Conversation / 13 November 2020

The Poetess Is in Touch With More Than a Crisis

Interview with Belarusian poetesses Volha Hapeyeva and Valzhyna Mort

Close-up: Complaint and Survival

Volha Hapeyeva and Valzhyna Mort are Belarusian poetess, currently living and working abroad. Mort in the US and Hapeyeva in Germany.

Volha Hapeyeva (Вольга Гапеева) is an award-winning Belarusian poet. Her numerous works have been translated into more than 10 languages. Valzhyna Mort's most recent book of poetry, Music for the Dead and Resurrected, came out this month from FSG. Born in Minsk, she teaches at Cornell University and writes in English and Belarusian. 

The Versopolis Review talked to both authors about their work and the political situation in Belarus.

Volha Hapeyeva and Valzhyna Mort.

Where are you at the moment? What is the view from your window like? 

Valzhyna Mort: I'm in Ithaca, NY, and I have two windows: a window overlooking a street where maple trees have lost almost all of their leaves, and a laptop screen playing a video of gunfire and light grenades exploding on the streets of Minsk, my home city, where people run past chestnuts trees, in the blue hour, searching for a cover. Another video pops up: there's no cover even inside your apartment. Armor-clad police in black masks burst into private rooms, where many people sought shelter, and a woman screams: “Please, don’t!”, covering a person with herself. 

Volha Hapeeva: At the moment I am staying in Villa Waldberta, at a residency for artists in Feldafing, which is not far from Munich. It is a small town and the house is almost in the middle of the forest/park and I have the most gorgeous view: the Lake Starnberg, the Alps and trees. Sometimes the fog covers the lake and then one gets the illusion one can stretch their arm and touch “the clouds”, in the remote parts of the mountains one can already notice snow. Only sounds remind me about the existence of people, because they are absent in sight.

What are you working on at the moment? 

VM: My new book of poetry is coming out in one week and I'm writing an essay that will be published the day of its release. I'm also teaching poetry and translating, as well as working with my translators, making notes, trying to keep my head together. 

VH: I always work with poetry, because this is my main domain. I am finishing poems which were started some time ago and also writing completely new ones, some are in German. But I like to switch activities, I also write prose. With my translator Thomas Weiler we have been polishing the text of my novel Camel-Travel which will be published in February in German by Droschl Publishing House (Austria) and with the writer and poet Matthias Göritz (who translates my poems) we are preparing my second book of poetry in German. But I also have a play in my mind and I am collecting material for it, and I am finishing the book of translations of Kobayashi Issa with essays on the aesthetic of haikus and the cultural commentary on the cultural and artistic life of Japan in the Edo period. On week-ends I meet with Claudia Stranghöner who is an artists and photographer because she is making illustrations for my new children’s book — we discuss the characters and possible scenes for pictures. Recently, I have discovered watercolour painting, as a good friend, and organiser of the “Bayern Reads” Association, Ulrike Roos von Rosen gave me a watercolour paint set. I started to draw sketches for my poems. I have always wanted to try but never dared. In Minsk, I could not believe it was possible, and here in Germany the atmosphere is so art-friendly and people are very inspiring. 

It is a time of an inflating crisis  politically, economically, biologically. The American election, which many predict to be an interlude to a civil war, autocratic regimes, popping up all over Europe like mushrooms, the covid-19 pandemic, the massive exploitation of natural resources... The list is truly infinite. How do you remain poetesses in a context like this? Or to turn the dilemma around: does being a poetess mean to be in touch with the underlying crisis at all times?

VM: I like the example of the Polish poet Anna Swir. She waited for thirty years to publish her book Building the Barricades about the Warsaw Uprising. A poet who, I believe, created the most powerful poetic response to every crisis listed here is the Danish poet Inger Christensen. Her book Alphabet came out in Swedish in 1981, the year I was born, and for me it remains unsurpassed. What do these two book of poetry have in common? Both of them are written in very particular forms. For Swir, it's short, direct, unembellished poems the size of a small photograph square. For Christensen, it's the form organised by the alphabet and the Fibonacci sequence. 

So, sure, the poet is in touch with the crisis — it is every person's duty to be in touch with the crisis because we live in small and large overlapping, interdetermined  communities — but the poet is in touch with more than a crisis. A poet has to find a form that is at once consolation, a slap of awaking, a coping mechanism, a great question, a reminder of how much still is not understood, unknown. African-American poet Lucille Clifton sums it up best: “I come to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” 

VH: First of all I try not to read the news. The stream of negativity and unnecessary brutality is immense, while poetry needs silence, at least for me. But it does not mean that I ignore the things which are around, vice versa I work with very traumatic topics, such as war and violence. During the pre-election time in Belarus I gave an interview to one journalist about my new book of poetry, and we talked about more global things from a poetic perspective, but sadly enough the editor said “it is not the time for poetry”. Unfortunately, some do not regard poetry as a serious thing, well what I can say, we are all different. I know my task is to write so I write.

We know that a lot of contemporary artists migrate or move to other countries these days. We know that precarity is an inevitable part of the artistic life. What brought you respectively to the United States and to Germany? Do you consider those places as stops on your journey  wanted or an unwanted journey — or homes?

VH: I spent the year 2019–2020 in Austria as I received the Writer of the City of Graz scholarship and in September I was going to return to Minsk, but then I got the invitation to Villa Waldberta, which came as a miracle because at that moment it would not have be safe to go back to Belarus. I had travelled a lot before Pandemic but I always came back to Minsk. Now I am not sure where my home is, though these thoughts are not new to me, I had been pondering about it before the elections and before Covid-19. Minsk is a very traumatic city for me and although I miss it, I think I feel emotionally better and safer outside. This led me to the idea of nomadism and I write about it in my new philosophical book-essay “Paradox of Niemaulia”[1] — why nomads are considered to be negative and why do we have this concept of one particular home/house. For people like me, it is very frustrating, but at the same time I think it develops in you such a quality as non-attachment and freedom from material things and reminds you that nothing in this world belongs to you, that you are just a temporary guest. 

As said, neither of you currently lives in Belarus. How is it to follow the development of the political situation from afar? How does that affect you personally and artistically?

VM: It is impossible for me to feel from afar. I feel a mixture of despair and guilt, exhaustion and inspiration, staying focused on what matters, what makes a difference, no matter how small. There's a lot I can do from where I am and I keep at it. 

I don't see the current situation as political. It is beyond that: an uprising for dignity, for having a voice, for valuing lives. Hanna Komar and Uladzimir Liankevich were arrested for singing a song on the street. Dmitry Strotsev has just been released after serving a two-week sentence for showing a victory sign with his fingers. Unlike these amazing Belarusian artists I have just named, there are lots of anti-Lukashenko protesters on the Belarusian streets with whom I disagree politically and culturally. But these protests are not about those differences. They are about what the Belarusian poet Yanka Kupala phrased “to be called people”. 

As for the situation affecting me artistically: you will know when you read my work. Generally, I don't think that poetry is a mirror of reality. Poetry is empathy, pain, wonder, love. Poetry is about looking for language that is synonymous with laughing and crying. And yet, for the past ten years, I have been writing exclusively about violence and historical memory in my country. I have grown up with the stories of violence, in the landscape of violence. The recent terror is the trigger of old, terrible silence. 

But it's not a question of a subject for me, it’s not about any “situation”. It's the question of whether it's possible to find a language for these experiences that leave us gasping for words, and if so, then what kind of language should it be? In the last ten years of writing, it has been a musical language for me, the language of a song one sings to nobody but oneself, the language of prayer. 

VH: Sure, it creates a lot concern and I cry every time I open the news and read about all those atrocities. I explain things in numerous interviews and at my readings people ask a lot about Belarus and I tell them and I think this could be my little role in promoting the knowledge and making Belarusians, as nation, visible. 

Alexander Lukashenko is the only leader the Belarusian people have known  since the establishment of office, of course. The majority of our readers understand how autocratic leaders remain in power, but could you perhaps describe the specifics of his ultimate rule? How does he attract his voters?

VM: Right now, his “voters” are wearing heavy armor and ski masks because they cannot show their faces to people. On TV, when the military are shown without masks, their faces are blurred. It is a police state. Lukashenko doesn't attract voters, he keeps them the way an abusive husband keeps his beaten wife in daily fear. We have a whole country kidnapped by a terrorist madman. How did we get here? People have lived depressed and defeated for over twenty years. But during these twenty years, they have been self-reliant and self-sufficient, building and guarding their small spaces of peace. I guess, eventually, we've gotten to a place where we are ready to extend these small spaces of peace to solidarity across communities. Neighbours, who never greeted each other, opened their doors to strangers chased by police. 

VH: To my mind, his main tool of “attracting” voters is fear. Most of regimes are built on fear and I doubt that people who support him (though I personally do not know anyone) would go on supporting him if they were free of fear and had more trust in themselves. I know very well how fear works; I have lived in Belarusian society all my life and I have seenthat people with power (local power) are full of fear. I also compare the current situation to an abusive relationship in which the Belarusian nation has been for the past 25 years and now the critical time has come, because either the abuser will destroy you or you will rebel and try to get freedom. It looks like a situation with a woman who, for a long time,could not leave her sadist husband because she had no place to go, because nobody believed her, there was no support from outside, but now she found that power in herself because now it is a matter of life — either you protest or you die.The situation in Belarus is currently a real tragedy. It also reveals our collective trauma as a nation, which for such a long time has been abused by the dictatorship. I want to believe we will find healing but sure it will take time.

There is major suspicion that this year's election in Belarus was rigged. Massive protests followed, opposing party leaders fled  had to flee  the country. Lukashenko is being groomed by Vladimir Putin. What are the options for Belarusian people to reclaim their country? 

VH: People do what they can do and even more. They take to the streets and protest peacefully, showing that they do not agree, which would be enough for any other democratic country, but I am afraid it does not work in the same way for Belarus. I am a pessimist here and I think that only when the leaders “up there” decide on something — the situation will change, but surely without the protests, it would not be so visible and would not attract the attention of the international community. What is more important I think is that we all have seen how massive our movement is and how many people think the same way and do not agree with the official policy. 

What is the situation like for artists? Is their production being blocked or hindered? Disabled? Surely, the autocratic rule is endorsed by some artists as well?

VM: People, whether or not they are artists, are living under great pressure right now. If somebody with the power to invite Belarusians is reading this interview right now, I’d like to ask them to show solidarity by providing Belarusian artists with a residency, providing Belarusian scholars and students with fellowships. It is quite literally a matter of life and death, a matter of their health and well-being. 

VH: If you a member of the “oppositional” Writers’ Union[2], schools cannot invite you for a reading. If you organise the event in a state museum or a gallery, they must send the list of participants for approval (so that oppositional minds cannot get access to the public) and this is the case throughout the art and culture sphere. Artists and intellectuals have always demanded freedom and have reminded us of the historical truth and identity of Belarus. In their works — philosophical, literary, journalistic texts —, they have made the critical basis for the opposition possible.

I think the authorities try to disseminate fear, which is why they arrest everybody. Art is the means of thinking and it has always been critical towards all systems that fail to function. True art is very human and thus it is one of the strongest and most beautiful ways to protect ourselves and stand for our values. 

The economic situation for independent, small or medium businesses is catastrophic. A private publishing house can hardly survive — it is the question of survival and not even of profit. There are no programmes supporting translations from Belarusian into other languages (as there are in other post-soviet countries) or publications in Belarusian. 

Against all oppression from the state, without any economic support, these people have created their works, have kept an artistic-intellectual sphere alive, from which now perhaps the renewed chance for a democratic Belarus arises. They are the real heroines and heroes of our time.

Are you hopeful? Does making art make you more hopeful in turn?

VM: Reading poetry, listening to music does help. When I read the news, I shake my head and talk to my imaginary friend, an “esteemed doctor of culture” from Aleš Šteger's poem, translated into English by Brian Henry: “Cherished doctor, / Internationally ill expert / On the manufacture of souls. /.../ The time of salvation is already / Breathing down a dirty neck”. 

So, hopeful? I don't know. What I am is obsessed. My poetry is the materialisation of my obsessions. 

VH: Art and the ability to notice beauty make my heart softer, so I create and write in hope it will soften other people’s hearts too and will revive in them the ideas of humanism.


[1] Niemaulia is a Belarusian word for a baby who cannot yet speak, a non speaker.

[2] In Belarus, there are two Writers’ Unions (the independent and the pro-presidential). In 2006, the authorities violently threw the Union away from its premises. The Belarusian Writers’ Union is the oldest of today’s creative organisations of Belarus. It was founded in 1933-1934. The pro-presidential Union was founded in 2006. 


Ana Schnabl

Ana Schnabl is a writer and editor, based in a lovely alpine town of Kamnik, Slovenia. She received Best Literary Debut Award for her short story collection "Razvezani". She is also the author of a novel entitled "Mojstrovina". Currently she is working on her third book.