An Interview with Valzhyna Mort
from New Letters, Vol 79 No 2 - 2013
Valzhyna Mort's first collection of poetry, I'm as Thin as Your Eyelashes, was published in Belarus in 2005. Born in Minsk, she was introduced to the American public in 2008 with the publication of Factory of Tears (Copper Canyon, 2008). Her latest collection, Collected Body (Copper Canyon, 2011), is her first composed entirely in English. A recipient of the Crystal of Vilencia award in Slovenia (2005), the Burda Poetry Prize in Germany (2008), The Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry (2010), and a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship (2010), she is the youngest writer to ever appear on the cover of Poets & Writers magazine.
The New Yorker has said that 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." She is variously described in the media as "a risen star," "electrifying," "a fireball." In this interview—originally recorded for New Letters on the Air and edited for print—we found her thoughtful and perceptive. Mort discusses her native language (a language of lullabies, she says), the process of translating her work from Belarusian to English, her native country and its historical struggles, motherhood, and the process of writing.
Mort received a bachelor of arts degree from the State University of Linguistics in Minsk and a master of fine arts in creative writing from American University. She has been a resident poet at Literarisches Colloquium in Berlin, Germany, and Internationales Haus der Autoren Graz, Austria, and other places. She is a visiting assistant professor at Cornell University.
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NEW LETTERS: You grew up in Belarus; did your ancestors come from the city or a rural area?
VALZHYNA MORT: My parents are city people, but my grandmother Yanina was born in a small village in the central part of Belarus. The village is called Padladze. Her parents were forced to move there during collectivization. They were farmers and owned land, which wasn't permitted. So they had to start working at a collective farm in Padladze, where they were given a small house. My grandmother was born in the kitchen of that house.
NL: In the kitchen? Not in the bedroom, but in the kitchen?
MORT: Closer to the water.
NL: And you were born in Minsk, but you spent summers in the countryside.
MORT: Yes. It is a story of every Eastern-European child: spending summers in the countryside with your grandmother. First you love it; later, when you get older and easily bored, you protest against it. But there was no way out of it for me. In fact, I don't remember ever spending a summer in the city. Every time I find myself in the city in summer, I'm a lost person. I don't know what to do with myself. I need to be, you know, in an open field, in a garden, in a hammock on the veranda.
NL: I noticed that you won the Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship in 2009. Was that to work on Collected Body?
MORT: Yes. To work on Collected Body and, well, to live while doing so. It was a grant that really saved my life.
NL: The Lannan Foundation always finds the best poets. I mean, it has a history of locating people and really helping them develop.
MORT: It is a great honor to be among the "Lannan poets," and I do hope the foundation people are not regretting picking my work for their support. A person who was in touch with me then is Jo Chapman. Once we had the fellowship business figured out, I kept turning to her for recommendations on new books and authors. It seemed there wasn't a young poet she hadn't read.
NL: Factory of Tears is written in Belarusian and was translated by a well-known poet and translator, Franz Wright, and the translator Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright. I read that you have translated some of your own work, as well. What made you work with the Wrights to come up with Factory of Tears?
MORT: Luck, accident. I met both Franz and Elizabeth in Ireland in 2004, at the Cuirt International Literary Festival. We found ourselves together in the same event, which was a reading of poetry for children. I read my poems in my own English translation then. After the reading, Franz offered me his help with translating my work. We started corresponding. I would do a word-by-word translation of the poems, and write everything else there is to know about them. Then they would do their translation and send it to me, and I'd follow-up with corrections or remarks. So, it was that kind of collaboration, back and forth, until the three of us were exhausted, that is to say: happy with the result.
NL: What a great process. You must have learned something about your own poetry in that process.
MORT: Oh, definitely. Translation is a deep reading of a poem. To some extent, a good translator knows a poem better than its writer. And the process of translation is but editing. Translating the poems with the Wrights gave me a chance to go back to the work that I thought was already finished and edit those poems more, you know?
I've just said that I thought the poems were finished, which is, of course, blasphemy, because poems are never finished. They're only abandoned, as Valéry said. I had a chance to turn to these abandoned poems and work on them a little longer.
NL: I wonder if there's one in particular where you discovered something by having to go back and examine it again. Did you have to tell Franz and Elizabeth everything they needed to know about the poem that ended up really affecting how it came out in English or made it different than what you first thought it would be?
MORT: Well, let me think. There was something discovered in every poem, really. But, let me talk about the poem "A Poem About White Apples." A white apple is a very common kind of an apple in Eastern Europe, like Granny Smith apples or those gala apples here. Nobody perceives them as a poetic metaphor in any way. In English, however, nobody takes white apples literally. Everybody assumes that it has to be primarily a metaphor. In English, the poem begins simply,
White apples, first apples of summer,
with skin as delicate as a baby's,
crisp like white winter snow.
So, in translation, the poem started functioning on a metaphorical level as a primary level of the poem. For instance, I was reading at a college where they had an interpreter in sign language. Before reading this poem, I introduced it, explaining that it is a poem about apples first of all and only then everything else. After the reading, the translator approached me and thanked me for that explanation, because, she said, her intention was to translate "white apples" as "white breasts." She read the poem as a motherhood poem—a poem about the nourishment a baby gets from a mother. She didn't even think of translating it literally.
NL: Do you switch back and forth between writing in English and Belarusian?
MORT: Yes. Collected Body was written in English. Since then I've been writing in English and Belarusian, depending on what I'm reading. When I started writing Collected Body, I had been living in the United States for some time, and I was reading exclusively in English. I was on this marathon of reading in English. I was reading Eastern-European poets in English translation, the poets who once wounded me into writing. Reading them in English was a matter of precaution. They couldn't wound me in translation.
I always write in response to what I read. If I'm not reading anything, I won't be able to write anything. I've said that certain poets wound you, and so you keep on going after them, and because they have hurt you, only they have the power of healing you, and in that conversation, I think, you're able to find yourself, to restore yourself again.
NL: I know you've been an avid reader your entire life. Can you remember the first time a poet "hurt" you?
MORT: Yes. I was a teenager, and literature for me equaled big novels. I was going out with a boy who was a big poetry reader. His father was a poet, so he read a lot of poetry. Once he turned to me and read a few lines. "What is that?" I asked. And he said, "it's a poem by Joseph Brodsky." It kind of threw me off completely. It confused me, because the words of the poem were simple, but there was something about the way they were arranged that was confusing; it seemed like you could untie them easily, but you couldn't. I remember the poem said something like, "And the world turns to the left while turning to the right." I carried those lines for a long time in my head, trying to untie them, trying to understand.
It was a Christmas poem, and I started looking for it in poetry books. I wanted to read it from beginning to end. It was very hard to find a book by Joseph Brodsky in a bookstore, because he had been a banned poet for a long time. I asked my high school literature teacher about him, and I remember very well that she said Brodsky wasn't a poet. Belarus didn't have much of a publishing industry, and books were imported from Russia. Brodsky's books were expensive, so the sellers were reluctant to buy his collections for the Belarusian market. It took me a long time—several years—to finally see that poem. In those few years, meanwhile, I had read a lot of poetry.
NL: Did you ever meet Brodsky?
MORT: No. He's not only one of my favorite poets, I also love his essays.
NL: Tell me about the Belarusian language. Is it Russian? Can you help codify it for me?
MORT: It is a separate language from Russian. But it does belong to the same language group—Slavic languages together with Polish, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovenian, Slovakian, and a few others. It's a large group of languages, and all of them have similarities but also have quite a bit of differences. The Belarusian language is usually described as a soft language, a language of lullabies. But when we write poetry, we don't write it necessarily in the language of everyday. We have to change the language, to make it our own. We have to make it foreign, to reinvent it. I think one of my reinventions is that the language in my poems doesn't sound like the traditionally soft Belarusian language. I get it all rowdy. I think that when we write, we often go to the resources of a language that are not mobilized a lot every day.
NL: You have two poems in Factory of Tears that are short and don't have titles. One is sweet, "your body is so white," and the next, juxtaposed against that, is in your face, "memory / two fingers / thrust / into the mouth / of life." There's even more of that contrast in your newer book, Collected Body. I read somewhere that you sat down with Collected Body and conceived of it as a book. Can you talk some about that process?
MORT: You are right, Factory of Tears is really a collection of independent poems, as opposed to one conceived as a book. Some poems in Factory are from my first Belarusian book, I'm as Thin as Your Eyelashes, and others are from a few later chapbooks I published in Minsk. I picked what I then thought were the best poems and put them into Factory of Tears. Collected Body was conceived as one story. I wanted to tell a story.
Factory of Tears is dedicated to my grandmother, but it is actually Collected Body that is a book about my grandmother. I wanted to tell my grandmother's story and the story of women in my family—my great-grandmother, my grandmother's aunts, and a whole myriad of women who are called "aunties," and you're not quite sure what their exact relation is. So, it is a book about women in the family, female ancestors, and it is a book about migration and movement. That's why it is a "Collected Body." The transplanted body. The body that is exiled. The body that is transformed by the birth of children. The body that is transformed by wars and repressions, forced to migrate, to leave the house, but still having to bear children, having to nurse them. That probably is a story of every family. The details are from my memory and imagination, and now it's hard to tell which is which.
NL: That explains why you have the painting on the front of the book. "Leda and the Swan" makes sense.
NL: In your poem "Password," from Factory of Tears, I love your conversation with God in the section "for Grandmother," where you write:
I see your life as God's bible, as a manual that will teach
God about humans and make him believe in them. I see
God kneeling beside your life.
MORT: I'm afraid for me there's not much difference between God and poetry. That's just another metamorphosis: sometimes it's God, sometimes it's poetry, sometimes it's some great dead poet. Sometimes it's my grandmother. Czeslaw Milosz said that poets are the secretaries of the invisible. Sometimes you think you make out what it is, and it appears to you as this or that.
NL: In Collected Body you explore the world of women in your family, with poems that were written before your daughter's birth. Do you feel that motherhood has had any influence on your poetry?
MORT: When I was writing Collected Body I had no plans of becoming a mother. But poetry is very prophetic like that—you have to be careful what you write. You write about something and then it comes true. I think there is sometimes a misconception that poets write about the past, but I think poets write about the future. As for any influence, I don't think that motherhood has specific influence on my writing, because I don't write as a mother, or a wife, or a creative writing professor.
NL: Have you felt any changes in the work that you're producing now?
MORT: The changes have to do with having no time to write, never having a clear head, not belonging to yourself any longer, at least while nursing. I didn't plan on having a break, but it just happened naturally, I think. I have no regrets about a year of unwritten poems, even if it turns into two or three or more years. I don't feel the need to produce: I'm neither an incubator of poems nor of babies. In this last year, I've been mostly working on translations and editing. I had completed two anthologies before my daughter turned one. It feels good to say it now, but it was hard, and I didn't really have to do it.
NL: To return a moment to Collected Body, I love the way that you take us from Belarus to islands. Can you talk about what you're doing with place?
MORT: Landscape is my tabula rasa. The landscape of my childhood is the image against which every other image is measured. If I had to say who I am, I would be that landscape around the summer house of my childhood. I would be those fields; I would be that forest; I would be those linden trees, and ash trees, and fallen wooden fences, and the hill along which the cows return home every night. Happy life for people there is a settled life—life in one place. Moving is always forced: exile during repressions, evacuation during the war, leaving one's house because of collectivization or because of being orphaned, being sent to forced labor in Germany. Sometimes people didn't move but the borders did, and people found themselves living in the same house but in a different country.
When we leave Belarus in the book, most of the movement is around the islands—some cold, northern islands, and some warm islands. The landscape of my youth is mostly waterless, you see. Living in a land-locked country, which is also quite isolated politically, cannot but affect the way you perceive the world. I've been talking about the image of the invisible, and God, and poetry; the ocean was another embodiment of the invisible for me—this idea of a big water, somewhere I would never reach, water that is greatly powerful and greatly indifferent. What I love most about nature is how indifferent it is to humans and to human suffering. While we are here with our little and big tragedies—the wind is blowing, the leaves are rustling in the trees, the flowers bloom and die—there is a great comfort in that indifference, I think. That's why in suffering, it's always comforting to turn to the indifference of nature. The ocean embodies the greatest and most powerful indifference—that kind of a stone face of nature toward you.
NL: You've spent some time in the Caribbean islands and actually have done some writing down there. I read somewhere that you have trouble writing in the States—not all connected to having a new daughter—and that sometimes you have to go away in order to write.
MORT: I do spend quite some time in the Caribbean because it's my husband's home. So when I'm there, I'm also at home, which, at the end of the day, takes my idea about my home into very murky waters. I don't have trouble writing in the States. What I meant to say in the interview you are quoting is that I always write better when I'm traveling. At home, I'm a bunch of things: a woman, a list maker, a sweet tooth, a mother, a herbarium collector, a judgmental friend—you name it. When I travel, however, I am a stranger, that is to say, anybody, everybody, a chameleon. A chameleon, a nobody in me—that's the place I like to write from.
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University of Missouri–Kansas City
Editor: Robert Stewart
Administrative Director: Betsy Beasley