Guernica writer-in-residence Hanna Komar speaks with Mirabel, author of The Vanishing Act (& The Miracle After), about writing personal experiences, political poetry, the process of translating and more.
Hanna: Hi Mirabel, it's great to meet with you for this conversation. I’ve never done it before.
Mirabel: Thank you for choosing me for your little experiment.
H: I couldn't find much about you on the internet except for your biography from the collection Vanishing Act (& The Miracle After). I was wondering, did you grow up in Canada?
M: I was born in India, and I grew up there. I moved to Montreal when I was 17, and I came here to study literature and linguistics at McGill. I'm now doing a Master's at McGill, in speech language pathology. Within Canada, I've only lived in Montreal. I call it my second home.
What about you?
H: I'm from Belarus, and I'm now in London. I came here in September 2021 to do my Master’s. The idea was to go back home after a year, but I decided not to because I was involved in the protest, and it was pretty risky to go back as people get arrested. So, I started a PhD.
I read Vanishing Act (& The Miracle After), and you know I was thinking, is English your first language?
M: I guess these terms can be tricky, but I would say it's one of my first languages. I grew up speaking Hindi and English, but English is a second language for my parents. I think I just absorbed it quickly.
H: I write in Belarusian usually and then I translate my poems into English, and people sometimes tell me that my poems in English sound almost like a foreign language. I felt something similar reading your poems — it isn’t how English poets write, for example.
M: I think there's something to your writing style that kind of betrays your identity. I feel like that even when I try to not bring in my cultural background into my words, I am not writing like somebody who grew up in a country that colonized hundreds of other countries. That's just not my lived experience. So, it makes sense that I don't write like someone who just grew up in England.
H: It's interesting, maybe we feel different in language like we feel different in space, and even our bodily experiences are different.
M: I guess we have this difference in language. But do you ever want to change that? Do you sometimes worry that people won't get your language the way you're saying it?
H: I don't think so. I can be worried, in an absolutely down-to-earth way, that sometimes I lack vocabulary, or I can't find the right word or expression. I'm never worried that the images or the experiences that I write about in my poems won't be understood. I do worry about it when I'm performing though, because when you're in a room with other people — you can sense that. It can be very awkward when there's no connection. The audience doesn't want to let it in, and there's resistance. But when I publish my work, I don't see people's reactions, so I don't really worry about that.
M: I always find it's easier to put your words on paper and send it out in the world, and I think it's very natural to want to be liked or understood when you're in a room with other human beings. I guess I am in a trickier position. I sometimes describe myself as a Romantic poet. Uppercase R. In the last couple of decades, we kind of shame artists for writing about their own experiences sometimes. We call them self-absorbed, or they only think about themselves. But I think that criticism does not apply to your writing if you're a person of colour. Because if you're writing about yourself, you're connected to a minority group, whether in terms of ethnicity or culture. To me, writing about yourself is a window to writing about other things. But that can be frustrating because that makes things so much more personal.
H: I think this experience may vary from country to country. In Belarus, it's very natural to write about personal experience. I wrote a lot about myself. When you are honest about yourself, when you show your vulnerability — it’s like you stand there naked or even without skin. It takes a lot of courage and people appreciate it. They think, If she can do it, I can do it. If she can be honest about her feelings, I can be honest. If she can feel and can be connected with herself so much as to be able to describe what she's feeling, then I can do it too. When I find the words for my experience, others can recognize themselves in them.
That said, I didn't find your poetry awfully romantic.
M: The reason I bring up the Romantics is sort of because one of the biggest criticisms against Romantic poetry is how it was all about me, myself and I. I'm probably not touching on the same thematic content. But what I’m talking about is the lens: the “I” is very present in my poems. In later movements of poetry, like later in the modernist period (at least in the anglophone world), there was sort of a suppression of the self. You would even avoid using the word I for as long as you could in a poem, and that's where they lost me personally. We should be able to talk about ourselves and there shouldn't be any shame in that. When you write things down, you are documenting your different states of mind. The hindsight that you get with writing, you might not really get if you don't document what you are thinking in some way. I don't think I could be a good human being without writing.
H: Some poetry that I listen to, the poet’s technique is very good. They put words together in a sophisticated way, but I can’t feel the person behind them. It’s just like a game.
M: I think that for some writers it's only a game, and I think for you and me it's not a game at all. If you're using your words to write about the people of your country, you're not playing. It's not a joke. It's not amusing to just sit around and rearrange words into the most complicated way possible. So, it makes sense that you don't feel that connection with those kinds of poems.
H: I found in your poems some exact or very similar images to mine. For example, in Haunting, there’s a line “and I need not wear my womanhood like a flag of surrender.” And in my poem Women’s solidarity chains, I write “a living woman, neither a battleflag, nor a bud of hope.” I just find it so interesting.
M: I think Bänoo Zan posted this one. That’s beautiful!
I also read your other work. I found it interesting that so much of your work that I could find publicly was about the protests in your country and how that shaped you as a person and the importance of speaking up. Do you think you would have turned out to be a writer if you didn't grow up in such a constricting environment?
H: It's interesting because that’s what you can find in English. The protests of 2020 kind of drew more attention to Belarusian poets and Belarusian literature. The Belarusian page on my website is different to my English one. The Belarusian one has earlier poetry and different interviews.
M: So, you knew that you wanted to be a writer before?
H: I’ve been writing since I was thirteen. But I was writing in Russian, and when I was twenty-three, I found an environment where I could speak in Belarusian with other people, and I started writing in Belarusian too. I wrote a lot about “I” and a lot of romantic poems about relationships. And then feminist subjects started appearing.
I had never been interested in political poetry. Although, what's political poetry? Because writing about your family is political. Writing about your alcoholic abusive father is political, as it’s a huge problem in Belarus and people don’t talk about it. But I started writing what's considered explicitly political in 2020, when those events happened. And life will never be the same. There was so much violence, and my incarceration really cut off my previous life from me. The whole resistance in Belarus and failed revolution experience just changed my priorities in life and in writing.
M: I know that you had worked as a translator. When you translate, do you only work with the languages that you know?
H: I don’t translate into a language that I don’t know. And even when I translate into English, I make sure that a native speaker will read it after me. But I translate poetry, for example, from Ukrainian sometimes. I don’t speak Ukrainian, but it’s quite similar to Belarusian. I make a word for word translation of Ukrainian poetry for the project Free All Words, and I use it as an opportunity to learn more Ukrainian. It’s mostly poetry about the war. I don't read much news about it now. So for me, reading poetry about people's experiences is important. Because then I'm there. I'm present. I'm with them.
M: It's your connection?
H: Yeah, it's my connection.
M: That's good for me to know. I find that technology is good in one way because it's allowed many people to translate many things, but it sometimes makes me feel like translation is a dying art. I've always wondered what it's like to get in the head of a person who is translating.
H: I have anxiety disorder, and I find it difficult to focus when I just read poetry. But when I translate poetry, I have to focus. I have to go into detail. Sometimes I reach out to the author about the things I don’t understand. And it actually really helps me get grounded.
M: Yeah, I feel like with reading it can be too passive in a way. Sometimes I think people have a tough time getting into reading if they didn't grow up as readers, because there are so many places that your mind can go to when it’s just you, your eyes, and the paper. And to translate sounds like such an active process.
Well, these are all my questions.
H: That’s probably all from me too. It was great to talk to you!
Note: The title of this blog post is taken from Mirabel’s poem PULP, which appears in her forthcoming collection, The Vanishing Act (& The Miracle After).
Avleen K. Mokha, also known as Mirabel, is an award-winning poet based in Montreal. Originally from Mumbai, India, Mirabel holds a B.A. in English Literature and Linguistics from McGill University. Mirabel was the 2019 winner of McGill’s Peterson Memorial Prize for Creative Writing. Mirabel’s poems have appeared in carte blanche, Yolk Literary, Dream Pop, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and more. Her writing has been supported by the Quebec Writers’ Federation Fresh Pages Initiative for promising writers from underrepresented backgrounds. Mirabel’s debut poetry chapbook, Dream Fragments, was published by Montreal’s Cactus Press in Fall 2020; the collection received critical acclaim from The League of Canadian Poets and PRISM International. Her first full-length collection, The Vanishing Act (& The Miracle After), is forthcoming by Guernica Editions in June 2023.
Hanna Komar is a poet, translator, and writer. She has published three poetry collections: Страх вышыні (Fear of Heights) and Мы вернемся (We’ll Return) in Belarusian, as well as the bilingual collection Recycled. Her work has been translated into Polish, Ukrainian, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Czech, Lithuanian, Slovenian and Russian. She translates her own work into English. She is a member of PEN Belarus and an honourary member of English PEN, as well as a Freedom of Speech 2020 Prize laureate from the Norwegian Authors’ Union. She is interested in using poetry to support Belarusian women to share experiences of gender-based violence and patriarchy.