By Marivir R. Montebon
Poets need readers like drunks need vodka – Alexander Pushkin
New York City — In her newest collection of poetry titled #specialcharacters (Unlikely Stories), critically acclaimed poet and translator Larissa Shmailo described how her parents survived the dangerous years of Russian dictator Josef Stalin.
How My Family Survived the Camps
What does not kill me makes me stronger.
Nietzsche said this about other things
How did my family survive the camps?
Were they smarter, stronger than the rest?
Were they lucky?
Did luck exist in Dora-Nordhausen,
Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen?
In our conversation on Facebook, Larissa said her parents came to the US “with nothing” in 1950, having survived the war in Russia. She was born in Brooklyn and was sent by her parents to Swiss schools and Barnard College in Columbia University.
Mike Foldes for his mini review of #specialcharacters in the current Ragazine says:
“Shmailo’s poetry and prose poems present an interior and exterior life in “no holds barred” fashion that will make a lot of readers uneasy. If you’ve forgotten how to write the truth as you see it, read this book and rediscover how to tell it like it is. With the incorporation of several languages (I don’t know if these are stolen phrases or evidence of fluency), her style and reach are impressive. Shmailo is alive in the moment and willing to share, a voice in itself that deserves listening.”
Elain Equi says, “At one point in #specialcharacters, Larissa Shmailo declares: ‘Mother Kali, you have made me what I am: feminine, brilliant, entirely without fear’—and the rest of the poems in this collection prove this true. They run the gamut from being outspoken to outrageous, irreverent to downright heretical, taking gleeful pride in knowing exactly how far is too far—and then going even further. I see this work as a continuum in a long tradition of radical writing practices from Futurism, to Dada, to Oulipo, to Pussy Riot. Read it when you wish to be empowered. Read it when you wish to be entertained. Read it to rid yourself of the precious and polite.”
Larissa’s creative expression through poetry has gone a long way. She is now the editor of the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry, poetry editor for MadHat Annual, and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses.
At the Third Annual New Century Awards showcase, she performed her “Warsaw Ghetto” which was nominated for Best Spoken Word in New Century’s People’s Choice Votecast for 2008. She was accompanied by Bobby Perfect.
Larissa 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 on the Bible in Russia for the American Bible Society.
Her other books of poetry are In Paran (BlazeVOX [books]), the chapbook, A Cure for Suicide (Červená Barva Press), and the e-book, Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks); her poetry CDs are The No-Net World and Exorcism (SongCrew), for which she received the New Century Best Spoken Word Album award.
It was not a long time ago that I met Larissa for the first time during a lunch meeting with some writers preparing for the international writers conference of the National Writers Union when New York. It was in the thick of the polar vortex and our conversation was warm and deep, as we spoke of language and immigration, as stuff that writers have a common passion for.
That meeting sparked our engagement as writers in the writing community of the Big Apple.
Excerpts of our OSM! interview:
1. How long have you been into poetry and how did you discover that you have this ability for writing?
I wrote a handful of poems in my college years, but didn’t start writing in earnest until I was 36. I discovered there was an open mic in my neighborhood of Manhattan, and timorously went. I was welcomed with my six poems so warmly that I was hooked immediately. I’ve now been a poet for twenty years, and especially active since 2006.
2. How does a poet evolve? Is it from inspiration, constant practice, schooling, etc.?
With all of the above, even if the schooling is just hearing and reading other poets. I was drawn to experimental poetry a few years ago, and participated in the Otherstream writing group on Facebook, where I was inspired, challenged, and nurtured.
Being active in the New York City poetry community, with its range from academe to rap, also helped me grow. Now I am drawn to poets who work in form and am seeking to be schooled there. We grow as humans do, through experience and those we love.
3. Do you emulate anyone in this field of writing? Who and why?
Maurice Ravel said that artists should imitate – if the artist has any originality, it will shine through, and if she doesn’t, that is probably the best she can do anyway.
I am insane for Joyce and try to imitate his writing as an exercise. I have over 20 Joyce-inspired poems.
I admire Annie Finch and Phiip Nikolayev, since I am now interested in working in form and rhyme, but I do not emulate them; I learn from them, I also love the work of Elaine Equi, that exquisite minimalist, but again, my voice is fairly distinct and doesn’t follow any school, though I mine techniques from many.
4. Other than English, do you also write poems or prose in other languages? Which is the more convenient facility?
I only write in English, although I use words and phrases from Russian, Spanish, French, and German liberally in my work.
5. What book or recent projects do you have lately?
I have a new collection of poetry out, #specialcharacters from Unlikely Books temporarily available for the discounted price of $9.
I am also working on an expanded bilingual print version of my online anthology, Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry, which will be published by MadHat Press. And my poetry group, The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses, is appearing at the New York City Poetry Festival on Governor’s Island on July 26 at 4:00 pm on the Chumley’s stage.
6. I understand you have been recently been the editor of a poetry journal. Tell us about it and how it is going to look like in your term.
I have recently become the poetry editor of the astonishing MadHat Annual, an online journal known for eclecticism and for publishing leading poets and cutting-edge work.
I have a list of brilliant acclaimed and emerging poets – it will be passionately literate.
For more of Larissa’s works, view on www.unlikelystories.org