Maintenant #9 – Mária Ridzoňová Ferenčuhová
‘between the alluvial materials: a finger’
an interview with Mária Ridzoňová Ferenčuhová by SJ Fowler.
The Earth doesn’t yield, it is already prostrate;
I offer it a form,
It wouldn’t resist: it absorbs, straightens.
The stubborn will to form and unwillingness to coerce
are only seemingly contradictory:
I take part,
Equally accidentally –
As the insects lend their bodies to earth.
translation by Pavol Lukáč.
The Maintenant series has amply demonstrated the volume and quality of female poets emerging from across Europe and the prominence of women in Eastern European poetry can no longer be in dispute. Mária Ridzoňová Ferenčuhová is a leading light in contemporary Slovakian poetry, an elegant, natural and intuitive poetess, her work is intellectual, precise and retains the clarity and beauty of traditional verse with an ease and freedom of more fluid, current work. Her rigorous poetic methodology and intellectual underpinning overturns, userps and subverts the traditional, lamentable associations of ‘spirit’ and ‘nature’ with a ‘feminine’ poetry. Her poetry is above gender distinctions and yet she courts elements of this gender stereotyping and division with a skill that exposes such pre-conceptions as the falsehoods that they are. Highly regarded for the depth of her two collections (2003 & 2008) for 3:AM she speaks to SJ Fowler.
3:AM: Your work appears to consistently feature elemental imagery, that is images of nature, or certainly the vernacular of natural acts (summer, winter, soil, wind, earth, water, forest). Do you use this device to return to a poetic idea of nature and the aesthetic, or is it just to utilise the association of the language itself?
Mária Ridzoňová Ferenčuhová: One can sometimes learn more about his/her own poetry by reading reviews or analysis by critics and colleagues / poets than by rereading the books s/he wrote. I wasn’t really conscious of this elemental imagery in my texts. I always thought I was rather receptive to the artificial elements of the world: the urban landscapes, traces of human impact on the Earth, concepts and constructions, literature and architecture, the concrete (or the glass, the steel) versus the abstract. But indeed, there is this dimension of nature, of elements, it is quite recurrent in both of my books.
But nature and culture are in fact inseparable – human behaviour and activities are deeply rooted in nature. My poetry is not only intellectual (even if the cold intellectualism was the main reproach the Slovak critics made to my first book), all those natural elements surround it and make it universally comprehensible. There is no need to read Foucault or Deleuze to observe the grey soil or a dead cat under a tree, and to receive it. The interpretation of these elements is, naturally, a different topic.
3:AM: There too is the presence of the body often, that is the literal physical presence of the subject or the poet. Do you deliberately return to the body, to the real, in your work?
MRF: Yes, definitely. Frontiers of the body are limits of immediate perception. Imagination and reflection goes further, of course, but the body represents to me the primary perception, the real, if you want. But the body can be also victim of phantom pains, the psychosomatic diseases; it can be subject to the mind’s horsing around. This is what interests me even more. The body is, literally, the physical presence of the subject – you said it – which means the object is the subject and vice versa.
But there is one another problem related to the body in the poetry. The body is often apprehended as one of the elements of “female poetry”. It’s kind of stereotype I don’t like at all. My second book is about motherhood. Obviously I couldn’t erase or avoid the body in this book, that’s why I tried to use it differently to disturb the stereotypical representation of what is usually read as a typically female theme.
3:AM: You seem to create sharp, concrete pictures in your poetry. Do you work from images or a methodology in general, or not at all?
MRF: I studied scriptwriting ages ago and now I teach general film history, and theory of the documentary at the Film and TV Faculty in Bratislava. In many of my texts I deliberately use the cinematographic way of associating or juxtaposing images, I work with pictures conceived as “shots”, with framing, general views, close ups and so on. In my first book, there’s residual presence of the film theory, and plenty of other traces of my specialized readings. In the second book, these references are less numerous. But the scriptwriter’s method is still there.
3:AM: Clearly there are traces of modernism and typographical experimentation in your work. You write in free verse, certainly in translation. Do you conceive of poetry as a linguistic medium of complete freedom? That is, is poetry defined by the poet and not the reader? How are we to relate to the confines of rhyming or verse poetry now?
MRF: Your question leads, more or less, to the roots of the contemporary poetry. My own writings – as far as I am conscious of what influences me – draws from several poetic contexts at the same time. Two of the most important are defined by the paradigm of the 1960s and 1970s: the group of French “Textualists” gathered together by the revue TelQuel and the Slovak “Lonely runners” (Ivan Laučík, Ivan Štrpka and Peter Repka) as well as the Slovak “Concretists“. French Textualists seem to accord an ontological autonomy to the sign and the Slovak poets I mentioned present a very concrete visual, yet intellectualist imagery. Both deal, each in a very different way, with the notion of freedom in / through the poetry and write in free verses. But my first book which is widely influenced by these few groups of poets is actually more knowledgeable than spontaneous. No freedom, just circumspection . And the second book, concerning its typographical form, is not experimental at all. So I am afraid for me the question of freedom is much simpler than you trace it above. No matter the type of verse, the poetry gives me the freedom to code the message I need to pass. I write poems very rarely and admit it is a kind of therapy for me. Before 1989, the coded poetic messages probably served to a different purpose as well, but for me the poetic code is now exclusively personal.
Rhymes in contemporary poetry are another problem. I accept rhymed poetry in its modern, rather sophisticated form, with hidden or internal rhymes, or as an expression of a kind of retro irony that refers to some older poetic traditions or to a popular culture, as it is performed in the poetry by Slovak contemporary poets like Michal Habaj or Agda B. Pain.
3:AM: I’m interested if you feel there is a definite Slovak poetic tradition in contemporary poetry from the past century?
MRF: This is a question rather for historians of literature; my vision of the Slovak poetic tradition is too selective. But of course, I can depict influences of various older poetic schools in the works of contemporary Slovak poets, with a large prevalence of the 1960s and – a little less – the interwar modernist period. In the poetry written by women, we can hardly speak of a “tradition” – there are very few women who regularly published before 1989 and they are more or less solitaires (Maša Haľamová, Lýdia Vadkerti-Gavorníková, Mila Haugová…). Only by the 1990s we can speak about a generation of Slovak poetesses, inspired especially by Haugová, but also by poets in general.
3:AM: What role does the influence of Western European or American poetry play as an influence on contemporary poetry in Slovakia now more than in the past?
MRF: By the 1990s translations of the Western poetry became more numerous, which had obviously impact on younger generation of the Slovak poets. Before 1989, Western European or American contemporary poetry translations were quite rare, although many western authors of the first half of the 20th century had been translated into Czech or Slovak. During the 1960s, the years of political, social and cultural liberalization, the literary revues had published works of numerous foreign poets of those times, but by the 1970s it was over again. Nowadays the situation is completely different, and not only within the publishing field. Thanks the internet, poetry festivals or translation workshops foreign poetry is now easily accessible. However, I think the influence of foreign poetry is mainly perceptible in the texts written by poets-translators. There are more non-literary sources influencing Slovak poetry, such as music or visual arts.
3:AM: Are there distinct differences in the poetry of Slovakia and the Czech republic since the separation and historically? Is this a palpable factor in the work of the poets from the respective nations?
MRF: I should know Czech contemporary poetry better to answer correctly. First of all, there is a linguistic difference concerning the euphony and the rhythm. Many Czech and Slovak words consist of groups of consonants that make the languages a little sharp and dry. But the Slovak language uses a so called rhythmic abridgement rule, i. e. a long syllable can be followed only by a short one and vice versa. The Czech language doesn’t apply this rule which makes it more melodic and maybe also more suitable for rhyme. I have noticed many contemporary Czech poets use bounded verse with some regularity, while there are few Slovak poets who write in rhymes. This tendency has been perceptible since the 1960s, I think.
But this doesn’t answer your question, does it? The fact is I barely know the works of poets from Prague or the West Czech Republic, perhaps except for the books of Kateřina Rudčenková. I am more familiar with Moravian poets. If I had to judge from this very limited perspective then I would say Czech and Slovak poetic outputs don’t really differ, but from a larger perspective I might be wrong.
3:AM: Is there a sense of poetry being an important part of the cultural life of the wider population of Slovakia? I’ve found responses to this question to be widely varied and it is of course subjective, but for example would the average Slovak have a knowledge or a desire to have a knowledge of poetry?
MRF Hard question. I always suspected Slovaks of rather writing poetry then reading it. I would say statistically lots of women buy and even read poetry, but my personal experience is all Slovaks know their authors (by name, by book titles or sometimes even by book covers), often they are able to characterize their style, at least approximately, but rarely have they read them. They know by heart few verses by the key authors of Slovak poetry of the 19th up to the interwar period of the 20th century because they learned it at school, but that’s all.
3:AM: Is there support for experimental / avant garde or cross media poetry projects in Slovakia, in your experience?
MRF: There are first of all several platforms for the experimental poetry in Slovakia: the revue Vlna, publishing house Drewo a srd or Ars poetica, then some of multimedia festivals. These couldn’t survive without the state financial support. So we can say yes, there is support, but the poetry, and especially experimental or cross media poetry remains at the cultural periphery. Yet it is an elitist periphery and we are all proud to live there .
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, April 12th, 2010.