Local Author Spotlight: Alisha Kaplan

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Alisha Kaplan is a poet who splits her time between downtown Toronto and Bela Farm in Hillsburgh, Ontario. In the city, she facilitates creative writing workshops with the Toronto Writers Collective, studies in Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine Program, and teaches people in healthcare how poetry can help to improve quality of care. On the farm, Alisha grows garlic and flowers, harvests honey and wild plant medicine, and hosts barn dances.

Qorbanot: Offerings is described as, "A dynamic dialogue of poetry and art that reimagines the ancient, biblical concept of sacrifice." It is an interpretation of Leviticus through the pairing of poetry and art written and illustrated by two descendants of Holocaust survivors. In this interview, Alisha discusses the process of how Qorbanot came into being, as well as insight into her writing.

What would you say is the most exciting part of working on a book in collaboration with another person?

It’s the magic of what occurs when you place two separate things side by side—in this case, poetry and art. When my collaborator Tobi and I looked at his paintings next my poems, something powerful happened: they spoke to each other. The rich colours and organic shapes in the art reached across to the black-and-white text of the poem, and vice versa, drawing out and expanding their individual meanings in a kind of symbiotic relationship, a conversation. 

How do you think poetry can express things that prose cannot?

I think poetry is the closest we can get in words to that which is beyond words. Poetry isn’t tied to the same rules as prose, which allows for so much more expression of individual voice, with all of its texture, musicality, stumbling, and silence. Even the way that a poem inhabits the page—formal or scattered, short or long lines and where they break—can express different emotions and meanings. Poetry is a particularly intimate form of writing; I think it’s one of the nearest ways one can get to being inside someone else’s head and heart, to understanding thoughts and sensations that may not objectively “make sense.” Our cognitive processes, our imaginations, our memories of lived experiences, unlike sentences, aren’t always linear. Rilke said that poems are experiences. And this is especially true when they are read aloud (as they are best read), literally being embodied. Poet physician Raphael Campo thinks that “poetry is the most embodied and visceral expressive form in literature,” and I agree. There are things that only poetry can say, and that’s why humans have always needed to express themselves through it, from hunting poems in prehistoric Africa to spoken word today.

What in particular drew you to writing poetry?

I’m a quiet, introverted person with social anxiety, and ever since I was a child, poetry has felt like a natural way for me to share my inner world. I love the craft of it—the intense word play and attention to detail, how there can be weight to every word, every breath, even the smallest of marks like commas. At the same time, poetry has given me a way to express deep and expansive emotions I couldn’t otherwise articulate. I can say so much in just a few lines, a few words, even; or be expansive and take up pages. I also delight in the white or open space of the page, the silence, which can speak volumes. Oh, and the element of surprise—I end up in places I didn’t plan on and discover insights I didn’t know before I began the poem. It can be quite a journey.

In what ways did working on this book help you connect to the traditions you were raised with?

I grew up in the world of Modern Orthodox Judaism and, as an adult, grew distant from it. While working on another poem about menstruation, I returned to the book of Leviticus, which I hadn’t read in years. I found myself mesmerized by the descriptions of sacrificial offerings, which were detailed, obsessive, gory, and visceral. There was something about the ritualistic physicality and pagan nature of these offerings, quite different from how Judaism is practiced today, that fascinated me. On a literary level, I fell in love with the poetry, repetition, and strangeness of the language. And I began to write poems inspired by those different categories of offerings. In the process of this, I was able to work through emotions of anger, shame, and guilt that I held onto because of the way certain religious authorities in my youth expressed attitudes towards women and their bodies, and utilized fear and judgment as a means of control. The poems are addressed to a God I question and argue with and renounce, but with whom I still have a relationship. Informally, I call Qorbanot “a prayerbook for heretics,” which actually includes a great deal of love for the tradition. While writing, I realized my poems were, in fact, prayers (and prayer replaced sacrifice after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem). I became empowered to create my own rituals. While my book isn’t a “story” in any conventional sense, it does have what I see as a narrative arc, from that wrestling with tradition towards embracing a new vision of it. I know that I and so many others are really craving ritual—a way to ground the spiritual in the physical and to forge community—and the arts can be a powerful way to do that. 

Purchase a copy of Qorbanot: Offerings from your local independent bookstore.