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Interview with Valzhyna Mort

How can we mourn the dead within the context of historical violence, trauma and political oppression? How can their memory be honoured? And what is the role of music and poetry in such an endeavour? The incendiary, intensely memorable poems in Valzhyna Mort’s third collection Music for the Dead and Resurrected (2020) explore both personal and collective narratives of Belarusian history. Mort imaginatively traverses languages, times and realities, breaking through ancestral silences to recuperate a uniquely female and feminist voice.

 

My interview with Mort began in the winter of 2021, on the cusp of a new year. Mort was born in Minsk and currently lives in the US where she teaches at Cornell University. Our conversation was conducted on Zoom between the US and England and continued in 2022 while she was in Rome on a writer’s fellowship. We spoke about her three full-length collections, Factory of Tears (2008), Collected Body (2011) and Music for the Dead and Resurrected (2020). We discussed – amongst other things – the city of Minsk, where she grew up, and the impact of the Soviet Union on her writing, the Belarusian forest and fairytale traditions, the significant roles that her grandmother and other women played in her upbringing, her work as a translator, God and godlessness and the influence of Russian and Polish poetry. 

 

Music is one of the key tropes through which Mort articulates her aesthetic concerns. Music for the Dead and Resurrected honours the lyric connections between poetry and music, the mutual resonances of the two art forms, and the power they exert over the reader and listener. In a 2021 interview for the Poetry Review – citing Anne Carson’s essay ‘The Gender of Sound’ (1995) – Mort refers to herself as a poet who comes ‘from a tradition of women who sing in order to lose control’. She states: ‘A spilling voice allows a person to leave her human body. The Greek ekstasis, which involves uncontrollable voice, means “to stand outside oneself”. To stand outside oneself is to stand outside your lyrical I, your musical I, which is, in fact, your screaming I.’

 

While interviewing Mort, I sensed a passionate and incandescent presence, a scintillating mind alert to the possibilities of theatricality and the carnivalesque, a poet who brings her heart and soul to the attention of her readers. I learnt so much from the conversation, and I am grateful to Mort for her generosity in sharing her thoughts.

 

Q

The White Review

— Can you tell me about your first memories of writing poetry, and why you write? I’ve recently revisited Hélène Cixous’s autobiographical essay ‘Coming to Writing’ (1986), where she explores her desire to write, the obstacles she faced and the ways in which writing is invested with religious significance. The essay begins with the sentence, ‘In the beginning, I adored’.

A

Valzhyna Mort

— Albert Camus, born like Hélène Cixous in French Algeria but 24 years earlier, wrote of himself in the 1937 essay collection L’Envers et I’endroit]: ‘I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine. Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history, the sun taught me that history is not everything.’ I hear an echo of this sensibility when I listen to the great late Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. I remember him meditating on the burden of duty of a poet in a totalitarian state, and then arriving at this illumination: ‘But the moon was not communist!’

 

One summer night, when I was about four, I had a fever. I was in a village house with my grandmother. The Chernobyl explosion had happened a few months earlier, but we didn’t know it. The house was falling apart and the land around it was all labour: every inch was cultivated by my family to provide marinaded produce for the winter season. I couldn’t sleep, and my grandmother said: ‘Would you like to see the night?’ She carried me to the window, moved the gauze curtain, and there it was, my first darkness and my first full moon, neither Chernobyl nor communist. I responded with a sing-song quatrain. Like all inspired things in this world, it had no purpose.

Q

The White Review

— In ‘Coming to Writing’, Cixous mixes material from fairytales such as Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. In your work, the presence of fairytales is also strong, and there is a similar mixing of both religious and popular images which integrates the sacred and the everyday.

A

Valzhyna Mort

— Many parents read fairytales to their children for the purpose of bestowing upon them some primordial cliché. My favourite fairytales are not didactic. I grew up with filmstrips that my father projected onto a bedroom wall. There were two Georgian stories about a foundling raised by a deer, about thin and dignified princes, devs a ‘dev’ or ‘div’ is a monstrous creature in Middle Eastern lore], riddles and souls trapped inside a needle inside an egg in a crow’s nest on an old oak. There was a bronze palace, followed by a silver palace, followed by a gold palace. When a character needed to find an unknown location, he just set out, without either inquiry or self-questioning. I, on the other hand, was full of doubts and guilt. I felt a great pressure to become a good Soviet citizen at the time when the Soviet Union was already collapsing. I felt guilt for my life that ‘my grandfathers’ sacrificed their lives for. Stories of tortured hero-children were everywhere. Soviet kamikaze-children who blew themselves up in the face of their enemies, children who heroically withstood torture. Nobody ever told me that it was okay to take these stories with a grain of salt.

 

My experience in a Soviet school was disheartening, and now my heart refuses any dogmas, it desires to be set at large, intuitive, immoral. This is why I find fairytales so helpful: unlike my troubled self, the characters in fairytales have no interior lives. They don’t brood over decisions. They break simple rules without a shade of guilt or doubt. When trees and bones talk to them, they listen and talk back and don’t make a big deal out of it.

 

In the beginning, I listened. Every single day for over 10 years, my grandmother would sit me down and retell me the story of her life. Her stories were unbearable, but the radio was always on and the music – baroque, classical – saved me. The radio was like a family member. It was my grandmother’s ‘cell phone’ that never left her hand. Wars are announced on the radio and wars bring hunger and death. She was marked by her experience, a girl in the eye of the catastrophe that was the twentieth century. This is what I’d say to Helene Cixous about my experience with a female body: a woman who survived the twentieth century wiped my little ass, shampooed my hair, buttered my bread. When she died, I tried to write down her story, but I couldn’t. Her story is impossible without her body, her voice, the sighing, her off-key singing, her weak heart, her blind eyes, her one unbending leg. I don’t write about her life. I write about myself surviving her stories of survival in the kitchen of our apartment in an ugly, yet beautiful, Soviet micro-region, where Mozart is on the radio and Tchaikovsky is on TV as the empire finally collapses. I was poised between violence and music, and music has taught me that, if you listen long enough, everything eventually becomes music.

Q

The White Review

— I love how you evoke the transformative power of music and its synaesthetic qualities, which brings to mind lines from your poem ‘Rose Pandemic’ (2017), ‘If there’d be a sound between us, / let it be one that starts / with touch, / which is music.’
I’d like to ask about the presence of female figures and archetypes in your work. Music for the Dead and Resurrected begins with the poem ‘To Antigone, A Despatch’, which reads as an invocation of Sophocles’s eponymous defiant heroine who seeks a proper burial for her brother Polynices. ‘Bus Stops: Ars Poetica’ refers to the figure of a grandmother and ‘the purse which held— / through seven wars / —the birth certificates / of the dead’.

A

Valzhyna Mort

— I grew up reading Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva and later Wisława Szymborska, Anna Swir and Ewa Lipska. The men I read talked in fairytales: Maurice Maeterlinck was my childhood obsession. All positions of power above my child-self were occupied by women: teachers, ticket controllers and the most archetypal Eastern European evil goddess, the cashier at the grocery. My father never beat or even scolded me. The power of physical, verbal and mental abuse was feminine. My body’s zip code is female, feminine. But what does this mean? In The House of the Star (1977), Clarice Lispector writes: ‘I’m not an intellectual, I write with my body. And what I write is a moist fog.’ I also repeat after Anna Swir, a beautiful poet of body and desire: ‘What is my knee to me?’ From the poem ‘Large Intestine’ in Talking to My Body, 1996.]
 Well, I have it, this knee, so somehow it is something to me somewhere. My grandmother’s unbending knee is also a part of who I am; her speech is inseparable from her body and I am inseparable from her speech and her body. And, after all those years together, her speech and her body are the most mysterious part of me, the one I know least.

 

In the Soviet Union, public speech was strictly regulated and derived from a rich vocabulary of approved clichés. In my formative years, private speech was non-existent. My parents didn’t read samizdat banned literature clandestinely distributed across the Soviet Bloc], they didn’t talk about politics in the kitchen. They didn’t talk to me seriously. Books did. I believe in the preface to The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) Svetlana Alexievich writes that the women who spoke to her about their experience of the Second World War didn’t feel like they had the right to use the male language of war: the public language of heroism, courage, sacrifice. To speak about themselves in the war, women had to create a new language from scratch.

 

To speak of a private experience, I feel the need to learn to shut up, search for speech where nobody goes for speech, yet language is there, speech there is possible. If the male language of war concerns the question, ‘how to reconcile with being dead before death?’, then the female language of war asks, ‘how to find life amid death?’ This is how I read The Unwomanly Face of War. I’m born out of these women, taught by them, beaten by them, loved by them.

Q

The White Review

— I’m fascinated by the poem ‘Music for Girl’s Voice and Bison’. Could you tell me more about the figure of the early Renaissance poet Mikola Husowski, who looms large within the narrative?

A

Valzhyna Mort

— I wrote ‘Music for Girl’s Voice and Bison’ in 2018 in Rome. I’d organise these ‘literary walks’ for myself: a Nikolai Gogol walk, an Ingeborg Bachmann walk. Husowski was born in what is today Belarus, allegedly the son of a local forester in the Bialowieza Forest – the last and largest part of a primeval forest that is home to this fantastic animal, the heaviest European mammal, the Bialowieza bison a national symbol of Belarus]. Husowski’s Catholic service led him from his homeland to the shade of stone pines in Rome: not a common path for a Belarusian woodsman. I walked the Roman streets and talked to Husowski. I’m always drawn to a person who is not so much displaced as they are misplaced. Displacement presupposes a place of belonging left behind, a source of nostalgia. A misplaced person doesn’t have such a place. A misplaced person submits to the fact that she has no other country but herself.

 

The country of ‘Music for Girl’s Voice and Bison’ has its own angel of history, its own monster, its own pope, its own Zeus: the Bialowieza bison. I remember reading that Greta Garbo watched Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), and at the end of the movie, when the Beast turns into a prince, Garbo threw her hands up at the screen and screamed: ‘No! Give me back my beautiful beast!’ Perhaps in ‘Music for Girl’s Voice and Bison’ I want to turn the monstrosity of the state cliché into a beautiful beast, my private beast.

Q

The White Review

— If it’s not too sensitive a subject, could I ask about the invasion of Ukraine and what you think the role and purpose of poetry is during such atrocities and times of war?

A

Valzhyna Mort

— Since August 2020, when violence against peaceful people erupted in Belarus, and during the ongoing horrific Russian attack on Ukraine – destroying so many lives, homes and streets where people went about their usual delights and sorrows, creating memories, creating themselves, libraries, planting trees for their grandchildren – I have seen poetry used to disturb people who should have been comforted and to comfort people who should have been disturbed. I have seen journalists and academics use poetry for the purpose of plucking the silence. The poem creates the silence, it doesn’t pluck it! I love Odessa-born poet Ilya Kaminsky’s line ‘When the schools are bombed, sadness is forbidden’, from the poem ‘Maestro’ (2004) set in Moldova. People speak about being saved by poetry, but poetry cannot save a child’s life during a bombardment. If there was a choice to give up poetry, to make it as if poetry never existed, so that one child would survive a bombing, one child won’t die of thirst or hunger, I choose life. A life above anything.

 

The bombings in Ukraine have been going on for four weeks now, and I, a poet from Belarus who lives neither in Belarus nor Ukraine, have already been asked to ‘send a quick submission with topical poetry’. During the violent detentions in Belarus, I was asked to submit many a ‘short poem about violence that won’t be too upsetting for audiences’. I hate poetry in moments like that. This morning I wrote to a Ukrainian poet: ‘Lyuba, I want to say something to you but I don’t have words’. I, who grew up reciting poems about war, singing songs about war, listening to veterans talk about war – war plays on the radio, war movies on TV, war parades, war monuments – have no language for this unfolding war. I don’t even know whether it’s okay to say ‘hello’ to a person in Ukraine right now, or in Belarus for that matter. Literature doesn’t prepare us for our reality.

 

During atrocities, many poets are people doing ordinary things, like coordinating arrivals and departures, putting people in touch, delivering diapers and water, delivering information, organising fund-raisers, driving people to safety, finding safe apartments, listening, recording. Some places, like Myanmar, have a long and tragic tradition of revolutionary poets. Sometimes poets are people leading protests. Sometimes poets are people shot at in city squares. Poets are people who bear weapons in street wars and are shot dead. Poets are also people who spend the rest of their lives fighting off guilt or capitalising on it, trying to understand what it is exactly that has happened to them. History is not enough because it gives facts without giving any understanding of what these facts mean to a private person.

 

I wonder about a war book for a person who is tired of war books. My favourite one was written 30 years after the war described in it: Building the Barricade (2016) by Anna Swir. It’s a book that works through understatement. It’s a speech by a person who is possessed by an incredible clarity of vision and extreme fatigue of speech. Today, as Kharkiv is bombed, I feel Czeslaw Milosz’s line ‘there is in me no wizardry of words’ from the 1945 poem ‘Dedication’] on a physiological level. I’m afraid that if I tried to write a poem, I’d throw up. I reread Lydia Ginsburg’s Notes From the Blockade (2017) as I was translating Polina Barskova’s Air Raid (2021). It’s a fascinating testament of survival. There is such clarity in it, such composure, such will to find proper words. I also read Ales Adamovic’s The Punitive Squads (1988), a book about the genocide of Belarusian peasants during the Second World War. There are dragged out scenes of murder and death, described with the literary sadism of a writer who saw what nobody should see as a young man and now wants you to see too. I read it slowly, disgorging everything I read, trying to leave the book with clean hands, a clean mind, but no, it’s impossible. It’s not a book that will come ‘highly recommended’ on any list. It is an unacceptable book. Every good war book is an unacceptable book.

Q

The White Review

— You spoke earlier of your experiences of Rome and Minsk, the sense of power that a city can convey and the presence of history in the private life of an individual. Many of the poems in Music for the Dead and Resurrected were written in Rome, where you are currently on a writing fellowship. What does it feel like to be there, as opposed to the US where you are based, and what is the current situation in Minsk?

A

Valzhyna Mort

Music for the Dead and Resurrected is a Belarusian book full of Rome. My time here has a direct effect on my writing because that’s exactly what Rome gives me: time. Here, I have a beautiful writing space: high ceiling, heavy wooden desk, an enormous window and inside the window, like inside a frame, an old stone pine. I love this city, the ochre sunlight of its walls and the milky dank of its cafés, the quiet of its death-smelling churches with Caravaggios hanging in the dark chapels at an awkward angle, the gray-green of its olive trees and the sound of fountain water always in the earshot, the confrontations that accompany my every outing into the streets, stone dolphins and lions, stone faces on small wall fountains and large oranges on thin trees, cemeteries with messages to the passerby. I love how white stone looks blue in the sunlight. I love the amazing wings of Fra Filippo Lippi’s angels.

 

Rome makes me feel small, powerless, which is exactly how I feel in Minsk. I don’t feel that I’m in control of my life. Rather, I’m part of some great narrative that can sweep me away at any moment. There are little soldiers who constantly watch you, telling you ‘don’t sit there’, ‘don’t stand here’, who ask ‘are you allowed to be here?’ That said, they might be a voice inside my own head.

 

What Minsk is like today is not a paragraph amid other paragraphs, not a sound bite, not a scary story. People are being arrested every day. The 2022 sanctions against Russia which include Belarus mean that many crucial anti-regime projects that support vulnerable communities in Belarus have lost their funding. When Russia started bombing Ukrainian cities, a group of neighbours went into the cellar of their apartment building – their bomb shelter – to clean it. They were all detained for this. There are prisoners in jail right now whose letters do not arrive home for months, there’s no way of knowing how they are doing, what is being done to them. This month April 2022] my book came out in Minsk, in Belarusian, with Plaumbaum, a press initiated by Svetlana Alexievich. Plaumbaum was refused proper publishing status by the censors, so another publisher, Januskevic Books, helps them print books. This week we’ve learned that Januskevic Books are being evicted from their premises without a reason. They were told to move out. Where? Nowhere. Thousands of books need to be picked up by whoever agrees to store them. And you know what? People stand in a long line for hours waiting to buy books.

 

But I write neither from Rome, nor from Minsk, nor from the US. I write from inside Valzhyna Mort. What am I like? Why is it so hard for me to understand myself? What is all this inside me? What is all this inside the people who brought me up? Can I describe the intimate situation in this city of myself?

Q

The White Review

— Could you tell me about the process of composing Music for the Dead and Resurrected? How did you decide to order it, and when did you feel it was complete or finished as a book and ready to go out into the world?

A

Valzhyna Mort

— There are writers who speak about their process with great insight and beauty. I don’t know if I can speak about my process with any insight because I don’t want to think about it. I just dive into writing. I have a crystal-strong sense of form. I cannot explain it, it goes through my whole body but it’s not only physical. I also don’t think of a book as a thing. I like for single poems to stand by themselves, heavy and final. For me, every poem in a book should be good enough to open and to close that book.

Q

The White Review

— Your work fuses both personal and collective history in an astonishing way. When I read your poem ‘Self Portrait with Madonna on Pravda Avenue’, the last four lines – ‘The mouth of Pravda Avenue I kiss. / I kiss each radio announcer on the mouth, / I kiss each radio announcer on her iron mouth, / history waits as we kiss.’ – reminded me of Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem, ‘To kiss a forehead is to erase worry’ (1917). How do you feel your work fits in with Russian and Belarusian poetic traditions?

A

Valzhyna Mort

— ‘To kiss a forehead’ is certainly present in the book but not so much in the lines you mention. They are much more obvious in the ending of ‘Song for Girl’s Voice and Bison’ (‘to change the direction of thought – break a bird’s wing / to fix a misspelled letter of your name – pluck a bird’s eye’) and are connected to the tradition of spells and incantations.

 

My adolescence was spent with Tsvetaeva. We had two volumes of her selected poems at home, a Soviet edition that everybody else had. The poems in it were organised in a chronological order which meant that you could follow the poet day by day. You watch her wake up, make coffee, go to the window and say something to you from the page. You could live through her month in one day, her year in one day, a whole life in one day of reading. It was a lyrical biography of a poet doomed to burn to death, setting herself on fire, little by little, daily, a hair at a time until she was completely engulfed inside it. It’s the fire of language. Language for Tsvetaeva is sound and rhythm, and sound and rhythm for Tsvetaeva are truth. Language is its own element, a force of nature. She is a listener. The poet’s will is one listener’s extraordinary patience. She is categorical, argumentative, ‘toxic’ as we would say today. Her language is a synonym for her imagination, it takes huge leaps and when it lands on a final word in a line or completes a metaphor, the reader’s stomach tightens. Her pitch is pure tension. She is all form, intuition, freedom, obsessed and possessed. Tsvetaeva makes a big impression on a young person. At 40, I’m afraid to open her book. I feel ashamed. She exposes everything.
When I feel ashamed and exposed, when I feel the vapidness of emotions that stick to me like catchweed, I read Wisława Szymborska. Cold-blooded, direct, economical, she uses the language of reason to write about things beyond reason. She uses irony not to flaunt her intelligence but to be humane. My favourite poets do that: Adam Zagajewski, Fernando Pessoa, Adélia Prado. She herself was the number one target of her own irony. She wrote self-deprecating epitaphs for herself and for her living friends, and, although French and German were her foreign languages, she did enjoy English limericks. Her philosophy is the ‘as you don’t know – so you don’t know’ of Ecclesiastes. She often opens with a paradox that annuls both sides of some argument. She often does this by showing a larger picture, yet without pathos or moralising. Most contemporary poets must teach in order to have a pay-check, myself included, and yet the poets I love are, like Szymborska, without a drop of a teacher in them. In fact, teachers are often evoked in Szymborska’s poems as most helpless creatures. But Szymborska’s genius is in her last stroke: an unexpected ending, ‘puenta’. Szymborska’s poems are described as translatable and give an illusion of being ‘craftless’. In fact, the opposite is true. Szymborska is polished. In her work, everything is held together firmly, nothing is accidental or superfluous. Her own statement on craft: ‘The most important instrument of a poet is a garbage bin.’ She was a slow poet and didn’t write for two years after receiving her Nobel Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966].

 

Poets like Tsvetaeva and Szymborska are absolutely themselves, and they can influence somebody only into bad imitation, so I’m bowing out of their influence. They’ve taught me a lot because I’ve been reading them, trying to understand them. As for influence – ‘If you only knew what garbage poems grow out of’, the Odessa-born poet Anna Akhmatova famously said. I was influenced by public buses, by long corridors of Soviet schools, music lessons, jars of marinaded mushrooms, opera, linden trees, my grandmother’s stories, Mozart, fear of torture, grass, snow. All kinds of garbage.

Q

The White Review

— I’ve been reading A God In the House: Poets Talk about Faith (2012), edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, which brings together a series of profound and moving conversations among 19 contemporary poets about spirituality and writing. In the introduction, Kaminsky and Towler refer to the American poet Gerald Stern’s observation that ‘Poets – maybe all artists – get away from their own religious upbringing in order to arrive at a condition of faith.’ You also co-edited Gossip and Metaphysics: Russian Modernist Poems and Prose (2014) with Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris. On that note, I wanted to ask you about the place and sense of religion, faith and spirituality in your work. What do the sacred and divine mean to you?

A

Valzhyna Mort

— I didn’t have a religious upbringing because I grew up in the cliché of a Soviet family. I celebrate New Year and Victory Day. I didn’t miss religion, never do. I feel immense gratitude for the life I have. I’ve seen so much beauty. I’ve drunk water from a well a 30-minute drive from Minsk, you cannot imagine what water it is. I’ve read books that spoke to me directly and I felt chosen by them and thought that nobody was reading them like I did. And I feel the same way about music every day. And then I keep meeting people who come into my life and start speaking and I think to myself ‘this person is music in human form’. They are so beautiful, so full of human magic.

Q

The White Review

— Could you describe your relationship to language in terms of how you see English, Russian and Belarusian as a poet and writer? What distinguishes each of these languages for you?

A

Valzhyna Mort

— I feel that these languages are like three enormous mythical creatures, and they stand around me like in a dream, not skin to skin, there’s distance between us and there’s also a sense that if I were to approach them, they would crush me like Rainer Maria Rilke’s angels. I have no mastery of them. I could be cute about it and say how I use each language for different things but it’s not true. My life is without a tongue and I kind of moo-moo until one of these creatures takes mercy on me. Then, I feel its light touch.

Q

The White Review

— In retrospect, how do you feel each of your three collections relates to your development and practice as a writer? Do they contrast or cohere for you? Do you see them as being very separate and distinct collections, or not?

A

Valzhyna Mort

— Certainly not separate collections, one fluid collection. I don’t think in poetry books at all. I write and at some point I need to shed what I’ve written like a snake sheds dead skin. The German, Swedish, Belarusian and Ukrainian versions of the English books have a different order of poems, slight variations in which poems are included, extra essays and notes. And it’s not because of translation, it’s because of me continuing to think. The UK edition of the US book has a long new prose poem. And when I included it, I had to reconsider the order of the poems.

Q

The White Review

— I remember reading in an interview in The California Journal of Poetics in which describe listening to a lot of Franz Liszt while you were writing Collected Body. Do you often listen to music while writing?

A

Valzhyna Mort

— Yes, I listen to Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Josquin de Prez, Claudio Monteverdi. Always, Bach and Mozart. When I get worked up, I listen to opera. I love the drama, grotesque opera murders make me feel good. And then, suddenly, how the grotesque can get so lyrical and so pure.

Q

The White Review

— If you weren’t a poet, what would your ideal vocation be?

A

Valzhyna Mort

— I’d sing opera or dance ballet or run a botanical garden in the most beautiful city in the world.

Q

The White Review

— You work as a translator between English, Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish, and your translation of Polina Barskova’s book of selected poems, Air Raid (2021), was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse. How do you see the role of a translator in poetry? What is lost or gained in the process of translation? Could you also recommend the work of some poets that you have translated?
A

Valzhyna Mort

— Right before getting to our interview, I was working on translations of three poets from Ukraine: Boris and Lyudmila Khersonsky, Russian-language poets from Odessa, and Iya Kiva, a Ukrainian-language poet born in Donbas. For Ukrainian poetry in the English translation, I’d recommend the fantastic anthology Words for War (2018) – some of my translations are included into it. A book by the Belarusian poet Julia Cimafiejeva is also forthcoming from Deep Vellum in my translation this year 2022]. It’s called Motherfield.

 

Polina’s book gave me speech when I lost it, after rereading Belarusian-Soviet writer] Ales Adamovich. He describes the massacres – by fire – of the Belarusian rural population during World War Two in several of his books, most notably Out of the Fire (1980) and Katyn (2012). The Nazis destroyed over 5,000 Belarusian settlements as punishment for collaborating with partisans.] The image of a village-full of people locked in a barn – women, children, grandparents… The sun is shining through the cracks in the walls, at first they don’t know why they are there, the children are crying, asking to leave, there’s confusion, patience, fear, then they smell the smoke. Now they know that the barn is on fire. If they don’t scream and bang on the doors and walls, they are all going to burn together like they lived together in one village, grandparents and grandchildren, nobody would be left. Only screaming and banging doesn’t help. People on the outside, with automatic weapons over their chests, know that the barn is on fire, and they hear the children scream and they know that the barn is full of people, who are suffocating and screaming next to each other. They won’t let anybody survive. I didn’t know how to move on from this image. You are born and live and then suddenly you realise that this place you’ve been born into is a post-death. What does it mean to be alive in a post-death? After thousands of people burned to death screaming in the barns all around you, how do you speak? When?

 

Polina is a scholar of the Leningrad Siege and a poet who asks the same questions about her native city. My head shifted from fire to ice, a kind of a cooling down. I understood that her answer to how we speak after the catastrophe is in her language, in its soundscape, in its deep music: when we speak our awkward post-death words, language fills with echoes of rhymes, with their irregular music. These irregular rhymes and puns are like a hand stretched out from a word to a word, each word pulls another word up. But these groupings are not sentimental, not obvious. In most cases, the pairings are quite obscene on closer look – offensive – but the poet moves through the shame of speech. It’s the shame of discovering that speech is possible and that you speak despite knowing full well that it’s best to be silent.

 

For the sake of people who think of translation with suspicion, we call my translation a ‘creative translation’. Of course, it’s a tautology. All literary translation is creative. And poetry can be translated the way Polina and I did it: instead of copying information, I follow the sound of the target language, just the way the original text follows the sound. The horror and the joy of these poems is that the information is in the music. It’s only when we access the information through the music, we understand why this is a poem and what it does.
Translating a poem is freeing, the way writing in strict form, say a sonnet, can be much more liberating than restricting. From time to time, working on Polina’s book I wondered, what am I doing, a Belarusian poet translating from Russian into English? That’s exactly where my agency as a creator was important. What was I doing? Anything I wanted to do. Anything that my Belarusian ear heard and wanted to hear, anything that felt right all through my body. What did I do then? I created my own English. It’s a non-native speaker English, immigrant English, Belarusian English. I’m very proud of Air Raid. When I read it, it’s obvious to me that it’s a space of liberated speech.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Valzhyna Mort is a poet and translator born in Minsk, Belarus. She is the author of three poetry collections, Factory of Tears (Copper Canyon Press, 2008), Collected Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2011) and, mostly recently, Music for the Dead and Resurrected (FSG, 2020), (Bloomsbury, 2022). Mort is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy in Rome, the Lannan Foundation, and the Amy Clampitt Foundation. Mort teaches at Cornell University and writes in English and Belarusian. She translates between English, Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish. She has received the Gulf Coast Prize in Translation and the National Endowment for the Arts grant in translation for her work on Polina Barskova’s book of selected poems Air Raid (Ugly Duckling, 2021). Her translations are featured in many literary anthologies. Motherfield: Poetry and Belarusian Protest Diary by Julia Cimafiejeva is forthcoming in the fall of 2022 from Deep Vellum Press, co-translated from Belarusian by Valzhyna Mort and Hanif Abdurraqib. 

Jennifer Lee Tsai is a poet and critic. She was born in Bebington and grew up in Liverpool. Jennifer is a fellow of The Complete Works and a Ledbury Poetry Critic. Her debut poetry pamphlet is Kismet (ignitionpress, 2019). She won a Northern Writers Award for Poetry in 2020 and is currently a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Liverpool. Her second poetry pamphlet La Mysterique (2022) is published with Guillemot Press this Autumn

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