Olga Livshin’s A Life Replaced (Poets & Traitors, 2019) is a remarkable act of conversation and translation. A book that translates the work of Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman while also offering original work that exists in dialogue with these poems, A Life Replaced meditates on home, belonging, America, and politics with a voice that braids and twists through narratives. It is beautiful for its vulnerability, and memorable for its openness. I had the opportunity to talk with Livshin about her work, the act of translation, and what it means to give yourself permission to write into hope. It’s all below.
Devin Kelly: The first poem of your book ends with the lines “Is this / how it works?” It’s a remarkable display of openness, vulnerability, and longing — these themes that resonate throughout each poem. How do you navigate one or more of these themes in your work? Does translation, too, offer a sense of vulnerability for you as a writer and poet?
Olga Livshin: I think these themes are actually really, really hard. Necessary, but hard. Every time we start a poem, there is American masculinity looming over us — the hot breathing of Whitman over us, his “I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, / Hoping to cease not till death.” As if we are sailing a ship into dangerous waters and we have to be muscular and athletic to get in there. My impulse is the opposite–but it is, of course, tricky, and makes life a bit harder to live.
So where to find allies, voices to emulate? I am rather drawn to some female voices and presences when it comes to vulnerability and openness. Carrie Fountain’s poetry in her collection Instant Winner focuses on a newborn baby’s vulnerability and lack of language, as well as a new mother who is attune to this primal state and feels it herself so keenly. Some of Maggie Smith’s poems from Good Bones are about the hesitancy and wonderment of beginning a poem, a walk, or the act of listening to a child. There is a sense of discovery in these poems–in a way, they continue Montaigne’s questioning, “What do I know? Que sais-je?”
As for the poem in my book that you ask about is one, it was written in the presence of a woman friend, and we were doing a one-day retreat kind of thing, we are both mothers of elementary-school age boys; she is an artist and she was doing some feminist embroidery in my kitchen while I wrote this poem. I felt — well, confident — in the vulnerability of confiding to my friend, silently at first. I love retreats, especially with kin of the heart.
That’s beautiful. That notion of kinship between artists — it makes me consider the way your poems act in conversation with Anna and Vladimir’s throughout your collection. Is the act of translation also a kind of kinship for you?
Yes, definitely–and also reverence and apprenticeship. It’s funny how people talk about kin in a very informal way, how American feminism has a way of being familiar — being on a first-name basis with those who come before you. In Russia things used to be quite formal, so to me Akhmatova is definitely Anna Andreyevna, with formal patronymic. So when in one poem I goof around and my speaker prances about yelling “Ann,” “Anya,” etc., that’s like a calculated risk. It still felt like slaughtering some sacred cow. As for Vladimir Gandelsman, he is coming from such a different tradition: the late Soviet underground, where that Russian/Soviet rhetoric of solemn poetry readings by candlelight was seen as ridiculous bombast. So, he specifically asked to be called Volodya (which is not unlike Vlad! Or Vladdy). Yet I get this quasi-religious sense of ecstasy from reading / rereading his spiritually charged, stunningly paradoxical, at times painfully funny work.eader to put the Legos of language back together. So, Volodya — but a miraculous Volodya.
In another poem, there are the lines “When the word / home runs away…” — did your work on this book shape or alter or clarify your understanding of what home means or could mean or could come to possibly mean? How so?
It did! Thanks for asking. It was a really positive experience (as positive as a book about all these gut-wrenching personal and national experience can be). I see home now not as a place to seek out, not even as an experience of being welcomed or resettled, or even a physical space to park all your goods, but a movable and malleable refuge that we take in each other. In that poem, the speaker is almost ready to commit suicide but surrenders to her husband, who loves her, and to peace. And then there is more than the immediate loved ones. The reader can also be a refuge. All these connections… that’s a lot more fun, to me, than, say, shopping for a really good shoe bench on Overstock.com. (Laughs)
Hah, yes, definitely. It seems sometimes the security of a fixed home in a fixed place can lead to more negative consequences than benefits — such as materialism, excess, and more. I like the idea of a reader as a refuge. Has your relationship with the reader of your poems changed over time? Or have you always felt that way?
Well, yeah–the reader that I had before was a friend plus a friend of a friend, plus half a Facebook friend. I love having more people to connect with, now that the book is out. One simple idea that I was sort of aware of, but really see now, is that the book itself is Play-Doh and is shaped differently into little sculptures in the mind of different people. For some, Akhmatova is important, that muse from the past. For others, Gandelsman is more relevant, an immigrant himself, a somewhat postmodern poet, with those gritty and unpredictable poetics. For some people, the political juts out, while for others it is not the point, at all. And so on, and so on.
I think of the way your collection grapples, say, with the complexity of America — both as a place of refuge (“Thank You, America”) but also as a place of moral failing (“Call It Longing”). How does poetry offer tools to approach these topics and ideas that are difficult to answer?
I really like poetry that is more than political, that offers different genres — and impulses or emotions that come with those genres — within one poem or one body of work. So, for example, Allison Adair’s recently published gorgeous poem “Something Like a Prayer” combines a dirge for our Trumpian debacle with the odic impulse to praise. I am also inspired ecstatic poems where the long shadow of history is thrown over the poem, or implied. Ross Gay does this in amazing Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. In his “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” there is an astounding longing there for an original home, the home that is not limited to race or ethnic origin, but for a world that could be, well, homelike. All these people feeding each other figs off a tree in Philadelphia, round baby-like bellies. And you can tell the speaker isn’t kidding himself, he isn’t interested in a utopia. Rather, it’s precisely because things are terrible in our country — and in my city, where the government bombed an entire block in 1985 — that there is an urgent need for healing and nourishing:
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
It’s a tentative and gorgeous religiosity drawn from trauma itself. (To look at another source of spirituality in poetry drawn from trauma, you can go on further back to Adam Zagajewski, to the poem that was invoked on 9/11, and then when Trump was elected, and yet again now, when we are again at war: “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” translated by Clare Cavanagh.)
So what does it mean that these poems are getting written? It means, I think, we are living in the world after the ‘60s, when you can no longer imagine the Lennonesque world with “no countries,” “nothing to live / or die for,” with all these beautiful, if incomplete civil rights victories. We are living in the ruins of the ‘90s, when Fukuyama had proclaimed the unequivocal ascendancy of Western liberal democracy after the end of the Cold War. So it’s a different hope than the visionary bright futures promised by the twentieth century. It’s a hope for this shabby world, with its sharp divisions of race and class, with plutocracy on the rise in our country, with precedent after precedent of xenophobia. Really, hope is desperately needed, more than ever. But the hope in my book, and the books of others I admire, is flickering, textured, not pure.
I love that Ross Gay poem and particularly love the notion that the speaker isn’t interested in a utopia. That’s such an apt way of putting forth an idea of a more tuned, radical poetry. Your poem, “Eating a Persimmon, 1954” exists, in some way, in conversation with Gay’s poem. There’s wonder (“His beard smells like cow poop”) and this notion of hope, perhaps, through the communal. Even if there is no utopia, how do you tune yourself toward hope, or wonder, rather than hope or wonder’s opposite (which is cynicism, perhaps)?
To me, honestly, hope is just more interesting that cynicism. Hope… is a real challenge. Ha! Our times make it so. And plus, I was bequeathed some dark origins — Russian, Jewish, Ukrainian — the traumatic memories and the literary traditions that repressions, genocide, and famine, respectively, produce. Part of my work is writing myself out of that stuff. The fellow mother friend I reference above, who is a German-American artist, once asked me: “Why are anxiety and trauma so central to Jewish people–is this part of Judaism?”
Seriously, though, poets like my fellow Philadelphian Jews Harriet Levin Millan and Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach are interested in writing Ashkenazi Jewish history and culture that both is about the Holocaust and that attempts to write Jewishly in ways that go beyond trauma. And I am too. Folks are interested in survival. In humor. I happen to like fruit (like Ross Gay). (Laughs.)
I think people in our strange time are desperate for hope because there are more and more reasons not to have it, reasons put in words, concrete reasons; the more news we have and the more frequently we read these news, the worse. Art has a specific role in striking the match of imagining possible change from what we semi-secretly carry inside. The poem you bring up is an example. A few years ago, Zahara Heckscher developed something called The Poetry Game, which is a deck of cards with juicy, delicious words — each of them a prompt for a poem. Several language versions exist: Spanish, Arabic, Yiddish. (The Arabic and Yiddish decks were supported by were supported by the Rabbi David Shneyer Discretionary Fund of Kehila Chadasha.) While I was at Split This Rock, a terrific poetry and social justice festival in DC, in 2018, there was a workshop with these cards as prompts. I picked a Yiddish card that was “maisy,” “old wives’ tales” as it said on the card. This is a word that had been used, a bit differently, in my family, which really did not speak much Yiddish anymore. So… I wrote 99% of the poem there, and I read it, and I just felt such hope and such a sense of community. Shows you how spring-loaded with friendship and memory we really are; we just need someone to throw us something like a key to release the spring.
I love that story. Your answer, and its relationship to storytelling, humor, and the place of both of those within specific cultures, brings me back to something you mentioned earlier, about the length of that first poem I mentioned, and your attempt to consider ways of condensing your poetry. Most of my favorite poems are long poems — poets like Ross Gay, Larry Levis, Jorie Graham — they do fascinating things with poem and line length and what they allow a poem to include (versus, perhaps, exclude), and I’m wondering about your relationship to length when it comes to poetry. What do you allow yourself? What does the long poem allow for you as a poet?
I like these poets too. There seem to be two broad categories of poets. Some tend to write in short form, avoid topics that challenge the status quo, and steer clear of forms that might be out of the ordinary. I don’t have a problem with shortness, to be sure, but these qualities in combination portend something possibly harmful. The other one thankfully admits “more than 1” (page); it also emulates oral storytelling, and sometimes multiple different traditions. Not coincidentally, it has more people of color, Latinx poets, first-generation Americans, and women over 50, than the short, clean poem category. Why is this? I feel as if some publications look at something that is more than a page and see chaos, or a baggy poem that will start stuttering any minute. In short, something outside the clean, well-behaved ideal. And that’s not fair. It’s not good to people who end up writing overly shortened poems: it feels to me as if the author is castrating the poem, knowing the expectations of the literary culture. And it doesn’t benefit folks who have more to say, who write narrative poetry — for whom length is voice, length is an outcry, length is a diptych or triptych or more, and not just one little landscape drawing, no matter how precise. I guess I would say length should be allowed to happen. In a more inclusive poetic culture, we should not have these distinct camps. I do think I am making a gross generalization here, but it’s one that I see with disturbing regularity.
I definitely agree that cleanness and precision are celebrated in the status quo more than messiness, length, and the many tangential qualities that narrative breeds. As you mention, length includes so much that is left out of especially Western, especially materialistic, especially privileged society.
Again, it’s not so much about length as about writing overly smooth poems. We have a famous phrase in Russia — a line by Osip Mandelstam: “We’ve lived an easy life, and we went mad.” I mean–I can’t blame folks who do not necessarily have traumatic events for not having them, can I? Happy for them. Plus, not everyone is as intense as some of us, for sure. The thing that’s irritating for me in these poems is not contentment itself: it’s the idea that contentment doesn’t make for interesting stories. Classic Tolstoy, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” all that. But delicious food is deliciously interesting (see Billy Collins’s poem about a magnificent marrow bone). And happy families make up weird little traditions and languages, like a dear friend’s family that pronounces, with pomp and circumstance and occasionally champagne glasses, “BUNNY!” on the first of each month. These are stories, and it’s just a characteristic plainness that people put in, like a low-calorie sugar substitute instead of sugar. These poems are svelte. They can be liked. You are liked when you don’t stick out too much.
It is! Always. Which leads me to my next and final question: rather than simply asking what’s next or what you are currently working on, I’d like — in the vein of messiness — to just ask: what are you obsessing over in your work? What obsesses you now as a poet?
Hahaha! This is a great question. I am still obsessing over the question of home, the one we talked about above. It used to madden me; now that I’m in my 40s, I am a bit more contemplative about it. I think making a home — the stable, calming home that is the mind — is such an important task of a parent. I have a sensitive 8-year-old who is into music-making and writing, and so one becomes a rock to such a child. A living, breathing, goofy rock. On the other hand, when we think about what country we are raising our children in, it’s crazy-making. What is our degree of responsibility to our kids? Responsibility for this country? How do we place ourselves in this country, when it doesn’t always feel like home, or violates people we love? So my next book project is about the idea of settling — settling in, being made to settle for, the need to remain alive and alert and not settle down and shut our mouths.
I’m also translating a book-length collection of Gandelsman’s poems. All Gandelsman, nothing but Gandelsman, can’t-unfortunately-give-you-the-whole-Gandelsman. So help me… Gandelsman?… He has been a lovely author to work with, always there for me to check in with him about nuances, and I feel amazingly lucky.