If There is Something to Desire by Vera Pavlova

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I broke your heart. / Now barefoot I tread / on shards.

Such is the elegant simplicity—a whole poem in ten words, vibrating with image and emotion—of the best-selling Russian poet Vera Pavlova. The one hundred poems in this book, her first full-length volume in English, all have the same salty immediacy, as if spoken by a woman who feels that, as the title poem concludes, “If there was nothing to regret, / there was nothing to desire.”

Pavlova’s economy and directness make her delightfully accessible to us in all of the widely ranging topics she covers here: love, both sexual and the love that reaches beyond sex; motherhood; the memories of childhood that continue to feed us; our lives as passionate souls abroad in the world and the fullness of experience that entails. Expertly translated by her husband, Steven Seymour, Pavlova’s poems are highly disciplined miniatures, exhorting us without hesitation: “Enough painkilling, heal. / Enough cajoling, command.”

It is a great pleasure to discover a new Russian poet—one who storms our hearts with pure talent and a seemingly effortless gift for shaping poems.

Vera Pavlova was born in Moscow. She is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, four opera librettos, and numerous essays on musicology. Her work has been translated into eighteen languages. She is the recipient of several awards and is one of the best-selling poets in Russia.

Steven Seymour is a professional interpreter and translator of Russian, Polish, and French. His English translations of Vera Pavlova’s poems have appeared in Tin House and The New Yorker.

Meet the poet on her book tour

From our Q&A with the poet:

Q: Vera, your poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and has been featured in the subway systems in New York City and in buses of Los Angeles as part of the “Poetry in Motion” series, but If There is Something to Desire is the first full collection of your poetry to be published in English. The collection was translated by your husband Steven Seymour – what was it like working together?

A: A translator is akin to a detective who follows the trail to “the scene of the crime,” i.e. to the point at which a poem came into being.  In that sense, Steven is in a unique position: he is not only “at the scene of the crime,” not only has he apprehended the criminal, but he is also often “the fellow perpetrator.”  The poems he has to translate are generated by the life we are living together, and many of them are my confessions of love to him.  He has all clues at his disposal, and there is no person in the world who could possibly understand my poems more exactly and deeply than Steven.  In this regard, I am very fortunate, which can hardly be said of him: I can see how he toils on numerous iterations of his translations, how he tries to convey in English the multitude of nuances he finds in the originals.  I also see how he suffers under the burden of responsibility.  I know many married couples in which both spouses are poets, but I suspect history knows no cases of poet-translator marriages.  A good translation is a happy marriage of two languages, and it is just as rare as happy marriages are.   Mutual understanding is the foundation of our marriage, and that is something we learn every day.  We have the gift of reading each other’s thoughts, and on two occasions we discovered that we had seen the same dream in our sleep.  If you want an elegant formula, here it is: a good translation is the same dream seen by two different sleepers.

Q: You are shockingly prolific, with several thousand poems written and counting. When did you first start writing poetry and why?

A: My first poem was a note I had written to send home from the maternity ward.  I was twenty at the time, and had just given birth to Natasha, my first daughter.  That was the kind of a happy experience I had never known before or after.  The happiness was so unbearable that for the first time in my life I wrote a poem.  I have been writing since, and I resort to writing whenever I feel unbearably happy or unbearably miserable.  And since life provides me with experiences of both kinds, and with plenty of them, I have been writing for the past twenty-six years practically without a pause.  I cannot afford staying away from writing.  It could be called an addiction, but I prefer to describe it as my form of metabolism.

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