Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Interview with Katerina Stoykova About Her Book Second Skin

"praise the wound / opening and closing / like a womb"
- from "Praise Song for the Wound" by Katerina Stoykova

Katerina Stoykova and I have been acquainted for almost ten years. We both attended Spalding University, and I have long admired her work and her dedication to the literary communityI heard her read from her book Second Skin last year and knew that I wanted to interview her about it. Before you get to the interview, below is a bit about her, as well some information about the book.

—Nancy Chen Long

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"Katerina Stoykova's poetry collection How God Punishes came out in English in 2017 from Broadstone Books. The Bulgarian version of this book was published in 2014 by ICU press and won the Ivan Nikolov National Poetry Prize. Katerina is the editor and translator of The Season of Delicate Hunger: Anthology of Contemporary Bulgarian Poetry (Accents Publishing, 2014). For six years Katerina hosted the literary radio show Accents on WRFL 88.1FM, Lexington and recorded hundreds of hours of conversations with poets and writers from the USA and around the world. Katerina acted the lead roles in the independent feature films Proud Citizen and Fort Maria, both directed by Thom Southerland. Additionally, Katerina was the co-writer for Proud Citizen. The film received a number of festival awards, including Best Narrative Feature, Best of the Fest, Audience Favorite, Best Cinematography, as well as two special acting awards for Katerina's performance."

Overview of Second Skin
"Second Skin by Katerina Stoykova discusses the horrors of growing up in domestic violence, and focuses on some of the long-term effects of such upbringings. This poetry collection features three main characters—a mother, a father and a child. The story of the family is told from the child's perspective. Initially published in Bulgarian by ICU Publishing, Second Skin received wide acclaim and attention, including a 2018 Creative Europe grant by the European Commission for the book to be translated and published in English. Upon publication in Europe and launch in London, ICU Publishing and Accents Publishing partnered for the distribution of the book in the USA."

Praise for Second Skin
Second Skin by Katerina Stoykova is a brief, but more than sufficient book. It is more than sufficient to expose the issue of domestic violence, and along with one child's fear—the fear of every child forced to love an abusive parent. The second skin you wear to hide what happens at home; second skin that cannot contain you. A book about the guilt due to the inability to forgive, about hatred towards the one who has moved on and forgotten. A book about the children cowering in the corners of their own powerlessness, who thirty years later continue hearing the screams from the other room. Difficult, true, and exceptionally important. ~Natalia Deleva
Review of Second Skin

How Are You, Child? by Katerina Stoykova
(a poem from Second Skin)

Wherever I go,  I bring my own prison.  My restrictions are
animate. And hazardous. And all-encompassing. Reflective
of  my  past  like a rearview mirror.  I can  talk  to someone
and, without asking, surmise what kind of parents she’s had. 
And  those  mastering  spiritual practices I can spot with the 
naked  eye.  And those  in need  of therapy.  And  those who 
can’t manage their own lives,  and those who shun the truth,
because it’s too much.

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Please tell us how Second Skin came about. Also, how did you decide on the title?

KS: Second Skin has a long and complicated history. I worked on it for close to ten years in various forms. At first I wrote the idea of the book into a play dealing with family relationships and domestic violence, titled Black Coat. Then the play became a portion of the screenplay for the narrative feature film Proud Citizen, directed by Thomas Southerland. The movie depicted a Bulgarian playwright coming to Kentucky to see the premiere of her play, Black Coat. In the film actual actors act out scenes from Black Coat. They act out a few of my poems. After the film I rewrote the material into a 300 page memoir, which I’ve since abandoned. I felt I needed to put the manuscript aside for some time and published the surprisingly funny poetry book How God Punishes and then returned my attention to Black Coat. By that point I had written a stack of new poems and felt ready to tackle the material as a poetry book – or a mixed genre book – in Bulgarian. I completed it, though I needed further time to be able to get used to the thought of publishing this book. The title Second Skin came from a line of a short poem discussing growing up in fear in a domestic violence situation.

The book has a dedication page (or is it an epigraph?) that says “How are you feeling, Child?”, a phrase that is repeated in the book. Can you speak a bit about that?

KS: Yes. The book is dedicated to all of us unimportant children, having grown up distant second to parents’ alcoholism and dysfunction. All of us who haven’t been asked this kind and simple question. All of us who’ve cowered alone in rooms, waiting to be the next recipient of an angry parent’s violent outburst. Having grown up in such environment, I had to learn to reconnect to myself and my own feelings. I had to develop the habit of asking myself how I am feeling, in order to learn to get in touch with my self and my own needs. The book in a way mimics my own process.

As can be seen in a number of your poems, for example, “You Have the Right to Mourn, Dear One,”, domestic-violence victims frequently feel trapped in their abusive relationships and often feel a loss of identity—a loss of a sense of self—in the midst of those relationships. They also often grieve the loss of the abusive relationship, a mourning that is necessary in order to move on. I imagine some of these poems were difficult to write. How did you work through the emotional aspects of these poems? Did you encounter any other difficulties or challenges in writing some of the poems?

KS: The difficulties were not so much in the writing of the poems, as in living in the energy of the book. As most poets I know, I take my craft seriously and edit extensively, and take my time in completing the project. So, activities such as reading the entire book out loud multiple times was difficult, reading separately for grammar, ordering and re-ordering the material – that was much more difficult, because it kept me immersed in the book for hours at the time. I learned quickly that I shouldn’t work on the book in the morning, because after that I wouldn’t be able to do much else for the rest of the day. But also I shouldn’t read the book too late in the evening, either, because wouldn’t be able to sleep. I found out it was best to do my editing at about 5 or 6 pm, right before dinner, when I still had energy to do the work, but no big plans afterwards.

 I consider personal breakthroughs the act of writing of the individual poems. I believe not that the breakthrough is difficult, but what leads to it. The process could be lengthy, involved and unclear. To quote a line from my bilingual "Bird on a Window Sill”: “Finding your way out of the same labyrinth 1000 times is not the same as exiting once from each of 1000 labyrinths.” I feel that every one of these poems has been the exit of some complicated labyrinth I’ve wandered through for years.

 At some point I knew that I needed to stop working on this book. And the only way to stop working on it was to publish it.

Have you given a public reading of the work? What was the audience response? Did you encounter anything you were not expecting?

KS: I’ve given public readings, yes. At the beginning I was very nervous and apologetic. I didn’t want to depress anyone. But then again, normally there are no random people at poetry readings. You go to a poetry reading because you want to be there, and you want to listen. So, people knew in advance what the book was about, and still came to the reading.

I set aside time for Q&A after reading from this book. That’s something I’ve never felt necessary to do before. But with this book people want to know things, to ask questions, and I make it clear that I don’t mind being asked personal questions. Most attendees ask questions publicly, but also there are always a few who approach me after the reading to let me know that my book describes their story, as well. Usually I can recognize these people while I’m reading. I can see it on their faces.

In Second Skin, what is one of the more crucial poems in the book for you?

KS: At different times nearly every one of the poems in the book has been critically important to me. Why? Because each poem has been the next step forward, and I believe that each step is critical, even the seemingly small ones. I choose to share the second poem in the book, because it quickly walks the reader through much of the story. (Here is an audio of Katerina reading the Bulgarian version of this poem: https://soundcloud.com/toestbg/katerina-stoikova-chete-terasata-na-osmiya-etazh.)

8th Floor Balcony Ghazal

If I catch you smoking
I'll throw you off the balcony.

If something happens to you
I'll jump off the balcony.

Dad stopped hitting me: Go ahead, he laughed, scream for help.
Then opened the door to the balcony.

To free space in the kitchen,
we moved the stove to the balcony.

Dad got mad and started
dragging Mom towards the balcony.

You could see the sun rise
out of the Black Sea from the balcony.

When the guests for Mom's funeral arrived,
Dad hid, smoking on the balcony.

I hated him in the house,
as well as on the balcony.

I've been faking all my orgasms,
I confessed to my first ex-husband on the balcony.

I stared out for a month, waiting for my pen pal to arrive,
as I was scrubbing the windows on the balcony.

Your marriage will last at most three years,
Dad told me on the balcony.

When I was leaving for America, I looked up from the cab and saw
my best friend waving from the balcony.

I'm ready to let go of everything that happened
except the balcony.

Katerina, there is no heaven or hell,
there is just this balcony.

You are a master of aphorisms, epigrams, and the short poem. The first issue of your journal Literary Accents featured poems that were less than 50 words long. Blaise Pascal once wrote that he would have made document shorter, but he didn’t have the time. What is it about the short poem that calls to you? Do you find that with your own short poems, that they take more time to finish? Or do you naturally tend toward shorter poems?

KS: I naturally tend to write shorter poems, or if it’s longer piece, it’s normally written in smaller parts. I am not sure why. Perhaps I find writing so intensely emotional, I can take it only in brief bursts. Also, I believe that there are many ways of saying something. As a reader of poetry, I’ve taught myself to appreciate all of these ways. Probably the biggest influence, however, is cultural. I’ve grown up reading poetry from the Balkans, the language of which tends to be more direct. Well, if you say something more directly, chances are you’ll need fewer words. That’s what I think.

You started Accents Publishing 10 years ago. I remember attending your first release of, I think it was something like 7 chapbooks at one time. It was such a wonderful celebration. What is happening at the press at the 10-year mark?

KS: The press is more alive than ever. We have expanded beyond chapbooks into full-length poetry books, added a printed literary journal. We provide workshops and craft teachings. We’re about to announce results for our novella contest. In near future we plan to add memoirs and short story collections to our catalog. We would like to do more with our blog, as well. At the tenth year mark, we feel inspired to be an active and recognizable voice in contemporary literature in the USA and beyond.

What are you working on now?

KS: Right now, with the generous support of a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, I’m working on a poetry book about the relationships between the self and others. Waking up to love. Understanding it. Living it.

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Purchase Second Skinhttp://accents-publishing.com/secondskin.html

Find Katerina online:

- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/katerina.stoykovaklemer

- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/katerinastoykova/

All poems printed or quoted in this post © Katerina Stoykova Second Skin (Accents Publishing, 2019) (Initially published in Bulgarian by ICU Publishing)

Nancy Chen Long is the author of two books of poetry: Wider than the Sky (Diode Editions, 2020), winner of the Diode Editions Book Award,  and Light into Bodies (University of Tampa Press, 2017), winner of the Tampa Review Poetry Prize. Her work has been supported by a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing fellowship and the Poetry Society of America Robert H. Winner Award. You’ll find her recent work in The Southern Review, Copper Nickel, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. She  works at Indiana University in the Research Technologies division.