Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Interview with Houston poet Elina Petrova

Houston poet Elina Petrova published a collection of poems titled Aching Miracle in 2015.  I was fortunate enough to receive a copy when Elina was one of our Off the Page poetry series featured poets in August of that year.  Since then, I have returned to her work numerous times, finding each visit to reward with new inspiration and insight into her creative world.  From this collection, I chose one of my favorite poems—Tonality— to begin an email discussion resulting in the following interview. 

Elina Petrova is a member of Houston Poets in the Loop. She is a frequent reader in the Words & Art program at Rice University, has been published in many North American publications, annual anthologies of both the Houston and Austin poetry festivals, and was a finalist for the post of 2015 Houston Poet Laureate.

MR: Let’s start with the title, Tonality.  In music or visual arts this refers to the arrangement or relationship of tones, whether notes on a keyboard or maybe the color scheme of a canvas. Your poem seeks true tonality in life itself; wind shifting sun splashes/ on the red bird-house…the longed-for water from cupped hands…one martini with two straws…

These images, these life details, express desired arrangements, relationships, and form a slight caveat to your conclusion, As long as tonality is true,/there is not much lacking…which is a close mirror to your epigraph by Lao Tzu…When you realize there is nothing lacking…

Could you expound on these ideas with a close eye toward the word true…as in true tonality?

EP: In music, tonality sets the hierarchy of pitches, the certain minor or major key of a piece. Although this term can be applied only indirectly to poetic diction, the sensitive reader feels the tonality of the text: suppressed tears or ecstatic whirl, ironic jazz or esthetic and scientific admiration – the complex flow of the contradictory ideas and emotions that triggered the poem.  Classical music is one of the inexhaustible sources of my inspiration, and sometimes I wove a “soundtrack” to the texture of a poem. It can be Monteverdi’s madrigal, Bach’s partita, a jazz improvisation on Erik Satie’s theme, a modern song, or the 2nd movement of Mozart’s piano concerto #23, as in the poem “Tonality.” 
In the epigraph to “Tonality,” the first poem of my “Timeline” diptych, I intentionally introduced only a half of Lao Tzu’s quote: “When you realize there is nothing lacking… [the whole world belongs to you”]. The diptych gradually unfolds the “lacking,” the inability to change situations in my war-torn homeland and even in my own family. Nothing is the narrator’s “own,” though. All that is left is how a person responds to these painful situations: the strength in vulnerability, the openness to light through brokenness, gratitude for simple, longed-for things – an unfeigned “tonality.” 

War Filter

MR: While your poetry expresses worlds of experience; simple, profound, and areas in-between, it seems now almost impossible to discuss it without at least touching on the impact that war has had on your life and your creative life.  These moments come very direct, as in your Timeline poem, Backyard Laptop, where reflection on the intense beauty of a cardinal turns abruptly to news from your homeland, which in turn becomes two more poems with vivid imagery of the war and its victims.

Hoping to not be presumptuous and with the utmost respect toward your experiences, is it safe to say that most of your poetry is, on varying levels, filtered through these war experiences?  Is there a before and after in your writing life? Once again, your poems are far too expansive to be defined solely in this manner but if you would like to touch on this topic please do so?

EP: Although I have been constantly following the news and talking to people from both sides of my split country, I have written very few poems on the war theme. Words that express the deepest, pierced level of psyche are like seeds hidden in the hard core of a fruit – it takes time to peel the skin and slice the pulp of heart experiences before reaching the seeds. Sometimes words appear belated and shy like dry seed pods, though. After the years of spiraling down the cancer world with my terminally ill mother, I could write a volume of the contemporary Inferno that is a Ukrainian hospice, but ended up with a few veiled stanzas written several years later in a new, self-taught language. The same is with war: I don’t dare to be eloquent about the day-to-day anguish of my former countrymen, since I’m neither on the frontline, nor amidst my neighbors whose homes are exposed to mortar shelling, while I draft my verses on a peaceful patio in Houston.

Backyard Laptop, Texas

Honeysuckle and Thai spice
waft from behind the fence.
Gravel sparkles quartz-white
on my cat’s burial place.
A red cardinal brings me to tears
with the intensity of his beauty.
Perhaps, it’s not even about him
but a wish to caress the day
at low tide: calm, lukewarm
like Gulf foam at four p.m.
when my timeline bursts –
the blood pump with news
from East Ukraine, where
I left my father. 

Yes, some of my poems are filtered through war-related experiences, which I never mention to my Texas friends. I also tend to an inner dialogue on this subject as I reread James Jones, Tim O’Brien, Phil Klay, and other writers who had actual war experiences. Sometimes I feel ironic about it:

“I sleepwalk into work weeks like an old shrink
who snoozes through patients’ nonsense
only to awake to solidarity with grief.”  *

But generally this “filter” makes me live by what Marcus Aurelius meditated on eighteen and a half centuries ago: arising in the morning, I remember that it’s a privilege to be alive, to think, to enjoy, and to love. And, given any time and continent, what is poetry if not a declaration of love in a troubled world?

* - from “Curious Music,” a poem in my next book MS

Desert Song : Complexity of Insights; Experience / Imagination

MR: There are major poems that are so direct and straightforward in their expression that every time you read them they cut a swath straight to your inner self, maybe we say your heart, maybe for me Bluebird by Bukowski as an example, and other major poems that are so subtle and complex each reading reveals a multitude of new meaning and insight.  I find much of your poetry in the second category.  Maybe a good example is Desert Song, another favorite of mine.  With this poem in mind, could you shed some insight into your creative process, your inspiration…how much of your poetry comes from actual experience: from imagination? —or each reinforcing the other? 

EP: I always wanted to have unobstructed focus and clear, minimalist choices of imagery to convey a concise, yet powerful story.  But many of my poems, despite my initial intention, unfolded chaotically like a dream sequence or a simple tune that turned fugal.

When I feel that some image-laden thought coming from my current experience, reading or recollection, suddenly meets my wish to harmonize the subconscious chaos, I draft a few spontaneous, uncompromising lines that usually set a theme. Then I watch the theme unfold in its unexpected odyssey. “Desert Song,” which started from humming a melody of the first stanza, developed through a linear rather than multilayered narration. As usual, the journey revealed more than I intended in the prologue.

Yes, I’m one of those extinct species who turn their lives into poems. In some poems I reinforce my “confessions” with details freely expropriated from the lives of others. But, paraphrasing John Ciardi, the poem eventually lies its way back to the truth. In “Desert Song,” while meditating on a theme as old as the world – how to arise from the ashes when what we once called love has no future – I also thought about stories of women in my homeland, where unfavorable demographics trapped many of them into hopeless relationships. The poem was triggered by a once-meaningful person from my distant past who tried to reach me in my “second life” in Texas. I thought about Heraclitus’s river that we step into and out of as different beings, yet never twice. I also remembered my other former neighbor, a beautiful doctor, who wasted her 30s waiting for a “separated” man to marry her. As a result, I blended her story with the days of my most heartbreaking year (after the funeral of my mom, the abandonment of my career because of hospital epics, and the breakup with my fiancé) when I decided to start over everything in my life. To dust myself from depression, I traveled to North Africa. After “The Sheltering Sky” or Iñárritu’s “Babel,” travel of this kind may sound clichéd, but my camera zoom had a different, simple and life-affirming take. In the poem I wanted to talk about what one may feel rereading the 51st Psalm.

Yes, I actually hiked to the top of Mount Sinai from 2 a.m. to sunrise and had a talk with a Bedouin guide, quoted at the end of the poem, but the climb in the poem was also metaphorical. “For I know my transgressions and my sin is always before me… Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Let the bones you have crushed rejoice.” I still have a vintage Kodak photo of this sunrise scene:

The first rays slit terracotta boulders
from the summit, where we stood,
down to Saint Catherine’s gorge.
A pilgrim behind us sang in Greek.
I wasn’t coming home - the world
was getting warmer without you.
My palms pulsated with the sun
unshared in its excess.

Writing in a New, Self-Taught Language

MR: Earlier you mention “a new, self-taught language.”  I am somewhat mystified by people who are adroit in multiple languages; and then to write poetry of complexity and depth in a new, self-taught language is even more impressive to me.  Could you relay something of this experience?  Is your native language Ukrainian?  Russian? When did you first begin learning English? Is there any way to describe the thought processes that go into writing poetry in a non-native language?  Was there a moment when you stopped translating and your mind took on new patterns of thinking, culturally…conceptually?

EP: I’ve heard from a few well-known American poets that they are not really captivated by the poetry of Nobel Laureate, Joseph Brodsky. Some have said that even Pushkin’s poetry is so lost in translation that they can only rely on Russian experts who vouch for its excellence. What then is left for an unknown poet transplanted to another tradition if even geniuses don’t resonate with the astute foreign ear?

Not many were privileged to grow up learning a couple of languages with a private governess like the aristocratic Nabokov who, from age five, spoke English as freely as his mother tongue. To write in a foreign language, a poet should communicate in it at least starting from his college years. Besides, even an extremely accelerated process of unzipping “the folder” of a foreign culture takes a desperately long time. Imagine a middle-aged newcomer like me, who tries to process the terabytes of information that native speakers have absorbed at a natural pace since childhood.  How much linguistic obsession and humility should a newcomer possess to embrace the myths, rhythms and characters of a different nation, to start feeling the roots in the new soil?

The remarkably intellectual poet, Brodsky, identified himself not as a bilingual poet, but as a Russian poet and English essayist. Writing readable, decent verse based on a story-line was insufficient for him even in a foreign language. He strived yet couldn’t write with the same prosodic harmony and enchantment of subtle intonations that he had in his mother tongue. In their native language poets blend their heartfelt thoughts, imagery, rhythms, acoustic alliterations and humorous play with cultural archetypes at once – intuitively and spontaneously, without breaking their momentum by resorting to research and dictionaries. Brodsky said that writing poetry in English was for him like “playing chess or building with blocks.” That’s exactly how I felt the difference between writing in my native Russian and in the language that I launched into only in my late 30s.

In many profession-oriented Soviet schools, the approach to languages used to be rigidly pragmatic: nobody wanted to waste time on something they wouldn’t use in the future, without an opportunity to travel abroad. After the collapse of Soviet Union people started traveling, but I happened to be among the last generation, taught by teachers who never met foreigners. In my university, I went through five years of engineering training in disciplines that I wasn’t passionate about, but needed to earn my daily bread. No subjects in liberal arts were offered. Our brief course in English approximated to 500 words related to thermodynamics, boiler plants and the resistance of materials. At the beginning of the 2000s, when I translated manuals for industrial boilers, I occasionally borrowed from the British Council videos for my self-education. Although at that time I had nobody to talk to in English, my effort was reclaimed later, when I met my future husband, who came from Texas to visit the motherland of his ancestors. I happened to be his Kiev guide. From the first day in Kiev, my husband had no problems understanding me. He didn’t even think of me as a “foreigner.”

But in 2007, when I moved to Houston, I realized just how tall the invisible wall between me and my new environment was, and that there was no shortcut from years of isolation spent with dictionaries. I also realized that merging into my local cultural diaspora (Russian-language theater, etc.) would be like standing on the curb of the buzzing highway where I wanted to drive. Besides, speaking the same language does not always guarantee that you will find like-minded people. I missed my distant friends and semi-humorously, semi-desperately lulled myself with Marina Tsvetaeva’s:

“I am indifferent among whom…
I’m banished from – it’s not surprising –
Into myself…
My native tongue, which often sung
To me, as of this day, can’t tempt me.
I’m indifferent in which tongue
The passerby misunderstands me.”

About five years ago I felt an urge to draft my first poem in English. That wasn’t nearly the turning point, when - conceptually, culturally or linguistically - translating my thoughts was no more necessary. But it was like the moment when an abscess finally broke and I could begin to heal. Something had to hurt me into poetry, and it came through my longing to understand the people around me, to express myself how I used to, in Russian, among deep, intelligent and humorous people who often gathered in my tiny kitchen in Donetsk. With all the bright memories, I had to learn how not to look back: “For where you go I will go... Your people shall be my people.” Thus, I went to “Inprint” and, for the first time in my life, took a course of poetry. After the other workshoppers introduced themselves and indicated the peculiar nuances they wished to polish in their writing, I shocked the audience by revealing that I came to perfect my generic skills in a new, self-taught language, and that poetry for me was a matter of survival in my “second life” in Texas. After three and a half years I published my first book of poetry in English.

“Confessions” at 3 A.M.

MR: You mentioned the biographical element of your poetry, the “confessions”, and place yourself among the near extinct in this regard.  I know there are poets who find fault in I poetry.  I agree that there are poets whom use the art as something of a purge, and maybe toward the reader’s expense.  I never find your poetry to be guilty of this.  I feel that you use the language of personal experience to get at deeper truths about your life; and therefore, life in essence.  Poetry can get closer to this than any other literary construct… so why not push that envelope?  With this in mind, could you share something about the process of creating your At 3 A.M. Triptych, including From the Terrace, Ultima Thule, and Easter Bukowski.  From the Terrace is another favorite of mine.

EP: As in recipes, it’s about the right ingredients in the right proportions. Although emotions and experiences don’t make the whole meal, they are the spices whose scarcity makes even the most virtuosic language insipid. There are many masterly, intellectual poets whose work, appreciated by elite literary magazines, fails to raise the heartbeat of audiences at bookstore readings. And there are a plenty of warm-hearted people whose poetic merit is a humane message, rather than its unfaceted expression. To different critics, I may fit into one or the other of these categories, but that’s not my concern so long as I don’t compromise my own peculiar voice.

My first book in Russian, “White Square,” mainly included poems of love and work that I wrote in my 20s. Related to the years of post-Soviet economic collapse and the metal workshop where I carried hefty pipes and nearly lost an eye while threading them, my ironic poems found whimsical cultural intersections with imagery inspired by the cinematography of Tarkovsky, Netherlandish paintings, medieval music and stories of Bulgakov and Nabokov. Nabokov’s credo, “Beauty and Pity,” which approximates to my definition of art, perhaps subconsciously correlates to the title of my English-language book, “Aching Miracle.” Written after many years of silence and seasoning in a new culture, the poems of this collection revolve around my middle-aged neighborhood in Texas and the reminiscences of my “first life” in Europe. (See more in “Five Emerging Houston Poets You Should Know About” where I also read from the book for Huffington Post:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/video-reading-series-hous_b_8559424.html)

Now, after I have accumulated poems sufficient to fill a second collection in English, I noticed my recent tendency to write in “triptychs.” And it’s interesting that you chose for our discussion the only triptych that appeared in “Aching Miracle.” “At 3 a.m.” describes my experience of three sleepless nights in a row – three self-lullabies that I drafted at 3 a.m. and then expanded and revised the next day. When I descend into sleep, my mind revisits clearly visualized streets in various parts of the world where I once felt connected. A poem “Orlando” (inspired by Virginia Woolf’s character) serves as a prologue to a free play of such visions in the following three miniature pieces:

From the Terrace. The names of lovers from “The Divine Comedy,” Giorgio Chirico’s “Melancholy of a Beautiful Day” and my almost forgotten budget holidays in Rimini, where I walked miles to visit Fellini’s grave, blended into a little etude about music as an alternative to the infinite slumber of the spheres. I have a cycle of “grounded” Italian poems (Zefiro Torna, Polyphony, Tales of the Roman Moon, Venetian Aubade, etc.) but this one - with lovers’ shadows on the Adriatic beach - is as carefree as the sheer curtain flying from the terrace of my imagination.

Ultima Thule. Long after years of work in Ukraine and winter business trips to Germany and Sweden, I finally touched the sublayer of my nightmares related to manual work, lonesome survivalism and images inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s “Seventh Seal.” Every Knight plays and eventually loses his chess game to Death. And every artist tends to return to certain images. The blue-eyed husky and linen-haired girl of the dunes are apparitions from my Scandinavian dreams. Nordic landscapes also appear in my poem Reticent Saga: “several red wooden barns snowbound in windy wastelands.”

Easter Bukowski. I wrote this poem after my husband and I drove to Garland, Texas to adopt a declawed and matted “kitten” who we soon discovered to be a very sick, elderly cat. It was also the day I saw a video about Russian tanks triumphantly passing the main street of my hometown, Donetsk. Later, in the same background at the National Drama Theater, the townspeople pushed and mocked the captured and beaten Ukrainian soldiers like slaves in ancient times. That was during Easter, the time when, in Texas, bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes escort a driver. We stopped for pancakes at Denny’s and then stayed for a night in a La Quinta, where I read Bukowski. A few drinks eventually put me to sleep.

The Mirror of Cinematic Inspirations

MR: I completely agree with your eloquent assessment on the differing ambitions and desires of poets and poetry.  I can admire them all on their own merits.  I also fully appreciate your desire to stay true to your voice.  Half the battle is finding it, creating and developing it; the other half is having the courage to express it in the purest distillation.  There are many temptations to tailor a voice to fit in with this society or that department, or even to make it more immediately relatable. 

In all of the hundreds of discussions I’ve have had with artists over the years, you are the first to mention Tarkovsky.  All things came to a brief stop when I saw his name.  His films had an immediate influence on me when I discovered them in my early twenties.  Films such as Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, and The Sacrifice had a fairly profound effect on my young psyche.  I will confess they both scared and amazed me.  Not scared in the sense of horror….maybe into a more focused sense of reality.  It’s been years since I’ve seen his work, yet there are scenes and images that I don’t believe I will forget.  His work was another important step in my developing concept of art and its relationship to the world. 

from Tarkovsky's Solaris

 In keeping with the discussion of unique voices, can you express more on your creative relationship to the work of Tarkovsky….or cinema in general?  We have established your passion for music and its dynamic to your poetry.  Does cinema have an equal effect?  Or maybe in a broader sense, in what ways might your poetry incorporate works of visual art?  I know you have touched on this but feel free to elaborate or share more about your ekphrastic poetry.

EP: A favorite film-director, Andrei Tarkovsky, suggested that a person needs to learn at an early stage not to be bored when alone, and that creativity sprouts from childhood memories that gradually grow into a poetic image-bank. I agree. A chronic runaway from kindergarten, I definitely wasn’t bothered by solitude as a child. The magical realism that readers find in my poems reflects the ways I learned to see and remember things. I fell in love with the cinematography of Tarkovsky at age 19, during the time of perestroika. At that time, his work collected dust on the shelves of censors, but the first “video salons” that popped up around the country somehow obtained copies of his films. On a hazy-white New Year’s Eve, I sat in a fur coat in an almost empty, cigarette-reeking movie theater and felt at home in the dreamlike space of Tarkovsky’s memories in Mirror. Each frame looked like a mesmerizing painting. And I remember thinking that true poetic cinematography occupies the space where ethical and esthetical components – a pained conscience and quest for harmony – meet through a simple, yet deep human story.

from Ivan's Childhood by Tarkovsky

You may not find that my poetry borrows any distinct imagery from arthouse movies from different cultures. But cinema, like literature, certainly deepened the dimensions of what I’m capable to see. The same with art: unless I intentionally write ekphrastic poems (like I’ve been doing for installations at Rice Gallery), I don’t write “about” art. However, by revisiting my favorite medieval paintings, ancient rarities and contemporary art, I rekindle my impulse to write even when feel empty. I can’t forget how Tarkovsky’s camera followed Bruegel’s “The Hunters on the Snow” and da Vinci's "Adoration of the Magi" to Bach’s chorales and the “St. Matthew Passion.” These scenes unfolded as slowly and pensively as the scenes with wavering algae and the transforming cosmic ocean in Solaris. Such scenes counter the flow of rushed everyday life. Many people are so constantly tired and depleted that their demand for “cultural” pastime is reduced to unwinding with action-packed, high-tech movies, or with beach reads. The more a person feeds his neural circuits with the immediate rewards of processing “the fast art,” the less chance that he will develop a taste for poetry and poetic cinematography, which are often considered boring, pretentious and slow in contrast to real life.

But what is real? Even a war story, like Terrence Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ novel, The Thin Red Line, can be told on a deeper psychological and artistic level than a popular “patriotic” movie. Reflecting on the ugliness of the war, this film is cathartically beautiful and tender. I deeply relate to the character of Private Witt with his invisible “another world” that he questioned yet always carried in his heart, resisting to become cruel even in the midst of hell on the Earth. I remembered him when I wrote about the soldier perishing in a Guadalcanal rainforest in my poem “Kyoto Dolls,” the whimsical cinematic kaleidoscope, where you can also find Kirk Douglas’ character from Lonely are the Brave and the tied-together lovers from Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls. Beyond Tarkovsky and the well-known, overly discussed masters of Italian neorealism, French New Wave and the New German Cinema, I’m also drawn to Asian arthouse – from the impeccable camera angles of Akira Kurosawa and humble transparency of Yasujirō Ozu to the ardency of the controversial Kim Ki-duk (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring; 3-Iron).

Only Lovers Left Alive by Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch’s movies charmed me with their delightful imagery and goofy punk-style stories with soundtracks by Tom Waits and the moody guitar of Jozef van Wissem. I owe the image of “smudgy settlers” in my poem, “To Texas and Beyond,” to characters in the train from Jarmusch’s psychedelic western, Dead Man. And, if to add Ry Cooder’s blues from Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (see the fragment I inserted as a prologue to my poem in the Huffington Post video) you can witness the “cauldron” where I concocted that poem. I think that poetry is not always transferred into what we expect to see as a published product. Poetry is abundant in the many silences of awe when we connect to the landscape like in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. And it’s inconspicuously present in the myriads of experiences and encounters that touch us. In different ways, I’m touched by many cinematographic encounters, but I’ll name what comes first to my mind: Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky, 21 Grams by Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Hours by Stephen Daldry, Umberto D by Vittorio De Sica, Amour by Michael Haneke, The Ascent by Larisa Shepitko, Glory by Edward Zwick, American Beauty by Steve Mendes and What's Eating Gilbert Grape by Lasse Hallström. Adding to these, I would mention the many brilliant roles of Jack Nicholson and movies based on plays by Tennessee Williams. I’ll use Williams’ words to round up the endless theme related to the “mirror” of cinematic inspirations. “I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person. But these seemingly fragile people are the strong people really.”

Curious Music: Projects, “Discoveries,” Inspirations;
Poetry Community, Diversity of Voices

MR: Before we conclude I want to thank you again for taking the time to share with me some of your thoughts and insights into art and poetry.  I hope we can resume our discussion at a later time since I am sure we have only begun to scratch the surface of your multidimensional poems.  Nevertheless, it has been a privilege to learn more about your work firsthand. 

You quoted from Curious Music, a poem coming out in your next book.  Could you tell us something about this book, or any other projects you are currently working on?  What are your latest inspirations…discoveries….breakthroughs?  And could you tell us something about your relationship to the local poetry community?  Do you find inspiration in the diverse voices and groups in the Houston area and surrounding communities?

EP: “The curious music loved by few,” the line that James Wright once wrote in his copy of Jonathan Swift’s volume, resonated with me in such an unexpected way that it became my ironic interpretation of poetry itself. We live in an era of anti-intellectualism when complex books go unread and world leaders are chosen on the basis of their populist performance rather than the specifics of their policies. 

Poetry lies on the diametrically opposite side of the conscience spectrum – against the market. Like a scientist, a genuine poet is a truth-seeker with a razor-sharp focus on the specifics of multiple realities. As Paul Celan said, “Only truthful hands write true poems.”

Right now, the only “project” I think about for further writing is to keep perfecting the efficiency and music in my new language, to keep reinventing my head with more knowledge while staying true to the way my heart relates to the world. I’ve stored a truckload of books by American writers that liberal arts students may take for granted. But those are my current teachers and their books are the precious discoveries that I’m not ashamed to make at middle age when I finally can devour trilogies by Updike and Roth in the original English without dictionaries. I love browsing century old issues of Poetry magazine where you can casually meet Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. I’m also inspired by reading various accessible works in quantum physics, cosmology, and neuroscience. Sometimes there are no distinct boundaries between the fictional and the scientific. Consider the parallels between Philip K. Dick’s visions and the hypotheses of “The Matrix”-like simulated realities by the cosmologist Max Tegmark and the theoretical physicist Sylvester James Gates Jr. Think about Hermann Hesse’s “Game of Beads” in terms of string theory and the Pythagorean concept of the music of the spheres. Science abounds with poetry to dilettantes like me.

Spending the past few years in a foreign culture made me more introverted. What I dreaded after I left walkable European streets and dear old friends, I gradually developed a taste for. I cherish seclusion. A silent hour rereading Jorge Luis Borges over a glass of Andean Malbec or drafting legal ideas before a trial, while a hummingbird flutters above our cannas, feels like the freedom I longed for. I felt it acutely a couple of weeks ago when a red-tailed hawk landed on our patio after I finished writing a Native American-themed poem. Sometimes, when I’m invited to read, I have to make an effort to be social by reminding myself that it’s an honor to be asked. Whenever I take part in anthology readings or appear as the featured reader, I feel privileged to meet so many fine Texan poets. I have enjoyed participating in numerous readings by the contributors of Texas and Southwest-themed anthologies by Dos Gatos and Mutabilis Presses. Each voice was memorable and the editors became extended family. For four years I’ve been in “Poets in the Loop,” the critique group that has helped me to develop as a poet in a new language. The nine voices of the PitL are diverse, unique, humane, and I’m grateful to be the tenth. I’m also thankful to Gulf Coast Poets, who several times featured me at Webster’s Barnes & Noble and the Friendswood Library. The audience of this writing community is as hospitable and intelligently responsive as a poet can only dream about.

Poets in the Loop

The diversity of voices that inspire me in Houston is not limited to the poetry scene. In my predominantly homogenous coal-mine hometown in East Ukraine, I thought that it would be so invigorating to live in a kaleidoscope of cultures like in NYC. Now I have settled down in the United States’ most ethnically diverse city. I think about the team of construction contractors who my husband, an attorney, and I currently prepare for an upcoming trial. Around the conference table you’d see the managerial staff from Calcutta, “illegal workers” from Mexico, African American accountants, my Texas-born, Irish-Choctaw husband, and yours truly, the locally certified paralegal from Ukraine. With a variety of backgrounds and accents, we understand each other because we share common ground.  Observing different people with their struggles, I think that helping everyone with competence and empathy, like my husband does, is a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

As to poetry, it’s like happiness – a byproduct of how our lives burn. I’m just one of those poets, who write “the curious music loved by few,” hoping to add a drop of beauty and tenderness in this aching world.

Thank you, Matthew, for your thought-provoking questions that made me reflect on the many subtle topics I hoped to express in my poems.  I am truly grateful to you and the Friendswood Public Library for your invitation to this interview that coincided with the 10th anniversary of my arrival in Texas. At that time, with my first visa in my hand, I would’ve never assumed that someday I’d become a Texan poet.

Until 2007, Elina Petrova lived in Ukraine and worked in engineering management. She has many Russian and Ukrainian publication credits, and a book of Russian-language poems. Elina now works in a Houston law firm. Her poetry has been published in Texas Review, Texas Poetry Calendars, FreeFall (Canada), Voices de la Luna, Harbinger Asylum, Illya’s Honey, Melancholy Hyperbole, Panoply, Selfhood (India), the anthologies of the Houston and Austin poetry festivals, “Untameable City” by Mutabilis Press, and “Southwest Persona” by Dos Gatos Press. Her first book of poetry in English, “Aching Miracle,” was released in September 2015.  

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