Poet Spotlight: Sonya Vatomsky on breathing life into poetry

Sonya Vatomsky

Sonya Vatomsky is the author of poetry collection Salt Is For Curing (Two Dollar Radio) as well as chapbooks My Heart In Aspic (Porkbelly Press) and And the Whale (Paper Nautilus). A digital alchemist, their creative output ranges from mini-documentaries for the CDC to reported features in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Smithsonian Magazine. Sonya is a member of the Cheburashka Collective, a group of female and non-binary writers from the Soviet diaspora, and lives in Manchester, UK. Find them by saying their name five times in front of a bathroom mirror or at sonyavatomsky.com and @coolniceghost.

And the Whale by Sonya VatomskyCongratulations on publishing your new chapbook, And the Whale. Can you tell us a bit about the project and how it came into being? 

Thank you! So, the bulk of the poems were written in late 2015 and throughout 2016, though I didn’t actually assemble the manuscript until 2019. It’s always strange to talk about the “about” of poetry, because so much of the medium’s magic is cupping it into your own hands and breathing life into it, but the poems in And the Whale are — to me, anyhow — about two things.

One, about the death of a dear friend. About death and loss and grief and the foreverness of sorrow.

And two, about coming out as non-binary the same year I released my full-length book Salt Is For Curing, which was about finding power as a woman after sexual assault. 

The poems in your collection are haunting, and I was particularly moved by the voice of the widow. How did you come to give rise to this persona in your work? 

“Widow” was the original title of “The Widow Tells An Anecdote”, which was published by Brain Mill Press in 2016 (I think). It was intended as a one-off. I was trying to figure out a way to talk around my friend’s death, not about it but around it, and the archetype of the widow kept coming to me. I was incredibly drawn to the endlessness of her, the fact that this death — another’s death — has become her title, who she is to society. There’s just nothing comparable for platonic relationships. 

But I wanted her sorrow to have action. Forward movement. (Anecdote: I once attended a talk by Linda Woolverton. She wrote the screenplay for Disney’s Beauty & The Beast, which at the time was considered something of a feminist masterpiece, all things considered. She wanted to give Belle a hobby, and chose reading. “Not active enough,” she was told. Reading was a boring hobby. Linda’s response to this, instead of picking another hobby, was to have Belle read while walking.) So while some widows may climb the stairs of the lighthouse every night and look out at the sea that claimed their love, mine got a boat. 

And as for her anecdotes? Well, I love an anecdote. 

I love the idea of creating movement for a character, which now has me thinking about how movement works in regards to language. How do approach the writing of a poem? Do you consider linguistic movement as your writing and/or editing a piece? 

I’m wildly informal when it comes to writing poetry. My day job is also as a writer (digital marketing) so setting aside time for a daily poetry practice has always seemed like a total nightmare. So I write as the mood strikes and generally don’t ever go back and edit poems — except in the case of And The Whale, where I did quite a lot of it!

Normally I’ll write something and then go over it a few times to make sure the syntax isn’t repetitive. I find accidental repetition really jarring when I’m reading so I try to avoid it; I scanned the last few paragraphs to see if I’d already said “really”  before typing it just now, for example. 

In a way, I think poetry is most like UX writing, where you’e got these tiny phrases with low character counts living in buttons and error messages and tooltips. When something’s not working, you have to ask yourself if it’s the content or the structure — if you’re saying the wrong thing or saying the right thing in the wrong way. 

In the process of writing this collection, was there something unexpected that came forth or something that caught you by surprise? Why?

Honestly, the fact that it ended up a collection at all. Salt Is For Curing was all written in a very short period of time, while processing the same emotions, whereas Whale is a lot less contained. That’s part of the reason the widow is there. When I realised I had written multiple things from the perspective of a character who wasn’t me, I welcomed her in as a guest narrator of sorts. 

Another surprise has been rereading the collection, and seeing all these little jokes I made when I wrote it. Because of the distance between the two points, in terms of both time and emotion, it’s like having an inside joke with a version of you that no longer exists. 

“Gimlet” opens with a man asking the widow if she was abused as a child, and then later giving her a “garden-path sentence”. That poem is about (“about”) the frustration of being simultaneously candid and misunderstood; the man is “sentencing” her with his words. If you’ve studied linguistics, though, you’ll recognise “garden-path sentence” as the term for a sentence that’s grammatically correct but syntactically assembled in a way where your initial reading of it is wrong. (“The old man the boat.” is a classic one.) So that’s an optional joke for everyone, and then there’s a private just-for-me joke because the child abuse question actually happened once when I was drinking with a man. We were drinking gimlets.

Speaking of versions of you that no longer exist, how do you think you’ve evolved as a poet since you first started writing?

Not always in good ways. Cleverness isn’t everything but I’m quite fond of it, and I think my cleverness peaked at around age 19 — I was in uni, reading Octave Mirbeau and writing in a hybrid of English, Russian, German, French, and Latin for no good reason. An even more pretentious version of age 11 me, who wrote their diary in transliterated Elvish. There’s something charming about not-writing-for-an-audience so hard that you’re not even writing for future you, because future you hasn’t practiced German in years and isn’t going to decode Quenya just to read about biology class. I have a lot of tenderness for past me. 

So I’d say I’m less clever but more aware, more experienced, more patient with editing.

Who are some of your favorite poets? What draws you to their work? Do you feel they’ve influenced your own writing? 

I don’t have a formal education in poetry so my “canonical” favourites are all the Russians ones parents make you read — Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva. I especially like Brodsky because he wrote in Russian and in English and often translated his own work, which was handy when I was a teenager and hated reading in Russian. He also rhymes, which unfortunately isn’t very trendy right now, and puts line breaks in really curious places. I find his line breaks really inspiring. 

For contemporary poets, I also read a lot of Russians. Gala Mukomolova, Alina Pleskova, Taisia Kitaiskaia. And Lisa Marie Basile and Natalie Eilbert. I’d say the uniting thread there is a palpable love of language, of words and punctuation and the ebb and flow of semantics against the precision of syntax. I think contemporary poets often love emotion more than they love language, which is fine but not my thing. I really need both. 

I don’t know that I feel influenced so much as inspired. When I read a really good line I wrote, I might think, “This is why I’m a poet.” But when I read a really good line someone else wrote, I think, “This is why I love poetry.”

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

I think community is important, but maybe not writing community? I keep coming back to the concept of cleverness and the type of earnest pretentiousness young people can have in this interview, and here it is again: it;s beyond wonderful to surround yourself with people, or at least one person, whose presence encourages you to be clever. To dig through your vocabulary for words you don’t often use. To draw connections like the red threads on a conspiracy theorist’s bulletin board between the culture you’re consuming and your life.

So while I don’t consider myself part of a poetry or general writing community, locally or digitally, I have friends who keep me earnest and sharp. I also really enjoy newsletters, though I dont have the energy to read every single one that comes into my inbox. Some favourites are Arabelle Sicardi’s You’ve Got Lipstick On Your Chin, Anne Helen Peterson’s Culture Study, and Helena Fitzgerald’s Griefbacon.

What advice do you have to offer to emerging writers?

Stay excited about language.

What can the world expect from you in the future? 

I don’t know! I’m a marketing writer and content designer by day, so I’m never really not writing, which means I go through phases of creative burnout in my personal life. I’d love to come back to non-fiction eventually. While I don’t think I’ll take up freelance journalism again, I’m excited by the idea of having a book project to work on. And of course, there’ll be poetry — there’s a full-length in me that And the Whale is part of, the way my first chapbook My Heart In Aspic was the seed that grew Salt Is For Curing. But how that will unfold, I think, will be as much a surprise for me as it will for you.