FEBRUARY 5, 2020
GUATEMALAN-SLOVAK POET Ivanna Baranova’s poetry oozes, flickers, and warms — it soothes our frayed consciousness and shows us how to dream, how to float, instead. Her poetry drifts through our current age of precarity by exploring longing, existential ennui, joy, and connection with all lenses on hand — astrology, psychology, mysticism, drugs, academic frameworks. But more importantly she writes from an indefatigable source of light, dark, and fire.
After gaining a following in Vancouver and then New York, she just finished her tour for her first book from Metatron Press, Confirmation Bias, which has been blurbed by Daniel Borzutzky, winner of the 2016 National Book Award for Poetry; Elaine Kahn; and Charlotte Shane.
Recently I got to talk to her about her book, Tantalus, yearning, fragmented intimacy, and feeling poetry in the body.
CALLIE HITCHCOCK: How did you get started in poetry?
IVANNA BARANOVA: I started going to open mics when I moved to Montreal and I continued going to open mics in Vancouver, where I took creative writing classes at UBC. I moved to Chile for a little while, too, and Chile in particular is so poetically oriented. They have a deep fascination with poets, Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral. It was really profound and inspiring for me seeing their reverence for poets.
Were you influenced by where you grew up?
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and something about the rain imbued a lot of my early work with a sense of melancholy and longing for transition — almost wanting to transcend out of the monotony of the rain, even though it was also really calming. It’s funny because a lot of people recently are telling me after they hear me read that I should get into ASMR. They say that my voice sounds like I’m hypnotizing them. And I think that a lot of that comes from the induction of calm that comes from the rain and the way that it incants reflection.
What do you think drew you to poetry when you moved to Montreal?
I wrote poetry in high school but in Montreal I had friends in the poetry scene, and there’s something I liked about the people who were writing poetry. I just felt attracted to them and I admired the way that they were living their lives. They felt genuine, authentic, and exciting. I wanted to embody their characteristics and qualities in some way.
Why did you choose confirmation bias, “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories,” as the title of the book?
Poetry has afforded me the opportunity to cultivate deeper understanding around the psychic traits I’ve wanted to shift and the kinds of healing I’ve wanted to enact for myself and others. So when I became familiar with the concept of confirmation bias, it opened up this opportunity for me to see where I was reproducing patterns that I was ready to transcend. And I realized that so many of the poems that went into this book were just me going over things that I viewed as problems in myself or patterns that I was tired of repeating, but I had to look more closely at them first.
What is confirmation bias to you?
Confirmation bias is the tendency to accept as truth or reality things that are already within your own hypotheses, beliefs, and conclusions. So, in the verb form, it’s seeing your belief systems confirmed to you in the world, but only because you believe that they’re already true.
So was this title emblematic of you wanting to suss out the confirmation biases in your life and change patterns that weren’t working for you, looking at your beliefs a little more critically?
Yeah, and the title came after the fact because the initial title of the book was “Now Like Before,” which is basically the same idea. So I think that either way the title was identifying a kind of stuckness.
I really like how this book brings a trained attention to the aesthetic of longing. The longing in your poems reminds me of the Greek mythological figure Tantalus, who was punished to spend eternity standing in a pool of water under a fruit tree. He’s forever thirsty and hungry because the fruits recede whenever he goes to reach for them. Do you think there’s ever a final destination of well-being? Is there ever a final I’ve-got-what-I-wanted?
I think the cycles of longing are an opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the habituated patterns of our desires. The more we cultivate an observational relationship with these forms of longing, the more we can realize how they are or aren’t serving us.
Interesting, so longing can also be generative even if getting what you want is a mirage?
I wouldn’t say that getting what you want is a mirage. I would say that thinking that we always know what we want is a mirage.
Reading some of your lines — “anything to dull the idyllic shimmer up everyone else’s everything else,” “I obsessed myself with obsessions promise,” “the traffic of desire awake again, in its daily insurrection,” “we don’t know where the longing came from only that it existed” — it seems like you’re looking at the heartbeat of longing and meditating on its diffuseness. Do you think there’s any way to break out of the cycle of endless wanting?
For a long time, I subscribed to a lot of Buddhist ideas that longing and desire were perpetuated suffering. But I think the idea that I’m working with now is not that desire and longing are bad, but that attaching ourselves to the outcome of that longing and desire is what causes suffering. I think that longing and desire are facets of experience and existence that we can’t separate ourselves from. If we embrace the fact that we do have needs and that we do have desires, and approach those impulses in ways that are non-goal-oriented, we can instead explore, and be curious, and let revelations reveal themselves to us. Longing constantly opens the door to more fascination, more engagement, more enthusiasm.
I think that’s what your poetry does, it highlights the beauty of longing by describing it and spending time with it. I also like your exploration of the precarity of personal relationships and how that can bleed into our worldview. But even with the fear and instability that comes with deep connection, it also seems like you have this parallel abiding belief that deep connection is life giving and spiritual, that it is the truth.
Relating is hard. We inherently aspire to connection because we are neuro-biologically programmed to want to find common spiritual, emotional, and intellectual ground, and the stakes feel high when we feel those connections aren’t manifesting. Part of the project of this book was holding multiple truths in simultaneous validity because it’s simultaneously difficult, fragmented, and challenging to cultivate intimacy but it also reveals itself as possible, surprising, and life affirming. I think that when we recognize that disconnection and connection are inevitable, and practice radical acceptance of both, they become fertile ground for more viable kinds of intimacy.
There’s a poem called “switch” right after this beautiful poem “powerade” about MDMA, self-love, and the sublime. In “powerade,” you write, “I love you and you’re the most beautiful person on earth.” It seems like you’re saying this to yourself in a sort of incantation. And then the next poem “switch” begins, “dark comes afraid of the dark light comes afraid of the light,” and then we break into a new section. I’m interested in this pairing and if or how it’s meaningful to you.
I think that the MDMA poem processes so much fear and viscerally felt sensations and feelings — some of which are elation and some of which are fear. For me, MDMA as a medicine offers an opportunity to confront and transmute fear. So the next poem — “switch” — is an opportunity to echo and validate the impact of fear states while showing us how important it is to reorient ourselves to love.
Doing that work inherently requires holding space for fear. Fear is such a natural part of existing and being in the world. My relationship to MDMA is accepting fear and emotional experiences for what they are with as much compassion and direct confrontation as possible.
There are so many lines in the book I immediately relate to: “emotional internship” (which made me laugh so much), “the world’s precarious devotion,” “I know all conversation is a long arrival to be close to you and also further,” “I don’t control the stakes of your disengagement.”
I processed a lot through writing this book so it’s funny being on the other side of it. I’m trying to move away from viewing relating as precarious. I think we exhaust ourselves when we are preoccupied by impossibility. So much of adolescence and early adulthood is being disillusioned by all these barriers and obstacles that get set up from relational patterns that are residual from childhood. As we get older and come into new forms of consciousness and new geographies of relating, we then navigate our own interiorities to cultivate new modes of connection.
We move beyond the fear of disconnection because it’s not emotionally sustainable to believe that connection is unattainable.
Right, and a lot of this book was shining a spotlight on how those disbelieving thought patterns operate. By becoming familiar with them, I can now release them because I know what they look like. I don’t think you can transcend something until you become familiar with it.
Are there other feelings from this book that you observe from a little more of a remove now?
I’ve realized that writing poems for this book helped me develop more comfort and more confidence in honestly portraying my emotions and trusting that they would find resonance with others. So much of this book was me wanting to be vulnerable in these ways that I didn’t always know how to articulate through conversation and interaction. I felt like I had to perform certain kinds of stability that I thought were culturally or socially acceptable. So this book is feeling out, what if I just said something in its fullness?
So these poems are also a practice of vulnerability?
Right, and the way I engage in my life informs my poetics, and my poetics inform how I act, behave, feel, think, move, and articulate myself in the world. Creating this book made it so that I could more authentically and bravely show up as a woman, as a poet, as a person in this world.
That’s so beautiful, and I think that’s the function of art in its best form — to tell us about ourselves in a way that our conscious brain isn’t able to do.
Exactly, poetry so much of the time is unconscious for me. Sometimes I’ll have phrases or words or ideas that come to mind that feel completely irrelevant, but also spiritually essential to something I want to articulate even if I can’t think or can’t locate why that is.
There are so many reasons why we’re cut off from our raw emotional selves, so we need a different medium to access our unconscious thinking. Poetry or art cuts through the super-ego that is filtering everything we want to express or do through fear of the other, of society, et cetera. As children, we access our feelings so much quicker even if we don’t have words for them. How do you think poetry functions in your life?
Poetry is for me the guiding emblem for how my intuition operates. I have studied poetry and while that has definitely informed my poetic practice, I rarely rely on formal teaching. When I have a poetic feeling, and I want to put that to the page, I’m just experiencing it in my body — it’s channeled through my gut and I recognize it as fulfilling and meaningful in a poetic way because I feel it in my body, and I feel it in my heart, and I feel it in my head. I can’t account for it rationally, but rather intuitively. That’s when I know that I’m in the realm of poetry. And when I translate that feeling to other kinds of situations, professional or interpersonal, I look for that same harmonious resonance that I can feel in my gut. It helps orient me.
For me, writing poetry is a way to transcend the language I have to understand my current reality. It is my way to access more reality and more sensation, more feeling, more truth. A lot of the time, poetry stems from a dissatisfaction with whatever my current reality is, and I want to spin that feeling into something that feels more right than the language I have normally for it.
Once we lean into following that “more rightness” and continue acknowledging the rightness of poetic feeling, those experiences accumulate and strengthen, offering us deeper insight until that insight becomes reflexive or automatic.