Vera Pavlova

An interview by Alena Bondareva

My acquaintance with Vera Pavlova’s poetry began when I came across a small collection of hers. I vividly recall holding the black-and-white book entitled “The Intimate Diary of a Straight-A Schoolgirl” (2000), which I opened at random to find: Your surrounding air trembles Like the around a beehive…

Then a few pages further:

Greetings, foul words,
you are light as a breeze,
as a prelate’s Latin,
winged and full-bodied…

And I suddenly realized that I was back to the beginning of the book and was reading it carefully, without skipping a single line, that in my mind I was trying to construct an imaginary portrait of the blunt heroine of the book, trying to guess how similar she might be to the author… Later I came across some occasional selections from Pavlova in literary monthlies and on the Internet.

It was only seven years later that I got to see Vera Pavlova in person at one of her readings. And I immediately decided to have an interview with her at all costs. I learned that Vera Pavlova was very reluctant to give interviews; moreover, she was soon to leave for the United States. The best I could do was to get her agreement to stay in touch by e-mail.

– When did you first start writing poems?

– It was quite late in my life, at the age of twenty, after my first daughter was born, literally at the maternity ward. My poetry writing was possibly somewhat akin to a protracted post-natal shock. Be that as it may, at one and the same time I became a mother and started writing poetry.

– And when did you realize you were a poet?

– That was much later. It took me 15 years to realize that I had gone too far, that the disease had been neglected, that there was no cure for it, and I could not live without writing.

– What role has you musicology education played in your creative development?

– “There is nothing more necessary in the world than music.” This pronouncement by Aleksandr Blok could well be my motto. Music is my homeland, my second language, my consolation. All my skills come from music. The way I perceive the world is through hearing it, and the concept of hearing the world was formed when I was learning to solmizate, to compose music, to analyze musical forms. For me it is impossible to pray without singing, to know the happiness of requited love without making music together, to submerge into myself without playing piano.

– How do you feel about prose (what are its advantages and disadvantages, compared to poetry)? Have you tried writing texts in prose?

– Prose is addition in line, poetry is multiplication in column. One cannot speak of advantages and drawbacks of one relative to the other: they are two entirely different operations. Of course, at times I am obliged to write prose, such things as letters, diaries, essays on music, answers to questionnaires, for your magazine for example… I do not like doing it very much. It requires making some extraneous movements, while I am used to taking the shortest path. Even when peeling potatoes. Poems are the shortest path to the meaning, the straightest and the quickest. As Brodsky put it: “Prose is infantry, poetry is air force”.

– T.S Elliot, an American poet, said: “Poetry means transforming blood into ink”. You have made a remark on one occasion to the effect that “Poetry is when the only possible words are put in the sole possible order”. What else is poetry to you?

– I could compile a whole book of my definitions of poetry. For example, “Poetry is AIDS: the poet is ill, the reader is infected”. Or “Poetry shortens life lengthwise, but extends it widthwise, as it expands its height.” I am compiling an endless cycle of aphorisms that is called “The sign language for the deaf and mute”. It contains numerous definitions of poetry. And the very multitude of those definitions means that something limitless cannot be defined.

– Brodsky also said: “A poet is the means of poetry’s existence”. Do you agree with that assertion?

– If I am not mistaken, Brodsky called a poet not the means but the instrument of language. But be that as it may, he is right. Since I have to live up to the image of an erotic poetess (!), I also formulate the poet/language relation the following way: “Inspiration is a sexual intercourse with language. I can always feel when language desires me. And I never say no to it. For me it is always good. And for language? Sometimes the answer seems to be yes, sometimes so-so. But most definitely it is never as good for language as it is for me.” (“The sign language for the deaf and mute”)

I could tell you ten different stories about how the ten titles of my books have found me, and I believe those would be interesting stories, and almost mystical..

– “The Heavenly Beast”, “The Second Language”, “The Intimate Diary of a Straight-A Schoolgirl” – these are the titles of your collections of poems. How do you come up with them, and how do you structure your books?

– I could tell you ten different stories about how the ten titles of my books have found me, and I believe those would be interesting stories, and almost mystical. The search for the sole possible title for a book is similar to looking for the sole possible word within a poem, but in the superlative degree: you look not just for the sole possible word, but for the most uniquely possible one. A book, just as a newborn child, KNOWS its name, and you merely have to guess that name. I believe I have managed to guess the names of my daughters and of my books. As for composing books, half of them are composed as stories with plots half-masked, while in the other half poems are in a chronological order, that is to say life is responsible for putting those books together. To me the latter method seems perhaps preferable.

– How do you actually write? Do you work every day or occasionally?

-If nothing gets in my way, things like travel, official matters, other people’s worries, I write every day, in the morning, in bed or in a very hot bath.

– Do poems represent a different form of existence to you, or are they indeed your existence? – Poems are the HIGHEST form of my existence.

– How do those who are closely related to you feel about your writing?

– The closest of the closely related, my husband, gets to read every one of my new lines before anyone else. No one understands me the way he does. And that is the source of great happiness to me (and of great torments to him), because not only he reads my poems, but also translates them into English. He translates poems that are dedicated to him, that have been lived together…

– What inspires you?

– Inspiration is a state that is almost independent of external stimuli. But when it arrives, and no one knows how and whence, it feeds on everything it finds, on everything that happens to be handy, and the more commonplace the object at hand, the more unusual the confessions that inspiration can extract from it.

– Of you people say: “Vera Pavlova is a poet”. Does it bother you when you are referred to as a poetess? – I have nothing against the word “poetess”. It is formed in perfect consonance with the rules of Russian morphology. – You write about love, about the women’s vision of the world, but your work cannot be called simply women’s poems. Does it matter to you that people should call your manner of writing masculine or feminine?

– Somehow I believe my poems can be called simply women’s poems. And this is what distinguishes them from many other women’s poems.

–With which of the contemporary poets do you feel the greatest affinity?

– I try to avoid answering this question. I don’t want to be a tipper-off, I'd rather be a go-between. Each person finds a favorite poet on his or her own. How? For example: a friend of a friend was rummaging through books at a bookstore, and suddenly a book fell from an upper shelf right on her head. As she was rubbing the spot that smarted, she opened the book that fell. And she immediately realized: this is it, this is the poet for me.

– Whose books are you reading at present?

– Yesterday I finished “The Day of Oprichnik” by Vladimir Sorokin, and started reading “Boris Pasternak” by Dmitri Bykov.

– I know that you have written several epitaphs for yourself. As I understand it, to you this is not just a literary game, and you treat it quite seriously. Is that because you do not want your descendants to write about you, and you do it instead of them? Or is there some other reason?

– No, this is precisely a kind of a literary game. I intend to write a whole book of self-epitaphs and descriptions of various tombstones that would suit me. After all, one somehow has to make the other world cozy!

– In one of your interviews you said: “I write in order to find people”. What else do you write for?

– I doubt that I said literally that. Of course that is not the reason why I write. The wonderful people that surround me, the ones who my poems have led to me, are the consequence of writing poems, not the reason for writing them. The reason is elsewhere, and I will not tell you what it is.

– Some of your poems are scandalous, if I may put it thus. “Imitating Akhmatova”, for example. How important for a poet is an approach that is less than serious?

– Oh, but “Imitating Akhmatova” was recently quoted on the Internet as a poem by Akhmatova herself!

– Before, critics used to denigrate you and accuse you of God knows what. Have their attitudes changed?

– I would not know the first thing about that.

– How do you imagine your ideal reader?

– My ideal reader is my husband.

– Is being successful and popular important for you?

– “Being well known is when you do not know at all who knows you and what they know about you” (“The sign language for the deaf and mute”). It is as if some stranger were peeking into your dreams. Although at times it is funny. For example, on the way home I was walking through a dark backyard, and suddenly a group of tipsy boys and girls emerges out of bushes: “We know who you are. We saw you on TV speaking in pretty verses. You are a legend of our block”. Then, a couple of days later, from the same bushes, in chorus: “Vera Pavlova, the champ!”

“Being well known is when you do not know at all who knows you and what they know about you”

– When one reads your poems, one gets the impression that for you every day is your last. Is this really the way you live? Or is it the way your heroines perceive the world?

– “My work is hardboiled. My life is soft-boiled.” (“The sign language for the deaf and mute”)

– Do you often re-read your poems?

– Not often, but with pleasure.

– Do you travel a lot? In what country were you most welcome?

– I had never travelled beyond the borders of Russia until I was thirty-seven. But during the past six years I did a lot of travelling. America has become my second home. I am well received no matter where I go. Maybe especially well in Germany.

– There is some talk these days about the crisis of reading. Books of poetry are considered the least popular. Do you agree with that?

– Such is the statistics, and you cannot argue with it.

– Do many foreigners read you?

– About my readers… An American college girl who did not speak a word of Russian broke into tears when Steven, my husband, was reading his translations of my poems.

– Is Vera Pavlova a happy human being?

– Yes.