Taisia Kitaiskaia is a Russian-American writer who creates poetry, prose, and more. She is the author of two forthcoming books: Literary Witches (Hachette/ Seal 2017), a collaboration with illustrator Katy Horan, and Ask Baba Yaga (Andrews McMeel 2017), based on her advice column in The Hairpin. Her poetry can be found in literary journals such as Crazyhorse, Guernica, Fence, and many more. Poems from her “Queen Harp” manuscript will be published in the upcoming Translucent Issue of Fairy Tale Review. I interviewed her about the influences of folklore in her work, her portrayals of feminine characters, and various witches.
Baba Yaga is a witch from Slavic folklore and mythology, and you invoke her character in an advice column and your upcoming book, Ask Baba Yaga. What was your first introduction to this mythology? Was there a particular story you remember being told, or one that has become your favorite?
Before my family moved to America, when I was five years old, we lived in a city called Irkutsk by Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. We had a summer house, or dachya—almost everybody in Russia, at the time, had a summer house—edged between the lake and the woods. These were deep woods, very magical and mysterious; one of my earliest memories is of my parents saying I couldn’t go berry picking with them because we might run into bears. I must have heard about Baba Yaga early on, because I knew that she lived in those woods along with the bears. I felt her nearby, creeping around, making concoctions in her hut that moved around on chicken legs. Even when we went back to Irkutsk, she was close. I remember taking a walk with my mother through a city park and seeing Baba Yaga’s face in the hollowed-out part of a tree.
One fairy tale that means a lot to me—it’s also the most famous one starring Baba Yaga—is called “Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Beautiful.” A young maiden, Vasilisa, comes to Baba Yaga in need. Vasilisa knows that Baba is going to try to trick and eat her somehow, but Vasilisa figures out how to outsmart Baba. In the end, Baba Yaga helps Vasilisa and sends her home with a lantern made out of a human skull on a post. That sense of Baba being a dangerous source of guidance and the image of the skull lantern have stayed with me forever, and was definitely the inspiration for Ask Baba Yaga. I have a print of Ivan Bilibin’s illustration of Vasilisa walking out with the skull lantern on my living room wall.
You wrote a poem titled “Kroschechka Havroshechka,” which is based off of a Russian fairy tale. Were you introduced to fairy tales as a child and then revisited them as an adult in your creative works, or did the interest in this genre manifest later in life?
The former. When I was little, my family had this book of fairy tales from all over the world, and it was my favorite book. I made my mother read this one story called “The Clever Daughter” over and over again before bedtime. This girl’s father gets into a real mess with the king and the girl has to get him out of binds again and again using her intelligence. I think there’s a version of this tale in many cultures. The Brothers Grimm have a version of it called “The Peasant’s Wise Daughter.” As an adult I’ve recognized the rich place of fairy tales in my imagination, and my husband and I have a number of fairy tale collections from various cultures in our house. They nourish me even when I’m not actively reading them.
Your most recent poetry manuscript is called “Queen Harp”. What are some dominant themes or symbols in this manuscript? What is their importance to you?
“Queen Harp” is about a queen with a harp for a head and an entourage of royal figures and creatures. The poems often reference the English language, which I learned rather than inherited, so I continue to be suspicious of and in love with it as a potent potion. The manuscript has a lot of imagery that to me feels elemental: tigers, mollusks, trees, blood, bread, soup. Words and images that have been in the human consciousness for a long time have more energy; it’s wonderful to manipulate them and watch them combust.
You see Queen grappling with art, death, love, and spirituality—the big struggles—and each character has their own little drama, but there’s no overarching narrative. Though I love stories, I think I’ve always just wanted to wander through strange worlds and be witness to odd little moments in them. The manuscript begins with a poem, “Queen’s Mother” (one of the poems set to be published in the Fairy Tale Review), where Queen’s pregnant mom scoots around the neighborhood, noticing and thinking. She sees all these weird things: a giant snail going about its business, a cat marrying a finger, a fork inching towards a grave. And she has these thoughts that excite her, about the true nature of hills and what her daughter will be like. This sort of solo mental and physical adventure is basically a description of my perfect day. The Queen Harp poems gave me a way to live that day in various permutations.
In Literary Witches, a collaboration with Katy Horan set to be published in Fall 2017, you take female writers from across different eras, genres, and cultures and reimagine them as witches. What was the inspiration behind using witchcraft as the unifying thread between these women?
One day I realized that I’ve always imagined my favorite writers as witches. It seemed obvious to me that Anne Carson was a witch, and Virginia Woolf, and Mira Bai, and…. The list went on. The more I thought about it, the truer it seemed. The figure of the witch is coming back as a feminist symbol, a woman who owns herself and her creative powers, who isn’t afraid to live in mystery and the dark and the solitude of her own vision. A woman who has chosen inner freedom over conformity. Both the female witch and the female artist have been threatening to the patriarchy for their independence and access to other worlds and vast storehouses of knowledge and wisdom. Katy and I wanted to honor that.
Your poetry, and specifically poetry regarding women, often plays against stereotypical portrayals of femininity as something soft, pretty, and desirable. Lines like “Why is she so perverse?,” “the monster of her & her might,” and a monkey explaining “maths, as if I am not made entirely of maths” play against stereotypes of weak, unintelligent women. Is there a driving force or motivation behind this?
Another one of my earliest memories, back at that same dachya on Lake Baikal, is of hanging out with my grandmother in her strawberry patch and her showing me worms in the soil. She said that the worms are very important, that they keep the earth healthy. I was very struck by this. The way she explained it, the worms were just as vital as the strawberries, and in fact they made the strawberries possible. So I think I’ve always been an advocate of celebrating the grotesque, slimy, scary parts of life because I believe they’re important to health. This applies to creatures of all genders, but it still feels thrilling to say that women can be wonderfully gross as well as brilliant, and that all these parts have a beautiful symbiotic relationship.
Interview conducted by Cat Solewin.