Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort in discussion with editor Nicholas Laughlin
“I COME from a Russian speaking family so I grew up speaking Russian. But I never wrote in the Russian language, I always wrote in Belarusian,” explains Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort as she stands at the centre of a crowd gathered at Alice Yard, the contemporary arts space.
“My big issue was being situated in-between Russian and Belarusian. For me, language is something that should be overcome in poetry and that’s why the disadvantage of being torn between languages later becomes an advantage because it helps to focus on trying to go beyond it and I think that’s what poetry does ultimately.”
Mort, one of the first—if not the first—Belarusian poets to visit this country, was chosen to be among the first two writers in residence at Alice Yard which has hosted events featuring poets, musicians and other artistes for more than three years at Roberts Street, Woodbrook.
On Wednesday, Mort and fellow writer in residence, Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson, gave a reading, reciting old and new work. Both poets also discussed the perennial issue of the relationship between the artiste and home.
“There is a tendency to label, to categorise. It’s very hard to escape. For me this is something that I would like to escape, this label of being a Belarusian poet because I truly don’t know what is Belarusian about my poetry and when I come to a reading, I feel people have some kind of expectation that I will not be able to fulfil unless I wear a national costume!” Mort, who is currently based in the United States, says.
“I hate being called a Belarusian poet,” she adds. “I often think that being a poet is a nationality itself and that it does not need an adjective standing in front of it. There is no such thing as a Belarusian poet. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a Jamaican poet; there’s a poet, a good poet or a bad poet and there are no other alternatives.”
Mort was born in 1981 in the city of Minsk in Belarus, a land-locked European country which today still betrays its history of Soviet occupation. Her first book, I’m As Thin as Your Eyelashes (2005), was a collection of poetry, prose, and selected translations from Polish and English. She is a writer in residence at the University of Baltimore and has also been a writer in residence at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin and Sylt-Quelle in Germany and at the International Authors’ House in Graz, Austria. Her second book, Factory of Tears, translated by Mort from Belarusian to English in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Franz Wright and Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright, appeared in 2008.
But while Mort is keen to avoid the limiting implications of nationality, this does not mean that her work does not reflect national issues. Among the poems she reads on Wednesday is the opening poem from Factory of Tears, ‘Belarusian I’:
we grew up in a country where
first your door is stroked with chalk
then at dark a chariot arrives
and no one sees you anymore
but riding in those cars were neither
armed men nor
a wanderer with a scythe
this is how love loved to visit us
“The history of Belarus is a history of a series of occupations,” Mort notes. “Every time a new occupation happens, the political, social and economic systems change.”
She notes that writing in Belarusian, as she does, is significant in itself.
“It is a language that’s not favoured by the government,” she says. “They call us the last dictatorship of Europe.”
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