Born in Minsk, Belarus, Valzhyna Mort made her American debut in 2008 with the collection Factory of Tears, translated into English by Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright and poet Franz Wright. Of Collected Body, her first book written in English, the Library Journal writes: “Mort is a fireball . . . personal, political, and passionate.” Her awards include the 2005 Crystal Vilenica award in Slovenia, the 2008 Hubert Burda Prize for poetry in Germany, and the 2010 Lannan Literary Fellowship. Mort is a 2011 graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at American University. Mort will return to American on February 27, 2013 as part of the Visiting Writers Series.
CA: Why did you decide to pursue an MFA as a published poet? How do you think the program influenced or changed your writing?
VM: I expected my MFA program to teach me, first and foremost, to read poetry. So whether I was published or not didn’t play any role in this decision. The rhythm and noises of the subway that you have to take to school daily can influence your writing. A half eaten apple on the ground can inspire a new vision. The years at AU, however, did for me what I couldn’t have found outside of the program. They changed me as a reader, made me into a reader I’ve always wanted to be.
CA: Why did you choose a painting of “Leda and the Swan” for Collected Body‘s cover art?
VM: I think that Ruben’s Leda has a fantastic bottom. Collected Body is a book about the metamorphosis of the body, about the alienation from the body due to its weaknesses that certain way of life doesn’t have time to accommodate, the dislocation of the body due to a whole variety of social and political circumstances…
The artwork I had in mind – in fact, in front of my eyes, on a postcard, from the moment the book was conceived, was “Flower, Man” by American artist Kimberly Austin. The artist, however, proved to be untraceable, unresponsive. Leda and the Swan came around the last minute and has become a door into the book, very decisively and organically.
CA: How does mythology shape your poetry? Can you speak to a specific story that you use in your latest book?
VM: If it is Greek mythology that you have in mind (because of Leda and the Swan), the answer is no, there isn’t any specific mythological story here. Nevertheless, I would only like to mention two books that create their own mythologies: The Crow by Ted Hughes, and Homage to the Lame Wolf by Vasko Popa. These two poets are very important to me. Their mythologies, which are folklore mythologies, have some surreal qualities but at the same time they are very much grounded in the soil, in the landscape of the countryside, which is very metamorphic, with its change of seasons, vegetation, the role of animals etc.
CA: Factory of Tears was translated into English before publication in the U.S. I’ve read that you are passionate about translation and gained a lot from the class at American. What was your experience of being translated like?
VM: Translation is a deep reading, and if you are able to participate in the translation of your own work, you get to become its reader, rather than its writer. On the other hand, due to the time that passes between the writing of the poems and the need to translate them, say a few years, as it was with Factory of Tears, you get a chance to edit your old work. I don’t think I used that chance fully then. Later, when Factory was translated into German, I sat down and revised the book quite a bit before sending it to the translator.
CA: Was translation a factor in Collected Body?
VM: Collected Body was written in English. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that translation is not, as you put it, a factor there. Translation is always a factor! A poem is born in the moment of speechlessness. It is always a translation of silence into language.
Photo by Doug Barber