The transformation of experience
Valzhyna Mort in conversation
with Louis Esterhuizen & Charl-Pierre Naudé
Valzhyna Mort was born in 1981 in Minsk, Belarus. Her first book, I’m as Thin as Your Eyelashes, was published in 2005 and comprised of poetry, prose and selected translations from Polish and English. She received the Crystal of Vilenica award in Slovenia in 2004, and the Hubert Burda Poetry Prize for young writers in 2008. Since 2006 Mort has lived in the USA, where she is a writer-in-residence at the University of Baltimore. Her second book of poetry, Factory of Tears, came out in 2008. It was the first bilingual Belarusian-English poetry book ever published in the USA. Set in a land haunted by the spectre of a post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and marked by the violence of the recent past, intense moments of joy lighten the darkness. “Grandmother” – as a person and an idea – is a recurring presence in poems, and startlingly fresh images – desire described as the approaching bus that immediately pulls away or pain as the embrace of a very strong god “with an unshaven cheek that scratches when he kisses you” – occupy and haunt the mind. Engaged, voracious and memorable, Factory of Tears is the remarkable American debut of a rising international poetry star.
Part I >>> Louis Esterhuizen
Valzhyna, the Irish Times referred to you as “a rising star of the international poetry world” and you are generally regarded as one of the most promising younger poets today. Are these high levels of expectation not very intimidating for you as a poet who is trying to establish herself in a new language environment?
Every second mentioning of such references, even most flattering ones, turns them into clichés which then follow you everywhere, catchy as they are, most often they are unnecessary. Here in the States, I’m often referred to as a “Belarusian poet” which to me is a “pink elephant”, a “white crow” – nationality and poetry don’t go together. If anything, a poet runs away from the nationality – from home altogether, and ideally – from the “poetry world”.
You were born in Minsk, Belarus, and lived in a number of different cities before you moved to Washington in 2006. Yet, your poetry remains strongly Belarusian in its themes and imagery. Is this an advantage or a disadvantage for you at present? Surely your current (English) readership has limited understanding and knowledge of Belarusian culture and history?
This puzzles me because I don’t know what is so particularly Belarusian about my poetry. To me poetry is always about the transformation of experience, and once experience is transformed, it doesn’t belong to any particular place. This summer I was writing about Minsk while on a short trip to Venice. No need to say I ended up with a description of a non-existent hybrid between the two. I pick up its traces everywhere I go – I wrote about Minsk in Warsaw, in Berlin, at Sylt on the North Sea, in New York. My Minsk doesn’t exist, or if it does, it is like Adam Zagajewsky’s Lviv – “it is everywhere”. An image we create is never a mirror, but a compromise between reality and the secret life.
Belarus didn’t give me much when it comes to taste or color – it is quite a bland place in that regard. Salt and pepper, white in winter and green in summer – that’s all of it pretty much. The melancholy, the boredom of landscape and dull sensuality was substituted with very high social temperature, social absurdity, this sad aggression of people around, our nostalgias, our isolation, our post-World War II memory, our history that nobody can put a finger on – it is like mice living in the house, you hear its tiny paws running through the walls, you find your food eaten up in the morning, you are angry at it, disgusted, want to catch it but the mice traps are banned in your country because your president stepped into one as a child and hurt himself.
In 2008 your second collection of poems, Factory of Tears, was published by Copper Canyon Press. This was the first Belarusian-English poetry book ever published in the USA. For the English versions of your poems you collaborated with the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Franz Wright, and his wife, Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright. How did this process work and are you satisfied with the end result?
I’m very satisfied. When the question of translation of my poems into English came up, I had already had experience of translating, other poets, mainly from Polish into Belarusian. In fact, I had published a book of translations of a Polish poet Rafal Wojaczek into Belarusian by that time. However, approaching my own work seemed to be a different endeavor. The process of translation comes closest to the process of editing and the idea of going back to what I saw as finished poems and rewriting them, resuming editing them, seemed like a very ungrateful and ruthless job, so I was very happy to hand it over to Franz and Elizabeth. I worked with them on the initial stages of literal translation, provided all the necessary commentary, and later on the final stage I had the final word. I remember Franz told me then that for him the basis of translation was in translating the idiom. I agree with that.
Things that are lost in translation often prove to be invaluable in the first place. Images translate, music translates, a story translates. It is not easy (if it’s easy it’s just bad!!), and requires enormous effort of patience, dedication and mastery but what is found in translation in the end is worth the work.
Obviously translation must be a very important issue for you. Would you care to share with us some of your views concerning translation and its importance as literary process?
Most of the literature we read, we read it in translation. Many of us fall in love with literature while reading translations. When a teenager, I read Lorca, Auden, Henry Miller, all of them in translation. I read Dante and Homer in translation, Ovid in translation, the Bible in translation, leave alone my childhood books – Hans Christian Andersen, Astrid Lingren, Gianni Rodari, Alexander Dumas, Jules Vernes – everything in translation. Translation is essential in the literary process. Let the writers complain and be suspicious – the readers need translation. A great translator should be valued as much or even more than a great writer. As for young writers, there’s no better way of learning the craft than translating.
You have performed at many poetry festivals and favourable comment is often made about your ability to move your audiences. Is the oral aspect an important feature of your poetry? How do you go about preparing for such a reading? Do you, for example, select specific poems for a specific audience? Do you read in Belarusian or the English translation?
Oral poetic tradition is certainly very important to me. Poetry comes alive only when it’s read out loud. So does great prose. Writing a poem I speak it out, and consider the poem “written down” only after it has been read to an audience, even if it is just one person. That was how I read poetry before I started writing myself – Marina Tsvetaeva, Joseph Brodsky, Rafal Wojaczek, those poets who were most important in the very beginning always called for the voice. Otherwise it would have been like a dare game: put a frog into your mouth and read Tsvetaeva without opening it. It would have been a cruel challenge!
As for preparing for the reading, I used to hold off choosing the poem before I see and get a feel for the audience but now I find it more interesting to try and tune the audience into me rather than tune into them. Reading at many festivals can become a drag. Staying true to myself during such events is more challenging than choosing the poems to read.
You have a strong musical background. In fact, according to the forementioned Green Hill-interview, you even considered becoming a professional musician in your youth. In what way did music influence your poetry, if any at all?
Music taught me to go beyond language. Words employed in a poem function on the same level with sounds in a musical piece – a poet not only speaks with words, but also listens through words, and what she hears is poetry that exists there, outside the linguistic.
The “grandmother” – as person and idea – is a recurring presence in your poems. Does the concept (memory) of a “grandmother” have a special significance for you?
I believe we have certain people and landscapes that are primary for us. Usually those are the people and landscapes of our childhood that become ultimate signified against which all later people and landscapes are measured and evaluated. That’s the significance of childhood memory for me. It crosses out the possibility of tabula rasa. There’s no nothingness, no starting from scratch, no blank page. Every new person, every new landscape are laid out on those primaries and find their meaning only in contrast with them.
Then you also don’t hesitate to tackle “big”, nationalistic themes in your poetry. For example, the following comment from The New Yorker is quoted on the webpage of Blue Flower Arts: “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.” Is this sentiment truly at the heart of your poetic endeavours or is it merely something which is being attributed to your poetry?
The words “struggle”, “native”, “clear identity” make me sweat. Everybody grows up and matures in a certain national narrative, but I feel no historicity of that, only my personal accident of getting into it. There is no difference between my neighbors and the government, the flag and the bed sheet, the constitution and an omelet recipe. The national is the most trivial, most limiting, a poet should run away from it, really far away, across the borders, across an ocean if one can until national is reduced into one detail of a big story of an individual. I think the native landscape, the landscape of childhood is more important than a country it exists in.
As for the language, my fascination with Belarusian is linguistic, musical, poetic. My parents never spoke it at home, as for my ancestors – I cannot even say. It’s neither a mother tongue, nor the language I speak daily today, nor the language I feel most comfortable speaking. If anything, it is the language of my guts – I don’t know how else to put it. There is no one particular language I think in. When I drop and break something, when at home by myself, I never know which language I’d say “oh fuck” in. My mouth opens and I still don’t know. I breathe out and still don’t know. I start speaking and still don’t know. The phrase comes out randomly like a lottery ball. I have no control of it. Vladimir Nabokov wrote that only fools think in a language, that writers think in images. And I hold on to that to keep sane.
Part II >>> Charl-Pierre Naudé
Valzhyna, I was asked to pose a couple of “guest questions” to you, because I spent some time with you on Sylt, compliments of the Sylt artists’ residency programme and in partcicular, compliments of the director, Indra Wussow, and her staff. Thank you Indra, if you are out there somewhere … which, no doubt, you are. Thank you for what you, and people like you, do to broker contact between artistic creatures from different parts of the world to meet and talk.
Sylt was great. It was the most productive and the strongest time for me when it comes to writing. Everything just came together – the sea, the solitude, the light, the herring, the wind, the nudes, our lunches and conversations at Sylt-Quelle in those orange chairs.
Anyway, Valzhyna, you wore my sweater for two months – and now is payback time. (Sylt is an island in the North Sea, off Germany, and Valzhyna – according to her own admission – does not spend money on “winter clothes”, only on summer dresses. Summer happens to be not always so warm on Sylt … Lovely, utterly lovely, cool summer. Cool, cold summer.)
If I ask “irrelevant” questions, it is because I am going to ask you about the type of things we spoke about. We did not that often speak about poetry. And, so I felt – and so I thought you might be feeling as well – if poetry is worth anything, what the heck, it can speak for itself. There are, however, many things that impinge on poetry. So I would like to think we spent some time speaking about these things.
I think I like Louis more.
While I was on Sylt I found myself reading South African newspapers on the internet, even obscure ones, obsessively, and getting involved in some public spats in the South African press about things that are so particular to South Africa that you cannot speak to foreigners about it, and because, simply, it doesn’t matter anywhere else, or maybe they are over that type of thing. I mean, in SA I don’t read the SA papers every day like I did on Sylt. On Sylt, I did. For readers that don’t know, Sylt is very isolated, very, exquisitely so, beautifully, almost extra-naturally.
So: I told myself I am just a little homesick, in a kind of healthy way.
But when I came back to South Africa, being on the plane, while the realisation took hold of me that I am again going to be in my own environment with its so particular, so local dialectic, it’s points of reference that are so sickeningly, so unsalvageably specific, yes maybe even backward, definitely backward, mostly – I got sick. I got sick on the plane. Now look, it might have been aeroplane food. But let’s not unneccesarily blame friendly factors, not without an inquest, just because they dive into the Pacific or the Amazon from time to time.
Do you experience a similar kind of paradox sometimes? (I would admit freely that I would not be the kind of poet and writer that I turned out to be without the categories that my country gave me. Did I say categories? Without the cells of imprisonment that it imposes on me.) (“Odi et amo”. I love AND I hate. That poem by Ovid that those lines come from is redeeming.) Any comment?
I read your soliloquy and laughed a lot and wept a little. When I return, it’s never the returning. When I come home, it’s never really home. So mine is a different situation. I basically never get off that airplane and it’s a choice not to.
Are there historical factors possibly particular to Belarus, which might shape a Belarus writer in a way that a you as a reader would recognise in a work in translation, even if you did not know anything about the writer?
I think it’s not the writer who makes his original language recognized in translation, but a translator who is not good. I don’t think there’s anything particular Belarusian about Belarusian poetry – I hope there’s not, otherwise it would be its end. Something that most Belarusian writers share is lack of tradition and desire for this tradition, nostalgia for the golden age, enthusiasm to scrape the corners to put together Belarusian tradition. This is a big mistake, I believe. If we don’t have our own, we should just go take what we like from others. The only way of taking it is translating it. So here we are back with translation again. Translate Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and with that make them ours.
And, just to get away from the tyranny of the collective, which is what poetry in so many ways tries to do, tell us why you like chocolate so much?
How is poetry the tyranny of the collective? Isn’t it poetry that teaches us to invent our own language, and our own language subsequently makes us think differently, uniquely, makes us aware of our autonimity, and … of all that chocolate of the world to be potentially eaten by us?
Thank you for the interview, Valzhyna. Also for the poem underneath which we place as teaser of your poetry in general. We wish you all the best and will follow your career with interest.
doesn’t know pain
she believes that
famine is nutrition
poverty is wealth
thirst is water
her body like a grapevine winding around a walking stick
her hair bees’ wings
she swallows the sun-speckles of pills
and calls the internet the telephone to america
her heart has turned into a rose the only thing you can do
is smell it
pressing yourself to her chest
there’s nothing else you can do with it
only a rose
her arms like stork’s legs
and i am on my knees
howling like a wolf
at the white moon of your skull
i’m telling you it’s not pain
just the embrace of a very strong god
one with an unshaven cheek that prickles when he kisses you.
© Translation: 2008, Valzhyna Mort, Franz Wright and Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright
From: The Factory of Tears
Publisher: Copper Canyon Press, 2008