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One Onion Layer After Another: A Conversation with Valzhyna Mort

PEN America talks to poet Valzhyna Mort as she discusses her tabula rasa, the silence between notes and words, and Bach’s “Chaconne for Solo Violin.” Poet Dante Micheaux, with whom we had a previous conversation, also weighs in with three question for Valzhyna. 

 

What are you reading?

I’m reading The Orchards of Syon by Geoffrey Hill, and My Past and Thoughts by Alexander Herzen.

What’s something that has influenced your poetry, recently or in the past, that’s not poetry?

Opera, especially the operatic dialogue with folk tunes, and the relationship between the choir and a single voice. Summer days, winter days, and autumn days.. Nature, the way it appears in Andrej Tarkovsky’s films as a place-panacea for emotional pain, the primary source of memories and dreams. What his nature teaches us—that the other side of beauty is always horror, and so we learn to be frightened of the beautiful and be memorized by the horrible. Also, the layouts of my childhood condo and family summer house have played a big role in the shaping of my memory. That is to say, our old family wallpaper and curtains have influenced my poetry a great deal.

Is there a particular book (poetry or not) that you turn to for inspiration?

When writing Collected Body I couldn’t put down Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, collected poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Cesare Pavese’s Disaffections, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and The Beauty of the Husband. I’m always at home when I read Joseph Brodsky’s A Part of Speech, Vasil Bykau’s Sign of Misfortune, Andrej Platonov’s Chevengur, my old photocopies (before I could afford foreign books) of Ted Hughes and Hart Crane. I love Marina Tsvetaeva so much I cannot read her—I just sit and look at the two volumes of her collected works. I would have been a different poet if not for late Rafal Wojaczek and Anna Swir.

What’s your favorite line of poetry—ever?

Right now, since I’m reading Geoffrey Hill, it is “…Tell me, is this the way / to the Orchards of Syon / where I left you thinking I would return?” As for my favorite ever, it’s probably Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Ya znayu pravdu – vse prezhnije pravdy proch!” (I know the truth – away all other truths!

Name 1-2 contemporary poets whose work you are interested in and explain why it appeals to you.

It’s not easy to pick two, but I’m going to say Gjertrud Schnackenberg. The accents in her lines create such texture that the poems appear three-dimensional. Her rhymes comfort and discomfort. More so, while her poems are never confessional, her rhymes seem to be so acutely personal! When she writes about death, death is present in the poem, realistic and lyrical at the same time (“Sisters, it’s time that one of you takes down / the dead man’s clothes blown stiff upon line.”). I love Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa. When I reread it I feel Mandelshtam’s black sea stir as it crushes against my pillow, I feel that poetry comes to me closer than ever.

Three questions from poet Dante Micheaux:

How does the Belarusian landscape factor into your poetic thinking?

The village where I spent my childhood summers, away from the city and school, is the landscape that has become my tabula rasa, the primary point of any departure. If I were to strip myself off everything, one onion layer after another, what’s going to be left of me in the end is that village. It’s unbreakable, an atom. Also, it’s the only place where freedom is possible for me. The space is open, endless, and empty, and it demands nothing of you. There is no ocean to bathe in, no mountains to climb. There is flat land, covered by wild grass, and the flat sky above it, and you can walk west, east, south, and north. That’s the greatest freedom I know and want.

Does your poetry have any relationship to a particular music?

My work doesn’t have an elaborately particular relationship to music. Poetic form of course shares a lot with musical form but still, poem’s dues, unlike those of a non-verbal musical piece, are always to language, its anthropology, its immobilized resources. There are musical pieces that I love, and learn a lot from, in terms of… first of all, breath, then the relationship between a pattern and its variations, high and low, forte and piano, legato and staccato, and finally about the element that music and poetry share most closely – about silence. Mozart famously said that music is not in the notes but in the silence between them. Replace notes by words and you’ve just learned something important from music. There’s also a different kind of silence; take Bach’s Chaconne for Solo Violin, for instance, it leaves you contently speechless for a long time. Writing while Bach’s Chaconne is playing would be like clapping during the performance of this piece.

Would you explain the ways in which masculinity works in your poems?

I’m not sure what “masculinity” means.

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