Ask The Author: Virginia Konchan

From the March Issue, Six Poems by Virginia Konchan, and now this interview.

1. What wouldn’t Napoleon do?

“My” Napoleon (in the lineage of Susan Howe) wouldn’t convert on his deathbed, betray emotion, harbor regrets, or talk just for the pleasure of hearing his own voice.

2. What made you choose Napoleon as the persona for these poems? How would they have sounded different if you chose someone like Genghis Khan?

Of all the French historical and literary legacies that get trussed up and trotted out (an unrepentant Francophile, I mean that lovingly), Napoleon usually gets the short shrift, pun intended. I chose Napoleon because his legacy is conflicted. Furthermore, unlike Genghis Khan, his military coup was ultimately unsuccessful (which always makes for a more interesting story). In today’s political climate, the line between liberal reform and dictatorship runs increasingly fine, as it did for Napoleon, a self-appointed emperor to whom we owe the Napoleonic Code, meritocracy, and freedom of religion and the abolition of slavery in France and the countries he conquered. Ruthless dictator or liberal reformist, what better way to assume a bastardized lyric “I” than writing dramatic monologues in the voice of Napoleon: even if the poems fail, people listen.

I wrote several poems in this series (from which these poems are excerpted) in French, then translated them into English. Here is “Napoleon Attempts a Heroic Couplet”:

Napoleon Essaie un Dystique Héroique

C’est inutile. Le troupeau étoilé est venu et parti.
Dans ca place, des semi-remorques, a l’aube mourrant.

Mise en garde: un crayon rouge seule,
un tasse en plastique dément.

Un étranger sous la véranda,
corsage en main tremblant.

Tous mes compétences, j’apprends,
en enfer, sont de sécrétaire.

Je suis la crépuscule dans un mer d’analgésiques,
tordu maladroitement, comme un galant, sur le genou.

J’attends ta vaste écharpe blanche,
signe classique de clémence.

I would argue that a dramatic monologue in the voice of Genghis Khan wouldn’t just sound different: it would be a different poem altogether, because a poem’s sonic qualities are part of its material reality, as with languages. Also, I have no affinity for Genghis Khan or the Mongolian language, which would make writing dramatic monologues in the voice of Genghis Khan an exercise in imaginative sympathy, if I did.

3. What have you hailed lately?

Emily Kendal Frey’s The Grief Performance, My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer by Paige Ackerson-Kiely, the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, my mom, my Marpac sound conditioner (thanks, Kathleen Rooney!), Porter Airlines, Steve Millhauser, Anna Swir, and the white borscht at Podhalanka, my favorite Polish restaurant in Chicago.

4. Who would you like to conquer? How would you go about doing it?

I’m with Da Vinci on this one: “One can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.” That is to say, there is limited use and appeal for me in externalizing the enemy, though I realize that setting up straw men and shooting them down more or less sums up the history of Western civilization and military strategy.

How would I go about conquering myself, then? Yoga, and the categorical imperative.

5. Which movie best portrays Napoleon? How would you improve that portrayal?

My exposure to television and cinema is woefully limited. All I know about Napoleon is by reading and museum-hopping. The Napoleon exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts this year was amazing. Here is a photo I took:

6. Who would you like to be invisible to?

I am a middle child, so I already always feel invisible to most people, most of the time.  Who would I most like to be noticed by?  The ghost of Emily Dickinson, and God.

  • Lucy

    This is so totally awesome.