Maintenant #38: Volya Hapeyeva
An interview with Volya Hapeyeva by SJ Fowler.
A figure of some prominence in Belarus, Volya Hapeyeva is at the very forefront of young poets reaching their zenith in Eastern Europe. A lauded playwright, critic and linguistic philosopher, as well as a poet, her depth and zest have marked her out as one of the most hopeful female poets writing in Europe at large. Her work is marked but a sensitivity and care that many would find incongruous with her rigour and methodological pragmatism. He makes the conflagration of lyrical poetry & collaborations with Belarussian techno DJ’s seem effortless. We are happy once again to introduce another fantastic young poet into the English language for the first time and to present her as the 38th edition of the Maintenant series.
3:AM: You studied linguistics, was this linguistic philosophy or more formal linguistics? This must play a significant role in your conception of poetry, what philosophy have you been influenced by, and has it impacted your poetry?
Volya Hapeyeva: I think I can say that there are certain philosophers and certain ideas that have influenced me but me as a person. I can’t say that there is some direct relation between some philosophy and my poems. The things I like and appreciate enrich me as a personality and in this way change me and it has its reflection in my poetry. It appears as a certain refraction.
And yes linguistics has played a great role in my life, actually it is my life. The only thing is that in science (academic research) you have to be one thing, treating the language as an object but in poetry or in writing in general for me the language is a living being. And usually I use metaphors and similes that prompt that language is a living creature and thus is a subject rather than an object.
3:AM: Is there a culture of gender bias or misogyny, through your experiences, in Belarus, in poetry, but in society at large?
VH: Gender inequality does exist in my country, it is not so obvious, but if you think critically and analyze the state of affairs you can’t help but notice that something is wrong. Being a writer myself I see numerous problems and obstacles in the sphere of literature for a woman. That is why I also research this field too, trying to analyze the Belarusian experience and compare it to the European one. Feministic literary critique and the woman as a creator (artist, writer, etc.) also lie in the sphere of my academic interests. For the Belarusian women-poets and writers there are three types of problems. The first one is the common one for all women writers in the world; the second is the problems connected with the soviet past (problems that are common for other post-soviet societies) and the third is the problems caused by the specific Belarusian situation connected with its political situation and language politics.
Each woman who writes sooner or later faces the problem of the identification within the literary process and in her own works. The problem of nomination (whether you are called “a poet” or “a poetess”, etc.) leads us into the field of the language that sometimes works against us.
The society prescribes different (sometimes even opposite) norms of behavior to men and women, but the success (in this case in literature) is estimated in a uniformed way, regardless of the differences. Double standards did not let up and today continue to make obstacles for women to create. Thus, it is not a surprise why a lot of women try to get rid of themselves as of women – those women created by patriarchal society, whose only task is to know how to be beautiful and inspire men. That is why a number of women writers do not want and are afraid of to be associated with “female” representatives in literature. Another reason for that is that a women’s literature has also a derogative meaning of something marginal, second-rate, sentimental and shallow.
Another topical issue is the attitude of the critics. According to P. Bourdieu one of the central objects of the claims in literary arguments is the monopoly for literature’s legitimacy. Agents and institutions struggle for the right to indicate or assign the people who would be called “authors”, “writers”, and “poets”. Excessive naturalism and the family life routine description of which men-critics very often accuse women-writers, in fact create a new layer in the literature, where women position themselves as subjects with specific features and attributes. Men-critics reject it as something that is not relevant for them or something that is not quite clear. Thus, the process of reading and accessing always goes under certain social circumstances which are not always “women-friendly”.
3:AM: You have studied and shown interest in self-harm, body modification in culture, how has this interest actualised itself in your work? Ie what is the subject specifically of that research?
VH: The problem of the body is not new for the science but being extremely multifaceted all time it opens new aspects for researchers. The predominant hierarchy is based on the binary opposition where everything is marked either as positive (norm) or negative (pathology). The dichotomic attitude toward the body can be changed through the overcoming of the binary concept of “the reason – the body” and thus it is possible to review the attitude to men’s and women’s bodies. Body practices are means of communication both with our own body and the surrounding community. Radical body modifications often represent the mixture of traditional societies’ practices, sado-masochistic practices and performance art elements. Male and female bodies when placed into different discourses (medical, aesthetic, anthropological) attain specific functions and thus, the body practices will be considered respectively depending on the context and representatives. The phenomenon of the so-called self-mutilation arouses a number of questions. Different reasons make some body practices socially accepted (piercing, tattooing) and the others are deemed and referred to as deviations and pathology (skin cutting, scarification). As well as there are various reasons for people to practice body modifications and self-mutilations.
The topics mentioned above in which I take a particular interest are strongly connected to such terms and norm and pathology, individual freedom and right to self-expression, self-determination. As far as the democracies undergo the changes due to different numerous aspects of modern life it is possible to say that the term itself will be transformed in this or that way together with all other ideas and notions that lie in the sphere of modern political processes, causing modifications of social attitude towards such phenomena as self-mutilation, women’s literature in particular and body and language in general.
3:AM: You write in a variety of mediums – prose, plays as well as poetry – do they compliment each other? Must you be disciplined in your writing when you move from one to the other?
VH: It is true I practice prose and drama though my major calling now I suppose is poetry. But there are certain things I’d like to render in prose. Besides it opens and broadens me and my creativity, you begin to understand yourself better. But I have to admit that writing poetry and prose are different states of mind or feeling and to switch form one into the other takes time and effort.
3:AM: How did your musical collaboration with the DJ & musician Vladislav Bubev come about?
VH: We have known each other for many years and then Uladzislau (it’s a Belarusian spelling of his name) said that he would like to try to do something with my poems. I agreed and then I was really surprised because he managed to create something new and I would never thought that my poems can sound like that. I mean that sometimes I am “accused” of writing quite pessimistic poems and here in the album he proves quite the opposite. I liked this experiment and very thankful to him for it.
3:AM: Your poetry amidst his music creates an interesting conception of voice and the symbiosis between the mediums is apparent, and it is quite a startling success. It is notoriously difficult to create strong collaborations between music and poetry. Is it something that you will continue to do? Has it changed your own process? Do you think poetry should be collaborative more often?
VH: I strongly agree that to combine poetry (true and strong poetry especially if a poet has her/his own peculiar way of reciting) is difficult, because there are cases when you feel that music disturbs the reading or perception of the poetic work. But it is a matter of collaboration of a musician and a poet – the question of how well you feel and know each other. I am open to experiments but for me personally poetry will always remain self-sufficient.
3:AM: Your poetry appears to be scant, minimal and extremely precise. It seems lyrical but deliberately fragmented too. How do you write? Do you write from moments or do you make drafts of your work and revise constantly?
VH: It depends. But mostly I do not write down the lines until I have some certain ideas, I carry it (the poem) with me in my head, touching it in my mind, modeling and turning it up and down like a bonbon in my mouth and then when I have something I write it down and see how it looks. And here the main problem for me appears, because I am not good at shaping the poem on the paper (I mean line division) – usually it doesn’t coincide with that how I read it.
3:AM: What is the popularity of poetry in Belarus? Does the state support poets? Are there large print runs and are poets, young as well as established, well known by the public in general?
VH: I have to admit that poetry is not so popular among the general public, i.e. that people prefer prose and light reading, but it’s a tendency around the world. I think that Belarusian literature is especially strong in poetry, to my mind, we have much more talented poets than prose writers especially among the young generation. As for the popularity – the classical authors are known because they are taught at school but more modern poets are known mostly to the audience who is interested in poetry and literature (philology students and intelligentsia). At the same time when there are poetry readings people come with enthusiasm and some foreign colleagues who visited Belarus admitted that the poetry readings look like being more popular in Belarus than in their countries.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 29th, 2010.