INTERVIEW:Valzhyna Mort grew up with Russian as her first language. Then the Belarusian poet discovered the musicality of her native tongue, and she began ‘playing language like an instrument’. But it was a trip to Ireland that truly launched her career, writes MARK DOTEN.
SHE NEVER WANTED to be a poet. As a child, Valzhyna Mort appeared in the chorus of Carmenat the Minsk Opera House and studied the accordion. Later she gave musical composition a try. But over tea in a Brooklyn coffee shop, the 27-year-old Mort admits that as far as any career in music went, she was “a complete failure, a flop”.
Her leap to poetry was, in a sense, a continuation of music by other means. Like most Belarusians, Mort speaks Russian as her first language, and never had much affection for the Belarus language.
When her first dream fizzled, however, she found herself writing in what she now calls her “mother tongue” or her “blood tongue. Belarusian is not literally the tongue I learned from my mother,” she says. “But it started to sound very musical to me. And writing in it became my attempt to compose music rather than to write poetry. I used lots of words whose meanings I didn’t know. I just went with the sound, and applied musical rules of composition to writing. I didn’t think of myself as a poet for a very long time. I was just playing language like an instrument.” She can now officially think of herself as a poet.
After gaining increasing renown on the European poetry festival circuit for her electrifying readings, an appearance at the Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway was a game-changer. And here it should be said: if you have any notion of poets as shy, awkward, or just plain dull, a Mort reading will disabuse you of it.
“I was raised onstage. I’m used to being in front of a very big audience. I like to speak to the farthest person with the cheapest tickets in the balcony.” Cúirt was a triumph. In the words of this newspaper, she “dazzled” and “battered” everyone who heard her.
What makes her readings so impressive? Apart from her ease before a crowd, and the quality of the poems, one thing that’s definitely working for her is the contrast between her small frame (think Samantha Morton, but slighter, younger, and just overall a bit more pixie-ish), and her deeply resonant and commanding speaking voice. Then, when she shifts into Belarusian (as I make her do at the coffee shop), she’s still got all that going, but now she’s speaking at about twice her English volume and three times the speed and all around you people set down their lattes and take notice.
Among the dazzled at Cúirt was Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Franz Wright, who was so taken with her that he and his wife, Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright, worked with her to translate what became her American debut, Factory of Tears(Cooper Canyon Press, 2008).
Factoryis the first book of poetry ever published in a bilingual English/Belarusian edition, a fact that thrills Mort. “I don’t see boundaries between languages,” she says. “There’s a poem in the book that starts in Belarusian and ends in Russian. Then English comes around and opens new doors. You have more than one world of imagery available to you. Why not take advantage?” Belarusian offers plenty of unique opportunities.
Because the nation was long oppressed, Mort says the Belarusian language has little in the way of literature. The poetry that does exist tends to be conservative and formal, derived from folk traditions. “We never had our avant-garde, we never had our surrealism, we never had Belarusian futurism in poetry,” she says.
Mort’s poems, taking on as they do sex, war, birth, travel, murder, skyscrapers and people who look like ants – just to name a few topics – are anything but conservative and formal. No question that Mort is breaking new ground in Belarusian poetic forms. She’s also working on the gender divide.
“There are so few women poets in Belarusian. And all of them are beautiful cornflowers.” She laughs. “Beautiful cornflowers writing about cornflowers! Well, I think it’s fun to be a young woman writing in a language where you are trying out firsts. And the fact that this is happening in the 21st century!”
She sips her tea. “It’s a burden not to have a Shakespeare in your culture, but it’s also a big relief.” I ask her how she saw Belarusian in relation to other oppressed languages. Irish, for instance.
She believes that though the broad picture may be similar, the situations are very different. It’s not merely that Irish is such a different language from English, whereas Belarusian and Russian are languages that belong to one group. The national attitude to the languages isn’t comparable.
“In Belarus you hear it on TV, on the radio, there are bands that sing in Belarusian, so everyone knows Belarusian, but people are very reluctant to speak it. They look down on it as a non-language, or a lower-class language.” But isn’t there any post-Soviet pride in speaking Belarusian? “Not really,” Mort says. Why? For centuries, the territory that now constitutes Belarus had its borders drawn and redrawn by neighbouring countries through war and shifting alliances. In 1918 Belarus at last declared itself an independent country. But then came the Bolsheviks. By 1921 Belarus was a Soviet republic, and the intelligentsia was liquidated in short order. Thus, an independent Belarusian sense of self never had a chance to form.
“Belarusians were the most Soviet people of the Soviet Union,” she says. “People identified with the Soviet Union! Finally they had an identity, and a very strong one. A lot of Belarusians still call themselves Russians – it works to have a big culture behind your back. It’s good to have Pushkin and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, rather than nobody.” Mort’s poems engage variously with the situation in Chechnya, and the post-Soviet landscape of factories and bureaucratic double-speak, but she insists that politics isn’t the point. “I’m apolitical,” she says. “For me it’s very personal. I identify a lot with the Belarusian landscape and history, but not the political situation.” If that sounds a bit disingenuous, it’s surely an understandable position for any Belarusian to take, given all that history, and how quickly things can change.
Mort teaches writing in Washington DC. She plans to return to Minsk eventually, but for now she’s happy where she is. Indeed, she recommends exile to writers.
“When you are thrown out of the scene you really have to think about what’s yours and what’s been imposed on you – and you can give that up. You think, what do I keep, and what do I give away? It’s really good. And you’re by yourself, you’re a stranger, you’re alone, which is the best thing to be when you’re a poet. ‘What’s yours and what’s been imposed on you’ – these words could also describe the workings of history, and how we react to that history, which is one of the book’s central preoccupations. Indeed, the Factory of Tearsthat gives the collection its title is engaged in “recycling the wastes of the past – / memories mostly”. Another poem tells us that “the body uses memory/ to bind it to the earth”. If that’s the case, her generation of Belarusians is uniquely unmoored.
“I belong to a generation of kids who were born in the Soviet Union, and when we were very young, the Soviet Union collapsed. And our identities had not yet been formed. We were finding out who we were at the same time that the country went through what happened.”
Mort makes a motion of a tiny fish navigating a current. “You move in a stream, you’re flowing, you think you’re going somewhere, and suddenly this huge wave of history covers you completely.” Her hands fly over her head, then settle back to the table. “My generation, we have a very strong sense of being overwhelmed by history. And that’s what I write, because I’m trying to understand what happened. But I still don’t understand. Those who were older, they were very conscious of what was happening, those who were younger, they learned about it in school. For me it came on the level of sensation: the taste and the smell and the colour of Perestroika. I don’t want to intellectualise it, but I do want to understand it somehow. In my poems I try to find an understanding.”
Valzhyna Mort will read with Ian Duhig and Ellen Hinsey at 6.30pm today in the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire, as part of the DLR Poetry Now festival. Tickets 01-2312929 or at the door. See poetrynow.ie