My aunt, a shadow without a landing.
In her chest, small
streams fight for the chance to be
I list her in my catalog under tumors.
She deserves more attention.
We all do, we keep
telling the moon,
but it's dead. It doesn't listen.
(from "The Catalog of Broken Things")
Born in Russia, A. Molotkov moved to the US in 1990 and switched to writing in English in 1993. Published or accepted by Kenyon, Iowa, Cincinnati, Massachusetts, Atlanta, Tampa, Raleigh, New Orleans and Cider Press Reviews, Pif, Ruminate, 2 River and many more, Molotkov is winner of various fiction and poetry contests and a 2015 Oregon Literary Fellowship. His translation of a Chekhov story was included by Knopf in their Everyman Series. He co-edits The Inflectionist Review. Please visit him at www.AMolotkov.com.
LynleyShimat Lys: Are there any questions you often find yourself asking or trying to answer in your work? Are there different concerns that interest you in short fiction as opposed to poetry or vice versa?
A. Molotkov: Thank you so much for this interview, and for your thoughtful topics.
One of the cornerstone questions of all times is what matters? The meaning-making we do is my primary interest. Our suffering as a species aware of our mortality and our skill at overcoming the limitations of our biological existence to manifest compassion. Why does a life matter? A literary work? Beyond these inquiries that push at the edges of my own identity, I’m interested in the boundary between environment and self. What of self is essential, irrepressible through a change in circumstances? What of self evolves, breaks? Are we our habits, or do we use our habits to become more ourselves? What forms us? What is the root of our capacity for, or failure in, personal growth? What does it take to exist in a sphere of concerns extending beyond the personal and the self-referential?
Unless you are reading Cortázar or Robbe-Grillet, prose takes on a more linear, narrative format. In poetry, the use of metaphor, the play of ambiguity replace prose’s immersion effect. A poem may be a novel’s beautiful summary. And occasionally, a whole novel is a poem, such as Lindsay Hill’s Sea of Hooks. I think of literary genres as different dances a dancer might practice, each expressing its joy and message in its own way, but sharing the same moves, relying on the same muscles.
LSL: Who do you consider to be your writing community? Do you have a writing group?
AM: Oregon literary community is a very friendly one; I’m grateful for the literary vibrancy and excellence so abundant here. Moreover, I’m indebted to so many folks for supporting me and my work. It’s hard to be complacent when you live in a place like this, one of National Geographic’s ten most literary cities in the world (along with my city of birth, St. Petersburg).
I’m in three writing groups: The Guttery, The Moonlit Poetry Caravan and The Odds, each with its own focus and protocol. This demands seven nights a month, with 2-4 additional hours a week to review the work. These groups are packed with writers much more successful than I, with brilliant books and creative visions often different from mine – you can imagine the sheer joy and cognitive dissonance I walk away with. This editorial stewing, the struggle of accepting or rejecting optimizations, is itself a gift – an opportunity to feel discomfort with the text as it shapes itself toward its objective, to offset the reader’s balance.
Finally, the opportunity to analyze someone else’s work with the goal of helping it on the author’s terms, not one’s own, is a valuable creative exercise that furthers one’s craft and one’s humanity.
LSL: Who do you imagine as your audience or your reader? Is there anything you would like them to know before or after reading the collection? How does your philosophy of poetry impact your practice of writing?
AM: In the past, I employed the metaphor of a clueless double, an individual just like myself, but without the knowledge of what was going to transpire in the text. Later, I realized this view was inaccurate: literary work is created with a broader taste than one’s own in mind – it is, by necessity, a compromise between what the author wants to say and what the reader agrees to receive. With a collection of somewhat esoteric poetry, it’s more realistic to hope to appeal to readers of such poetry – and maybe, by chance, to folks who are new to the genre, who don't realize that poetry is just words strewn together, who are interested in stories, who may be drawn in against their will. Or those who, like myself, fall in love with the beautiful cover image by Beth Ford which, quite honestly, may be the best part of the book.
It’s important to me that the reader be allowed to walk in without a special password. I strive for the text to reveal itself on its own terms. This is what makes Rumi’s poems still relevant today. I avoid the names of local figures, historical personages, anecdotes of a particular culture, geographical locations. I’m also obsessed with avoiding gender specificity in poetry (although characters of specific genders are unavoidable in fiction). I attempt to write intuitively vs. analytically and to target the readers’ emotions before thoughts. But one can never predict how a reader might react to the text. The finished work is that unique one-on-one interaction.
LSL: What are you reading at the moment? If you read in multiple languages, are there differences in your preferred types of reading in each? Do you approach writing differently in each language?
AM: I’m completing Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, a stark Parisian political anti-utopia, and finishing the audiobook of Elena Ferrante’s brilliant My Brilliant Friend. It’s pertinent that one of the chief concerns in Ferrante’s story is the mastery of one’s written style as the two girls from a working class neighborhood strive to better themselves. I’m also reading the most inspiring poetry of Charles Wright and Shaindel Beers and the excellent latest issue of The Massachusetts Review.
I don't write in Russian anymore since my conversion to English in 1993, three years after my immigration. I read Russian literature in Russian, although it constitutes only a very minor share. I read translated work in English because English translations tend to be better than their Russian counterparts, perhaps due to the superior qualities of the English language, three to five times richer on words and full of choices in terms of style and sound.
I’ve read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in the original side by side with an English translation, but my Italian is way too poor to do this often. I hope to spend more time learning it later in life. I love contrasting languages – it provides much insight into the commonalities of the human condition and the creative arbitrariness of our thought process. We can all be human in a very similar way whether or not we place our subject after the verb.
LSL: How did you come to learn to play the Armenian duduk, and how do you see the relationship between music and poetry?
AM: I’ll say upfront that I’m not a good player; I use it purely for improvisation. In the 90s, I recorded a number of musicians for my CD, Can You Stay Forever. I had heard duduk on a Peter Gabriel record and fallen in love with the sound. When a professional player proposed to charge $500 an hour for a recording, I had to get an instrument of my own. A good duduk costs less than the master player’s single hour. I recorded for a number of pieces such as this one, co-authored with Chris Graf.
As to the connection between music and poetry, it appears to manifest itself in the way poetic lines satisfy most when they roll off our tongues, when they follow a rhythm. Researchers believe that the same area in the brain, Broca’s Area, processes both words and music. I find something rewarding in the sound of a human voice, whether spoken or sung. And by the way, duduk may be among the instruments that sound closest to the human voice.
LSL: This collection seems to be doing a lot of work in terms of formal variety – I see elements of verse, prose poetry, short fiction, lyric essay, dialogue, screenplay, as well as references to poetry forms including the crown of sonnets and the villanelle. How would you describe your relationship to formal poetry and to conceptual poetry? How do you see the relationship between short fiction and the long poem, the relationship between the oral and written poem, and between poetry and other genres or art forms?
AM: Formal poetry as such doesn't tend to cause a spark with me, but modern work that twists formal into freedom can be exciting. Conceptual poetry as a movement pursues a path that is aesthetically and intellectually valid, although I’m yet to explore it better. I feel some resentment about this appropriation of the term conceptual, which seems to apply to a much greater range of work. I’m not giving up this broader use.
The choice of structure is usually an intuitive one when the work begins. I will play with some ideas or images, and inevitably they will suggest formal notions that seem to reinforce them. A piece of short fiction can be the same text as a long poem. Most texts could exists in multiple shapes.
As we’ve seen at poetry readings, the oral dimension can have varied results. My own approach is to read slowly, leaving the listeners some space after each word for momentary meanings to be confirmed or questioned by the next word. As to the relationship to other art forms: I could hypothesize that our perception breaks down into small linguistic structures, mini-poems used as meaning-carriers. If we observe a painting, we are likely to invent something about what’s displayed, to extend the visible into interpretation – in essence, to poemize it. Even a painting’s title can be a small poem, on its own or by contrast with the image (The Persistence of Memory). We poemize our own lives by assigning stories and summary phrases to our experiences.
LSL: The long poem “Your Life as It Is,” creates a tension between its formal structure and philosophical tone, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the often unsettling events described. It reminds me in a way of the later work of Mahmoud Darwish, who wrote on broader philosophical questions through the lens of his own exile, going so far as to ask, “Who Am I, Without Exile?” I wonder if you could comment on your choice of structure, form, and tone in framing “Your Life as It Is.”
AM: Darwish’s question resonates with the protagonist of Your Life as It Is whose identity is continuously in question, whose every feature and circumstance is continuously redefined. I was curious about a narrative presented in four frames, each obeying its own, slightly different logic. It could be considered a collage of four interrelated texts.
However, the reading process is by necessity linear; any text falls back on its linearity (even if the reader is uncertain in which order to read a strangely formatted page, they will chose some order). In this case, the lack of line breaks enhances the linearity (while the subdivision into four sections attempts to break it). As you pointed out, these kinds of tensions are often productive in setting the reader on edge, making them more receptive to the text’s invasion.
LSL: Can you share strategies for revising or rewriting poems when they don’t seem to be working?
AM: Having a writing group is the best strategy. As writers, we fall in love with our own favorite tropes and will forgive shortcomings that don't matter to us as readers but will offend or annoy others. In my view, even the most successful writers could benefit from some peer feedback.
Some poems have been sitting around for twenty years or more – I’m still not quite happy with them; every now and then I try to tweak them. Usually this fails. I’m beginning to think that a poem lacking newness or vigor at the instance of creation may not have much of a shot at poetic significance in later revisions. I’ve been discarding more and more poems that don't seem to flourish rather than letting them accumulate. Sometimes a new poem is the best fix for one that’s not working.
There are exceptions. I’ve combined some smaller poems into better longer ones. Occasionally I find a poem stuck in my head, a signal that it wants to be expanded into a longer item like the four pieces in The Catalog of Broken Things. Finally, I’ve had good results with throwing a wrench into a failing poem – a new theme, a sentence entirely unrelated, yet meaningful. Offsetting the poem’s balance may be a good start towards fixing it, finding its missing edge. Other suggestions are persona and tense changes, start and end point brainstorming, resequencing, and even reading a poem out loud to oneself.
I believe that at the end of revision, every literary work should extend outside the territory its author understands completely.
LSL: Anything else you would like to answer that I haven't asked? Or anything you would like to ask our readers?
AM: If the readers consider buying the book, I will be most honored. Ordering it directly at Airlie Press vs. Amazon or other sources results in four times more revenue returning to the press to support poetry. No pressure, of course.
Most importantly, I would like to thank you and Hawaii Review once again for your meaningful questions, and for this opportunity to think about my work and about literature in general.
And I’m especially grateful to anyone who has taken the time to read this discussion. It’s very kind of you.