Teodora Lalova: Too much of a good thing is a bad thing
By Irina Papancheva *
Teodora Lalova (1992) was born in Varna and grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria. She studied at the National Lyceum for Ancient Languages and Cultures, obtained a Master of Laws degree from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, and holds an LL.M. in International and European Business Law from KU Leuven (Belgium). She is currently a PhD candidate at KU Leuven and lives in Brussels. Her poetry has been featured in numerous Bulgarian and international outlets (such as Crosspoint, Literaturen vestnik, Liternet, Black Bough magazine, Porridge magazine, Philological forum, Kadar 25, the anthologies “Zonata” (Ars, 2017) and “The Circle 19: a Brussels anthology” (IDLE TIME PRESS, LLC, 2019)), and she holds awards from several Bulgarian poetry competitions. “Afternoons Like These” (Ars, 2021) is her first poetry collection.
On afternoons like these you don't have your notebook with you but yet your poems are a fact and so is your first book. What prompted you to write?
I began writing (short stories, fairy tales) as a child and continued as a teenager. The curiosity towards writing and the wish to try my hand at it came early, I assume as a natural continuation of being brought up by women (my grandmother and my mother) who love storytelling and are good at it, and me loving to read. I’ve grown up within a tradition of oral storytelling, a love for the art of a good conversation, and for bedtime stories. Writing poetry came later, in my early to mid-twenties. The poem felt as the right medium to express what captured my curiosity at that specific moment in my life, and to do it in a condensed way.
How does "the silence before a poem changes its rhythm or ends" feel?
This line is inspired by a movie I love a lot, “Youth” by Paolo Sorentino. Throughout the movie, composer Fred Ballinger (played by Michael Caine) is constantly asked to conduct a performance of his most famous and extremely personal work, “Simple Song #3.” We only hear it in full at the very end of the movie and what struck me deeply the first time I watched it were the beginning 50 seconds of the piece, the prolonged moments of complete silence interspersed between the violins. This was a silence that was almost verging on the uncomfortable with its length; like a veil between here/now and whatever lays beyond. As a viewer, I was holding my breath during each of these fragments of silence and it was within them, in anticipation of the sound of the instruments and the voice of the soprano, that I could somehow fully grasp the movie I had just watched, the journey it had taken me on, and beyond that - the anxiety and excitement about what life had in store for me and my loved ones. This haunting quality of silence in music is something I cherish and think about in relation to poetry as well. And in a more abstract way, it is also related to how I feel about life and death.
Nostalgia is very present in your poems albeit never named. It is gentle and comes more under the form of images than as a condition. Where is home - where you are or where you are not?
Since I moved abroad, home has stopped being tied to a location, to a tight and simple definition. To be fair, I am not sure if it ever was like that for me, even simply by virtue of having family history in several parts of my native Bulgaria. At the moment, home feels like the place/moment where I love and am loved, where I can be vulnerable, where I can do what I enjoy doing and what I find purpose in (both professionally and personally). It so happens that this is all occurring across geographical borders; that the difference between departure and return is itself becoming hazy.
And then which are the home, language and identity of your poetry?
The language of my innermost self is Bulgarian. My most vulnerable emotions are processed in Bulgarian, I love and mourn in it. I began my answer with this, because this reality inevitably leaves its mark on the poetry, irrespective of whether the text is originally written in Bulgarian, or in English, or whether it is translated later. Additionally, Bulgarian is not simply the language itself, it is also about growing up within a certain culture, within a certain tradition of literature and translation. I have never imposed any rules on myself in terms of what language I should be writing in, though, and I have spontaneously written in English as well; it’s rather the text choosing, not me.
When it comes to the identity of the poems, to be honest, I am not sure. It feels like it is not my place to analyse and define it. By virtue of my nationality, education and the books I have grown up with, as well as the publisher of my debut collection, I would assume that the poems in ‘’Afternoons like these” exist within the broader Bulgarian literary tradition. However, objectively, the texts have not been created in a homogenous setting, they are rather influenced by a puzzle of many pieces. So, yes, I really don’t know, but I do humbly hope that the poetry can be enjoyed by many different people, that readers with various identities and experiences will find something in it to connect with. That said, the home of the poems, now that they have been let to live in the world in the form of a book, will be the minds and the hearts of the readers. For this, I’m very grateful.
Do the metaphors find you or you have to look for them?
I had not thought about this topic before, very interesting! Now that I do, I realize I have never consciously looked for metaphors. I do believe that too much of a good thing is a bad thing, so as much as I love metaphors, I also like cutting them out if I see they have started to usurp the text. On a more playful note, one of the first coffee places that I deemed as “mine” (i.e. where I enjoy going on my own to read, write, and observe) when I moved abroad was called Metafoor. So, I’ve had my coffee inside a Metafoor, and I very much enjoyed it.
Drinking coffee inside a Metafoor sounds lovely. Who have been your main influences?
This is very difficult to answer. Among the poets, I always mention Georgi Rupchev, Tsocho Boyadzhiev and Billy Collins. I have felt a constant admiration for their art and, moreover, I invariably find understanding and solace whenever I reach for their texts. I mention this because with most other authors, the relationship changes through the years, a bit like ebbs and flows, growing up or growing apart, and then sometimes finding each other again. Let’s take Haruki Murakami, who was a big favourite of mine in high school, and whom I still love, but I would not consider an influence anymore; I read and connect with his books much more rarely now.
Your poetry is very cinematographic. I enter your poems like spaces. You are also into photography. Do these two arts complement each other for you or do they go their separate ways?
I believe that for me, they stem from the same internal need and curiosity, and that they fulfil very similar purposes.
When do you take the pen and when the camera?
The camera has become a habit. I may be going to buy groceries, and I’d still have that reflex to reach for the camera in case I see something – a part of a building, a gesture, a momentary play of sunshine, that I really want to preserve. The pen, specifically the ‘poetry’ pen, comes as a continuation of this wish to capture the moment, and sometimes quite literally. For instance, one of my earliest poems (included in the book as “This is how I choose to place us in parentheses…”) was written because I had simply forgotten to take a camera to the beach at sunset, and I ached to make a photo.
Were the photos in your book taken to match the poems or you spotted for resemblances later?
I don’t have any photo-poem “couples”, with the poem being written based on the photo next to it, or vice versa. On the contrary, the connections between them surfaced only in the process of looking at all the material I have and having to make a selection; when I was deciding what story the book should tell.
What is coming next for you? Do you feel tempted to express yourself in other ways, perhaps prose?
I have a deep appreciation for prose and for the very specific discipline required to finish a novel or a collection of short stories. I keep taking notes, both in the form of snippets of text, and as photos, but I do not yet know what is coming next, when and if they would turn into something worth sharing with others. I hope so. On the other hand, academic writing – my doctoral research - is very much demanding my love and dedication at the moment.
* Irina Papancheva is a Bulgarian fiction writer. She was born in Burgas. She specialized literature in “St. St. Cyril and Methodius” high school, then she earned a master’s degree in Czech language and literature at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski” and a master’s degree in European politics and social integration at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium. She is the author of the illustrated book for children “I Stutter” (Ciela, 2005), the novels “Almost Intimately” (Kronos, 2007), “Annabel” (Janet 45, 2010), “Pelican Feather” (Janet 45, 2013) and “She, the island” (Trud, 2017), the novella “Welcome Nathan!” (Fast Print Books, 2019) and short stories. “Almost Intimately” got the audience nomination in the 2008 Bulgarian national literary competition South Spring (Yuzhna prolet), and her novel “Annabel” was shortlisted in the 2014 January Contemporary Bulgarian Novel Contest of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester. She writes in Bulgarian and English. Her works have been translated into English, French, Arabic and Persian. Website: ipapancheva.com