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Alexander Motyl

Dzvinia Orlowsky Interview

This interview is one of a series conducted by Alexander J. Motyl
with Ukrainian Literary Night writers at Cornelia Street Cafe in New York.

Reprinted with permission of The Ukrainian Weekly

Alexander J. Motyl is a writer, painter, and professor.

Dzvinia Orlowsky

Motyl/Orlowsky Interview, July 2, 2008

Pushcart Prize recipient Dzvinia Orlowsky is the author of four poetry collections including her most recent, Convertible Night, Flurry of Stones. Her first collection, A Handful of Bees, was recently reprinted as a Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary. Dzvinia's poetry and translations have appeared in numerous anthologies, including A Map of Hope: An International Literary Anthology; From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine; and A Hundred Years of Youth: A Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Ukrainian Poetry. Her translation from the Ukrainian of Alexander Dovzhenko's novella, The Enchanted Desna, was published by House between Water Press in 2006. A founding editor of Four Way Books, she currently teaches poetry at the Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing of Pine Manor College.

Dzvinia may be contacted at

Your poetry was recently selected for the Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporary Series, which reissues "significant out-of-print books by important American poets." So tell me, how does it feel to be a classic?

Mark Twain once defined a classic as a book everyone feels they should read but nobody really wants to. The funny thing is that no one feels obligated to read A Handful of Bees, but somehow over the years a fair number of people have. Best of all, its readers seem to be enjoying the book enough to keep recommending it to others.

As I understand it, Carnegie Mellon University Press Director, Gerald Costanzo, established the series and selects the titles. The first reprint, in 1989, was Thomas Lux's Sunday, originally published with Houghton Mifflin in 1979. Over one hundred titles have followed, including books by Richard Hugo, Larry Levis, James Tate, and Deborah Digges. That's pretty impressive company-

And I feel honored to be in it.

-but does anyone really read poetry today, especially in America?

A lot of people read poetry, not as much as fiction, of course, but it has its face in America-at public readings, in magazines (both hardcopy and on-line), libraries, on PBS. There are numerous awards such as the Pulitzer and we have our Poet Laureates (on city, state and national levels). April is "National Poetry Month." Low residency MFA programs of which poetry is a huge component continue to pop up in large numbers all over America. The list goes on. It just hasn't been commercially tapped because it's still seen as less accessible than prose. But I can't fault you for asking. There are days when I can't help but wonder if more people are writing poetry than are actually reading it, carefully, and/or buying books.

So what's the problem?

Poets are notorious for being less commercially marketable, possibly because poetry has long-since been regarded as too private and inaccessible, and they have a hard time sensing the scale of their audience. Consumers have become so accustomed to dialing in for their next Idol that anything short of a "mega-audience" suggests failure. Few poets achieve this kind of commercial success during their life-time (Billy Collins being one more well-known example). Unless you're in a position to cross-country tour on your own dime, your books, as poet Catherine Sasanov once observed, get distributed like "boats out to sea with the author's hope that no one sinks them along the way."

And yet, somehow an audience does get found.

Right, and then it builds up throughout one's career. It's a particularly wonderful feeling to receive a hand-written letter from a reader who lives in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania and who takes the time to tell you that your words have helped him or her in some way or that you've touched on a subject that significantly parallels something in his or her life. For me, this kind of otherwise nonexistent personal contact is more important than sales figures. Great venues for readings are also worth their weight in gold. Like the Cornelia Street Café's Ukrainian Literary Evening. I consider its writers and audience my literary family.

How did A Handful of Bees get from your desk to the press?

It's common today for many presses to commit to publishing only an author's first book and for poets to hop from press to press in search of more lucrative contracts. One of my greatest joys has been developing a now 14-year relationship with poet, editor, and CMU director, Gerald Costanzo, and associate director, Cynthia Lamb. Jerry took a chance on publishing my manuscript of short, image-driven, lyric poems at a time when longer narrative poems were in vogue. It was selected from among approximately 800 other manuscripts that were mailed in during their open reading month. He and Cynthia continue to be my greatest supporters-

Hey, so am I!

Thanks, Alex. That means a lot.

So where did Bees come from?

Bees was originally published in 1994 and was my MFA graduating creative thesis. The original manuscript, unlike the published version, exceeded over 84 pages. By the time I was a graduate student, I felt confident that I could write a decent poem, but I had anxieties about obsessively writing about one or two subjects. I also felt my subjects weren't world-worthy-"important" enough. But the late great Stanley Kunitz once told Marie Howe (who I overheard telling this story at a Cambridge literary party) that you can't be a writer without your obsessions. Poet Heather McHugh, with whom I had the good fortune to work with in graduate school, nurtured my love of details and imagery. She always emphasized that from the keenly observed details of one's life loom the larger, universal subjects.

Both editions of Bees have photographs of a child on the cover. That's you on the first edition, isn't it?

The first edition has a copy of a Polaroid photograph of me that my father took when I was about ten years old. I remember my father calling me outside and directing me to stand in front of a tree from which hung a hammock made out of rope and wooden boards stripped from a barrel. It was a very "Midwestern/Immigrant" kind of portrait. I remember staring into the camera lens, feeling a gentle breeze across my face, and wondering what moved him that particularly afternoon to take the shot.

Many, many years later, I thought about that moment in which my father took the cover shot for a book he always believed in, but would never live to see-a moment in which the future curled back, like a wave, onto the present. Since the book is heavily autobiographical and contains a fairly large amount of childhood poems, the photograph was well appropriated.

CMU redesigned the second edition to give it a new look. The reprint's cover now has an image of another child-this time of a young girl (vibrant pink shirt with a jet-black spray of hair) running barefoot on a beach, either toward or from something, I can't tell.

But I've learned that she's the daughter of the Swedish photographer, Jean Schweitzer, who took the shot.

OK, let's go back into the past. When did you start writing poetry? Was there some particular turning point or bolt out of the blue?

I started writing poetry as a child. I recall, yes, bolting out of bed one night, running to my desk, and writing everything down that came to my head. Folders and folders filled with fragments of poems. Mostly rhyming iambics of various lengths. Things like "Of all the places I did roam/the place that's best is always home." Maybe the pleasure, at a young age, was in establishing an external order from my earliest experiences with what felt like internal chaos. It was an almost desperate need to move, metaphorically speaking, the heartbeat away from the body and onto the page. Hearing my own heartbeat as a child was very frightening. It still is, by the way.

I also recall hearing a dusty, cranky voice recording of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" and taking all those wonderful, almost palpable alliterations to bed with me, memorizing as many lines as I could. Poe was my first intense experience with sound links-the ability for sound to shape a poem, give it texture, independent of content (in other words more than just onomatopoeia, which is pounded into our heads early on). I knew I wanted this kind of physical sensation, this kind of pleasure, throughout my life.

There were other, isolated occurrences to which I attribute my earliest fascination with language and poetic possibilities. One, in particular, sticks out. A friend of my late mother's once wrote in a postcard that he, at the time of writing the card, was listening to a minuet played on his transistor radio. I thought about this image for years-the beauty of something so delicate transmitting through air in something so bare-bones designed. It was my first brush with Surrealism: the musical intelligence of a minuet encased in a cheap transistor radio. I still try to imagine that minuet and its miniscule musicians-strings buzzing like a fly caught under a glass jar.

When did you feel that this was something you could do well, and successfully?

Numerous unrelated events jump to mind:

When I was a college student, my father handed me my first manual typewriter for Christmas. He kissed it before handing it to me. I guess you could say I'm both sentimental and superstitious.

Then there was poet Stuart Friebert who wrote a letter of recommendation for me to take with me "wherever," in which he stated that he was certain that one day I would "make it" as a poet. I still have that letter. I couldn't bear to part with it.

Many years later, feeling like my life was going down the drain and having just received a note from an editor who said the best thing I could do with my poems was "lose them," I rushed out of the house, down the street to Mission Hill Church (I was living on Mission Hill in Boston at the time) and prayed, clutching my thin manuscript of poems. It turned out to be the church's 100th-year anniversary day of miracles. I wasn't going to argue.

I started giving public readings-

You're exceptionally good at those, you know.

-and really enjoyed it.

The founding editor of AGNI magazine, Askold Melnyczuk, in a now-ancient order-form/brochure for the journal once listed me in the category of "People No One Else Suspects Yet."

Certainly having poems placed in reputable magazines and doing well in prestigious awards competitions helped boost my confidence. But I think I remember those less and think about the other above-mentioned events much more.

Your poetry is intensely personal. Are you trying to give readers a look into your heart and soul, or are you using your own experience to illuminate certain universals? Or both?

Robert Frost once said, "No surprise to the writer, no surprise to the reader." By this he meant that the best poem ultimately reveals, in addition to the reader, something about the poet to the poet. I never know where a poem is going to go once I begin it. For me, often, it's a single image that creates the need to write the poem, to explore why that image has gotten under my skin and won't let go. Ultimately, it exposes something about the heart and, I hope, soul. But I never know my subject up front.

A young, emerging poet's conscious decision to write "of the heart" often moves him or her toward larger abstractions, "important" themes that, unfortunately, more often than not, result in unearned or sentimental verse. I see this with many students. It's best to move your poem's energies from precise details and images from your life: the sights, smells, textures that you know like the back of your hand. If you stay true to those details, the poem will, in turn, rise from a place that rings true. And when work rings true, it resonates with its reader(s) or listener(s). The beautiful reflection or echo from that exchange designates for me that something pure has been released and revealed.

You refer to Ohio quite a bit in your work. Did living in the Midwest help shape your subjects?

A serious introvert growing up, I spent a lot of time sitting in our ten-acre meadow watching and waiting for Ohio's famous storms, trying to will clouds into dog shapes, imposing my restlessness on surrounding trees-"Standing still at great speeds" as the late poet Joe Bolton once wrote. I wasn't exposed to urban distractions, so I spent a lot of time traveling inward. I also spent a lot of time reading James Wright. Someone once said Midwestern writers grow up between two polarities: cornfields and death.

Sounds like something you might've said.


What's the key to a good poem?

When the last line confirms the first line wasn't a waste of time.

You used to write art and culture criticism for Suchasnist, the Ukrainian journal of politics and the arts, in the 1970s. How did you get involved in that?

I met Ukrainian poet Bohdan Boychuk through the painter Jurij Solovij in New York back in the late seventies. I was working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time. Solovij was working on his "1000 Heads" project and asked that I write a review of it for Svoboda. I'd also become involved with photography and had a strong interest in Earthwork artists as well as conceptual/performance artists such as Joseph Beuys. I'd also interned at the Paula Cooper Gallery and worked as studio assistant to Earthwork artist Alan Sonfist. So, you could say I was interested in the New York City art scene. I wrote reviews for Suchasnist for only a relatively short period of time. A highlight for me was interviewing George Costakis shortly after the Museum of Modern Art showcased his breathtaking, massive collection of Russian avant-garde art.

Are you still writing criticism?

Not at present.

Let's go back to your other triumphs. You've also won the very prestigious Pushcart Prize in Poetry.

I'd been nominated nine times prior to winning. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, as the saying goes-though it's an honor just to be nominated. I was finally awarded the prize in 2006 for a poem titled "Nude Descending" from Convertible Night, Flurry of Stones. I was thrilled.

I understand your novel, Who Killed Andrei Warhol, was also nominated fairly recently. Congratulations!

Does that mean I need eight more nominations before I win?

With poets, that seems to be the myth. But given that you're a fiction writer, who knows? In any event, the nomination certainly was well deserved.

Who are your favorite poets? Which poets influenced you the most?

Your first question is always difficult to answer as there are far too many to begin to list. Also, sometimes it's a favorite image or line rather than an entire poem or collection that stays with me for days and influences me most.

But certainly several poets immediately come to mind. Sylvia Plath, for example. I recently re-visited her work through a student of mine, Emily Van Duyne, with whom I worked this past academic term. Emily wrote an astute paper on Plato's influences on Path's work. Re-reading Plath's poems, I was struck by her ability to say the unsayable, to work language and imagery in a way that very few poets are able to.

Thomas Lux's poems were also a strong first love for me. When his early books, Memory's Hand Grenade and The Glass Blower's Breath, first came out, I read them over and over, night after night. I carried them with me everywhere I went. He changed the tone of what I thought poetry had to be. Above all, his poems were funny. Funny, but serious. I wasn't used to that.

Finally, anyone who knows me well knows I'm a huge fan of Franz Wright's poems. (Both he and his late father, poet James Wright, are Pulitzer Prize recipients). Franz and I met at Oberlin. The first time I read one of his poems in Field magazine back in the seventies, I had the sensation of being in the presence of something I'd never felt before. I felt physically changed.

Do you have any favorite Ukrainian poets?

I've long admired the poetry of (in no particular order here) Okasana Zabuzhko, Natalka Bilotserkivets, Serhiy Zhadan, Lyudmila Taran, Yaroslav Dovhan, and Oleh Lysheha to name a few. There are others. Last summer, for example, I had the pleasure of meeting, Marjana Savka, an exciting young poet whose work is new to me.

Did any Ukrainian poets influence you?

I can't say that my work has been directly influenced by these wonderful poets. More critical to my work was the hybrid identity of growing up a first-generation Ukrainian American in the Midwest. One of my favorite quotes is: "Any culture that cannot laugh at itself, cannot survive itself," though I don't recall who said it. This is not to say that I grew up laughing at all the things that confused me. But humor certainly played an important role in connecting with others on issues of ritual and cultural identity. I never consciously intended my poems to be funny. But I love it when audiences laugh at certain passages or images. It brings down our defenses; we listen closer, experience one another more deeply.

You're also a translator-of poetry, and of Alexander Dovzhenko's The Enchanted Desna.

It was actually fiction writer Volodymyr Dibrova who introduced me to this piece and suggested I attempt to translate it. I'm grateful for his encouragement. It took me over five years to translate it with generous help from many, though I will always remain particularly grateful to Volodymyr, my late mother, Tamara Orlowsky, Basil Fedun and Lev Chaban. They were patient and helpful beyond the call of duty.

Dovzhenko's is a magical piece. There's one meditation on the pleasant/unpleasant things of the world which, to my mind, could easily be one of the most beautiful prose poems I've ever read. Actually, a number of the novella's sections read like prose poems. I've used this piece to teach translation and to generate exercises at conferences. It's very well received and effective as a teaching tool. I hope to present this translation at future conferences, particularly those that cross-genre with film.

In addition to Dovzhenko's Desna, I've had the opportunity to translate numerous Ukrainian poets, but no one extensively. Currently, I'm working on translating a larger group of Natalka Bilotserkivets's poems.

Is translating poetry like writing it?

Yes and no. Yes, because you're paying attention to form and craft and language all the time-same as when you write your own poems. No, because you're working to bring forth another's voice rather than your own -- although some might argue this would be similar to writing a persona poem. Translators often can't help (or rather deliberately choose to) impose their particular sensibilities on a poem. Some poems need that kind of intervention because the poem just isn't as strong in English. We often complain that a work has "lost something in the translation." But I've seen the opposite too: the work that loses something in the original. Both conditions exist. The important thing is to keep writers interested in translating. Oftentimes it's a thankless task. As I once wrote to Dibrova: it's "the sound of one hand clapping."

Your most recent book, Convertible Night, Flurry of Stones, which was released this past March, has a terrific title, but a rather somber set of themes related to your battle with cancer.

The book is about my journey through breast cancer. When I first started writing it, I thought no one is going to want to read this. In fact, in the midst of my crisis, I certainly never imagined myself writing these poems. I was too terrified. But faith is about turning that corner, eventually, toward light. As they say: one door closes and another door opens. But the corridor can be hell.

But turn that corner you did. And, amazingly, you managed to do it with a sense of humor.

I had angels, even in that corridor. My sister, Maria, kept me believing positive things about my body; poet friend Nancy Mitchell turned me repeatedly to my blank pages, encouraging me to write through my deepest doubts. In a review of my book in ForeWord Magazine the poet and critic Melanie Drane wrote: "Through words, human beings posses the power to articulate experience that would otherwise remain merely an incoherent jumble of events. To discern meaning in times of profound rupture is a fundamentally creative act-and an insistence on survival. In this way, literature and writing often serve as life-affirming, urgent resources, especially amidst crisis." I learned a lot from all three women for whom I feel much respect and love.

Thank you, Dzvinia, for sharing yourself with us.


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