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INTERVIEW WITH LARISSA SHMAILO

Larissa Shmailo

Write a Bio about yourself.

I was born into an unusual family. My parents were non-Jewish holocaust survivors of the Nazi camp Northausen. They were slave laborers there, building components, unbeknownst to them at the time, of V-2 rockets. They did not speak easily of their experiences, but when they did, they spoke with great power. I recorded some of what they told me in the poem How My Family Survived the Camps. The advice there, "Keep breathing," was drummed into me: Everything can be replaced except life. I deeply regret not interviewing my parents more extensively about their lives in the Soviet Union during Stalin's purges (my father's father was executed and my mother's father imprisoned) and during WWII and their immigration. Therein lies an epic tale.

There was a great spirit of carpe diem in my home; one of my father's favorite sayings was "It's only money." I was spoiled rotten. My family wasn't rich but I went to Swiss and Ivy League schools, and if I were unhappy, my mother would say to my sister: "Lora is depressed. Take her to the ballet." Even though my mother loved the arts she was adamantly opposed to my being an artist-she feared the potential financial insecurity. Before she died, however, she embraced my poetry and became my biggest fan. That was very meaningful to me.

I led a very wild youth. At age 13 I ran away to what I thought was the Woodstock Commune. A bad map reader, I inadvertently hitched to Woodstock, Vermont, on Flag Day. I still hear the glockenspiels from the parade. There were some very painful parts to this youth, others pretty interesting. I was very political, a vulgar Marxist as a snotty boyfriend termed me. I got to see punk rock develop. I saw Patti Smith perform in a neck brace at CBGB's and I fell in love with that shaman then. I danced in Mexico in a staged recreation of Zapotecan rituals. I remember attending a syncretic feast celebrating Catholic saints and a native pig god on Cancun before it became a tourist trap. Six years later, my first husband Steven died on our honeymoon - he drowned while we were scuba diving in Cancun. Death at Sea is about this dear, dear, wonderfully funny, intense, and intelligent man.

I wrote fiction and plays when I was younger. I wrote six pretty good poems in my twenties but I became a poet, the kind of poet Pushkin spoke of when he said "Poets need listeners like drunks need vodka" in my thirties. I had particularly productive years of writing and performance in the 90s, and then came to a halt in this century at the time of another catastrophe, the death of my godchild and niece; the mourning for this child was written one word at a time in the poem California. In the past two years I have returned to poetry in a very strong and passionate way, reading it, writing it, performing it, exploring it everywhere it can be found. Nothing much stops me in this pursuit, not daily obligations, not unhappiness, not even my critical inner voice saying, you silly. I look forward to a quiet middle age with a great deal of time for writing books and recording CDs.

Describe the room you write in.

I journal and make rough notes longhand in a fairly spare and open room full of bookshelves and books simply piled upon themselves. I'm trying to make this room prettier since I spend so much time in it and have made some strides, potting plants, hanging framed posters and such. Next door, I have a small office with a laptop, a compact OED, toys, a large Herkimer diamond in matrix, and a very large circular wooden lamp made from the knotted cross-section of a tree. Of course, there are more bookshelves and tables groaning with books. I have some lovely geodes but the doubly-terminated Herkimer diamond is my favorite because I pick-axed it out of the earth myself.

Who are some of your favorite poets? Who do you read over and over again?

I wouldn't live in a world without Auden. "You shall love your crooked neighbor/with your crooked heart. And of course Lullaby-love without blinders, more powerful than age or corruption. There is also Achille's Shield--a political poem, if you will, for those of us who always want to have a world where people weep because others do. And I have a tape of Richard Wilbur reading Walking to Sleep -I can listen to it every day. I love it for the same reason that I love Auden, for the music and the words, but also because of the poets' willingness to make the journey through an often terrifying world. Pushkin is essential, and I will be studying him more as I try to write more rhyming translations from Russian. Elizabeth Bishop is wonderful: I wish I could write a poem as good as The Moose. I love Mayakovsky-I mean I have a crush on him-- and you can keep your Tender Buttons knockoffs: Today's experimental writing is 20 years behind the work of the co-signators of The Slap in the Face of the Public Taste: Burliuk, Mayakosky, Khlebnikov, Kruchenych. Of course, Anna Ahkmatova and Joseph Brodsky-these two are top of the list, and on my translation list.

Discuss your newest CD, The No-Net World. Why did you decide to record a CD of poetry? Please talk about the poems in this CD and the cover photo.

I sat up in bed one day in fall 2005 and said to myself, record a CD. So much of my poetry developed at the mic; I did a lot of radio; it seemed natural to record the pieces I had read so often. I've been told that my work is rhythmic and musical. And I selected pieces that would benefit from being recorded. Johnny I Love You Don't Die is a ballad and has insistent trochees that convey the approach of death. The title poem, The No-Net World, is written in the second tense which directly confronts the listener: You! The slide into poverty described in that poem is made with jazz rhythms. How My Family Survived the Camps is a narrative, a story I heard and am passing on. Madwoman has Bobby Perfect's amazing blues guitar behind it and I chant parts of Death at Sea. These poems work in audio.

The No-Net World includes a variety of love poems ranging from the humorous For Six Months with You to the sexual Quantum Love and Williamsburg Poem. There are two and a half translations, a Pushkin, a Mayakovsky, also love poems, and the half being a reworking of imagery from Joseph Brodsky's poem New Life. As translator, I like to seed my poetry with phrases from foreign languages, for the contrast and drama and melody. The political poems on the CD, I think, are typically human responses to what I learned working at soup kitchens, Medicaid mills, and housing for mentally ill homeless people---and that reaction rages from the indignation of the granddaughter in Hunts Point Counterpoint to the full-out punk rock rage of Lager NYC. I had the benefit of working with Bobby Perfect, guitarist extraordinaire-composer--producer-engineer-renaissance man, for The No-Net World and my only regret is that I wish I had asked Bobby to play on more of the tracks. I look forward to working with him again on another CD in the future.

The cover photo of my parents is meant to honor my family. My parents gave me the invaluable legacy of values and a sense of humor. I also wanted my amazing sister and aunts and uncles to see and hear this CD, because it is about them too, and all courageous people like them, those who have truly understood the meaning of carpe diem, those who know that life is very precious-and everything else can be replaced.

You have translated a Russian Futurist opera called, Victory over the Sun, by A. Kruchenych for its performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. What was this experience like for you? Has the opera been performed elsewhere?

The opera began at Cal Arts and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, then debuted in New York at The Museum of Natural History. It then was staged at the first Next Wave Festival at BAM. It went on to the Hirsshorn. There is a DVD of the original Cal Arts production in the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art. It has been presented at many theaters in Europe, and there have been new productions in the 90's and the 21st century.

Translating this piece was like no other translation experience-there were neologisms, sounds evocative of words but not actually words, strange compound words, odd semantics, odd syntax-it was different. I had some knowledge of Futurism but this transrational work was daunting. Luckily, I had none other than the great avant garde scholar Charlotte Douglas to vet my translation. But I love the opera-the courage to battle the Sun and the willingness to search for the new, even if it took you to dark places-in many ways, the work is still ahead of some of today's avant poetry.

Have you translated other writers? If so, who?

Some Joseph Brodsky-if I could translate Landscape with Flood, his last book, before I die, I would be very happy. Some Akhmatova. I've done a few Mayakovsky poems and I want to translate more of the"Handsome-22-year-old," specifically, Brooklyn Bridge. I've done a few Pushkin poems over the years. I did Baudelaire's Beauty and I think that's all the French that I've done.

You run the Sliding Scale Poetry Series in NYC. When did you first start this series?

I was very active as curator of this series between 1993 and 1996; it was a weekly open mike with excellent features and I was proud that I paid them. There are many Def Poetry Jam stars that appeared at Sliding Scale. Afterwards, I focused on special events; most recently I joined with Christine Goodman and Mike McHugh and Ekayani to organize an alternative to the defunded 2006 Howlfest; poets included Jackie Sheeler, Bob Holman, Regie Cabico, and Hal Sirowitz, among others. I've had some exceptional shows. Sometimes I kick myself-I once had Edwin Torres, Todd Colby, and Anne Elliott all together on the same show and I didn't record it. Curating is a responsibility!

What are you working on now?

I have a new poetry book, Shore, and I am looking for a publisher. I also am reading a range of new poetry-including computer-generated work, minimalist work, language poetry. This is influencing my writing. I am also working on a script for a radio drama.

Any last comments or something you would like to share that wasn't asked?

I feel very privileged to be a member of the community of poets. Where else can you find such creativity, forgiveness of eccentricities, and good, spirited debate?

 


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