Features - August 2014

Russian poetic counterpublics

As we all know, poets can be difficult.

Some use difficult and challenging language. Others write about difficult topics. The writing of some may not correspond to common expectations among readers. Some are simply ornery. For a poet writing in English for American audiences, or a Russian writing for Russian audiences, being difficult might result in a more modestly scaled audience and publication in small journals and small presses — circumscribed circulation in poetic counterpublics. Yet when it comes to translations from one language to another, the consequence of difficulty often is simply neglect.

Translation (which in any case accounts for a tiny portion of poetry published in the US) depends on the tastes and knowledge of the small community of adepts possessed of the necessary linguistic skills, time, passion, and purpose. In the case of Russian poetry over the course of the twentieth century, the situation was rendered more challenging by constraints on access to underground, unpublished, or self-published poetry (samizdat, as it was called), and by Cold War literary politics that dictated which poets were worthy of translation. To reach an Anglophone audience, Russian poetry had to pass through a complex system of filters, baffles, valves, and grates — crossing not only linguistic barriers, but also material, social, and ideological ones. Of course, the same may be said of any act of translation. My point is that these conditions were intensified to an extreme in the case of Russian poetry for much of the twentieth century. Russian poetic counterpublics were rendered remote, unknown enclaves of writing.

Fortunately, since the end of the Cold War, the situation is improving. This is not only the result of the vanishing of Soviet state controls on publishing and the ebbing of Cold War mentalities; it is also the result of the appearance of new generations of translators. The authors of the essays and translations offered here are part of a new wave of scholars, poets, and translators whose professional activity bridges Russian and American literary contexts in ways that would have been nearly impossible twenty-five years ago. Polina Barskova, born in St. Petersburg, is a Russian poet and American scholar of Russian writing who teaches at Hampshire College. Eugene Ostashevsky, born in Leningrad and raised in New York, is an American poet and scholar who teaches at NYU. Stephanie Sandler and Kevin M. F. Platt, US-born scholars of Russian literature, have both spent considerable amounts of time in the company of the poets they translate and discuss here.

In short, the translation projects represented here have been made possible by a high degree of close, lived contact — contact that circumvents and short-circuits that older system of baffles and filters (while, perhaps, instituting new ones). This is translation as a form of intimacy. The result, a small sampling of which is included in the essays and translations published here, is a new injection of the writings of difficult (not necessarily ornery) Russian poets into the American scene, and a glimpse into formerly remote Russian poetic counterpublics.