Valzhyna Mort Interview

“Born in Minsk, Belarus (part of the former Soviet Union), in 1981, Valzhyna Mort has been praised as ‘[a] risen star of the international poetry world’ by the Irish Times. When she moved to the United States in 2005, she had already published her first book, I’m as Thin as Your Eyelashes, and was known across the world as an electrifying reader of her poems. Her debut collection in America, Factory of Tears, has received acclaim: the New Yorker writes, ‘Mort strives to be an envoy for her native country, writing with almost alarming vociferousness about the struggle to establish a clear identity for Belarus and its language.’ Mort received the Crystal of Vilenica award in Slovenia in 2005 and the Burda Poetry Prize in Germany in 2008. She lives in Washington, D.C.”  (Poetry Foundation).

Maria Garcia Teutsch: Your poetry is at once easily accessible to an American audience yet also something they may find exotic in the historical pain documented in both Collected Body, and Factory of Tears. Could you tell me about your native Belarus and also about where it is your parents come from (specifically: village? town? country?)

Valzhyna Mort: I was born in the city of Minsk, which has a population of about 2 million, it is the capital of Belarus, a country that in 1981 was still called Belarusian Soviet Socialistic Republic. Both of my parents are also city people: opera theater, military parades, and subway trips across the city by myself were the norm of my childhood. However, when I was about three years old, my parents bought us a dangerously old house in a small village, about forty minutes drive from Minsk. There, I spent my childhood summers with my younger sister and our grandmother. Until now, I’m unable to function normally in the city in summer. It is as if somebody gave me an IV system for the first of June – the idea of it is so random, and I simply don’t know how to use it, and why I have it in front of me for three months.

The village had a very interesting location. My great grandparents’ family was sent there during the dekulakization. But it wasn’t a long trip. In fact, from our village house I could see the hill where their house used to stand before it was demolished. I could also see the outline of the village where my great-grandmother came from on the West, and on the East–an outline of the village where my great grandfather came from. That was not any personal history then, but simply landscape, easily described in those terms. “Where were you gone for five hours?” “There, where the house used to stand.” It meant only that, a direction. No historical pain, as you put it. The awareness of what that location meant came only much later, years after we sold the house (on the property my parents built two very solid and impressive garages even though we didn’t have a car, while the house had gotten so shabby that we were scared to stay inside during a windy rain, and it appeared easier to sell the whole property than to rebuild). But of course it was the awareness of my own childhood which had become history by then. We stopped leaving the city for the summer, and my childhood stayed there, together, but now inseparable, from the history of my family in the 30’s and 40’s.

I understand what you mean when you say that historical pain particular to Factory of Tears and Collected Body might be exotic to an American reader, but, of course, at the same time what is American historical pain if not the pain of dislocation, Native American and African American dislocation especially. In that regard, the poem “Aunt Anna” in Collected Body is not exotic at all. It speaks to an experience shared between cultures. After all it is the pain of being moved and having to move across long distances of space–shared across geographical and cultural spaces easily. Another aspect universal for both cultures is the loss of historical pain. Instead of mourning, on both sides of the Atlantic, we have parades and heroes. This phrasing “on this day we remember . . . ,” “this day is here to remind us of . . .” – such formulations are dangerous. They attach pain or joy to some particular day on the calendar, but nobody teaches us what to do next day, next week, next month, a century after. On this day we remember that day. That’s it. It’s like submitting an application to a job that has already been given to you. But maybe art does teach us how. And if so, we should be relieved that nobody else is applying for that teaching position.

In the city my parents had a big library, and I read a lot and from an early age. I had a personal relationship with every book in the house. It wasn’t about having read them all, but about responding to the colors and textures of book covers individually. There seemed to be a “deep meaning” behind the purple, ribbed cover of Crime and Punishment, and the fact that the title was written inside a golden box in the center, while, say, copies of Agartha Christie’s novels were lacquered and white (I could see my reflection in them) with titles in black loose handwriting. On the shelves the books stood in three rows, and the game I liked to play was to come up to the shelf and pull out a handful of first row books in order to peep at the books in the second row, and then in the third (those ones seemed especially full of big secrets). My two poet-favorites have always been Marina Tsvetaeva and Joseph Brodsky. Later, Zbigniew Herbert, Ted Hughes, and Seamus Heaney. Later, Rilke, Celan, Mandelstam, Milosz, Walcott. Later, Montale, Hart Crane. When writing Collected Body I was reading Rilke, Cesare Pavese, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Anne Carson. I loved the four of them together and traveled with them until the book was finished. Recently I’ve been reading Gjertrude Schankenberg. Yesterday I had to sit for a few hours in court and I brought a copy of W.S. Merwin’s Lice with me, to browse, I thought, and refresh those poems in my memory. That book took me away from where I was. I seemed to be a stone put on the chair–heavy and disguised from any looks of others present.

MGT: As a Mexican, I can only say we carry pain on our backs like a load of calla lilies from a Diego Rivera painting. I did not mean to imply America doesn’t have its own guilt. The place where I stand in California was Mexico. It is only the death of Natives that has made it American. What is exotic is that American’s mostly don’t even know Belarus exists–unless they’re an avid watcher of gymnastics. They may know the name, but not the history.

VM: You are right when you write about being a Mexican in California. And I meant to say that while “Belarus” might be unfamiliar, the history of dislocation hits very close to home here. Moreover, Belarus is never really mentioned in Collected Body. Belarus and Collected Body exist in two different worlds. Belarus, exotic or not, is real. As for Collected Body, writing Aunt Anna I was writing a fairy tale – a fairy tale that talks only to and for a small patch of land. Remember when Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man writes in his notebook “Class of Elements / … / Ireland / Europe/ The World/ The Universe.” So, this is the opposite of such self-consciousness. Here it is rather: “M. and P. / vast nothingness.” This is the paradox of these dislocations. Despite of all their migration, people in M. and P. are not worldly. The more they move, the more they lower their heads down onto the land, the soil. They live for and off the land, and they are unable to think of the land as an abstraction. The name of their country and its shape on the map is a joke for them. Characters who leave M. and P. might as well be leaving for Mars. Moreover, in the middle of brutal historical events, these people are living outside of history – history there is replaced by religion. They don’t see themselves as a part of the rest of the world, because their sense of family is so tight and strong that they are unable to think themselves belonging to some other, abstract group of people.

MGT: For the cover of the collection you chose Leda and the Swan, and I’m wondering what made you select this famous image? Does it have something to do with that graceful tension present throughout the lives documented in this collection?

VM: The reason behind this choice is metamorphosis. The idea of transformation is the key to understanding the image of Leda and the Swan–the same idea is also the driving force in Collected Body. The book opens with a “Preface” in which a beast becomes a tree, and a tree – a beast; a stone becomes a beast, and a beast – a stone. Further in the book, the poem “Opera” is all metamorphosis: silver fish becomes a silver bullet, rows of theatre coat racks become vineyard rows, and so on. Almost every poem is carried through by the imagery of transformation. Every thing is caught in the moment of becoming something else (“Are they jerking off or shaking dice” as in “Match,” or, the sound of teeth being cleaned is confused with the sound of the locust in “Love”). It is a world where every image is a kaleidoscope of other images. To continue with what I was saying about people in M. and P., it’s the kind of imagination that doesn’t go outside of the immediate world, and therefore instead of expanding horizons, it expands the limits and meanings of the objects at hand.

And of course, the very process of writing is one of transformation: if I want to conceive a poem with my muse Leda, I cannot come to her as Valzhyna Mort who makes soft-boiled eggs for breakfast. I have to come to her as a poet Valzhyna Mort.

MGT: Your poems seem to chronicle the human predicament lovingly, even in the lipstick smears in “My Father’s Breed,” and the child who hits her mother. Did you always write poetry? When did you start?

VM: Yes, I always wrote poetry. I began as a teenager, having read too much Russian poetry of the Silver Age. I was dying for some contemporary poets then–the dead ones still above my head–but contemporary poetry was not easily available in Belarus. I would read an essay that mentions some poet and quotes two lines, and I’d copy them and marvel at them for years. The name of Joseph Brodsky was on everybody’s lips (everybody’s but for our Soviet literature teachers’), but nobody had a single book of his. I remember I heard his poem for the first time, read by memory, and had to spend several years hunting for more (those pre-Internet times!). When already in college I had collections of Lorca, Rilke, anthology of Nobel Laureates in Poetry, and a small anthology of contemporary Polish poets, all in Russian translation. They made me want to write, really badly. It was as if they took a bandage off some horribly itchy sore of mine and said “It’s ok to scratch it.” And so I went to scratch the hell out of it. And every time I read my favorite poets, it is as if that permission has just been renewed.

MGT: How was the process of writing this collection different from Factory of Tears? Did you have a different aim?

VM: When writing Collected Body, I tried not to analyze my writing process. When it was finished, the book itself was a surprise: where it came from was, and still is, a mystery to me.

After Factory of Tears I wrote a lot of throwaways. Then, in 2009 I left for a month and a half long residency in the North of Germany, a tiny island in the North Sea, called Sylt. It was early summer, but Sylt was cold, windy and incredibly lit. It got dark only for about an hour, from 2 to 3 am. From 6 to 9 pm the light was most intense, noon-like, saturating the dunes, the poppies, and the very few orange-skinned locals. People swam naked in cold water and ate barely salted fresh herring covered with thin rings of yellow onion. With me I had Rilke, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Cesare Pavese, and Anne Carson. I took my first walk from the apartment to the ocean, and “Crossword” was written, and it uncorked the rest of the book at once. I had the first draft of the manuscript by the end of summer.

So, Collected Body is different from Factory of Tears firstly precisely in that: Factory of Tears was about putting together a few years of poems. Poems in Collected Body were written for it, shaping and reshaping each other. I knew I was telling a certain story. It was never “now, what story do these poems tell?” Instead, it was “what kind of poems do I need to continue telling this story.”

MGT: This collection has a number of longer pieces, such as in “Aunt Anna,” and “Zhenya,” they read as prose poems. These poems are like miniature novellas within the larger work. Did these poems offer you a luxury of space to expand on larger truths? How did they manifest themselves?

VM: Yes, the luxury of space and speed–high speed over a large space. Despite the fact that they are unarguably longer, over ten pages each, I think of them as brief poems. There are no line breaks there, and thus there are no, what I would think as, “real” pauses. To some extend, in my mind, “Mockingbird Hotel” is longer than “Aunt Anna,” because “Mockingbird Hotel” asks the reader to pause more often, to slow down. “Aunt Anna” and “Zhenya” are on one breath–the kind of exhale you do after diving without any gear. In actuality, the space these poems take is even bigger than it might seem, because many shorter poems in the book are still acting, whether they want it or not, as the continuation of these long ones. For instance, “Love” and “Match” belong inside “Aunt Anna,” while “Unter den Linden” belongs someplace inside “Zhenya.”

MGT: What poem or poet could best describe your life right now?

VM: I think iambic pentameter is God’s gift to help us live through winter. And as the winter approaches, I’m drawn more and more to Hart Crane’s Voyages and to Gjertrud Schnackenberg. I enjoy reading Ilya Kaminsky’s Musica Humana along with Osip Mandelstam. I’ve enjoyed Robin Robertson’s recent collection The Wrecking Light. Right now I’m reading Into the Snow, a new translation into English of a fascinating Russian poet Gennady Aygi.

MGT: What are you working on now?

VM: I’m leisurely translating a poet from Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, Shamshad Abdulaev.

Maria Garcia Teutsch’s most recent chapbook, Chronicles on Violence, was published by the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, California. This collection has also been turned into a cinépoem with audio produced by Anne Waldman and Ambrose Bye, with an original score by Jillian Mukavetz and Ambrose Bye.  She is editor-in-chief of two literary journals: Ping-Pong, and The Homestead Review.  For more information:

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