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. 

Pocket Samovar: Interview with Konstantin Kulakov, Founding Editor, by Alex Karsavin

Today Punctured Lines is delighted to feature Alex Karsavin‘s interview with Konstantin Kulakov, Founding Editor of Pocket Samovar, “an international literary magazine dedicated to underrepresented post-Soviet writing, art & diaspora.” A huge thank you to Alex for the initiative to do this interview for the blog and to both Alex and Konstantin for their work on this piece. An equally huge thank you to the editors of Pocket Samovar for creating a space for post-/ex-Soviet writers. Submission guidelines can be found here.

Alex Karsavin:  Can you briefly give me the origin story of Pocket Samovar? How did a project that began as a localized conversation between two students at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School end up involving so many international actors? How did you go about establishing these lines of communication? And finally: how has Pocket Samovar been able to, in a remarkably short spate of time, reach such a dispersed and disparate audience?

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932-2017)

Konstantin Kulakov: It started in fall 2019, in Boulder, Colorado at the Jack Kerouac School. It was Kate Shylo, who’s from Yalta, Crimea, me from Russia, and Ryan Onders, who’s from Ohio. Late in the summer, Ryan and I struck a relationship over poetry performance, especially our obsession with Yevtushenko and the orality of Soviet poetry. Shortly, the three of us got together over borscht and spoke about a magazine dedicated specifically to diasporic communities.  At first, the word we used was “Eurasia.” Later we realized that “post-Soviet” would be a more accurate term, and we brought it up to Jeffrey Pethybridge, who connected us with Matvei Yankelevich. Matvei was brilliant; he put us in contact with Boris Dralyuk and Eugene Ostashevsky, which ultimately led to the establishment of an advisory board. We didn’t just want this to be a trendy journal that’s translating East European writing. We wanted to highlight underrepresented writers of the post-Soviet space: queer, LGBTQ, Muslim, writers of color, including writers from Transcaucasia, Central Asia, and so on. The hardest part, of course, was to establish these links across time zones, languages, and cultures. Our advisory board proved extremely useful in finding people like Paata Shamugia and Hamid Ismailov. I myself found people like Evgeniy Abdullaev, whose pen-name is Suhbat Aflatuni; he’s based out of Tashkent. It is important to emphasize, for us, the diasporic part of our mission does not center writers in the west; instead, the magazine aspires to be rhizomatic, bridging the gap between North American and Eurasian literary communities. 

Alex Karsavin:  I was struck by the claim on your site that Pocket Samovar was influenced but not necessarily determined by its editors’ relationship to “Soviet cultural memory.” This is a very rich and arguably fraught territory. Before we go into the particulars, would you mind delving into your (or your colleagues’) relationship to the region at large (be it personal, literary, or academic)?

Konstantin Kulakov:  I can only confidently speak for myself. I left Russia when I was 10 years old: a kind of identity rupture or separation at a formative time. And that longing for homeland is really what it’s about for me. The only way I could connect to Russian contemporary literature was online or books. And there was something missing in that, like: Oh, here’s a poem. Here’s an anthology of contemporary Russian poetry by Dalkey Archive Press. And that’s it. I opened the book, and I never felt that it offered me an opportunity to improve my Russian, or to meet Russian people. (Before the pandemic hit we had hopes of actually having events and things of that nature.) So for Kate and me, it really was founded around diasporic longing for a connection to the post-Soviet space, and specifically the kind of literary culture where people can stand up and recite a poem by heart. Living and going to school in Russia as a kid, I hated recitation, because it was required and I wasn’t good at it. In my early childhood, I was moved between Russia, England, and America. I was bilingual and confused, often wonderstruck by language, and maybe that’s why I’m a poet. In many ways, for me, editing this magazine is a return to the language at a time when I feel ready to appreciate it. In Kate’s case, she was born in Yalta and also traveled; she has this nomadic sensibility. I think what interested her was the emphasis on publishing underrepresented voices (particularly feminist and queer). Ryan, of course, came to us via Yevtushenko and translation. 

Alex Karsavin:  Could you say a bit more about your personal relationship to Soviet cultural memory specifically (given the prominent role it plays in the site’s call for submissions)?

Konstantin Kulakov:  Soviet cultural memory. Hmm. I mean, I was born in 1989 in Zaoksky, a town outside of Moscow. 

Alex Karsavin:  Right at the tipping point …

Bella Akhmadulina (1937-2010)

Konstantin Kulakov:  Yeah. I entered a world of collapse, in a state of flux. My memory of that time is mostly of things falling apart and being built up. I actually grew up during the construction of the first Protestant seminary co-founded by my father. So there’s this idea of: “Look! Democracy, religious liberty, international dialogue, etc. are finally coming to Russia!” But at the same time, having been in the United States for 20 years (I’m 31), having experienced individualistic consumerism, there’s now this longing for the samovar, for the communal aspect of poetic memorization and recitation, a longing for something as immense as the stadium poetry of Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina. The longing was also in part a reaction to this feeling among some exiles that Russia is authoritarian, that the arts are neglected or backwards, etc. And something in me always knew the latter was false. I thought: “I know there are poets in Russia and all over the post-Soviet space.” 

Alex Karsavin:  Why Pocket Samovar for the title? To my mind, the samovar draws obvious connotations to the Tsarist Empire, and nationalism more broadly. Yet, and correct me if I’m off mark, there seems to be a dislocation happening here (even in the simple reimagining of this bulky static object as something miniature and mobile). Am I wrong to interpret this as a sort of queering?

Konstantin Kulakov:  There are some things to unpack here. In fact, the mission statement used to be a history of the samovar. It actually emerged in Azerbaijan. The samovar finds archeological origin in the tea drinking devices of Azerbaijan, not Russia. So we were not trying to center the Russian space but rather the region as a whole, its complex, boundary-crossing geography and culture. The communal aspect is also very important. The samovar is circular and presents a spatial situation that is meant to be enjoyed among friends, conversing as equals in a non-hierarchical, free, and spontaneous manner. In the end, we’re trying to be more like a tea room than just a competitive journal that publishes the best of post-Soviet writing. So, if the samovar, something bulky, fits in the pocket, you can definitely say this is a queering; in many ways, the situation of the diasporic writer demands an understanding of fluidity. For us, national identity can change overnight, and language, when queered, affords that fluidity. 

Alex Karsavin:  Pocket Samovar appears to be the newest in a series of recent publications which take this particular region as their focus (Mumber Mag, Alephi, to some degree Homintern). The magazine is unique, however, in its attempt to put the stateside literary diaspora in communication with its FSU (former Soviet Union — PL) roots. Why is this emphasis on dialogue so important for Pocket Samovar? How does it relate to the magazine’s stated desire (to paraphrase Madina Tlostanova) to reimagine the post-Soviet condition not as a lamentation of lost paradise, but as a way to re-existence?

Konstantin Kulakov:  We emerged in Boulder, Colorado, although we are expanding now. One of our editors is in Brooklyn; I might be moving to Brooklyn soon, actually. And then two of our editors are based in Europe, specifically in Luxembourg and in Basel, Switzerland. Daily operation and editorial decisions present new limits and opportunities. So the idea behind Tlostanova’s quote is that we’ve already opened Pandora’s box, so to speak. We can’t go back. Globalization is everywhere. And I think the name “pocket samovar” speaks to that question very concretely.  Being in this globalized, fast-paced world, everything is now pocket-sized, everything is mobile, it’s almost like you have to be that way to survive. Ryan Onders, our managing editor, asked me one day: How would the magazine exist physically as a print edition? And I said: It’s a diasporic thing. It’s nomadic. So it has to fit in the pocket, right? That’s when I realized it had to be Pocket Samovar

The thing is, we can’t go back in time, nor can we escape the Soviet legacy. The “re-existence” Tlostanova speaks of is the ability to create something new and necessary, something that’s based around community in an individualistic and competitive globalized world. For this reason, our new issue emphasized the virtual tea room recordings (of which Stanislava Mogileva‘s was my favorite). We strategically decided to put the video at the top of the page to make it central, and the text secondary. So when you click the link and open the video, there’s this feeling that we’re still honoring that tradition of orality and community, a re-existence of sorts. 

Alex Karsavin:  Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but what kind of international reception has Pocket Samovar had so far? Also, I want to dive a little deeper into the question of inter-scene dialogue. Given that your contributors represent such disparate literary (and feminist) movements, what kind of exchange (intellectual or affective) have you noticed cropping up in your virtual tea room? Do you think the formal arsenal and thematic concerns of the writers featured in the first issue coalesce into some sort of recognizable whole? Particularly I’m interested in the way writers deal with the theme of dislocation (for example, Stanislava Mogileva appears to recoup the folk song and oral epic genre in the service of Russian feminism, while Elena Georgievskaya queers the biblical language of Revelation).

Bulat Okudzhava (1924-1997)

Konstantin Kulakov:  It’s interesting. International communication is definitely happening, even as we speak, on social media.  That’s where I’m seeing it and I can’t really talk about the nature of the dialogue yet because we first need to have more events. But it’s generally a sense of excitement that I’m seeing. To borrow a term from Durkheim, it was something of a collective effervescence, albeit virtual. At first, there was this fear among the editors that in calling ourselves post-Soviet, people would freak out and not want to be affiliated with that authoritarian, violent legacy to which we all have our own complicated relationship. However, I think the nature of the post-Soviet space is integrated in such weird ways that there is always literal and discursive travel occurring between the various republics and Russia. For example, Evgeniy Abdullaev is based in Tashkent and has a manifesto called “Tashkent Poets,” but he writes in Russian (not dissimilar to the Soviet-era poet, Bulat Okudzhava, who was of Georgian and Armenian descent). So there’s always this traversing of borders going on. In terms of the response to Pocket Samovar (going off the website traffic), it’s clear that it went completely international. It hit every continent. Because some of the contributors shared it in Azerbaijan, it ended up going all over Central Asia, Transcaucasia, and even to parts of the Middle East, like Afghanistan and Iraq. That, to me, was really encouraging.

It is important to emphasize how literature of the post-Soviet space and literature of the post-Soviet diaspora define the issue. In regards to writing from the region, I would like to highlight Stanislava Mogileva, Elena Georgievskya, Vitaliy Yukhimenko. They are all queer/non-binary poets. Although they have differences, they are united by the similar role sociality, orality, and free verse plays in their work. Learning from these writers and movements–through their work, talks, essays, interviews– is exactly what future issues of Pocket Samovar will be devoted to. 

The post-Soviet diasporic writer, on the other hand, finds themselves in a contrasting position to homeland. The post-Soviet diasporic writer may reject their homeland, share an ambivalent attitude to it, adopt a hyphenated identity, or alternate between all of these. Alina Stefanescu’s poetry definitely does not shy away from the brutality of the Soviet experience, but nor does she reject it. “Pickled Plums” celebrates familial traditions illustrating how a planted sapling or thimble of tuica can impart her diasporic life with a sense of safety or vitality of speech. Anatoly Molotkov’s “Poison in the DNA” is aware of the powerful role of the past, but the speaker firmly resists identification with his Russian roots because the roots are “rotten.” However, after reading his poem, “Letting the Past In,” we see Molotkov’s more positive kinship to another Soviet artist: Andrei Tarkovsky. Nonetheless, given the complexities of nationality, our magazine conceives of diaspora very broadly. For example, Steve Nickman’s poetry concerns itself not with land, but with the lives of post-Soviets in the United States. It is too soon to tell, but I can only expect that such literary encounters will continue to demonstrate the need for further exchange and connection, especially given the global challenges we face. 

Alex Karsavin:  What’s the long-term vision for the magazine?

Konstantin Kulakov:  We eventually want to turn the magazine into a nonprofit similar in format to that of Brooklyn Poets. We of course want to grow in funding. We imagine ourselves as a platform for the diasporic community that features poetry and translation workshops, reading events, and conferences. We want to serve as our own social platform, where poets can comment on each other’s published poems. We want to optimize interaction and user experience. The fact is that everything nowadays is becoming more mobile; for example, 60% of the people visiting the website are using phones. At the same time, we don’t want to lose the physicality of a print magazine, of literary evenings (to use a Russian term), which is why our current emphasis is on raising funds for the print issue. 

Konstantin Kulakov is a Russian-American poet, educator, and translator born in Zaoksky, former Soviet Union. His debut chapbook, Excavating the Sky, was published by Dialogue Foundation Books (2015). Kulakov is the recipient of the Greg Grummer Poetry Award judged by Brian Teare and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. His poems and translations have appeared in Spillway, Phoebe, Harvard Journal of African American Policy, and Loch Raven Review, among others. He is currently an MFA candidate at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School in Boulder, Colorado and co-founding editor of Pocket Samovar magazine. 

Alex Karsavin is a Russian-American literary translator, with translations and writing published in the F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry anthology, PEN America, Columbia Journal, New Inquiry, Sreda, and HOMINTERN magazine. Ilya Danishevsky’s hybrid prose-poetry novel Mannelig v tsepyakh (Mannelig in Chains) forms Alex’s main translation project, a collaboration with veteran Russian-English translator Anne Fisher, funded by the University of Exeter’s RusTrans project. They are currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at UIUC. They are a 2020 ALTA travel fellow.

A Virtual Event with Lida Yusupova

Tomorrow, March 12, 2021, Columbia University’s Harriman Institute is hosting a virtual “Zoomposium” and a reading, featuring the poet Lida Yusupova. The event is hosted by Anastasiya Osipova and Mark Lipovetsky as a part of the Institute’s Contemporary Culture Series.

Organizers write: Lida Yusupova is a uniquely important voice in contemporary Russophone poetry and, in particular, a groundbreaking figure for contemporary feminist poetry. Often experimenting with documentary poetics, as in Verdicts, her poetic cycle based on transcripts of Russian court hearings, she unflinchingly investigates cruelty and violence, while, paradoxically, extending intimacy and sympathy to the most alienating situations. We are proud to welcome an international lineup of poets and poetry scholars to discuss Yusupova’s poetics and her new bilingual edition, The Scar We Know (edited by Ainsley Morse, Cicada Press, 2021). The event will conclude with a poetry reading by Yusupova.

I have previously written about this book in a post, dedicated to Lida Yusupova’s poem “The Center for Gender Problems” (Russian text) that appears in the book in Hilah Kohen’s translation. We have also published an interview with Ainsley Morse, the editor of this collection. The significance of Yusupova’s work for contemporary Russian literature is alluded to in this Time Magazine article by Suyin Haynes. Oksana Vasyakina and Galina Rymbu, featured in this article, will be participating in the Zoomposium, wonderful in its ability to unite translators, writers, and scholars from Russia and the diaspora.

I’m honored at the opportunity to deliver and expand my remarks on the poem “The Center for Gender Problems” as a part of the panel on Feminism in Yusupova’s work.

Please preregister for each individual panel as well as for the poet’s reading.

Buying books is the best way to support authors. Lida Yusupova’s book is now available for purchase from Cicada Press.

Lida Yusupova’s Poetry Collection The Scar We Know

In the spring of 2007, in St. Petersburg to visit my parents and to promote my first collection of stories, I decided to attend a graduation party of the Gender Studies program at the European University. I’d been a semi-active participant in the Russian-language feminist blogs, where I learned about this program. I contemplated applying; or, at least, since by then I lived in San Francisco, I dreamed about befriending the students and the faculty and making myself useful to them. I had just graduated from a Master’s program in Comparative Literature in San Francisco, where I learned a few things about feminism. I thought my experience could be useful and interesting to my Russian peers. My ideas were somewhat far-fetched.

European University building until 2017

Established in 1994, European University had the reputation of a progressive institution, focusing on social studies, including history, anthropology, economics, politics. I had never been there before, and I was imagining something akin the American universities that I knew: welcoming signage, flyers everywhere, friendly faces ready to help. I forgot to account for one small thing: my native city’s culture.

The address of European University took me to a grand old palace in the old part of town. The entrance should’ve been obvious, but there were a few young men smoking right outside. Intimidated by the smokers (there was very little smoking on campus in the San Francisco by then) and confused by where one palace ended and another began, I’d walked past the door, before eventually turning around. The smokers–students, presumably there for their exams–stared at me in a way that was evaluative and none too friendly. Once finally inside, I had instructions about where to go, but the instructions simply said “auditorium,” or some such thing; not very descriptive. I remember walking up and down the halls and stairs of this labyrinthine building, feeling very sorry for myself. Did I ask somebody for directions? I can’t remember, but I remember my fear that if I did, the response would be dismissive. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there”–something along these lines. I never made it to the auditorium. I was doomed to being an outsider.

Ok, this was a low moment, but I wasn’t really doomed. The next day, I turned to my aunt Maya for help. She, a librarian, helped me find a bookstore where I could buy the books written by the program’s faculty, and later still I was able to meet some of my LiveJournal friends at cafes and conferences in Russia, Ukraine, in the US. These relationships shaped much of my writing.

Many years later, continuing to lurk on the Russian-language feminist sites, I came across Lida Yusupova’s poem “the center for gender problems” (link to the Russian-language version):

i called an organization by the name of the center for gender problems
could i come to your library
it was January of 1999
i had come back to Russia
from Canada
where i had read a whole lot of books
about feminism
in English
i thought i had a lot of useful knowledge i could share

Though it’s not set in European University, the space that the poet describes is socially and geographically very much adjacent to it (the poem includes a physical address!). I felt absolutely seen by this poem; moreover, the poet had managed to capture and deliver lines I’d been too scared to even fully form in my head: Yusupova’s poem is also about the speaker’s realization that she’s a lesbian and the desire to meet other lesbians. Her words gave me courage and opened a few doors in my mind for me. I became a devotee and sought out Yusupova’s Russian-language book Dead Dad and read everything I could find online.

Given the above, you can imagine what an honor it was to be asked to contribute a blurb to Yusupova’s first English-language collection, The Scar We Know, forthcoming from Cicada Press on March 1, 2021. I had to hold myself back from gushing, and nevertheless wrote the three paragraphs below. The editors, advisedly, picked one sentence for the book cover. One benefit of co-editing a feminist blog is that Punctured Lines gives me lots of space to gush…

The “blurb”:

Arriving to the literary scene as the USSR disintegrated into the new Russia, Yusupova gathered her poetic influences both from within and from far outside the mainstream Russian literary tradition. Writing in free verse and relying on line breaks and the blank space of the page for emotional effect, Yusupova anchors her poems in the physical human body. Edited by Ainsley Morse, The Scar We Know is a celebration of Lida Yusupova’s groundbreaking poetry by a community of translators. Madeline Kinkel, Hilah Kohen, Ainsley Morse, Bela Shayevich, Sibelan Forrester, Martha Kelly, Brendan Kiernan, Joseph Schlegel, Stephanie Sandler all contributed to this collection.

The bodies in this book have vaginas and penises, they suffer from dog bites and rape and mental illness and brutal murder, they deliver dead children and alive children that they don’t know what to do with; and they experience occasional bursts of joy, those, too, provoked by the physical bodily sensations: a touch, a look, a good fuck. The poet brings the dead close to us and allows us to grieve for the ways they died, no matter how far away and long ago. Yusupova frequently draws on the language of news reports and court summaries, transforming our relationship with the bureaucratese. In English, her translators juxtapose vocabulary from different registers and patterns of speech and incorporate Russian to insist that the reader looks closely at the subjects of these poems in both their familiarity and uniqueness.

Yusupova has become a leading voice for the new generation of feminist and queer poets in Russia and in the global Russian diaspora, and this translation is a radical gift for the English-language readers, offering us an opportunity to draw deeper connections with the transnational humans who have been marginalized and othered, and to do so while dismantling the accepted patriarchal narratives and systems of value.

Finally, three more links:

In October, Punctured Lines ran a piece about contemporary feminist and queer Russophone poetry, and it included an in-depth interview with Ainsley Morse, the editor and one of the translators of The Scar We Know. Lots more there about Yusupova and the way this book came together.

On January 25, 2021, Globus Books will be holding an online event to celebrate the publication of this book. This event will be held on Zoom at 9.00 am PDT, 12.00 pm EDT and will be streaming on the Globus Books YouTube channel. To register for the Zoom conference, please send a private message to Globus Books Facebook page.

Please preorder and buy the book from Cicada Press or your local bookstore!