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Poet Lisa Richter. Richter’s collection Nautilus and Bone has won the National Jewish Book Award for poetry.Stéphane Savoie/Handout

At an old monastery in Saskatchewan, home to a writers’ retreat, Toronto poet Lisa Richter began channelling an early-20th-century feminist Yiddish poet from what is now Belarus. George Elliott Clarke, a mentor at the Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium, had assigned the group to write two pages of plain verse. “And Anna Margolin,” Richter says, “just popped into my head.”

Margolin took up residence in Richter’s head for some time, as Richter immersed herself in Margolin’s poetry and biography, exploring parallels with her own family history along the way. The result, her book Nautilus and Bone, has won a major U.S. literary prize: the National Jewish Book Award for poetry, which is being presented on Monday. Last week, it was also longlisted for the League of Canadian Poets’ Raymond Souster Award.

Nautilus and Bone – subtitled An Auto/biography in Poems – is an examination of Margolin’s life, through various forms of poetry, written in Margolin’s voice.

Anna Margolin – whose real name was Rosa Lebensboym – was born in the Lithuanian town of Brest in 1887. In her remarkable life, she lived in Europe, Palestine and the U.S. – partnering with men and women. She married two of those men and a third became her lifelong companion. Settling in New York, she worked as a journalist and wrote poetry. Lider, was published in 1929.

Even before Sage Hill, Richter was intrigued by Margolin’s poetry, which she read in translation.

It just so happens that Richter’s maternal great-grandfather was born Samuel Margolin. He changed his surname to Lapitsky when he immigrated to Montreal – he thought it sounded more Russian and less Jewish; he was worried about anti-Semitism.

At Sage Hill in 2019, Richter was grieving. Her father – whose background was Russian-Jewish and mother tongue was Yiddish – had died suddenly the previous year while travelling home from Europe.

“So I was thinking about memory, I was thinking about identity, I was thinking about loss, about ancestry. So it seemed almost natural that Anna Margolin as a figure, as a representative of a lot of those things, would come to mind for me,” says Richter, 43, who lives in Toronto.

“In some ways what it opened up for me was a new way of looking at ancestry, as a way of exploring my roots from a poetic perspective; not just from a pure lineage kind of perspective. So even though my own family experience diverged from Anna Margolin’s in a number of ways, what they shared in common was the experience of living in a society as an exile. Living in a society as the other, as somebody who felt marginalized. And what that must have been like for her. And what that must have been like for my own relatives.”

Richter dedicated Nautilus and Bone to her father, who lived long enough to read Richter’s first collection. She writes in her acknowledgments – “the first book of poetry he had ever read in his life – and told me to go write another one.”

Once Richter became inspired to adopt Margolin’s voice, she wrote in a flurry and immersed herself in research. She travelled to New York and stayed on the Lower East Side – teeming with Jewish immigrants in Margolin’s day. In the Yiddish archives there, Richter found documents in Margolin’s own handwriting.

She also spent a lot of time just walking the streets, imagining. “I was able to really connect with a sense of place on a completely different level and an embodied kind of way that you can imagine I wasn’t able to, when I was writing at the Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium in rural Saskatchewan.”

Calgary poet laureate emeritus Micheline Maylor was also at that retreat, and remembers vividly being in the basement of that monastery and hearing Richter read what would become the first poem in Nautilus and Bone, Jewess. (“Don’t call me Jewess. Call me hellfire and fish-hooks,” it begins.)

“Lisa came out,” recalls Maylor, who acquired and edited the book for Frontenac House. “She tilted her head and she closed her eyes and she was off into this other world, into this other person.”

Maylor had gone to that retreat to work on her own writing, what would become The Bad Wife. Just published, it is marketed as an intimate firsthand account of how to ruin a marriage.

“I had come to Sage Hill in order to push everyone else’s voices out of my head for that brief amount of time … and focus on my own work,” says Maylor, who teaches creative writing at Mount Royal University. But Richter’s work was just too tempting, she says. “Lisa put this amazing piece of poem in front of my face and I was just like, damn.”

Maylor points out that winning a National Jewish Book Award is a rare honour for a Canadian.

Richter says winning this prize is special, as many of her poetry heroes have won this same award.

“Any award whatsoever is an honour beyond words to receive. But having this particular award is validating on a very personal level for me,” Richter says, pausing to collect herself. “It feels like it’s something that would have made my father very proud. And that I’m honouring my ancestors.”

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