“By collecting poems in a chapbook or full-length, I’m trying to capture something akin to the film sitting on top of temporally-unified memories.”
My Heart in Aspic (Porkbelly Press, 2015)
Who are writers you consider to be influential to your own writing?
I owe a lot to PJ Harvey and Richey Edwards — who are lyricists rather than writers, if you care to make that distinction. Richey taught me that pretension and earnestness aren’t mutually exclusive, and Polly Jean that rawness is its own type of polish. I love reading and always have, but I can’t think of any writers I’d classify as responsible for any of my output. Maybe Robert Anton Wilson?
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have ways of getting inspired?
My Heart in Aspic is basically everything I wrote from December of 2014 to February of 2015. I don’t intentionally write to a theme but pieces produced in the same time period have a similar flavor to me — like when you’re recalling two separate events from the same childhood summer. By collecting poems in a chapbook or full-length, I’m trying to capture something akin to the film sitting on top of temporally-unified memories.
Could you discuss the poem “Moribund, Мope-bound”? Is мope the Russian мope, as in sea?
Yes! I’ve stopped italicizing “foreign” words in my poems but never know quite what to do with that one, since depending on your font the Cyrillic мope looks exactly like the Latin mope — and once you’ve capitalized the M, it’s even worse. The title to this poem is something I’ve had saved in my head for around ten years… I had learned the word moribund from some essay of Nick Cave’s and my Russian-immigrant brain got the etymology wrong. For years I’d read the word as sea-bound and not death-bound; I understood the intended meaning but treated it like a euphemism. To go to the sea, to die. That poem’s the least autobiographical in the entire chapbook.
I’ve been thinking about wordplay in the chapbook, such as the transition from bog to Бог to God, the kind of double entendre only available to a bilingual writer. What would you consider to be some advantages and disadvantages of being a bilingual writer, and in what ways do you think it separates you from other poets?
I’d call it an advantage for me and a disadvantage for other people, maybe — it lets me layer meaning in a way that feels more accurate and expressive than my words would be otherwise, but it also negatively impacts accessibility. Junot Diaz has said a lot of brilliant things on the value of accessibility to the bilingual author, but perhaps the most apt is when he defines his audience as his six best friends and the rest of the world. I’m delighted when people are able to understand the wordplay but not really concerned with how often that happens. Here’s another influential writer for you — Umberto Eco. Specifically his character Salvatore from The Name of the Rose, who speaks in a jumbled mix of (in my recollection) English, Latin, and French… maybe some other languages. And I’ve never heard anyone give Anthony Burgess trouble for having half of Clockwork Orange in Russian. Did you know it’s Russian? I mean, sort of — Nadsat, his made-up vocabulary, borrows Russian words pretty heavily and then conjugates them according to English rules, mashed up with some Cockney rhyming slang. “Nadsat” is the suffix for the numbers 11-19 in Russian so, in a way, akin to “teen.” English-speakers are significantly more tolerant of fake unknown languages than real unknown languages, for whatever reason — maybe we hate feeling stupid? Suffer from a sort of linguistic FOMO?
There seems to be a lot of recurring witchcraft and cauldron imagery, if you will. Could you elaborate on the significance of those images and how they work with themes such as the emptiness of love and the carnage of grief?
I’m interested in the witch/cauldron and professor/beaker dichotomy, I guess. The distinction between ritual and science. If you ever look up how to brew kombucha at home, you’ll find instructions so obsessed with cleanliness that it borders on the absurd. Clean everything with bleach! You’re going to die! And so on. Meanwhile, my grandparents made kombucha in their tiny USSR apartments where I guarantee you there was an insufficiently sterile environment and, well, people have been making kombucha in Russia and China for ages before that as well. There’s a lot of scholarly work being done that indicates much of our “folk medicine” vs “actual medicine” beliefs originate in the willful exclusion of women from science. And both love and grief are feminine-coded emotions. At its root, My Heart in Aspic is really about me getting my bearings after a sexual assault, and that period of my life felt very feminine, in a weird way. I’m non-binary, and that was the single time when I briefly truly felt like a woman.
What other images or themes form a common thread in this chapbook?
I recall there being a lot of teeth.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The design was all Nicci Mechler of Porkbelly Press. She asked a few questions but mostly I let her do what she felt was right — I trusted her with the work and her knowledge of book-binding is much larger than mine. As for the cover, that was illustrated by my tattoo artist and friend Shannon Perry. I think I asked her to do something simple and abandoned-dinner-party-esque, with flies.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
You tell me.
What are you working on now?
Applying for grants and convincing people to buy my full-length collection. (Buy my full-length collection.) Also writing, and collaborating with illustrators, and trying to record work in a style that’s maybe less poet and more Lydia Lunch. Not sure when I’ll have another poetry collection out, but you can keep up with individual publications through my website.
Sonya Vatomsky is a Moscow-born, Seattle-raised poet and the author of Salt is for Curing (Sator Press) & chapbook My Heart in Aspic (Porkbelly Press). Find them by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at sonyavatomsky.tumblr.com and @coolniceghost.