Alex Simand: I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about your work that draws me in so much, why it’s lodged itself in me. I think it’s because the narrator your poetry is in the in-between (to borrow your term, and also Stranger Things). In the liminal spaces. On the Q train. In transit. Or a cultural in-between, never having quite arrived. Do you feel this way? Like you’re in between? How does being an outsider inform your writing? An observer?
Alina Pleskova: Ooh, yes, liminality is what this whole collection hinges on. Part of the in-betweenness that you’ve identified can definitely be traced back to identity markers that are pretty apparent in these poems: being bisexual, non-monogamous, an immigrant, etc. Without veering into misidentifying some universal experience of what it means to be any of those things, they each, to me, almost require a certain ambiguity or fluidity or dissolution of absolutes. So I guess there’s a certain liminality in how I live, how I move through the world on a daily basis. Things like [re]negotiating boundaries w/ partners. Or traveling to strange cities for my job, for relatively short periods of time. Or my job itself requiring a type of performativity in order to be able to do it well, or at all, & then this feeling of switching my actual self on when I leave. Or trying to at least indulge my family’s cultural expectations, because I have classic Jewish-Russian immigrant kid guilt/desire to please, & also because it all feels like a cultural tether that I don’t want to lose (but what to do w/ the parts that don’t suit me? & what to replace them with?)
… & how to reconcile any of this, how to be okay w/ all of this malleability & motion, without losing sight of myself/the Self.
But beyond that, just in terms of my personality or nature or astrological nodes (or whatever we’d like to blame here), I feel so uncomfortable dealing in certainty. If I wanna be a romantic about it, I’d say that I’m open to all possibilities at once. Really, though: most of the time, I’m almost infuriatingly indecisive, & part of occupying a liminal space means that you don’t have to settle. One of the poems in this collections cites Rilke’s line, “No feeling is final”, & that’s (for better or worse) something I’ve taken as a maxim. I feel not-final all of the time; it’s the feeling of “never having quite arrived” that you’ve so rightly identified here. There’s a part of me that is never, ever fully at rest. I can’t stop thinking about the transience of everything, so I’m obsessed w/ pinching a feeling or a mood or a moment & rendering it before it’s gone. I often write about the process of trying to figure things out, rather than about having reached any sort of conclusion. Probably because I so rarely do.
Alex: … Russian proverbs/ idioms. They’re so good/ bad/ culturally revealing. “You can’t sit on two chairs comfortably at once” just captures pretty much the entire question of “in between” so cleverly (but with a lot of judgment, but we’ll get to that). One proverb I love is (paraphrasing for English), “You often think you’ve reached rock bottom until somebody knocks from below.” There’s just this tonal signature to everything Russian that’s so unmistakable. Like a particular flavor of melancholy. Does that make sense? How would you describe what I’m rambling about?
Alina: Despite your self-doubt here you’ve explained yourself so well that I’ve got nothing to add except, “Bleak humor suits / my Soviet blood” 😉
Alex: What role does your literary community play in your life? How heavily to you lean on your peers for support and/ or inspiration? Absence of community is something I feel acutely, sometimes, and I wonder how other poets cope, or whether they embrace the isolation, coming together to share work. Like, do you think safe spaces (as fraught as that expression may have become) are important for the production of truly resonant lyrical works?
Alina: A huge role. I can’t emphasize enough the extent to which that’s true. Like, I kept deferring the “to MFA or not to MFA” question for years (& I bring that up because I think the MFA thing is how a lot of people end up finding their people– the prevailing verbiage is ‘cohort’, right?) until I had the way belated, way no shit revelation that Philly’s poetry community has been the most amazing, generative, supportive, inspiring environment I could ever hope to be in as a writer. There are so many great poets who have lived here for years, & even more of them moving into the city all the time, & so inasmuch as a sort of insular or myopic or w/e scene can feel claustrophobic sometimes, this one so rarely does. There’s rarely a week where I’m not attending at least one reading, & I perform pretty often too; plus the bedfellows home base is here (my coeditor Jackee moved to Richmond for grad school, but all of our launch parties happen in Philly.)
My life is just like, teeming w/ other writers (poets, especially) – they’re my friends, collaborators, partners (cackling here because poets are sooo incestuous & we’ve all slept w/ each other until we’ve run out of viable combinations, & then the whole thing starts all over again), editors, mentors, & (this is gonna sound cheesy as hell, but w/e) idols. Sometimes a bunch of those at once—maybe even all of those at once in some rare cases?
But for real, I’m having a hard time even alluding to embracing isolation as a writer, even though I’m a way textbook introvert (& super shy by nature, which people sometimes don’t believe.) I do work/write best alone, but I’m certain that I wouldn’t get anything done if it wasn’t for these absurdly talented, erudite, loving, supportive poets around me. We read each other’s works-in-progress, introduce each other to other writers, pass books we love around, go to/host each other’s readings, blurb each other’s books, work on projects together, adventure & misbehave together, etc. I think about this all the time, like how did I get so fucking lucky even? My bookshelves are overflowing with my friends.
I know this sounds hyperbolic, but it’s unequivocally true. CA Conrad (who, by the way, is a singular, cosmic force & exemplifies every one of the superlative qualities I just listed & has been SO encouraging & wonderful to young poets that it makes me want to cry if I think about it for a minute longer) recently said in an interview, “Philadelphia taught me how to love the world.” I guess that’s all I’m yammering about here, really. For someone who has a tenuous relationship w/ monogamy at best, I really am smitten w/ this city. It’d take a lot to get me to leave.
But back to the point: I guess New York is the only other city whose literary scene or culture I’ve witnessed enough to be able to compare, so maybe I just assume all cities are like this, but I don’t know how I’d get on if I lived in a remote town somewhere or in a place that didn’t have such a thriving literary community.