If There is Something to Desire

Interview with Russian Poet Vera Pavlova

by Anna Clark

Why is the word yes so brief
It should be
the longest,
the hardest,
so that you could not decide in an instant to say it,
so that upon reflection you could stop
in the middle of saying it.

So goes the entirety of the 17th untitled poem in Vera Pavlova’s new collection, If There is Something to Desire: 100 Poems. A bestselling poet in her native Russia, with her work translated into 19 languages, this is the first full collection of Pavlova’s to appear in English (though her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and Tin House). Born in Moscow in 1963, Pavlova studied music at the Schnittke College of Music and the Gnessin Academy before turning to poetry in her twenties. The change was a rapid one: Pavlova published 72 poems in Segodnia, a Russian daily, which started a buzz that she was a literary hoax.

She’s not, thankfully. And she’s still writing poems, publishing 14 collections since 1997. Pavlova experiments with different methods of delivering poems, including collaborations with artists and the use of alternative media, such as video, postcards, and text messaging. One of her poems was selected for the “Poetry in Motion” program and appeared on posters in New York City and Los Angeles public transportation.

If There is Something to Desire is translated by Pavlova’s husband, Steven Seymour. The poems hinge on love, regret, bodies, dreams, sexuality, and sleeplessness. Most, but not all, of the poems are contained with just a few lines; the expanse of white space in the book contributes to the emotive power of the inward-turning poems. Struck with elegance and sly humor, the poems leave a haunted feeling in their wake.

Pavlova will be giving a handful of readings from her book this spring on the U.S. East Coast.

You spent your early life in music, studying its history, becoming a composer, and singing in a choir. How did you come to move into poetry?

The transition from music to poetry was abrupt and unexpected, even to me. I can tell exactly when it happened: until that day I had never written a single line of poetry, and thereafter not a single line of music. It happened on June 2, 1983, when I gave birth to my first daughter. Poetry came at the same time as milk did. Strangely enough, the process of writing poetry turned out to be identical to writing music: I simply started writing down music using words.

How does your musical background connect to your life as a poet?

I have gone through all stages of musical education. I started studying music at the age of five, when I learned to read both letters and notes at the same time, and graduated from the Academy of Music at 23, when I was already writing poetry.

I know of no better teacher of poetry than music. In ancient times, the two were inseparable. Being a musicologist, I can analyze any one of my poems in musical terms. Moreover, the course of life becomes more understandable to me, when I find in it laws of music at work.

Best-selling Russian Poet Vera Pavlova. Photograph by Aleksandr Dolgin, courtesy of Knopf Publishers.

You are a remarkably prolific poet, publishing 14 collections since 1997. What is the fire that propels you to keep writing?

I am propelled by the instinct of self-preservation, not physically but spiritually. There is a difference in pressure between the inner and the outer world, and an individual has to take measures not to be torn apart or squashed. People adjust to this situation the way they can: some turn to church, others resort to medications. As for me, I write poems, and I need to do it regularly to survive and remain myself.

You are a best-selling poet in Russia. What role does poetry play Russian life?

This is a very difficult question, and the answer to it requires a digression into history. The history of Russia is full of extremes, and poets on many occasions had to undertake the role of masters of thought, a role not quite appropriate for them. Poets discoursed on equal footing with the ruling tyrants, and at times paid for their poems with their lives. Hard as it is to imagine, this happened as recently as when my parents were born. Of course, the Russians’ attitude toward poetry is very special: in no other country (do) people get together and recite by heart, one by one, their favorite poems. Life in Russia is highly unstable, with no firmly established and observed rules, with a lot of blatant hypocrisy, and poetry serves as something constant and permanent, an island of terra firma, something always reliable.

There’s a line in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God that reads: “She didn’t realize she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.” Your poems feel that way to me—tiny verses with the glint of whole galaxies in them. How does this relate to the purpose you find in poetry?

I thank you for a nice quotation and for your subtle understanding of my poems. Indeed, this is how I understand the purpose of poetry: to boil the universe down to the size of a poem, a novel down to eight lines. An ideal poem, just as the DNA, contains all the information about its author.

Your husband, Steven Seymour, serves as your translator from Russian to English. How does that process work between you two?

Our marriage is based on mutual understanding, and translating poems is a particular instance of that. On the whole, the Russian language to me seems more feminine than the English: (it) is soft, evasive, inconsistent, yet it attains its objectives, and Steven in his translations has to follow different paths to reach the same goals. On one occasion I wrote down a dialog between Steven and me - when he asked “Do you understand that understanding is impossible?” “I understand” was my answer.

How do you feel that translation influences your poems and your work as a writer? What is lost, what is gained?

My meager English does not allow me to judge the subtle points of translations. As for my works in Russian, I am afraid they are becoming increasingly untranslatable, as I try to give more attention to form, an attempt to convey meanings not so much through words but through rhythm, melody, sound, and all of that is untranslatable, to my regret. A poem is a trinity of sorts: image, thought, and music, and the latter has the least chance of surviving translation.

What poets and writers do you wish were more frequently translated, and introduced to readers around the world?

I would name here Maria Shkapskaya, a Russian poetess of the first half of the twentieth century, who has been unjustly neglected and almost forgotten even in her homeland. She was the first who spoke in poems with a distinctly feminine voice.

What are you working on now?

I am preparing for publication a new collection of poems written over the past two years. So far I could not wring out of that collection its title, and I still have no idea how to balance in this book several requiems for my dear and loved ones against some 50 poems written from the standpoint of preschoolers, with which I surprised myself last summer.

While your poems have been translated into nineteen languages, If There Is Something to Desire is your first full collection to be published in English. What do you hope it will communicate to readers who are new to you?

That is a question I cannot answer. Even the response of Russian readers is always unpredictable for me, as they translate my poems from my Russian into their own. The response of Americans is as unfathomable to me as that of extraterrestrials. But how strange and pleasing it is to me when people at my readings in English smile, laugh, and even cry at times. Apparently, there is hope for establishing contact.

February 11, 2010

About the Author

Anna Clark's writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Utne Reader, AlterNet, Writers' Journal, Bitch Magazine, Religion Dispatches, Women's eNews, ColorLines, RH Reality Check, make/shift, and other publications. She edits the blog, Isak, and she contributes video book reviews to The Collagist, a literary magazine. Anna is a 2010 Fellow with the Peter Jennings Center for Journalists and the Constitution, and she lives in Detroit, Michigan.