Interview. Lisa Pavlova

Can a man understand a woman? What kind of love is inspirational: a happy or an unhappy love? Two women always find something to talk about, especially when they are mother and daughter, and one is a poet and the other one a psychologist…


vera pavlova

VERA PAVLOVA So, daughter dear, let’s address the perennial subject: everything you wanted to know about the relationships between man and woman but were afraid to ask. Though there is nothing I can reproach myself with in this regard. When you were three years old, and your sister Natasha was eight, I bought and read to the two of you aloud a French book where everything was scientifically yet very plainly explained. The lesson was not wasted: that evening, when you two were splashing in the bathtub, I heard Natasha say in her resonant voice “Lisa, did you wash your vagina?” Still, I hope by now you do have some idea about how a boy differs from a girl, don’t you?

Lisa PAVLOVA I do, more or less. But what interests me is something else: how does a poet differ from a poetess? Who are you: a poet or a poetess?

V.P. Oh, I have been confronted with that question so many times! Tsvetaeva used to get offended when they referred to her as a poetess, and after her everybody has been stuck on this opposition. Poetesses seem to perceive in the word “poetess” something suggesting a second-rate quality of texts. To the effect that allegedly “a chick is not a bird”… But of course a chick is a bird, what else? To my ear an assertion like “I am a poet” would be even more risky. There is always the fear that upon hearing it someone may quote Kharms: “And I think you are a piece of shit”. That is why until recently in questionnaires under the rubric “profession” I used to write “musicologist”.

L.P. Then why is it that every time you ring the doorbell, and I ask “Who is it?”, you answer “I don’t know?”

V.P. I don’t know. L.P. When you read poems you do not know, can you tell whether the author was a poet or a poetess?

V.P. I can, if they are real poems. I always can. Real poetry always has very definite gender characteristics. And that is not even the question of grammar nor of verbs in the past tense. After all, when you hear a singer or see a ballet dancer, you do not doubt her gender for a second. The same with real poems: they are written with a whole body.

L.P. But what about the cases when the author and the character are not of the same gender?

V.P. Yes, that happens. At one time I even wanted to compile a collection of such texts, with some catchy title, like “The Androgyne’s Dream” or “The Day of Transvestment”. Most remarkably, the gender becomes manifest even when an author puts on the mask of the opposite sex. Take, for example, these four lines from Akhmatova: “No, the one who claimed the heart was of stone/knew for sure it was of fire.// I will never understand whether you, woman, are close to me,/ or you simply loved me”. I cannot explain why, but a man simply could not have written that!

L.P. Why is it that in the history of literature there are more men than women involved? Is that because it is a kind of a typically male profession, like being a general or a truck driver?

V.P. As I put it in one of my poems, the sole purely male profession in the world is executioner. Seriously though, what you have just said was true only until the end of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century the situation changed drastically. If we were to make a list contemporary poets who are successful, published, and widely read, there would be probably more women than men on it, and not by accident, either. Women have been silent for so many centuries! They have accumulated so many things unexpressed! And things that are important and of interest to all! Suppose dogs began to talk. Or fish. Or even chicks. And here you would have a goodly half of the humankind!

L.P. But still, how important is it to you that you are a woman?

V.P. It is more important than anything else! When I look back at my life, I realize that the brightest, most acute, most memorable things that have happened to me, were related to my gender. The first love, the second first love, because every love is first love, especially the last one… First bra, first exhibitionist, first blood, first kiss… These are the moments that never heal, that last forever. They burned me so unbearably that at the age of twelve I started writing a diary. And I would put down in it everything except what was really tormenting me. Because I had no words for that. And only when I started writing poems, I discovered a remarkable and exciting possibility of speaking about that. You know how I had started writing, don’t you? I was at the maternity ward, when I was pregnant with Natasha. Poems came just as the milk did. And from the outset those were my poems. At the same time I had learned to give birth and to write poetry. And to tell live-born poems from the ones that arе phoney. Not long ago I put it this way in a poem: “Muse, you and I have nothing to talk about: you have never given birth”.vera pavlova

L.P. And with men, do you find something to talk about? Have you never wanted to be a man?

V.P. Never, no way! I think it is so great to be a woman! Do you remember when you were a kid and I asked you whether you would like to be a boy, you answered: “No. But if there were twice as many days in a week, I would like to be a girl for three days, and a boy for three days.” “And on Sundays?” I asked. “On Sundays I stay at home” was your answer. But I would like to be a woman even if there were ten times as many days in a week! Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and think: “Here is the beloved woman of the man I love”, and I envy myself. And feel jealous. And I recall how the man I love once said: “I would very much like to be you just for a minute, if only to know what it is like to be loved as much as you are”.

L.P. Let us then talk about love: what is more inspiring, a love that is happy or that is unhappy? In what state the writing goes better: when everything is fine or when everything is bad?

V.P. A poet would never pose such a question! When a person understands that he or she is a poet, that he or she is doomed to writing poems (because being a poet is not a profession, it is a verdict, a diagnosis, an addiction as to narcotics), his or her life becomes uprooted. A dabbler says: “I write poems when I feel bad; when I feel fine I do not write”. A poet says: “I feel fine if I write, and I feel bad when I do not write”. I have a line to that effect: “Happiness is wretchedness to which one has managed to give a perfect form”.

L.P. But you still have not answered the question about the happy and unhappy loves.

V.P. Genuine love is always happy, whether requited or not. It is happy because it makes the person who loves feel alive. And that is happiness. Because we keep sinking into death, we drown in it. We come up to the surface, get a gulp of air, and submerge in the water again. But when we love, it is as if we came to the surface, turned on our back, and were breathing and breathing some more… And the sun keeps on shining… And sea keeps holding us afloat… Even if you are not loved in return.

L.P. Which means that a poet finds consolation in transforming misery into pretty poems. What about the reader: can the reader find consolation in poems?

V.P. These days, with the advent of Live Journal, I started getting direct feedback to my poems. And I saw that they could be of help to people in difficult situations. A girl writes about losing virginity the day before, and adds: “So this is what Vera Pavlova meant!”, and then finishes her entry by quoting me. Or a woman who recalls my lines when she sees a widow crying over a coffin… Of course, I am far from the thought of trying to save anyone; I am myself merely hoping to survive. The other day a woman approached me after a reading and said: “I left my husband three months ago. But tonight, as I was listening to your poems, I suddenly realized how much I missed him. And I decided to go back to him. Thank you so much!”

L.P. It would appear that your poems are a kind of a love potion. And can you put a spell for your own benefit? V.P. And how! Haven’t I got a beloved husband for myself that way? I kept writing and writing, for eighteen years, until my muse had come of age and wanted to get married. And that was when I found out what I had been writing for: so that my one and only would read my poems and find me. I am precisely the case of a successful charmer: not only have I made a man fall in love with me, but also forced him to come out of non-being! And from a very distant non-being at that: all the way from America… At the time you put it most amply: “Love is mean: you can fall even for an Ambassador’s interpreter”.

L.P. Well, well.. Let’s change the subject. They say “God wants what woman wants”. Is that true?

V.P. It would be worth finding out who said it first, a man or a woman. This is a weak counterargument to the universal conviction that woman was the reason behind expulsion from Eden and, therefore, what woman wants, the devil wants. More than likely, neither God nor the devil wants to kiss, to love, to give birth…

L.P. Can a man understand a woman and if so, what should he be like to be able to do that?

V.P. The man I love once said to me: “Do you understand that understanding is impossible?” I said: “I understand”. But speaking seriously, freedom is when there is no need to lie. And understanding is also when there is no need to lie. For me, freedom equals understanding. I know no other kind of freedom.

L.P. Do men understand your poems? Can they understand them?

V.P. I hope so… Generally speaking, I do have many male readers. Perhaps even more than female readers.

L.P. Theoretically speaking, can poems be aimed at “a target group” the way advertisements are?

V.P. Those who read poetry are precisely its target group. And the group is not numerous. To understand poems one needs to have a special organ of perception. Anybody can listen to music, but not everybody knows how to read notes or sight-read musical scores. In order to read poetry one also needs to study a kind of a system of notation. If you want a formula, here it is: poetry is AIDS, the poet is ill, the reader is infected.

L.P. Given such meager consumption, it appears the enterprise is not terribly profitable. Is not poetry headed for bankruptcy?

V.P. Most interestingly (and here my analogy fails), everything indicates that the number of those who are sick with the poetry virus and of those who are infected with it is constant. And that the two or three per cent of the total population for whom poetry is a vital necessity will always be there. As long as language exists, it will generate the need for maximum, utmost, divine accuracy that only poetry can satisfy. Once I peeked into your Live Journal (sorry, my apologies) and saw what you had written about one of Pushkin’s poems: “That’s for me. About me. Instead of me.” No way to put it better. Pushkin would have been most flattered.

L.P. What a nice ending this would be! But I still would like to ask you about the qualities you value in men.

V.P. As I got older, I understood that I could be happy only with a man who would be superior to me in everything. Who would be more intelligent, kinder, more gifted, more generous than I. It may sound like a paradox, but with that kind of a man I become myself.

L.P. Who are you, then? And please don’t tell me as you always do “I don’t know”.

V.P. I do know. I am a wise fool. That is what the man I love once called me. That is what I have used as a title for my twelfth book that has just been published.

L.P. And what does that title mean?

V.P. It means I am wise enough to understand what a fool I am, and foolish enough to consider that wisdom.

L.P. You would not go as far as asserting that any real woman is a wise fool?

V.P. I just might.