Perpetual Instability: An Interview with Lars Horn, by Natalya Sukhonos

Lars Horn’s Voice of the Fish (Graywolf Press, 2022) is a collection of lyric essays in which the author enters into a dialogue with ancient writers and contemporary artists, contributing personal reflections on the elusiveness of the trans body. The book is made up of 23 sections that converge on the theme of water. Most sections are further broken up into short segments or sentences set off by Roman numerals. In the first section, “In Water Disjointed from Me,” the author describes the way in which a mysterious illness upended their life and their ability to communicate. Four pages later, in “Last Night, A Pike Swam Up the Stairs,” Horn speaks to the experience of their trans body through short segments. This is the opening page of this section:

I.   Perch circled the skirting boards.
Sticklebacks twitch at the foot of the bed.

II.   As a child, I believed the body thrummed with fishes. I drew pictures: the body aqueous—ovular, amorphous—walled by cartilage, algae, silt. Eels coiled in the stomach. Anemones pulsed in the gut. And always a pike—lone, muscular—writhed up the throat.

III.  When I matured physically and my body began not to fit, I always wondered whether it had nothing to do with biology or hormones. Whether it was because the fishes had stayed or left.

Within a single page, Horn is able to conjure and weave together the major forces reigning within their book: images of fish go in tandem with the aqueous, elusive body; an inability to speak overlaps with a discomfort with self-image; and a poetic sense of wonder makes all of this really unusual.

Indeed, the collection is a provocative collage of entries about species of fish, aquariums, and tattooing; a meditation on the author’s relationship with water; a travel log through Russia, France, Belgium, and Georgia; childhood memories involving modelling for their mother’s artworks; and a foray into illness and trauma.

At the heart of the book is a fascinating tension between estrangement from the body and a desire to make the writing itself embodied and textured, to speak through bodies of water. Poised neatly between the abstractions of literary theory and the concrete joys of poetic memoir, Horn’s writing is electrifying, aphoristic, restless, and powerfully eclectic, asking the reader to make connections between the abstract and the deeply personal several times within a single page. The result is visceral and deeply moving, like a dream or the force of memory, leaving readers to meander through the different strands Horn offers and reflect upon our own relationship with our bodies and with language.

This interview was conducted over email and Zoom. Author’s idiom is preserved.

Natalya Sukhonos: What moved you to write this book?

Lars Horn: The book began from a place of fatigue, perhaps, even a certain despondency. For several years, I’d been doing shift work, starting in the early hours. I’d written a prose-poem novella and hadn’t gotten anywhere with it. I barely managed a single publication of any kind—and that after years of writing. It was midwinter. And I just thought: I can’t keep going with this. I can’t afford rent. I can’t afford clothing. I can’t afford healthcare, anything. I was seriously considering a job in HR, a nine-to-five that would pay the rent and the bills. Around the same time, I met Jaquira, who is now my wife. We talked, often into the early hours. One night, I mentioned modelling for my mother’s photography projects. She looked over: “You really should write this. You should write nonfiction.” I protested, and Jaquira replied something to the effect of: Stop making excuses and write. That January, I set my alarm at 4:00 AM and wrote before my morning shifts. I started from anecdotes I shared in conversation but had not previously brought to the page. In some sense, Jaquira moved me to write the book, her enthusiasm, her certainty—especially at a time when mine failed. But, most of all, the trigger of switching to nonfiction when I had only ever written poetry—that proved an opening, an opportunity.

Natalya Sukhonos: What do you think brings your essays into a single collection? They’re so fascinating and heterogeneous. How do you see them coming together in this particular book?

Lars Horn: When drafting Voice of the Fish, I received feedback that, though the individual essays were interesting, editors or agents couldn’t see how the book held together as a collection. Nor did the aquatic vignettes and themes of fish make themselves sufficiently understood. Reflecting upon this feedback, I realised that I had been purposefully withholding the resonance of the aquatic bodies insofar as they relate to my experience of transmasculinity and embodiment. Though I didn’t, myself, find the essays disparate—their unity residing in a shared memoirist arc or themes of faith and spirituality—I did see how they could appear so to another. I realised that unless I explained the meaning of these aquatic motifs, unless I allowed people access to their pertinence in terms of my gender or bodily experience, the book wasn’t going to make sense. This spurred me to write the final, threaded essay, which, in making these connections explicit, acts as a throughline. In this way, the threaded essay holds the collection together—on both craft and thematic level—as does the aquatic and its relationship to transmasculinity. That being said, I would also argue that questions of faith unite the collection. Especially when the writing examines moments of strange cohesion, understanding across elements, bodies, or lives. There is a consistent tension, a desire to ask how the spiritual might manifest in the physical.

Natalya Sukhonos: At the heart of the book is a fascinating tension between estrangement from the body and a desire to make your writing itself embodied and textured. Reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project—an unfinished body of writing centering a feature of 19th century Parisian architecture—your writing is restless and powerfully eclectic, asking the reader to make connections between the abstract and the deeply personal several times within a single page. What’s the relationship between writing and the body, as you see it? 

Lars Horn: When I think of writing, I don’t think of the more complex interplay of assigning meaning to words, but rather of tools—chisel, brush, pen, keyboard. Of scored stone, gouged velum, of paper or glowing screen. Writing has always been, in essence, a set of bodily gestures. From stone tablet to silk scroll to papyrus, page, or laptop, writing is deeply gestural. It exists as practices of chiselling, drawing, scribing, typing. It is intricate learnt gesture, repeated so as to become intuitive, innate.

In many ways, I cannot speak of a relationship between writing and my body. I can only collapse the two. Writing is my body. The movement—however refined, however minimal—of performing the line-work of an alphabet and language. There is a spatial element that I appreciate. A choreography—left to right, top to bottom, front to back. Or, in other languages, the inverse.

Yet, though I sense writing as physical craft—bodily capability, proximity—I also experience writing—in its more abstract sense of communicating meaning—as distance, disconnect. I do not think in words. Language hovers—peripheral, not quite of my body. Instead, thoughts come as image, movement, as gesture. I struggle to express myself linguistically. Growing up, my family were predominantly visual artists. To communicate in image, sculpture, in tone or texture, rooms of pigment, felt, fat, meat—this I understand. In these terms, what I feel or think finds material expression. I am not someone who writes to understand myself or to clarify my thoughts. Writing has an uncomfortable habit of confusing, meandering, or even disintegrating an impression that might be surfacing in collapsing images or shadowed understanding. Similarly, I find it difficult to word an emotion or to formulate a coherent counter-argument. I am slow to react to events—my feelings coming at a disjoint, sometimes by days, other times by years. And I am slow to find linguistic expression for those reactions.

As a writer, I feel both submerged in language and utterly at odds with it. I simultaneously don’t think about language at all—in that my thoughts are visual, spatial, tactile—and I think about it consistently in my daily craft: This word or sentence—what texture is required, what atmosphere. Does the line need to flow or rupture. At what speed. It’s a counter-intuitive career choice in many ways. I spend days reflecting on language instinctually, at the level of the sentence or paragraph, but very little time thinking about language—speaking, writing—as acts or phenomena that relate to consciousness or embodiment.

I come to language at the level of the sentence. One slow construction at a time. To approach writing otherwise overwhelms me. I also tend to write the concrete elements of my work—those parts that have colours or forms, a sequence of events or descriptive content—before I attempt to tease out the emotional truth of a piece. Usually, at the point where I need to examine what I think or feel, what is posing me difficulty in relation to the work—I falter. Completely and wholly. It is the moment where I walk a line of giving up writing altogether. Trying to put those kinds of thoughts or sensations—ones I would rather express visually, physically—into language exhausts me. But the tension I experience with language—written, spoken—might well be part of the dynamic tension that drives my work. I predominantly read poetry, ancient texts, and theology—these arenas where writing begins to question its own construction or its own ability to transmit meaning in the face of otherworldly concepts. I am always interested when language starts to rend, break towards the visceral. Abstract, under tension. Perhaps, ultimately, I understand writing and the body in terms of visceral, even violent tension. There is a perverseness to translating embodied experience into language. Why translate that which is. And yet, what strange experiment—consciousness, existing. To live this life embodied. Maybe writing affords, if not an antidote, at least a lens. Glass through which to warp and distance, watch oneself reflect. Strain at the confines of one’s flesh.

Natalya Sukhonos: I’d love to touch on your travels to Russia and Russophone countries. Do you feel like the estrangement you often write about actually gave you access to a deeper understanding of the places where you travelled? If so, how?

Lars Horn: I question whether my bodily estrangement could ever give me a better understanding of another country, simply because to understand a country is an impossible task. A place’s history, politics, the people and cultures it contains—they are all too vast for any single comprehension, especially that of an outsider. But, perhaps, more modestly, living at a disjoint from my own limbs destroys the illusion of knowing an unknowable quantity. Perhaps, more accustomed to estrangement, I expect to look from without. At my body. My own sense of self. At an environment. I expect distance. Am willing to stand in it. Know it as the only viable viewpoint. I am maybe more inclined, when travelling, to know that anything I experience will always remain just that: my perspective—singular, flawed, constrained by time and self—from where I stand in a place that isn’t mine.

Natalya Sukhonos: In the beginning of the section where you describe your travels to Russia and Georgia, you speak with a painful candor about Russia’s flagrant homophobia and transphobia; the phrase “the last time I spoke Russian” appears as a refrain to the oppression you and others experienced in that country. Then you reveal that when you went to Georgia you were openly queer and transmasculine. Can you speak to your decision to avoid speaking Russian in Georgia, and the few times you broke away from this?

Lars Horn: Russian, like my own native tongue, English, carries a history of violence. With the Soviet Union and the British Empire, Russian and English became the voice, the sound and articulation, for acts of incarceration, enslavement, and genocide. In Georgia, particularly at the Tbilisi Writers’ House, I met individuals fluent in Georgian, Russian, and English who specifically asked to converse in English. I found that this trend characterised Tbilisi’s younger generations, many of whom either spoke Russian and refrained from using it, or didn’t speak Russian at all. In this way, the central reason behind my not speaking Russian stemmed from a desire to respect the wishes of Georgians who chose not to communicate in a language that they associated with an oppressive Soviet regime. Moreover, after I fell ill and struggled to speak, write, and read even in English, I never recovered my former ability in Russian, meaning that Georgians invariably spoke better English than I did Russian. Communication, like water, has a tendency to flow along a path of least resistance. If English allowed myself and someone else to connect more quickly and authentically, I let English carry us both. Pragmatically, however, there were many times when I needed to communicate with individuals, often of an older generation, who spoke Georgian and Russian, but not English. Out of necessity, we spoke together in Russian—the immediate need to understand one another superseding wider questions of language politics. In those instances, each individual possessed a different feeling towards Russian, yet the conversations were, in fact, consistently warm, usually because Georgians had almost never heard a British national make an effort to speak anything other than English.

Besides questions of language politics or pragmatic necessity, there is, of course, a personal, even intimate difficulty I have with Russian. I do not necessarily associate Russian—as a language—with the explicit homophobia and transphobia in Russia. Or rather, Russian will never only represent that for me. It is undoubtedly a privilege to enjoy a language despite its echoes of violence—one that speaks to my not having lived under colonial or totalitarian regimes. To not have known people killed to the noise of another people’s tongue. Yet, I have an abiding appreciation of Russian—its acoustics, its case system, the winding migration of the Cyrillic alphabet from Greece. I associate it with writers, artists, musicians. With the time I spent in a country that allowed me, for a short space, to breathe beyond the confines of myself. But, also, it is a language that reaches far beyond the borders of Russia. I feel Russian deserves the richness that comes with being spoken by nations and cultures with distinct histories to Russia. Russian is not Russia’s alone. English is similar. I have a complicated relationship to my mother tongue. It carries histories of enslavement, of murder. Yet it is also the language I know best. It is my mother’s voice. The murmur of church. Bite of winter within woodsmoke.

In this way, my difficulty with Russian, though in part a reckoning with its legacy, also has a personal dimension. Speaking Russian now, I am acutely aware of how much I have lost my own linguistic faculties—the same is true of French, a language I once spoke and wrote fluently, but with which I now struggle. Unlike English, which, through years of necessity, I have slowly regained, French and Russian didn’t see me have to drag myself over sentences, re-learn spellings, or force my throat and mouth around words whose dimensions had become strange to me. Russian and French cast a shadow—of illness, loss, of a life that I look back upon and don’t recognise. Or, perhaps, in which I see how frequently I negated myself. Speaking Russian and French force me to grammatically gender myself, recall years of learning to sound myself in ways that didn’t fit. Russian and French force me, in some sense, to look at a former self that I find difficult to remember. Someone I do not necessarily like, even fully understand anymore. There is loss there. Echo of inadequacy. A sense that I have failed both languages and the people who spent such time and care gifting me their sound and structure. How did I, could I, allow them to be lost to me.

Natalya Sukhonos: I’m very curious about your relationship with Feodor, your St. Petersburg landlord who loved to while away the afternoon talking about species of fish over tea, and Ivano, the Georgian driver who insisted that you speak to him in Russian and wanted to set you up with his son. You write that “somehow, like Feodor, Ivano saw me, the pace and gesture of me.” Can you comment on how and why these men were able to truly see “the gesture of [you]” despite their transphobic background? What made you bond with them, and were there other instances of you connecting with people in Russia and Georgia despite their prejudices?

Lars Horn: I am unsure how or why Ivano and Feodor chose to meet me with generosity, with time and care. Nor do I know what drew us together. Perhaps, it comes down to the same elusive alchemy that sees us connect with certain people and not others. Strange mix of circumstance, character, and timing. Feodor had such a powerful gentleness to him. A slowness. He had a genuine appreciation for the simplicity of sunlight over skin, of winter turning into spring, of spending a day fishing. Ivano had humour and energy. Yet still that desire to enjoy what each day brought him. Both men had a sense—born of age and, in Feodor’s case, illness—that people deserve time, attention. That others require a certain breadth in which to be themselves, that we can only meet them in this nebulous space where selves connect and dislocate. Not knowing how or why we struck up an intuitive understanding drove the writing of the piece. But knowing that disparate individuals can find moments of communion in this world is something that brings me relief. Hope even. I wanted to bear testament to the possibility of human connection without necessarily understanding the mechanics of it. To treat it as one might the sacred or mystical.

As for connecting with others in Russia and Georgia despite differences of opinion—yes, I was drawn to and interested by more people than I could ever list. I still reflect on many of the conversations I had with people I met in Russia. Though we are not in contact, I carry them with me—their thoughts or actions, time spent in and out of conversation. Their memory is dear to me, surfaces at moments of isolation or uncertainty.

That anyone has escaped holding some form of prejudice, has entirely avoided committing violence, hurting another or living a smaller version of themselves—I doubt anyone can lay claim to such a life. And, because of that, connecting with people in Russia or Georgia is no different to meeting people in the UK or the USA or any other country. Transphobia and homophobia are worldwide phenomena. As is racism, ableism, misogyny, classicism. People are stigmatised, violated, are killed for who they are across the world. I only hope that, flawed and failing as I am, people might find some worth in talking with me, something that can comfort or uplift. So, I, likewise, endeavour to do unto them.

Natalya Sukhonos: As of my writing this, Putin has annexed several regions of Ukraine and escalated the war. In Voice of the Fish, you write powerfully of Georgia’s colonial history and oppression under Russia’s violent, imperialist power. Can you comment on what is unfolding in Ukraine right now, especially in light of your travels in Russia and Georgia?

Lars Horn: Any adequate response to this question would require significant length and research to capture the extent, nuance, and implications of this conflict—especially if one hopes to contextualise current events within a long history of Russia’s colonial oppression of Ukraine. Any less would be a disservice to Ukraine. In this sense, I think others—political scientists, historians—would be better placed and more qualified to speak on this topic. Similarly, I don’t want to speak in place of Ukrainians and Russians. But: I stand with Ukraine. I stand with Russians who do not want this war. I stand with Ukrainian trans women being allowed to leave the border and not being told they are men, detained, and sent to fight. And I stand with men who do not wish to be drafted having that wish respected. Ultimately, though, it is a deeply troubling and complex reality—one I cannot speak of with authority.

Natalya Sukhonos: You describe your relationship to your body as “custodial” and reveal that “the more [you] lived at a disjoint from [your] own body, the more [you] turned to theology… as a way to find rough peace with these limbs.” I’m very intrigued by your relationship with theology and religion, especially in the context of your travels in Russia and Georgia, where you often traveled for miles to visit a distant monastery or to locate a relic. Can you speak about the role of theology in your life and your writing?

Lars Horn: Linguistically, theology is an arena that strives to speak the ineffable, to word the unknowable. The entire exercise is one of allegory, poetry, rhetoric, and faith—faith in that which cannot be seen or known or voiced. Yet scripture persists. I am captivated by the enterprise of scripture—to deliver the words of gods unto Earth. What amplitude. What spectacular premise. But also—what sincerity. This desire to render that which exceeds terrestrial bounds—the devotion of such a gesture. The service. I appreciate the very workings, the poetry, rhythm and meter of scriptures from across times and cultures. How language reveals itself incantatory, hallucinatory confronted with the divine. And I appreciate the humility that such work requires, how it places a body, a life—short span of living and breathing—within greater breadth. This, far from desolating me, consoles me. To know the smallness of myself and life.

Transmasculine, I do not recognise my body as my own. To live with that inescapable estrangement, has brought me to beauty, to communion with landscape or the slow heartbeat of another animal. It has also brought me to pain, frustration, isolation. To understand the strangeness of living in dissociation from oneself, the why of that—not in a social, genetic, or biological way—but to imbue it with greater purpose or meaning. To consider oneself a soul that carries itself at a strange angle to the body it resonates within. To consider this state of being as a gift, God-given even. I draw strength from that. When much of the world seeks to medicalise, criminalise, or simply negate what, for me, is a visceral reality, I am ever more convinced of the need to understand myself within a metaphysical framework, to understand who I am as sacred, not defective. And, though religion is so frequently homophobic and transphobic in its institutional ministry, theology as well as religious rite and ritual have been a source of vitality in my understanding of who I am. Voice of the Fish can be read as an ongoing discussion of faith. Of how to reconcile to that which is complex, painful even. To that which others disdain. I am drawn to faith. To the world as mystical, mythical, as shimmering beyond human understanding. I would like to think there is meaning to our living. That, just maybe, I can bring this body to bear in ways that aid or reassure. To write something in which another can rest.

Natalya Sukhonos: I noticed that you used the words “slip,” “slippage,” “slippery,” and other derivatives seventeen times throughout the book. These instances have to do with water and fish, as well as writing and identity. At one point, you suggest that reading can be reconsidered as “sensing the slip of a body through this world,” at another, the body is cast as “speaker of a strange, slippery language.” Can you comment on the importance of slippage to your writing, especially the way in which it relates to writing and the body?

Lars Horn: As I mentioned, I experience a level of dislocation or “slippage” between language and my body—specifically the distance of language from how I think and engage with the world—as well as between my sense of self and the body I inhabit. Slipperiness, liminal space, the inability to grasp or locate—these qualities are central not only to my writing, but to how I exist in, and interact with, the world around me. I do not come to other people and other environments, I do not even come to my own body, with a sense of continuity or stasis. A haziness pervades how I approach selfhood, embodiment, and language. I am similarly hesitant in how I step through the world. Fixity, binaries, linearity, formulaic simplicity—they unnerve me. Perhaps, more simply, I do not recognise them as characteristic of my lived experience. I doubt many people do. I am drawn to the complicated, the contradictory. That which acts as a portal—transient, unstable. To bodies that multiply, morph, suddenly eclipse. To depth—especially that at which the world turns over, reveals itself—lightless, unfathomable; that moment of impenetrability before it shifts. I am interested in possibility. In slippage as potential energy, space in which contradictory realities can tensely exist. Slippage articulates something I recognise as fundamentally human. Our bodies, selves, this world—all exist in perpetual instability. Slippage seems truer to what it means to be human. To live.

Natalya Sukhonos: Can you talk about the publishing industry as a trans writer?

Lars Horn: I was incredibly lucky at Graywolf—they are a phenomenally kind, encouraging, and understanding press. But, looking at the publishing industry as a whole, there is a lack of diversity and equality when it comes to what is predominantly published and who is getting paid most fairly for their work. As with any industry that functions on a for-profit business model and that caters to majority groups, the publishing industry favours cis-white-heterosexual writers. It also pays more for narrative, often realist, work. Underrepresented groups face multiple challenges entering the publishing industry: systemic racism, particularly anti-Blackness, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia—all of which affect not only the money one earns or the publicity one receives, but also the stories that one is, tacitly, expected to “perform.” This is true of any underrepresented group in publishing. There are not enough native writers, writers of colour, queer writers, and trans writers being published. Historically, for trans writers, there has been a proclivity to publish transition stories. And—I want to stress here—these are rich stories. But they are not the only stories. You can be trans and want to write about astrophysics, for instance. If a publishing industry doesn’t make space for more writers, with different stories, or starts to systematically only publish certain kinds of stories from an underrepresented group—that, I feel, is where we get into serious problems of misrepresentation. It creates an expectation among readers—especially not from that community—of how to interpret and consume communities in which they play no part.

Personally, I am interested in the question of nonfiction in the publishing industry and how this might highlight the very question of industry expectation. As with all genres, it is impossible to define nonfiction. But, perhaps, one—even if erroneous assumption—is the idea of truth status. That nonfiction confers a truth status upon an object of study or enquiry. Even if it’s lyrical, speculative, or experimental, mythological or poetic—nonfiction and the essay still have their roots in a perceived truth status. In the last few centuries, however, the essay and nonfiction have become entangled with Enlightenment logic, with rationalism, the Sciences, and the University as academy. With, in short, a pervasive whiteness and Eurocentrism. It’s telling that you have poetry books like Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, Jericho Brown’s New Testament, Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas or Solmaz Sharif’s Look, and, yet, all these works read in some sense like book-length essays. Nonfiction and the essay tend to be very white, cis, heteronormative genres. And if not heteronormative, at least very white and cis. I do not believe that this is a coincidence. Nor do I think it solely a product of the publishing industry. Instead, I believe it is indicative of society-wide, systemic bias. A bias that encourages and makes space for certain individuals to speak within nonfiction, which is to say, to speak with truth status, and to favour others in spaces like poetry or fiction—in the realms of the mythological or literary, but with an implicit removal of “fact,” “reality,” or real-world “truth.” And, yet, all the poetry books I just mentioned provide societal and political truths. Truths with real-world implications. Truths born from and destined to affect lived experience. They hold all manner of truths—spiritual, mythological. Essentially, I’m interested in why they are categorised as poetry. Why can’t they be essay? What have we—as a culture, a society—decided eliminates them from a category of essay, even from a category of poetry/essay. Because nonfiction hasn’t always been white or Eurocentric or concerned with the scientifically factual—ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, the Maya, these all possess rich and radically different histories of nonfiction. Mystical, poetic, visual. I would like to see more interrogation of our expectations around contemporary nonfiction, especially in the publishing industry, as I would the expectations that are placed upon narratives from underrepresented groups.

Natalya Sukhonos: Poetry, you said, is one of the genres that you are continuing to read nowadays, and I was wondering why poetry, and also, if you can share some poems that you’ve been reading recently, or some texts that have been interesting to you.

Lars Horn: I do read a lot of poetry and ancient texts. I’m a primarily visual, tactile, and spatial thinker. Poetry plays into that, as do ancient texts in their unusual forms. Alongside poetry and ancient texts, I actually look at books a great deal: volumes of sculpture, installation art. I’ve always found Fine Art to work similarly to poetry, but within space and time. Artworks juxtapose strange textures, imagery, objects. They force specific movement: the winding through an installation, the confined space of tight looking. And so does poetry, only on the page, which is, perhaps, why I respond well to it. The strange connections, a more lateral or spatial association—it resonates with how I experience the world. I struggle with works that require narrative continuity.

In terms of what I’m reading at the moment: Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Layli Long Soldier, Solmaz Sharif, and Tracy K. Smith are poets I deeply admire. I recently read and adored Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies. It starts with a protagonist frozen in the ice, but who still experiences the world through seven others. I don’t normally read novels, but it’s written sparingly, poetically, and uses blank space to brilliant effect. Put simply: it’s beautiful. And humorous—which is equally adept.

Natalya Sukhonos: Can you talk about your next project?

Lars Horn: I’m working on a book of experimental lyric essays that explores gods, religion, and faith across different times, places, and people. It stemmed from an interrogation of faith in my own life. Having attended a Catholic school, I feel a lot of affinity with Catholicism—its rites, rituals. Yet, I am queer and trans—which is not welcomed in the way I wish it were within the Church. I am interested in this, in the tension between faith as belief and its manifestation as human-enacted doctrine. I am also interested in wider questions: Will we resurrect? Is there an afterlife? What are the ramifications of a yes or a no. Formally, I hope to bring the essay form nearer to poetry, taking cues from the hybrid forms of nonfiction that are prevalent in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. These traditions in which medical texts combine with spells, harvest decisions with the movements of god or planet; traditions in which poetry, mythology, and fact blend.

Natalya Sukhonos: I just wanted to say that I really resonated with your idea of reading as a process that’s textual and gestural.

Lars Horn: I’m pleased. I do believe reading could be expanded to a form of inquisitive interaction with the world. That we can still see a kind of poetry in that.

Image Credit: Richard Allen

Lars Horn is a writer and translator working in literary and experimental non-fiction. Their first book, VOICE OF THE FISH, won the 2020 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and was an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce Selection. Horn’s writing has appeared in Granta, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, Literary Hub, and elsewhere. They hold MAs from the University of Edinburgh, the École normale supérieure, Paris, and Concordia University, Montreal. They split their time between Miami, Colorado, and the UK with their wife, the writer Jaquira Díaz.

Natalya Sukhonos is bilingual in Russian and English and also speaks Spanish, French, and Portuguese. She is Assistant Professor at the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Zayed University and has taught at the Stanford Continuing Studies program for four years. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Her poems are published by The American Journal of PoetryThe Saint Ann’s ReviewDriftwood PressLiterary MamaMiddle Gray MagazineReally System, and other journals. Sukhonos was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2020 and 2015, and for the Best New Poets Anthology of 2015. Her first book Parachute was published in 2016 by Kelsay Books of Aldrich Press, and her second book A Stranger Home was published by Moon Pie Press in 2021. 

“Writing Fiction Allows Us to Build Bridges”: Ian Ross Singleton and Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry in Conversation

Punctured Lines is happy to host a conversation between Ian Ross Singleton, author of Two Big Differences (M-Graphics Publishing, 2021) and Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, author of The Orchard (Ballantine Books, 2022). The novels’ synopses are below, and you can listen to the writers read excerpts here. Both of these works feature post-/late Soviet space, Ukraine in Two Big Differences and late Soviet/post-Soviet Russia in The Orchard. To support Ukraine in its fight against Russia, you can donate here and here, as well as to several other organizations doing work on the ground. If in addition you would like to support Russian protesters, you can donate for legal help here.

Ian Ross Singleton, Two Big Differences: In Two Big Differences, Zinaida is returning to Odesa, Ukraine, after having lived in the U.S., where she met her traveling companion, Valya, a native of Detroit. Having grown up in Odesa, Zina has a sharp sense of humor. Returning home during the 2014 Ukrainian Spring (Euromaidan), she relies on humor as a tool for survival, as she and Valya navigate their way through the confusing and violent conflict. In Odesa, they meet Zina’s father, Oleg, and other characters from her past and present, and each must decide on which side they stand.

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, The Orchard: Coming of age in the USSR in the 1980s, best friends Anya and Milka try to envision a free and joyful future for themselves. They spend their summers at Anya’s dacha just outside of Moscow, lazing in the apple orchard, listening to Queen songs, and fantasizing about trips abroad and the lives of American teenagers. By the time the girls are fifteen, the Soviet Empire is on the verge of collapse, and the fleeting time they have together is cut short by a sudden tragedy. Years later, Anya returns to Russia from America, where she has chosen a different kind of life, far from her family and childhood friends. Haunted by the ghosts of her youth, Anya comes to the stark realization that memory does not fade or disappear; rather, it moves across time, connecting our past to our future, joys to sorrows.  

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry interviews Ian Ross Singleton about Two Big Differences.

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry: What are the origins and inspirations for Two Big Differences? How long did it take you to write it?

Ian Ross Singleton: I have been a student (although not through any university) of the Russian language since 2006, when I met my partner, the poet and teacher Natalya Sukhonos, who is from Odesa, Ukraine. Eventually, we ended up traveling there for part of our honeymoon in 2010 and then again in 2012 to visit a family friend who was dying. As a child, Natalya used to talk to the trees of Odesa. At the dacha of this family friend who was dying of cancer, there were two twin trees in the yard. I suppose the trees told me something back. I stayed a little longer than Natalya that summer in Odesa. When I made the long journey home to San Francisco, where we were living at the time, one early morning I put my jet lag to good use and started writing this novel. It was based on something my father-in-law, also from Odesa, said about two twins, like those trees. One immigrated, and one remained in the post-Soviet world. Since my relationship with Natalya began, my life has more or less become spread across two linguistic modes: American English and Ukrainian Russian.

So, similar to The Orchard, it all starts at a dacha. And it took nine years to publish, which meant a lot of editing and polishing.

KGN: There are many wonderful анекдоты throughout the novel. They remind me of that peculiar “Odesa” humor. Where do those jokes come from? Why are they so important to the story? And if you had to pick a favorite, which one would it be?

IRS: During the last fourteen years since I met Natalya, I also became a student of Odesan humor, which I would identify as a specific category of gallows humor. Jokes often belie inner trauma, of course. They often come from a desperate need to smile, maybe even laugh. On the other hand, constant sarcasm can be identified as a kind of hidden hostility, and I wanted to get this aspect of humor into Two Big Differences as well, such as when Valya first meets Oleg. Humor can harm, and humor can heal. Look at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense twitter account. They use humor and trolling to counter Russian trolling, which is hostile. The Ministry of Defense’s response can be powerful, and it can perhaps be healing. Humor can diminish but also lift up a person in a vulnerable place, such as in a foreign country speaking a language different from the one they’ve spoken their whole life. I had to get the two sides of humor into the novel.

If I have to pick a favorite анекдот, it would be the one about traveling to Yalta at the beginning of Chapter Two. I hope I don’t ruin it in my translation: “Two travelers are on a boat. One asks, ‘Where are we headed?’ ‘Yalta,’ says the other. The first says, ‘You said we’re headed to Yalta because you thought I would think we’re not headed to Yalta. But we’re definitely headed to Yalta. Why are you lying?’”

KGN: I write in a foreign language about my native culture; you write in your mother tongue about a foreign land. Do you find it captivating, rewarding, challenging? Did you have to do any research? Brush up on history?

IRS: I found it very captivating to write about this foreign land that certainly captured me the last time I was there, in 2012, when it was Odessa with a double “s” under Viktor Yanukovych, a place that is now gone in so many ways. I find it very rewarding if a reader enjoys what I have to say about this place that is foreign to me. I find it very rewarding if anybody reads anything I wrote about any place. Many people, including some from Eastern Europe, have said some very kind things about my novel. That is the greatest reward.

Challenging? It’s easier to say what wasn’t challenging: describing Valya’s (and Zina’s when she was in the U.S.) feelings of alienation and isolation. My native culture is that of the U.S., of course. But I’ve lived all over this country, and I have never not felt foreign or like an outsider in any place other than Detroit, where I was born, even though I don’t necessarily feel at home there either. Detroit is unlike most of the other places I’ve lived, like San Francisco or New York City. People, like those in my extended family, are not as transient there. But the fact that I’ve lived elsewhere, even within the same country, has made me foreign even to my home.

I did do research, both formal and informal. It helped to be able to speak Russian and talk to people in Ukraine and the U.S. And it helped to be able to read novels like those of Valentin Kataev and others. I had to brush up on the history of May 2, 2014, when supporters of the Euromaidan Movement clashed with those who wanted to maintain the subaltern status of Ukraine in relation to Russia. This history is still being written and rewritten—like most histories, I suppose. I watched freely available documentaries on YouTube, talked to people from that part of the world. As with so many things Odesan, people have different opinions and are vehemently sure of them, even within the same family. However, differences of opinion about Ukraine’s relationship with Russia ceased on February 24, 2022, of course, when Russia invaded Ukraine and escalated the war from the Donbas to all of Ukraine. Coincidentally, that was the night I did a reading from Two Big Differences in Dearborn, just outside Detroit. Many of the audience members asked me whether there would be an invasion. It didn’t seem believable then.

KGN: What was the hardest thing to write? What was the easiest? Do you personally identify with any of the characters?

Odesa, Ukraine; Google images

IRS: The hardest thing to write was probably Oleg, Zina’s father who lives in Odesa and speaks Russian, with almost no English. So his thinking happens only in the Russian language. While I can think in Russian, it’s very difficult to imagine not being able to think in English. And I believe that my thoughts in English affect my character and, were they absent, would make me a different person. Oleg doesn’t have much English at all; Russian completely forms his personality. There’s one person I can think of in my life who hardly spoke any English. But she was very different from Oleg and spoke Surzhyk, a hybrid language that mixes Ukrainian and Russian words, types of which can vary based on the region of Ukraine from which a speaker comes. So I took different inspiration from her. Now that I’m learning Ukrainian, I’m able to understand more about Surzhyk. And in my family, we speak a kind of Russian-English Surzhyk, or hybrid language, that is now starting to reincorporate some of the Ukrainian of Natalya’s childhood and that is new to me.

The easiest character to write was probably Valya. Of course, I can identify with him most of all. But I often found I had to check myself with him. Any similarities between us shouldn’t have let me not treat him as objectively as any other character. But I like him less than Zina. Zina is me deep down. I love her so deeply, more deeply than Valya, so deeply that I wrote a worse fate for her than I ever did for Valya. The more love I have for a character, the worse I arrange their fate, it would seem. I don’t know what that says about me as a person…

I could also use my identity as a father to help with Oleg. I think that I identify with all of my characters. I’m not sure I could write them without that. Such an idea can be frightening when you have somebody who’s truly horrible (like Anton, a minor character from Zina’s past). But I think that writers must do that, no matter how dark the character’s inner maps.

KGN: You write about Ukraine; I write about Russia. Two big differences! And yet, I couldn’t help thinking that both our novels grew out of love and that writing fiction allows us to build bridges, connect cultures and generations. Despite the horrors of this war, we must find a way to communicate. In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Paul D says to Sethe: “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” What will you write next? What kind of books will be birthed in the future? Will there be a future?

IRS: I’m learning Ukrainian as a small bridge, a way of resisting the culture war that Putin’s Russia is waging against Ukraine. My novel was supposed to bridge English and Russian, America and Ukraine (or the Russian-speaking world as represented by Ukraine). I never saw a need to bridge Russia and Ukraine coming. I’m working on something now that comes very much from what I think and feel about the war. And I hope that Two Big Differences can be some kind of bridge. I’m not sure if it can be a tomorrow since it’s so much about the past, at this point the very distant past, because so much has changed since the Russian invasion and had already been changing since 2014. I’ll always be an outsider. But this position gives me an advantage. I don’t have any personal hang-ups about defending Russian culture or the Russian language from criticisms and from those who have abandoned it because of the war. I understand such an attitude of refusing Russian culture, of course. But I don’t share it.

Of places in the world where Russian is spoken widely, I’ve spent most time in Ukraine, not Russia. I was only in Russia for a week in 2008. And I don’t know if I’ll ever go there again. But I’m sure I’ll go to Ukraine again. So my some kind of tomorrow is in Ukraine.

***

Ian Ross Singleton interviews Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry about The Orchard.

Ian Ross Singleton: In your author’s note, you write a lot about loss. Can you talk about how The Orchard is about loss?

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry: As a writer, all I ever want to do is to tell a story the best way I know how. The Orchard is a commemorative tale about a childhood friendship. It is also my attempt at remembering those who died fighting for Russia’s newly fledged democracy in the early 1990s, and who I lost without being able to say goodbye. The novel grew out of that loss, the inability to mourn someone other than through a narrative act. I wanted the readers to feel that loss, wanted to make it as real or palpable to them as it has always been to me. And it took me many years and much heartache to be able to write The Orchard, but I regarded it as my duty, my moral obligation to let the world know what had happened to my generation during perestroika, as well as to our country that no longer exists.

IRS: You write, “I was always amazed how bodies could convey [knowledge], how they could exchange information without words or much sound, how they could protect, nurture, and sustain, the bare tremble of someone’s skin against your own.” You also write about women victims of the gulag: “Most women talked about their bodies existing separately from their minds, as though their heads had been cut off, their limbs numb and distant.” Anya’s reaction to hearing the whole truth about Milka is so visceral and includes no abstraction at all. And there is this: “Sometimes a parent could become a mountain in flat land; other times a mountain could be washed down to a mound of sand.” Finally, there’s: “I remembered my grandmother saying how the earth could make invisible the deepest wounds, hide the thickest scars.” I think you get what I’m pointing out: how does The Orchard interact with embodiment?

KGN: Thank you for singling out some of my very favorite lines, although my answer to your question might not be entirely satisfying. To me, a novel is a live being. As long as people keep reading the book, they keep experiencing all that is happening with/to the characters, and the story keeps on living. I want my readers to be involved, active, paying attention to the use of language and to all the minute details of the story—the landscape, the atmosphere, the food, the drinks, the music, the movies, the clothes, the homes, the feelings of love, lust, pain, grief, longing—so at some point, the readers become part of the narrative and embody the characters. For that experience to take place, all the senses must be present on the page. The readers must know how things look, smell, taste, or feel while being transported into a foreign world, so different from their own. And as a writer, that’s my task—to give birth to that imaginary (but also very real) world, in all its ugliness and beauty, agony and bliss, heartache and loveliness.

IRS: In The Orchard, if individual bodies carry suffering, does the territory where a culture resides experience that too? What does this idea mean in relation to Ukraine today?

KGN: I think the “territory” suffers just as much as its inhabitants. It absorbs everything, all the woes and crimes committed against its citizens or the rest of the world. If you abuse your homeland, it grows hostile, barren, cold, ostracized. It dies, both spiritually and physically. I don’t know what it means in regards to Ukraine, but I do know that Ukraine will survive and prosper, as it has done for centuries. It’s a mighty country populated by mighty people, who’ll spare no effort defending and rebuilding their home.

IRS: In The Orchard, you mention a “rule” that a Soviet woman should have three children, “one for herself; one for her husband; and one for those who’d perished in the war.” Can you talk about this “rule” and Soviet womanhood in particular and how you’ve depicted Soviet womanhood and/or womanhood in general in your novel?

Propaganda poster for heroine-mothers, USSR; Google images

KGN: Twenty-seven million Soviet people died in World War II. To revive the nation, it had to be repopulated. This principle was widely preached, especially to the post-war generation. My mother was born right after the war, but even during her younger years, the same principle applied. To answer the second part of your question: There always existed wonderful camaraderie between women in Soviet Russia, where I grew up. A woman’s world seemed to be very different from a man’s. Womanhood in the Soviet Union was burdened with incessant duties and responsibilities—for your work, your family, your children, your home, your garden. A Soviet woman was also expected to excel in everything she did, including her appearance and education. She had to be well-read, culture-savvy, fashionable, and worldly, which is funny because most Soviet people couldn’t travel outside the country; they weren’t allowed. However, a lot of Soviet women I know are resilient and resourceful, smart, ambitious, fearless, and restless. They carry mountains on their shoulders. It never ceases to amaze me how much they’ve accomplished and how much they’ve endured. Their sense of place, friendship, love, loyalty is astounding. On top of having spectacular careers, they are some of the best mothers and wives/partners I know. The novel’s protagonist, Anya, her mother, and grandmother are those women: righteous, hard-working, selfless, the embodiment of great spirit and care. But there’s also Milka’s mother, who neglected and abused her only daughter, and that’s why I had to write The Orchard—not to revel in Anya’s family, which is the opposite of Milka’s, but to show the difference and what that difference does to a child and her self-awareness, her survival in the world. If a daughter can’t trust her parents, who will that daughter become as an adult? How can one grow into a healthy, confident self when one has been betrayed by the very person who was supposed to love her most? I wanted to explore the lovelessness of Milka’s home, her reality, her everyday life and how it was transformed by her friendship with Anya, its tender intimacy and tragic circumstances.

IRS: What would you say to a reader who might say to you, “That’s not how it was!”?

KGN: No, of course not, but that’s how I imagined it. And that’s the beauty of writing fiction—we get second chances at first things. First love. First friendship. First marriage. We get to do it all over again, only better, with more compassion and understanding, and more humanity too.

Ian Ross Singleton was born in Detroit and has lived in Alabama, Munich, Boston, San Francisco, and New York. He is the Nonfiction Editor of Asymptote and teaches Writing and Critical Inquiry at the University at Albany. His short stories, translations, reviews, and essays have appeared in Saint Ann’s Review, Cafe Review, New Madrid, Fiddleblack, Asymptote, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Fiction Writers Review. The novel Two Big Differences, published in October 2021, is his debut.

A Russian-Armenian émigré, Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry moved to the U.S. in 1995, after having witnessed perestroika and the fall of the Iron Curtain. Writing in English, her second language, she published fifty stories and received nine Pushcart nominations. Her work has appeared in Subtropics, Zoetrope: All Story, Joyland, Electric Literature, Indiana Review, The Southern Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Nimrod, Confrontation, and elsewhere. Gorcheva-Newberry is the winner of the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, the 2015 Tennessee Williams scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the 2020 Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction for her first collection of stories, What Isn’t Remembered, long-listed for the 2022 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and shortlisted for the 2022 William Saroyan International Prize. Her debut novel, The Orchard, was published by Ballantine Books in March 2022. The paperback edition will be a Penguin Random House Book Club title, forthcoming in March 2023.

Virtual Conference on Radiant Maternity in Literature and Culture

As readers, feminists, and ourselves parents, we at Punctured Lines are happy to learn that Drs. Muireann Maguire and Eglė Kačkutė are organizing a two-day conference to launch the Slavic and East European Maternal Studies Network. The conference is to take place on January 28 and 29, 2022, and the stellar list of presenters and topics includes our contributor Natalya Sukhonos’s paper on Motherhood, Math, and Posthumous Creativity in Lara Vapnyar’s Russian-American novel Divide Me by Zero. We ran a Q&A with Lara Vapnyar shortly upon the publication of that novel.

Our contributor Svetlana Satchkova will participate in an online discussion on Motherhood, Gender, Translation and Censorship in Eastern European Women’s Writing, and scholar and translator Muireann Maguire will present a paper on Breastfeeding and Female Agency in the Nineteenth-Century Russian Novel.

The full listing of events is available on the conference’s website. To register, please email SEEMSmaternal @ exeter.ac.uk by January 21st, 2022. The sessions will be conducted in English.

Books for Review

Punctured Lines is looking for reviews of the following recent titles. Reviewers should have some expertise in terms of their chosen work, engaging substantively with its themes and techniques and bringing in direct citation to back up claims. If you are interested in reviewing a work not on the list but that fits our overall themes of feminism, LGBT, diaspora, etc., please let us know. Thank you, and we look forward to working with you.

Fiction:

Alina Adams, The Nesting Dolls (Harper, 2020)***

Nina Berberova, The Last and the First, translated by Marian Schwarz (Pushkin Press, 2021)

Mark Budman, editor, Short, Vigorous Roots: A Contemporary Flash Fiction Collection of Migrant Voices (Ooligan Press, 2021)

Dewaine Farria, Revolutions of All Colors (Syracuse UP, 2021)

Alla Gorbunova, It’s the End of the World, My Love, translated by Elina Alter (Deep Vellum, 2021)

Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry, What Isn’t Remembered (The University of Nebraska Press, 2021) and The Orchard (Ballantine Books, 2022)

Olga Grushin, The Charmed Wife (Putnam Sons, 2021)

Lana Kortchik, Daughters of Resistance (HQ Digital, 2021)

Maria Kuznetsova, Something Unbelievable (Random House, 2021)

Muireann Maguire, trans., White Magic: Russian Emigre Tales of Mystery and Terror (Russian Life Books, 2021; includes three women writers)

Judith McCormack, The Singing Forest (Biblioasis, 2021)***

Yelena Moskovich, A Door Behind a Door (Two Dollar Radio, 2020)

Irène Némirovsky, The Prodigal Child, translated by Sandra Smith (Kales Press, 2021)

Sofi Oksanen, Dog Park, translated by Owen Frederick Witesman (Knopf, 2021)***

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, The New Adventures of Helen, translated by Jane Bugaeva (Deep Vellum, 2021)

Maria Reva, Good Citizens Need Not Fear (Doubleday, 2020)

Teffi, Other Worlds: Peasants, Pilgrims, Spirits, Saints, ed. Robert Chandler, various trans. (NYRB Classics, 2021)

Sofia Tolstaya, Sofia Tolstaya, the Author: Her Literary Works in English Translation, compiled by Andrew Donskov, translated by John Woodsworth (University of Ottawa Press, 2021)

Oksana Zabuzhko, Your Ad Could Go Here, translated by Halyna Hryn (Amazon Crossing, 2020)***

Nonfiction:

Polina Barskova, Living Pictures, translated by Catherine Ciepiela (NYRB Classics, 2022)***

Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford, Samarkand: Recipes and Stories From Central Asia and the Caucasus (Kyle Books, 2021)

Yevgeniy Fiks, The Wayland Rudd Collection (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021)

Margarita Gokun Silver, I Named My Dog Pushkin and Other Immigrant Tales (Storyfire, 2021)

Yelena Lembersky, Like a Drop of Ink in a Downpour (Cherry Orchard Books, 2021)***

Ludmila Miklashevskaya, Gender and Survival in Soviet Russia, translated by Elaine MacKinnon (Bloomsbury, 2020)

Masha Rumer, Parenting with an Accent: How Immigrants Honor Their Heritage, Navigate Setbacks, and Chart New Paths for Their Children (Beacon Press, 2021)

Anna Starobinets, Look at Him, translated by Katherine E. Young (Three String Books / Slavica, 2020)

Julia Zarankin, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder (Douglas & McIntyre, 2020)

Poetry and Drama:

Polina Barskova, Air Raid, translated by Valzhyna Mort (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2021)***

Taisia Kitaiskaia, The Nightgown and Other Poems (Deep Vellum, 2020)

Tatiana Klepikova, editor, Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights (Methuen Drama, 2021)***

Valzhyna Mort, Music for the Dead and Resurrected (FSG, 2020)***

Maria Stepanova, The Voice Over: Poems and Essays, ed. Irina Shevelenko, various trans. (Russian Library, 2021)

Natalya Sukhonos, A Stranger Home (Moon Pie Press, 2020)

Verses on the Vanguard: Russian Poetry Today, various trans. (Deep Vellum, 2021; several women writers, including Vasyakina)

Scholarship:

Andy Byford, Connor Doak, and Stephen Hutchings, editors, Transnational Russian Studies (Liverpool University Press, 2020)***

Katalin Fábián, Janet Elise Johnson, and Mara Lazda, eds. The Routledge Handbook of Gender in Central-Eastern Europe and Eurasia (Routledge, 2021)

Michele Leigh and Lora Mjolsness, eds. She Animates: Soviet Female Subjectivity in Russian Animation (Academic Studies Press, 2020)

Henrietta Mondry, Embodied Differences: The Jew’s Body and Materiality in Russian Literature and Culture (Academic Studies Press, 2021)***

*** Indicates a reviewer has expressed interest in the book.

“Our Favorite Things”: Natalya Sukhonos and Katherine E. Young Discuss Their New Poetry Collections

To mark National Poetry Month in the United States, Punctured Lines asked two poets with recently published collections to interview one another.  Both poets have strong personal and professional connections to the larger Russophone world. Natalya Sukhonos’s A Stranger Home (Moon Pie Press) explores themes of the mother-daughter connection, grief and loss, and finding someone and something to love in locales ranging from Odessa to San Francisco. Katherine E. Young’s Woman Drinking Absinthe (Alan Squire Publishing) concerns itself with transgressions, examined through a series of masks, including Greek drama, folk tales, Japonisme, post-Impressionism, opera, geometry, and planetary geology. In addition to their written comments, Sukhonos and Young have also produced a short video conversation highlighting several poems from each collection.

Please support the poets by buying their books.

***

[Katherine E. Young interviews Natalya Sukhonos about A Stranger Home.]

Katherine E. Young: Your book is set in so many places: San Francisco, Odessa, Rome, New York City. And yet the theme of leaving old places and finding new ones, finding “home,” seemingly plays only a minor role in the book. This book doesn’t dwell on typical themes of emigration / immigration; instead, there are the constants of familial love, amorous love, and putting down roots wherever the earth will accept them. Even the ghosts in your book travel with the speaker and seem at home in multiple cultures. In that context, please talk a little about the line “Home. A dreamscape we flee until it consumes all others” from “The Red Farmhouse.”

Natalya Sukhonos: Thanks for this interesting question, Kate. I think that home is a very fraught concept for me. I’ve moved around a lot—from Odessa to New York, then to Boston and San Francisco, with Turkey and Rio de Janeiro as short sweet sojourns in between, and then back to New York. Each of these places romanced me, intrigued me, made me want to stay there forever—until it didn’t. San Francisco, for instance, was enchanting but forbidding in terms of living expenses, though I still find it very beautiful and have good friends there. And Naomi was born there, which makes it forever special. Why is home a “dreamscape we flee”? I guess I’ve always had that desire to flee, to carve my own path. I’m grateful to my family, but like many families, it imposed its own vision of me which I often longed to tweak or even contradict. But I ended up returning to New York—returning home with my own family, creating my own home, a kind of mise-en-abyme, if you will. Though “The Red Farmhouse” was written before the pandemic, you can see how home and family have become all-consuming entities especially now, for better or for worse.

Katherine E. Young: Mothers and daughters inhabit almost all of these poems, and sometimes the connection is fraught, as in “My Personal Vampire.” Other poems such as “Nadia” celebrate “the wild grasses of love.” The second section of the book contains poems that grieve the loss of a mother. Talk a little about the importance of the mother-daughter connection in these poems. 

Natalya Sukhonos: We moved to New York City from San Francisco after my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. This collection came out of the process of grieving for her and remembering her. My mother read Gogol’s Dead Souls to me and recited Russian poetry, which she knew inside out—Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, you name it. She was dramatic, a smart dresser, and had an easy laugh. My mother and I were really close, and four years later, I’m still grieving. The poems in this collection try to ask “why,” but they also try to remember. Simone Weil once said that attention is the purest form of prayer, and this resonates with me even though I’m agnostic. I wanted to pay attention to the little details about her life—her love of gardening, for instance—and also record the process of losing her. When she was gone, I felt really unmoored, as if I didn’t know who I was. But as I was writing the collection, I also had to mother my two-and-a-half year-old daughter Naomi, who is now six. In “Theater of Bones” and “The Lioness and the Wolf, or Words as Prehistoric Shells” I tried to record how she was processing death and grief through questions and magical thinking. And I wanted to be honest about how damn difficult it is to be a mother. Motherhood is often romanticized, but not enough attention is paid (especially by men) to the loneliness, the self-doubt, the very physical burdens that motherhood places on you (hence the comparison of a baby to a vampire). Almost two years ago, I had another baby, Nadia, who bears my mother’s name (Tamara) as a middle name. It’s been delightful to watch the beginning of another life, to do it all over again. And I felt like having this new baby and also reflecting on mothering Naomi has made me reclaim motherhood in a way that wasn’t painful or grieving. At the same time, motherhood made my connection to my mother stronger.

Katherine E. Young: Several of your poems speak of the body as a map, and the poems often feel as if bones, stones, shells, forests, and especially stars are of much more importance and permanence than human constructs of geography and cartography. Talk about the stars and other natural phenomena that inhabit so many of your poems.

Natalya Sukhonos: When I lived in the Bay Area, I was really awakened to the beauty and power of nature because it was everywhere: step seconds away from your house and be surrounded by a giant mountain and giant eucalyptus trees! And the cold sublime of the Pacific! I think that as someone who has lived in cities all her life, I’m puzzled by the natural world, and that gives me comfort—the fact that the ocean just IS, that it doesn’t have to fit into a human story. It has its own story, which we may or may not understand. Maybe this sounds too mystical or vague, but for me what can’t be put into language can provide a source of relief. There’s something important about the fact that my mother loved to garden, and I don’t practice this at all. Or that we witnessed the Pacific Ocean roaring on a remote beach together. Why is this significant? Well, only poems can tell. 

Also, the poem where I am a lioness and my husband is a wolf speaks to the way children construct mini-narratives around everything they see, and those stories are often filled with magical, dangerous forests and nature that’s comprised of signs only they could decipher, a sort of Baudelairean forêt des symboles. I think Naomi has taught me a lot about seeing nature this way.

Katherine E. Young: Your poems often reference classical myths, as well as modern literature. In one of my favorite poems, the ekphrastic “Night Sky #16 by Vija Celmins,” the speaker remembers her mother reading from The Little Prince, interleaving references to Saint-Exupéry’s book with lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Elegy 1.” You have a PhD in comparative literature. What is the importance of literature, both classical and modern, to your poems? 

Natalya Sukhonos: Believe it or not, literature has always had a sensory or sensual appeal for me. When I was eight years old, I had a sudden epiphany that every book, every author has their own flavor. Since then, literature has always been a huge part of my life: the first time I met my husband, I recited Rilke’s first elegy on the street, for instance. Given that the book revolves around my mother’s life and her legacy, literature plays a vital role in this, too. My mother loved The Little Prince with a passion, and staged it at Camp “Idea” where she was the director and where I worked. The love of literature is something that she and I shared in a way that was rhapsodic and visceral. When I started to write seriously, I couldn’t help but interweave little strands of whichever author I was reading—Borges, Elena Ferrante, Baudelaire—into my poetry. I do this in ordinary conversation, and poetry is another such conversation. For me, literature poses essential questions about identity, existence, good and evil in a way that is liberating because it inspires you to look further. The Master and Margarita, which I’m teaching in the Fall for Stanford Continuing Studies, is one such book, so key to me that I reread it every five years or so. One of my favorite lines by Emily Dickinson is “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” In The Master and Margarita, Woland does this by asking what the Earth would look like if it were stripped of its shadows. In a “slant,” indirect way, Bulgakov is talking to us about the interconnectedness of good and evil, and for me, this idea is interesting precisely because of the way in which it is conveyed—through slant, poetic meaning. 

Katherine E. Young: While free verse is a part of contemporary Russian poetry, it’s a relatively recent formal development, and plenty of Russian poets still write in rhyme and meter—many more than do so in contemporary American poetry. Can you tell me about the formal choices you made in writing these poems and how you came to make them?

Natalya Sukhonos: Even though I grew up reading Pushkin, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Brodsky, and Khlebnikov, when I came of age as a poet writing in English, I was more captivated by the free verse of Mark Strand and Wallace Stevens. That said, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and their mosaic of mythologies and truth-seeking has always fascinated me, and Eliot plays around with rhyme and meter quite a bit. 

In my own writing I try to be cognizant of the length of my lines and stanzas, the end words on each line, and the “volume” of words on a page. This all contributes to the way I see sound as vital to any poem’s meaning. So in “Parachute” I play around with the length of the lines to imitate the falling parachute of the poem’s title. I let the form carry the tension of my grandfather jumping off a parachute exactly 94 times during World War II. But “Aphrodite,” for instance, is composed of tercets because it’s a love poem, and I’m harkening back to tercets in Romantic poetry.

I do have some poems in here that experiment with form. “Pantoum of Grief and Birth” is a pantoum because I wanted to get at the repetitive, obsessive nature of grieving my mother while giving birth to my youngest daughter. “Protect Me, Lord” came out of an assignment in a poetry class where I had to put a Shakespearean sonnet into Google Translate twice, choose the best lines from what resulted, and also incorporate several colors, animals, and trees of our own choosing into the poem. And “Lost Souls—After Rilke” is actually a golden shovel, spelling out the first stanza of Rilke’s First Duino Elegy in the ending words of its stanzas. I like to be playful with form, so “In Failing Light” has alternating couplets that are formatted differently and interweave the event of remembering my mother while cooking potatoes and ramps with the actual memory of visiting the Pacific Ocean with her in San Francisco.

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[Natalya Sukhonos interviews Katherine E. Young about Woman Drinking Absinthe.]

Natalya Sukhonos: Especially in “Birdsong,” “The Bear,” and “Nakhla,” I noticed your interest in animals and animal imagery. Can you comment on the way that animals are linked to the theme of freedom vs. unfreedom in your poetry? On the one hand, they’re images of otherness, an alternate perspective, but on the other hand, they’re confined to particular places and spaces by their human subjects…

Katherine E. Young: Hm. I hadn’t thought about this at all before your question, but there are two main groups of animals in these poems. The first group includes birds, cats, the prehistoric sea creatures of “Nakhla,” snakes, a dissected frog, lizards, cicadas, monkeys, bats, the fig wasp, and an actual, historical dog who had an unfortunate encounter with an achondrite (a kind of meteorite). But with the possible exception of the fig wasp, these animals are mostly part of the background flora and fauna of the poems. The other group of animals is quite different: they’re talking animals, and they may not be animals at all. There’s the wish-granting fish of “The Golden Fish,” a tale I first read in Andrew Lang’s The Green Fairy Book (where the fish is an enchanted prince); I read Alexander Pushkin’s version of the tale much later. The enigmatic talking bear of “The Bear” is, of course, the performing bear of countless European folk tales, alternately menacing and pathetic, also possibly enchanted. For me, these creatures aren’t all that different from Bluebeard, the ogre who murders his wives, or the succuba who haunts a man’s waking hours, both of whom also appear in these poems. It’s these talking animals and monsters (or are they humans who have lost their essential human-ness?) who are truly unfree, trapped in enchantments, forced to perform for their supper, or condemned to fulfill various gruesome fates over and over again—they and the humans who become trapped in their tragic, endlessly repeating dramatic arcs.

Natalya Sukhonos: In “Nakhla” and “Euclidean Geometry” I was fascinated with your link between the macroscopic and the microscopic: cataclysmic events like the fall of a gigantic rock and human, intimate events such as a singular act of love. Please comment on this link in your poetry.

Katherine E. Young: Well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We go running around the world, eating, reproducing, defecating, dying, and from the biological perspective we’re doing just the same thing as ants. I don’t know what distinguishes one ant from another (although I’m told they sing to one another), and from a bird’s-eye perspective you can’t distinguish one human being from another, either. But when we write, when we make any kind of art, we’re saying “Stop! Look at me! I’m here!” Same for when we fall in love, which is also a kind of art. “Nakhla” started during a visit to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, where they have a fragment of this amazing achondrite from Mars that fell rather spectacularly in Egypt in 1911 (and apparently did kill a farmer’s dog). A run-of-the-mill igneous rock on Mars, 1.3 billion years old—the only thing unusual about it is that it got blasted off the Martian surface and ended up here on Earth. You can touch it! I was just charmed by the notion of this anonymous and yet singular rock—as anonymous and as singular as other such interplanetary travelers that brought things, including perhaps some of the elements of life, to Earth. Same for “Euclidean Geometry”: an act of love is both anonymous and singular, seemingly governed by laws and rules as ancient as the universe. Sometimes we mistakenly interpret those laws and rules, though—hence, logical fallacies such as circular logic.

Natalya Sukhonos: In “Today I’m Writing Love Songs” as well as “Place of Peace,” where you describe love as “bursting riotously into bloom,” you write beautifully about love as fruit. There is so much sensuality in your fruit metaphors! The poem “Fig” is a whole extended metaphor of love as a bloom as well, and it is stunning! And in “Succuba,” as well as “Today I’m Writing Love Songs” and “A Receipt to Cure Mad Dogs,” you connect love to herbs and their various flavors. Please say something about the ways in which the “tastes of love” resonate in your poetry through imagery of herbs and fruit.

Katherine E. Young: As I was writing these poems, just about everyone in my close circle, including me, was undergoing really big and often traumatic life changes. So, I was very much coming to the poems asking the hard questions: Who am I? Where am I in life? Am I the person I wanted to be, and if not, what can and should I do about that? The basic idea that one can more or less cultivate oneself as one cultivates a garden speaks to a certain kind of urgency one gets in midlife to take stock and make adjustments, sometimes radical ones. During that period, I was lucky enough to have some choices—not always easy ones, not always good ones, but real ones. To some degree, then, the notion of flowering in these poems is aspirational—what I hoped would happen if I took better, more conscious care of my garden, both for myself and for those I love. Also, I just really, really love figs!

Natalya Sukhonos: What’s the link between the mathematical and the erotic in your poetry? I’ve noticed many poems touching on math, and this was fascinating, maybe not least because I just finished Lara Vapnyar’s Divide Me by Zero.

Katherine E. Young: Excellent question! I don’t really have an answer, except to say that as a young person I wanted to be an astronaut—that’s also the reason I started studying Russian, by the way—and I felt very comfortable with math and science, at least until I ran afoul of a college calculus class. Much later, when I was getting my MFA, I took a wonderful course on the rhetoric of science, and I spent more time than I care to admit reading the Transactions of the Royal Society of London. I was fascinated by the mental steps that natural philosophers in the early nineteenth century had to take to be able to conceptualize dinosaurs out of a bunch of bone fragments stuck in rock. And you already know that I find odd bits of space debris decidedly erotic… Maybe I was seeking a system of beliefs and practices in math and science that might inspire me with more confidence than the beliefs and practices in human relationships that I had found simultaneously confining and unreliable—although true mathematicians and scientists would probably say that their laws and beliefs can be just as confining and unreliable… 

Natalya Sukhonos: You are a professional literary translator who has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for translation. How does the work of translation inform your poetry (and I’m using “translation” here both in the literal sense of the word as well as the metaphorical process of translation)? Comment on the process of cultural translation, as your poetry includes intertextual references to Mrs. Pinkerton, the Golden Fish, Manet, Euclid, and so many other rich and unexpected sources.

Katherine E. Young: Honestly, I don’t really see much difference between writing “original” poetry and translating it. In both cases, making a poem starts with “translating” the impulse for that poem into words. Translating someone else’s impulse—as opposed to your own—is essentially the same process, although there are a few more steps involved. But I’m always trying to make music with words, whether the poem started in my own head or in someone else’s. There are particular benefits to being a translator, though: recently I was asked to translate a selection of poems by Boris Pasternak, and I found that every single one of Pasternak’s lines taught me something important about writing my own poetry in English. 

As far as cultural translation, all the cultural flotsam and jetsam in this book comes from things I’ve squirreled away, from the mating habits of ancient sea creatures to Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which I first saw in London as a teenager. A lot of my references come from the former Soviet Union, where I first traveled as a student. I didn’t really get serious about writing poetry until I lived in Russia in the 1990s, though—while there, I was lucky enough to read the entire canon of Russian poetry with a scholar who spoke no English. It was that immersion in Russian that helped me to hear my own language, English, with fresh ears—and it certainly helped make me a better poet. I like to joke that I’m the only American-born poet I know who owes more to Pushkin than to Walt Whitman—if that’s not cultural translation, what is?

Natalya Sukhonos is bilingual in Russian and English and also speaks Spanish, French, and Portuguese. She has taught at the Stanford Continuing Studies program for four years. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Her poems are published by The American Journal of Poetry, The Saint Ann’s Review, Driftwood Press, Literary Mama, Middle Gray Magazine, Really System, and other journals. Sukhonos was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2020 and 2015, and for the Best New Poets Anthology of 2015. Her first book Parachute was published in 2016 by Kelsay Books of Aldrich Press, and her second book A Stranger Home was published by Moon Pie Press. natalyasukhonos.com.

Katherine E. Young is the author of Woman Drinking Absinthe, Day of the Border Guards (2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist), two chapbooks, and the editor of Written in Arlington. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Subtropics, and many others. She has translated prose by Anna Starobinets and Akram Aylisli and two poetry collections by Inna Kabysh. Her translations of contemporary Russophone poetry and prose have won international awards. Young was named a 2020 Arlington, VA, individual artist grantee; a 2017 NEA translation fellow; and the inaugural poet laureate for Arlington, VA (2016-2018). https://katherine-young-poet.com