Taisia Kitaiskaia is a Russian-American poet and writer whose work has developed an idiosyncratic mythopoetics that revels in language’s creaturely underbelly, as seen most recently in The Nightgown and Other Poems, a poetry collection published by Deep Vellum in 2020. Kitaiskaia generously answered my questions over the course of several months, from September 2020 to February 2021, giving us a glimpse into the world behind the mystic, moody, and playful things that populate her work and mind’s eye.
Anneysa Gaille: Your Russian heritage is evident across your work, particularly in poems such as “Kroschechka Havroshechka,” your interpretation of a classic Russian fairy tale, and in your book Ask Baba Yaga, which channels the folkloric wisdom of the titular Slavic witch. How do you see yourself as situated within the Russian poetic tradition? How has your identity as Russian-American affected your perception of the role you play within it?
Taisia Kitaiskaia: I did some Anna Akhmatova translations when I was younger, and I still carry her voice around in my head, even though I think we’re very different poets. For one, she’s so classically elegant! And she has such a prominent, melancholy personality. But I think what stays with me is the feeling beyond her personality—that there is a soul hovering just behind the paper.
AG: I have been working on a few translation projects and find translation theory as well as how poets I admire approach translation in general fascinating. Is translation an endeavor you are still interested in? How did and/or do you approach the act of translation?
TK: That's so great that you are translating! Which writers? When I did the Akhmatova translations, I focused on image, tone, and voice rather than music. It’s so easy to rhyme in Russian because it’s an inflected language, and so much harder to rhyme skillfully in English.
I would like to do more translations someday. It’s a great excuse to interact more with Russian, and I feel like in each translation I learned something new about language and poetry.
AG: I’m trying! Recently, I’ve played around with some of Bella Akhmadulina’s poems; eventually, I want to branch out to less traditional work, like Yanka Dyagileva’s songs. One of my professors in college used to talk about the time they spent hanging out together, and it made me want to learn Russian because I started realizing the extent to which there were so many stories and points of view I didn’t have the linguistic framework to really access. But to be honest, most of my ‘translation’ work has been in a Spicer-esque After Lorca vein ever since I read an essay in which Benjamin writes about how “a translation issues from the original'' but that it does this “not so much from its life as from its afterlife.” This idea of a text and/or author’s afterlife in translation is something I haven’t been able to get out of my fingers for the past couple of months.
Was Russian your first language? If so, how has your relationship to language and poetry been affected by the fact that Russian was your first language even though—and please correct me if I am wrong—you currently primarily write in English?
TK: I love that idea about the afterlife of a text! And it makes me happy that you are learning Russian and that it's giving you access to the stories. I feel like Russian culture is so unknown in America. There is such an intense political history between the two countries, but Americans have little experience with Russians themselves.
Yes, Russian was my first language. I learned English when my family moved to California when I was a few months shy of 5 years old. I definitely write only in English—I can speak, read, and write in Russian, but it’s much more of an effort than with English, especially reading and writing.
I learned English in daycare, and I remember words suddenly appearing out of nowhere. English would come in from the outside and run into things, like some sort of insect, transforming objects with its contact. When I finally learned the name for peas on my lunch tray, they no longer freaked me out so much. I came to feel that English is a wily, capricious, strange being with a will of its own, but one that can be wielded, too. In other words, I learned that English is a creature—one I could enjoy but never fully trust.
Many of the poems in The Nightgown investigate the English language based on those principles. There are several poems titled “Anglo-Saxon” in the book. I am very fond of that dark, gleaming underlayer of the language and how it lives on in modern English. All of our Anglo-Saxon-derived words are so stark and have a brutal kind of beauty. But I also love the musical excess of the French influence on the language and the inescapable and rather grim Latinate words, too. Many of my poems began as adventures with the dictionary.
Maybe it’s easier for me to play with English because I know it as a foreign element. To me, Russian feels very tender, vulnerable, and intimate. I wouldn’t know how to manipulate it in poetry, not only because of my limitations with facility, but also because Russian feels like the material from which I was made. That is strange to say because I only speak Russian a few times a week, and often badly at that. But I am working on a short story collection that I think explores these themes further.
AG: I love the idea of your poems beginning as adventures with the dictionary. Can you describe this process a little bit more?
I’m also intrigued by your description of English as a creature that you can enjoy but never fully trust, particularly in the context of all the creatureliness found among the often mischievous characters who populate The Nightgown and Other Poems such as the clammy-faced folklore who crawls out of rivers and spends its time “trying to tip the vending machine over, loving/ The salty and the sweet” or the titular nightgown that “is a monster… fat/ With PARABOLA” and will “[sit] up on her hind legs” just “To frighten” the narrator. To what extent do you envision your creaturely, mischievous characters as being in conversation with your relationship to the English language?
TK: For some of these poems, I started by leafing through the dictionary, looking for words that caught my attention for whatever reason—some flamboyant and some plain—and writing them down in the margins of my notebook. Then, as I turned off my brain and began writing, I'd scoop up and ladle in some of the dictionary words from the margins when the moment seemed right, especially when I wanted to mix things up and direct the poem in a more unexpected direction. Often those marginalia words would serve as key turning points in the poem. It was like throwing in these wily little creatures into the poem and seeing what they would do—sink or swim or turn the poem inky, murder or otherwise transform each other.
I think I am inclined to see just about everything as a creature of one kind or another—the English language, words in general, nightgowns, folklores, etc. Poetry allows me to indulge that kind of animism to a fuller extent.
AG: Described online as your first book of poetry, The Nightgown and Other Poems was published by Deep Vellum in September 2020. How do you see The Nightgown and Other Poems as being in conversation with your previous books, Literary Witches and Ask Baba Yaga, which are not poetry collections in a ‘traditional’ sense?
TK: Literary Witches (a collaboration with artist Katy Horan) and Ask Baba Yaga are both constrained by the formal parameters that I set for them and tethered to figures that already exist in culture and the real world. They are "projects" that I loved creating, whereas the untethered poetry in The Nightgown, which is not really loyal to anything besides imagination, has been a lifelong pursuit. Still, Ask Baba Yaga, Literary Witches, and The Nightgown surely have a lot in common: they are all mystic, moody, playful things.
AG: A recurring motif in The Nightgown and Other Poems is marriage. However, not necessarily marriage as many readers conceive of it: characters “get married over and over” to the same individual or even “to the woods” and proclaim that “all we need is a root vegetable/ Fairy to take us to the marriage station.” What drew you to expanding the concept of marriage within the context of this collection?
TK: Marriage might be a good shorthand for intimacy with and commitment to a partially unknowable other, to some aspect of the world and so the broader world itself. It's a rash act, a bracing thing to put yourself in enduring relation to the mystery of another being. Whether that marriage is to a person or a folklore or the woods, it's an opportunity to cultivate your capacity for engagement, curiosity, intensity of feeling. I think the recurrence of marriage in the poems nods to that space of growth and discovery we find when we put ourselves in relation to something else.
AG: You currently live in Austin and received your MFA in Poetry from the Michener Center for Writers in 2015. As a native Texan, I can’t help but be curious about the extent to which you believe living in Austin has had an effect on your writing—especially after reading poems like “My Evil Twin” in which the titular character follows the narrator “around like a moon-faced armadillo.”
Do you think that your experience of living in Austin has affected your writing? If so, what is it about the cultural and linguistic environments found in Austin that has had the most significant effect on your work? What’s the poetry scene like there? How has it been affected by the pandemic?
TK: It's funny, I've maybe seen one armadillo in my eight years in Austin, and I just wrote another armadillo poem! All of the creatures around here—rattlesnakes, boar, vultures, owls, herons, raccoons and possums and grackles—have made a deep impression on me. I love learning about the city's natural, political, social, and cultural history, even though a lot of the human history is painful and troubled. I think my fiction, which is more interested in humans than my poetry, makes more of Texas.
There is a pretty robust poetry community in Texas in general and Austin specifically, due in part to the local MFA programs and publishers and bookstores like Deep Vellum, Host, Brazos, and Malvern Books. The poets I went to school with in Austin are just extraordinary, and the presses and bookstores have done a lot to keep us afloat and connected after graduation—and through the pandemic.
AG: I’m so happy to hear that! Your evocation of Texas’ creatures and communities makes me miss it more than usual, and I’ll be looking forward to reading your fiction. Earlier in the interview, you alluded to a collection of short stories you are working on that further explores your relationship to Russian. What does prose provide as a medium to allow you to do so that poetry does not?
TK: Imagination has been the biggest driver in my poetry, and before a couple years ago I rarely wrote anything based on my life. But fiction has been a fun place for me to play with elements of my personal experience. This became appealing once I entered the workforce and began having the kind of life that people who work in offices have. Poetry about other worlds came easily when my life was dreamy, but once the banal loomed large, it felt really good to put sentences to those states. Similarly, it's felt good to write family stories. But I suspect my fiction will begin to create and inhabit unfamiliar worlds soon. That's the way it seems to go.
Taisia Kitaiskaia (Tai-yee-see-yuh Kit-ai-sky-uh) is a Russian-American poet and writer. She is the author of THE NIGHTGOWN AND OTHER POEMS (Deep Vellum, 2020); LITERARY WITCHES (Hachette/Seal, 2017), a collaboration with artist Katy Horan celebrating magical women writers and an NPR Best Book of 2017; a divination deck, THE LITERARY WITCHES ORACLE (Clarkson Potter, 2019); and two books of experimental advice from a witch of Slavic folklore, ASK BABA YAGA: OTHERWORLDLY ADVICE FOR EVERYDAY TROUBLES (Andrews McMeel, 2017) and its follow-up, POETIC REMEDIES FOR TROUBLED TIMES FROM ASK BABA YAGA (Andrews McMeel, 2020). She has received fellowships from Yaddo and the James A. Michener Center for Writers (MFA in Poetry, 2015), and her work has been published in journals such as A Public Space, Gulf Coast, Los Angeles Review of Books, StoryQuarterly, Fence, Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Pleiades, and Guernica. She has written for The Hairpin, Electric Literature, Jezebel, and Bitch Media, and her work has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize, most recently by StoryQuarterly. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, the writer Fernando A. Flores.