November 5, 2015 in Celebration of Canadian Poetry

Week 45 – Malca Litovitz presented by Elana Wolff

Malca Litovitz (November 7, 1952 – July 18, 2005)

In his latest book, Powers of Two, Joshua Wolf Shenk discredits the idea of the atomized self and solitary genius — “Even Homer is an amalgamation of tradition and myth”— and extols the dyad as the primary creative unit. Shenk is an engaging storyteller and he builds a persuasive argument for the social foundation of creativity, drawing on new research and weaving in examples of famous dynamic duos — among them Lennon & McCartney, Marie & Pierre Curie, and the two inimitable Steves. I was drawn to Shenk’s book by the title and read receptively from the get-go. The power of the pair has personal resonance for me — as much of the creative work I’ve done for more than a decade has involved elements of artistic collaboration. Twelve years ago the idea of pair-creativity was as foreign to me as isotopes (almost). Like most, as Shenk holds, I saw creativity — particularly in the field of writing — as an individual pursuit: solitary and self-contained. Then came Malca Litovitz and things shifted.

Malca and I met in the fall of 2003 shortly before the release of our second poetry collections with Guernica. The attraction was fast and natural. Following the launch, we got together to talk poetry and read together at local venues. We teamed up with fellow Guernica poet Merle Nudelman on a three-way interview for the online journal The Danforth Review and planned to expand the exchange into a book-length triologue. That didn’t happen. In spring of 2004 Malca fell ill with metastatic cancer and the triologue plan was scrapped.

But Malca emerged from the course of chemotherapy resolute. She returned to teaching at Seneca College, kept busy with family and friends, and continued to write and think affirmatively. She was determined to collect her older and newer poems into a third collection and asked me to help her shape the work. During the summer and fall of 2004 we met up to read each other’s poems, edit, and put together our third books. In December, as the process drew to a close and we were ready to submit our manuscripts, Malca suggested we engage in a new venture together: creating rengas — poems written line-by-alternating-line. Malca had experience with the form; I’d never co-written before and was uncomfortable with the idea of such close contact. She was quick. She scribbled a line on a Post-it note and handed it to me, smiling. “There you go, that’s the first line. You connect the next.”

Malca’s notion of freefall renga writing — sitting across from one another at the same table, passing the pen back and forth, releasing the censor, trusting the process and letting the lines ‘come in’ — was completely foreign to me. I didn’t write extemporaneously, and for me privacy was a requirement. I needed solitude — to think, deliberate, and craft the work. I couldn’t conceive of penning anything worthwhile ‘in-the-moment’, with another. And if the muse arrived, she was for me alone. Why would I give anyone else one of my inspired lines… Writing was personal, solitary, deliberative … proprietary.

I confronted a lot of idées fixes after receiving that first line from Malca. A few weeks later, from the ‘safe distance’ of my mother’s place in the States, and after I’d worked through some of my dissonance, I emailed Malca a dissonant second line. She was gracious. Later she told me I’d taken her in a direction that was “so surprising and original.” She was “just delighted to receive [my line] and to work with it.”

We got off to a slow start. The first renga took twenty-three days to complete and it reads like a piece written by two individuals — see-sawing up and down, back and forth. Mostly, no doubt, due to my resistance. But we didn’t talk about that. We agreed to go ahead, and set no rigid rules. We took turns, contributing one line each, alternating starts. We put no stipulation on subject matter or line length. Lines could be long or short, full sentences or fragments. The aim was to commune and create. We negotiated punctuation as we went along and sensed when a poem had come to a close. We discussed titles after each renga was written, and more than once, independently ascribed the same title — by choosing a key word or phrase from the piece. Sometimes we created contrasting lines. At times it felt as if two were writing one thought. As Malca put it, “There was the satisfaction of knowing one was opening a thought-envelope the other could fill.” There was pleasure of surprise, excitement of newness, counterpoise of twoness.

In spring of 2005, as Malca’s health declined, writing became increasingly difficult. Four of the later rengas were composed over the phone, again while I was visiting my mother on the west coast. I would phone Malca daily — to check in, receive her words, transcribe them. By the end of June Malca could hardly write at all and we were no longer writing line-by-line. I was transcribing most of Malca’s lines from the spoken word.  

Moon-Sliver (Renga 28, May 20 – 23, 2005)

Same sliver of moon we saw in Paris
leaning over the Louvre,
shadows on the water of the Seine.
Same trace of an angel, too, in the unlit gibbous.
Moon-shadows on the tunnel, the black water,
the willow tree, and the young girls
singing “Vie en Rose” by the Pont du Carrousel.
I was wearing a sailor’s dress with a red tie;
you were wearing white.
The lesser light illumined us all with its scythe.

Shade of the Soul (Renga 33, June 16 – 20, 2005)

The whole world seemed wet, grey as original state.
It washed clean like my body after a good shower
and the grey gave over to supple oneness of love.
Grey takes on the many shades of the soul —

so that when I wrote of greyness of the vast
and troubled world,
I also meant its radiance and blessings.

On Friday, July 8, 2005, we wrote our final renga, at The Toronto Hospital — sitting side by side, passing the paper back and forth. The writing was fast, fluid, freefall — exactly as Malca had originally envisioned. It was renga 36 — a symbolic number in Jewish tradition — two times 18, the numeric value of the Hebrew word chai, meaning “alive.” Malca was transferred to palliative care at Baycrest Hospital the following day. She was no longer conscious on the day before her death. I entered her hospital room alone, touched her hand, kissed her cheek, and whispered in her ear. It’s said that hearing is the last sense to give way, that a person can still hear, even in unconsciousness. I have to believe this: her response to my message is ongoing.

At the beginning of May, 2005 Guernica founder and then-publisher, Antonio D’Alfonso, encouraged me to tape the two of us in conversation. I prepared a set of open-ended questions, taped a duologue in two sessions, and transcribed one of the recordings in time for Malca to hear it read aloud and give her approval. At the end of the second recording, Malca called the rengas her “lifeline.” This was more than metaphorical. On the day of her funeral, her husband told me that Malca was “first and foremost a writer.” And as it happened, when she could no longer write, she died. That I was her writing partner during the last months of her life, was my privilege, also a deep learning. My life took a qualitative turn after Malca’s death. I embarked upon a new path — one very much informed by the co-creativity seeded and experienced in writing through Malca’s illness.

It’s now ten years since Malca’s passing. I think of her often, I feel the gentleness of her presence in so many ways. I’ve reflected (in private) on the life-altering experience of writing together for seven months — ‘unto death’. I’ve written for her, about her. Recently, in reading Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Power of Two, I’ve found myself revisiting our experience, this time looking at the unfolding of our creative intimacy in terms of Shenk’s “six essential stages”:

  1. MeetingThe chemistry both individuals feel on their earliest encounters.
    Malca and I both felt the chemistry. We connected immediately and felt enlivened in one another’s company.
  1. Confluence Two individuals become a pair by surrendering elements of their singular selves to become a “joint entity.”
    I never asked Malca if she felt she had to surrender anything of herself in order to write with me. But I know I had to. Malca invited me to join her and I had to get flexible — to be willing to give and receive. I had to open my heart, free myself to a new kind of creative flow. I had to step out of my insularity.
  1. DialecticsTaking up positions that point to essential dichotomy in the creative process.
    Malca and I both recognized our likenesses and differences. A number of people said we looked like sisters (including Malca’s mother) and we sometimes dressed like twins. Antonio D’Alfonso was the one who introduced us. He said he knew we had work to do together. He instilled the idea of the duologue and was fully behind the publication of our 36 rengas and duologue in a small book titled Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness. Friends from different circles also said we had to meet. There was a strong recognition of likeness. But there was also the creative catalyst of difference. Antonio described Malca as the sensualist, me as the cerebral writer. We were both dreamers and doers in the relationship, but I was called to steer the ship through the tumult of Malca’s illness.
  1. DistancePairs need more than closeness. They need space in order to cultivate the distinct ideas and experiences that give the partnership an ongoing frisson.
    Malca and I grew close over poetry. We became emotionally and poetically entwined. There were days we would speak several times on the phone, days I would sit by her side for hours. But there was also distance. At first we wrote predominantly by way of email, and several of the rengas were composed across miles. Frisson, in the way of threat of death, was always in the shadows.
  1. The Infinite Game At the height of their work, pairs operate at the nexus of competition and cooperation, a dialectic that reveals the stark nature of power and potential for conflict.
    Malca and I never experienced power struggle and conflict. Malca was good-natured, gentle, and dedicated to pursuit of beauty in life and writing. Ours was a relationship seeded and nurtured in the mutuality of making. We spoke little of our lives outside of writing. We dwelt in the pleasure and connectedness of the rengas.
  1. InterruptionLooking at how pairs end, we see them driven apart by the same energies that brought them together. They lose their balance, often due to some critical change in the context around them. Yet they remain bound up with each other psychologically and some creative pairs never truly end.
    Death, of course, is the big interruption. Malca’s imminent death by the end of June 2005 was the critical contextual change in our collaboration. We could see it coming, though we didn’t address it till it stood before us like a great and naked wraith. On one of my last visits to Malca at Baycrest Hospital, I sat by her bedside as she addressed me indirectly through her doctor. “I have no renga line for Elana today,” she told him. The doctor answered for me, “I don’t think Elana minds that you don’t have a line.” We didn’t really lose our balance; the arrangement of our relationship was taken away. And yet we’ve remained connected. I know it through the work I do, through the spirit of co-creativity that I’ve continued to feel and experience in my life in ever-evolving ways. Malca was the one who invited me into poetic partnership, who made me conscious of the capacity of co-creative energy, of the necessity of it for well-being.

Joshua Wolf Shenk provides an illuminating framework, which has clarified some of what transpired in my first co-creative experience, as a writer. But like all frameworks, Shenk’s is a simplified description. Individual relationships don’t all fit evenly into frames. Moreover, his definition of creativity, borrowed from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, has an economistic tilt: “Creativity is bringing into existence something genuinely new that is valued enough to be added to the culture.” The phrase “value enough to be added” sounds like the enhancement a company gives to a product or service before offering it to the public — something to be measured and quantified. To my mind and in my experience, creativity and co-creativity are not so much measurable as pleasurable, not so much cultural as transcendent, also beautifully humanizing. The worth may be in the personal, in the enigmatic actualization-value.

The Dance (Renga 22, May 4 – 6, 2005)

The three Fates are gowned in white,
garlands on their heads.
They dance like the ladies in The Music Man.
Marion, Ruth and Genesee —
leading their young agrarian men.

The dance, only the dance — it transcends everything,
giving us strength
to ford the river, lose our cares,
leave the fat behind us on the plain.

Malca Litovitz was a teacher of English literature and creative writing; also an editor, critic, performer, mentor, and award-winning poet. Her books include To Light, To Water (recipient of the 2000 Jewish National Book Award), At the Moonbeam Café, First Day, and Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness (Duologue and Rengas) with Elana Wolff. Malca died on July 18, 2005. An endowment for the Malca Litovitz Prize in creative writing has been established at Seneca College-Toronto and is awarded each year to a Seneca College student who most demonstrates Malca’s qualities of creativity, commitment, and artistic excellence; Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness is included in the award.

To learn more about Malca Litovitz, please visit Canadian Poetry Online.

Elana Wolff’s collection of selected poems, Helleborus & Alchémille (Éditions du Noroît, 2013; translation by Stéphanie Roesler), was awarded the 2014 John Glassco Prize for Translation.

Her collaborative first-time translation from the Hebrew of Georg Mordechai Langer’s Poems and Song of Love—part of a two-in-one G.M. Langer/Franz Kafka flipside book (A Hunger Artist & Other Stories; translation by Thor Polson), released by Guernica Editions in fall, 2014, is now in its second printing. Elana recently won The New Quarterly 2015 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest for her essay “Paging Kafka’s Elegist.” Visit Elana and read more about her most recent book A Hunger Artist & Other Stories; Poems and Songs of Love.

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