In the Fall semester of 2016, I asked Jessica Wilson, the administrator for the Georgia Writers Association, if she could recommend a handful of new poetry books. Her kind and generous response included I watched you disappear, by Anya Krugovoy Silver, which won the Georgia Author of the Year Award (GAYA) in 2015. I soon began reading Silver’s 2016 publication, From Nothing and found myself suspended between the worlds of late 19th and early 20th century art and, at times, unfamiliar fairy tales. I suspect that what will keep me picking this book up again and again is that I’ve found a bit of my own true north in the poet’s reluctance to romanticize childhood in favor of celebrating the weft and twill of adulthood.
Speaking briefly of her journey, Dr. Krugovoy Silver relates, “I was born in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania to a Russian/Ukrainian father and Swiss/German mother. My father was a Russian professor and I learned my love of language from the multilingual and multicultural environment in which I was raised. I grew up in a home that valued learning, creativity, and questions over material success. Literature and church were the two sacred poles of my childhood. I started scribbling stories early, but as an adult, I’ve published three books of poetry, The Ninety-Third Name of God, I Watched You Disappear, and From Nothing. I have always wanted to be a teacher, and currently teach English literature at Mercer University. I live in downtown Macon with my husband, who also teaches at Mercer, and my son. I have been living with inflammatory breast cancer since 2004.”
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: At its core, this collection of poems is a quiet rebellion against the myth that innocence alone is able to shoulder and shrug off malevolence. These poems take the stance that naiveté (projected or clung to) has no place in womanhood with a capital “W.” Was this a deliberate message?
Anya Krugovoy Silver: It wasn’t a conscious theme as I wrote individual poems, but I noticed the focus on sensuality, and a refusal to conflate innocence with goodness, appearing and reappearing as I put the manuscript together. That’s especially true in a poem like “St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Lent.” I have long resisted the Platonic binary between body and soul, and in that particular poem, I reject the neo-Platonist Paul’s assumption that sensual desire is sinful or opposed to holiness: “Not to live in the passions of the flesh--/how grim and arid the light we’re promised.” I like to call this collection of poems my “red book” because there are so many red images throughout it. The color, for me, signifies vitality and energy, blood and life. Although there are many poems about mortality in the book, I also wanted to make room for the fullness and lusciousness of lived, bodily experience.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: Your newest collection, From Nothing, also includes several ekphrastic pieces based on art by early 20th century painters such as Modersohn-Becker, Nolde, Chagall, Klimt, and Toulouse-Lautrec which reflect this “bodily experience.” The paintings and corresponding poems explore our sensual natures. How did these works of art come to serve as a springboard into the conversation about sensuality and what is your personal connection to this time period?
Anya Krugovoy Silver: Expressionist painting and art from the turn of the last century in general happen to be among my favorite art. I particularly like German painters like Modersohn-Becker, Nolde, Köllwitz, Werefkin. Each of these painters, and the others you mentioned, sought to paint the human body in a non-romanticized way. With the possible exception of Klimt, they painted ordinary people with ordinary bodies, and sometimes erotically (Chagall and Toulouse-Lautrec, especially). Modersohn-Becker painted German farmers without turning them into symbols of “the land” or “good, honest people.” She simply painted them as she saw them, including what she perceived to be their individual spirits. I love Kollwitz’s famous quote that “The motifs I was able to select from this milieu (the workers' lives) offered me, in a simple and forthright way, what I discovered to be beautiful.” One of my goals in this book was to write about the body—the ill body, the sexual body—honestly, without making the body either grotesque or precious. I wanted to always respect the body’s, even the dead body’s, integrity and dignity. The Expressionists whom I admire the most do that, so they were models to me, in a way. They painted human beings neither heroically or fastidiously.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: These same long strokes and subtle countenances that favor insight rather than minutiae are inherent in your own work. For example, several impressions of your father appear in “The Christmas Hat,” “Wake,” “In the Sanatorium,” and “Partings.” He is, at once, a beloved parent seeking refuge from his demons, a man who cannot articulate his own suffering, and one who only found peace in death. Do you feel that this is more kinship or craft in regard to the Expressionist painters?
Anya Krugovoy Silver: Wow—that’s very insightful. I had never thought of a biographical reason for my love of expressionist art, but I think you’re right. My father and I loved each other very much, and he was very proud of my poetry. At the same time, in hindsight I would say that he experienced PTSD from the murder of his father during the Stalinist purges and from other experiences in the Soviet Union and in exile during and after the Second World War He would begin to tell me stories and then explode in rage at the memories of what he’d seen. When I look at expressionist art, and its focus on the turbulence of the inner life, and about how much can’t be articulated or understood by others, I definitely see my father’s face. There is a loneliness in the figures of that art that I think resides in many people.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: Fairy tales are woven through From Nothing. One might think that they are close relatives, but in this case the speakers of these poems seem to admonish the mythological ‘happily ever after’ while conveying childhood memories that do not mollify young skepticism. In fact, the speaker in Snow White cautions against romanticizing death and recognizes her own early folly. What inspired you to use fairy tales to promote the conversation addressing innocence in this collection?
Anya Krugovoy Silver: Fairy tales were the first form of literature that I encountered in my life. My parents had a big blue book of the Grimms’ fairy tales that they read to me as a child. I’ve continued to be obsessed with fairy tales, as so many writers are, because beneath a seemingly obvious and predictable narrative, they can be analyzed in countless ways. I believe that reading and thinking about fairy tales can help humans find their values and vocations, to reach into their own minds, and I read many of them allegorically. For example, I read the story of Cinderella as a tale about how one can survive grief; the romance is incidental to the real purpose of the story. It’s true that fairy tales posit a generally benign universe; things almost always end up happily for the protagonists. I want readers to question those happy endings. Specifically, serious trauma can’t simply be overcome by meeting a prince with a castle. Pain stays in one’s memory, in some form or another, forever.
I was consciously writing against the dominant cultural mood that one should “get over” grief and “move on” from pain. I can’t stand that superficial notion of healing, and it’s often used to bully people who have gone through cancer or some other kind of violence. As someone who has lived with cancer, I reject pink ribbon “survivor” culture. My fairy tale poems, like “Nettle Shirts,” “Maid Maleen” and “Snow White” each argues that the concept of “getting past” cancer is absurd and puts a huge burden on a sick person. I think that idea could be applied to anyone who has suffered abuse, assault, or violence.
And finally, I see in some popular culture, especially music and social media, a glorification of dying “young and beautiful.” That’s always prettier in songs than in real life.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: Is your answer to a more genuine healing process found in the poem, “Four Prayers for Forgiveness”? Because it is here that the origins of wounds are pursued while shifting perspectives still allow pain its rightful place.
Anya Krugovoy Silver: “Four Prayers for Forgiveness” grew out of my Sufi meditation classes. I’m trying to forgive a lot in the poem: cancer, my body, myself, God. For me, life with chronic illness is best lived when one is able to find peace and joy in the present. I realize that’s a cliché, and easier said than done, but for me, happiness is an active practice and choice. It’s definitely not the emotion that comes most easily in the face of suffering; happiness is difficult. So the forgiveness that I describe in the poem is a forgiveness of my cancer cells, which are only doing what they’re biologically programmed to do, and a forgiveness of my body for endangering me. I attempt to look beyond illness, and I refuse to let cancer define my life. I choose to be fully alive. The last lines “I am absorbed like a drop of water/into a bottle of perfume without a bottom./I open my eyes and all is golden” express how I want to live completely immersed in life. That’s also one reason that I included several love poems in the book.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp: Before we close, I’d like to discuss the book’s title poem, “from nothing” which is preceded by the lines, “I am re-begot / Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.” from Donne’s “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day.”
Again and again, from nothingness I’m born.
Each death I witness makes me more my own.
I imagine each excess line of mine erased,
each muscle shredded, each bone sheared.
One day, my spine’s long spar will snap,
ribs tumbling loose; my face will droop and drop.
Then I’ll be re-begot – the air will shimmer
and my molecules will vault, emerging free.
From darkening days, the light will surge and flee.
The poem itself is absolutely void of sentiment or affect, thus setting the tone for the rest of the collection, while the slant rhyme and final true rhyme imply a belief in a sense of order. How has your own belief in “the order of things” transformed since your cancer diagnosis, and is this poem most reflective of that sense?
Anya Krugovoy Silver: When one’s life feels out of control because of illness or trauma, it’s helpful, in a therapeutic sense, to wrest order from circumstance. Some people do that through religion; others conceptualize their lives as journeys, with illness as part of the meaning and self-actualization of their time on earth. In my case, poetry enables me to take a chaotic experience and fix it on the page, to give it line lengths, images, and sounds and to do what I want with it. I reestablish a sense of control by giving experiences the meaning that I want them to have, no matter how inchoate that meaning is.
In “From Nothing,” and in my poetry in general, I am more and more drawn to internal rhyme, slant rhyme, and sound effects such as assonance and consonance, to emphasize a sense of order. For example, I used the slant rhyme of “snap and drop” and the alliteration of “droop and drop” consciously. I like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s assertion that “I will put Chaos into fourteen lines/And keep him there.” Ultimately, if there is any underlying order in the world, I don’t think that human beings are privy to it. I discern no order whatsoever in the deaths of my friends, or in the daily tragedies and disasters of the world. All humans can do is create our own individual structures with which to deal with the unknown. That’s why poetry and art will always be essential to the experience of being human.
Anya Silver has published three books of poetry with the Louisiana State University Press. She has been published in numerous journals and anthologies, most recently in Best American Poetry 2016 (Scribner) and The Turning Aside: The Kingdom Book of Contemporary Christian Poetry (Poiema Poetry). Her work has been featured in Ted Kooser’s column American Life in Poetry, on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, and as an Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day. She is currently completing her fourth poetry manuscript. She has taught for eighteen years at Mercer University. She is also a metastatic breast cancer thriver.
JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp is a Lecturer at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia. She received her MFA in Creative writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, and her poetry has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine, Public.Republic.net, and Bigger than They Appear: Anthology of Short Poems.