Born in Russia, A. Molotkov moved to the US in 1990 and switched to writing in English in 1993. His poetry collections are The Catalog of Broken Things, Application of Shadows and Synonyms for Silence. Published by Kenyon, Iowa, Antioch, Massachusetts and Tampa Reviews, Hotel Amerika, Arts & Letters and many more, Molotkov has received various fiction and poetry awards and an Oregon Literary Fellowship. His prose is represented by Laura Strachan at Strachan Lit. He co-edits The Inflectionist Review. Please visit him at AMolotkov.com.
John Sibley Williams: Anatoly, thank you so much for joining me. Before digging into your inspirations, themes, and structures, I’d like to ask about your background. Can you tell me how growing up in the Soviet Union has impacted your writing and worldview? Did you have access to non-Russian literature? What was your youthful opinion on poetry, and how has it changed, both in reading and composition, since emigrating to the United States in the late 1980’s?
Anatoly Molotkov: John, thank you for these fascinating questions. One can’t completely account for the effects of one’s background – but it’s interesting to speculate about it. Growing up in the Soviet Union placed a stark focus on forming my own opinions. With the official party line dominating the public sphere, the individual was constrained to smaller venues for opinion-making and identity-building. Even in art, the recipe of socialist realism was incessantly shoved down our throats. As a result, some of us grew up more capable of discarding irrelevant views and safeguarding and fostering our own.
Access to literature in the USSR was both limited and wide-ranged. The appreciation for other cultures, including books translated from other languages, is deeply rooted in the European tradition, of which Russia was, for several centuries, an integral part. While some of my college-educated American friends have shared that they never read books in translation, such an attitude was unthinkable among the Soviet intelligentsia, who sought out every opportunity to expose themselves to world literatures. At the same time, only selected works were available, and even those were not sold in stores; we had to maneuver to access the translations of such authors as Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Borges, Cortázar, Maupassant, Balzac, Dickens, Kafka, etc. We borrowed them from lucky friends who managed to get hold of a copy. This enforced scarcity of access fostered an admiration for literature and a deep desire to broaden one’s scope.
The poetry I admired in my youth is similar in tone to what I admire now: a reflective, melancholy, restrained type – work filled with awe at the mystery of the world and sadness for, and a deep appreciation of, the human project. My thoughts about form have changed more. In Russian, where more varied word endings are available, most poetry continues to be rhymed. By the time I left at age 22, I was beginning to feel the artificiality of rhyme; increasingly, it felt in opposition to sincere speech. In English this sensation is much more overt, as the majority of poets writing in this language have come to agree. In the end, I’m unable, with few exceptions, to think of rhymed poetry as a serious/artistically valid effort. In terms of composition, I’m drawn to laconic expression, although over the years I’ve forced myself to experiment with longer forms.
JSW: “Reflective, melancholy, restrained” could well be used to describe your work also, as could “celebratory” in terms of how you root inside the human psyche trying to find the shards of light we still have in us. Perhaps that’s what you meant by “a sadness for, and a deep appreciation of, the human project”. As a writer, how do you strike that balance between ache and revelation? How do you simplify our human complexities into accessible language?
AM: The shards of light we still have in us – what a beautiful way to reference this elusive phenomenon. Our species appears to be unique in that it possesses a concrete awareness of mortality. Perhaps other species feel it on an instinctual level, but we are keenly aware of the fact that our path, in this life, is limited. We deal with this differently: some by subscribing to narratives that extend this path into infinity via religion, others by embracing the meaninglessness of our short-term presence and seeking pleasure while available. What motivates me is the notion of continuity of the human effort: in so many ways, we affect the paths of those who co-exist with us in time, and those who will come after us. My hope is that my effect on others, in life and in literature, is positive and meaningful, even if in minuscule ways. In this, ache and revelation coexist. We often learn too late to take advantage of the knowledge in our own lives, but others might still benefit. From our regrets and failures, we can fashion guiding lights for others.
The accessibility of language is a painfully subjective criterion: I’ve learned to accept that a manner of expression inherently comfortable and clear to some will be either simplistic or overtly complex to many others, not even mentioning a plethora of other parameters that may go wrong: the tone, the syntax, the word choice. My preference is to use simple language that, in itself, does not confuse. From this language, I create building blocks that the reader can take away, to ponder if/how they can combine them into something greater. It’s not my ambition to make minute connections for the reader, to cross all the t’s – especially in poetry. My hope is that the reader will come equipped with the curiosity and the inspiration to connect the building blocks into a whole that might become their small shard of light.
JSW: Your thoughts on linguistic accessibility and reader interaction with a text remind me of Robert Bly’s theory of leaping poetry, which he defines as “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.” These leaps sound similar to your building blocks. During the composition process, how do you construct these leaps or blocks so that they convey your desired impressions intuitively by tapping into a reader’s natural curiosity?
AM: Bly’s definition is very insightful. I can’t explain this process in logical terms. For me, a progression of images/thoughts/building blocks begins to work when I get an emotional reaction. This may happen if the distance that separates one building block from the next is tangible, but not immense: it must be bridged by the reader’s emotional and interpretive effort. If I cry or at least get tears in my eyes, then I’m getting close to something valuable. If I don’t, perhaps I’ve missed the perfect move. It’s so easy to miss it because, for one thing, the perfect move is absolutely subjective. Besides, sitting on the edge of the next line is an intensely uncomfortable process. One wants to move on, to make progress, to get a poem completed sooner rather than later. When these pressures take over, perfection (even a subjective kind) is increasingly elusive. While some poems come together quickly, many of my better ones are assembled from lines and drafts and separate “takes” accumulated over weeks, months, or even years. Nor can I overestimate the value of a peer group of skilled poets, who are much more likely to detect blind spots and weak joints.
JSW: Your thoughts on composition, especially the idea of assembling lines from drafts accumulated over long periods of time, is compelling. How does this process differ when writing fiction and nonfiction? Are there similarities? Does each genre have its own unique composition demands?
AM: Thank you, John. I don’t feel that prose is different from poetry in any cardinal sense, especially when we dispense with rhyme and other formal tricks. The difference has to do with how many details one can provide. Where poetry often hinges on one or two carefully selected facts, prose is full of them. From description to dialog, the writer adds lines and sentences that are not, in their own right, critical to the piece as a whole, even if a carefully chosen turn of phrase or an interesting thought here and there might delight a reader. In prose, I try to feel larger blocks, I ask myself: does a chapter combine neatly with the ones surrounding it, does the ending resonate, does the story arc provide a potential epiphany? The characters (imagined, or real as in non-fiction) grow distinct definition, surrender themselves to the reader’s scrutiny. The plot takes on a life of its own. There are many more parameters that will affect the reader’s reaction to work.
An epic book-length poem might also possess these features. The accumulation of text, in the end, may have a different impact, a more engrossing effect, a quality of taking up the reader’s attention for hours/days/weeks. It places deeper and often more personal demands on the text. It’s a long-term relationship vs. a kiss.
JSW: Speaking of epic poetry, your recent collection Application of Shadows (Main Street Rag, 2018) contains only five poems, the longest stretching almost 30 pages. I’d consider that pretty epic. You tend to break these longer poems into individual fragments, which stand on their own while contributing to the whole. How do you approach this type of fragmented composition? How do you ensure each fragment retains a sense of individuality, of wholeness? How do they fit together into one cohesive exploration?
AM: The poem in question, “Skating without a Soul”, describes a group of characters stuck in a kind of purgatory, from which they ostensibly can “return”, although the reader may begin to suspect that this is not really an option. Here, I employ scenes in which the characters’ circumstances undergo some sort of development, hopefully creating dramatic tension and providing commentary on the similar challenges other characters face. As in all literature, the strange world the characters inhabit is a reflection of our own often tortured existence.
The manner in which fragments are tied together differs from one long poem to another, although it’s fair to say that in most cases, the accrual of emotional resonance is expected. I employ recurring themes and repeating keywords, including modified versions of earlier statements, to create the intentionally unsteady rails upon which the reader can progress through the poem. Typically, it’s not my goal that each fragment stand on its own – many fragments would probably feel awkward or inconclusive without the rest of the poem. The payoff is a deeper immersion that may occur as the poem’s motifs reverberate in the reader’s heart and mind.
JSW: You have referenced a few times the desire to stir up emotions within a reader. As your poetry tends toward the surreal and highly metaphorical, meaning you eschew the overly linear or narrative, how do you go about eliciting universal emotions from strange images and abstractions?
AM: This question strikes to the core of my concerns about art, and I may not have a fully developed answer. What hits the audience just right on the emotional level? In literature, certain statements can appear simplistic, as in Hallmark poetry – yet they may resonate with an unprepared reader (if I may use this language without sounding judgmental). I can’t help observing that so many poets, even universally admired, seem to operate on the Hallmark side of things. I’m speaking broadly, of course; I too may be moved by a simple poem that merely describes a poignant scene or a well-understood universal feeling.
Another kind of language may seem willfully obtuse. For example, someone might have that reaction to the work of Paul Celan, which to me is deeply meaningful. In my personal emotional world, the correct resonance comes from the work in which the open, the revealed, is properly balanced with the secret, the mysterious. The act of filling in the unsaid is what may create the epiphany and lead to an emotional reaction, as in a conversation where the parties contribute further insights vs. one in which a speaker says everything there is to say on the topic, leaving nothing for the interlocutors to add.
I often worry that my poetry, in particular, is overly abstract for many readers. I’d love to learn to write simpler poems: ones that don’t resort to complicated conceptual tools to do their work, yet don’t slide into triviality. I may be stuck in complexity.
JSW: It’s certainly true that accessibility itself is a subjective term. Although narrative, anecdotal poetry that employs simple language may open the emotional doors to some readers, others require linguistic complexity or highly metaphorical imagery in order to find themselves in a poem. Your entrance seems to be the latter voice.
Your newest book, Synonyms for Silence (Acre Books, 2019), is a perfect example of this. Let’s talk about this book in particular. As with all of your work, varied personal and cultural themes weave throughout it. Can you tell me about how you explore larger societal themes through such an intimate lens?
AM: It seems that artistic exploration is always about our rights and responsibilities to one another and to ourselves, and the rules that must be in place so we can meaningfully exist and harmoniously coexist, with one another and the world. The lies, the disregard we may experience hurt us in personal contexts. As social creatures, 60% of us in the United States and most of us in the world are deeply concerned about the direction things are going, about the injustice that has attained the level of a self-proclaimed virtue, the inequality that is higher than ever, the disregard for truth and for individual’s rights, the pointless accumulation of possessions by the 1% at the expense of all the rest, the utilitarian exploration of the planet. Some of the poems in the collection, especially those in the section titled “Iron”, deal more directly with personal and political injustices. Others deal more with meaning-seeking in greater and smaller settings of our lives, with finding peace with our mortality.
Synonyms for Silence evolved over many years as a collection of my best short poems. As publication continued to elude it, many poems were replaced or revised. As I compiled the final draft, I read Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, which deals both with his story as a chemist and the Holocaust, which, as an Auschwitz survivor, he covers more explicitly elsewhere. Because minerals so often appear in my work as a reference for longevity and objectivity – and because human rights are one of my primary concerns – quotes from Levi’s book naturally lent themselves as epigraphs for the book’s sections. They seem to tie together the two layers that operate in the collection, the societal/historical and the personal.
JSW: When writing about personal and political injustices, how do you avoid didactic language and a preachy tone? How do you get your point across without using a hammer?
AM: Mostly by asking questions and by painting pictures that encourage free associations, instead of making concrete statements or sharing situations that too obviously lend themselves to a particular handy interpretation. In poetry and in life alike, most people (at least most open-minded, educated individuals) prefer to come to a conclusion on their own, to feel in control. They want to be guided gently and unobtrusively, in a way that doesn’t remove their own agency. If I may quote the long poem you mentioned, “Skating without a Soul”, sometimes a metaphor is more accurate than what it stands for, if you let it dance.
JSW: Providing readers with a sense of agency when deciphering a poem is certainly key. We have to do some of the heavy lifting, which also allows the poem to feel more like our own. We communicate best with another’s words through active participation in their translation.
As you have published two books in the past two years, what is on your horizon at the moment? Are you working on a new collection?
AM: I jot down a poem or two every week, trying to build a new manuscript that might be in a somewhat different tone: less complicated, more tragic. In the meantime, I keep sending out my three existing manuscripts to the various presses and contests, without success so far. Sometimes one doesn’t know if the work is as good as it can be, or if it needs more revision – I’m in that place with these three collections. I’m also considering compiling just the published poems from each into a single hybrid manuscript that might be more heterogenous. With so many poets and so few poetry readers in this culture, publishing a collection is always a challenge.
This said, I spend 97% of my creative time writing prose. For the last few years I focused on my memoir, A Broken Russia Inside Me. Many of the individual essays have done well in terms of acceptance in good journals, but the manuscript as a whole is still looking for a home, as are my last two novels. While my agent is working on this, I’ve shifted to the next novel, A Bag Full of Stones, about hate crime in today’s Amerika.
John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A twenty three-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a freelance poetry editor and literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: Yale Review, North American Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly,and various anthologies. Visit him at https://www.johnsibleywilliams.com.