A Q&A with Vera Pavlova
Question: If There is Something to Desire is the first full collection of your poetry to be published in English. The collection was translated by your husband Steven Seymour. What was it like working together?
Vera Pavlova: A translator is akin to a detective who follows the trail to "the scene of the crime," i.e., to the point at which a poem came into being. In that sense, Steven is in a unique position: he is not only "at the scene of the crime," not only has he apprehended the criminal, but he is also often "the fellow perpetrator." The poems he has to translate are generated by the life we are living together, and many of them are my confessions of love to him. He has all clues at his disposal, and there is no person in the world who could possibly understand my poems more exactly and deeply than Steven. In this regard, I am very fortunate, which can hardly be said of him: I can see how he toils on numerous iterations of his translations, how he tries to convey in English the multitude of nuances he finds in the originals. I know many married couples in which both spouses are poets, but I suspect history knows no cases of poet-translator marriages. A good translation is a happy marriage of two languages, and it is just as rare as happy marriages are. Mutual understanding is the foundation of our marriage, and that is something we learn every day. We have the gift of reading each other’s thoughts, and on two occasions we discovered that we had seen the same dream in our sleep. If you want an elegant formula, here it is: a good translation is the same dream seen by two different sleepers.
Question: When did you first start writing poetry and why?
Vera Pavlova: My first poem was a note I had written to send home from the maternity ward. I was twenty at the time, and had just given birth to Natasha, my first daughter. That was the kind of a happy experience I had never known before or after. The happiness was so unbearable that for the first time in my life I wrote a poem. I have been writing since, and I resort to writing whenever I feel unbearably happy or unbearably miserable. And since life provides me with experiences of both kinds, and with plenty of them, I have been writing for the past 26 years practically without a pause. I cannot afford staying away from writing. It could be called an addiction, but I prefer to describe it as my form of metabolism.
Question: Do you have a writing process that you can share with us?
Vera Pavlova: The other day I was bragging to a friend of mine that I had a gift for finding lost things, thanks to a special method: I relax and wait until the lost object calls to me "Here I am!" I said I could recognize a key, a cell phone, a rubber band to tie hair, by their voices. My friend replied: "But that is exactly how you write poems." I was amazed by the exactness of that remark, except that when it comes to poems, you never know what it is precisely you are looking for. All you know is that a) you need that something very much, b) it is somewhere nearby, perhaps in the most visible spot, and c) no one but you can find it. And that something, when you find it, takes the form of two or four ready-made lines that almost do not belong to you. As for the process of completing a poem, it is similar to recollecting, which is tantamount to the pains you go through when trying to recall a word you know, or a title, something that is "at the tip of your tongue" yet eludes you. For a poet, however, this involves recalling something that he or she never knew before. I feel all my future poems are already inside me, and all I have to do is recollect them. When I succeed at that, I feel perfectly happy and triumphant, wondering at the same time how I could forget something so simple. Every one of us knows that feeling, when we finally grasp an illusive name or a title. That’s the feeling that tells me: I have a poem. If I do not have that feeling, my poem has been fabricated rather than recollected, and no matter how pretty it may be, it is a stillborn child.
Question: Who is the audience you envision when you write, and does that match the audience that you meet at your readings across Europe and in the United States?
Vera Pavlova: I have no audience in mind when I write. Sorry is the tight rope walker who glances at the faces of spectators, as he strolls above a city square! What I am engaged in is an epistolary exchange with myself. As a teenager at a summer camp, I used to write letters to myself and mail them to my home address. When I went back home, I received those letters, read them with great interest, and until this day I am replying to them, as well as to the letters I keep receiving from the future. The recipient and the sender of those letters is one and the same person, and only poems can serve as replies to such letters. This is a highly private kind of correspondence but, paradoxically, in poetry the more private a statement is, the greater the number of people capable of sharing it. Very frequently I hear my readers claim that I say in poems what they feel but cannot express. Who is my reader? I do not know, nor do I need to know. But I am grateful to people who come up to me after readings, who quote my poems in blogs, who write to me. That gives me strength to get through the difficult days when I cannot write. On such days I feel wretched and need support from the outside. But when I write, no one can help me.
Question: What is your favorite poem?
Vera Pavlova: It is so difficult to answer this question, like the one about the book to take to an uninhabited island, or to be placed in your coffin. Let it be Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. My Grandmother Rachel is 96 years old, and she can barely read these days, but she remembers almost the entire text of Eugene Onegin by heart, the work that amounts to tens of pages and hundreds of stanzas. She quietly recites the text to herself, and that is her substitute for reading.
(Photo © Aleksandr Dolgin)
One of Russia's bestselling contemporary poets, Pavlova is the most recent international darling to break into the American literary scene, first in the New Yorker
and now with this first full-length collection to appear in English. Almost always less than 10 lines each, the collection's 100 poems explore universal themes like love, sex, and motherhood. That they have been translated by Seymour, Pavlova's husband, adds intrigue and intimacy to the collection, which has its share of semen, saliva, and wild strawberries, as well as placental slime and blood. Throughout, Pavlova works to combine registers of the sublime and the everyday. Because of the brevity of the poems, a tremendous amount rides on the impact of these quick juxtapositions. They often fall short of transcendence: Armpits smell of linden blossom,/ lilacs give a whiff of ink. The collection's success depends heavily on one's personal response to Pavlova's voice, including ungainly phrasings like two gays smooching on a bench and tell-it-straight lines like Death from depression seems/ a bit ridiculous. Some poems, however, quietly achieve a surprising depth, such as number 50, which reads in its entirety: I have brushed my teeth./ This day and I are even. (Jan.)
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