‘More moon, more roses, more silence!’: an Interview with Valzhyna Mort

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The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is entering its final week! This week, Katie interviews Valzhyna Mort, author of "Factory of Tears" and "Collected Body" about writing toward the body and whether or not triteness in language can be said to exist.

How many books have you published, and where?

I have two books, Factory of Tears and Collected Body, published in the US by Copper Canyon Press. My very first book was published in Minsk when I was in my early twenties, and it's still being reprinted. It's called I'm as Thin as Your EyelashesFactory of Tears also came out in Sweden, and both American books were published in Germany. Foreshadowing some of the questions, I'd add that the translated versions slightly differ from the original in the order of the poems. 

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?

The books I read growing up were mostly Collected Poems of various dead poets. In these books poems were organized chronologically, by date, so that reading them from beginning to end gave you a picture of daily poetic life, life in poetry. Most of these lives were punctuated by a poem a day, though often there were daily series of shorter poems, and later, in a poet's mid-career, you could see periods of silence often followed by longer poems or sequences of poems without one exact date, but a stretch of months and sometimes even years. 

Such chronological organization of a book still holds most interest to me. I enjoy the dialogue between poems that's not conjured up artificially (even if this artificiality is inspired and forms a poem of its own), but bares the day-to-day thinking, vocabulary, and images. A thin sixty-eighty page book that we are talking about here is, to this date, a new and somewhat foreign object for me. 

Thus, shamefully, I admit that the process of "constructing a manuscript" held neither enigma nor particular appeal. For convenience, I wrote the titles of the poems on scraps of paper and moved them around the table hoping for some divine intervention to shine on me and show me what should follow what. I'm being somewhat disingenuous perhaps…since there's the other hand to this. 

So, on the other hand, I like thinking of a book as a garden. A garden is green architecture, the art of planning, combining, and diversifying. We walk into a book the way we walk into a garden. There are several paths we can follow on our walk, we can smell things before we even see them, we can hear things without ever seeing them, colors and textures complement each other. In a great garden there's something to see and smell no matter what season it is.  

Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” for instance, once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

What's wrong with blooming and aching? Is it that these words are repeated? Or is it the triteness? 

Repeating can be wonderful. It's unimaginable that somebody would say to Paul Celan: "you repeat the word "silence" too often," or to Osip Mandelstam: "Why do you always compare everything to a rose?" It's a kind of "criticism" that belongs only in a MFA workshop, if it has to belong anywhere at all. Venus Khoury-Ghata mentions a moon or/and a tree every other line. These images are tortoises that hold her poetic universe. So, I say, more moon, more roses, more silence! Triteness, however, results from the boring use of language, and can be cured by lots of reading of wonderful books. 

To make this clear, I don't think that these words themselves are trite, for there are no trite words. Some of most beautiful lines of poetry are simple in their vocabulary and imagery. It's a matter of the relationships between the words on the level of a line, a sentence, a stanza. 

The words that I repeat often (I discovered that during poetry reading) are "breast" and "nipples."

How did you decide which poems to include in the collection?

I've never had this problem. If you don't know which poems to include, then maybe you shouldn't be putting a collection together? Poems come first, and then, Inshallah, they form a collection. Not the other way around. When I write, I don't think about putting a book together. Eventually, when I've written enough poems, I hope to have a book.  

How did you decide where to submit the collection? How many places did you submit? Did this publication process change between the first and second book?

I submitted Factory of Tears to two wonderful places, and published it with Copper Canyon. When I was putting Collected Body together, I already had "a home." 

What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

Sleep on the manuscript for two-three (four?!) years before deciding to publish it!! 

Has publication changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

Not a single bit. I don't write books, don't work on projects. 

What did you do when you heard your first book was accepted? 

I was very glad and grateful. I was spending a summer in Berlin, and the acceptance gave me a sense of "returning home." 

What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

My editor and I remember the publication process in drastically different light. He remembers me being stubborn as a goat. I remember being a total push-over. 

What is your favorite part of your first book? 

That one misprint… 

The bodies in your poetry refuse borders—they bleed and unfurl into the world unabashedly. The bodies are also playful and deadly serious—they are decorative and wounded, both. Can you talk about your poetics of the body a little bit? What about the body remains a fruitful place from which to write?

Thank you for saying "playful" because humor is very important to me, it renders everything ambiguous. 

Perhaps, a body cannot help but be implicated in a poem through a sense of mortality (who was it that defined poetry as a ceaseless conversation between mortality and futility?). But then, Goethe's "overwhelmed heart" has nothing to do with a body, at least I don't think it does. I don't think I write from the body, but rather towards it (them!) at least in the poems in Collected Body, since those poems address ancestry, family ties, bloodlines. We leave our mothers' bodies but they, on their turn, never really leave us. It's a book of facing the bodies the poet carries inside her. 

I've never quite gotten the poem "crossword" out of my head, partially because it has one of my favorite first stanzas in literature, and partly because I am enthralled by the way the village and the natural world seem to bow before the body in that poem. Can you talk about that poem a little bit? How did you write it, what was it like to write it? 

Thank you. I don't think I can add much to your thoughtful question because the question is truer than any answer I can give. "Crossword" is a poem about Chernobyl, in the landscape and in the body.  

Valzhyna Mort is the author of Factory of Tears (2008) and Collected Body (2011), published by Copper Canyon Press. Her honors include Lannan Foundation Fellowship, Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry, Burda Prize for Eastern European authors, and a fellowship from the Amy Clampitt Residency. Born in Minsk, Belarus, she currently teaches at Cornell University.