Valzyhna Mort on poetry, identity and the musical self
Valzhyna Mort is a poet and lecturer at Cornell University, here she speaks to Edge Hill University students about her collections factory of tears and Collected Body.
In an interview with Cobalt Review, you once said that: 'a poet's only obligation is to poetry’ and that ‘most political poems shoot themselves in the head by having to resort to the language of politics.’ Do you think that there are any examples of contemporary poetry being used as an effective form of protest?
I think that all good poetry, contemporary or not, is a form of protest. It’s a protest against the atrophy of language (and therefore thinking), against the utilitarianism of our lives, against death — the death of the already dead, against their silence and invisibility. The most political poems are the least obviously political. Poems that are most acute, most relevant today have been written centuries ago. There’s this foolish sense of our own relevance simply because we are contemporary, alive. But ancient poets were so much more sophisticated, so much more ironic than us. And they’ve written about us then better than we can now.
From the same interview, you said: 'imaginary tyrants are a great poetic material', and that you'd never write about a real president. Concerning the current political landscape of America, has your position on this changed at all?
The current political landscape in America is by no means new. No need to change my position, which is not really a position, just a kind of intuition.
In Factory of Tears , 'A Portrait of a Mother in Fall' is the only poem without a Belarusian translation. Is there a particular reason for this?
It’s the only poem without a Belarusian original.
In ‘White Trash’, there's a great variance in form and voice. Sections that transverse from a charged reflection on the summer (and its loneliness) into an open vulnerable voice that moves through memory, anger and existentialist queries; then comes full circle back to the summer heat. Could you comment on the considerations that you made when putting these sections together, and how ‘White Trash’ came to be the poem that it is?
I couldn’t (not trying to be a hard ass). Every poem makes its own rules that the poet forgets once the poem is written.
A poem does not need transitions. It’s not linear, not horizontal. A poem moves, like sunlight, in every direction. I don’t think that ‘White Trash’ is well translated, starting with a very unfortunately translated title.
You allude to Eden numerous times within Factory of Tears. Is this an examination of gender roles? Does it inform your own beliefs?
Eden is a reach toward genesis. It’s as much of a garden as it is a cave. I have a Neanderthal longing for a cave, which is the original, pagan desire for form.
Both collections feature strong matriarchal figures, the recurring Grandmother figure in Factory of Tears and the Aunt in Collected Body . Was this a conscious choice? Do you feel having strong female influences has informed aspects of your poetry?
Women are fatter than men, which is why they are more likely to survive hunger. They survive and tell their stories. I grew up listening to my grandmother, her aunts, her girlfriends tell their stories. I don’t believe I have ever talked to a man in their generation. It’s a very Belarusian situation. One has to understand Belarusian historical landscape before and throughout the 20th century. These Belarusian female storytellers would have passed the Bechdel test with flying colors. They talked of themselves, their female relatives and friends, and if they ever mentioned a man, it was to say that a man suddenly fell ill and quickly died.
It’s habitual in me to think of stories in general as stories about women.
In the same piece in Cobalt Review, you’re quoted as saying: ‘I think it’s better to have an STD than an identity’. Could you explain this further?
My work comes out of a Belarusian context, but I have no time to explain to a Western reader what Belarusian context means. When somebody non-Belarusian describes my work as “universal,” I’m always suspicious and surprised. The idea of listing my mixed bloods in my biography makes me laugh. What for? Poetry is not self-expression. As for childhood, childhood is not cultural. It’s mythological.
How important do you feel it is to perform poetry? Do you think that the poem needs to be performed in order to be complete?
I always read poetry out loud — not loudly, often in whisper, but rarely only with my inner voice. As for actual poetry readings, I love doing them: I love the stage, the audience in the dark, the nerves before going on stage. But as a poetry reader, I feel very little need to go to other poets’ readings, to hear a stranger read to me.
I read that you aspired to be a musician, and came to poetry through music. How would you say that this has influenced your poetry?
Practicing music took all of my free time when a child. I don’t think I have the skills to occupy myself if not with it. The practice of reading and writing is very similar to the practice of music. You slowly, exaggeratedly, repeat the same (musical) phrase until it suddenly starts sounding/working. When I think of poetry it’s always in terms of voice and polyphony, melody and variation, staccato and legato, crescendo and diminuendo, allegro followed by adagio, forte followed by piano. Goethe talked about listening to one’s musical self. It’s my musical self that writes.
Factory of Tears and Collected Body are published by Copper Canyon Press