by Irena Karshenbaum
(AJNews) – In what may be a first in its 30-year history, the University of Calgary Distinguished Writers Program has appointed a Jewish Writer-in-Residence, Leah Horlick.
Serving the writing community over the 2022-2023 academic year, the prestigious appointment carries many serious responsibilities including not only public appearances and readings (that are critiqued after each event), but also a heavy workload of consultations with beginning writers. The consultation process is quite demanding requiring the Writer-in-Residence to provide feedback, in writing, on each submission as well as a face-to-face meeting with each writer. (Being one of the writers Horlick met with, I can attest to the insight and empathy she showed in reviewing my writing and would recommend the process to anyone looking to gain a greater understanding of their work.) The Calgary Distinguished Writers Program is considered generous as it does not contain a teaching component freeing the writer to use half of their time to work on their next writing project, which in Horlick’s case will be her first novel.
At just 34, Horlick’s career has had a heady rise. Graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with a Bachelor of Arts in Languages and Linguistics and UBC with an MFA in Creative Writing, Horlick published three books of poetry in quick succession. Riot Lung (Thistledown Press) was released in 2012, followed by For Your Own Good (Caitlin Press) in 2015 and the Moldovan Hotel (Brick Books) in 2021. Her second work, For Your Own Good, which delves into the difficult territory of surviving a long-term abusive lesbian relationship, was named a 2016 Stonewall Honor Title by the American Library Association and was awarded the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers.
Moldovan Hotel was written after Horlick travelled to Romania in search of her Jewish roots. Her future novel, she explains, will also mine Jewish themes and will be based on the Dybbuk story, through “a queer lens,” and an ending that may not be so tragic.
Horlick fulfills her duties remotely while living in Saskatoon and visiting Calgary, occasionally, for public engagements, which is what she did the week of February 5. At an “In Conversation with Leah Horlick” event held over the lunch hour on February 8 at the University of Calgary, Horlick spoke about the importance of writers persevering and doing the same thing over and over again to achieve different results. This is how she received her appointment – she applied three times – and finally with a sprinkling of lucky fairy dust, after the initial choice for the 2022-2023 Writer-in-Residence, Marjorie Celona, had to step away for personal reasons, Horlick was invited to fill the role.
Horlick credits her success to the support she receives from her family.
Born in Saskatoon to Allan Horlick and Anna Power-Horlick, her parents supported her talents from an early age. The family’s interfaith Jewish roots also played a significant part in her success. Horlick tells how both of her parents had one Jewish parent. Her father’s father was Jewish, Dr. Louis Horlick who married, Ruth, a “vaguely” religious Protestant woman from southern Ontario (the family suspects the last name was changed from Gorelick when her great-grandfather came to Montreal from Minsk), and her mother’s mother was born to Jewish parents who fled Romania just before the Holocaust and settled in London, England. It was here that her maternal grandmother, Sylvia, met and married Douglas Power, a soldier – which Sylvia would describe as “a Catholic guy with a Jewish heart” – coming from a family of miners in Nova Scotia. With both sets of grandparents being in interfaith marriages, at a time when this was more difficult, Horlick explains, all the grandparents, “Got along like a house on fire because they could identify with that. No one came to our wedding and it was just us and whoever we could find to officiate it.”
She continues, “Given that each set of my grandparents had a lot of experience with ostracization based around their intimate relationships, it meant that I have a very gay-friendly family, which has been really nice for me because each set of my grandparents were like, ‘Well, we can’t presume to know exactly what this is like, but we sure know what it’s like to be shunned and treated differently about this because neither of us planned to fall in love with the people we did.’ So that I think has been a huge support.”
Horlick says she received, “lots of empathy” and that her family was “hugely supportive of writing, coming from a cultural background with the values of education and study. My grandparents were like: Absolutely, be an artist as long as you can feed yourself and make a living.” Horlick has supported herself by working in the not-for-profit sector, in an art gallery, as an audio describer for film and TV and she makes indexes at the backs of books. Horlick says she actually prefers working full-time not only for the steady paycheck, but also because she is social.
She was drawn to writing poetry because, she explains, she has a hard time talking about her feelings, “Poetry is a much safer vessel for that than interpersonal communication. My attraction is to all of the different kinds of experimentation that you have room for in poetry that you don’t have in fiction. I really enjoy being able to inhabit a moment in time rather than having to fully experience a setting and a plot and that is what I am finding really challenging with writing the novel right now. So many things have to happen. I can’t just pick one powerful scene like I can with a poem.”
Referring to Moldovan Hotel, Horlick explains that she is not a Holocaust scholar, but that, “I can write poetry that transmits as much of the emotional experience as I can gather from traveling, from family stories, with permission, and create something accessible that relies on scholarly research, but that doesn’t try to recreate it. I am not well positioned to write a book about the Romanian Holocaust, but what I can do: Here is what it’s like being me in this family and a lot of other people have had similar experiences and it’s really challenging to talk about so here are maybe some ways of body-based and language-based ways to access these stories.”
Horlick lists Leonard Cohen as one favourite poet and says that Canada has many great living poets who are her peers and colleagues, and with the community being small so many more things are possible, “It’s rare for poets to have agents, we’re not making the big book deals or sales. We have more freedom. Relationally, we have more time to get to know each other.”
We look forward to getting to know Leah Horlick better over the coming years through her soon-to-be written books.
The demand for a consultation with Horlick has been so great that she is fully booked until the end of her term in June of 2023. To submit a sample of your writing to the next Writer-in-Residence (do it early in the academic year!), visit the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program website: https://arts.ucalgary.ca/calgary-distinguished-writers-program.
Irena Karshenbaum writes in Calgary. irenakarshenbaum.com