I Will Tell You in Silence: A Conversation with Alla Vilnyanskaya about Void – curated by Tiffany Troy

Alla Vilnyanskaya was born in the Ukraine and raised in the U.S. She came to Philadelphia in 1989 with her parents. She holds an MA from Miami University and an MFA from Columbia University. Her work has been published in multiple online and print journals including Zaum, Poetry International, Saint Ann’s Review, and Boog City. She is an alumna of The Ashbery Home School and has won several teaching fellowships and other awards from Miami University and Columbia University. Void takes a closer look at femicide, U.S. literary culture, and addiction. Many of the poems in the book deal with issues pertaining to the Holocaust and of spiritual and physical starvation, as well as the mapping of the body through illness. The poem “An Elegy for Herb,” for example, focuses on suffering as it is experienced in the human body and the paradoxical desire, that we often feel, to free each other from pain, by inflicting even greater pain. Line breaks within the manuscript are often used to create a sense of disjointedness and fragmentation. There are multiple voices who enter the poems including Shakespeare, Joan Didion, Anne Sexton, Ilya Kaminsky, Charles Reznikoff, and Andy Warhol. 

Tiffany Troy: Would you like to introduce yourself to your readers? Going into your collection, Void, what would be helpful for the reader to know about you? 

Alla Vilnyanskaya: Probably that I am an immigrant. I came here as a child and I grew up in Philadelphia. I started writing when I was about 16 and then I just continued from then on. 

Tiffany Troy: So you started writing when you were 16? 

Alla Vilnyanskaya: I started writing poetry when I was 16. My high school published a couple of my poems in a yearbook. One of them was about the joy of Spring, and it really encouraged me and I started writing more from then on. 

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem, “2666” set up the rest of the collection that follows? 

Alla Vilnyanskaya: Well, the poem was written after Roberto Bolaño’s book, 2666, and it is mostly about the violence against women and how it’s a kind of senseless violence that takes place, a violence that people ignore and that they eventually profit off of. There’s a connection there in between mass genocide in general and the killing of human beings just for the sake of killing and of course the killing of women, which is its own atrocity.

Tiffany Troy: What is your process in undertaking such difficult themes? 

Alla Vilnyanskaya: I think I dissociate. I wasn’t entirely dissociating as I read the book 2666, but as I was reading it, I was astonished at the amount of evil, mostly in the repetition of these occurrences and eventually I had the sensation of going completely numb. Not of course physically numb, but eventually not being able to comprehend. The human mind can only take in so much, so after a while, you stop processing things on an emotional level and you start processing them on intellectual level. That’s why I started the book with this poem, because it’s so important for the reader to understand what kind of emptiness I am exploring.  

Tiffany Troy: I think that is so true. From the lines “droning through the pages you begin to question the intentions of the author,” I felt like there was so much empathy in your collection, but at the same time you are describing all of the rage, and atrocities that are committed against women and against people in general based on racial hatred and hatred against different nationalities. Can you describe the process of putting together the collection? How do you call attention to the subject matter in a way that is empathetic and generous?

Alla Vilnyanskaya: I don’t think I started the collection with the words; “empathy” and “generosity,” in mind, I think I was writing my experiences. Some of the poems came out when I was a graduate student at Miami University. I was working with some experimental writers. I worked under Cathy Wagner. That just allowed me to create poetry that was very beautiful, in the way it was shaped, and allowed space for that pure material, almost like clay to be formed. Columbia is where I began to mold that clay into a more cohesive sense of purpose. In New York, I began to think about the processes that led to some of my writing. I’m not sure if that makes sense entirely, but in New York is where I began to think about the poems from a more sociological perspective. How does this impact us on a bigger level? What does it mean? Whereas I think when I initially started it was more just about getting the words out onto the page.

Tiffany Troy: So getting the words of your personal story, personal experiences, obviously there is a distance between the poet and speaker, but starting to think about rooting it in the sociological reality, I feel like that is so fascinating. And I guess it’s kind of linked to my next question, which is how does the idea of the different forms that you incorporate manifest itself? For you, does the poem find its form, or vice versa?

Alla Vilnyanskaya: I think I do like to experiment. Like I said I’ve worked under experimental writers here at Columbia, also at Miami. And I just like doing that. So if the poem yields itself to that then I will experiment. If it comes out in a more traditional way, you know, obviously, everything is written in free verse. Some of the poems, like “Appendix,” or the poem you’re pointing to, “Statue,” are a bit more experimental. I like that freedom, I think that’s one of the reasons why I love writing poetry, is that it can be a visual experience as well as an auditory one. 

Tiffany Troy: I love “Sandbox.”

Alla Vilnyanskaya: That poem came out of my work at Miami University and I think what I was really trying to do is show those minute details about, you know, what happens when you translate even just a basic sentence from one language to another, because there are these slight variations that if you did a literal translation, if you took things word by word, one of the things that translators try to do is they try to translate work in such a way that it is completely palpable to that new audience....but what gets lost often in translations...This is why you usually have multiple translations of a work. What I was trying to do here is recreate that sense of the original language. So, for example, in this line it says, “Can I have the sand bucket?” are words spoken by the young girl. The echo is meant to reverberate in Russian. And it says, “Am I able to take this sand bucket?” So this slight variation, which seems very, very almost insignificant, actually has a big impact on the way that we understand the original language.

Tiffany Troy: What drew you to the work of Anastasia Afans’eva?

Alla Vilnyanskaya: When I was a graduate student at Miami University, I became interested in translation, and one of my professors gave me the name of a contemporary Ukrainian poet, Anastasia Afanas’eva. She was quite famous at that time and I began reading her work. And I was just floored by it. It was amazing and very beautiful. She has these metaphysical things that happen in her work. She has read a lot of Celan and Heidegger and she has a fascination, I believe, with how basically everything that we do influences the world around us. But not in the sense of “I’m going to give to charity and it’s going to help,” which is in itself a very wonderful thing, but more in terms of the Butterfly Effect. These very subtle things. I think that at the time I was very worried and burdened with the things that I was reading about and that I was writing about. And I think I could understand that anxiety, of you know, wanting so much to make things better, but being scared that even a subtle movement of mine could impact my life and the lives of those around me in a way that I wouldn’t be able to control. 

Tiffany Troy: Why did you choose to set off all the translations in a separate section as opposed to interspersing them throughout?

Alla Vilnyanskaya: Some of the choices were made by my publisher. I think it’s possible that I did have the translations in a separate section in my manuscript. If you notice the original poems in the book actually end with the poem, “Appendix,” which was an experiment in itself. And then the translations are sort of the beginning of a new section that I would like to eventually finish. 

Tiffany Troy: What do you hope that the reader gets out of this book?

Alla Vilnyanskaya: I hope that it’s taken seriously. I actually found another writer, Juan Velasco who is also writing about the intersection between femicide and genocide and is also an avid reader of Roberto Bolaño. There are poems in the book about the Holocaust. I am a child of two Holocaust survivors and so that link between killing in general and killing of women is important. And this book sort of recreates that link, hopefully making it a little bit stronger. Because we often think of misogyny and crimes against women as a separate issue from issues like mass genocide, do you agree?

Tiffany Troy: Yes, I do.

Alla Vilnyanskaya: And really, they should be thought of in the same context. 

Tiffany Troy: Why did you choose to call the collection Void? 

Alla Vilnyanskaya: I was fascinated by Robert Bolaño’s work and his concept of evil in general. What I’m interested in is how people try to understand acts of evil and how basically we’re unable to do that because I think as creators, as human beings, our purpose in life is to create. And when you have a destructive force, the more that you try to understand it, the more you sort of find yourself in place of emptiness and that’s why it’s called Void. So whether that be a person falling into depression, or just finding themselves at a loss; the things that are destructive in our world, they also have an infinite kind of power. And so the more you try to make sense of and understand these things, like many of the killings in 2666, the less they makes sense. 

Tiffany Troy: Who are some of your major literary influences and how do they find their way into this collection? 

Alla Vilnyanskaya: Some of my teachers have been my influences. I would probably say that Paul Celan is probably one of my favorite writers. I have read a lot of Celan. Although there has been some pushback against Celan over time because of the lack of “objectivism,” if you will, in his work. His work is just very lyrically beautiful, whereas other writers, who write about the Holocaust like Primo Levi, or even Charles Reznikoff are trying to get at some scientific, or factual base. With Reznikoff, for example, he wrote Holocaust, he tries to relay events as though he were looking through a camera lens. I have also grown to appreciate Alice Notley. So if there is a female writer who has influenced my writing, I would say that it is Alice Notley. 

Tiffany Troy: What role does silence, or the unseen play in your collection?

Alla Vilnyanskaya: It’s an interesting question. I think that I really do appreciate silence. Silence is a good thing. It is a sign of comfort. Obviously, most poetry works with white space as much as with what’s on the page. So I think the experimental poems, with the breaks and sometimes even the shorter poems, the silence that exists inside of them and around them is really crucial. And actually one of the last translations I think it might be the last poem in the book, she talks a little bit about silence. Silence exists inside and around all poetry. One of the last translations in the book actually speaks to this: “Everything of utmost importance/ I will tell you in silence/ And what is not important will multiply; be spoken by the echo.” When we’re speaking about translation, there’s spatial and relational distance, or time that passes in between words and so when you translate from one language to another, you have a kind of echo, which reverberates. Somewhere in between there, there is a little bit of silence before it is sort of just born into the new world.

Tiffany Troy: What are you working on today? Do you have any other thoughts to share with your readers? 

Alla Vilnyanskaya: Right now, I’m doing a lot of teaching and that’s taking up most of my time. I am working to revise another collection of poems, called “Kaleidoscope” and that collection contains some more light-hearted poems and is generally more playful. There are some light- hearted poems in this collection as well. I have a poem about baseball. I have a poem called “Sharon Stone.” I think humor is important not only as a coping mechanism, but as a sort of elixir, and I think that there a subtle and a more overt type of humor in this collection as well, so I guess that’s something that I would want the readers to be aware of as well.