Interviews - August 2014

'The passenger syndrome'

An interview with Grzegorz Wróblewski

In early April 2014, Polish writer and painter Grzegorz Wróblewski gave readings from his book Kopenhaga (trans. Piotr Gwiazda, Zephyr Press, 2013) at Columbia University, Cambridge Public Library, Rhode Island School of Design, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The following interview took place in Providence on April 7. It was transcribed and translated by Piotr Gwiazda. 


Piotr Gwiazda:
What is the relation of Kopenhaga to the rest of your oeuvre? 

Grzegorz Wróblewski: Kopenhaga started to materialize in my head when I was still living in Poland. It is an urban text, a kind of theory of urban life. It is about human beings entangled in various aspects of modern civilization. So it gives you a good sense of my worldview. Of course it is mainly an objectivist record, so I don’t share my political opinions, et cetera. Nevertheless, it shows you what I care about, what I pay attention to. It’s an important text in my oeuvre.

Gwiazda: How long did it take you to write it?

Wróblewski: It took me many years to write Kopenhaga. I wrote most of it after I moved to Copenhagen in 1985. The book came out in Poland in 2000. As you know, our English version also includes some later additions. But the core part of Kopenhaga took me about fifteen years to finish. I wrote things down, kept an eye on the whole, tried to be selective. I wanted the text to be perfect. I wanted it to have formal integrity. I definitely didn’t want it to read like a diary or notebook.

Gwiazda: Would it be appropriate to call Kopenhaga a book of prose poems?

Wróblewski: Yes, because it’s partly poetry and partly prose. Some texts are closer to poetry, others to prose. I myself have used the term “essays” [szkice] to emphasize the mixture of these two elements. But there is no reason to worry about definitions. You can choose any definition you want, as long as you can defend it.

Gwiazda: What did you try to achieve in Kopenhaga?

Wróblewski: In Kopenhaga, I tried to capture the rhythm, the pulse of earthly life. Copenhagen was my testing ground. Although many parts refer to Copenhagen, I wanted to portray archetypal scenarios — the universal human condition. That was my goal, at least.

Gwiazda: Is it also a kind of autobiography?

Wróblewski: Yes, in part. Some passages seem real, but are in fact surreal; they are hallucinations with bits of reality in them. I put everything through the filter of subjectivity. The book gives you a sense of Copenhagen’s topography, the streets, the people. But you can’t read it as a personal transcript. Again, if I had wanted it to be an autobiography, I would have used the form of a journal. Kopenhaga aspires to be something else. It is a conceptual text, in which I explore various aesthetic and theoretical questions.

Gwiazda: Were you ever tempted to explore these questions through the genre of literary criticism?

Wróblewski: I already work in many genres. Besides poetry, I write experimental prose, plays, hybrid texts. I am also a visual artist. So I do many things in terms of genre. I believe that there is an element of criticism in my prose writings. That is where I express my opinions, where I comment on literary, artistic, and other issues. So I have no need to write criticism professionally; I was never tempted to do so. If people want to learn what I think about literature and art, they should simply read my work.

Gwiazda: Is this also true of your painting?

Wróblewski: Yes. But the situation here is slightly more complicated because of the presence of two elements: calligraphic art and acrylic painting. The combination of these elements amounts to my technique.

Gwiazda: Can you comment on the importance of Eastern philosophy in Kopenhaga?

Wróblewski: I’ve always been interested in Eastern philosophy. Buddhism more than Hinduism, especially Zen Buddhism. This is the nihilistic version of Buddhism, which offers no promises. We are all children of the world, mere particles in the universe. I’ve always liked how Zen Buddhism tries to reconcile us to the cosmic nothingness, how it prepares us for death through meditation. This has always been something close to me; I treasure books like Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism. There is also a certain Japanese aesthetic in my poetry, though transposed onto European sphere of reference. I am fascinated by haiku and other traditionally Japanese forms.

Gwiazda: For whom do you write? For the Polish audience or a larger European or even world audience?

Wróblewski: You must remember that, above all, I am a Polish writer. Even though I live in Copenhagen, I write in Polish, so at least theoretically my first addressee is Polish. Of course it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, my book Nowa Kolonia first appeared in Denmark, in Danish translation, and only much later in Poland. You yourself know my poems that will first appear in their English versions. [Interviewer’s note: Wróblewski’s most recent poems are forthcoming in The Buenos Aires Review.] So the basic answer is this: I write for Polish readers, even though my situation is rather complicated, as I don’t live in Poland; I’m not there physically. Sometimes this leads to surprising developments. For example, my plays are never performed in Polish theaters. (My absence from the Polish stage is a topic for another conversation.)

Do I also write for other readers? It depends. My poems are often translated, not only into English but into other languages as well. So they reach readers in many places. Yet it would be overly optimistic of me to say that I write for a large audience. I hope to have more support from Polish cultural institutions in this regard. I’m convinced that my poetry would reach more people then.

Gwiazda: Would you say that your poetry translates easily?

Wróblewski: Because my poetry is lyrical at a very basic level, I believe it is not very easy to translate. It demands vigilance on the part of the translator. It also demands a particular kind of translator. Not everyone can do it.

Gwiazda: What about future readers? Do you ever think about them when you are writing?

Wróblewski: Well, the earth keeps turning, keeps changing. In poetry, it’s always just one generation at a time. The same goes for poetry criticism. You can consider yourself lucky if your work survives for a few generations. It’s hard to talk about the future. I have no idea whether anyone will read my work in five or ten years. I have my doubts, because I am a Polish writer and there are strange things going on in Poland these days in terms of critical reception, the kinds of poetry that gets official support, etc. I am lucky to have on my side the great poetry critic Anna Kaluża. So maybe I have a chance.

Gwiazda: Some poets imagine that they write for their predecessors. Do you?

Wróblewski: It’s always a form of conversation with the past. These are authors who showed you how to write, what to do. They broke new ground, changed the rules. They were precursors for many schools and kinds of contemporary poetry. You don’t write for them, because in most cases they no longer exist. But, in a sense, you believe that you carry on their work or at least offer an alternative to it. You can have a dialogue with them. You can imagine that, since they were not able to finish their projects, you continue their efforts in their name. It’s a complex matter. But this is not something to be obsessed about. I don’t think about it much.

Gwiazda: However, in Kopenhaga you seem to make such connections with at least two Polish poets.

Wróblewski: I mention Julian Tuwim, a great city poet, and Tadeusz Różewicz. Różewicz is also a great poet, but unfortunately he quickly lapsed into mannerism. He was original for ten or twenty years, then began to imitate himself, became monotonous. Yet I still respect him as a genuine innovator. [Interviewer’s note: Różewicz died on April 24, 2014.]

Gwiazda: Are there any other Polish poets that influenced you?

Wróblewski: If you look at the Polish poetic history, you will surely find poets with whom you feel you have something in common, even though you write differently. Every epoch has its great makers. The Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski can be as useful as the nineteenth-century Romantics. As for modern poetry, take Andrzej Bursa, active in the 1950s, who has been translated into English but is not as well known in the West as Zbigniew Herbert or Czesław Miłosz. In my view, he is more interesting than those two.

Gwiazda: Even though he wrote so little?

Wróblewski: Definitely. Whether you write ten or one thousand poems, what matters is what you write and how. Some of Bursa’s work is pure genius. I also like the work of Miron Białoszewski, especially his poems about Falenica (a Warsaw suburb) with their portrayals of existential boredom.

Gwiazda: It seems to me that generally you are more interested in poems than poets.

Wróblewski: Yes, because ultimately everything is transient, seasonal. I can think of no artists who had a strong phase for longer than five or ten years. In fact, we remember artists mainly for their individual creations. Since we happen to be in the United States, let’s talk about American poets. Take William Carlos Williams, one of the world’s most interesting but also uneven poets, the author of marvelous objectivist poems but also of many inconsequential and unnecessary ones. He was certainly a great artist — and a very important model for me. But he was also very uneven. I own his Collected Poems, but I can’t read many of his poems because I find them intellectually and formally uninteresting.

Gwiazda: Ultimately, then, do you write for yourself?

Wróblewski: In a sense, yes. It is always an opportunity for inner dialogue, a kind of artistic and personal challenge. I can’t imagine an artist — whether a writer, painter, or film director — who doesn’t create partly for his or her own satisfaction.

Of course, there are different ways of going about your work as a poet. You can imitate other poets or you can aspire to originality. So you master your individual style, try to avoid worn-out metaphors, but that in itself can be dangerous. Writers who want to be original at all costs end up producing banal contrivances. Sometimes being an imitator is more interesting artistically, because at least you don’t waste your time. And yet that also is a blind alley. I myself don’t write this kind of classicist poetry. I have always tried to be different formally. For example, when I was writing Nowa Kolonia, I faced all kinds of formal challenges that took me months to solve, because I needed to balance formal considerations with thematic ones. All poets face their own struggles.

Gwiazda: What is your take on contemporary politics in Poland and the rest of Europe?

Wróblewski: I’m not an optimist anymore. I was born in 1962, so I’ve had a lot of time to observe. I had hoped for big changes in Poland. Today I am completely astonished when I look at the state of political affairs in Poland. I see something similar in Denmark. The return of nationalistic sentiments, for example. It’s not a pretty situation.

Gwiazda: Do you consider your poetry political?

Wróblewski: Yes, definitely, since it is poetry about the world. I don’t live on a desert island, even though I sometimes feel isolated from other people. Because my poetry is also about the life of the mind, and the state of one’s mind is a political matter, my poetry is both very hermetic and very social. It comprises these two elements. One doesn’t negate the other. On the contrary, by being isolated, you can see certain things more clearly. Because you can see more clearly, your poems are stronger in the political sense.

Gwiazda: Do you therefore view yourself as a kind of intellectual or moral authority?

Wróblewski: No, because I ultimately don’t know who reads my work. Sometimes I feel like I’m just here for the ride: you know, the passenger syndrome. Ultimately I have no idea what my role is as a poet. When I give readings, I meet and talk with different people, but I don’t know what I represent to them. Besides, I’m not in a position to offer advice. Especially advice on how to survive. I really don’t have any.

Gwiazda: You said you don’t live on a desert island. So where do you live?

Wróblewski: In one sense, I live in Copenhagen. That is where my official address is since 1985. But I also live in a particular section of the city, Amager. This matters a lot. If I lived in another neighborhood, I would be a different writer. Location has a huge impact on the writer’s work.

But more generally, I live on planet Earth. Wherever I go, I see the same phenomena, the same absurdities. We are all humans, we exist to satisfy our physical and mental needs, often through illusions, self-deceptions, religions, other substitutes. It’s such a sad condition: going to work, earning money, watching TV, reading the newspaper, worrying about politics — nothing makes sense, to be honest. I think of the earth as a kind of insane asylum. You have to be an idiot to survive. If you are not an idiot, then the only choice is suicide. It’s the most obvious choice, intellectually.

Or maybe what makes sense is the possibility of human contact, a friendship, a meeting of the minds, perhaps through literature. Through literature you send signals to other people. Maybe someone in the universe who feels the same way as you do will receive them. This wouldn’t be a victory, but at least it would give you the strange satisfaction that you are not alone.

Resisting the art of entropy triumphant

An interview with Maxim Amelin

Left to right: Derek Mong, Anne O. Fisher, Maxim Amelin.

“Poetry has enemies,” Maxim Amelin once told us, “both internal and external.” Among the latter he cited “philologists and historians of literature,” a deliberately provocative stance considering that Amelin, trained as a philologist, mines word roots and literary history for poems.[1] (It is a stance he has since softened.) Among the former we would cite poetic indifference, or the tendency for poets to discount poetry hailing from movements or nations not their own. “Three percent,” we’ve all heard: that’s the share of the US book market devoted to translation. Toward that enemy, no softening is required. 

Maxim Amelin suffers from that indifference — only a dozen or so of his poems have appeared in English — though his career in Russia draws both attention and praise. An influential poet, translator, and essayist, he received the Anti-Booker and the Novyi Mir Prize in 1998 for his first book of poems Cold Odes (Холодные оды, 1996) and the Anthologia Poetry Prize and the Moscow Reckoning Prize for his second book, Dubia (1999). More recently, he received the 2013 Solzhenitsyn Prize for his lasting contributions to Russian culture. In honoring Amelin, the prize committee noted both his “innovative experiments, which expand the limits and possibilities of lyric poetry,” and his “development of the various traditions of Russian poetry.”

This is an apt description. As a loving collector of eighteenth-century neologisms (coined by his models, the Russian classicists) and a devoted student of Revolutionary word-smithing (à la Mayakovsky), Amelin keeps his poetry in suspension through the tension of opposites. He is among the last generation of Russian poets to grow up in the Soviet Union and saw his culture and language change rapidly under the influx of Western words and ideas. The poet Alexei Tsvetkov, writing about Amelin’s generation, the so-called tridtsatiletnye (“The Thirty-Year-Olds”), called them “the children of perestroika — or one should say the orphans, since their alleged mother went missing long ago.”[2]

Amelin was born in 1970, grew up in the provincial center of Kursk, then spent ten years in Saint Petersburg leading the publishing house Symposium. He is currently editor-in-chief at the prominent publisher OGI and lives in Moscow. His work has been translated into Hungarian, Vietnamese, Croatian, Chinese, and French (among other languages), and he reads at literary festivals and book fairs across Eurasia. He has also made two recent trips to the United States, joining a 2009 delegation of Russian writers at the University of Iowa International Writing Program and a “Read Russia” delegation at Book Expo America in New York last year. The most complete collection of his poetry and prose, Bent Speech (Гнутая речь), appeared in 2011.

We first met Amelin in the summer of 2009 and have been translating his poems — our project, tentatively titled The Joyous Science: The Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin, received a 2011 NEA grant in translation — ever since. This interview was conducted via email in the fall of 2013. Below it, you will find three poems by Maxim Amelin, with links to other lyrics appearing throughout.

Anne O. Fisher and Derek Mong: Talk to us about translation. You’ve translated from languages both living (Georgian and English) and dead (Greek and Latin). How does the process differ? How does it change when you’re working with the original poet, as you do with Georgian poetry? Is there one translation project that has had a more lasting effect on your own poetry?

Maxim Amelin: Two fundamentally different approaches are required for working with ancient poets versus contemporary ones. In the first case the translator sits one-on-one with the original and whatever’s been written about it. There’s no one to explain things, answer your questions. A text from two thousand years ago usually seems flat, devoid of stylistic features, because in the intervening time all the words and phrases have been worn down and smoothed over. In this situation, the translator must work like an art restorer, reconstructing the work’s original appearance based on his own understanding of it and on his knowledge of its general context. The poetry of ancient authors is marked by a higher semantic saturation than our contemporary poetry, but at the same time, it’s also more open-ended. Every line taken independently carries its own semantic load, but is also meant to be interpreted broadly once the line is removed from the context of the work. As it happens, seventeenth-century English poets and eighteenth-century Russian ones share this quality.

In the second case, when someone translates a contemporary, it’s always absolutely necessary to have direct contact with the author, since many things are hinted at or assumed in a poem, and the text itself is more of a closed, self-contained entity.

Translating the entire corpus of Gaius Valerius Catullus, as well as Pindar’s Victory Odes, has had a pretty strong influence on my own writing, primarily in terms of the composition, of how the poem’s mechanics are constructed, and in the way a line is endowed with meaning (as discussed above).

Fisher and Mong: In 2011, Read Russia and the Institute of Translation were founded. Both are government-sponsored initiatives intended to spread contemporary Russian literature abroad. In this they’ve succeeded, but if you scan the supported titles — we’re looking at the 2012 list from the Institute of Translation — the overwhelming majority is fiction. Are these initiatives doing enough to promote Russian poetry? Is there something about Russian poetry — too esoteric, too culturally specific, too “untranslatable” — that restricts it to Russians?

Amelin: It is true that the Russian government’s translation initiatives are generally concerned with prose. There’s nothing surprising about this, as a greater number of people understand prose, and it’s easier to translate. The government probably wants quick results. However, in my opinion, poetry in contemporary Russia is far more interesting, inventive, and expressive than prose. You can get a clear picture of this from, for example, The Best Poetry of 2010, a yearly anthology compiled from Russian publications in literary journals published in Russia, Israel, the US, and other countries. As the founder and publisher of this series of anthologies, I can vouch for it.

Of course, there’s also something specifically Russian, something untranslatable, just as in any poetry with deep national roots. But lately globalization has made itself felt in poetry too. “Festival vers-libre,” as I call it, has no individuality, no nationality, no notable formal inquiry of any kind, and, consequently, no formal innovation. This, the art of entropy triumphant, is proliferating far and wide, and it’s one of several trends that I personally oppose.

Fisher and Mong: In May you received the Solzhenitsyn Prize, becoming one of the youngest recipients, and one of only a few writers, to be honored for contributions to Russian culture. The prize committee singled out the way your work develops the “traditions of Russian poetry.” You’ve also been to the US twice in the last five years, giving readings and lectures.

Which of these “traditions of Russian poetry” do you see as most potentially relevant to contemporary American and/or international audiences? And given your own interest in periods of linguistic transition and cultural shifts, which American poets, poetic movements, or periods do you find most compelling? 

Amelin: In a sense, Russian poetry is currently at a crossroads. On the one hand, world poetry didn’t sit idle during those eighty-odd years following the Stalinist destruction of Russian modernism, while the experiment of Soviet poetry, overly regulated in form and ideologized in content, is, with the rarest exceptions, rejected as untenable by virtually all serious poets. And yet, in the general public’s consciousness, it’s precisely this would-be “poetry about nice little birch trees” that continues to be considered the real thing, and it’s very hard to fight this, like fighting the aftereffects of a bout with cancer. On the other hand, right now there’s an ongoing process of trying to understand and reevaluate the multifaceted experience of Russian poetry, as it has developed from the beginning of the eighteenth century on up to the age of modernism. There is a return to a natural poetic development, an attempt to reconstruct continuity, and the quicker this happens, the better it will be for Russian poetry.

There are things happening in contemporary US poetry that interest me: for example, the syllabicists who’ve sprung up over the past ten years; as far as form goes, they’re looking for new structures in poetry, and as for content, they’re honing a flowering intricacy. My own current inquiries lie somewhere along the same coordinates, and so I feel very sympathetic toward these developments.

Fisher and Mong: That’s interesting. Which American poets do you have in mind? Since the “invention” of English syllabics by Robert Bridges — who misreads Milton’s prosody to create “Neo-Miltonic syllabics” — the meter has remained a very minor one in English.

Amelin: I saw a series of syllabic poems by various contemporary authors in some anthology or other, but I don’t remember which one. Derek himself has poems like that. It goes without saying that neosyllabics isn’t the underlying principle of how poems are put together. Still, it’s a significant limitation or constraint that poets can adhere to in their search for structure. And that’s important.

Fisher and Mong: You’re known for your neologisms, coinages based on Old Church Slavonic or common Slavic roots that are — we must admit — very difficult to translate. The art of minting native-based neologisms goes back to the eighteenth-century neo-Classicists like Trediakovsky, although Soviet Futurists like Mayakovsky also reveled in it. What is it about the twenty-first century that prompts you to return to the eighteenth?

For you, this seems to be more than just a reaction to the post-Soviet proliferation of foreign words (particularly English ones) in everyday Russian language. What’s the state of the native word in twenty-first century Russian poetry, and in your own work? 

Amelin: Ideally, a poet has to work on all the levels of the poetic apparatus: on the word level, the phrase level, the sentence level (or colon, κῶλον), and on the level of the text as a whole. It’s like how an architect, developing the general look of a building, has to keep all the details in mind: how will the doorknobs look? The window latches? To me, nothing is less important than anything else. Neologisms created according to models already extant in the language give us the opportunity to express our understanding of a given object or event more precisely. More often than not, ordinary dictionaries don’t give shades of meaning, and if these are what are required, then that’s when the need to create new meanings arises. So it’s not a coincidence that poets tried to create new words and expressions at times when the language was going through periods of rapid development, like it was in the eighteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth. Russia’s in a similar situation right now.

At any rate, I personally feel the need for new meanings. The Russian language is very adaptable as far as influences and borrowings go; its ability to accept and assimilate words from other languages is staggering. Many English words enter the language, get Russian endings tacked on to them, and quickly become Russified — although these are primarily technical or financial terms that don’t have any direct connection to poetic language. Poets work with a language that’s more common to humanity as a whole, and they don’t have the time to keep up with the fleeting. And they shouldn’t try to.

Fisher and Mong: What about syntax? “Temple with an Arcade” and “Every Day” are both single-sentence poems, while much of your poetry features the complex, coiled syntax more readily accessible in an inflected language. One thinks of Pindar, whom you’ve translated, and how you’ve both been called “academic” or a “difficult” poet. Are you? 

Your poem “Long Now You’ve Lounged in Earth” admonishes poets for using tired old metaphors, such as “words flowing like water”; is there a tired old syntax your syntax rebels against?

Amelin: “Branching” syntax, as I call it, comes to me primarily from reading and translating the ancient poets Pindar, Catullus, and Horace, and also from the Russian poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: Vasiliy Petrov, Gavriil Derzhavin, and Nikolay Yazykov. Derzhavin, for example, has one period that goes on for 180 lines. In the twentieth century, no one save Joseph Brodsky worked seriously with poetic syntax. Syntax in poetry is tied directly to stanza formation. Thus my experiments are, in a lot of ways, a kind of reaction to the stanzaic poverty of the poetry of the middle and second half of the twentieth century, when the four-line stanza with alternating rhyme became canonical for Russian verse, and where every line or pair of lines ends in a colon or semi-colon. It’s just this kind of vacuity — and Soviet ideology specifically cultivated naiveté and simplicity in art, including poetry — that I wanted to stand against, by countering simplicity with complexity. 

Fisher and Mong: Your poems “Fire-Breathing Beast, Your Heavy Mane” and “Worse Than Bad, Better Than Good” paint harsh pictures of an (unidentified) tyrannical State. Historically, political conditions and censorship in Russia meant that literature and the other arts, not the press, had to serve as the venue for political and social discussion — hence the Russian tradition of exiled and suppressed writers and artists, one that is virtually unknown in America. Given the Pussy Riot trial and its aftermath, one could argue that this tradition seems to be continuing up to the present day. Do you feel pressure to comment on the current political climate in Russia?

Amelin: There are a few poems of mine, such as “Fire-Breathing Beast,” that would’ve seen me shot or sent to the Gulag if they’d been written in Stalinist times, although I don’t write political poems as such. There is political poetry today, and it’s fairly radical, but the government doesn’t even notice it. The current powers don’t read poetry and don’t give a damn what’s in it, and so you can talk about whatever you want in a poetic text. It just so happens that a lot depends on the context of the time. An act of protest that is widely publicized in the mass media is a different thing entirely. On the whole, artists in Russia have always had it pretty hard. In the last twenty years an economic pressure has replaced the ideological one, but the actual level of pressure hasn’t declined in the least.

Fisher and Mong: We noticed that your third book — The Horse of the Gorgon (Конь горгоны), published to wide acclaim in 2003, when you were thirty-three — often makes reference to your thirtieth birthday: “In August the Stars Shoot Through the Night Air,” “I’m Thirty But Feel Three Hundred,” and “Rising At Morning from My Graveside.” The self in these poems is often divided, and it seems you entered your fourth decade on an ambivalent note. In 2000, the world too entered a new and uncertain age, for Russia perhaps more so than other nations. So: what was going on at the turn of the century that had you so ambivalent? What has changed? 

Amelin: There’s a kind of number magic at work in the human consciousness that makes us operate in categories of time ending in zero. In actuality, these aren’t that important, of course. The preceding century began not in year one of the century, but around year fourteen or fifteen, when the people of the last century pass on to the next world, taking with them the cultural landscape of the forgone age. In other words, we ourselves are only just now beginning the new century.

Here in Russia, our best philological minds have gone to the great beyond. These are people who determined Russia’s current state, but who did not, alas, leave behind any schools of learning, much less a few scattered pupils. These were first and foremost our titans, our encyclopedic minds who worked in several branches of the humanities at once: the classicist and philologist, also translator and poetry scholar, Mikhail Gasparov; the scholar of Sanskrit language and literature, and of Russian culture, Vladimir Toporov; the medievalist historian and cultural scholar Aron Gurevich; the Byzantine scholar, cultural historian, and philosopher Sergey Averintsev; the linguist, and translator of the Rigveda and Atharvaveda, Tatyana Yelizarenkova; the philosopher, philologist, and translator Vladimir Bibikhin; the philologist, folklorist, and mythopoetic theorist Yeleazar Meletinskiy; and other great scholars known worldwide whose lectures I’ve had the good fortune to hear and whose books I’ve been able to read.

Russia is a land of single, isolated geniuses on whom everyone else always relies, rather than a land of conscientious workers scattered evenly across the university system. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the way it is, and it’s why the sense of the past few years’ irreplaceable losses has been especially sharp. Even as it comes into its own, the new age has shed its old skin for a thinner one. This happens with every new age of humanity, when the acquisitions fail to replace the losses.

Fisher and Mong: You’re originally from Kursk — a provincial capital and former WWII battlefield — but now live in Moscow. How does the relationship between the provinces and the center, between outsider and literati, inform your work? In America, among a certain segment of the population, there’s a line drawn between the “Real America” and the coasts, the cities. Is there a “Real Russia”? How does your work speak to it?

Amelin: There are two kinds of countries in the world: centrifugal, with a highly developed local government, where culture and civilization are more or less evenly distributed throughout the territory, and centripetal, in which all life and any activity are concentrated in and around the main city. Ancient Greece, Germany, Italy, and the United States can all be assigned to the first group. In the second go Ancient Rome, France, China, and Russia. Here, the capital extracts all the most gifted, active, and ambitious people from other cities, and it’s been going on that way for several centuries now. There was an attempt to decentralize in the nineteenth century, resulting in rapid development of provincial cities with their unique culture, but all that ended after the 1917 Revolution, and everything went back to its usual state.

And that’s the way it’s been going ever since. For example, there are practically no serious publishers outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg, there’s no normal cultural life, and — again, with a few rare exceptions — there’s not even an elementary level of intellectual discourse. The Russian saying “The town of your birth is where you’ll best serve” hasn’t worked for a long time. This is what the real Russia is like.

The city where I was born, Kursk, is a city with a thousand-year history, but in the past twenty years it’s been so disfigured by the destruction of the old city’s remains and the barbaric construction of monstrous shopping centers on the sites of historical buildings that I can’t even look at it without pain — and so I don’t go there very often. My Kursk is in me, and I may be the last witness to her former beauty, the one who must tell the world about it. A city that isn’t described in literature doesn’t exist, so to speak, in people’s consciousness.

Fisher and Mong: We’d like to ask you about your relation to the Classics. You’ve already mentioned your work on Catullus and Pindar, but you’ve translated Horace and the Priapus poems too; imitated Ausonius’s centos; and written many odes on classical and mythological themes, complete with strophes, antistrophes, and epodes. This influence comes early in your career, so we’re curious: how did the Classics prepare you for what followed? And how do you square your interest in ancient languages with your commitment to Russian roots?

Amelin: I wanted to return to the source, to the beginning of poetry, because I was unsatisfied both with the poetry that was allowed in Soviet times, and the poetry never subjected to the censor’s pen. Whether I went there consciously or not isn’t really important anymore. And where could I find these beginnings? In our shared European storeroom of Greek and Roman antiquity, on the one hand, and in Russian folklore, Russian poetry of the eighteenth century, on the other. Later, these two components evidently merged into one, in some fantastic way. Then what became for me the third element of this mix was ancient Indian poetics, its teachings about ornament (alankar), bent speech (vakrotki), and hidden meaning (dhvani). And what came out of this as a result was, well, what came out.

Fisher and Mong: That’s great, particularly considering you titled your new collection Bent Speech. We’re curious, though, about dhvani. In our reading we found the term more commonly used to mean “sound” or “resonance.” Could you clarify your use of dhvani?

Amelin: Dhvani is otzvuk (отзвук, echo, repercussion, reverberation) — that’s the direct and immediate meaning of the word. But in poetics it has precisely the sense of “hidden meaning.” It’s the meaning that remains after the work is read — hence otzvuk. And usually it’s not evident in the words, sometimes even going against the meaning of the poem’s sum total of words. This is exactly where “bent speech” comes from, which I understand in a broad way as all poetry and everything that is related to poetry. 

Fisher and Mong: There’s a sense of play in many of your poems, built on an appreciation of juxtapositions. I’m thinking of your evocation of the imposing Mayakovsky statue in downtown Moscow amid the drunks and prostitutes who gathered around it (“Classical Ode to V. V. Mayakovsky”). You move quickly from the sublime to the absurd! But no one ever mentions play, the unexpected juxtaposition, when discussing your poems. What are your own feelings on play? 

Amelin: The principle of play is, to my mind, essential for poetry. Play has a refreshing effect, which can sometimes emphasize the seriousness of the conversation. That’s what it does in that ode, for example. Mayakovsky (as monument) enters into the context of his own poems, which are themselves realized once more, not as metaphor but in real life. For example, he has the following lines: “Me alone, through a burning building / the prostitutes will carry in their arms, like a sacred idol, / and display to God, to exonerate themselves.” Or he talks to the Pushkin statue that’s come alive: “We’ll stand almost next to each other after life’s end: / You on ‘P,’ and me on ‘M.’” He also has this couplet: “Eat your pineapples, gobble your grouse, / your last day’s coming, you bourgeois louse.” In addition to this, Mayakovsky was one of the founders of the Soviet advertisement-in-verse.

All this context suddenly rose to the surface in the mid-1990s in Russia. And the return of such a long-vanished context seemed to me to be pure farce, buffoonery. But the poetry of Mayakovsky is essentially odic and was written with regard for the eighteenth century ode. So I tried putting him back into this same ode, and I wrote the poem in a ten-line stanza, in the classical stanza of Lomonosov. Here the play is on the level of form, first of all, and on the level of quotation. Incidentally, the Israeli philologist Mikhail Vayskopf wrote a monograph, At the Top of his Logos: The Religion of Mayakovsky (Во весь Логос: Религия Маяковского), which examines his ties to the odic tradition of the eighteenth century and came out the same year. So evidently my feeling about this wasn’t wrong. 

Fisher and Mong: Your apartment in Moscow just might have more books per square inch than any bookstore — let alone residential dwelling — we’ve ever seen. In both your publishing and your poetry, you’re a collector of unusual writers, like the Pushkin-era figure Count Khvostov. Do you think of Bent Speech as a linguistic Kunstkamera, Peter the Great’s trove of curios? What links antiquarian books, collecting, bibliomania and your writing? We’re thinking of your poem “On the Acquisition of a Volume of V.I. Maikov’s Works and Translations,” but also how some critics read Keats’s “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” — as a masterful (if limited) poem, because it relies on books (and not life) for its art. We imagine you’d disagree?

Amelin: I definitely don’t agree. Because a real story, something that actually happened to me, stands behind every poem. You could say that all my poems, even the ones that at first seem to be the most abstract, are grounded in the most absolutely real facts from my biography. Sometimes this connection is found right on the surface, sometimes it’s buried deep. And anyway, a biography can be internal, too, not just external. And while the external one is pretty much self-explanatory, the internal one should include, for example, old books, which are breakthroughs (or hiatuses) — from the everyday and the contemporary — into another reality. They make up that essential background, and they are that palimpsest everyone living today writes on, whether consciously or not. One of the fundamental components of poetry is genuine feeling, and it’s not really that important which exact person, object, or event was the source of that feeling. The main thing is how it’s expressed in the text.

Fisher and Mong: You are fascinated with the Russian religious philosopher Nikolay Fedorov’s “Philosophy of the Common Task,” which states that the saved will be resurrected back into their actual, physical bodies. Talk to us about this philosophy, and relate it — if you will — to poems where we see it appearing: “Where Burdock and Nettles,”There’s No Peace on Earth or in Heaven,” and “Rising at Morning from my Graveside.” Why has this idea so captured your imagination?

Amelin: Nikolay Fedorov’s “Philosophy of the Common Task” is probably the only unified philosophical system to have developed on Russian soil. There are philosophical ideas diffused throughout Russian poetry and prose, but apart from Fedorov’s we have no stand-alone philosophy as such. A rough approximation of its essence would go like this: all of contemporary humanity has to stop its wars and factions, and focus instead on a single (and attainable, sooner or later) goal — the resurrection of the fathers, the ancestors. But what’s more interesting are what Fedorov describes as the means of achieving this goal: universal disarmament, influencing the forces of nature, claiming the cosmos, preserving the memory of individuals by creating museums, transmitting information from generation to generation, and so forth. Notwithstanding what we initially see as the utopian nature of Fedorov’s ideas, these ideas ended up being extremely productive, influencing not only writers from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to Platonov and Solzhenitsyn, not only the artists of the Russian avant-garde, not only composers — first and foremost Shostakovich — but also scientists such as Tsiolkovsky, Chizhevsky, and Korolev, who developed spacecraft.

In other words, the best of everything that Russia gave the world over the past 150 years traces back somehow or other to these ideas. At the same time, Fedorov’s works were banned during the Soviet period and were first published in 1982, and in a heavily censored version to boot. Still, what was printed made a huge impression on me personally. I wanted to apply his ideas to poetry, about which Fedorov himself had written next to nothing, and this application came out not only in a whole series of poems — “Katabasis for Saint Thomas Week,” “To Count Khvostov,” “Temple with an Arcade,” “Every Day,” and others, including the ones you’ve named — but also in the very idea of returning undeservedly forgotten and misaligned poets back to readers. For historical reasons there have been quite a lot of these poets in Russia.

Fisher and Mong: “Satiety, Not Flavor” and “Just Like a Chance Rhyme in Prose” comment ambivalently (if not sardonically) on Russia and the Russian character. And yet you’re fiercely proud of the Russian language and all its potential. Is there a Platonic divide between the Russian language as it could or should exist, and the language as it’s used daily by Russian-speakers? Is it possible to reconcile the two?

Amelin: An interesting quality of the Russian character is its capacity for humor, irony, and self-irony, despite the very harshest conditions of everyday life, despite an existential (or real) horror at what’s going on all around. The ability to laugh at yourself and at your bungling leaders may just be what helped Russians survive all the horrors that were their lot in the twentieth century. Otherwise there’s no way to explain, for example, the surge of satire and humor in the 1920s and 1930s (Ilf and Petrov, Zoshchenko, Bulgakov), or the fact that Tvardovsky’s ironic, comical poem “Vasiliy Terkin” became the primary text about WWII in Russia, or that [the country’s] utter stagnation was reflected in Prigov’s poetry about the “Policeman,” and in Irtenev’s and Kibirov’s ironic works. These days, actually, that quality has vanished: young people have stopped understanding humor, they don’t joke. For me, this is a bad sign of the times. But it probably won’t last much longer. You can’t live for long in Russia if you’re totally serious — you’ll either go crazy or lay hands on yourself. Only laughter can save you. Incidentally, Russian secular poetry got its beginning with Kantemir’s truly hilarious satires.

Once a Polish intellectual tried to catch me out by asking, “How is it that Russian is so well developed? A lot of great poets worked on Polish for a long time, starting back in the fifteenth century.” I deflected it with a joke — though one that reflects what really happened — by replying, “In Russia it was the people who worked on the language, so it was already done when the great poets arrived.”



Poems by Maxim Amelin (Russian, b. 1970)
Translated by Derek Mong & Anne O. Fisher / Portland, OR

“Temple with an Arcade”

At the Genoese Fortress in Sudak, if you enter
the Main Gate, at the left, and approach the wall’s elbow,
then head up from a post — it doesn’t strike
the random rubbernecker as much — protruding
like a codger’s last tooth, there is a cupola
plopped on a stub-necked octahedron

that glows, a hemisphere’s bowl;
this is the Lord’s house, where a sequence
of people, lips parted in peaceful prayer,
washes like waves through the door:
see the law-abiding Mahommedans,
flooding in from the wild steppe

to sing “La ilaha illa Allah” in a slow monotone;
see the foreigners hauling their alien art
along the rippled path from the Ligurian Gulf —
they chant their gruff
“Pater Noster” in a language now dead;
or see a distant land’s exiles

with their “Sh’ma Israel,” who learn
by heart the scroll’s trusted marks;
see the conquerors of panoramas
and oceans, who proclaim “Otche Nash” all around,
vesting all hope in hammer and banner;
see the direct heirs of dire Martin

spreading his simple writ, “Vater Unser”;
see the fertile vale’s natives embracing
Noah’s ancient haven, Monophysites
honoring the Most High, each one
ardently affirming “Hayr Mer,” each cherishing
a grief sadder than low intellect can know …

all of them once traveled here, but now —
a free museum that’s open eight to eight,
where polyglot inscriptions intermix
with frescoes and the mihrab, where God
hears, with equal heed, entreaties
from all the fractured hosts of Man.

 

 

Vindictive Goddess, Statue Now Woken

            The son of Providence, trusting his budget,
            said unto us: I prophesy the hour of comets.


                                    — Count Khvostov


Vindictive Goddess, statue now woken,
      you’re evil’s bright herald!
What more do you foretell, tailed one?
      What else has that tail carried?
What is — of famine, misfortune, sorrow —
      your most irresistible menace?  

Ice floe, frigid in Heraclitan flames:
      his irreconcilable struggle!
Go out doubt-free, and feel no shame —
      sow coffins into the hibernal
earth, while a weedy sward grows
      shoots for mole-crickets and den mice.

Sow what’s useless, maddening, absurdist,
      between cornflowers and lily,
upon that clockface, ticking pendulous
      over the world. It’s time to mark our jubilee.
And please comb your hair for this event.
       You’re obliged to be transformed.

It’s time to put sin aside, for though it
      sextuples our vigor,
it should now be cut off — we’ve profit
      enough to satisfy creditors.
Recompense gluts the pockets
      of the prosperous; war is our gain.

The sun’s sightless, the moon’s couponed;
      starlight’s tight lips have crusted shut.
And like an uninvited guest — worse than
      a Tatar — you suddenly turn up
at this belly-laughing, black-tie banquet
      to unloose a new turn.  

How, without breaking into Pindaric odes,
      can I stand by on the sidelines?
I’d blow my poetry’s fiery load
      on the few years I’m resigned
to. Having removed this pearl — iridescent,
      smooth — God gathers it in.    

Earthbound from God’s elderhand
      and barefooting straight from bed —
with no shawl to veil such lucid      
      skin — a red-head sails, her girlish braid
trailing from her head —
      she’ll answer for everything.

 


Why Repeat Ourselves?


Why repeat ourselves? More than was called
for has been said, done, or rescued
from breakdown and downfall —
the ripe seed sleeps beneath the earth.

Shoots peep from soil into sunbeams;
neither heat nor hoarfrost crack
them. God guards each one from
the brigands — insect throngs, the wild flock.

Let foe follow foe, for all are earthly
vanity. The foliage that’s fallen
down won’t wither, it will redouble.  
The sad vigil ends with morning’s adulation!

A flame forced the water to run,
and moisture fanned the fire’s spark,
but for the grand constellation now spun
there’s no harrier or stumbling block.

On the penny-wise all pound words
are wasted. The buried cities they insist
will be reborn simply confirm
what we already know: Pompeii existed.

 

 

«Храм с аркадой»

В Судакской крепости, если от Главных
ворот — налево — до локтя стены —
и вверх, особым на первый праздному
зеваке с виду ничем не приметный,
с торчащего зубом во рту столпа
единственным и с полушарием купола

по-над осьмигранником кратковыйным,
сей дом Господень, куда чередой
в устах отверстых с молитвами мирными
одни за другими, что на берег волны:
из диких нахлынувшие степей
законопослушники Магометовы

петь “Ля илляха илля-Лла” протяжно;
по зыбкому от Лигурийских пучин
пути пришельцы искусствоносные
свой строгий отчётливо “Патэр ностэр”
на мёртвом наречии повторять;
со “Шма Исраэль” далёкой изгнанники

земли, во всём полагаясь на свиток,
чьи буквы ведомы наперечёт;
пространств на суше завоеватели
и на море, “Отче наш” возглашая,
крюкам доверяться и знаменам;
простых прямые Мартина грозного

писаний наследники с “Фатэр унзэр”;
единоприродным Вышнего чтя,
из злачных вкруг древней Ноевой пристани
юдолищ выходцы, дабы страстно
“Хайр мэр” твердить и лелеять грусть,
рассудку низкому неподвластную, —

все были некогда здесь, а ныне —
в открытый с восьми до восьми музей,
где фрески, михраб и разноязычные
по стенам надписи, вход свободный,
и внемлет мольбам одинаково Бог
всего разобщённого человечества.

 

 

Гневной богини ожившая статуя


                     Сын промысла, поверя сметы,
                     Речет: пророчу час кометы.
                                Граф Хвостов.

Гневной богини ожившая статуя,
      светлая вестница зла!
Что ты еще предвещаешь, хвостатая?
      что на хвосте принесла?
Чем ты — невзгодами, скорбями, голодом —
      неотразимо грозишь?

Хладная льдина в огне Гераклитовой
      непримиримой борьбы!
Не сомневайся, стыда не испытывай –
      в стылую землю гробы
сей, и дождутся на поле неполотом
      всходов медведка да мышь.

 Сей бесполезное, бренное, дикое,
      меж васильков и лилей
по циферблату надмирному тикая, —
      время справлять юбилей:
ты расчесаться по этому случаю,
      преобразиться должна.

Время с грехами, какими бы ни были,
      ушестерившими прыть,
разом расстаться, — достаточно прибыли,
      чтобы расходы покрыть;
будет возмездие, благополучию
      только на пользу война.

Солнце ослепло, луна отоварена,
      звездам залеплены рты, —
гостем непрошеным — хуже татарина —
      вдруг заявляешься ты
непринужденному званому ужину
      новый придать оборот.

Не разражаясь торжественной одою,
      как устоять в стороне? —
Весь поэтический жар израсходую,
      на год отмеренный мне:
переливающуюся жемчужину,
      вынув, Господь уберет.

Послана миру десницею Божьего,
      прямо с постели, босой,
без покрывала, с прозрачною кожею,
      с длинной-предлинной косой,
большеголовая рыжая девочка,
      чтобы ответить за все.

 

 

Что повторяться?

Что повторяться? — Больше, чем надо,
сказано — сделано — спасено
от сокрушения и распада, —
спелое в землю легло зерно.

Всходы проклюнулись из-под спуда, —
их не сломили ни жар, ни хлад,
Бог сохранил от лихого люда,
толп насекомых и диких стад.

Враг за врагом — суета пустая,
ибо, со древа упав, листва
не истощается, нарастая, —
нет нощеденства без ликовства!

Пламя заставило литься воду,
влага сподвигнула жечь огонь,
а величавых созвездий ходу —
ни преткновения, ни погонь.

Мудрому сумерки по колено, —
им утверждаются без труда,
вновь из-под пепла восстав и брена,
все погребенные города.


 

1. From “Краткая речь в защиту поэзии” (A Short Speech in Defense of Poetry), Amelin’s acceptance speech for the 1998 Novyi Mir Prize (Гнутая речь [Bent Speech]: B.S.G. Press, 2011), 275.

2. Alexei Tsvetkov, “Leaving Prague: A Notebook,” Poetry Magazine 191, no. 5 (Fall 2008): 425–33.