In this conversation, Wendy Chin-Tanner talks about how reading Vera Pavlova‘s work gave her a model to follow in writing short poems about romantic love and about how Pavlovas’ writing disallows sentimentality and by engaging with the past. Pavlova’s poems are sincere, terse, and often also deal in ars poetica. Chin-Tanner puts them in context with Rilke’s Liebeslied, and identifies them as a “call to see things as they are.”
Jessica Hudgins: How has Pavlova’s work influenced yours?
Wendy Chin-Tanner: Vera Pavlova’s work speaks to me about relationality, its contradictions, conflicts, and nuances, especially in the context of romantic relationships. Her poems are imbued with a masterful compositional musicality that stems from her background as a trained classical musician and are delivered with the absolute greatest possible economy of words. I discovered her when I was working on the poems in my first collection Turn through my best friend, Russian-born anthropologist Veronica Davidov whose father, writer Mark Davidov, had worked with Pavlova. Short form poetry was already of great interest to me, but I was having trouble wrapping my head around how to write a love poem and Pavlova showed me the way. She quickly became both a poetic and personal touchstone, as she writes with urgency, immediacy, unsentimental sincerity, and mechanical precision about the emotional dynamics that underlie romantic love, how they necessarily replicate traumatic and triggering patterns of partners’ families of origin and how they are then called upon to make a choice between reproducing those wounding patterns and doing it differently, a choice between “rehashing” and creating. Not only is this an apt description of emotional processes in relationships, but it’s also a metaphor for the artistic process, and on a meta-level, the conflicts and layers expressed in this concept supply the necessary dramatic tension of the poetry. When I began developing the trisyllabic tercets that make up the majority of the poems in my second collection Anyone Will Tell You, I returned to Pavlova whose short lines and confidence in claiming blank space on the page emboldened me to do it, too. Reading her has not only informed my understanding of craft, but also the difference between sentiment and sentimentality.
Wendy Chin-Tanner reading Vera Pavlova
JH: In both of these poems, Pavlova brings two actions in relation to one another in order to clarify what each word means. So, when I read, “Enough painkilling, heal,” I get worried, and ask myself, “When have I tried to remove something painful instead of trying to heal?” And, when Pavlova writes “to sing or howl,” the difference between singing and howling emerges, just because the words are next to one another. Do you respond the same way to these poems?
WCT: Poem 22 takes a Rilkean preoccupation, as we see in his poem Liebeslied, with the relationship between the self and the other, and the negotiation of the space between engulfment and abandonment, and gives it a fresh twenty-first century psychoanalytic feminist perspective. I read the opening line, “Enough painkilling, heal,” as a call to see things as they are, to face the truth about ourselves and others, and our situations, the good and the bad, in order to affect positive change.
In poem 62, my interpretation of the line, “to sing or howl,” is that it speaks to the gendered performances of masculinity and femininity as the poet addresses her partner as “a wall of stone,” behind which she is both protected (so that she is free to sing on the other side of the gender binary) and unheard (or stonewalled). Our lived experiences cannot occur, regardless of our politics or wokeness, in a cultural vacuum, and the many contradictions of heterosexual love in an unequal society are played out in this poem in both its pleasures and frustrations.
Wendy Chin-Tanner reading Vera Pavlova
JH: What are you working on now?
WCT: Right now, I’m working on the second draft of King of the Armadillos, a novel based on a true story that takes place in New York City and Carville, Louisiana in the mid-1950s that explores the ways in which power, bio-ethics, race, gender, sexuality, stigma, community, illness, recovery, immigration, intergenerational trauma, loss, love, and redemption come to bear on families, relationships, and human experience.
Vera Pavolova Vera Pavlova is a Russian writer whose books have been translated into more than twenty languages. She is author of several poetry collections, including The Heavenly Beast, translated into English by Derek Walcott and Steven Seymour; Letters to the Room Next Door, a collection of 1,001 hand-written poems with illustrations by Pavlova’s daughter; and If There is Something to Desire: One Hundred Poems, Pavlova’s first collection in English.
Wendy Chin-Tanner is the author of the poetry collections “Turn” (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014), which was a finalist for the Oregon Book Awards, and “Anyone Will Tell You,” (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019). She is a poetry editor at The Nervous Breakdown, founding editor at Kin Poetry Journal, and co-founder of A Wave Blue World, an independent publishing company for graphic novels. Some of her poems can be found at RHINO Poetry, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, Vinyl Poetry, The Collagist, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Mays Anthology of Oxford and Cambridge. A trained sociologist specializing in race, identity, discourse analysis, and cultural studies, Wendy was born and raised in NYC and educated at Cambridge University, UK. She is the mother of two daughters and the proud daughter of immigrants.
Vera Pavlova’s Website
LitHub Interviews Vera Pavlova
Vera Pavlova Reads at PBS News Hour
Wendy Chin-Tanner’s Website
Four Poems at The Account
Jessica Hudgins is a poet and teacher currently living in Mansfield, Georgia.