Hey there Quill fans! As you probably already know, we’re pretty stoked to have published Lori Cayer’s wonderful collection of poetry Mrs Romanov, which delves into the private and public life of the last tsarina of Imperial Russia. After a successful launch at McNally Robinson Grant Park, Lori will be reading at the upcoming Thin Air Festival in Winnipeg this week:
Thursday, September 27, 2018
7:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Manitoba Theatre for Young People
2 Forks Market Rd.
As we look forward to this event, we thought it would be interesting to look into the origin story of this unique and captivating book. We went straight to the source—the author herself!—to get some answers.
The informal Q&A that follows will answer your questions about the inspiration behind the book, the research it took to flesh out the context of each poem as well as the ways in which the author’s own experience informed her characterization of this fascinating historical figure.
The Porcupine’s Quill: What first inspired you to delve into the lives of the Romanovs?
Lori Cayer: It was a newspaper article in 1998 about the burial ceremony for the bones of five of seven members of the murdered family at Peter & Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. At the time I had a 15-year-old hemophiliac son who was testing the limits of his disorder and I was doing that motherly losing of sleep while he was out with his friends. I realized that I had something in common with this woman Alexandra, who otherwise could not have been less like me, that made us equals. I conceived of the book “wholesale” in my mind without having written a word and carried around the idea of this work of poetry based on her life and times for years.
PQL: When we acquired the book, you mentioned that it was important to you that the book be released in 2018. Why was that?
LC: I felt sure there would be a lot of attention paid in the year of the 100th anniversary of the murders [which occured in July 1918], and I wanted Alexandra’s story to stand among them. In 2017 it was 100 years from the end of autocracy in Russia and the beginning of Boshevism and numerous new books and documentaries were appearing covering the political things happening around WW1, Nicholas’s abdication and the Russian Revolution. In 2018 new books began appearing with more information than was previously known especially about the rescue plots and the finding, identifying and interment of their bones. I thought the timing would be crucial because people would be searching online for things pertaining to the family and my book might be able to provide an unconventional biographic narrative of her life.
PQL: This collection is obviously inspired by historical events and figures. How did you go about conducting your research in preparation for this book? Where there any resources that were of particular importance in your writing?
LC: After the idea of the book had established itself I spent the next many years reading what I came across about the family. I admit I did not become a student of Russian history or Russian autocracy at large, but I drilled down into the reign of Nicholas which is the primary source of material on Alexandra. There are very few biographies of her out there, one written in 1994 and another by an unreliable narrator who lived with the family for a few years and ultimately betrayed them, it is thought, for money and safe passage.
I discovered a quiet world of Russophile websites and sites dedicated to keeping the idea of Russian monarchy alive. These sites were also a treasure trove of material on the palaces, St Petersburg, the cathedrals, and the thousands of photographs out there that gave a deeper look into their daily lives both as royals and at home. One site even had a bookstore of translations of rare accounts by people connected to the situation. It was not uncommon even back then for people close to a controversial situation to write a book about it after the fact, for example the children’s teachers, nannies, Nicholas’s security chief. There are even accounts written by Yusupof who murdered Rasputin and Yurovsky who coordinated the murder and who specifically shot Nicholas.
As time drew near the anniversary I stepped up my research and went all in reading everything I could order. I researched hemophilia, WW1, Queen Victoria, Rasputin and had a dual timeline on the wall one side of which was the historical events from her birth to her death and the other side was the corresponding timeline of her life and its events. I did a lot of mining of the books about Nicholas for new gems of information about Alexandra that go deeper than the general things written about her. But, if I had to state one book that was the single most important it was one I found in a used bookstore in Toronto in about 2005 or so, called A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra, Their Own Story by Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko, 1996.
PQL: It is clear that a lot of research went into developing the timeline of events, the cast of characters and the experience of Revolution-era Russia, but the book also demonstrates an understanding of the inner workings of the mind and heart of Alexandra Feodorovna. How did you extrapolate emotions and inner monologues that do not show up in history books?
LC: The book I mention above was invaluable to me as it contained letters written between Nicky and Alexandra over all their years together, as well as their diary entries. The family burned a lot of their personal papers while in captivity, but this book was filled with surviving material that showed me the real people in their real voices. The book also contains letters to and from other family members and their diary entries giving their impressions of situations and of Nicky and Alexandra. From these writings I had a sense of her voice and of her manifold concerns and of her particular brand of closed-mindedness to the seriousness of what was happening around her politically. The extrapolation to the level of frankness that the real Alexandra alluded to was easy for me because as a wife and mother myself I was able to insert how I might feel in the same circumstances, or how a modern woman might feel.
PQL: What would be your advice to a fellow writer looking to tackle an important historical subject through poetry?
LC: Aside from committing to exhaustive research I would say: write poetry and not prose. Even if you are a poet by nature the first step might be to write “long”, that is to say lengthy explanatory lines and tracts, background information etc. and transposing your research. I wrote many poems more than once as I condensed and condensed the prosey language into shorter poetic form and removed expository language. It felt right to work with couplets as it had the feel of the poetry of her times but I decided against multiple voices or the devices of letters and public documents. However, I wanted to give it context by showing how utterly modern these people were. They lived in a time like us where technology suddenly took over the industrial world. In her lifetime the world went from lamps and buggies to electric light, boiler heat systems, telephones, phonographs, motion pictures, cars, airplanes, small personal cameras that everyone had and no-one went anywhere without. There is a photo that Anastasia took where she stood on a chair in front of her dressing mirror and took a picture of herself taking a picture of herself. It’s known as the first selfie.
What an enlightening Q&A session! It is fascinating to learn about authors’ personal connection to their work, but I always marvel at the amount of research goes into translating that world into poetry. Many thanks to Lori for taking the time out to answer our questions, and don’t forget to mark her reading at Thin Air in your calendars.