Interview: Valzhyna Mort – “a spilling voice”

“My goal is to break anything that gathers itself into a neat, comprehensible story. And I wish for the breakage to be spectacular”
Valzhyna Mort (photo: Tanya Kapitonava, 2019).
Mike Sims talks to the Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort, shortlisted for this year’s Foward Prize for her poem in The Poetry Review, ‘Nocturne for a Moving Train’

Mike Sims
: Firstly, congratulations on being shortlisted for Best Single Poem in this year’s Forward Prizes for the wonderful ‘Nocturne for a Moving Train’. The way the lens of the poem moves so freely in and out of the train is a very distinctive quality of your work, and nature, as elsewhere, seems to be offering some kind of consolation. Was the poem inspired by a particular journey? Is there consolation in it or only disturbance?

Valzhyna Mort: Thank you, Michael. I’m honoured to be nominated, particularly with this poem that journeys in a train compartment across Belarus, towards Warsaw or Berlin. On the Belarusian border, the train would be lifted up above the ground as the gauge of the track differs from that in Western Europe. In Brest, on the Belarusian-Polish border, international trains hang above the ground for a good hour while, usually in the dark of the night, workers move underneath, changing the wheels. Then, the train can proceed from one history into another.

This hour of being suspended in the air is otherworldly: not so long ago, the border was firmly shut behind the Iron Curtain and, during my student years of travelling to Poland, it was not just about changing wheels, but about changing dimensions.

Belarusian history is a history of violence whose witnesses cannot speak for themselves because they didn’t make it out alive. This silence has burdened me since childhood. Since I can remember myself, I’ve always thought that old trees are telling us something. The trees remember and are continuously speaking to us about the violence they’ve witnessed. In this poem, it’s chestnut trees that grow in abundance in the Minsk parks.

Something else is always present in this dark landscape that reflects you back to yourself instead of revealing the countryside: it’s radiation. Belarus received seventy per cent of the Chernobyl fallout. Cesium-137, mentioned in the poem, is the principle source of this radiation. It changed our relationship with our land, made me suspicious of water, apples. Even the language is disfigured and a whole people are misunderstood.

Mike Sims: I’m grateful to you for giving time to this interview when events in your home country – the fraudulent election which secured yet another term for President Alexander Lukashenko and his subsequent brutal treatment of protesters – must be very distressing. Do you think of yourself as a political writer?

Valzhyna Mort: There are many ways to respond to this question. Right now, I’d say this: only a person whose people have not been tortured and murdered can live with an illusion that a poet is a candle-lighting hermit. Anybody – poet, doctor, construction worker – if they insist that they ‘don’t get involved in politics’, it’s only because politics never crossed them with its police truncheon.

In Belarus, we are all grandchildren of chance survivors of the twentieth century. We come from broken-up, vanished families. Injustice towards any detained, threatened, beaten person is personal. I don’t need to be shocked by a great number of the dead. The violent death of one person is the death of one world and its effect will be felt for generations. Not a day goes by for me without remembering the Belarusians made disappeared by the regime. In the larger world, my people are invisible. For twenty-six years, the EU discussed the Belarusian situation with a set of second-hand clichés. To an average European, ‘the last dictator of Europe’ is a joke. But it’s not a joke. These are real people living under great pressure, without civil rights, in fear, and through all that, they teach their children about dignity, self-reliance, and goodness, and manage to build something beautiful out of their lives.

So, am I a political poet? I don’t know. I’m a poet who never forgets where and what she comes from.

Mike Sims: Linked to that last question, you have written about the Belarusian writers Ales Adamovich and Svetlana Alexievich as pioneers, finding new ways to uncover the history of modern Belarus though personal testimonies (an approach Adamovich claimed as uniquely Belarusian). In Alexivich’s case, you write about her “coaxing her interlocutors into speaking about themselves in intimate term”. This polyphony, of dangerous stories recounted with a vivid, sometimes disturbing intimacy, seems to me to characterise your work, too. Would you like say something about the approach and influence of these two writers?

Valzhyna Mort: Ales Adamovich was, among other things, a literary theorist who thought deeply about literary form. He was shaped by his first-hand experience of genocide and partisan resistance in Belarus. During the three years of occupation, the Belarusian civilian population, viewed by the Germans as ‘subhuman’, were systematically exterminated; villages were burned down together with all inhabitants, mostly children and the elderly. Adamovich had no faith in either redemption or justice. He didn’t want to hear about virtue and humanity. He declared the end of humanity as a project in humanness.

Like Czesław Miłosz who refused “the wizardry of words”, Adamovich refused the literary. Only survivors should speak; every muscle of language should be used to uphold the family names, dates, toponyms, details and facts of violence.

Adamovich’s western colleagues accused him of indulging in gore, and while it’s possible to argue that yes, he really wanted for his readers to suffer, Adamovich didn’t create his literature of documents to initiate a conversation or to warn. His literature of documents is a museum of voices where there is no need for “silence” signs on the walls – you lose your ability to speak when you enter it. It’s literature that shuts people up. It has no tolerance for commentary, analysis. It’s literature that is finished with humans.

Both, Adamovich and Alexievich are still not properly read, not properly processed by their Belarusian readers. It’s simply impossibly painful.

Well, how could I even start speaking about my work here? I grew up listening to the voice of a survivor. Every day without a fail, from when I can remember myself and until her passing, my grandmother recounted to me the same stories of her personal survival. I knew these stories by heart, I listened to them without offering commentary or drawing any lessons for myself. Listening to those stories was a part of our daily ritual of remembering. Belarus has very strong pagan traditions where language is used for repetitive chants addressed into the sky, into the sun. The chorus of voices directed by Adamovich and Alexievich is such a chant of our time. I think that this is what makes Belarusian literature of documents so unique. It refuses an average human reader. It prepares a ritual of remembering for generations not yet born.

Mike Sims: Many of the characters in your second collection, Collected Body (Copper Canyon), are women. Alexievich showed how women keep and preserve stories – and women have been very active in protesting against Lukashenko. In your essay in this autumn’s Poetry Review on the Jewish-Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, you quote her: “The powers of language are the solitary ladies who sing, desolate, with this voice of mine that I hear from a distance. And far away, in the black sand, lies a girl heavy with ancestral music.”

But are women especially vulnerable (like the truth)? I’m thinking of the disturbing undercurrents of sexual control or abuse in your poems in ‘Sylt I’ and ‘Sylt II’ from Collected Body, the cover image of which is Rubens’ Leda and the Swan.

Valzhyna Mort: A female voice has traditionally existed in the margins. While, from its balcony, the socio-political centre was solidifying official history, women, who addressed children in their half-sleep and the dead in the beyond, preserved memory. When Svetlana Alexievich started interviewing women-veterans of World War Two, what she heard from them was a new language that gave – after decades of the agreed-upon clichés – a new picture of the war. These women didn’t repeat the official narrative of heroism, courage, and sacrifice because they thought it belonged only to men – male soldiers. To describe their experience, women had to invent their own, private language and, as a result, they were able to explain what it was like to experience the war as a human being.

Another female writer who comes to mind here is a Polish poet Anna Świrszczyńska (often, in English, Anna Swir). Swir was a part of the Polish resistance and worked as a nurse during the Warsaw Uprising. Once, she waited for an hour to be executed. Her collection, Building the Barricade, was published in 1974, thirty years after the war. She saw the solidification of the historical narrative and went silent, looking for a poetic form that would be true to her experience. Her short, snapshot-like poems without judgement, commentary, or glorification – her refrain “all of us, cowards” that echoes through the whole book – is a powerful poetic statement. We all know that voice: a large official celebration with rehearsed speeches recited from the stage while in the corner, one person quietly lists the small details of her experience.

I love Anne Carson’s essay ‘The Gender of Sound’ which lays out the connection between female voice, sexuality, and power. The essay opens (if I remember correctly) in ancient Greece where a female voice is associated with absence of control, with spilling. Women shriek and lament, while men, whose vocal cords, according to Aristotle, are stabilised by their testicles, possess reason. As a poet living in this particular moment, I treasure my shrieking and lamenting skills. It is important for me to come from a tradition of women who sing in order to lose control. 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 inside your lyrical I, your musical I, which is, in fact, your screaming I.

And yes, sexual violence is directly connected with female voice. As Anne Carson explains, a woman is seen as having not one, but two leaking mouths. Rape is always about the control of a woman’s voice.

Belarusian history is the history of violence. A child of the eighties, I grew up hearing the stories of torture and murder. Trying to imagine what physical violence feels like was my first exercise in imagination.

Mike Sims: I loved Collected Body, which is so bold and fierce, especially in its direct way with metaphor – a fly speaking in the tongue of the hotel doorbell, cities dropping to their knees like elephants, or Jean-Paul Belmondo’s lips, which “repose like two seals / in a coastal mist of cigarette smoke”. The writing is so immediate – and yet there is also mystery and confusion, the sense that this is a child’s acute view of a messy, sometimes brutal, adult world.

Valzhyna Mort: Yes, Michael, and thank you. I love metaphor because metaphor is a trickster. It is a trickster’s device, trickster’s method of transportation. It is a device of nomads, of people on the run, people who dwell in places where nothing is what it seems. I translate poetry and I write poetry in two languages, Belarusian and English, because it is important for me to remain neither here nor there. Mastering this secret passage between languages, times, and realities is my idea of what it means to be a poetic hermit. It is also a very Belarusian condition. For centuries, Belarusians were supposed to choose between the east and the west, Poland and Russia, king and tsar. Instead, we grew self-reliant, moving freely between both traditions.

The main quality of metaphor for me is grotesque. I like a metaphor that keeps tightening the bond between two unconnected things until all meaning bursts. You know how when you put together Ikea furniture, the instructions advise that you shouldn’t tighten the screws too hard. This is where I start with language: I keep tightening until the plywood of the reality or narrative cracks. My goal is to break anything that gathers itself into a neat, comprehensible story. And I wish for the breakage to be spectacular.

Mike Sims: I think in Collected Body, the poems were written in English rather than translated from Belarusian. Did that change your approach to writing very much?

Valzhyna Mort: I’m well aware that I’m creating an English of my own. I’m no philologist, and I’m as far from language purism as can be. I grew up speaking what was supposed to be Russian but, in fact, was a trasianka – a pidgin of Belarusian, Russian, and Polish. My Belarusian is not literary. I didn’t start speaking it regularly until my teenage years. English is rich in monosyllabic words, and such an ergonomic language, with so many conversion possibilities, is hard to resist for a poet who wants to play and break. This said, the Belarusian language has an unbeatable musical quality: it’s hard and soft at the same time and it can be a mouthful, which helps you experience words physically. Belarusian always gives me the sound-scape and a sense of musical composition for a poem.

Here’s what is important to me: the reader who understands where my poems come from is a Belarusian reader. To make Belarusian experience visible, I need English. No translator I know would be able to (a) know Belarusian and (b) translate my poetry the way I want for it to be translated. So, I’ve made a pact with myself: I write in two languages at once, and I publish in (at least) two different parts of the world. At the moment, only this feels satisfactory to me, and I pay for it with my time and sanity.

Now, getting to the most important part. I don’t believe in translation. There’s no sitting down and translating words from language A into language B. All of the linguistic material at my disposal is whole and one. I write slowly, thinking into two drafts at once, each informing and challenging the other. I push until I lose control of language and imagination. It’s usually in free fall where a poem happens.

Mike Sims: Your new collection, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, is published in November by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Do you view it as a new departure or a development of the themes in Collected Body?

Valzhyna Mort: This should be an easy question but, to be honest, I’m not sure. A poet circles around something, corners it with language and rhythm, but this cornered thing cannot be captured with language. So, I often find myself in the same corner, always one word away from capturing the thing that cannot be captured. Honestly, I wish I could just keep quiet.

In Music for the Dead and Resurrected I turned to music more than ever before. Like many WWII survivors, my grandmother saw a radio as a source of life-changing announcements and never turned it off. If you spoke, it always had to be not over the radio but with radio speaking over you. But the war was over and the radio played Scriabin and Rachmaninov. So, music was always there as a kind of safe space made out of non-linguistic sounds, and now I see how much music held me up through my grandmother’s storytelling.

Music for the Dead and Resurrected is a very Belarusian book that addresses the legacy of violent deaths in a family. It’s a book that searches for the missing graves, assisted in its search by non-human objects. Its medium is song, from spells to symphony. And there, at the register of song, next to lament is laughter. I hope that it’s not a humourless book. In fact, I hope that it’s quite funny.

A shorter version of this interview is published in the autumn 2020 issue of Poetry News. Valzhyna Mort’s essay on Alejandra Pizarnik appears in the autumn 2020 issue of The Poetry Review. She  is reading at the launch of the issue on 20 October 2020. Her new collection, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.