My personal history of violence is quite visible, yes, and it challenges first of all myself.
Valzhyna Mort’s previous two poetry collections, I’m as Thin as Your Eyelashes and Factory of Tears, garnered international acclaim, and she quickly developed a reputation as an electrifying reader. Mort has received numerous awards and fellowships throughout Europe and the US, and has served as poet in residence at the University of Baltimore. A native of Minsk, Belarus, she recently published her first collection of poems written in English, Collected Body. You can read our review here. We talked to Mort recently about Collected Body and her work as a poet.
Welcome to CalJoPo! Collected Body was your first collection written in English, rather than translated from your native Belarusian like Factory of Tears. Why did you choose English as the language for this book? Has it been translated into Belarusian or any other languages yet?
I have translated parts of the book into Belarusian, which proved to be a tedious task. When I started translating, I was still completely immersed in the English syntax, in the imagination and consciousness of English, and, while it wasn’t hard to find Belarusian synonyms for English words, changing syntactical structures was like giving oneself a haircut with a kitchen knife. In a poem, word order is more than just syntax; it is a part of a poem’s punctuation, part of its poetic form, which are the poem’s most sacred elements. Moving the words around seemed a blasphemous and ungrateful task. A number of poems were translated into German, but I don’t have to participate there.
As for choosing to write in English, it wasn’t a conscious decision with the weighing of pros and cons. I had been reading exclusively in English when I started writing Collected Body, and writing has always been a dialogue with reading for me, so it was only natural to start responding in the same language.
I think the biggest step toward English was when I started rereading the Russian authors who made me fall in love with literature, in the English translation. At some point returning to Marina Tsvetaeva, Joseph Brodsky, or Andrej Platonov in their original Russian would leave me completely ravished. Their language meant more than it was supposed to on the page. I would be immediately thrown back into my childhood in my parents’ library, where I’d have to relive the ecstasy of reading books not because I wanted to be a writer, and not because I read a great review or received an enthusiastic recommendation. Instead, I’d pick a book from my parents’ bookshelf, randomly, because I didn’t yet know there are books I might not enjoy. I find the loss of this innocence unbearable, and the trick that worked for me is to read those authors in English – English translation doesn’t allow any baggage to intrude into my reading.
Can you talk about your shift in process from composing poems in Belarusian to English? What does the process look like? Also, you mention in an interview that you had to make the choice to write in Belarusian rather than in Russian, your first language. Can you talk about the process of having many languages at hand and how you choose in which to compose?
Let me make it clear that I never wrote in my first language. Belarusian is my second language, learned in middle school. It was never spoken in our home, but it has never been disrespected, as it’s often the case. I was brought up by my grandmother who spoke a heavy-handed pigeon of Russian, Belarusian, and Polish. I must have been lying when I said that writing in Belarusian was a choice. Continuing writing in it was a choice, yes, but initially, I started writing in it because I wanted to respond to the poets I was reading. Russian poets have always left me positively speechless. Belarusian poets and the language itself, have invited me to a dialogue.
As for the shift in process, the shift is significant, but I won’t credit this significance to the switch in language. I have changed as a writer since Factory of Tears, and the process has changed accordingly. Writing has become editing. Form has taken over content. English poetry has taught me the value of punctuation and silence – the value of the visual, especially the landscape.
As you said in an interview with CBS Baltimore that you wrote much of Collected Body during writing residences, in particular at Sylt Quelle on the German island of Sylt in the North Sea. Two of your poems are even named for this island. How much time did you spend there? How did your environment and work during this residency affect or alter your vision for the book? In addition to Sylt, were there other specific places that influenced you?
My time on Sylt had the most crucial effect on the book. It was a place where I realized that I was writing Collected Body. A child of a landlocked country, I was surrounded by water; a city person, I found myself in a barely populated place, where instead of people-watching, one watches the light and the water, and has to rethink the hours of the day. So far into the North, the light has completely different coloring, texture, and habits. The light is as yellow as raw onions over fresh herring that you’d wash down with yellow beer. It gets especially intense after 6 p.m. and the sunset doesn’t come until very late, but even then, it doesn’t really get dark. The white dunes are spotted with red poppies and pink rose bushes, and the water is winter-cold but people come and swim completely naked, especially elderly people, seemingly in their seventies and eighties – they’d strip completely and play badminton at the water’s edge, or just stand with hands at their sides facing the sun. I was struck by the eroticism of an elderly body. By its freedom. Also, by how differently one perceives nakedness in the cold. I feel that on Sylt, I was freed from the Eastern European landscape and its consciousness. I learned to belong to myself.
Did you begin writing the poems in Collected Body with the intent of journeying through family history? Or were you writing poems that coalesced naturally and without design? Did you set out to tell a certain story or to write in the form of the prose poem?
I don’t remember having a particular intent. I imagine I was just happy to be writing. There are certain things you know before you actually know them, and that’s what happened here. Now it seems obvious that every new poem was a new step on this journey through family history, but then, it was just another new poem that still needed work. I’m not a poet with a daily routine and plan. In my writing process I value the unexpectedness of when this process decides to start. When it comes unexpectedly and invites me to work, I know I’m working on a poem. When I sit down in front of a white page because I have time, I know it’s an exercise.
I didn’t set out to tell a story in the form of the prose poem. In fact, I did everything to avoid it – I don’t know why! I believe there exists a perfect form for each poem, and that once a poet finds this particular form for this particular poem, the poem is ready, safe for some details. The prose poem form, in the case of “Aunt Anna” and “Zhenya,” allowed me to use the figurative language of poetry, and at the same time to use prosaic transitions. It’s the need for transitions (not even from one paragraph to another, but within the paragraphs) that made the case for a prose poem. For me, verse, no matter how narrative, has to leap.
Your combination of verse poems and prose poems is unusual and intriguing. Did you have particular books or authors in mind as models while you were writing?
I didn’t have any particular models in mind. With me I always had Cesare Pavese’s Disaffections, books with collected poems of Rainer Maria Rilke and of Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband. Maybe those were Pavese’s and Carson’s long lines that led me too far to the right side of the page and left me there… I won’t want to analyze. I also listened to a lot of Franz Liszt, and his music couldn’t but shape those prose poems somewhat.
How did you decide to order the book? Did you intentionally try to frame the prose poems with the verse poems?
When it came to ordering the book, I often felt I had two elephants on my hands, and I wasn’t sure if I needed to hide them or exhibit them. In the end, I hope that the verse poems frame the prose poems just as much as they are framed by the prose poems. It was important for me to make sure that a reader who reads the book faithfully from beginning to end, will transition from long verse poems to even longer prose poems with ease and, more so, even with a need to do so. I thought of it in terms of a long music piece where the pace and the tone change and then work themselves back into the main theme, only to divert from it again and again.
In the review I note that Collected Body gives you feminist credibility whether or not you desire it. Activist bell hooks offers this definition for the diversified concept of feminism: “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” With its unbiased attitude toward male and female characters, do you see your book as a feminist work? What does that term mean for a Belarusian author?
I certainly didn’t intend to write a “feminist work.” It seems to me that the notions of American feminism are not applicable to any of my female characters. They do have to perform their gender, but they also have to survive war, hunger, and exile, and the need for survival sees no gender, at least in their circumstances. The rules are the same for everybody, which is to say that there are no rules. These women are denied opportunities as much as their fathers and brothers. They are child-bearing machines without any children; housewives without a house, kitchen, or food; they are travelers but they travel against their will and desire. More so, they are rural people who honestly love the land they live and work on, so their priorities are different from, for instance, mine. It’s me who turns their pastures and woods into my “setting” and “landscape.” In the end, my attitude toward the characters is as unbiased as it is purple or cold – gender is simply never a question here, it is, rather, a statement: here’s how these who-happen-to-be-women were surviving while their husbands, fathers, and brothers kept dying like flies.
“Sylt I” is a poem in which four daughters and their father bathe at the beach. You write: “It bothers her, what did he find there after all? / So she touches herself under the towel. / It is easy to find where he has been digging — the dug-up spot is still soft.” The image of digging and reshaping a body, especially juxtaposed with the presence of the father, is disturbing. There are other moments in the book, too, that suggest abuse, particularly violence and sexual abuse, yet the tone often feels matter-of-fact. How do you expect the reader to respond to these moments? Do you intend to challenge conventional thought on negative or disturbing experiences?
First of all, Lisa, let me just say, that you gave such a perceptive reading of my book in your review and in your questions – thank you.
I’ve indeed received questions about the theme of incest in this poem. The poem certainly invites such a reading, even though it wasn’t my intention. But I’m not surprised – it is a sexual story and sexuality and violence always go hand in hand in language. To think of it, I did wish, from the very beginning, that it indeed were my intention, but kept insisting that I had a different story to tell.
As for abuse, if I challenge anything, it is first of all myself and my own fears. Belarus is a country with a very violent recent past (out of all the countries, Belarus took the hardest hit during World War II), and this past has been relived and retold and reenacted under the motto of “let’s never forget” since I remember myself. The stories of war violence have been a matter-of-fact narrative in my life since kindergarten. At the same time there was sexual violence going on, raped children, portraits of sexual offenders hanging at the entrance to every apartment block. For a seven year old, it was scary but also very mysterious – what exactly was done and how and why. Nobody talked about the actual nature of the act, we were only warned, often on a daily basis, not to enter our apartment building with a stranger. When a dead body was found in a park, deformed, naked, the pictures where shown on the evening news and printed in the papers, without any blurs or warnings. We were people who were supposed to be used to such sights, I guess. It made a great impression on me then. To exercise my “will,” I’d make myself stare at those pictures without turning away, or try to imagine what it means to be abused by the garbage shoot behind the elevators. That was the refrain of my elementary school years. But again, one has to see a larger picture not to be misled by such a gruesome story. And the larger picture was that we were living in a very safe place and time. Nobody had any babysitters. At seven, you’ll come from school by yourself, by public transport, and unlock the door and reheat your food and stay by yourself until your parents return in the evening. Or, you’ll take the metro and two different buses and then a tram all by yourself to another side of the city to go to a swimming pool without a cell phone or money. What I’m saying with this, is that my personal history of violence is quite visible, yes, and it challenges first of all myself.