CHRIS RICE COOPER is a newspaper/fiction writer, poet, photographer, painter. CRC Blog is an INCLUSIVE & NON-PROFIT BLOG acknowledging ALL voices, ALL individuals, ALL political views, ALL philosophies, ALL religions including Islamism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Agnosticism, Atheism. She has a B.S. in Criminal Justice & completed her workshops required for her Master’s in Creative Writing. She lives in St. Louis.
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Thursday, April 16, 2020
Pamela Uschuk’s “SHOSTAKOVICH: FIVE PIECES” is #167 in the never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM
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***Pamela Uschuk’s “SHOSTAKOVICH: FIVE PIECES” is#167 in the never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem. All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece.
Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? I wrote this poem during a violin concert performed by Kasia Sokol (now Kasia Sokol-Borup). Kasia and I taught together at Fort Lewis College, a liberal arts college in Durango, Colorado. Because I grew up in a Russian/ Czech immigrant family, and Kasia herself was an immigrant from Poland, we bonded immediately upon meeting at our first faculty orientation.
When I had a bad day, Kasia called me to her office in the music building, and she would play me Bach Suites for Violin. Her passionate playing, her commitment to her art and our common ancestry stirred my creativity. I made it a practice to attend and to write during her concerts. So, when Kasia played Shostakovich: Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano, I was there in the front row, pen and journal in hand.
Because the music is in five movements, the poem has five sections. I wrote a vignette for each movement. At the outset, I had no plan but to let the music inspire me. The music took me back to my ancestors who were educated lesser nobility. They were potters, painters and writers and were executed by Stalin’s army. Their entire town was razed on Stalin’s orders; everyone in the town was shot and buried in common unmarked graves.
I thought of my women ancestors as well as Kasia’s ancestors, how those tough women persisted and thrived despite their long suffering and overwhelming oppression. What sustained them was passion, spirituality and art. Russia has a long and terrible history when it comes to the treatment of women. Up until the mid- 20th Century, men could legally murder their wives if they displeased them. Shostakovich’s (Right in 1950) passionate movements settled deep into my bones, my mind, my heart and DNA to bring forth memories of my grandmother, her stories as well as stories...the poem wrote itself.
In each numbered section of the poem, I hope I caught Shostakovich’s rhythms, his musical and emotional intent.
“Prelude” is the beginning short section, one stanza setting the scene and the tension. It recalls the great poverty and deprivation (physical and psychological) of the Russian people after the revolution. They were physically, economically and spiritually no better off than before the revolution. This section introduces Stalin. “There was never enough grain/in winter for the horses or mothers/without coats...”
“Gavote” counterpoints “Prelude” and is based on a French peasant dance. The rhythms are lively, sensual, breathless. The images whirl down the page as the dance whirls. This section is much more lighthearted, muscular and expectant that “Elegy,” which follows it.
“Elegy” is dark. The first stanza brings in the feeling and reality of decay and corruption underlying communism. Crops failed; there was hunger. Idealism failed; there was murder. One oppression was traded for another. The second stanza goes into a bit of my family history. My grandmother told me my grandfather killed his father’s manservant with a horse whip.
My grandfather was paid off by the family to emigrate to America, where he became a gangster. By all accounts, my grandfather Vassil was a dandy who loved the finer things in life, but he was an abusive tyrant. Educated, intelligent, he was emotionally unstable with a horrible temper. I never knew my grandfather.
He committed suicide when my father was 15, but that’s another story. I do know my family in Belarus was of the nobility, so they were educated, and some were artists, potters and writers.
“Waltz” is a slower section. The lines are filled with sorrow and the memory of Stalin’s purge of Russian artists. So many were executed or sent to Siberia to labor in inhumane camps.
Most of my Belarus family was executed by Stalin. In this section, I address the violinist who is no longer simply Kasia but a composite of the Anna Ahkmatova and Marina Tsevetayeva and so many brilliant Russian artists destroyed by Stalin.
“Polka” is another lively section based on this peasant dance, common to Poland.
It is the climax, the crescendo of the poem. The poem returns to its roots in sensuality, extolling art, music and the freedom, resilience and power of women, especially my own and Kasia’s ancestors.
There is a sort of orgasm in the passionate images that pour out in this section, a final ignition. The section resurrects also “Shostakovich from the dead/his white lips on fire, this/music, lilies and bullets/devined from our winter souls.”
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. The concert took place during the Durango Chamber Music Festival(http://www.durangochambermusic.com/)that Kasia directed. This particular performance took place in First Methodist Church in Durango, a lovely, sprawling handcut granite church known for its fine acoustics. I sat up front very close to the stage. Kasia was the lead violinist.
From the moment she struck her bow, I was transported into the longing, passion and depth of Shostakovich’s music played by a virtuoso. The audience disappeared. My edges disappeared. There was only the music moving through me and my hand moving across the cream-coloredpaper. There was beautiful, tall, lithe Kasia making love to her instrument and to each one of us listening. When Kasia plays, music electrifies each cell of her body as she dips and sways side to side.
What month and year did you start writing this poem? I wrote this poem in late fall 2009.
How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?) I am sorry, but I do not have access to any my rough drafts. They are in storage in Colorado.
This was a lucky poem and did not require many drafts to finish. The changes I made to it after I wrote it were minute. This poem felt dictated. I physically wrote it, but it was an inspired piece. The craft flowed from Kasia’s violin to my pen. But, the writing of the poem took a huge toll on me emotionally. I finished writing the poem just as Kasia finished playing the five pieces. It was an amazing synchronicity. At her final note, I was shaking and nearly keeled over from exhaustion.
Kasia grew up under communism. When I read the poem to Kasia the next day, she wept understanding at the genetic and historic level the truth of the imagery.
The end lines are not the same as the ones I wrote in that stone church in Durango. I worked hardest on the ending of the poem, but after a few false starts, the poem found its perfect exit.
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? It’s important for me to relate the story of my ancestors. They are a source of wisdom and inform my identity. In my imagination, my grandmothers carry tradition, courage and grace. Although all too human in their failings, they were resilient women who withstood deprivation, disease, war, fear and cruel tyranny. I hope their stories and strength will inspire my readers to with- stand tyrannies in their lives. Bullies and dictators never go away. They are shape shifters—Putin has installed himself as a dictator-czar. Whether the tyrants are the Russian aristocracy or our own President with a history of bullying and misogyny or an abusive husband, employer or boyfriend, these dictators must be dealt with. I hope my readers can draw parallels between the characters in my poem and people in their own lives that will help them resist tyranny and thrive. On this level, all stories of oppression share the same roots.
I also hope my poem replicates Shostakovich’s rhythms and movements, so that readers can feel the music in their bodies as they read the poem or as the poem is read to them. Music, in this case, the music of Shostakovich transforms tyranny and deprivation into art. My images ride that music.
Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? The entire poem was emotional for me because it allowed me to channel my ancestors, especially my women ancestors who suffered so deeply the deprivations of war and the cruelty of patriarchal dictators. Writing the poem helped me purge ghosts from my past. Writing the poem also connected me to my musical past. As a teen, I played French Horn in symphony. That training allowed me to hear the music of the poem as I was writing it. It was highly gratifying for me to write this poem as a small symphony.
Has this poem been published before? And if so where? This poem won the 2010 New Millenium Poetry Award and was published in New Millenium in 2011. Don Williams, the editor, along with Marilyn Kallet, were the judges of the contest. This poem also appeared in my full length poetry collection, Blood Flower, published by Wings Press, San Antonio, Texas in Spring 2015.
Anything you would like to add? On several occasions, I’ve written poems during a symphony. I let the music take me deep into myself then explode outward to the stars and back. It’s interesting to me that I cannot write to music with singing. The lyrics get in the way of any images that might come through.
Although I know several poets who can write to rock or blues singing, I cannot do so. I react emotion- ally, but I can’t create metaphors, at least, ones that move me. While I am writing, I am fully engaged with my imagination. I go to another part of myself, that liminal dream state where creativity flourishes. Poetry allows us to expand old knowledge deep in our cells, to draw on memory alive. Classical music can be a catalyst for me in that way.
SHOSTAKOVICH: FIVE PIECES
There is never enough grain
in winter for the horses or mothers
without coats. Even while the samovar
empties the weak tea of party loyalty
into cracked glasses, there is one lump of sugar
written by the hands of the composer
who creates true notes blue
as damp woodsmoke
choking St Petersburg, notes Stalin
slaps at with his iron fist.
It's the Russian in me that charges out
in my dark velvet skirts, heart
as blood-gorged as Anna's watching
the train gain speed for her leap, when I hear
what your violin remembers
so that troikas pulled by those
wild-muscled Siberian stallions
rip through my snowy birch woods, nearly
trampling me to the death I need.
There can be no poetry
or music without lilies or bullets,
the frail lace of birch bark peeling
under a tyrant's arthritic hands.
This is the history of my people, the hope
of barley going gold on vast steppes
and the underground arteries
of potato vines sacrificed to worms.
In my greatgrandfather's house,
the ghosts of brushes and oil paint,
a potter's wheel, leather-
bound books of poems black with mold,
broken tea glasses, a balalaika's
grief, a bent samovar, and somewhere
under dust, the whip my grandfather used
to kill the servant that angered him.
Did Stalin long for water or the shore?
For leaves or waves to fill
the boat that would carry him
from his insomnia, his terror
of surgery, his temper smashing
every glass in his tower?
This waltz crawls up the violin's throat
while your wrist flexes
graceful as the neck of the Phoenix
regarding ashes. Who understands
the Firebird better than
those who have been betrayed?
Lean into the arms of these whole notes,
bury your lips in the neck of what would devour you
as you sashay away from the noose.
Nothing understands the ecstatic wine
of this music like your body
dipping its oar into dark currents
then stretching on toe tips
to suicidal high notes.
Some music is wind, some
cherrywood flames fed
by blonde sticks of birch
cracking a St. Petersburg stove.
We survive snow to eat pear blossoms
on a gray April evening when the bow
smokes through each chord
that would sink our houses in grief.
Kasia, since you were sixteen, your violin
has been compass, tormentor
and lover. Tonight your strings
raise Shostakovich from the dead,
his white lips on fire, this
music, lilies and bullets
divined from our winter souls.
Political activist and wilderness advocate, Pam Uschuk has howled out six books of poems, including Crazy Love, winner of a 2010 American Book Award, Finding Peaches In The Desert (Tucson/Pima Literaature Award), and her most recent, Blood Flower, one of Book List’s Notable Books in 2015. Her new collection, Refugee, is due out from Red Hen Press.
Translated into more than a dozen languages, her work appears in over three hundred journals and anthologies worldwide, including Poetry, Ploughshares, Agni Review, Parnassus Review, Gargoyle, etc.
Among her awards are the War Poetry Prize from winningwrites.com, New Millenium Poetry Prize, Best of the Web, the Struga International Poetry Prize (for a theme poem), the Dorothy Daniels Writing Award from the National League of American PEN Women, the King’s English Poetry Prize and prizes from Ascent, Iris, and AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL.
Editor-In-Chief of Cutthroat, A Journal Of The Arts, and Black Earth Institute Fellow (2018-2021), Uschuk lives in Bayfield, Colorado and in Tucson, Arizona. She edited the anthologies, Truth To Power: Writers Respond To The Rhetoric Of Hate And Fear, 2017, and Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century. Uschuk is often a featured writer at the Prague Summer Programs and at Ghost Ranch. She was the John C. Hodges Visiting Writer at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She’s been awarded a writing resididency retreat at Storyknife Women Writers Colony in Homer Alaska for the month of September 2020.
In April 2020, her work will be featured in the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day series. She’s finishing work on a multi-genre book called Crazed Angels: An Odyssey Through Cancer.