Thursday May 23

LarissaShmailo Larissa Shmailo is editor of the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry (Big Bridge Press) and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses. She translated Victory over the Sun for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's celebrated reconstruction of the first Futurist “opera” by Alexei Kruchenych; the translation is now available from Červená Barva Press. Larissa’s work appears in numerous anthologies, including Measure for Measure (Everyman Library / Penguin Random House), Words for the Wedding (Perigee / Penguin Putnam), and Contemporary Russian Poetry   (Dalkey Archive Press). Larissa's poetry collections are #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books), In Paran (BlazeVOX [books] and the chapbooks A Cure for Suicide (Červená Barva Press) and Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks). Her poetry CDs are The No-Net World and Exorcism (Spotify, iTunes, Amazon). Her novel, Patient Women, is now available from BlazeVOX books.


Larissa Shmailo interview with Meg Tuite

Larissa Shmailo is radiant brilliance and potency. She is a loaded chamber of bullets blasting through the amplified hemorrhage of power, abuse, a hemlock sky of wild spirit poet/writer/translator/academic of yesterdays and today who never sabotages the raw truth of her writing for pastoral images to buffer the blows. She straddles academia with street in her prose and poetry. She talks the walk and walks the talk.

I met Larissa for the first time through Bill Yarrow at an AWP conference a few years ago. We were reading together. Many of the poets were Russian. I was surrounded by a group of poets who had read all the Russian poets and writers in the original and also translated Russian poetry. Shmailo’s poetry was fluid, terrifying, visceral, and traversed whatever different cultures we experienced into a place that evolved into us.

I went to Larissa Shmailo’s panel, “Daughters of Baba Yaga: The Eastern European Woman Poet in the United States,” that she moderated last year at AWP. I think I stopped breathing while listening to her read. She was not just giving a small handout of her being. She was giving it all. Her family history was concentration camps and deaths by horrible, unimaginable brutalities. And then she spoke of her parents, who were survivors.

Shmailo asked, “What does it take for someone to survive?” That’s when it all cracked open even wider. Her parents had skills. Her parents were brilliant. They were multi-lingual, spoke German. Her parents were able to talk their way into one day’s existence. And every day they lived took more capacity for pain, sacrifice, communication, to exist until the next dawn. Her parents were just like the millions who were gassed, shot in the head, starved, beaten, raped, slaughtered in any number of ways. They survived. And to live was sometimes more tragic than to die. Their suffering had no expiration date.

“That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life - that is what is abnormal.” Elie Weisel

“The active life has always struck me as the least comfortable of suicides.” Fernando Pessoa

There are many categories of writing, but as readers there are two distinct places we tend to go: either ‘escape from reality’ mode or ‘dive into the deep end’ through writing that unnerves us on a personal level. The poems/stories or novels may be situated in different continents, cultures, even species, and yet they confront us with fragments of ourselves that defy diversity.

Shmailo’s work takes me to places in my life that I am both afraid and compelled by. There is no escape here. It is about recognition and a fortitude that didn’t exist before. It is about finding oneself again, in amazement and thankfulness, through another writer’s words.

Here are some quotes from Shmailo’s latest novel, Patient Women.

“There was anger in the house, anger in the very walls.”

“Home life acquired a dangerous sameness.”

“Nora had learned to detect the subtlest shifts in the affective atmosphere of her home: she became expert in detecting and defusing the charges, like a teenage bomb squad.”

“Nora kept rattling him like a jammed door she was sure she had the right to enter.”

And a quote from Shmailo’s poem, “The Young Girl Wears Male Underwear,” that was published in the anthology, “Women Write Resistance: poets resist gender violence,” edited by Laura Madeline Wiseman:

“As a young woman, pretty, I knew their hatred,
masked as sex; was attacked and ridiculed for being smart.
I am listening, listening hard. I remember:
            I had a neighbor, the young girls knew her
            she wore a red dress
            he hit her she spit her teeth
            she hid the redness
            beneath a sheath;
            for her pain
            there was no redress.”

I am elated to feature Larissa in the September issue of Connotation Press. Following this interview we have two excerpts from Patient Women and a poem.

My thoughts on fiction and CNF is that they are united in most novels that I love. I felt you in the narrator, Nora, and her life as it unfolds. Can you share how this novel came to you and some of the process behind it?

I am not Nora, as Leonard Nimoy said about his character Spock — and then he turned around and said he was Spock. So it is with me and Nora. Nora is me when young, living a life on the edge of edges. I didn’t realizing how aberrant it was until I was older and began writing about it; I would write, pause, and sob over the keyboard, then get back to work. When you grow up on tales of the Holocaust, suicide attempts and alcoholism seem tame by comparison. And my peers at the time had some pretty wild war stories, as do Nora’s, and I would tell myself, hey, at least I’m not mainlining!

Nora’s dance with suicide doesn’t read like a call for help. She seems to be working an inner battle that has nothing to do with those outside. Her boyfriends don’t have any idea that she is living an inner life that they cannot touch. What are your thoughts on my interpretation here?

Thank you for this interpretation. This isolation, the thick and impenetrable wall around Nora’s inner life, camouflaged by her poor boundaries, is the key to Nora’s character. This is the loneliness felt by the adult child of a dysfunctional family; the aloneness is the only way she knows how to hold her soul together. Nora is surrounded by authority figures she should be able to love and trust, but can’t; Nora’s phallic mother and caustic father make bonding impossible. Yet Nora wants to bond, as any human does. She throws herself from man to man seeking someone trustworthy to love. And fails for a long time, because she never learned as a child how that was done.

Tell us how it was to work on a novel? Your poetry is an exquisite mix of narrative and image. You don’t hold back. The same with your novel. It moves in and out of inner dialogue and outer scenes. You hold the reader in your hands. How long did you have this beauty in your thoughts and then to put on the page?

I wrote Patient Women twenty years ago in about six months, working during a period of unemployment and job hunting. I wrote the preface much earlier, when I was 24. I employed an experimental technique of active white space for it, paragraphs of climactic writing, and let the reader use the blanks to figure out the segues, build-up, small talk, and temporality. The rest of the book grew from this piece with techniques like stream of consciousness, appendices, epigrams, and narration that reflects the level of Nora’s disorder. I added the really gnarly incest rant of April Easter (aka Nora) in the 21st century. It is an intensely female book in technique as well as subject matter. When the last member of my nuclear family died, I felt I could publish it.

That is an issue that I would love to hear your take on. It is a fine line to write the truth, as you experienced it, and then to realize that those people who encompassed the story; family and friends, could read it. You published “Patient Women,” after your nuclear family had all died. We fear we are going to hurt someone with the truth as we experienced it. Did you feel that way with your family?

LS: Like Nora, who is and is not me, the Naders are/are not my parents. My mother took a dim view of my writing to begin with, though at the end of her life she told me "How My Parents Survived the Camps" was a good poem (just for an instant, she took umbrage at the idea that she used sexual favors to help her family, and then let it go.)

Writing was "telling" and telling is not allowed in a dysfunctional family ("don't talk, don't trust, don't feel" are the rules). My mother did everything she possibly could to keep me from being a writer (she wanted me to be a translator, and I am: thanks, Mama!). And yes, I was afraid of hurting my family with this book, but more afraid of them hurting me - they could be fierce when mad.

Do you have other poets that you bounce your work off of? Any workshopping?

I am grateful to study with Annie Finch, who has lifted the scales off my eyes regarding poetry; I feel about Annie as Helen Keller did about Anne Sullivan. I’ve workshopped with Todd Colby, whose intelligence and insight is a gift to students of poetry; he introduced me to H.D. Last year I sat on “The Stoop” with Bob Holman and Steve Cannon and got a rip-roaring poem out of it, one of my best, “Tricked.” I am hoping to find a publisher for this raw piece.

There is no doubt in my mind that you will. I am putting Finch, Colby, Holman, and Cannon on my list.

Do you have an agent or do you send your work out to publishers without a middle-being?

I would very much like to have an agent and seeking one is on my agenda. I do send work out on my own; sometimes editors request it, and that is always an honor.

Can you speak of some of your work as a translator? How do you get inside the depth of the poet’s meaning in another language?

It helps to have a good and nuanced English vocabulary. Message load is important – “to shit” has a different tone than “to defecate.” It also helps to examine the meter in the original and try to reproduce it, to rhyme if the poet rhymes. I am a literalist and rarely add, change, or omit words. I nudge each component – poetic devices, sound values, line breaks, meter, rhyme, line length, denotation, connotation- until I get something like the original.

Who have been some of your biggest influences? Writers, artists, family, friends, strangers?

Annie Finch is high on the list – her creativity, scholarship, tutelage have made it possible for me to write critically about meter, a component that was missing in my earlier critical work. I love Kruchenych, whose Victory over the Sun I translated, Lear and Hamlet (I know the latter well), Auden, and now, with a bullet, Pope. Timothy Steele’s From a Rooftop is the most beautiful iambic poem in English by a living poet. I love Hart Crane and (omg) John Donne. And Camille Paglia (I can go on).

I would love to read your translation of Kruchenych. And yes, yes, yes to Donne.

When did you first start writing and how did it come to be your medium of choice to express yourself?

I wrote a few poems in college and a friend took me to ABC No Rio on the Lower East Side to read them in 1985, but my writing career really began during a manic episode near Woodstock in 1991. I had my poem In Paran, the first poem I ever got published and which is now in the Everyman’s Library Penguin Random House anthology of meter, Measure for Measure, dictated to me by God. Shortly thereafter, when I was 36 and a bit saner, I found out that there were these things called “open mikes.” The people were extremely welcoming and I was hooked.

What projects are you working on now?

With Annie Finch’s help, I am writing a critical paper entitled “Metric Action in the Poetry of Bob Holman” and I have extensive notes for a novel called Paranoia, which will be exactly like Ulysses except that it will be about serial killers and mad scientists.

Thank you, Annie Finch. I need to find her work. I cannot wait to read “Paranoia”. I love where your mind goes and this one sounds like a different kind of wild ride.

I have a gut instinct that there is something you need to share that I haven’t asked. YES?

It makes me sad to realize that people find it hard to simply read what I actually experienced.

That makes me not only sad, as well, but discouraged. Much of it is fear-based and most definitely their loss. The depth of emotional exposure in your work is what I thrive on. It is cathartic for me when a writer exposes the secrets of inner struggle and outer hells that we, as readers, not only empathize with, but have experienced ourselves. I am certain that the only way to really change the world is to lay it all out. Subterfuge only gives more power to the perpetrators. Once we expose the hidden agendas, we extinguish the fires. That is what I strive toward in my writing and that is what I find in your books.

Thank you so much, Larissa, for your unfiltered being and writing! I thank you for changing my world through meeting you and reading your books. BIG LOVE! Xo

If you haven’t read Shmailo’s work, I hope this interview and the excerpts and poem to follow will persuade you!!


Patient Women excerpts

Nora at 13:

Joey was playing Suzanne. She stopped often to tune her guitar and puff on her cigarette, which she kept in the neck frets of her guitar and carefully repositioned after each drag. This made for frequent interruptions, but Nora sang with feeling anyway as leaf shadows danced across Joey’s face. When Joey grew tired of playing, she surrendered the guitar to Nora, who played A minor chords.

A tall boy in a fringed jacket with a flag on the back approached the pier. Nora looked away and sang louder as the boy listened. As she started to strum the minor chords for The Cruel War, the boy cleared his throat.

“Can I hold your guitar?” he asked politely. Joey and the boy passed the guitar back and forth, playing Beatles songs, blues riffs, and anything else they knew. Red-faced, Nora sat next to the boy, singing too loud. She didn’t want to seem desperate, like her friends from Queens. If one of her girlfriends from Queens so much as talked with a boy, Nora heard about it for weeks afterward. They sifted and sifted through casual, unimportant conversations that clearly meant nothing, nothing at all to the boy: “Then he smiled, and I think he thought I meant I liked him . . . What do you think he meant when he said his school was nearby? Do you think he likes me?” Dee Ann Distefano called every Miller in Queens to hunt down a boy she talked to once; when she and Nora finally got her boy on the line, Dee Ann got scared and hung up.

Girls from Queens were bores. Girls from Queens were awkward and shy. Girls from Queens were vulgar and loud. Girls from Queens wore their sweaters too tight, wore too much makeup, wore the wrong kind of pants, their faces were zitty, and their tits were too big. Girls from Queens turned out like their mothers.                                            

Some boys in a rowboat were calling to the boy in the fringed jacket. Nora watched the long-haired boys stand straight up in the rowboats, then belly flop into the lime green algae. The boy in the fringed jacket explained to Joey that his friends had dropped acid cut with speed. He lit a thick joint and offered it to Nora, who coughed until her face turned red. Joey politely interrupted a story about Eric Clapton to wait for Nora to finish coughing.

Embarrassed, Nora ran to the lake and threw herself into the water fully dressed. She heard applause and hoots behind her. She swam, cold and embarrassed, thinking, I have a pretty face, prettier than Joey but I am fat and my breasts flop in my wet shirt. I am embarrassed: it is too much to throw yourself into the water dressed in Central Park, it isn’t hot enough in May and my jeans and shirt and shoes take too long to dry . . . .

Nora at 22

When it was slow, Nora told Billy the plots of Russian novels. They had just finished The Brothers Karamazov, which Billy enjoyed, and were now starting Anna Karenina.

“Anna is a brilliant woman,” Nora told Billy, who was lying on the floor with a bottle of bourbon between her knees. “Most people don’t realize that. She can do anything, except speak up for herself.” Nora reached over and filled her tumbler from Billy’s bottle. “While she’s shacked up with Vronsky, she writes children’s books, she studies architecture, follows local politics; anything Count Vronsky does, she does too, and better. She even handles horses better.”

The phone rang. Billy sat up.

“Friends with Style”, Nora answered. She listened into the receiver for a few moments, then hung up. “Breather,” she told Billy. Billy lay back down.

“So, why can’t she talk about herself?” Billy asked.

Nora shrugged “Never learned. The men in the book do it for her. At one point, Dolly—that’s Stiva’s wife—tries to talk to her about what’s happening in her life and Anna just blanks. She starts to talk a little but then it gets onto abortion.”

“They had abortions then?” Billy asked.

“What do you think?” Nora replied. “Anna may have had one by this point in the novel, or may be planning to; it’s very strongly suggested. The thing is, she can’t talk about any of this stuff, not Vronsky, not leaving her husband; she just shuts down.”

“So what happened to her?” Billy asked.

Before Nora could answer, the doorbell rang.

“Coming,” Billy called gaily. She looked through the peep-hole.

But instead of a trick, a woman entered. She was about thirty years old, tall, big-boned and ungainly. She was wearing a plaid dress trimmed with lace and velvet; she had patent leather flats with bows on her too-large feet, with straps bracing the shoes. She looked, Nora thought, like a giant child going to a birthday party.

“I’m here for a job,” the woman said.

Billy and Nora exchanged looks.

“The ad said you needed models,” the woman insisted.

Nora sat her down to wait for the pimp and told her the rates: one hundred dollars for suck and fuck, two hundred for Greek, three hundred for dominance, no equipment. The women took half.

“I’m working now,” the woman interrupted. “I have a job now.” She was rocking slightly, as if she needed to pee.

“That’s nice,” Nora answered automatically.

The woman smiled. “I know how to work,” she said proudly.

“How much do you make now?” Nora asked, expecting her to double her take.

“Five dollars,” the woman replied.

“How much?” Nora asked in disbelief.

The woman rocked harder. “I know how to work,” she said. “I make two hundred dollars a day. Two hundred dollars a day.” She looked at Nora. “I know how to work,” she repeated, “I know how to work, I know how to work, I know how to work. I know how to work, I know how to work . . . .”


I. Je suis une femme de lettres et je gagne ma vie.

All ways a feather: bed your bugs as they bud
Welling roses these sweltering days
Rose roaches blooming by books, near pillows
Blooming by Bloomsday, busting out by June
Busting on Broadway, busting the busts…
Hey, this is…my bra!
(Like swallowing feathers, you know,
dirty feathers.)
And this is December and over there, Christmas
We call April Easter cause she makes them march.

Welling roses in Wellington Rolls
Rose roaches blooming by books, near pillows
Rolls with butter, rolls with jam
Roll her over, let’s go hot damn
Sweltering days as rose roaches bloom
Swilling slaves in rose roaches’ room

Bloom, concrete blossoms!
Bloom, Broadway bottoms!
Bloom! Picks his nose
Bloom! As he grows. . . .

Bed your bugs as they bud, as they breed─what a breed!
Ill-bred, no bread
Dirty cunt’s puking
Just giving me head. . . .

All ways are fettered
Fellated and fucked
For ever and all
But mostly for us

II. Foret sans oiseaux

All ways are feathered.
For rest a bed,
For the rest, a bed . . . .
Hey, this is. . . .I know; I’ve had them for years.
I’ve had it. Have you? Been had?
Have you a forest? Have you a bed?
Have you a haven?
(Forests of feathers: naked birds shrieking
Bony birds swooping
Burning birds screaming
Descending like hell)
Blooming rose roaches all buds destroyed
Bony birds bleeding, beating, breaking, bled. . .
For rest, a bed, for rest. . .
Fine-feathered slaughter by books, near pillows
Rose roaches breed,
Bleed swiftly and die.

III. On commence par ệtre dupe, on finit par ệtre fripon.
─George Sand

Always the feathers: hi, I’m Molly Bloom;
Blow by my bathroom . . . .
By the window a frozen bird, frozen for weeks,
A weak bird, a dead duck, a gone goose,
A pigeon petered out. . . .

But I’m Molly Bloom, you’ve had me, you know:
Birds are just chirping snakes.
But I’m Molly Bloom, I’m a mammal,
I have mammaries, see: This is a bust!
I don’t touch dead birds.

This is December, and over there’s Christmas
And Easter will rise to any occasion
For ever and all
For Peter and Paul. . . .
But I’m Molly Bloom, I’m a pagan, you fuck!
(A man? Where?)

A feather bed for me, a haven for rest,
Pillows for the head, and books for the rest
I need the rest: this is short, where’s the rest?

All ways are fetid
Fellated and fucked
No bird’s no damn good
Until it’s been plucked.
A man? Amen. This is Christmas:
Rest that piece.