The Poet Against the Machine: A Q&A with Anzhelina Polonskaya
Russian writer Anzhelina Polonskaya is the author of eight poetry collections and one short story collection. Her work has been shortlisted for the 2005 Corneliu Popescue Prize for European Poetry in Translation, the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and the 2014 Best Translated Book Award. She is a member of the Moscow Union of Writers and the Russian PEN Centre. In 2015, she fled Russia after receiving threats for her political writings on her blog. She was also targeted for her poetic contribution to an oratorio requiem for the Kursk submarine disaster, a taboo subject in Russia.
Like a classical painting, Polonskaya’s writing is steeped with vibrant imagery, colors, and emotion. Her work, widely translated in the United States, has appeared in publications that include Drunken Boat, AGNI, Iowa Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction has also been published in Sampsonia Way. In this interview with the magazine, conducted over email, Polonskaya describes how she broke from Russian tradition with her writing.
Anzhelina Polonskaya is the current ICORN writer-in-residence of the City of Refuge in Frankfurt, Germany. She is the recipient of the 2016 Words on Borders Freedom Prize.
In your short story, “The Street,” (published in Asymptote Journal), you write that “there is nothing more pitiless than tradition.” What Russian traditions impacted you early on? When did you begin to identify them as “pitiless”?
No matter how far the civilization progresses Russia was, is, and will be a semi-pagan country on a genetic level, despite the new rebirth of the Orthodox faith. Furthermore, the geography of Russia is so vast that the distance between two settlements can exceed the territory of an entire European country. The distance between the settlements and lack of information cannot contribute to its rapid development. For those reasons the pagan traditions have been kept for centuries, especially in the hinterlands—and I spent my childhood in Yaroslavl.
Sometimes tradition takes an ugly shape. This was what I wrote about in “The Street”– specifically about the funeral tradition that I witnessed as a little girl. Overall, I believe that any tradition halts progress in a sense. An example could be art. If mankind did not have the courage to break away from the canon we would still be doing rock carvings.
You received your formal education at the Moscow State Academy of Physical Culture and Sport. How did deviating from a literary education help you find your unique voice? Do you see it as part of your rejection of tradition?
I had been painfully seeking my poetic space for a long time before attending school. I received an offer to transfer to the Literature Institute from the Academy of Physical Culture and Sport but I rejected it at once. Even back then I clearly understood that attending the Literature Institute would lead to a confrontation between teacher and student, which would deprive me of any education. You see, I have always believed that you cannot simply teach someone poetry.
When I was making my first steps into poetry, I wrote in a style that broke from the strict poetic forms, for which I paid dearly. I applied three times before I was accepted to the Moscow Writer’s Union, which was accompanied by a grandiose scandal. They banned me from entering their building for a period of six months because my poetry did not follow the Russian tradition.
What were your biggest literary influences when you first began writing?
At an early age I “recovered” from being a Marina Tsvetaeva fan, but Joseph Brodsky was the greatest influence on my poetry. I could only release my poetry from his intonation when I found my own voice, which happened quite late for a poet. One of my books written during this turbulent period I consider to be a total failure and don’t want to even mention it.
Being influenced by someone is a perfectly normal state for any artist. Many great creators went through it and for me it was very painful. Now I look at Brodsky’s poetry perfectly calmly and clearly, paying tribute to his gift. But he is not a poet “of my blood type.” It all very much depends on the phase you are in and your age.
Today I favor particular poems by different authors rather than the body of work of a single poets. Although there are some names that are sacred for me I won’t list them here. I hate hierarchy, as it requires someone to be named first.
While you were a professional ice dancer you lived and worked in Latin America. How did leaving Russia change you and what was it like to return to Russia after years away?
Latin America was perhaps one of the best stages of my life. I worked in different countries, from Mexico to Venezuela. And I left a part of my heart there forever. Coming back to Russia was a bit like a break up experience and the adaptation was very difficult. I loved Latin America very much, and it was difficult to come back to a country that was never mine.
I don’t think that it would be a good idea to return to Latin America—never go back to a place where you have been happy.
What motivated you to begin writing and when did you decide to pursue a literary career full time?
I actually began writing when I was seven years old. Literature does not relate to sport. These are two non-intersecting lines. We choose a sport ourselves. Literature chooses us.
I left ice dancing for many different reasons. To describe it in one sentence: I couldn’t make it work with my partners. I tried to find a job in Moscow but very quickly I realized that whatever I was doing would plunge me into inescapable depression. Poetry was occupying my thoughts.
When you began writing, what message did you want to spread? How has that message changed as you have gained more experience and been published more widely?
I didn’t think that much about it when I first started writing. I was very young and just wrote.
I have only been widely published in the West. They didn’t publish me in Russia back then and they still don’t. I am a persona non grata.
My message depends not on the amount of publications but rather on what I went through in life and on rumination—which, as you learn with age, does not lead to good.
What role did your family play in your literary work?
My mom and later my adoptive father played a big role in my development as a writer. I lost my biological father when I was seventeen years old. Unfortunately, a series of deaths broke our family apart, literally and figuratively. There is no greater sorrow than the betrayal of your loved ones. This breaks your spine. Even if you are able to move on your own, you’re a cripple for the rest of your life. Now, my mom is with me. She’s the only person on earth for whom I continue to work and breathe.
In 2009, as a scholar of the Camargo Foundation, I once went to the administration office and saw a picture of Paul Klee’s The Adventure Ship. I was fascinated. I wrote a poem based on it and the image never left my imagination. Later I asked the publisher and translator to use Klee’s work as the cover of the book. The book’s title came from the poem.
What kind of mental space do you need to enter in order to write?
I can’t answer for other writers. I can only say that I need to see the world as it is, in all its perverse cruelty. The state of empathy greatly weakens the mind but it also serves as the basis for creativity. My unchangeable belief is that all beautiful things existing in life relate very little to a man himself. Life is catastrophically soulless, like snow, an image I mention so often.
What were the origins of the short story, “Insomnia,” published in SampsoniaWay.org?
I wrote “Insomnia” in Moscow during the summer of 2015. I had already had a contract with the German publisher Akademie Solitude Press and the story was a part of what would become the collection Greenland. And I am greatly thankful to everyone who took part in creating the Greenland collection. This was my first prose experience. I call them short novels–a mixture of autobiography, essay, and fiction. It’s a genre that I don’t quite understand myself, not to mention the editors of journals who I confuse.
“Insomnia” is a fruit from my personal experience. I’ve been suffering from severe insomnia and I know better than anyone how painful this is. If you notice, the structure of my stories are like pieces of broken glass used to construct some whole form, but in some places the pattern is crooked. That is, I abruptly change the narrative and then come back to it after a while. Those are pieces of memories and sudden images. Some of my characters came through my life and some are no more than an invention. This is all intertwined in a blend of biography and imaginary characters. The only unchanged character is the first person who tells the story.
You won’t find proper nouns anywhere in my stories. The pronoun “I” helps me pass through the glass to my characters and experience the situation with them. Otherwise the story would not be truthful. Insomnia is no exception.
To what extent is it necessary for you to share your characters’ experiences in order to portray them?
All of my characters come from real life. Even if they are imaginary, they are synthetic blends of real people. Again, this is just my experience as a writer. In that same story, ”Insomnia,” I didn’t actually deal with the drug addict that I write about, but there was a real person, a woman (to tell you a secret), who was killing herself with drugs before my eyes. I had to go back in the past and relive that moment again.
You mentioned your collection Greenland, a work that you have said is not over even though it has been published. What would you like to add to the book now?
The project started as I was flying from Moscow to Orlando. As we were flying over the edge of the continent the sight of Greenland surprised me. I took a few pictures through the window and thought: this looks like a human soul that’s freezing.
Unfortunately, Greenland in its present form, in German, is not a completed book. The length was strictly determined by the publisher. After the book was published I wrote stories that are thematically, inseparably linked to Greenland. I would really like to see this book published in English. I have never even dreamed of being published in Russia so I am looking for a publisher in the United States.
Your writing is rich with detail-specific imagery: honeybees banging against windows, the design on a dress, photographs. It is also full of color and allusions to figures like Chagall, Schubert, Van Gogh, and Thomas Mann. How do you create these color associations and choose which imagery and allusions to include in your writing?
I don’t know whether the details that catch me will catch my readers or whether they help the story move. They are simply reflections of my thought process and I can’t help it. Of course poetry played a big role here. All the imagery comes from years of poetic experience.
The ones I return to include: snow, which is always within me, my mom, and betrayal, which I think is a basic human trait.
I read a lot, all the time. Some passages stick in the memory forever. They serve as the source of my allusions. Painting is a separate issue. I should have been born an artist but it didn’t work out.
Today I can imagine myself as a Chagall figure, suspended between heaven and earth. I make the references spontaneously.
In almost all interviews I say that I don’t hear a hum, like other poets, but I see a canvas in front of me. In fact when I write I am painting a picture, feeling the taste of words, as the taste of the food, with my tongue. This is quite a difficult combination–visual and taste sensations. There is a lot of black, blue, and white in my poems. But virtual pictures are always in pastel shades. I can’t say whether these associations are universal or not. It is all individual.
White is a color of death for me. For other colors, the meaning depends on the mood of the text. It has been this way since the beginning, when I was seven years old.
Some of your poems are written with the second person–“you” is commonly regarded as a tricky choice from a craft standpoint. Who is the “you” addressed in your poems? Do you ever worry about the ambiguity?
“You” is a person collected from pieces. “You” has no gender and no age. It is the combination of all those people who I loved, who don’t exist anymore. I myself can be “You” and “you” can be sort of an appeal to myself.
No, it doesn’t bother me at all, how the second person is perceived by someone who is distracted.
What feedback did you receive about your writing early on and how did this influence your craft and the direction you took with your writing?
I wasn’t accepted in Russia back then and I am still not accepted now. There is a very narrow range of readers in Russia and for the most part they are not writers.
The most influential event that fate gave me was a meeting with the greatest Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky. In 1999, he changed my life path when he took me to to the prestigious “Three Lands, Three Generations” festival in Chicago, where literary stars like Mark Strand and Charles Simic were reading. There, I received great feedback and met my translator, Andrew Wachtel.
Later, when Voznesensky was watching my creative development, he would come to Moscow to see me read. If my turn at the microphone was in the middle or somewhere near the end he would ask the organizers to move me up in the order. He would listen to me and then leave.
Could you describe your relationship with your translator, Andrew Wachtel?
When Andrew and I first decided to try to work together I was too naive and didn’t understand anything about the art of translation. Besides, my English was too bad. Andrew had quite a difficult time processing my syntax but today, after seventeen years of working together, I can say that nobody knows my literary language better than Andrew.
Languages from different groups will never completely match, especially when it comes to poetry. I encounter thoughts and feelings that are untranslatable all the time. Every language is different. How to convey idioms? There is a long standing dispute on this subject among translators. I believe you need to see what outweighs the other: is the sound or the meaning more important? Ideally we find a compromise.
A poor translation may permanently ruin a literary career. I always read the translation, which is very important, and offer some suggestions as best I can. I may notice a mistake or, as a poet, offer a different rhythm, but to understand all the nuances is possible only if you were born and raised in a bilingual environment.
You have been published in numerous American magazines and written multiple books. Looking back over your long publication history, what lessons did you learn when you first began publishing?
Oh, this was a long time, 20 years ago. After the tragic death of my friend and assistant Pavel Vorontsov–the book A Voice is dedicated to him–my contacts were lost and I started all over again. I decided to try to send a few poems to the United States. I had translations of my work thanks to Andrew Wachtel. Gradually, American journals started to publish me. I began to win grants and met with writers from different countries all over the world. Over the years I was involved with so many journals, scholarships, and publishing houses that even American authors would contact me.
I don’t consider myself a publicist, except for when talking about my work in Russian Switzerland, where I worked as a poetry editor for a year and talked about Russian poets in my column. Luckily, I chose who I published. I made the decision solely based on my own perceptions of their poetic gift, not on popularity or prior recognition. My columns were nothing but essays. That year helped me determine my prose style a lot.
What was your relationship like with editors?
I haven’t had any disagreements with western editors. Sometimes there were publication size limits but in those cases I had to obey. Aside from that no one tried to correct my texts, and it wouldn’t be possible to anyway. If there are any questions my translator answers them, for obvious reasons.
My most recent collection published in Russia is Snow Within, which was released in 2008 with the help of sponsors. I have not been published in homeland since then. If we are talking about serious literature, the literary market is completely destroyed; they are unprofitable. As for me personally, I cannot be published due to my liberal political views and, as a consequence, out of fear and personal animosity.
You have received many awards and recognition for your work. What are your goals as a writer now and how have they changed since you began to achieve recognition?
No matter how many awards you get you always start a new book from scratch. I have one goal: fighting with myself, my past self, and continuing to write. The biggest creative disaster would be to drop the bar. To cease to create is like death.
Like every writer I need readers. Without them I am nothing, but to get them writers have to work hard: find publishers, convince them to take on your work. If you don’t have an agent, all attempts to reach the editors are almost one hundred percent doomed to failure. Luck plays its role, too. Amidst all of this you need to find the strength to write, which is not always successful. And it goes on without end.
Persecution and Exile
When did you begin to be blacklisted and how did threats against you begin to unfold?
I ran a public blog in which I expressed my thoughts openly. Writing private posts is humiliating to me. Eventually my political dissent gave rise to written threats against me. I took screen shots of the messages I received but I didn’t call the police, knowing that there was no sense in reporting to them as the system is completely corrupt. Then I started to get calls from different phone numbers, which I documented in my blog. Sometimes they called up to 30 times a day. Worst of all, sometimes my elderly mother answered the phone.
Meanwhile, my poems had drawn the interest of the Australian composer David Chisholm, who wanted to create an oratorio requiem about the Kursk submarine disaster. We selected poems from my different collections over the years and combined them thematically in a tribute to the dead sailors. I did not intend it to be a political act –it became political later. The opera debuted in Melbourne in 2011 and was a big success. They made a documentary about how the oratorio requiem was created. No one suspected that a few years later, the Kursk disaster would take on a political undertone, and I would be black listed for writing about it.
No one knows exactly why Russia does not want to talk about the sinking of the Kursk submarine, with the exception of a few people in the government. In Russia there are many taboo subjects. Kursk is a reminder of a large-scale disaster that occurred because the Russian government’s refusal to accept help from the West.
After the 2015 murder of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian politician who was outspoken against Putin, it was quite clear that the situation had gotten serious. The question was what to do next. Fortunately, I received an invitation from the city of Frankfurt where I could and still can write freely. The situation in Russia is so horrifying that anyone who maintains honor and dignity is in despair. I think that Russia has reached a dead end. The train has crashed into the wall. Russia is a country where anyone can receive a prison sentence regardless of innocence or guilt. These are political measures that are used for fear-mongering. The country is a prison. It is naive to believe that voluntary slavery makes you immune to that. The repressive machine has no soul.
How has living in exile changed your life?
As I mentioned I have no relatives left except my mother, and we are separated. She is in Russia and I am anxious about her fate every day. Leaving the country was a very hard decision. When you go into exile you abandon everything: the person you are closest to, the home you built with love. But we both understood what staying in Russia could lead to because I would not stop writing.
In Frankfurt, I live all alone in a beautiful apartment with a view of the Main River (thanks to my coordinators). Living alone, as I have experienced it, is a huge challenge. Not everyone can see it through to the end. My mother still has opportunities to come visit me for short periods of time. One of the painful obstacles we face is the visa requirements, especially for an elderly person. Russians have one image today: the invader, a threat to all humanity–and that’s me trying to put it mildly.
I don’t really have a daily routine; I have written a lot over the last year. It has been all translated. I need a publisher, primarily in the United States, for a book of prose. The search takes huge amount of time. In Germany I have had several readings and two of my books have been released: one of poetry and one of prose. I am learning German to escape from the negative information, which I daily receive from Russia, and so as not to fall into despair.
In April of 2016, I was invited to ICORN General Assembly in Paris and participated in the workshops. Immediately after that I received an invitation from the Catalan PEN Center to read a series of lectures in October 2016. The event will take place on the anniversary of Politkovskaya’s murder, and there is a plan for collaboration with the musicians. But it is too early for me talk about it.