New Series No. 20 - 2002
Interview with Vera Pavlova
How do you relate to the expression: “women’s poetry”?
“Womens’ poetry” is almost a genre definition, a bit like “The woman’s novel”. There is “women’s poetry” and there is poetry, written by women. There’s hardly any connection between them. The first doesn’t interest me in the least, and the second I find enormously interesting.
Are there any subjects particular to women or to men in poetry?
It’s not a matter of subjects – they both write about the same thing.
I know, but surely they treat them differently?
Not the point either! That’s not where the bone is buried!
So, let’s dig it up!
One has to be circumspect. As I understand it, poetry at the beginning of the nineteenth century sounded male, but towards the end of the century, even though verse writing remained a man’s job, it became more female. At the beginning of the twentieth century, women’s voices began to be heard, but they had a masculine sound to them. Tsvetaeva’s or Gippius’s voice is more male than, say, Mayakovsky’s!
Well, Mayakovsky – but he’s a sort of hysterical woman in pants . . .
And Gumilev? Blok? Men became so female, that women had to take on the male part themselves. How did all this resolve itself? Towards the end of the century, women poets became far more radical than men. Stylistically and spiritually. That is, if one attempts to define poetry according to theme and gender – I would prefer to consider the radical experimentation rather than suffixes. And this radicalism has a definite female character. Who has gone further than Rea Nikonova, for example, in the performance genre? And stylistically, who has gone further than Shvarts or Fanailova? Or Iskrenko? Men have grown accustomed to hiding behind “schools”. Look, there are no women either among the ironists, or among the conceptualists. But when it comes to direct statement, women are always in the forefront.
And what is the role of gender in experimentation?
The paradox is that the deeper you immerse yourself in your sexuality, the better you understand the other. We speak of the femininity of Mayakovsky, and that’s why there are no women in his poems. His woman is that “six-foot tall acquaintance, who doesn’t say anything” from the tragedy ‘Vladimir Mayakovsky6’. As for Pasternak, for me one of the most courageous poets, he writes ‘The Childhood of Luvers’. Generally speaking, you see the world more clearly from the depths of your sexuality. The lower (in all senses), the more you press on the diaphragm while breathing (singers will understand this), the higher the notes you can reach. On the contrary, if you ignore sexuality, you inevitably narrow your range.
What poetry, written by a woman, has impressed you most?
The selection of Inna Lisnianskaya’s poetry in Znamia. She writes about her love for her ninety-year-old husband, how she washes him and so forth. Amazing poetry. A Song of Songs, written by an aged Shulamite.
Has your poetry changed with the fall of the Communist regime?
Somehow I never took account of the regime. There was Communism in school, but I just went there for show – I came to life in music school. And what’s Communism got to do with music? This spectre passed me by. So, I feel neither nostalgia, nor hatred.
Are you often asked to pronounce on “women’s questions”?
Yes. On this subject I have something ready, a poem: “M F. / Mortally sick – Fervently alive. / Delete where necessary”. In art the basic distinction is not between male and female, but between dead and alive.
What are the main critical views of your work?
They go from one extreme to another! On the one hand, I’m regarded as a sort of male invention. On the other, I’m an earth mother, concerned with gynaecological matters and not metaphysics. Also there is the psychoanalytical view, which says my poems are a clear case of intersexuality.
All I could find in a dictionary was: “Intersex, an organism in which
there are no clear indications of male or female gender.”
So, a sexual zero! And what follows from that?
That there’s nothing especially female or male about poetry.
How comes a prose publisher like Zakharov published you?
The proposal originated from Zakharov himself. He is an adventurous man, and decided that putting his reputation behind me might be effective.
And how has it worked out?
The book sells four thousand copies a year.
Do you know what your audience is?
As far as I can tell, my reader is not only or even so much someone who knows about poetry. People who hitherto were unfamiliar with poetry read me. It seems that for them my poems are not quite poems. That’s how I feel about them too. So, I’m pleased.
You must have a lot of imitators?
What I get are basically parodies. And the writings of people who before this didn’t write. Seduced by my “non-poems”, they start to write something in that spirit.
More often M or more often F?
Believe it or not, more often M! Maybe I’ve taught men how to speak?
So, after all, you are “intersexual” . . .
Let me tell you . . . My most loyal supporters are men. And my most
rabid ill-wishers are women.
We were talking about voices. Your favourite opera voice?
Maria Yung . . . Callas . . . But that’s like talking about Pushkin . . . Of operas, above all, Don Juan; next The Marriage of Figaro. A while ago, I’d have said The Queen of Spades, but now I’d say Onegin. I’m very fond of Debussy, his opera Pelléas et Mélisande.
And subjects – gender. Can you listen to Wagner?
Well, if you go to the theatre, it’s wonderful to watch a Wagner opera. But at home, no, at home I listen only to orchestral interludes. ‘The Death of Isolde’ – music I’d like to be listening to when I die.
Auden said that he’d like Siegfried’s Funeral March at his own funeral.
Too grandiose. I’d make do with the slow movement of Mozart’s Amajor piano concerto.
Which composer would you have been prepared to marry?
I’d have married Handel, the most masculine of all composers. I might be unfaithful to him with Haydn.
How about poets?
Hmm. And which female poets would make good wives?
I’m afraid there may not be any. Well, perhaps Emily Dickinson?
So we can’t really get away from the male/female divide?
I’m afraid not . . . It would be convenient simply to say that the division on gender lines is rubbish, but that’s not the case. My experience tells me that even memory has a clearly defined gender character. If I sort through episodes that have remained in my memory – from childhood, adolescence – I see that they are all connected to an awareness of myself as female. “A maiden’s memory” is not amnesia, but a kind of censorship in the service of sex, of realising oneself in sex.
So, there are no asexual voices in poetry?
In poetry there is everything and more besides. I can only speak for
myself. For me, the clearest, most evocative things in life are connected to the way a woman develops out of an asexual child. Self-awareness as such is directly connected to awareness of oneself as a woman. It may be only the first step, but that’s what I feel now.
In that case your poems, do they just record or do they transcend this condition?
Isn’t it the same thing?
But surely with poetry there has to be a direction, a vector? Don’t you sense a space, female, poetic, whatever, in which you and your poems figure?
Ask me that in a decade or so. We’ll see.
Translated by Daniel Weissbort
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