FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

VALZHYNA MORT: I’ve been drawn to poetic form since before I could write. Where I grew up, language was the property of power (but that’s true of everywhere of course), and poetry was a way of reclaiming language and oneself. Amid the overwhelming events and stories of my childhood, poetic measure seemed like the only instrument of measuring oneself.

I’m drawn to its promise of a clear and magical language rather than habitual blabbering; the possibility of an elevated self, a musical self; the pleasure of poetic strangeness; its habit of paying close attention.

Poetry as a form of breathing through time on your own terms – the terms of a person who pays attention, who disrupts the conveyer belt of living by the polysemy of words, truths, possibilities. When I read a good line of poetry, I’m always startled by how much hasn’t yet been said in such simple, clear words. At once I hold this line close to myself and I see my life with great clarity for a moment. At the same time, I’m drawn to complexity, the very fact of its possibility is startling to me: how does one construct such complex meanings out of language – a material available for free and in profusion to everybody?

FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

VM: My confidence as a writer used to depend on finishing new poems. Every time I was finishing a new poem, I knew that I was indeed a poet. The following day that confidence was replaced with doubt. But this is no longer true for me. I no longer have any doubts about my ability to write. What being a poet feels like today is performing a daily, natural and intuitive work of attention. Also the strength, with one powerful sweep of the mind, to bring together utterly unrelated, untogetherly things. It’s a poet’s most powerful muscle. There are also the muscles of clarity and strangeness. And above all, the muscle of patience.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

VM: Larger readership for my poem, for my books. It’s what I wish for the most. I feel very happy and grateful to The Poetry Review and my new readers.

FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?

VM: This poem is from my third collection, Music for the Dead and Resurrected that is forthcoming in November 2020 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It’s a book of letters to the dead – letters about the music of loss, the music of history. This nocturne is a night song on a Belarusian night train traveling from Minsk to Warsaw or Berlin.

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

VM: During the time affected by Covid, I feel a strange need to read as if I never read before. I want to construct my own sense of self anew. So I pick up Euripides, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Gogol, Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, and I read them as if for the first time. Inger Christensen is somebody whose highly structured intonation is with me daily, so is Wisława Szymborska and her way with paradox. I find great comfort in two literary rebels: Czesław Miłosz with his refusal of the ornamental, of the ‘wizardry of words’, and Ales Adamovich with his refusal to tell the story of Belarusian genocide during World War II by means of traditional fiction. Miłosz was a catastrophist, and in that he coincides with the present moment. ‘Perhaps this is not a poem but at least I say what I feel,’ he writes plainly in one poem. Adamovich with his Out of Fire returns us to the Greek chorus, the polyphony of voices, as opposed to the current bombardment with the same words from many virtual mouths.

Here’s a drastic Covid change for me: I gave in and got myself a Kindle. And I love it. No telling what I’ll be reading in an hour. I’m purposefully not naming the living poets. There is a long list of the ones I’ve loved in the past year.