Who Was I to Write? Persisting Through Doubt, Bias, and Parenthood
Olga Livshin | January 2019
It took me thirty-five years to stop doubting my English, a little over a year to write my first book, and just six months to get it accepted for publication.
I am an immigrant and non-native speaker of English; my doubts for my writing are typical. But I finished my first book, and it is getting published. It is poetry about immigrant identity, my Russian past, and the Trump era, interspersed with translations of poetry from Russian.
For years, immigration had been my beautiful, terrible friend. Fueled by my own fears and the nativist bias that is all too common in our classrooms, journals, and publishing culture—as it is in our culture, in general—it asked me: Who are we to write?
When I was thirty-five, a mother, and a discouraged professional with all the joie de vivre of an amoeba moving through life, I got a writing mentor. Through AWP’s Writer to Writer mentorship program, founded in 2014 by Diane Zinna, I was matched with the brilliant and full-hearted poet Janet Sylvester.
Janet descended into my life like Mary Poppins for grownups, from New Hampshire to Boston, via Skype. She worked with me officially for three months, encouraged me as I finally committed to a manuscript a few years later, and still has my back with friendship and mentorship today.
When we started working together, Janet helped me identify my strengths as a writer. She also described my voice to me in specific terms that I could hold onto as I molded my work. Who was I to write?—a poet with a wry sense of humor, who uses concrete imagery, and is motivated by social commentary without propagandizing.
Janet also introduced me to examples of poetry from the Anglo-American tradition that were very dissimilar from my work. By encouraging me to discuss them in depth with her, she helped me engage in dialogue between my Russian voice and the wonderfully varied cultures of here. Now I could be a synthetic writer—Russia-derived though engaged with all sorts of borrowed forms, voices, and techniques.
But because I had a toddler, my discussions with Janet were displaced. Literally displaced, onto the roof of our microscopic Boston apartment building. There, leaning against a chimney, I Skyped with Janet as my son napped below. Janet laughed as she watched me dress in more and more layers and eventually huddle in the snow with my laptop as I talked to her.
I was eventually able to leave my beloved family for two essential bursts of time. They were one-week residencies at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Arkansas and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, Virginia. I credit their staff and my wonderful, loving partner who took over the house and childcare with giving me a chance to develop my manuscript.
In both places, I hiked. The orange soil of the South, its chirruping lacework of cicadas and pines and Osage oranges enveloped me. It rearranged me. My worries and responsibilities lifted. The sun touched the backs of my legs in awkward urban skinny jeans. I was fed three square meals and had a bed and desk and chair. Life was simple, and my words were clear. They were everywhere. They were ripe for the taking.
On my first residency, I started my book in earnest, planning for future poems, arranging them in folders on my computer, and developing several drafts. By the time the second residency rolled into my life happily, I had a very hairy draft of a short book. My stay in Virginia enabled me to get an overview of my project. I got a general understanding of what thematic patterns had emerged from the poems, which poems belonged in the book and which did not, and which needed editing. Or, at least, I got started on this thorny homestretch to completion.
Most writers outside of the MFA-possessing crowd, and plenty inside it, think they cannot afford to take a week off to focus on their work. Who are we to (rest, meditate, create)? But neither residency is expensive. And at VCCA, artists are accepted without consideration for their financial situation, and fellows are asked to contribute according to their ability. Even paid in full, a one-week residency costs about as much as… a purse that a woman does not need as much as she needs self-realization.
I completed my book, a shortish poetry collection. Months later, I met a publisher who would help it spread its wings. Poets & Traitors Press was founded by Val Vinokur, an immigrant from Russia and professor of translation who believes in dialogue between poets and the poems they translate. To me, translation has been a core part of my connection to my original culture—you know, the one I was embarrassed about all these years. I included my translations of Anna Akhmatova and the contemporary poet Vladimir Gandelsman in the updated version of the manuscript. These two poets, in particular, had been my goldmine for decades. Acmeist and post-Acmeist poets, respectively, they had been my primer for how writing can capture a single moment in a way that stays with the reader for life. Now I could come out of the closet, and so could they.
A week ago, on my way to see my father who was in the final days of his life in another state, I got an email from Poets & Traitors. With my suitcase in hand, I walked into the hospital room, where my poor dad was lying, needles sticking out of every spot on his body. In the Soviet Union, my father had been an investigative journalist, fiction writer, standup comedian, author of a script for a comedy blockbuster, and editor of a journal.
Dad, I’m getting my book published! I said. In English! It really happened!
My father’s eyes lit up, a relieved smile spread across his face, and he squeezed my hand. I was forty, and heartbroken, and it was the happiest moment of my life.
Olga Livshin was born in Odessa, grew up in Moscow, and was brought to San Diego at the age of 14. The first poem she wrote in English was about seeing the moon at JFK: how could the same moon appear in the Russian Federation and the US! Her work appears in The Kenyon Review, Poetry International, and other journals, and a collection is forthcoming from Poets & Traitors Press.