Interview With Poet Valzhyna Mort
By Abdu Ali Eaton
Born in Belarus and now teaching at the University of Baltimore, Valzhyna Mort is an acclaimed writer and poet who made her debut in 2005 with her first poetry book, I’m as Thin as Your Eyelashes. Shortly after, she released Factory of Tears, and became the youngest poet featured on the cover of Poets & Writers magazine. Her new poetry book, Collected Body has just been released.
CBSBaltimore.com: What did moving to Baltimore add to your poetry?
Valzhyna Mort: I’ll probably know only after I leave Baltimore.
CBSBaltimore.com: What inspired Collected Body?
VM: Nothing inspires inspiration, if it makes sense. Inspiration comes and goes at its only will, and there’s no way of putting a finger of what brought it this or that time. Collected Body happened to me in the summer of 2009, when I was staying on a small island in the North Sea, and then I worked on the book for two years, editing, cutting, and writing and rewriting. The book is definitely threaded with the idea of metamorphosis (in fact, on the cover of the book there’s an image of Leda and a Swan), travel (I’m looking at a history of walking in my family), and sensuality of womanhood and of landscapes; it’s also situated mostly between two very different landscapes – a seaside landscape which ranges from poems set on the North Sea to Caribbean Sea; and a flat, isolated landscape of Belarus.
CBSBaltimore.com: As a poet, you explore dark truths and taboos, like violence and sex. Do you feel like there’s a need to expose the tainted facts of life?
VM: I don’t see violence and sex as a taboo, especially in, say, Hollywood culture, which manufactures them daily. I think it’s hypocritical to talk about whether there’s a need to expose them or not in America where they are being in plain view and are, in fact, the only two things that sell. I also don’t think that as a poet I focus much on either, even though Collected Body is far more sensual than my first book, Factory of Tears. But personally I’m very interested in art – and films have probably been most successful in it – which show how completely perverted our so-called normalcy is. Nobody is normal. We are all freaks. That might be the only thing interesting about us. I’d recommend an Austrian film director Michael Haneke. It’s not about exposing “tainted facts of life,” it’s about making your viewer work with you, not sleep, as your work unfolds.
CBSBaltimore.com: Is it hard for you to go to these dark places for your poetry?
VM: No, it’s not. I’m grateful that I can do that, and I don’t imagine living any other way.
CBSBaltimore.com: Poetry is like dance with a rhythm, form and feeling. If your style of poetry was a style of dance, what would it be?
VM: I won’t compare poetry to dance because poetry, in my opinion, is a far superior art form. We can talk about rhythm, form, and feeling in every art form, be it music or visual art. But unlike any other art form, and dance in the first place, poetry carries an important anthropological work of preserving our language in its purity, freeing it from conversational clichés and other expressions which carry no aesthetic function, but only an utilitarian one.
CBSBaltimore.com: Do you think of your poetry as a song? What tune would Collected Body sing to readers?
VM: The roots of poetry are in a song, so in a way every poem is a song, a prayer. However, just like with a dance, the music of a poem cannot be simplified to an actual musical tune. When I was writing Collected Body I listened to a lot of Franz Liszt, Chopin, and Brahms, but we also have to talk about a different kind of music a poet is looking for when writing. Maybe a better word is joy, the way everything is singing to us when we feel a moment of true happiness. We call it sometimes music, sometimes poetry, sometimes joy, because it doesn’t really have a name – it’s a kind of a thing that resists a label. We know it only when we feel it. And because it doesn’t have a name, the only way we’ve figured out to capture it with is through art.
CBSBaltimore.com: You’re a traveler. What places bring you inspiration?
VM: I prefer to live simply, save money and go to places physically. I try to stay at a place for at least a month, which usually happens in summer. Artist residencies are great for that. Collected Body was written between two residencies – Sylt Quelle, on the island of Sylt in Germany, and Internationales Haus der Autoren Graz in Austria. Then I stayed at a residency called Alice Yard in Trinidad, and finally was finishing editing the book one summer later in Morocco, with the help of a fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. Right now I’m writing to you from Austria again, where I have a residency at the Literaturhaus in a town of Krems on the Danube. I love large spaces like the sea, the desert. I grew up in a small and completely isolated country without any way out to the sea. In fact, when I was a child, the sea was something like God to me – you only read about it, but you could never possibly see it. So right now I’m compensating at various seas, I guess.
CBSBaltimore.com: Does Baltimore have good outlets for beginning poets? What places would you recommend?
VM: In my probably unpopular-with-beginning-poets view, the only outlet that a beginning poet needs is a good library. Everything else is optional, but it is of course important for some, more than others, to connect with other artists and to have a chance to hear and talk to an established writer you love. There are good reading series throughout the city. If you publish with a local magazine, you are likely to be asked to read at a presentation of an issue. Local magazines are great for beginning poets. Our MFA program at UB has a fantastic reading series, which is free and open to the public. There’s City Lit. There’s Enoch Pratt Library with its reading series. There’s New York City at an arm’s length.
Abdu Ali Eaton is an arts advocate and writer living in Baltimore. His creative works can be found at EatOnThis.com.