotionally and sexually. Its dying embers are described clearly… While reading these lines, just for a moment, I thought I heard echoes of Sexton talking to Roethke.

But the voice here is Shaffran’s own, speaking the naked truth… This is daring, high-wire poetry that requires perfect balance between the female and male personas. This balance and credibility in a dialogue between two voices is difficult to achieve convincingly, yet in Shaffran’s hands, it appears to be easy— it isn’t.

The third and final section of Ignite is the shortest and one of the strongest in this noteworthy collection of poems. The epigraphs in Ignite quote the mid-20th century poets Anne Sexton, Theodore Roethke, and Wallace Stevens. Sexton’s work was deeply personal and sometimes troubled. Roethke’s distinctive poetry, such as “In a Dark Time,” was also troubled. And Stevens’ was brilliant and often cool. The best of these influences and a number of others are apparent in the sometimes cool and hot bursts in Ignite.”

Review in Vallum Magazine, 10:2, Reflections, by James Edward Reid, who publishes in The Sarmatian Review, Vallum, the Pacific Rim Review of Books, Prairie Fire, Highgrader Magazine, Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim, and The Guardian.

“In her debut collection, Ignite, Rona Shaffran explores the subject of marital alienation with spare, muscular lines and startlingly original imagery. Heartache and despair are nothing new to poetry; indeed, poets Sharon Olds and Carol Ann Duffy have both recently written major works charting the end of a great love. What Shaffran writes, though, is something new and unexpected, something I have not seen in any collection. Without giving away the mysterious transformation in Ignite, let me simply say that this is a profoundly hopeful book for all who have stood on the abyss of a love affair and looked down. I would have liked to see a poetic investigation of such passionate transformations that extended beyond the personal, the mysterious and the miraculous (as finely wrought as these poems are). I wanted the author’s insight; is this something that all great loves must pass through, either surviving it or being shattered by it? But perhaps the author’s refusal is her own answer; Shaffran insists on an unflinching examination of a particular life, and it is up to her readers to draw their own conclusions about the universal. Shaffran’s is a passionate and powerful new voice in Canadian poetry.”

Review by Rachel Rose, author of three collections of poetry, as well as essays and short stories, has been published in literary magazines and anthologies in Canada and the United States. She has won the Bronwen Wallace Award for fiction, the Quebec Writers Federation A.M. Klein Award for Poetry, the Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry. She is poetry and lyric prose mentor in The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University.

PP: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

RS: I was born and raised in Montreal and have lived in beautiful Ottawa since 1974.  I co-directed two Ottawa poetry reading series, Tree and RailRoad, organized Tree’s Master Poetry Workshops at the time, and helped run VERSeFest in its early days. In my working years, I was a Director at the Auditor General of Canada, investigating government’s effectiveness.

PP: How could I forget Railroad. What’s life’s focus these days, literary or otherwise?

RS: On the literary front, I’m still writing poetry,  but on very different subjects than in Ignite, including poems about loss and healing, spiritual connection and ties to the land. And, I’m writing a novel., which has given me a whole new appreciation of the intensity of poetry’s compression. At the same time, I’m fascinated by the expansion of ideas in fiction. 

Other than writing, I’m driving around the countryside with Brian in our red convertible on gorgeous little-known back roads. Like floating through space on a magic carpet. 

I love to travel, but COVID stomped on that. I hope soon we can travel feely again, with no worries. 

PP: What is in the works?

RS: Writing this novel is interesting and tough, because it deals at a deep level with a woman’s psychogical transformation.  The challenge is to show that internal journey while also moving forward the external action of the plot. 

PP: That’s important to balance.

RS: I’m also in the early stages of putting together a new poetry collection, but probably won’t get too much further on it till I finish this draft of the novel, hopefully in a few months. 

PP: I’m the reverse and the same. Trying to finish collections before I get dug back into my novel. Glad the poetry bug is still biting you. Anything upcoming or recent that I missed?

RS: I’ve had a couple of on-line readings this year. You can find one of them at https://limmudottawa.ca/limmud-ottawa-2021/shira-tzefonit/

And the other was for the National Capital Region Writing Contest, where I won Honourable Mention for a pantoum called The Question. What a brain teaser that pantoum was to write – an obsession till I got the words right!

PP: Congratulations. Look forward to seeing more.

RS: Pearl, thanks so much for this chat. I really enjoyed it.