By Ajit Kumar
Larissa Shmailo was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1956, and lives at Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She has danced or performed in Lugano, Cuernavaca, Providence, Boston and many other cities. She is the daughter of parents, who were interred in Dora Northausen, an extension camp of Buchenwald. She attended Barnard College. Larissa has been published in the Penguin anthology, Words for the Wedding, Contemporary Russian Poetry, Fulcrum, and over 100 other journals; her formal poetry will appear in Measure for Measure, a Random House anthology of metric verse. Larissa Shmailo’s newest collection of poetry is #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books 2014). She is the editor-in-chief of the anthology, Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry, poetry editor for MadHat Annual, and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses. She translated Victory over the Sun for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s landmark restaging of the multimedia opera and has been a translator of the Bible in Russia for the American Bible Society. Her other books of poetry are In Paran (BlazeVOX [books] 2009), the chapbook, A Cure for Suicide (Cervená Barva Press 2006), and the e-book, Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks 2011). Her poetry CDs are The No-Net World (2006) and Exorcism (SongCrew 2009), for which she received the New Century Best Spoken Word Album award.
Dr. Ajit Kumar interviewed Larissa Shmailo about her writing.
Ajit Kumar: Larissa, first of all, congratulations for wonderful poetry.
Larissa Shmailo: Thank you, Ajit! It is a privilege to be a poet.
AK: Did you ever think that you would be a successful poet?
LS: Not until recently, this century. With the exception of a handful of pieces, I didn’t begin writing poetry until I was 36, and thereafter often sporadically. I only made a true commitment to poetry in 2006, but it was a strong and passionate one.
AK: Ok, could you please share the earlier experience of your life? I mean you education, marriage etc.
LS: I was asked to leave Brown University for not doing any school work. I struggled with alcoholism and bipolar disorder as a young woman, but managed to graduate from Barnard College. I’ve been married three times; my first husband drowned on our honeymoon, something I write about in my poem, “Death at Sea.”
AK: Who inspired you to compose poems?
LS: At first, they came to me directly from God, dictated to me during episodes of my mental illness. Now I have many sources of inspiration, including other poets and my reading. Sometimes I get a pang in my heart, and then write. I keep on conscious contact with God through prayer and meditation, and this is a sure source of poetry for me.
AK: What do you like to read?
LS: I am editor of an online anthology, which will soon appear in print, called 21st Century Russian Poetry; I am very fond of contemporary Russian verse. I like Pushkin very much. I love, love John Donne to distraction, Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell. Of contemporaries, I love the criticism of Camille Paglia and poets Timothy Steele, Annie Finch, Elaine Equi, and Philip Nikolayev.
AK: Is there something that you have learnt from a particular poet?
LS: I am learning about form and meter from Annie Finch, whom I study with now. After cutting my teeth in spoken word and performative poetry, then spending time with experimentalists, I have become a neoformalist; along the way, I have learned much from poets in all those groups
AK: You love to write about relations, why so?
LS: I have had many relationships; they have been a formative influence, the area where I have been hurt and disappointed, but also delighted. And poets almost always wind up writing about love; we are the only ones who can convey something of its pain and glory.
AK: What is the central concept of your latest collection of poetry #specialcharacters?
LS: It is an experimental mixed genre book that brings the emotive qualities of spoken word into a range of unusual forms. I set out to test limits of emotion and structure. The poetic story in lines, “Mirror, or a Flash in the Pan,” is the example of this emotional-experimental hybrid. My friend and colleague Annie Pluto holds that #specialcharacters is a quintessentially Russian book like a Matryona doll, with one layer inside another; she claims the book is ultimately about forgiveness.
AK: Could you please define the title of your earlier collection In Paran?
LS: The title poem of In Paran is about Ishmael, son of Abraham by the slave, Hagar. When Abraham’s wife Sarah had him cast Hagar out, Hagar and, later, Ishmael, wander in a desert “between the promised land and Egypt,” I have identified this desert geographically as Paran.
AK: Who made you write A Cure for Suicide?
LS: As a person with bipolar disorder, I made many suicidal gestures as a teenager and young woman, some more serious than others. Writing became my cure for suicide.
AK: You started creating poetry CDs, and you had great success with that, where did you get this idea from?
LS: It came to me one day in 2006 that as a spoken word artist it made sense to do recordings. I worked with musicians in performance, and I asked master guitarist, Bobby Perfect, to compose and perform music for the CDs.
AK: Philip Nikolayev remarks that your poetry is a great combination of life and love, pain and death, freedom and coercion.
LS: I have had an extreme life, with mental illness, addictions, prostitution, many deaths. People simply hearing my story sometime feel battered. Here is a short summary for you, from my old poem “Autobio,” I have never published this poem because I doubt its full artistic merit, but it tells you a little about me.
1968 Quebec get drunk 1st time in public 12 years old drink cider smoke a Cuban cigar get sick pass out fall down cheek on the floor hear my girlfriends rank me out they think that I can’t hear
<BR> what is this? (Ajit, it is HTML – computer code, for BREAK it is an experimental usage and part of the poem; please retain.)
1971, 1st suicide attempt age 15 1st psych ward Gracie Square
1972 Smoke pot in the Waldorf bathrooms I say rich kids don’t get busted am right think about jumping in front of the 7 or out the window at school go home watch Star Trek instead
1973 Switzerland drink grappa in Lugano 17 & very cute suicide attempts: 1 slashing wrists 1 pills overdose check into cheap hotel with an orange and some gin take synthetic morphine & write a long note morphine like acid run naked hotel lobby punch a nun coma 3 days want to drink Calvados like Hemingway in Europe never do
1974 Providence University #1 take speed buy marijuana for $8 an oz cut classes play Monopoly with joints on free parking drink beer flunk out get a job as a waitress truck stop early shift take dexadrine my sister’s for clinical depression like speed
1975 New York City University# 2 smoke pot drink coffee don’t eat save $ to drink drink as long as I have $ midnight start to drink my carfare sell my tokens to drink live in Queens walk home 2 fare zone age 19
1976 Flunk out go to Boston get a job in a bar Crème de Menthe in the morning nitrous oxide at night Kahlua in the morning scotch & water at night Godfathers for a quarter Amaretto ladies’ night come to hotel with a man I’ve never seen well hello on the Commons same hotel where I OD nice hotel
1977 Back to New York continue my education drinking Cutty by the Hudson boy falls into the river come to he is gone he is 20 he was 20 20 yrs old just like me goodbye
1978 I’m a hooker in a whorehouse in the kitchen there are bottles don’t like vodka I drink vodka hate gin but I drink gin smoke pot with dedication roll & smoke and go to work I can roll a joint with 1 hand I can roll a joint with no hands no one else rolls fucking fast enough I get so fucking pissed
1979 CBGB’s black and blue and I am bored I am tripping I am drinking I am popping I am bored a boy who looks like a grave painting asks me to leave outside of Phebe’s can’t find the train station can’t find the street decide to go away
1979 The Yucatan take peyote dance with rattles my lover lets me drink a little beer black eyes & rib cage healed go to Cuernavaca dancing climb volcanoes every day till I see no human faces then I’m fine
1980 New York beautiful Bellevue locked ward scabies crab lice very bad little bugs jump on my elbows back and forth between my eyes bugs crawl on my skin and under in my armpits & my crotch have DTs but bugs are real have DTs very bad
1981 Fat depressed & unemployed live with parents treat me okay like the dog okay sleep all day drink Papa’s vodka watch TV until the dawn try to kill myself can’t do it this for 27 mos
1983 Antabuse & Lithium get a boyfriend get a job take both until I don’t
1985 Get married 3/19 & 3/26 he drowns fuck you God you fucking Nazi fuck you God you prick
1986 Prescriptions MDs give me lots of scripts Xanax Halcyon Lomotil Valium & Mellaril Xanax scripts in 7 drugstores uptown downtown & in Queens Xanax am Xanax pm take a Xanax Dr. says
1989 West Side suicide why not no motherfucking reason not 300 pills and I don’t die brain is damaged but I don’t die why won’t I fucking die get a gun or jump the next time whisper: show me how to live or let me die
1990 Don’t die they say don’t die I listen & I don’t know why drop the bottle take their hands Lois Thurman Hans and Kate don’t die they say don’t die
1993 Glad to be alive almost not dead & I don’t mind maybe glad to be alive
2014 Look at me inside of me upon this edge there is a God inside I love her fiercely I love you (don’t die)
AK: People react that you are an original voice and real of the mind…how do you see these remarks?
LS: I am grateful for such remarks, truly grateful. I’d like to think that I bring a new perspective to poetry. Who doesn’t wish to be unique and individual? And my poetry is the place where I am most real and authentic; I learn what I really believe and feel by writing.
AK: Where do you get your maximum readers?
LS: Other poets and academics read me, but I am proud also to have readership among people who are not litterateurs, people from all walks of life.
AK: Where does your poetry emerge from?
LS: A need to communicate, I think. When younger, it was to tell my story and what I had learned from experience; now I also like to share ideas and also have a great desire to entertain.
AK: Is there anything biographical?
LS: Much, as you can see from the above. I share about my earlier difficult experiences to inspire others who are struggling to help them remain in hope. The help of a host of kind people have transformed my difficult earlier life beyond recognition and I wish to show people what is possible, what can be overcome.
AK: Do you find yourself a social reformer while composing poems?
LS: Once I was; now I just try to write entertaining and original material.
AK: How far can literature help the world to realize the essential changes?
LS: Shelley said that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, but I don’t think he meant that we should write polemics. We can shift perspectives, provide a new way of seeing a situation. Political poems don’t really change anything, but the ideas and emotions in poetry can inspire and lead. We’re best at change when we go at it slant.
AK: Well, let’s talk about the current trend in poetry? How do you see the poetry of young poets of 21st century?
LS: I’m glad to see a movement toward form and meter, a return to the music of poetry which is of the body as well as the head. I also like very much the experimental poetry scene, especially lyrical experimental poetry.
AK: How do you see yourself as a poet in the US, both financially and psychologically?
LS: I am very happy to be a poet in the USA, and like many poets, I am seeking financial and psychological refuge in academe in the next few years. I am pleased to have many colleagues and many interesting projects, some of which I hope will earn money.
AK: Are you a satisfied poet?
LS: Never with the poetry: I will always strive for improvement there. But with my lot as a poet, very.
AK: Are you satisfied with people’s approach towards your poetry?
LS: People are very, very kind to me about my work, praising me often. I am thrilled by it.
AK: Do you feel that sometimes, you are over obsessed with feminine issues?
LS: Men won’t write about these issues, so I think it’s okay for me to do so. I write about homelessness, war, and physics from a feminine perspective because this is not often done. My feminine voice is not dainty, more Mother Kali than Cinderella, and I enjoy having a forum from which to speak about women’s emotional world.
AK: How do you want to be known?
LS: As a poet. I am also a translator, editor, and critic, but on my tombstone I would most want the word, poet.
AK: What changes would you suggest young poets?
LS: Not to abandon form, to try new things. Most importantly, I would recommend that they create communities for themselves for support and inspiration.
AK: Which is your favourite poem? Please share a few lines.
LS: The fabulous opening trochees of John Donne’s song: “Go and catch a falling star. / Get with child a mandrake root.” These wonderful impossible orders positively thrill me.
AK: Your favourite poet?
LS: Right now, it’s John Donne. I love his iambic pentameter shot through with trochees, spondees and anapests and I love his virility.
AK: People say that you provide simple, straight and heart touching poetry. How do you view it?
LS: I don’t see my work as simple, except perhaps in the earlier poems, but even there, form and content are pretty convoluted and should present a challenge to the reader. I’m glad if it touches hearts, though.
AK: What’s your next project?
LS: I am touring the United States this year doing readings and am bringing out an expanded bilingual edition of Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry. I’m also now poetry editor of Madhat Annual.
AK: Any message for your readers!
LS: I love you all!
Dr. Ajit Kumar is serving in the Education Department. He is a regular book reviewer and contributing author at different academic and literary journals. He has presented a number of papers at national and international seminars and conferences. His area of interests includes Modern British Literature, Women’s Writing and Feminism. Besides all this, he is a regular interviewer and has interviewed many poets and authors from different countries.
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