Daniela Bouneva Elza has lived on three continents and has crossed numerous cultural and geographic boarders. She is pursuing her doctorate in Philosophy of Education, while remaining a rogue scholar at heart. Most recently her work appeared in Rocksalt Anthology, The Vancouver Review, and is forthcoming in Vallum, qarrtsiluni, Van Gogh's Ear, and A Verse Map of Vancouver. She lives with her husband and two children, who never fail to surprise her.
Five Questions with Daniela Elza:
1. How long have you been writing poetry?
I have written poetry as far back as I can remember. As a kid I wrote poems with my sister (tried to see who can write the most). I particularly remember writing one about a daisy, and collaborating with my sister on one about a boat (which seemed to be a metaphor for life), and how the boat sinks and continues its life at the bottom of the sea.
I remember writing poems for all sorts of occasions. A few weeks ago my parents read me over the phone a poem I had written for them for their 25th anniversary, (more than 20 years ago). I was pleased to know they kept it, and keep going back to it.
When I started travelling on my own in my late teens, writing and keeping a journal became an extension, an essential part of the journey. After two Masters degrees, a marriage, and two kids, I realized how many changes I had undergone over the course of my life: different geographies, cultures, languages, continents, etc. One day it occurred to me that the one thing that never left me was writing, and poetry.
2. Who are your favorite poets? Which poets have most informed and inspired your work?
The names that stand out the most for me from the last decade are Jorge Luis Borges, Rainer Maria Rilke, Octavio Paz, Anne Michaels, Wislawa Szymborska, and Lyubomir Levchev. And even more recently than that Robert Bringhurst, Tim Lilburn, Jan Zwicky, Alison Pick, Sue Sinclair, Harold Rhenisch, and a book called Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei written by Pain Not Bread (three people: Roo Borson, Kim Maltman, and Andy Patton, writing in collaboration). I read that book a few years ago after which I used to refer to it as my “poetry bible.” When I re-read it recently I could definitely see how it made an impression on me.
3. What do you hope to accomplish with your poetry?
Writing poetry for me is a way of inquiring into the world. So the first thing I accomplish is working on myself. It opens up a contemplative space within which I can make sense of the world. In the fast paced and busy life we do not make a lot of room for this kind of knowing, and it is not an easy world to make sense of. There is a lot of noise in the image and a lot of sense pollution and abuse. So in this process of translating the world into word (and vice versa), poetry becomes a filter where I have to listen to the world, to language, and it is also a space where language has to listen to me. This can be a transformative process. A kind of coming home.
The second point is, I think, very related to the first. Because of this way of knowing and making sense and thinking poetically we are also empowered. Poetry becomes a political act, where we practice our freedom as language beings, as poetic beings. A place where aesthetics and ethics can meet. In a world of violence and control, the potential we all have to empower ourselves, and each other cannot be anything other than a political act. Many poets have lost their lives for their words. I was born in Bulgaria, a country where that was the case. Poets were revolutionaries. If you think of it: the romantics were also revolutionaries.
I do not remember now who said it, but I think there is a lot of truth to it: poets are the conscience of the world.
4. For ten years you grew up in northern Nigeria. How has this experience shaped you as a person? Your writing?
Yes, I was seven when I went there and seventeen when I left for good. These are very formative years. I think, first, it helped me become blind to skin colour. I had so many friends who were all different colours and at the same time we were so alike. We were kids together, we did what kids do.
I grew up around a scarcity of trees, growing our own food, different religions, cultures, and political and economic turmoil. I realized, at first unconsciously and later consciously, that these are superficial labels that some choose to pay too much attention to. Or we could choose to focus on our common humanity and rejoice in our diversity and differences. I hope my writing embraces these commonalities. Like the rain we share. We can all relate to that. And also how we can be renewed and perfected by sharing these moments of awe, mystery, admiration.
I remember my first day at school. I did not speak the language. My classroom had dark green metal shutters for windows. The only thing I could think of doing was draw. I drew Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Not at work, but at play. I remember clearly that one of the dwarfs was hanging off a branch by his legs and arms. My classmates crowded to look at my picture. I spend the rest of the day drawing in their books. They pointed to the parts they liked, and I would draw it for them. That was a powerful moment, when I think of it now: the power of art to communicate across culture, geography, language etc. In other words across our differences. Once we start paying attention to what is common, it shifts our decisions, and impacts our actions.
5. Your use of open bracketing in this poem is very interesting. Could you discuss what motivates you to do this, and what effect you hope to produce?
The open bracket means a lot to me. It not only makes one slow down before a word, but it also helps embrace a word toward or away from another. It opens a space...
In this poem I feel that the bracket comes in to mark a space that is hard to speak of, or describe. It has taken me 20 years (at least) to describe that savannah (rain. I could never ignore it. I could not do anything else during a rain storm. I pulled back the curtains and I was taken by the light, the wind, and the water. Forget the show on TV, forget the math homework, there is a storm brewing outside. And this show will only last for a little while. Part of it was the quickness, and the intensity it came and went with. So saying “rain” is not adequate.
Then there is how we observe this event. Our approach, and our attitude. In this case the bracket opens before (my mouth open....
And toward the end of the poem, what is the effect on me of the event I have observed. In this case (washed, atoned, brighter...
Once a parenthesis opens the reader expects it to close. But I do not close them, and one reason is: because the world does not work that way. Instead they kind of nest in each other, just like our observations, our attitudes, and the effects all nest together. I am aware that is also unsettling. I am not afraid to unsettle my reader. I do not want them to come into the poem with the too many expectations with which we move through life. Once we open the parenthesis and let the world in, like with the storm, we can rarely control what will happen, even if we would like to think we can. The tree in the backyard snapped and impaled our roof once. So don’t expect me to close them any time soon.