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Write On Ottawa: Poetic novella ‘Ignite’ offers an explosive love story

By Alejandro Bustos on February 17, 2014

It is too easy to differentiate between literary styles.  Poems go in one group, fiction in another, and drama is often seen as if it were a whole separate species.

The best story telling, however, often ignores the boundaries between genres, and opts instead to mix and match different traditions until a unique work is produced.

This thought occurred to me while reading Ignite by Ottawa-based writer Rona Shaffran.  If you were to go into a book store or library, you would almost certainly find this work in the poetry section.  This categorization, however, does not fully describe this intriguing book, which could easily be seen as a short novel, or even an interesting setting for a play.

Published by Winnipeg-based Signature Editions, this debut book by Shaffran is a poetic novella.  While comprised of individual poems, there is a clear narrative about a middle-aged couple whose relationship has broken down.  Not sure what to do, the female travels to an island, and when she returns to her male partner everything has changed.

“Ignite examines the life of two individuals, but, at the same time, evokes universal experiences that we can all share,” says Shaffran.  “The book is written in four voices – the woman’s, the man’s, an omniscient observer, and ‘we’ or ‘us'”.

The flow of the story left me with the feeling that I was reading a novella rather than a collection of poems.  Divided into three sections/chapters, and a mere 92-pages long, Ignite offers an interesting take on the loss of passion, the search to rekindle love, and how a couple deal with the change in their relationship after the parameters that had previously defined them have been altered.

“Chapter 1 is about the loss of the couple’s romantic spark in very quiet desperation,” says Shaffran.  

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Rona Shaffran

Chapter II is about the woman’s renewal, physically and spiritually, a reclaiming of self.  My intention was that what happened on the island is meant to be somewhat mysterious, and for the reader to conclude – was it an affair, a magic-realist plunge, a dream, a fantasy . . . [W]hatever the reader thinks happened, we can all agree that the woman is forever changed by it.”

The third section deals with the renewal of the couple’s relationship after the woman has come back from her trip. The extent of this renewal, however, likely depends on the reader’s interpretation.

“The woman comes home, and the man recognizes that she has changed,” says Shaffran. ” Because she responds to him differently, he begins to respond differently to her . . . .  I hope the book is seen as profoundly hopeful, that love can be revived, rather than shatter.”

Written and published individually over a ten year period, these poems were not originally meant to be a collection.  As Shaffran continued to write, however, she started seeing that they could tell a story when combined.

“It was then I began to play with the poems, try different ways of ordering them, filled in gaps with new poems, and gradually a collection came together,” says Shaffran.  “One might say that the story emerged unconsciously.”

Looking forward, Shaffran is currently working on a new book, which includes both poetry and short prose vignettes.  In the meantime, if you want to see her live, you can see her on Sunday, March 30, at 3:00 pm, at the Mercury Lounge, when she will read alongside three other poets as part of VERSeFest.