I owe the pleasure of this week to the evening spent at Cornelia Street Café at the back table with David Lehman and Lawrence Joseph (his friend of 50 years!) Jump cut: When I recently asked David might he feature the Russia Issue of the Atlanta Review I'd just edited on the BAP blog, he offered me this residency to guest blog on the subject. It seems only fitting then that, in my first post, I do exactly that. Without further adieu.... AC
Welcome! Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Yevtushenko, Brodsky. I have probably just summed up what most of us know of modern Russian poetry. And yet there could hardly be a nation more important for us to understand—or one with a greater enthusiasm for poetry. Yevtushenko’s readings used to fill football stadiums. Brodsky might have, had he not been exiled from his country as a “social parasite.” (On their worst days, poets sometimes wonder if what they do is useless. Imagine having your country tell you so officially!
But what these poets do is far from useless, and it was out of fear, not scorn, that Brodsky was expelled from the Soviet Union. As Osip Mandelstam, who died in Stalin’s prison camps, once said: “Only in Russia is poetry respected; it gets people killed. Is there another place where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” Independent thinking, a broad and humane perspective, imagination, fearless criticism, creativity itself—these are the things that repressive regimes fear most, and for which we turn to poetry and poets.
Here indeed are some chilling poems in which the personal and the political intersect, like Andrey Gritsman’s “Sarin, Soman, Tobun.” But also remarkable is the extent to which these Russian poets have refused to let political struggles dictate their agenda, finding space for free and imaginative exploration in the ample country of their own art.
At Brodsky’s trial his Soviet judge sneered, “Who enrolled you in the ranks of the poets?” “No one,” replied Brodsky. “Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?” Brodsky would go on to win the Nobel Prize and become Poet Laureate of the United States. But the young and unrecognized poet’s answer still stands: what makes an artist is not the approval of society, but the expression of one’s own humanity.
Nobel Prize or not, all poets still face the vast, snowy tundra of the blank page, with which this issue fittingly begins. And yet, from prison cells to castle keeps, Arctic to desert to Amazon jungle, they come bearing gifts of the human spirit, for which we will always be grateful.
Dan Veach, Editor & Publisher of the Atlanta Review. TABLE OF CONTENTS
Whereas in the nineties, a specialist could rest easy in her familiarity with the work of some two hundred poets, this number extends now to a thousand “names”. Though I have made every effort to be broad and inclusive, what I've managed to present here is, I hope, a representative selection of the best work being done today... a slice of life, also, of who and what the, primarily, American translators of Russian poetry are working on today.
"I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Alex Cigale gave me a copy of the spring/summer 2015 issue of Atlanta Review: Alex edited the issue and it includes four or five or six dozen translations of Russian poems. Alex pulled together a fantastic roster of fifty poets (Shamshad Abdullaev to Ivan Zhdanov, if taken in the Roman alphabet’s A to Z) and several dozen translators, many of whom I know and have heard read from and/or speak about their work. I’ve only read a small sliver of the issue—every time I open the journal, I get happily stuck on Alyssa Gillespie’s lush translation of a Polina Barskova poem that starts with “Sweetness of the sweetest slumber/Sweet is sweet is sweet is dream” because I love what Alyssa does with rhythm and rhyme—but I can’t wait to read more, poet by poet, translator by translator. Alex reminded me that readers can get tastes of the poems (as well as background) from the Atlanta Review Facebook group, where posts often include lots of links. If you’re looking for very short notes, there’s also Twitter! @AtlantaReviewRU (Lisa Espenschade)
The Russia Issue (Alex Cigale, Editor's Statement)
I am safe in assuming, I think, that most of us are unfamiliar with the state of Russian poetry affairs. Above all, what I would like you to know is that it is every bit as lively and diverse as the situation in America. One big difference: Russia has not experienced the equivalent to our explosion of writing programs (there are none) and the only training available to poets is the Gorky Literature Institute, established in Soviet times, and regional “workshops” of established writers or critics that have earned the name “school”. Serious poets are for the most part employed in teaching other disciplines, or as journalists, in “literary work”: editing, translating, criticism.
A similar expansion however has taken place in the last two decades of “names worth noting”. Whereas in the nineties, a specialist could rest easy in her familiarity with the work of some two hundred poets, this number extends now to a thousand “names”. Though I have made every effort to be broad and inclusive, what I have managed to present here is only what I hope is a representative selection of the best work being done today.
Regarding the demographic landscape; it is necessary to reiterate here the oft-noted traditionally dominant place held by the two cultural capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and the eternal division if not open enmity between them, with the latter, though perhaps just as traditional for the most part, historically more open to outside influence, i.e. westward looking. The periphery (Siberia, Central Asia, Caucuses) has developed in greater isolation and cultural neglect, and so, at least until very recently, drew for the most part on “native” traditions, the local oral ones and of the Russian classics, so that even Modernism hardly made any inroads. One must recall that such “formalism”, and any independent or individualistic activity was not only discouraged but, for 70 years, punished.
There had been a number of spectacular exclusions to this rule of party line, Writers’ Union enforced discipline, perhaps primary among them the Russian Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi, who exerted a seminal influence on other “unofficial poets” through his synthesis of the traditional Chuvash song lyric and the influence of post-war French poets he translated into Chuvash (a Turkic language) and such European poets as Paul Clean. In our present mini-anthology, I would draw attention to the work of Shamshad Abdullaev, a leading representative of the “Fergana School” (Uzbekistan) that opens the issue and, more recently, the anaphora-charged work of the Russian Buryat Amarsana Ulzytuev. (I have not managed to represent here the lively poetry scene of Riga, Latvia, with its own Russian language poetry group, Orbita, only one such example.)
A final demographic that can’t fail to draw attention is the relative paucity of women poets. While I can’t, due to space limitations, discuss the roots of this inequality, I was very aware of this lack of proportion and made an effort, certainly without sacrificing quality, to be approximately fair. While of the poets of the Silver Age (roughly the first quarter of the 20th century), the notable women poets were the Symbolist Zinaida Gippius, Futurist Elena Guro, Satirist Teffi, and “unaligned” Sophia Parnok (relatively minor poets), two of the top figures were Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhamtova, and one of the major poets of the ironically named Bronze Age (the 60s) was a woman, Bella Akhmadulina (1937-2010). While other major figures of the older generation are not represented here (Olga Sedakova, b. 1949; Nina Iskrenko, 1941-1995), this issue, I hope, manages to communicate something of the veritable and quite recent boom in writing by women.
In the grand scheme of things, one must recall that practically the entire generation of the first half of the century was either repressed or exterminated or committed suicide. The last of the avant-garde generation of Russian Futurists or Oberiu, the so-called Russian Absurdists, died in the Gulag camps (like Alexander Vvedensky), were interned for ten or even twenty years (like Nikolay Zabolotsky), or starved during the Siege of Leningrad (like Daniil Kharms), and their writings did not become available in Russia until the 80s.
A note about the flowering of Russian poetry post-war, after the death of Stalin, in 1953, and Khrushchev’s “thaw”, the partial and temporary opening to the West in 1957. Among these were the Moscow Conceptualists (Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinstein), the Lianozovo group (Genrikh Sapgir [1928-1999], Jan Satunovsy, Igor Kholin, Vsevolod Nekrasov [1934-2009], Yevgeny Kropivnitsky), St. Petersburg’s “philological school” (Eremin, Loseff, Vladimir Uflyand [1937-2007], Sergey Kulle), and the hundreds of other independent spirits (for example, Alexei Khvostenko [1940-2004] and Henri Volokhonsky) whose only prospects of publication were samizdat and tamizdat (underground, typed/mimeographed self-publication at home or illegal, smuggled-out publication abroad).
Only after Gorbachev’s perestroika in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were practically all of the unofficial poets published, their books appearing for the first time, a heady time indeed for all of us. Prior to the 90s, this was literally an underground, shadow cultural process in parallel to the officially accepted structure of the Writers’ Union. Notable exceptions were the surviving Pasternak and Akhmatova and, in the war generation, Arseny Tarkovsky (the filmmaker’s father), who worked in the literary field, primarily as translators themselves, and simply “wrote for the desk”, and the 60s icon Andrei Voznesensky [1933-2010], who managed to bridge the official and unofficial worlds through his acquaintance with Allen Ginsberg, and by assuming the mantle of the lionized Mayakovsky (many of the unofficial poets, as by the way their Absurdist predecessors, made a living within the official structures by writing children’s poetry and publishing translations: Sapgir, Satunovsky, etc.)
For further reading, a note about existing anthologies, first and foremost, the indispensable, immensely personal, entertaining Blue Lagoon (available online but in Russian only) of the St. Petersburg poet Konstantin Kuzminsky [1940-2015]. And, the anthologies, in order of appearance, in English translation: Third Wave (Kent Johnson, Stephen M. Ashby editors; University of Michigan, 1992), Contemporary Russian Poetry (by Gerald S. Smith, 1993), In the Grip of Strange Thoughts (Zephyr Press, 1999), and Crossing Centuries: the New Generation in Russian Poetry (2000), Contemporary Russian Poetry (E. Bunimovich and J. Kates editors; Dalkey Archives, 2008), as well as the Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets published by Modern Poetry in Translation and in the U.S. by Zephyr Press (eds. Daniel Weissbort [1935-2013],Valentina Polukhina).
I was part of the group effort in the mid-90s that resulted in CC and highly recommend this collection of over 80 poets and its substantial critical materials by way of background to the present work. An attempt to sum up the last quarter of the 20th c., it was already clear in the 90s, that it was now impossible to be fully inclusive. More recently, Larissa Shmailo has headed an incipient online project to begin sketching out in English translation a 21st Century Russian Poetry (Big Bridge).
Although I have made every effort, due to the short term nature of the current project, I was unable to find new, previously unpublished translations of the following poets who had passed away since 2000 and whom I very much wanted to include — Arkadii Dragomoshchenko (1946-2012), Natalia Gorbanevskaya (1936-2013), Viktor Krivulin (1944-2001), Alexei Parshchikov (1954-2009), Dmitry Prigov (1940-2007) — as well as of the still living poets of the older generation, for example Viktor Sosnora (b. 1936). One of the aims I have fulfilled was my desire to pay tribute to the recently departed members of the community, Gregory Dashevsky (1964-2013), Regina Derieva (1949-2013), Lev Loseff (1937-2009), Dennis Novikov (1967-2004), as well as to legendary translators not yet included, F. D. Reeve (1928-2013), and the living classics ,James E. Falen and Gerald Smith.
Lastly, very late in the editorial process, a decision was taken together with Atlanta Review editor-in-chief Dan Veach to represent the relatively recent phenomena of bilingual poets, i.e. Russians writing in English (Tsvetkov, Gritsman, Temkina, Halberstadt, Kaminsky, but also eventually those not yet represented, Eugene Dubnov, Eugene Ostashevksy, Matvei Yankilevich, Genya Turovskaya, and others who, like Mashinski, Kapovich, Nikolayev, are represented either as translators or as Russian language poets.) As such, the present collection is also weighed quite heavily toward Russian poetry being produced in the west (particularly in America, but also Germany, Israel, etc.), partly because this is likely to be of interest to the primarily American readers, partly to highlight that Russian has become an international language and the Russian immigration has made a substantial contribution to world and, particularly, American culture.
This imbalance has its own drawbacks and exposes myself and its participants to potential criticism, still, on the eve of what may yet become the new Cold War, the increasing international isolation of Russia and of many Russian intellectuals as a potential “fifth column” within Russia, I find it necessary to emphasize what has been part of my design all along – one, perhaps central, service of a translator, and of poets more generally, is being a cultural ambassador.
More than anything, the following selection represents a slice of life: whom the primarily American translators of Russian poetry are working on today.The issue has an historical interlude (see bio for the “other,” Roald Mandelstam) and conclusion: a selection of the poetry of three “lost”, second-generation Russian Absurdists produced during the Siege of Leningrad, and the closing words of Tarkovsky and Joseph Brodsky. Three final notes: literary life extending far beyond poetry, as it does for so many poets, it is worth paying particular attention to the bios: among our contributors are editors and publishers of some of Russia’s leading presses and journals (Argo-Risk, OGI, NLO, Russkii Gulliver, Cardinal Points, Gvideon, UDP, Vozdukh, Zvezda).
Secondly, I apologize for any oversight or omissions on my part, and promise to one day remedy these. Last, not least: quite predictably, I wish to acknowledge the consistently excellent work of each of the translators, many of whom are accomplished poets in their own right (I’m a fervent believer that poets must translate other poets). Now it is up to you: dear reader, please help us spread the word, that these poems may lead their own second life, as English poems in their own right.