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.

Before your move to the United States, did you read primarily Russian tales? And after? What difference of texture did you perceive between Russian stories and the Western European stories favored in American popular culture?

I had multiple books anthologizing stories from all over the world, and honestly I’m not sure I really got the distinction between Russian culture and non-Russian culture ‘til after I moved. I read the Brothers Grimm, and a bunch of English tales about giants and people named Jack, and it all felt about the same to me, possibly because it was all translated by the same people. The biggest difference I remember noticing was reading level — going from these giant novels in Russian to second grade reading materials that had, like, five words on a page. That was really confusing. I’d say my first two years here were basically just really confusing.

What difference is there in reading, say, Grimm or Andersen stories in the Russian language versus reading those same stories in English? What do you feel is lost in translation when one reads Russian tales in English language editions?

Well, Russian translators tended to take more liberties with stuff like plot and character names, but mostly I think the gist was about the same — and when you’re talking about Grimm and Andersen, or even Charles Perrault or whatever, those are individual authors who wrote specific versions of a folk story. That wasn’t really my experience with Russian tales. I mean, I read Pushkin, of course, but mostly I discovered Russian mythology through my mother and grandmother telling me stories. Like, I would say “Mama, tell me a new one about Zmei Gorinoch,” and she would make something up. It was a very non-canonical approach.

If you were to invite your favorite Russian fairy tale characters over to your place for herring and vodka, what would that party be like?

As a child, I had a habit of climbing under the dining table and falling asleep during parties… I’m not much better as an adult, honestly. There’s a really famous animated Russian adaptation of the Musicians of Bremen, and that’s probably the party I’d like to go to.

You have a tattoo of Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut. Do you have other Russian and/or fairy tale skin art? 

My very first tattoo, from when I was eighteen or nineteen, is of Koschei’s needle-in-an-egg — I have a bunch of beets on my left thigh, too, and some aspic on my calf. They’re very comfortable and reassuring images, for me. They make my skin feel like a home.

Baba Yaga is a creature of ambiguity. She is dark and frightening, but she can be interpreted as a force of nurture as well as nature. She is a monster of complexities and nuance. Without a doubt, Baba Yaga has become familiar to many Americans in recent years. Versions of her appear in video games, an animated movie, novels, comic books. Is there an adaptation of Baba Yaga that you feel is particularly authentic or true to her essence?

There’s a Baba Yaga episode in the Canadian show Lost Girl that I’m partial to — mostly because Kenzi is one of my favorite TV characters ever. I wish that show had been around when I was younger; I don’t remember there ever being Russian characters on TV, let alone snarky goth ones.

Spirits in Russian folklore tend toward the dangerous, the seductive. Rusalki, leshiye, the vodyanoi; it seems that everything out in those birches wants to confuse you, lead you astray, drown you, strangle you… Even the spirits of field and home require placating in exchange for their benevolence. Those offerings most often come in the form of food, of course. Your poetry is richly flavored by this distinctively Slavic sense of both darkness and hunger. Food is married fast to myth and magic in your work. Does that convergence often happen in your own kitchen?

My cooking is not very magical, unfortunately. Whenever my mother would make piroshky, she would be really irritable, and this didn’t make sense until I started making them regularly myself — there’s this final step where you’re turning the dough over in a hot pan, and it’s too soft to use a utensil, and too small to use gloves, so you’re touching hot dough with your fingers for about half an hour and snapping at everyone around you. That feels very Russian to me: sour and bossy and no-nonsense.

Could you share a recipe for what you consider the consummate Russian fairy tale dish?

I co-wrote a borscht recipe once with fellow Russian poet Gala Mukomolova, which you can find here. Like fairytales, most of my recipes are handed down from my mother and have vague measurements and also funny typos like “red paper” and “flower.” I’ll give you another beet recipe as an exclusive — this is my father’s recipe for vinegret salad:

A few (4) large red, yellow, or white potatoes (NO Russets!)

  • Two large carrots
  • One large beet

Place in a large stock pot and boil. Let cool. In the meantime, dice finely:

  • One large white onion
  • A jar of brined pickles

Defrost a bag of frozen petite green peas. Optional if you like beans: one can of small beans. (Father Vatomsky recommends zesty S&W beans.)

Peel cooled vegetables and dice all of them. Dices should be about the size of a pea. Mix it all in a large bowl. Add vinegar. (Father Vatomsky recommends white balsamic vinegar from TJ’s; I prefer regular distilled.) Add vegetable oil. Taste as you go.

The rule: if you taste as you go, it is very difficult to put too much oil or vinegar. Or black pepper.

Only add salt at the very end if you think you need it. Pickles should have enough. Also, have another jar of pickles just in case. There is hardly ever too much pickles.

Option: use ½ pickles and ½ sauerkraut but this is a debatable move.



Interview conducted by Anna Lea Jancewicz.