Interview: Sonya Vatomsky


collageSonya Vatomsky is a Russian American non-binary artist, born in Moscow in 1985. Sonya currently lives in Seattle with their cat, Magpie Underfoot, and a growing collection of taxidermy, wet specimens, and other oddities. Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015) is their full-length debut — a poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival. Sonya’s poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in Entropy, Lodown, The Hairpin, VIDA, The Poetry Foundation, and other publications, and their chapbook My Heart In Aspic is available from Porkbelly Press. They hold a BA in Linguistics with minors in German Linguistics and Finnish from the University of Washington.

Salt is for Curing is a dark and delicious book. Your poetry is teeming with folklore and food, evoking a hunger that simmers in magic. Blood, bones, vegetables, herbs mingle with robbers, wolves, Baba Yaga, Ivan the Fool. There is bread and there are potions. Ripe plums and Koschei the Deathless. You’ve said “There’s not really a divide between folklore and my… sense of self — at least the stories I had told to me as a child, and that’s usually what I’m referencing in poetry.”

Which figure from Russian fairy tales did you most identify with as a child? In whom do you see yourself now? Did you connect more deeply with male or female characters as a child, and has that changed?

The one I felt pulled to was Koschei Bessmertniy, though not in an identifying type of way — more like I wanted to be his lover or flunky or something. I never ever cast myself as a hero, and I can’t decide if that’s because I was a timid child or because I had such a strong sense of ego that I disliked role-playing as someone other than myself. Maybe both. “Male-adjacent” is a good way of describing how I connected with characters, though. I internalized gender roles enough to know I couldn’t be Koschei, but you’d never find me in Baba Yaga’s camp either. I was really intimidated by female characters. Baba Yaga scared the shit out of me, to the point where I didn’t even like her as a folktale figure, whereas Koschei was bae.

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Editor’s Note: Baba Yaga’s Fiery Devices

The following is an excerpt from “Baba Yaga Burns Paris to the Ground,” which can be read in full at Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness.

In Russian stories, Baba Yaga is tougher on Russians than anyone else, and she lusts particularly for Russian blood. It’s suggested that she’s testing her fellow Russians, ensuring that they respect and deserve to live on Russian soil. The industrial revolution and three-thousand odd miles stand between Baba Yaga and the pétroleuses; they belong to different worlds. Still, I see similarities between Baba Yaga’s defense of Russia’s forests and the incendiaries’ defense of their sprawling city.

babacover-full

Baba Yaga has an array of magical objects: her house on chicken legs, her mortar and pestle ship, her one leg made of bone. All of these give her power and bring the stories that she stars in to life on the page. But what interests me most is Baba Yaga’s associations with fire. Her house is sometimes located across a river of flame and is ringed by lanterns made of human skulls. Her stove is her greatest threat, a place where characters believe they will be incinerated, although it as often resurrects life. Like Fitz Fitcher, Baba Yaga has the power to take life, but like the youngest sister, she can also put it back together again. Baba Yaga can even resurrect herself: in fact, she sometimes dies at the end of a story, only to turn up in yet another tale.

Baba Yaga is neither fairy godmother nor evil sorceress. She is something more ambiguous. She teaches those who come to her door essential survival skills. She teaches them when to be honest or to lie, when to obey or demand, to steal or stay. Baba Yaga doles out punishment, but she also doles out tough love. Why, then, the bad reputation? Perhaps she is called evil to remind the young that she is opposed to the Christian order of things, that she cares not for polite society. That even if she helps the hero, she is a wild woman and not to be trusted. If Baba Yaga builds incendiary devices to give to little girls, and Baba Yaga is good, doesn’t that mean the social order is at least a little bad?


This Editor’s Note was written by Tiny Donkey Founding Editor Wren Awry.

Image by Ben Passmore