KGOU

Belarus’ Valzhyna Mort Details Her Passion For Poetry, The Power Of Language

Feb 9, 2016

Valzhyna Mort grew up in Belarus as the Soviet Union collapsed, and she’s spent her entire career using poetry to dispel misconceptions and bring her country out of Russia’s shadow.

“A great myth was that it was a really big reading nation, and I don’t know if it was really true, in terms of how much reading was done,” Mort told KGOU’s World Views. “But it’s certainly true that every household had a library. No matter what your parents did, how educated they were, you had a library.”

She played with books the same way she played with dolls, indiscriminately read prose and poetry, and started writing the way most children do – to try to put their imagination to paper. But she says poetry is nothing like everyday language. It’s concerned with finesse and detail.

“We order coffee, and we don’t want to be brought a cup of tea. We want to be understood very quickly,” Mort said. “But a poem is not concerned with utilitarian aspect of language. It has an anthropological approach to language. It looks for reasons for a table to be called a table, even though it’s absolutely arbitrary.”

Valzhyna Mort reads her poem “Singer” at the 2015 Neustadt Festival of International Literature and Culture hosted at the University of Oklahoma campus. Mort was a member of the 2016 Neustadt Prize jury.

During a 2013 interview with the website Poetry Daily, Mort said Belarusian has a reputation as a “soft language, a language of lullabies.” But like the perception that every Belarusian citizen reads, she said it’s more understated, and needs context.

“[It] drags along with it the myth of Belarusians as being calm, peaceful, and tolerant people,” Mort said. “It’s all a very superficial, artificial construct. And a very Soviet construct – the younger Belarusians, Russians’ younger brothers and sisters. The calm ones. The tolerant ones. The all-enduring ones.”

Mort laughed as she described herself as an “angry, aggressive person,” and said there’s nothing soft about her poetry. But her writing isn’t an outlet for that, since she never separates herself from poetry, or poetry from herself.

“There’s not some kind of life, and then [you] sit down at the table and now create. Once a poet, you’re always a poet. That’s it. You never stop writing, because on the one hand, it’s the art of language,” Mort said. “But on the other hand it’s the art of attentiveness. You’re always alert. You’re always attentive to things around you. You’re a walking camera that constantly takes pictures and processes them.”

Interview Highlights

On Poetry’s Use Of Language

For me, poetry is always very visual. And what makes poetry language particular is several things. It's very concise. So instead of using 100 words, you use one word that would work for you. Basically like a slave doing the work of 100 other words. Then it transitions. The leaps that our mind takes, I think it's actually very natural for us to think in these leaps. Poets don't worry much about transitions, the way students have to do them in an essay, for instance. We take leaps, and in those leaps, in those gaps, in the white space of the page, a lot is said with it. Just like a pause in music is just as important as a taken note. Since I mentioned music, the musicality of poetry when a poem seems reach to become music, to become just sound, with meaning becoming almost secondary. I don't think a poet sits down to write a poem because she has a story to tell, some wisdom to bestow upon the reader. But it's the language that tells the story. And a poet has to listen very carefully to what language can offer. It's the art. Poetry is the art of language. But also the art of attentiveness, to the human condition. Of what's in front of you. And it's up to you how far you're willing to see. A lot of poets do not look beyond a bird chirping outside the window.

On How Her Audience Interprets Her Work

As a poet I do not worry much about the readers. I trust them to take care of themselves. Of course, all art is very carefully constructed. That's the way for the artist to control the way work is read. Whether it's musical work or literary work or visual work, the audience reads this work. So poetry is a very formal linguistic art, and the poetic form is a way of controlling the way the work is read. So a poet works not as much with the story as the poet works with the construction, with the form. In fact, we live in a very chaotic and fragmented world, and for me, poetry has always been what gave it form. So the formal aspect of poetry is something that I enjoy a lot. The idea of controlling chaos on the page with very carefully orchestrated lines and stanzas.

On Public Readings, And the Popularity Of Poetry Festivals

On the one hand, I'm very glad that poetry's having that kind of renaissance with these public events. But for me personally, poetry is a very private, a very intimate activity. I don't find...in fact, poetry readings in general I don't find them particularly interesting or engaging. I would much prefer to be at home and to read a book to myself. I read because I'm so aware of how boring poetry readings might go, and how every time a poet is reading I wish I were at home reading these poems to myself. So yeah, I try to not bore people too much, but I also try not to bore myself. Because I wrote these poems, I read them so many times in public, and it gets dull. And then it gets very untrue, dishonest. So when I read the poems, I try to kind-of relive the ecstasy of writing them in order not to bore myself and the people who came to see me.

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Valzhyna Mort, welcome to World Views.

VALZHYNA MORT: Hi, thank you for having me.

GRILLOT: So Valzhyna, as a Belarusian poet living here in the U.S., I'd like to start just by asking you about your interest in poetry, and what led you down that path to become a poet? You're a famous poet, a well-published poet. What brought you into poetry? How did you develop an interest in that?

MORT: I think it was poetry that led me down that path. I grew up in Belarus in the Soviet Union, and a great myth was that it was a really big reading nation. And I don't know if it was really true, in terms of how much reading was done. But it's certainly true that every household had a library. No matter what your parents did, how educated they were, you had a library. There were shelves of books, so I grew up in a house filled with books, especially by American standards, I'm afraid to say. I grew up in the library. And I read from early on. Books were just part of my life. I played with books along with playing with dolls. It was an object that was always a part of my life. And I read indiscriminately, prose and poetry. And I started writing, as most kids do, trying to put my imagination on paper.

GRILLOT: But you've said previously that there's something about poetry and how the words kind of come together, but yet they don't. You have to kind of disentangle them in some ways to make sense of what a poem is telling you, that it's simple. Poems are simply written, but then they're not so simply and easily understood. So how is it that form of writing inspired you?

MORT: Yeah, the language of poetry is certainly not the language of the everyday. Even though poetry is so much concerned with finesse and with details. It is a different kind of language. Every day we use language in a very utilitarian fashion. We order coffee, and we don't want to be brought a cup of tea. We want to be understood very quickly. But a poem is not concerned with utilitarian aspect of language. It looks at language, I think, as something - it has an anthropological approach to language. It looks for reasons for a table to be called a table, even though it's absolutely arbitrary. On the other hand, I don't want to overemphasize, or over-worship language. Because a poem also is a poem of images and ideas. For me, poetry is always very visual. And what makes poetry language particular is several things. It's very concise. So instead of using 100 words, you use one word that would work for you. Basically like a slave doing the work of 100 other words. Then it transitions. The leaps that our mind takes, I think it's actually very natural for us to think in these leaps. Poets don't worry much about transitions, the way students have to do them in an essay, for instance. We take leaps, and in those leaps, in those gaps, in the white space of the page, a lot is said with it. Just like a pause in music is just as important as a taken note. Since I mentioned music, the musicality of poetry when a poem seems reach to become music, to become just sound, with meaning becoming almost secondary. I don't think a poet sits down to write a poem because she has a story to tell, some wisdom to bestow upon the reader. But it's the language that tells the story. And a poet has to listen very carefully to what language can offer. It's the art. Poetry is the art of language. But also the art of attentiveness, to the human condition. Of what's in front of you. And it's up to you how far you're willing to see. A lot of poets do not look beyond a bird chirping outside the window. So to go back to your first question, I studied music as a child, and I thought of becoming a musician. And most of the things that I've learned for poetry I learned from music. I never studied poetry academically, but just those rules of musical compositions, I transferred them onto language.

GRILLOT: So it's something not only you see, I mean you refer to a poem as to project a certain image. It's visual, but it's also aural.

MORT: Aural.

GRILLOT: And a thing that you hear. So when you sit down to be creative, to construct your art form with words, with the language, it reflects something you're seeing, and perhaps not too far outside your window, as you mentioned. But nonetheless, a reflection of something you're seeing and hearing in your mind, and about a particular topic. It's obviously not arbitrary or random, but it has meaning. So then how does that relate to how people receive it? And the meaning that they take from your work, from your art form?

MORT: Well, as a poet I do not worry much about the readers. I trust them to take care of themselves. Of course, all art is very carefully constructed. That's the way for the artist to control the way work is read. Whether it's musical work or literary work or visual work, the audience reads this work. So poetry is a very formal linguistic art, and the poetic form is a way of controlling the way the work is read. So a poet works not as much with the story as the poet works with the construction, with the form. In fact, we live in a very chaotic and fragmented world, and for me, poetry has always been what gave it form. So the formal aspect of poetry is something that I enjoy a lot. The idea of controlling chaos on the page with very carefully orchestrated lines and stanzas.

GRILLOT: So going back to this notion of language as you were saying. Beautiful and poetic responses that you're providing. But you've written, of course, that your poems in both your native language, the Belarusian language, as well as English, but it's been said about you that you are trying to reestablish a clear identity for your native country, Belarus and its native language. And you've referred to it as a soft language, a language of lullabies. And I found this very intriguing because I'm not sure what you mean by soft language and a language of lullabies. Can you tell us more about that, and how your work helps us regain, or helps you and your country regain your identity in some way through your work?

MORT: Well, I won't know how it does in any way. These kind of things are often said with somebody else about me. Or during editing of the interview, they're taken out of context and placed as "the thing" on the page, for instance. Or in an audio file. So the idea that the Belarusian language is a soft language of lullabies is a myth that drags along with it the myth of Belarusians being calm, peaceful, and tolerant people. It's all a very superficial, artificial construct. And a very Soviet construct. The younger Belarusians, Russians' younger brother and sisters. The calm ones. The tolerant ones. The all-enduring ones, with their soft language of lullabies.

GRILLOT: Not the strong, not the domineering, yeah...

MORT: Yeah. So, of course, this is not true. In fact there's nothing that's soft about my poetry. Or me, for that matter. I'm an angry, aggressive person. (LAUGHS).

GRILLOT: Well, I don't see that.

MORT: (LAUGHS) So [unintelligible] in American culture, you cannot be aggressive, you cannot be angry, and you also shouldn't judge. I judge and I'm angry and aggressive.

GRILLOT: So poetry is a good outlet for that sort of thing, I suppose.

MORT: Well, poetry's my life. So it's not an outlet for me. It's not a career for me. I cannot separate myself from poetry, or poetry from myself. I never stop writing. Like all poets, there's not some kind of life, and then sit down at the table and now create. Once a poet, you're always a poet. That's it. You never stop writing, because on the one hand, as I said, it's the art of language. But on the other hand it's the art of attentiveness. You're always alert. You're always attentive to things around you. You're a walking camera that constantly takes pictures and processes them.

GRILLOT: Poetry's also somewhat of a performance art. You're known for your live performances, or your poetry readings. I suspect that they're probably quite animated and exciting. It seems to me that this is kind of a huge movement today in poetry, public readings and performances of either your own poetry or somebody else's poetry. So tell us a little bit about that, and how that relates to perhaps bringing, for lack of a better way of putting it, kind of bringing poetry back into popular culture where there are very public events now sharing one's poetry.

MORT: On the one hand, I'm very glad that poetry's having that kind of renaissance with these public events. But for me personally, poetry is a very private, a very intimate activity. I don't find...in fact, poetry readings in general I don't find them particularly interesting or engaging. I would much prefer to be at home and to read a book to myself. I read because I'm so aware of how boring poetry readings might go, and how every time a poet is reading I wish I were at home reading these poems to myself. So yeah, I try to not bore people too much, but I also try not to bore myself. Because I wrote these poems, I read them so many times in public, and it gets dull. And then it gets very untrue, dishonest. So when I read the poems, I try to kind-of relive the ecstasy of writing them in order not to bore myself and the people who came to see me.

GRILLOT: The ecstasy of writing them. That's a great way of putting it. Taking your own personal experience and bringing it to the public. Well, thank you so much Valzhyna for being with us today and enlightening us a little bit, not only about Belarus but about your poetry. Thank you so much.

MORT: Thank you.

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