OPA member Anatoly Molotkov recently launched his latest collection of poetry, Application of Shadows (Charlotte, NC: Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2018.) Born in Russia, he moved to the US in 1990 and switched to writing in English in 1993. Published by Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, Cincinnati Review, Tampa Review, Raleigh Review, Cider Press Review, Pif, 2 River and elsewhere, Molotkov is the winner of several short fiction and poetry contests and a 2015 Oregon Literary Fellowship. He co-edits The Inflectionist Review. Molotkov’s translation of a Chekhov story was included by Knopf in their Everyman Series. He plays the Armenian duduk and is better at tennis than most other Portland writers.
Newsletter co-editor Bruce Parker, writing as “OPA”, interviewed Mr. Molotkov concerning his linguistic and poetic journey from Russia to the United States, his writing practice today, and his vision for The Inflectionist Review, which he edits with John Sibley Williams.
OPA: Without giving away too much of what will be in your forthcoming memoir, A Broken Russia Inside Me, we’d like to hear more about your linguistic immigration. Did you study English before you came to America? How long did it take to become fluent in English (and you are fluent indeed) and how did you do it?
AM: Thanks for mentioning my memoir. I hope it’s picked up by a publisher sometime in the next year or two, but we’ll just have to see. To answer your question: I studied English in slow steps between seven and fourteen. My parents hired a private tutor, Nina Phillipovna, who came out to work with me and my dad every other week or so. She was a charming retired English teacher who gave me a core understanding of the grammar. I supplemented it by trying to seek out and read books in English.
Now, it’s not up to me to evaluate my fluency in English, but the fact that I have never sought out a Russian-speaking community here in the United States may have helped. Instead, I’ve been interested in pursuing my path as a writer and in friendships within a broader demographic range. I will add that one’s capability of internal linguistic deconstruction that accompanies the writer’s task may be more translatable to another language than the words themselves. What I mean is: languages breathe the same air, describe the same human reality. I’m curious if, as a multi-lingual creature, you agree with this.
OPA: I certainly do agree. Three years seems an incredibly short time to transition from writing in Russian to writing in English, very much in the tradition of Nabokov and Conrad. Did you begin by translating in your head, or could you write in English from scratch, so to speak?
AM: I started by translating some of my short stories into English. I did this for a year or two – writing in Russian first, then translating. Finally, I took a plunge and wrote a novel in English (not a very good one, overall). When doing so, I didn’t think it up in Russian and translate, but thought it in English. In the end, writing in a language ends up easier than translating into it because one is unconstrained by the requirement to match the original. Eventually, I found English to be a tool much superior to Russian, both due to its greater word choice and a broader variety of sounds and structures.
OPA: Do you continue to speak or write in Russian now, or have you transitioned to functioning solely in English?
AM: I don’t write in Russian since that transition twenty-five years ago. I sometimes speak the language to my dad and my friends in Russia. I do read Russian books in the original (or listen to the corresponding audiobooks), so the language is not completely gone from my head. Particularly this last year, as I’ve done more reading and research for my memoir, catching up on such authors as Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and Grossman, who were mostly unpublished during my years in the USSR.
OPA: Which language do you dream in now?
AM: I rarely remember my dreams, but when I do, they seem to be mostly in English. There are some where both languages coexist.
OPA: Russian has more sounds than English and is considered a rich language for song, yet inflectionism eschews rhyme. Why deny this valuable tool in poetry?
AM: There are several components to this. To begin with, Russian poetry is predominantly rhymed, even now. So, my entire youth was steeped in rhymed poetry. I was also exposed to the less frequent examples of free verse and prose poetry. Perhaps the ongoing exposure to rhymes has imprinted on me the sense of their superficiality. No one says “I love you,” “Help!”, “I’m hungry” using rhymes. Rhymes are employed to prettify the language. Historically, they served to make verses memorable. Rhymes are not there to support the truth and the core beauty of a literary statement – they are ornaments competing with the statement.
Transitioning to writing poetry in English, one observes a much reduced choice of word endings. While, as I said, in most every respect English is a superior language, this is not the case for rhyme-making. It’s much harder to avoid the nursery rhyme effect – and Walt Whitman discovered this almost two centuries ago.
In the end, I’ve arrived at an aesthetic that demands that everything I say be said in simple, unpretentious, true language. Rhyme, to me, renders the language fake. I make the occasional exception for a smartly constructed, oblique or complex rhyme, but even in those cases, the sense of artificiality is heightened.
I realize you respect rhyme and use it in your own work. I didn’t mean any offense, of course. Literature is so much fun because we don’t have to agree about any of it.
OPA: There is no offense at all in what you are saying. Literature is also so broad and rich because we don’t have to agree about any of it.
OPA: Yevtushenko could fill a football stadium when he gave a reading. That is manifestly not the case in America. Is it still true that poetry is more beloved and popular with the Russian public than here? What’s the difference between the poetry milieu in the two countries?
AM: This is a fascinating topic that’s often on my mind. America is an anti-intellectual country, isn’t it? Even if it has produced a tremendous share of the world’s most notable artists. I think another factor is also at play. The division between prose and poetry readers didn’t exist in the Soviet Union in the extreme form we see here. Most people read some of both – that was a matter of common education and good taste. Later in life, people might not seek out as many poetry books, but still, poetry remained a reference point.
Here in the United States, we need to work to break down what I see as an utterly artificial wall between the two audiences. It’s an unhealthy mental gambit – to assume that only story, or only metaphor, suffices. But I won’t cure the entire culture – I can only try to keep working in both genres.
I will add that archaic, rhymed poetry taught at school as a reference point for how poetry is done is another damaging factor. No one wants to start their experience with poetry via Shakespeare. To circle back on what I said earlier: to me, true poetry (and true literature in general) is expressed in a plain voice.
OPA: Are there MFA programs in Russia? Is an MFA needed to progress there as a published poet, as it is here?
AM: I’m ignorant about the current situation. When I lived there, one could pursue studies in arts and literature, but it would have been pointless because of the ideological stronghold on official art.
OPA: Tell us about your education in Russia and the U.S.
AM: I studied at Leningrad State, planning to major in mathematical physics, the most abstract area of physics that demands complex math. After two years, I was drafted into the Soviet Military. Upon my discharge, I did a third year of my program, but was burned out on math, physics, and the Soviet Union. I moved to the United States and never pursued college education again. The life of an autodidact suits me better.
OPA: Your previous collection, The Catalog of Broken Things, was published in 2016 by Airlie Press [Portland], whose work is supported in part “by the work donated by all the poet-editors of the press.” Tell us about Airlie’s unique arrangement with the poets it publishes.
AM: The poets commit, for three years, to contribute their time to the tasks required of a functional press. These tasks include website updates, email communications, social media, editing, and everything else that makes a manuscript a beautifully printed poetry collection. Book design is outsourced to the incomparable Beth Ford.
OPA: It certainly seems like an excellent education in publishing, editing, and writing. How much of your time is taken up with your donated work for Airlie?
AM: My tenure with Airlie Press ended in 2017, but current editors are expected to spend about ten hours a month.
OPA: The world is full of little magazines. Why one more? Why The Inflectionist Review? What is its vision, what sets it apart?
AM: A wide range of literary magazines and books spend time on my desk. To an opinionated person like myself, it’s easy to see why the work is not right. It could be too ironic without warmth to balance the irony, too humorous without a deeper meaning, too entitled, too detail-oriented, too narrative, too vague. There are only a few magazines whose tastes seem to lie close to my own. (Remember the beautiful subjectivity!)
In founding The Inflectionist Review, we wanted to provide space for poetry that leaves room for the reader – the work where a story is not overstated, the point of view not too obvious. Both John Sibley Williams and I want a poem to ring in our minds after the reading, not to explain itself away. During the five years of the magazine’s existence, we have encountered marvelous work from poets everywhere, which in turn gave us a broader range of sources to read – the kind of work that’s already on our wavelength. Everyone wins in this scenario.
OPA: With the advent of online submission managers like Submittable, editors are more than ever swamped with submissions. How do you cope?
AM: We’re not at the point of worrying about this yet. With forty to sixty submissions a month, editorial work takes only a few minutes a week. After all, as I said above, it’s easy to see why something is not going to work. Most of my rejection decisions are made in under 30 seconds, even if I scan the rest of the submission for that something else in another voice. John and I don’t debate much if only one of us supports a poem – two Yes votes get one accepted.
Infrequently, when a poem is almost perfect but seems to suffer from specific issues, we will engage with the poet to offer or request edits. Some of our poets have appreciated the revisions they ended up with. Hopefully we can continue doing this from time to time even if our submission load increases.
OPA: Finally, what drives you to write poetry? And why poetry, and not some other form of literature?
AM: Per my theories above, it’s not an either/or situation. I write poetry on Wednesday nights, prose on other evenings. Poetry allows me to explore the human condition in mysterious, metaphorical terms. Prose affords the opportunity to analyze our existence via story, provides multiple pathways and the sheer volume for extended immersion. Both genres are essential to my reality as a writer, even if my poetry collections beat my novels and my short stories to book publication. As of 2018, I’m working with a literary agent to correct this misbalance.
OPA: The Oregon Poetry Association is grateful for your time and thought in responding to this interview. We wish you success with your new collection and keep you in high regard.
AM: Thank you, Bruce, for these smart and engaging questions.
Information in how to purchase Mr. Molotkov’s collections can be found at amolotkov.com.