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.