Molly Thomasy Blasing (PhD, Slavic Studies, 2014)
Slavic Studies PhD alum Molly Thomasy Blasing is currently an Assistant Professor of Russian Studies in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Kentucky in Lexington where she teaches courses on Russian language, literature, culture, and cinema. Supervised by Professor (Emeritus) David Bethea, her dissertation at UW was titled Writing with Light: Photo-Poetic Encounters in Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, and Brodsky, and her research interests include modern and contemporary Russian poetry, the intersection of literature and the visual arts, Russian cinema, contemporary theater and political performance, and language pedagogy. We caught up with Professor Blasing on the eve of the publication of her first book, Snapshots of the Soul: Photo-Poetic Encounters in Modern Russian Culture (Cornell University Press).
Congratulations on your forthcoming (first, but certainly not last) book. Could you tell us something about it and when it will be out?
Thank you! I’m excited that this project that I’ve been living with for such a long time is going to be a book. Snapshots of the Soul comes out in July 2021 from Cornell University Press. The book considers the place of photography in the Russian poetic imagination. I use case studies of Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Brodsky, Akhmadulina and a few contemporary poets to show how photography operates as both inspiration and opponent for Russian poets who are using lyric poetry to capture and convey human experience in the world. I write in the introduction about ontological connections between the lyric and the snapshot, and I explore throughout the book how and why poets are drawn to the language, representation power, and metaphorical possibility that photography offers. In some cases, I look at how poets write about particular photographs that they took or encountered in their lives. But something this book does that is novel is to think beyond ekphrasis, to explore how photochemical metaphors and the language of photography make their way into Russian poetry in places where photography is perhaps not the obvious subject of the poem.
Where does the hauntingly beautiful title Snapshots of the Soul come from?
This is a great question. One the most startling things for me in my research was that I kept encountering a version of this phrase “a photograph of the soul” in each of the poets I write about. Tsvetaeva, for example, has a poem that ends with a “daguerreotype of my soul.” Pasternak has a line about installing a “photograph of my soul” into the frame of a window. Brodsky in an interview says that poems themselves are like “photographs of the soul.” It was really intriguing to see this over and over. One of my favorite passages in the book is in the introduction, when I dig it to what a “photograph of the soul” could possibly mean. In a way it’s a perfect formula for what poetry can do that camera cannot. A photograph of the soul is a completely impossible product. The soul completely defies visualization, we can’t make this thing in the material world. But lyric poetry, as Helen Vendler says, is the “voice of the soul,” and a poem is that moment of experience, captured and condensed in a form we can return to again and again, like a photograph.
Do you have any advice for anyone seeking to turn their dissertation into a book manuscript?
I’m not sure how well I succeeded in doing this, but writing a book is all about finding your own voice and your own argument. It’s hard to let go of the painstaking work we do in our dissertations to demonstrate due diligence, to show that we’ve consulted and cited and quoted all the other major scholars who’ve written on aspects of our topic. But the best books are the ones in which the author’s voice shines through and takes you on a tour, or tells a story, one that builds on the work of others, but creates a narrative in a voice that is all their own.
I also think there’s a certain skill or wisdom involved in figuring out when a book is done. I struggled a lot to decide what version of done was “good enough.” At some point along the way—particularly if you’re fortunate enough, as I was, to have a tenure-track job and a firm timeline—you have to let it go, with all of its imperfections. I try to tell myself that this book is a starting point for a much larger conversation about how Russian language poetry and photography interact and encounter one another. I hope that other scholars will read the book and that my investigations will spark new and different inquiries into this very engaging topic. It’s been easier to release the project into the world when I think of it this way, as being the beginning of a much larger conversation.
I’d also recommend that authors invite as many readers as possible to look at drafts of chapters along the way. Our Wisconsin Slavic alumni network has been a great source of readers for me, and I feel fortunate to be part of such a supportive community. I’ve gotten lots of guidance from people in the field who did their PhD at Wisconsin. I’m eager to pay that forward, so I hope people will reach out with questions about any aspect of the book process.
What’s next for you in terms of research plans?
I’m doing research now for a new book project: a cultural history of Tarusa, a small town 101km south of Moscow. Tarusa has been a refuge for creative artists and writers since the 19th century, and it remains an important literary and cultural location on the margins even today. There’s a lot of interest, for example, in the writer and cardiologist Maxim Osipov, who lives in Tarusa. Right now, I’m researching a chapter that will look at the scandal surrounding the 1961 publication of the almanac Tarusskie stranitsy, which was published without approval of the Moscow censor. This almanac is especially interesting to me as a Tsvetaeva scholar because it was one of the very first places Marina Tsvetaeva’s poetry was published in the Soviet Union. In addition, there are poems by Noam Korzhavin and Nikolai Zabolotskii that hadn’t been published elsewhere. The almanac is also illustrated with drawings and sketches by famous Russian painters like Borisov-Musatov, Polenov, Serov, and others, so I’m interested in the story of these images as well. In general, I’m trying to understand the place of Tarusskie stranitsy in the larger evolution of Soviet censorship and what impact that particular publication had on the creative lives and legacies of the writers and artists whose work was published therein. This research will eventually fit into a larger story of this small but significant place in Russian literary and cultural history.