Maintenant #66: Valzhyna Mort
An interview with Valzhyna Mort by SJ Fowler.
The emigration of European poets to the United States appears a tradition in its own right, and a luminous one at that. The effect of Miłosz, Brodsky et al on American poetry resonates even today, perhaps even to the extent that a restrictive romanticism has emerged in the poetic consciousness of global poetics toward Eastern European poets in the US. Through the celebrated work of Valzhyna Mort that Eastern European influence continues, but abated in reconstituted voice utterly individual and unique. Winner of the Crystal of Vilenica poetry award, lauded on both sides of the continent, Mort is a resolute and dexterous presence in contemporary East coast American poetry circles. A native of Belarus, her poetry is remarkable for its elegance and fluidity, and its ability to maintain an idiom both utterly modern and somehow enduring. For the 66th edition of the Maintenant series, Valzhyna Mort.
3:AM: Can you talk about the reception to your work in general, and what people have come to expect from you in the US?
Valzhyna Mort: When I came to the States I already had an American booking agent, Alison Granucci of BlueFlowerArts, who had heard me read at Cuirt International Literary Festival in Ireland and expressed interest in representing me. So I was lucky to have somebody who worried for me about my reception. Factory of Tears came out from Copper Canyon Press two years later. The book got on Briefly Mentioned in the New Yorker, received a great review from Fiona Sampson in Poetry, and my face appeared on the cover of Poets&Writers. In 2009, following various publications and readings from the new upcoming book, I was awarded Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, and then, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry in 2010. That’s some official pre-reception for Collected Body, which is coming out this autumn. As for the reception from my readers, there’s certainly a group of people whose memory of the Cold War is still burning bright red, and they come to my work with certain dissident and political expectations. Or people, who romanticize Russian culture and literature, and talk to me about Akhamatova and Brodsky as if they were my dear oatmeal-cooking grandparents. But mostly, like everywhere else, people come to readings and pick up a poetry book looking for good poetry, looking to be moved, challenged, transformed.
3:AM: What does it mean to be a young poet writing in a culture that perhaps does not have a strong singular poetic tradition?
VM: I think that your poetic tradition is your reading list. When your own culture doesn’t have a strong poetic tradition, one hopes for a strong tradition of translating foreign poetry. When it doesn’t have the latter one either, one goes to learn foreign languages. Before my first book came out in Minsk I had already started translating from Polish and Ukrainian. Then I received the Gaude Polonia scholarship for translation in Warsaw, Poland, and my Polish mentor Adam Pomorski handed me books by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. They were the first poets I read in English. At once I sat down to translating a few of Hughes’ Crow poems. It was life-changing. I was learning a new language, by which I mean not English, but my own – a new way of writing in Belarusian. Of course I knew many foreign poets in Russian translation but, say, French poets sounded familiar, probably because their influence on Polish poets, even though French clouds and tables always remained alien, a little bit whiter and lighter and a little bit woodier and more stable. Or, for instance, Lorca had the sensibilities and themes, which made him at home in Russian (death, passion, love, loss), despite his foreign playful lines and images of foreign trees and fruit. On the other hand, poets like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney described a rural landscape, that was absolutely Belarusian, but without all of those sore clichés of Belarusian poets of the 60’s and 70’s. In my mind many poems of Hughes and Heaney belong to the same tradition as Belarusian classic Yanka Kupala’s long poems. They are talking to the same landscape with the same density of sound and image. It is a tradition of good poetry.
3:AM: What prompted your move to America in 2005? What was your early experience of the country as a poet?
VM: The early experience was that of being unable to write. I translated my old work from Belarusian into English and that kept me sane. I met many poets from all around the country over a relatively short span of time and read every book I heard mentioned even negatively. To think of it, I still write very little in America. My poetry life here consists of teaching poetry and traveling to do readings. I make many notes, but write during artist residencies someplace else. As a child of a land-locked country I’m fascinated with islands and the sea. Most of Collected Body was written on the German island of Sylt, and edited between Morocco and the Caribbean. By the time I returned to America I couldn’t believe it was me who had written it.
3:AM: Was that initial due to the language you were now surrounded by, or the change in culture in general?
VM: I assume both and also a bunch of other reasons. I don’t write every day. In fact I go through long periods of time without writing, collecting notes and lines, and then I sit down to write intently. I think the talk about the change in culture is greatly overrated, especially when to a large extent the general values of the so-called West stretch from Eastern Europe to America. Change in the availability of books played a much bigger role for me. Also a change in the whole book industry, in the attitude of people working in my press, for instance.
3:AM: Is there a danger there might be an increased reception for a poet who appears somehow ‘authentic’ to American readers and academics because of their status as a European poet, moreover a poet following in the footsteps of those great ‘defectors’ of the 50s, 60s and 70s?
VM: Just yesterday a student of mine who is taking classes at some summer program emailed to say that my name was mentioned at a panel on “diasporic writers.” It’s a strange term since I don’t have any contacts with Belarusian diaspora in America. I’m a one-person diaspora. But then, who isn’t? Such terms can range, depending on the mood, from offensive to hilarious. They help those who have to market poetry, and those who want to “understand” a poet without having to read her work. I also qualify for A Young Poet, A Female Poet, A Belarusian Poet, An Eastern European Poet, A Poet Born in the Soviet Union, A Poet Who Uses The Word Pussy A Lot, A Poet Born Someplace But Now Living In America, A Poet Who Also Translates, A Poet Who Doesn’t Have A Blog, A Poet Who Wanted To Be A Musician, etc, etc. mixed to create a variety of combinations. Some would kill to qualify for so many statuses. On a serious note, I cannot catch everybody half-breath on every panel, cannot stop somebody’s pen on half a word. I’m neither authentic nor diasporic, and people who read my book past my biography understand it.
3:AM: You are one of a number of European poets who have transplanted to America with considerable success (Ana Bozicevic, Johannes Goransson, Ilya Kaminsky) and while this is certainly not a new journey for poets who begin writing in Europe, do you think there is a reason for it?
VM: Poets find or end up in a place where they can live and worry as little as possible about living, so that they can write. I don’t know where Ilya will be in ten years. What if in Ireland? I hope someplace close to me anyway! And secondly, there is a big difference between transplanting oneself from Europe and transplanting oneself from Eastern Europe. I’m talking mostly about a change in attitude toward poetry publishing, a drastic change in how the book industry functions, in the fact that it exists in the first place.
3:AM: You write in Belarusian, how do you see the state of the language now? Is it being maintained or eroded?
VM: It is being maintained by a dedicated and predominantly young group of people; it is being eroded by another group. The majority however prefers to ignore it. I myself wrote my new book in English.
3:AM: Are you saying you are therefore part of the majority? Often in my discussions with Ukrainian poets, the preservation of their language in the face of Russian domination is a central theme of their work. Is this not true for you?
VM: I speak and read in Belarusian, but no, the preservation of language in the face of Russian domination is not nearly the central theme of my work. I write poetry because I cannot not write it, not because I want to preserve a language. I’m going to translate Collected Body into Belarusian because I have Belarusian readers. That’s the sole reason.
3:AM: How have the conditions of the Soviet Union, and the encroachment of Russian and Polish languages shaped the Belarusian tradition?
VM: Russian and Polish marginalized Belarusian tradition. They left it with what they didn’t need: versification of folklore, and poetry for special occasions like Women’s Day.
3:AM: What was the reception given to your work in Belarus, and the collection I’m as thin as your eyelashes?
VM: It was a time when no more than three book by living authors were published in one year, so nobody needed any critical reception – it was hard not to notice and read those three books. The editor of the book wrote a negative review of it, or more precisely, of me as a person. As far as I remember, he accused me of being too short. Which is true. I’m 5,2″. We had a personal conflict then.
3:AM: Why were there only 3 books published by living authors then? and why were you one of the 3?
VM: Because there was only one publisher for contemporary poetry in Belarusian, and it was a publisher who specialized in something else altogether, and saw those few poetry books as an act of patronage. And then there were two magazines that could potentially review you if they could find money to be published, and three venues where you could potentially read with some 500 people cramped in the audience. Things have changed for the better now and the poetry scene in Minsk is very vibrant.
3:AM: You won the Crystal Vilenica award in Slovenia for best performance. How central to your work is the act of reading?
VM: If you are talking about performance poetry or slam poetry, that’s not my cup of tea. I do enjoy reading poetry out loud both as a poet and as a reader of poetry in the privacy of my apartment. It’s the quality of language: words and syntax coming alive when pronounced, even if only whispered.
I’m not talking about performance or slam poetry at all, believe me. Obviously reading poetry is important, I’m interested whether reading is specifically it important to your work, your practise, your activity as a poet?
I don’t like going to readings. I like reading poetry when by myself at home. I can read it out loud then, but at my own pace and in my own order. When I come to readings I usually hope for a good conversation. There are times, however, when I really love doing readings myself, only I never know it until I start reading. I write and edit out loud too – it’s a conversation with myself.
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, June 20th, 2011.