“In Times of Social Upheaval, The Poet and the Reader Begin to Speak the Same Language”: An Interview with Maria Malinovskaya (2020-2022) – Michigan Quarterly Review
A smaller photograph of Philip Metres in the upper left corner and a larger photograph of Maria Malinovskaya in the bottom right corner of the image.

“In Times of Social Upheaval, The Poet and the Reader Begin to Speak the Same Language”: An Interview with Maria Malinovskaya (2020-2022)

Thirty years ago, I began a research project called “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Relationship to Historical Change,” thanks to a fellowship from the Watson Foundation. During the tumult of post-Soviet economic “shock therapy,” I lived in Russia, interviewing and translating leading contemporary Russian poets, trying to understand how poets were understanding their changing role in society. I’ve continued to interview Russian and Russian language poets in the Putin era. This interview with Maria Malinovskaya explores the poet’s background in poetry, her relationship to documentary poetics, and political protest in her native Belarus. Malinovskaya is a poet, translator, and founder and editor-in-chief of RADAR international poetry magazine. She is an author of two books: a documentary poetry project and collection Kaimaniya (2020), based on the speech of people suffering from mental disorders, and The Movement of Hidden Colonies (2020). Malinovskaya’s poetry has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines and translated into many languages. Malinovskaya’s poem, “white-red-white flag,” based on the events relating to the Belarusian protests of 2020, won one of the main awards for poetry written in Russian language, the Poesia Prize (2021).

Philip Metres (PM): If this isn’t too boring, let’s start from the beginning. When did you start writing poetry and why?

Maria Malinovskaya (MM): I started writing poetry at the age of 11, but I consider ten the starting point. When I was ten, an event happened to me that turned my perception of myself and the world. I couldn’t tell anyone about it, because I didn’t know how. But I felt that it was necessary to speak—not directly, not to someone specific. A language was needed, and that language turned out to be poetry.

PM: What happened when you were ten?

MM: I’ve never talked about it in interviews or in public, but clearly the time has come to talk about it, because the event defined and continues to define me as a poet. At age ten, I felt a connection to someone who died before I was born. He wasn’t a relative, wasn’t a friend of our family, and it seemed all the more inexplicable. This gave me a powerful push to rethink myself and the world, this strong pain and equally strong joy. A feeling of continuous wonder in real time. A wonder that’s impossible, completely impossible to talk about—because you don’t know how to talk, and because you know that you will not be understood or believed. But the need to speak was enormous—to speak directly, not only about the inexplicable, but also with the inexplicable. That’s probably how people come to poetry.

PM: Why do you keep writing?

MM: Because I learned a language in which you can speak with everything. It needs to be learned and at the same time it needs to be created on the go, because everything is constantly changing. You cannot say about today exactly what you said about yesterday; otherwise you will not express the main thing. Nor do I see much sense in talking about the present day as people already talk about it. That is, every time you open this world through language anew, it is a continuous process that requires the constant transformation of poetics and the search for new forms.

I also keep writing because the same need to talk about the inexplicable and with the inexplicable that I had as a child persists to this day. It defined every phase of my human and creative growth, every form of writing, and every change of writing form. As a numerical function tends to infinity, so did the language in my poetry strive. To express the inexpressible, to express something unutterable, start talking, beyond language, beyond material existence, in the “subtle world” of words and their meanings—that’s what I always expected from poetry, my own and others’.

PM: What is your goal when you write?

MM: It depends on what I’m writing. For me, language poems are about exploring the boundaries of the self and the other through language. Narrative poems are the most reliable way to convey a certain experience (for example, my texts “white-red-white flag” and “where are your political prisoners,” about the political protests in Belarus). Documentary poetry is an opportunity to give a voice to those who are deprived of it due to social stigma, the threat of legal persecution, or other circumstances (for example, my documentary poetry cycle “Kaimaniya,” based on the speech of people suffering from mental disorders).

My new poetry cycle “A Time of Its Own,” based on the testimony of a man who survived the civil war in the Ivory Coast, is an attempt to go beyond documentary poetry. In it, verbatim turns into a lyrical utterance, the voice of another connects with mine; he is no longer a nameless source of information, but a subject who understands his role in the context of a work of art and is able to disagree with it—which I also recorded in the texts.

documentary art is wicked
i don’t want any documentary art

when the helicopter arrived and took us from the roof
of our house
we couldn’t even take some footwear

my children stood in the airport barefoot
and some jerk came up
a modern photographer
and started taking pictures of them

my wife asked me what he was doing
it hurt her

I went up and asked what are you doing bastard?
why are you shooting my children barefoot?

he said it was important
to show suffering
so that the world would know and blah-blah-blah

i said ok bastard
i don’t want you to show my suffering

how he fretted that photographer
began explaining
that this is documentary art

i told him i had lost everything
the rebels burned my house down
we don’t even have our passports
and you call this art?

delete everything you’ve shot
and don’t come near us again

i don’t show my suffering
it’s just self-respect
and i will never allow 
others to show it 

we went north
to my mom’s native village 
we met a neighbor who remembered me

at the passport office they asked me
do you swear that’s your name?
they asked my mom do you swear this is your son?
asked the neighbor do you confirm this?

then sign here
and that’s how i got my passport
that’s when i really fell in love with my country

but obtaining the passport
i immediately flew back

because i needed to make money
and not make sense of the trauma or anything else it’s life 
and there’s nothing special about it

Translated by Sergei Tseytlin 

PM: Which poets and writers have had the greatest influence on you?

MM: The most powerful literary influence was for me at the age of 13-14, Arthur Rimbaud, namely his prose—Illuminations and A Season in Hell. But it all started with Agnieszka Holland’s film Total Eclipse, about him and Verlaine. These were some completely different poets of the 19th century than those dreary stencil uncles, obsessed with an unearthly love for the same dreary aunts that we were told about at school. After the movie, I asked one of my friends to download Rimbaud’s prose from the Internet. (I didn’t have the Internet at that time.) And when I read Illuminations, that sealed the deal. That was real.

Rimbaud was followed by other “Damned poets” (poètes maudits) and in general all French literature from the end of the 19th century to the present day. When I was 17, I was struck by Marcel Proust. I read all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time in one breath, and then as many more volumes of research about them. Another great passion of the time was Thomas Mann. Of the Russian writers, perhaps, Dostoevsky and Merezhkovsky. At the same age (17-18 years), I discovered Camus. I’ve read The Stranger countless times, and all my friends have watched Visconti’s movie with me. This passion lasted perhaps longer than the others, perhaps because Camus wrote about Algeria, and the Arab countries—their landscapes and architecture have always attracted me with amazing force—both in literature and in movies.

When I was a student, I discovered Kolonna Publications and began to read everything they published in Russian translations, especially in the “Vessel of Iniquity” series: Pierre Guyotat, Tony Duvert, Gabrielle Wittkop, Herve Guibert and, of course, Francois Augieras, who again has everything as I love: Algeria, ecstasy of being, and homosexual love.

By the way, taking a break from this extremely pleasant topic, I want to note that, a few years ago, when I had already written “Kaimaniya” and “You are people. I’m not” and thought about how to build the next documentary text, I was influenced by your Sand Opera. This is probably my favorite documentary poem.

PM: I don’t know much about Belarus, so forgive me if this is a naïve question: why do you write in Russian, the language of Russian empire?

MM: I write in the language I have been speaking since birth, which my parents speak, and my grandparents spoke. Belarus has two official languages. The majority of the population speaks Russian, but everybody knows Belarusian. I am fluent in Belarusian and love it very much. Sometimes I translate from it into Russian. This is an incredibly melodious, expressive language in which you can hear the passage of time.

PM: When I began this project of interviews, it was the epoch of Yeltsin. There was excitement, and also a great fear—fear of the unknown, fear of freedom, fear of “wild capitalism.” I remember how many people suffered from the historical and economic changes—the loss of economic security, as well as the loss of ideological beliefs. What was life like for you in the 1990s? How is it different today, in Belarus?

MM: I was a child in the ’90’s, and life seemed quite beautiful to me then. But now, years later, I understand how difficult and unstable it was. Many films were made about the ’90’s. Some people hoped for changes, some people got rich quickly and illegally, some people built careers. Older friends told me about their “adventures” in the ’90’s: all in the best traditions of action movies with harassment, setups, “honest cops” and “real boys.” One of the narrators is now, for example, quietly working at the Academy of Sciences, and only his black Beemer with its bandit squint of headlights reminds of the “glorious past.”

By the way, I was born with the white-red-white flag, which was replaced with the current national flag in 1995 and now, along with the coat of arms “Pahonia,” is a symbol of national protests. The current President has been in power since the year of my birth—that is, I have not seen another, non-Lukashenko Belarus, and I did not even think of it as a child. The first years of his reign were generally encouraging. No one could have thought that they would be followed by stagnation, and after stagnation—terror.

PM: Could you explain the context of your two poems about the protests?

MM: On August 9, 2020, the next presidential election was held in Belarus, according to the official results of which the current president received more than 80% of the vote. This was an insult (hardly the first one) to the entire nation who supported another candidate—Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Regular protests began in Minsk and other cities of Belarus. However, despite the clearly marked peaceful nature of all actions, they were severely suppressed by the security forces: people were snatched from the crowd (and very often by unidentified plainclothes police), severely beaten on the spot and in police stations. Thousands of people have been tortured, and some have died. However, this policy of the authorities, focused on total intimidation, only united the nation.

I was born in Belarus, but I have been living in Moscow since I was a student. I come to Gomel only on graduate school business and to visit my parents. In 2020, my arrival coincided with the beginning of pre-election unrest. (The people began to actively express their position in relation to the current government long before the elections.) When I returned to Belarus, I had a lot of questions. I did not understand much about the political situation, and at some point I called my best friend—the same friend from the poem “white-red-white flag.” The conversation that followed formed the basis of this poem and forced me to review the entire history of relations with this person in the context of his and my attitude to what is happening in our country.

the white-red-white flag
on your profile photo
i’ve seen for a long time
but hadn’t noticed until now

and today when you called and yelled
or rather when i called and you yelled
all you provocateurs 
call and ask questions

(but i have no one else 
in this country
other than you)

i hung up
and stared for a long time
at the red-white-red flag
i haven’t really seen

that my best friend
is what’s called a jingoist but you yelled
find me a job there
in Moscow
for a hundred thou i won’t go for less

well if it includes accommodation 
fifty thou will do

and i saw
you’re not a jingo
hardly even speak Belarusian

you’re just lost
like everyone else i thought i knew

because this is the first time i’ve ever heard
how you yell

at me

fucking sheep
stupid bitch

go back to your moscow
what are you doing here

you didn’t yell
stupid fucking bitch
even then
in my 15
in your 32
you spoke
in your always even voice

you’re too smart a girl
for someone like me
we’ll get married
you’ll want to keep growing
and i don’t want to 
you will keep growing
i’ll get jealous
think you have someone else
you’ll get offended
and you’ll have someone else

you didn’t yell
stupid fucking bitch
even when you didn’t have time to
tell me you got divorced
you just kept quiet and listened
as i said
that i met someone 
and my family hates him
that’s why i’m calling
i don’t have anyone else
in this country
but you

you didn’t yell
stupid fucking bitch
even when i ran away from home
you helped me run away from home
passed me money in a paper envelope
for a train ticket and the hydrofoil 

you didn’t yell
when i was in the accident
you came to tow the car
but i yelled
because we lost it twice
in the middle of the road
and my father was in it

you calmed me down drove
around the block
hooked the cable to the car again
calmed my father 
and we continued on our way

so when did i become a fucking
stupid bitch 
if you didn’t fuck me if you
were afraid your whole life
i’d get fucked?

when you taught me how to kiss?
when you taught me how to cut tomatoes

and then in your little room
on a sheet stuck with little seeds
of these and other tomatoes
we watched “the green mile”?

i stared at the screen
and couldn’t follow the plot
because i was nuts
we were almost like adults

and then you drove me home
under an epileptic sky
and the wipers of our the battered mazda
you called by my name
bent and gnashed under the pressure of water
and we sang in two voices
“riders on the storm”

was that when i was a finished? 

or when we fought
turning in circles around the park?
heavily monotonously
as all my fights with you
were like turning over stones
under water
and then my stiletto flew off and you
carried me all the way home in your arms

or on the old riverbed?
you lay out on the blanket 
bread sausage boiled eggs
and i cut my foot
on the other side
and swimming back i thought 
the foot is going numb
must have been a snake

but didn’t say anything all night
until you saw blood
and wrapped it in plantain
and carried me all the way home in your arms

or when i rang up the hospitals
and found out which you came to
your bed was facing away from the entrance
and i could not get enough air
to call
took the three longest steps of my life
and you looked up

or when a white-red-white flag
appeared on your profile photo?
and when did it appear, by the way?
maybe it was always there
and there’s no contradiction in that
you’re a best friend to me
and i’m a fucking bitch to you
sometimes it happens that way

or maybe that’s the point
that your attitude toward me
is alive dynamic
but i’m like this inhibited country
i didn’t notice how i became
finished didn’t 
notice how you stopped being
my best friend
i just feel reassured thinking about you in that way
so that i don’t have to think at all

fucked up muscovites
know everything better than anyone
teach you how to live

she will go to the protests
yes one blow with a baton is enough for you

just go to the city
look out the window
and write truth
to your left-wing pederasts
open the entrance so
people can hide
and your fucking contribution 
to the revolution will be enough


i’m fifteen
we’re walking down a dirt road
you pick from a tree
a little white flower
and put it in my hair
my happiness is probably
out of proportion to the act
but at the moment it seems
there’s nothing more beautiful
i still think nothing
has been more beautiful
and you say
how little you need
and i don’t understand these words

My second revolutionary poem (“where are your political prisoners”) was written after I myself actively joined the protest activities in my hometown of Gomel. It is especially important for me that what is described in this poem did not take place in Minsk. Events in the capital are always widely covered in the media, but the display of popular unrest in the province can reveal their non-obvious sides, small nuances that are invisible on a large-scale canvas—specific people, ordinary Belarusians who took to the streets of their city for freedom, despite all the threats of the authorities. My best friend is not mentioned in this poem, although he was at every peaceful march, and then, like many other Gomel residents, lost his job because of this. But in this text, it was important for me to show not a personal story, but a general one, and not the story of people close to me, but the story of strangers who became close.

“where are your political prisoners?
where are your political prisoners?”

“in prisons!”
tatiana shouts for me
“in prisons!”
nadezhda shouts for me
don’t answer him he’s a provocateur
check out see he’s bothered

why did you come here?”

how much did they pay you?”
tatiana moves closer to me
nadezhda moves closer to me
and we start chanting
“how much does a conscience cost?”
“how much does a conscience cost?”

he stands right in front of me
and sweaty like a nostril pie
nose pink
cheeks pink
hands pink
blind plastic of black glasses
iron stick

his breath separating us
and the wind waving a banner
“freedom for political prisoners”
in the hands of nadezhda
in the hands of me
in the hands of tatiana
in the hands of vladimir

i’m not breathing
i think i’m alone
i think i’m not alone
these people are with me
because i’m with them

we’re not going we’re standing
at a fenced-off square
there is an imitation of a fair
shabby hastily set-up tents
two mummers shout into a microphone 
a couple of old women are walking hunched 
between empty counters
vans empty of bodies
yawn in front of the theater 
the organizers are sitting in the shade alone
looking in front of them
drinking water

we’re waiting for the others 
the procession has stretched out

“you fool, drop that stuff!”

he swings
i dodge
the stick hits the banner
hits the asphalt
“for fuck sakes!”
he leaves

“where are your political prisoners
who are
your political prisoners?”

i saw them
three years ago
in photos at
the Belarusian House of Human Rights
in Lithuania

and someone told me
“this is a musician
he was detained when he sang in the underpass
he’s still in prison”
and next a photo of the musician’s wife
with their daughter in her arms

“and that one is an artist”

on the evening of the first day
i went to the kitchen 
of the house of human rights
and said hello to
those who were there

“Whit urr ye sayin?”
those who were there answered
“How come urr ye speaking Russian?”

i told them ah’m sorry
and didn’t speak there at all

i didn’t go into the kitchen
when someone was there
and i wouldn’t take a free cookie 
in the human rights house 
where i was denied the right to
speakin in my language

i walked alone through the streets
galleries of vilnius
spoke only english
and at night
when everyone was asleep i went
down the wide staircase of 
the house of human rights

turned on the lights
on every flight of stairs

and looked at the portraits of political prisoners
with distrust
on those who demand freedom for them
on those who do not recognize freedom for me


i shout
tatiana shouts 
nadezhda shouts
everyone thinks for themselves

at the crossroads there are undercover agents
and sectarians

undercover agents in black masks and black glasses
look for shadows cling to the walls

sectarians stick out from behind corners
hold up cardboard signs 
with the words “go to hell, evil ones!” 
don’t dare to join the procession

two in the back
“i voted for Lukashenko”
“i did too,
but how can we not come out for freedom?”

“feed them!” 					
“feed them!”
the children scream

“what is that?”
asks nadezhda
we changed it to “feed them”
explains Tatyana
and we together with children shout
“feed them!”
the kids are happy
the whole street is shouting 
“feed them!”

that seems to be truly about freedom

three meters ahead
correspondents and kin  
move backwards capturing it on camera

nearby, a long-haired man on a bike
coordinates the procession
and then asks wait wait
let’s wait a little

“peace! labor! may!” a happy grandpa shouts
“make love not war!” a hippie
with a white-red-white flag on his back shouts
“happy birthday freddie!” i shout
“i’m sick of it!” someone’s dad shouts
and shoves the camera back into the crowd
“as long as we’re united, we won’t be defeated!”
“the tribunal! the tribunal!”

PM: When I started collecting interviews of Russian poets in 1992, “creative writing” didn’t exist, but poetry still had cultural value. Now, it seems that poetry does not resonate with the masses, but has its own institutions, as in the United States. On the one hand, it seems that in Russia poetry does not play a big role in society, like in the United States. On the other hand, if you take the performance of Pussy Riot in the cathedral that led to their arrests and imprisonment, it turns out that poetry is stronger than ever. What do you think?

MM: Pussy Riot—it’s all actionism [the art movement], not poetry. In addition, the wider public was attracted by the loud consequences of the incident, and not its artistic meaning. If it were not for the prison sentence of the participants of the speech, much fewer people would have learned about their activities, which are significant and relevant for contemporary Russia, but remain beyond the interest of the general public. Modern poetic writing is, again, a language that needs to be mastered before you can read it and enjoy it. It is only in times of social upheaval, such as in Belarus today, that the poet and the reader begin to speak the same language. The reader leaves the comfort zone, begins to comprehend and transform the world around them, and the poet testifies to this. I saw people’s reactions to my poem “white-red-white flag,” written about a friend involved in protest activities. Even representatives of the “traditional camp” of modern poetry wrote that this text was close to them. All the battles over form and language have faded into the background. This is probably, as you said in the question, evidence that “poetry is strong today”—but only when society ceases to be passive.

PM: How do you view, from your point of view, the contemporary situation between Russia and Ukraine?

The current situation between Russia and Ukraine is extremely painful for Russians as well. Nobody wants war. There are those who believe in its inevitability, but no one wants it. Except perhaps for some populations with a minimal degree of awareness. I have been working on the Russian Monologues project since May, talking to all sorts of people who live here about what is happening and writing down their responses in the form of documentary poems. From this literary and social project, another parallel project began to be born—in the field of visual poetry. I highlight the most typical words and phrases for the current situation and place them in the space of a square divided into black and white sectors. Thus, the “naked” language of the war comes to the fore—outside the text. It becomes clear how new meanings arise and old ones change. And all units of speech are opposed to each other. Working on these projects as a documentary poet, I try to remain open to a variety of positions, although as a person and a pacifist, this is sometimes difficult for me. But I think that this is the only way to show, without bias, what is happening—without being silent about anything, without conjecturing anything, giving voice to people or even to the language itself.

Editor’s Note: The photo of Maria Malinovskaya (on the right in the cover image) was taken by photographer Dirk Skiba. Unless otherwise noted, (for example, the lines translated by Sergei Tseytlin) the above poems as well as this interview were translated by Philip Metres.

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