It's hard not to fangirl over Sonya Vatomsky, gothy, cat-loving, say-anything poet with a must-follow Instagram feed and a penchant for concision. So I will cosign myself to saying this: I could've probably asked Sonya any boring question and their response would've been interesting. That's just who they are.
But fear not, dear reader – I didn't put that theory to the test. I talked to Sonya about their painfully cute companion Magpie Underfoot and how this cat helps Sonya write and survive.
A little about Sonya before we hop to it: they are a Russian American non-binary artist with too many feelings on the inside and too much cat hair on the outside. They are the author of Salt Is For Curing (Sator Press, 2015), a debut poetry collection about bones, dill, and survival, as well as one chapbook. Poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in Dirge Magazine, Entropy Magazine, The Hairpin, Lodown Magazine, VIDA, The Poetry Foundation, and other publications. They live in Seattle with their cat, Magpie Underfoot, and a growing collection of taxidermy, wet specimens, and other oddities.
[CW: sexual assault]
Your cat has the coolest name. What inspired it?
Thank you! She’s named after the recurring symbolism of the magpie in 80s progressive rock band Marillion’s lyrics. “Underfoot” was added later after our vet called her “Magpie Vatomsky” — she doesn’t strike me as the kind of cat who would take someone else’s last name.
You mention that you adopted Magpie Underfoot from the shelter and she was "horrifically underweight." Can you talk about the process of caring for her in those early months and what impact it had on your relationship with her?
She fattened back up to normal quickly so that wasn’t really an issue, but whatever her life was like before the shelter left its mark. The first six months I had her, she’d meow me awake at 4 a.m. and meow the entire time I was at work. I almost had to move! She still gets really pissy when she can see the bottom of her food bowl; she has a little plastic bow she carries around and places in her food dish when she’s dissatisfied with it. It’s from a Christmas like 3 years ago but is so funny I don’t throw it out.
“She doesn’t strike me as the kind of cat who would take someone else’s last name.”
In our pre-interview chat, you said Magpie Underfoot is "more like an emotional support source without which most of my writing wouldn't happen." That made me remember your interview with Maudlin House when you said Salt Is for Curing is about "exorcising my demons – literal demons, literal exorcisms." I'm thinking there's a connective thread here – did Magpie Underfoot's emotional support help make those exorcisms possible?
Yes, absolutely. Around when the catalyst for my book happened — actually, I’m just going to be blunt here. I got assaulted by a friend of a friend after a party, and in the month or so around that, I also started taking antidepressants, had a horrific breakup, and needed a medical procedure that really stressed me out so I was basically a shitshow. Magpie, who normally slept by my feet, started sleeping on the pillow next to me. She still does that. I put both arms around her and my nose in her fur.
You described what I'm going to call "love transference" in your poetry, where you're writing about one subject, but channeling feelings you have for another. And I love how you put this to use in "Valerian Tea," a poem you said is "some kind of weirdo hybrid love poem about her [Magpie Underfoot] and my partner." (For our readers, a taste: "this interconnected belonging where our / eyelashes braid together and I fossilize with you and die / tomorrow and live forever and my face feels like my face…") How has Magpie complicated your understanding of what love is?
I don’t think she’s complicated it. Every once in a while my brain does the thing where I NEED TO HIERARCHIFY ALL MY LOVES and I’m like, is it reasonable for a cat to be this important? But she is, so whatever.
“Every once in a while my brain does the thing where I NEED TO HIERARCHIFY ALL MY LOVES and I’m like, is it reasonable for a cat to be this important? But she is, so whatever.”
Not a question about animals, but a question about being a human animal. How has identifying as non-binary influenced your work? I'm thinking specifically about Salt's meditations on what it means to occupy space in a patriarchal world.
At the time that I was writing Salt, I felt very female. It’s actually the only time in my life I’ve felt that way and it was in the aftermath of a sexual assault — like a man stamped WOMAN on my brow. To be so viscerally read as a woman after a lifetime of feeling inadequate was a bit of a journey, for sure. I started coming out as non-binary around when Salt got the publication offer and was worried that would be weird somehow, but it hasn’t been.
Tell me about your writing process. Do you have a ritual or schedule you follow? Does the poem start with an idea or a line? Is Magpie nearby?
No ritual or schedule, but I do prefer to write at home and my apartment is tiny so she’s definitely nearby and trying to sit on my laptop.
“To be so viscerally read as a woman after a lifetime of feeling inadequate was a bit of a journey, for sure.”
Salt is full of references to the body – specifically, the human and animal body as meat, fitting for a collection that uses food as a device to explore power dynamics and to dissect the self. But I want to focus on a specific animal – the fish in "Spidersilk" ("You looked so far away, I felt crazed; gutted myself like / a fish and dug in") and in "Herring under a fur coat" ("I put my coat on. Under, I / am cold wet fish, scales and weights, / I am wide maw and narrow fin"). Why did you choose the fish to name the vulnerability in these poems?
This isn’t that philosophical, but a fish is basically the only animal your average home cook is going to gut, yeah? I wanted the gutting to feel messy and vulnerable but not add any extra context, like using a deer or a rabbit might have. “Herring under a fur coat” is actually just the translated name of a Russian salad, which is why that poem also has all those beet and potato and mayonnaise bits.
True or false: poetry is a kind of spell work.
A poem with an animal in it (metaphorical or otherwise) that you wish you'd written?
I’ve been writing a lot about whales recently, even though I kind of dodged that fish question up above. I guess it would be another sea creature. I’m really fascinated by how little we know of the deep sea, the animals that live there.
“A fish is basically the only animal your average home cook is going to gut, yeah?”
A simile for Magpie Underfoot?
A little lemon. She is so sour. I love it.