Friday, April 11, 2008

Interview with Valzhyna Mort

The fantastic young Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort, now a U.S. resident, came to The Gunnery this week and wowed an audience of writers, teachers, and students at a reading on the evening of Monday the 7th. Valzhyna Mort's new book, Factory of Tears, has just been published in a bilingual edition by Copper Canyon.

Ms. Mort had met Dylan Crittenden earlier in the day, and arranged for him to introduce her reading with a song.

Dylan Crittenden singing Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (Robert Schumann's setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine) at the reading (below).

Ms. Mort embarked on her busy schedule leading writing workshops and visiting classes with the following interview with Ian Engelberger.

Ian: What’s your main inspiration when writing?

Mort: Everything. I cannot have one source of inspiration - if I had one source of inspiration it would be very easy for me to write, because I would just use and reuse such a wonderful source. But there’s no source. A wonderful Polish poet and Nobel laureate in poetry, Czeslaw Milosz, said that poets are the secretaries of the invisible. This is how I’d like to describe myself. I really sort of feel the same way.

I: How do you begin to write your poems?

M: I started when I was eighteen. I came to literature from a music background. I was studying to be a professional musician but then I quit because I was sixteen and stupid. I was looking for the music in my life because I really liked it and in school we began studying the Belarusian language, because I came from a Russian speaking family. The language was very musical, and that was sort of my way of writing music in a language. This is how I started writing poetry. I would have a melody and then put a language to that melody and write.

I: How do you edit the things you write?

M: When I started I didn’t do any editing. I won’t write the poem down till I have it complete in my head, so I carry it in my head and edit it. It’s very convenient for this musical purpose because what you do is you repeat many times; it becomes like chanting, and when the poem is complete I write it down. Right now it’s different because I live in the States and I live in a English speaking community, I don’t feed off the language that I write in anymore – now it’s more of a paper process, but I still try and do as much in my head as possible. When I write things down it looks finished it’s claimed by paper already it’s hard for me to go back and edit anything because it looks finished.

I: Do you think that your poems ever lose anything in translation?

M: I think that people are divided into those who believe in translations and those who don’t, and I am a big believer in translation. I started translating other people’s poetry before I had to translate my own. When I lived in Warsaw I was on a scholarship in translation I was translating a Polish poet into Belarusian. I do think that poems lose in translation but at the same time they gain a lot, things that might not have been in the original but come out in a foreign language, because this is how the language of poetry is different than everyday language. In the poetic language, behind every word there is the whole mythology of the culture, so when you translate it only the word goes through – the mythology stays, but then there’s the mythology of another culture that comes in and it breathes something new into the poems. I know that my translations are different from the original poems in many ways but in many ways it’s not about better or worse; they gain things that they didn’t have. I have poems for example that were written as very straight forward, non-metaphorical poems that when translated into English become full of metaphors just because of the change in language.

I: Who are some of your favorite poets?

M: I generally prefer to say that I don’t like poetry because there’s so much bad poetry. And I’m not a person who reads it and likes it just because it’s a poem. I have my demands too. So I don’t like poetry in general, but I like certain poems; and for me I don’t really distinguish between poetry and prose – you know I come from a culture growing up on Russian poetry, like Pushkin, and Akhmatova, Mayakovsky, Tsvetaeva. Those poets were read the way people here read short stories and novels. So for me it’s not about if it’s a poem or if it’s a novel or a piece of prose – it’s about the quality. I don’t know if it would be worth naming any names. I got into Polish poetry and I think this is my favorite poetry – the generation of the sixties and seventies in Poland – and they’re very popular here. They’re very well translated, I would say: Szymborska, Milosz, Zagajewski, Baranczak – he’s hard to translate because he plays with the language a lot. But still, he’s interesting.

I: So you mentioned that you were going to be a musician; what instrument did you play?

M: I started to be an accordionist. I think for over eight years.

I: So is there anything you could say to young aspiring poets?

M: Yes, I always say the same thing, what I was told many times: read, read, and read. The more you read the better it is for you. And read a lot of very good literature – don’t be afraid of big thick serious books. This will help you to raise your own demand of yourself. When you have doubts about a poem don’t think ‘I’m just seventeen years old’ – just ask yourself if Robert Frost wrote it, would he be okay with it? This is my approach.

1 comment:

ehoran said...

I picked up a copy of Mort's newest volume of poems, "Factory of Tears" and it's fantastic! Every poem is full of unexpected moments. This collection is tremendously original and resonant.