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Larissa Shmailo Interview


Larissa Shmailo is a poet, novelist, translator, editor and critic.  Her new novel is Sly Bang (Spuyten Duyvil); her first novel is Patient Women (BlazeVOX). Her poetry collections are Medusa’s Country (MadHat), #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books), In Paran (BlazeVOX), the chapbook A Cure for Suicide (Červená Barva Press) and the e-book Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks). Her poetry albums are The No-Net World and Exorcism, for which she won the New Century Best Spoken Word Album award; tracks are available from iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and most digital distributors.


Shmailo’s work has appeared in Plume, the Brooklyn Rail, Fulcrum, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, the Journal of Poetics Research, Drunken Boat, Barrow Street, Gargoyle and the anthologies Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters (Penguin Random House), Words for the Wedding (Penguin), Contemporary Russian Poetry (Dalkey), Resist Much/Obey Little: Poems for the Inaugural (Spuyten Duyvil) and many others. Shmailo is the original English-language translator of the first Futurist opera Victory over the Sun by Alexei Kruchenych, performed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Garage Museum of Moscow, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and theaters and universities worldwide. Shmailo also edited the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry (Big Bridge Press) and has been a translator on the Russian Bible for the Eugene A. Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship of the American Bible Society. Please see more about Shmailo at her website here.



Dean Kostos is a translator, anthologist, memoirist and poet. His eight books include This Is Not a Skyscraper, winner of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, selected by Mark Doty. His anthology, Pomegranate Seeds had its debut reading at the UN. His poems, reviews and essays have appeared in more than 300 journals, including on the Harvard University Press website and Oprah Winfrey's website, Kostos's libretto was set to music by James Bassi and performed by Voices of Ascension. ‘Subway Silk', his poem, was translated into a short film. Recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation's Cultural Innovation Grant, Kostos also received a Yaddo fellowship. His memoir, The Boy Who Listened to Paintings, will be released in September 2019.




DK: I’m especially interested in interviewing a writer who translates. That activity gives the writer/translator a deeper understanding of the machinery of language. For example: Russian (like Greek, Romanian, German, Sanskrit, etc.) has declinations, which indicate whether the noun is an object, a subject, possessive, etc. This allows the writer and translator a degree of fluidity to the syntax that is not as accessible to the writer in English. My question is, because you are both a translator and a writer: How influenced are you by, say, Russian syntax, when writing in English? Does this familiarity with Russian suggest possibilities in English that may not appear to the writer who is not familiar with other languages?


LS: The problem with the fluid positional syntax of a cased language, as opposed to the analytical word-order-determined syntax of Chinese and English, is that as a Russian speaker, you have a tendency to tolerate inversions that are awkward in English. Look at the second tercet of my poem, “My Dead”:


My godchild told me pointedly if she were to attempt
to die that she'd succeed at once; her word she quickly kept,

and took a hundred opiates and drifted to her death.  


The “her word she quickly kept” to a Russian speaker seems acceptable; but to a modern formalist, the inversion is wince worthy, indicative of everything that makes contemporary metric poetry seem outdated, unacceptably old school. So, I have to watch myself, since my English-language poetry is informed by my Russian.


The advantage of multilingualism is that you can import the music of other languages into your English poetry. I bring French into “Bloom,” Spanish into “Hunts Point Counterpoint,” German and Polish into “How My Family Survived the Camps,” Russian and German into “Lager NYC.” Even if the reader does not know these languages, they can glean meaning from context and enjoy the phonemes for sound value, much as we enjoy many of the cultural references in Pound’s Cantos when we are don’t know our Ovid.


My Russian encourages me to rhyme in English. Rhyming is easy in Russian with the cased suffixes, but also somehow seems easy to me in English, and I often use end and internal rhyme. Stresses in poetry are also different—Russian words have one primary stress, English words have secondary stresses, so translating complex Russian amphibrach phrases into English can be a challenge, and I also might hear stresses differently.


Like English-language poets, contemporary Russian experimentalists tend to use space, line breaks, hybrid forms, and the “uncolonized caesura” as the noted poet Alexandr Skidan calls it, so there is a commonality of semiotics. The movement toward true multilingual poetry is also international and gaining ground in Russia and the United States; Eugene Ostashevsky defines this form as not just quoting a foreign language, but a braiding, in the sense of Barthes’s codes, together of lingual strands.


DK: Similarly, hybridism has become central in your work. Beyond being a trend, it seems to be an approach to the written word that is in your DNA. Was reading Symbolist prose poems important in your trajectory towards the hybrid text? What other influences can you cite? Have you read The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston? Ostensibly a memoir, it becomes other genres as one turns the pages. Similarly, what is marvelous about your writing is how the sense of place keeps shifting. Nothing can be taken for granted. Assumptions are obliterated, making language, and the ideas behind them, new. Two other novels that upend preconceived ideas about narrative and language itself are Hebdomeros by Giorgio de Chirico and Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Are you familiar with these novels? (By the way, Calvino was a member of OULIPO, another aesthetic that shares a lot with your work.)


LS: You have created my reading list here, my friend; I do know and love Calvino. I grew up reading fiction and drama, and yes, French and Russian Symbolist poems, and at age 36, started writing poetry, so it is not surprising that I myself write dramatic prose poems like “Madwoman.” Also remember I am influenced by Pasternak, who engages in multiple genres in Zhivago, which I ape in my novels. I never saw a boundary between poetry and prose, and like a Broadway musical bursting from dialogue into song, my poetry breaks into fiction and my fiction into verse.


Recently, I am experimenting with nonfiction and poetry. My memoir Episodes, in progress, is “an autobio in stories, essays, and poems.” Not chronological, but thematic, in dialogue with the reader, this hybrid autobiography seems to capture and convey the traumata of my past more readily than a linear narrative. And yes, I like temporal nonlinearity in my writing, as is evidenced by my novel, Sly Bang, in which characters take over space-time to create alternate plots. Nonlinearity and chaos theory more represent, as RW Spryszak said of Sly Bang, the actual way the mind works.


DK: Can you name some of your influences? Mind you, there’s nothing derivative in your poetry, prose, or translations. When I suggest influences, I am referring solely to those writers who inspire you to such a degree, that you can’t wait to get to your computer to write. It feels like electricity running through one’s hands.


LS: Joyce with a bullet. I was liberated by Ulysses. “You are allowed to do that?!” I cried—and then set out to innovate more, bend genre more, experiment more. I erased the 18 episodes into 18 poems one afternoon when I couldn’t let go of reading the book of which Joyce said, “I have put so much into it, the professors will be busy for years.” I tried to do this with Sly Bang, put in a literary load of 21st century icons, cultural references, a multiplicity of genre.


I love Kruchenych, whom I translate, for his search for new language and for the mad violation of semantic, dramatic, prosodic forms, as well as for his creation of a new poetic alphabet. I love artistic manifestos, so I love his “Word” and all Futurist manifestos, especially “A Slap in the Face of the Public Taste.” I adore Pushkin and imitate him in poetry and prose, especially his use of epigraphs; I surmise that even failed Pushkin is a contribution. I skipped work and sleep reading Lolita. Now, I am discovering David Foster Wallace, whose suicide affects me deeply; his narrative voice reminds me of Pushkin’s—he befriends the reader with his brilliance, seduces her.


Of the Realists, Tolstoy, especially Karenina, I battle with his murder of Anna;  Baudelaire, I have only translated Beauty, though; I would like to translate more; Gogol for his parallel universes and dark humor, ditto Dorothy Parker. I enjoy Rankine, Patricia Smith, Philip Nilolayev, Elaine Equi. But I know exactly what you mean by “electricity running through one’s hands.” Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” did exactly that to me—my Norton’s English Poetry flew out of my hands with a shock, and I ran to write “My First Hurricane."


DK: Unfortunately, it seems to me that many writers (poets largely) break into camps. They are “uptown” or “downtown” poets, each having little regard for each other’s aesthetics. One of the strengths of your work is that you blithely shatter those walls, as if, for you, they never existed. You write in free verse and in rhyme. You write metrically so fluently that one is unaware of your adhering to strict metrical feet. And what makes your metrical work exciting is that it is intensely modern—nothing stuffy or archaic. Part of this is because of the ease with which you write in the appropriate metrical feet, given the subject matter.


LS: I am lucky enough to belong to many cliques, neoformalists, experimentalists, spoken word artists, and yes, uptown and downtown. Nineteenth century Russian government was a bureaucracy of ranks, chin, but Chekhov called writers raschinsty, “without rank.” I have moved among the classes all my life, from the homeless to the one percent, and I see no reason not to move similarly among writers and poets today, following what is brilliant and apt.


DK: Speaking of subject matter, you are intrepid in writing frankly about a harrowing past, including coping with mental illness, suicidality, and having been committed to a mental hospital. I ask this question as someone who has fought similar struggles. For myself, I have found that focusing on the machinery of the language (metaphors, cadences, imagery) helps me to shift my focus from the disturbing, painful subject matter to something that is about language, as much as it is about the subject matter. This is not a “dressing up” or diminishing some of the horrors experienced. If anything, your attention to language and the abuses you have experienced makes the experience more vibrant for the reader.


LS: The intellectual problem of communicating the intensity and immediacy of trauma artistically is helpful in processing trauma, providing a distance from pain and a new, more dispassionate neural network for encoding it; eventually, the burned-in horrors of rape, suicide, incarceration, etc., transfer to the intellect away from emotion. It is a resolution, a healing; I recommend writing for victims who wish to move from survivor to thriver status, even though “thriver” does sound a bit like a Peter Rabbit name.


DK: Lastly, I want to know how important it is to you to be so honest, so exposed, in order to lessen the stigma that for too long has kept mental illness in the shadows. I have great respect for what you are doing. As you know, my imminent memoir, concerns suicidality, depression, and time spent in a mental hospital as an adolescent. As the publication draws nearer, I am becoming more anxious about exposing myself so much. You seem fearless in this regard. Is there advice you can give to authors who want/need to write about these narratives? Thank you.


LS: As a cross-addicted person with bipolar disorder, I feel it is my responsibility to “come out,” to empower my peers and educate the (putative) normies. I am not a role model—I still get sick, though less so because of writing and the community I now enjoy as a writer. I challenge the ableist notion that we mad people are to be shunned and ridiculed and impoverished.  Persons with physical disabilities are gaining inclusion; why not the psychiatrically disabled? Mental illness gallops among poets and writers, who can act as the front lines of our full acceptance.  Our illnesses are so much like “normal” human emotions, fear, elation, rage, that they are all the more threatening—we may be “catching.”


The narratives of mentally ill persons can formulate our challenges and posit potential answers, create community, forge identity; think of slave narratives, feminist writing, LGBT literature. I invite other mentally ill writers to come out, be frank about their experiences. Perhaps David Foster Wallace might be alive today if we started a vigorous literary discussion of mental illness.



copyright © Larissa Shmailo & Dean Kostos