Upon hearing of the Russian poetry event scheduled for May 25th as part of the Festival of Russian Arts 2012, I instantly expected surprising connections. Gathered at Poets House would be Debut Prize recipients Lev Oborin and Polina Barskova; the Debut Prize administrators Vitaly Pukhanov and Olga Slavnikova, renowned writers themselves; Alice Quinn, the head of the Poetry Society of America and former poetry editor of the New Yorker; and John William Narins the founder Causa Artium, a NYC-nonprofit dedicated to expanding the place of literary, visual, performance, musical and other forms of art in the world and one of the event’s sponsoring organizations. Mix in a full auditorium of approximately 50% native English and 50% native Russian speakers and each country’s fascination with the other’s literature, how could it be anything but thrilling?
Alice Quinn moderated the evening’s event, John William Narins translated the poems and parts of the subsequent discussion, and the audience was treated to the poetry and insights of Vitaly Pukhanov, Lev Oborin, and Polina Barskova.
Novelist and Director of the Debut Prize Olga Slavnikova opened the evening with an overview of the history and scope of the prize and acknowledged several in the audience who are key to the current Russian literary landscape including Natasha Perova of GLAS Publishing House and Vitaly Pukhanov, current Executive Secretary of the Debut Prize and the first poet to read.
Vitaly Pukhanov, a former editor at the “October” journal, and an enigmatic figure in Moscow poetry stood to enthusiastic applause and read the first poetry of the evening. He also spoke of the vision and philanthropy of Andrei Scotch, who through the Generation Foundation makes the Debut Prize possible. Lev Oborin’s poetry was engagingly diverse, giving voice to several perspectives: a poem titled “A Page from a Textbook, Natural History, 5th Grade,” resonant lines such as no place for skepsis or sepsis, and a poem that ended with a pun on the name, Soviet Union. In addition to his work as a poet, Mr. Oborin is a graduate student examining Russian-British cultural ties and a guitarist in a Moscow indie rock band. Polina Barskova, a prolific writer and professor of Russian literature at Hampshire College, read in Russian and her own English translations – narrative, image-rich poems, with sometimes syncopated rhythms.
Over the course of a lively discussion, questions arose of the reach and influence of various poets, the panel spoke of Joseph Brodsky, Elizabeth Bishop, Ilya Kaminsky, Czeslaw Milosz, Wislawa Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert, Adam Zagajewski, Charles Simic, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens. “Poles produce poetry that humbles Russians,” one of the panelists commented, and another remarked that Polish books of poetry are always important and always important to have accessible. Polina Barskova described her delight in finding Elizabeth Bishop’s Petropolis while working on her own project on the Siege of Leningrad.
As the Russian Poetry event drew to a close, Professor Barskova agreed to email me about the “ambassadorial” potential of the evening. Over Memorial Day weekend, she wrote:
“While I absolutely acknowledge that American modernist poetry is one of the richest, most vibrant, my attention was caught by work of Elizabeth Bishop. Maybe because of her poignant combination of magic and prosaic, or maybe because I'd heard of her when I lived in Brazil and found out she loved that land also. Some poetry relationships start with such ‘rhymes’ of history and geography. For me it was a big deal that Bishop was partial to Petropolis--a city that according to Russian poetry doesn't exist at all. It's an imaginary double of Petersburg, it's the platonic Other that exists only in poetry--Derzhavin, Pushkin, Mandelstam wrote of Petropolis. So, it was fun to send dozens of flashy postcards to my Russian friends—‘Look! it exists, even if very far away.’ This longing for the far away --in so many senses--brought me to Bishop, I guess.”
Madge McKeithen has written about poems in several essays including those collected in her book, Blue Peninsula (FSG, 2006). She initiated the One Page Poetry Circle at the NYPL and at the Darien Library. Her work has appeared in literary journals, anthologies and newspapers, The New York Times Book Review, and Best American Essays 2011. She teaches nonfiction in the Writing Program at the New School University and writes online at www.madgemckeithen.com.