Interview: Valzhyna Mort
Written by Tabitha Surface
COBALT: The first time I saw you speak was at the University of Baltimore’s orientation for new MFA students. You kept your address brief, but what stuck out to me clearly was this statement: Stop reading shit. (Which was intimidating and also fantastic advice.) What do you define as shit and does that definition change? Do you have any guilty pleasures that might fall into that category?
Valzhyna Mort: My definition of “shit” does not sheer from the one in New Oxford American Dictionary. As for guilty pleasures, I feel guilty only when I don’t read.
Cobalt: I’m curious about your ideas on the role of the poet. Do you think a poet has obligations to gender, politics, country, or particular issues?
Mort: Poet’s only obligation is to poetry. Any national issues – be it gender, race or any other stumbling stone that has produced much saliva – deal with here and now, with the temporary. Poetry, even if it describes going to the grocery store, lives in the infinite. Even a simple poetry reading at a bookstore is a kind of a circus – what is there to say about a poet at a political rally? Most so called political poems have to resort to the language of politics – the unambiguous, utilitarian language of present day clichés, and that’s when, like true revolutionaries, they shoot themselves in the head. I’ll never write celebratory poems for a president, unless this president is imaginary. Imaginary tyrants are a great poetic material.
Cobalt: Belarusian is a language that is being reinvigorated and you’ve described it even as a form of rebellion, saying that the artistic community in Minsk is constructing a Belarusian identity. I would say as one of the most well known Belarusian writers (one of the few in English translations), one who spoke Russian in your home and not Belarusian, you are a part of the tradition. Could you speak about this idea of a Belarusian identity and perhaps its interplay with a post-Soviet identity and a poet identity?
Mort: I think it’s better to have an STD than an identity. When a poet’s biography begins with “so and so was born in a family of a Nicaraguan father and a Mozambique mother” I immediately lose all interest in the work. I don’t think that poet’s work is a representation of some culture, even if it’s a culture of one household. A poet writes from imagination, not from her parents’ ethnic background. But, of course, for a poet childhood and imagination are often rightfully synonymous. Nevertheless, my childhood is mine, before it can be Soviet, Belarusian, or Russian.
Cobalt: Your most recent book, Collected Body, was written in English. But, you helped translate Factory of Tears from Belarusian to English and have done quite a bit of translating in multiple languages. You’ve spoken at length about how much you believe in translation and you seem to celebrate the way it changes the poem, but what do you think of how translating changes the writer?
Mort: The only way to learn how to write, besides selling one’s soul to the devil, is to read good books, and we often talk about the importance of reading like a writer. Nevertheless, we read most carefully and deeply when we read like a translator. In fact, a good translator often knows the text better than the text’s author. Translation of good writing is the best exercise in writing.
I’m not sure what you mean when you say that I seem to celebrate the way translation changes the poem. I believe that everything can be translated, maximally close to the original. More so, when it comes to truly masterful, genius work, it shines even through a mediocre translation, and it’s better to at least catch a glimpse of a great mind, than not to, no?
Cobalt: I suppose what I meant was based on something you said in an interview with Ian Engelberger 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”.The way you speak about translation in that interview seems to really embrace the inevitable differences.
Mort: Thank you for this link, Tabitha. It brought back great memories of my reading at the Gunnery school. As for my statement on translation, I see now that it is easy for me to make it since I’m discussing my own poems which I have actively helped translate. When a poet herself is responsible for both the originals and their translation, the degree of liberty skyrockets, and translation becomes a part of the original creative progress, in which poem and its translation function as two sisters rather than a child and her step-sister. Translation then gets to influence the original, becoming a sort of an exercise in editing. Translating Factory of Tears gave me a chance to return to my old poems and rediscover them – discoveries mainly had to do with the heights that the poems never reached because they were abandoned too early. So I ended up working on the English translations while editing the Belarusian originals.
Maybe I’m making it up… Somehow this is how it makes sense to remember it right now.
Cobalt: You use rural places and characters in several poems that have appeared in your books but seem to live–at least, now–in urban areas. What draws you back to those particular types of settings and people?
Mort: This is a true observation. I return to rural landscape because nature is the only place where it is possible for a human being to deal with emotional pain. It is only nature that can teach us (a child) what it means for a human being to have a will, to create dreams and memories. Nature is time and rhythm, and so is a poem.
About Valzhyna: Valzhyna Mort was born in Minsk, Belarus and moved to the United States in 2005. She is the author of Factory of Tears (Copper Canyon Press, 2008) and Collected Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). A recipient of the Lannan Foundation Fellowship and the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry, Mort is currently a visiting professor at Cornell University.