An Interview with Svetlana Lilova


Svetlana Lilova was born in Sofia, Bulgaria and was raised by her grandparents in a remote rural village. In her early teens, without warning, she was spirited through the Iron Curtain by relatives. She arrived in Canada not knowing a word of English, and soon she was inseparable from her dictionary. For many years, she filled her time with writing and creating artworks from found objects. In her thirties, realizing her calling, she returned to university to study psychotherapy, and is now a practicing therapist.

Svetlana’s book of poetry, Metaphysical Dictionary, published by Dumagrad Books, is available in Toronto at Likely General, Book City and other bookstores, and online.


Cira: When did you begin writing poetry? Do you write in other genres?

Svetlana: I began writing poetry as a teen, after I came to Canada. In Bulgaria, I was not exposed to contemporary western politics and culture. For instance, I had heard very little western music before emigrating. Once here, with rudimentary English, I dove into western culture, especially music. Lyrics became an early source of artistic inspiration for me. I quickly gravitated towards Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, the Cure, Joy Division and others.

I wrote because the explosion of new experiences in my life in Canada demanded expression, as did the feeling (so common I now realize!) that I was different from everyone else, an outsider. I began searching for words that matched my feelings. In later years, a wide range of authors and poets, including Beckett, Bukowski, and Jean Genet, as well as classical playwrights, philosophers, and other Canadian writers, inspired me. I learned how to synthesize my experiences through writing and began to express myself primarily through poetry.

Poetry began for me as a form of private expression. For the longest time I felt I was just dabbling in writing, in part because I hadn’t taken any university writing courses. A few years ago I finally started enrolling in workshops and seminars, and people like Ronna Bloom and Guy Allen helped me overcome my insecurity and enabled me to see my own writing as just as “real” as anyone else’s.

Yes, I write in genres other than poetry. I’ve been attempting to write a fiction piece that remains totally amorphous at this point, full of flash writings of scenes. Even thematically it’s not yet fully formed. I also wrote some memoir pieces a number of years ago, which I haven’t revisited for some time; I am not sure what I think of those now.

Cira: Metaphysical Dictionary is a collection of very short poems. Each poem is made up of a word and corresponding definition. Rather than define in the conventional sense, your “definitions” imbue words with emotion and personal experience, complicating their meanings. What inspired you to write this collection in the form of a dictionary, and how does it reflect your understanding of language?

Svetlana: This project began spontaneously, several years ago. These poems began as a form of journal entry in which I occasionally wrote. Eventually I went back through my journals and collected these entries. When I realized how many I had written, I made a more conscious effort to add new entries, though I still allowed sudden moments of inspiration to determine which words I defined. After collecting the entries, I began to see a dictionary form emerging out of my chaotic and unpredictable bursts of self-expression. The definitions found a structure I could not have known I was building.

Reflecting back, I’d say that I am compelled to essentialize the meanings we ascribe to things. In our daily lives we seem to speak in general terms, circling around the feelings we wish to express. I experience a feeling of arrival when I land on the precise word for a feeling or experience I am trying to convey. I first became aware of the complicated relationship between language and meaning when I was learning English. My personal use of the English language evolved based on my experiences. MD attempts to validate subjective experience as a tool for understanding and acquiring a language.

Cira: Metaphysical Dictionary defines “second language” as “modeling words, like clothes we put / on, sequenced together in their / appropriate order, displayed, but / within which we can take years to / belong.” How did not knowing English obfuscate your sense of belonging in Canada? Can you explain the significance of your dictionary as you learned English?

Svetlana: For some reason, despite excelling in English rather quickly, according to my ESL teacher, I struggled for years to speak English with the fluidity I longed for. I would get tripped up by grammatically-correct sequencing, or idioms, or ways of constructing my sentences and felt uncomfortable putting listeners through my attempts to speak in complete sentences.

But MD’s definition of “second language” is more about a desire for inward rather than outward belonging. It’s more about wanting to belong to and self-identify through a language rather than a country where a particular language is spoken. Even now I struggle at times with delivering a sentence correctly on the first attempt. Speaking English can feel like wearing a dress that is bunched up in places, constraining my ability to self-express and articulate the way I long to.

MD’s definition of “second language” also asks whether mastering a language determines whether a person belongs to it. Ironically, I’ve forgotten a great deal of my native language and speak it very poorly (to the amusement of others!). Despite this, for me the sense of belonging I have within it has hardly diminished.

Cira: In your collection, you define “Metaphysical Dictionary” as “what matters / the choice of terms”. How did you choose which words to define? As a collection, what do these individual definitions collectively produce or point to?

Svetlana: I chose the defined terms organically—their poetic definitions were conceived in fleeting moments of inspiration. If everyone chose to write their own dictionaries, each dictionary would be different; for each of us, certain words possess personal emotional valence and associations. And any given person’s dictionary would likely be a time capsule of their personal experiences—of “what matters.”

As a collection, I’d say the terms indicate what mattered to me during the period in which I was writing. The book is partly autobiographical, but rather than events, it recalls the emotions that haunted or preoccupied me.  

Themes recur throughout the collection. The need for and importance of openness is one such theme. The collection speaks to the importance of openness without which we can’t self-examine. Closing ourselves off to others, experiences and our own emotions allows us to feel safe, but doing so results in inner poverty. I think I write in order to counter such poverty. I hope this small book promotes openness and self-discovery.

Cira: I read that you are a practicing psychotherapist. Of the words you chose to define, several find their roots in psychology (ego, consciousness, subconscious, persona, etc.).  How does your psychotherapy practice inform your writing?

Svetlana: As a therapist, I aim to help people identify the root issue(s) they want to address. It’s a practice that allows me to hone in on what is most important for my clients, and it can take a lot of talking to arrive at the core of what’s troubling a person. This therapeutic practice of circling around and isolating various life themes or issues has informed the writing of MD. In fact, it’s possible that I began the project as part of my professional development.

As for my other writings, my psychotherapeutic practice has furthered my understanding of the human condition and how we respond to change.

Cira: I’m particularly curious about the definitions you provide for “ego” and “self”. While “ego” and “self” are often used synonymously, you define “ego” as an “identity cage . . . to which we cling” and “self” as “a degree of spaciousness.” Can you speak to the distinction you make between ego and self?

Svetlana: This is a very thoughtful question. (As are all the others!) I think of the ego as that which we use to understand, structure and tolerate the world. When exposed to a dramatically different or challenging environment, a person’s concept of reality breaks down, and, consequently, so does their ego, their sense of identity. When this breakdown occurs, a person experiences inward, psychological disintegration. This experience of disintegration leads a person to cling their ego. For me, the ego has a negative connotation because it is a constructed sense of who we are. Contrarily, the “self” lies beneath the ego and is that which is authentic about a person. Simply put, the “self” is me; the “ego” is the structure I make of me.

Cira: Metaphysical Dictionary is filled with whimsical, child-like illustrations by Graham Falk. I’m interested in why you chose to illustrate this text. I’m also interested in the relationship between illustration and text in this work. How are the two mediums interacting or responding to one another?

Svetlana: I thought illustrations would complement the whimsy with which I often write. Moreover, the illustrations add to MD’s play with the traditional dictionary form. Traditional dictionaries are rarely illustrated; they feature literal, sober definitions of words. The illustrations in MD further differentiate the text from conventional dictionaries.  

I have a paradoxical relationship with the illustrations in MD. On the one hand, I wonder if at times they distract from the meaning and inward venture into which the definitions invite the reader. My reservations are not at all a comment on Graham Falk’s wonderful drawings but rather on the decision to illustrate in the first place. We, my publisher and I, approached Graham because of his unique sensibility, sometimes surreal, sometimes sly. It seems to me that he interprets words through illustration in a way that is similar to how I interpret words through writing.  

On the whole, I find the illustrations add another layer or dimension to the work—they deepen and further complicate the meanings of the defined terms.