DEANNA ELAINE PIOWATY: Anatoly, I just discovered your short film, “Eternal Shore.” Such a gentle, haunting piece! What is your background? Did you study film? Literature? Or both?
A. MOLOTKOV: Thank you very much – I’m so glad the film appealed to you. No, studying any of the arts would have been pointless in the U.S.S.R., since only those willing to work within the prescribed parameters had access to publication or an audience. I studied math and physics instead, which may have affected my poetry.
In an odd way, Russia under communism was a good place to focus on imagination and creativity, as many real joys and even necessities were severely lacking.
St. Petersburg was, and remains, a smart city full of bubbling discourse on art. A growing underground music scene in the ’80′s gave birth to many innovative bands who did not have access to record contracts and did not have to worry about commercial appeal, arriving at music that could be viewed as a post-modern take on what was being done in the West. Albums were copied from tape to tape, from friend to friend. Friends hosted home exhibits for painters who were out of favor and could not show officially. Spartacus, a lovely movie theater, was dedicated to domestic and international film classics (at least those that didn’t challenge the party line). It’s not like living in New York during the same years, but we did our best.
DEANNA ELAINE PIOWATY: Tell me about coming to the States from Russia. How old were you? What were the circumstances?
A. MOLOTKOV: At twenty-one, even after a couple of my friends had emigrated, I was certain that I would never leave Russia. I was a Russian writer, after all. But at twenty-two (1990), I was convinced there was no way I could stay. I’m not sure what happened during that year, but I realized that if I stayed, I would not be able to have a life with enough time both for earning a living, and for art. In some way, the whole Russian experiment had grown old for me. I wanted to be in a real world, where books were available in bookstores, where people didn’t have to worry what the political system might turn into next year. The question was where to go. The U.S. had always been relatively immigrant-friendly. I had much respect for it because of its amazing literature and art (and because of its long-term conflict with the ugly and expiring communist regime that I had had to comply with for so long). I decided to get a guest U.S. visa and to find a way to stay. It took me eleven years and a marriage to become a U.S. citizen.
The eagle who claims
to be my brother
lands on my shoulder again,
heavy like a sin
I have not committed.
This must be for a reason,
but if he has something to say,
he must begin
by explaining his birth.
The eagle is silent.
Perhaps it’s all my mistake?
What if I’m the one
What if my mother
fails to recognize me
when I see her again?
What if my father
pecks at me with his beak
when I approach?
DEANNA ELAINE PIOWATY: Was the transition a difficult one?
A. MOLOTKOV: The hardest part was to get a guest visa at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. I had to convince the clerk that I was not planning to immigrate. Many people of my age were turned down. I explained that as a Russian writer, I would have no reason to stay in America. I’m not proud of this lie, but I don’t regret it either. I hope to pay for it by playing a positive part in this country’s economy and by honoring the English language with my modest contributions.
Outside of the legal difficulties, I didn’t find the transition to living in this country much of a challenge. Sure, I arrived with $243 and had to find a job before that money ran out (an under-the-table job, since I didn’t have a work permit yet); but these kinds of practical issues were solvable. Emotionally, I found this country to my liking from the start. I felt comfortable here. People were nice and friendly, and a certain air of possibility, respect towards anyone as a possible future success story, appealed to me in comparison to Europe’s stuffy ways.
DEANNA ELAINE PIOWATY: Have you ever returned?
A. MOLOTKOV: I had a strong, irrational fear of going back to Russia after my departure, but I did go back in 2005, and then again in 2011. The country has changed in many ways. It was fun to visit, but I still have no desire to live there.
DEANNA ELAINE PIOWATY: How would you compare Russian art, literature to American? Do you find that you weave both into your craft?
A. MOLOTKOV: I have never thought of art in terms of nationality. Although one might generalize about artistic traditions in specific countries, to me the truth of art has always been beyond the nation of origin. Hemingway and Chekhov both affected me, but the impact is in no way related to where either was born. Moreover, Chekhov had already affected Hemingway before I was around. I believe that artists are a nation of their own – a nation of visionaries who are willing to look at the world through a prism that makes their investigation relevant outside national or cultural constraints.
DEANNA ELAINE PIOWATY: Who have been some of your greatest influences?
A. MOLOTKOV: Many artists are confounded by this question. William Stafford mentions that his mother’s voice may have been a stronger influence on him than anything he had ever read. In an illuminating interview reprinted in this month’s American Poetry Review, Kenneth Patchen reminds us of the innumerable influences we encounter in our daily lives. “Influence” is a causal concept; to me, the notion of affinity is more accurate. Most artists whom we consider important show up to the table with their very unique palette of tastes. They will affect one another, but not redefine one another. I find it more accurate to refer to writers and artists I admire, the ones who have moved me, who, rather than influencing me into being something else, helped me get better at being myself.
For example, when I started writing fiction, I realized I was not interested in realism on its own. I was drawn towards art that possessed an odd angle, a unique twist. Some years later, I read Julio Cortazar and found that his stories used similar tropes. Cortazar became a confirmation, a writer in my affinity zone.
Among other artists who had the most impact on me I must mention Andrei Tarkovsky first. His films are a spiritual, transcendent experience. Film, if done well, is the perfect medium: a temporal collage comprising several art forms – the most powerful emotional and conceptual vehicle created so far. Tarkovsky, in particular, is able to discuss fundamental issues with such light, reverent touch. Later in life I encountered several other film directors who impacted me similarly: among them, Atom Egoyan and Krzysztof Kieslowski.
I was invited to a carnival
but they forgot to tell me
it would take place
they forgot to tell me
it would start
so of all places
I’ve chosen here
of all times
I’ve chosen now
I was invited to a carnival
but they forgot to tell me
DEANNA ELAINE PIOWATY: There is an underlying feeling throughout much of your work that one is in almost a dreamlike state, at once a part of but at the same time floating above. Is this effect deliberate or one that just naturally comes as you write?
A. MOLOTKOV: Both. In general, I am not interested in working with experiences that occur exclusively in the realm of realism. Odd, surreal experiences have more of an edge. I want to jolt the audience out of an expected state of mind by introducing a point of view or a situation they may have not considered before. I definitely have a tendency to reconnoiter the odd aspects of reality, the underexplored perspectives, the missed opportunities. But not arbitrarily, and only when I believe a trick might bring about a better work, a more valuable epiphany.
I would like to refer you to www.Inflectionism.com for some further thoughts related to this topic.
DEANNA ELAINE PIOWATY: Is the role of writer to reflect what is or what could be?
A. MOLOTKOV: To me, the artist’s role is to infiltrate minds and souls with sparkling thoughts and compassionate feelings, whether the topics being discussed are real, imagined, or a mixture of both. Some connection to reality is required for the work to feel compelling. I suppose the role of the writer is to reflect what is and what could be, as well as what could never be – all of it, and more, and then some more.
Through the open window of attention
your breath enters
like a fragile hurricane.
I tattoo a line on my skin
up the meridian,
to the north pole.
Is the line straight?
Is the north condemned to remain
When I travel down the meridian
from snow to sand,
as the ice of my breath melts,
will you meet me there?
Will you tell me your story?
DEANNA ELAINE PIOWATY: What would you like the reader to take away from reading and viewing your work? What would be the greatest compliment?
A. MOLOTKOV: I would be delighted if the reader was impacted, emotionally or intellectually induced to view some aspects of her or his own life from a new angle. If the reader found a place to inhabit in the work and accepted it as part of life’s ammunition. If a dialog occurred.
A friend, a writer whose work I hold in very high regard, mentioned once that a four-line poem of mine had helped her understand her past relationships. I’m honored and lucky that I was able to construct it in a way that left room for her epiphany. I feel that the best poetry is the kind that leaves the readers engaged and equipped to find more of themselves. If every now and then I were able to achieve that, I would be quite happy.
* * *
Born in St. Petersburg, A. Molotkov arrived in the U.S. in 1990 and switched to writing in English in 1993. He is the winner of various fiction and poetry awards, as well as the 2011 Boone’s Dock Press poetry chapbook contest for his “True Stories from the Future.” Molotkov’s poem was selected for permanent installation in a Kaiser Permanente building in Oregon. “The End of Mythology,” a collaborative chapbook co-written with John Sibley Williams, is due in 2012 from Virgogray Press. AM’s work has appeared in over 60 publications and received two Pushcart nominations. Visit him at www.AMolotkov.com.