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Speaking politicially through poetry

Russian writer Dmitry Kuzmin, an award-winning poet, political commentator (especially in the sphere of gay rights), publisher, academic, and active translator of poetry into Russian (including the works of Princeton University’s own C. K. Williams) is visiting at Princeton this spring. He is teaching a graduate class on contemporary Russian poetry and an undergraduate seminar on literary translation. The interview below was conducted via e-mail by graduate students in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Geoffrey F. Cebula, Susanna Weygandt, and Emily A. Wang.

GS You're the chief editor of the contemporary poetry journal Vozdukh and web anthology Vavilon. What forms of poetry are you looking for? How are they reflective of the contemporary Russian poetry scene today?  It is interesting that Vavilon can be accessed on the Internet only.  We are curious to hear your thoughts about the difference between print and web publishing in establishing literary communities,

DK You probably know that for some decades Russian literature, especially poetry, was divided into two almost separate streams (perhaps they should be treated as sub-fields in Bourdieuan terms): legal Soviet poetry and independent 'samizdat' poetry. Official Soviet poetry tended, especially after the Second World War, to express a rather narrow range of socially accepted thoughts and feelings in a more or less standardized (not to say trivial) form, while independent poetry arose within several more or less separate groups and circles, each of which developed its own way of thinking and writing. In the late 1970s these circles found themselves interrelated in many ways, and it was Andrei Bely Prize, established in 1978, that served as the main symbol of this new unified, state-free Russian literature. This concept of national poetry as the space where dissimilar trends and tendencies unite, one that is more rich and fruitful the more numerous and well-elaborated these different trends are, was inherited and widened by the young authors of late 1980s; and Vavilon (that is, let me remind you, Russian for Babylon) started in 1989 as a samizdat publication and then became a small press magazine for young writers to promote this idea: it is good and right for the partisans of different literary schools to hold a dialogue and work together. The key idea behind the web anthology of the same name (started in 1996) and Vozdukh (started in 2006) is basically the same: difference is value, and dialogue is value too. But all the parts should have something to say if we aim to have a successful dialogue, and here is another basic principle of all my projects: poetry as innovation, the author as researcher sui generis so that it is mandatory for him or her to find or invent something previously unknown. All of this might sound rather evident, but there are too many institutions in present-day Russian literature that are inherently Soviet in their ideology, implying that there is certain universally genuine way of writing, while any other option is a priori wrong.

As for web publishing, the reason for it in Russia is mainly practical: the output of rather small publishers is technically unavailable in most bookstores. On the other hand, books and magazines published on paper are still treated as more reliable not only by common sense, but also by the professional community; for this reason, Vavilon, like some other important resources on the Russian Internet, is not web publishing in the strict sense, but contains mostly online versions of paper editions. Web publishing proper is reserved for self-proclaimed writers (a sort of vanity press) or for very young emerging authors who have yet to prove their ability.


GSYou're not just a writer, but also a social activist.  The media has covered stories about your gay rights activism.  Do your see your literary activities as related to your political causes? What are you fighting for?

DK I am not a social activist insofar as I don’t usually participate in any kind of collective campaigning (though 15 or 20 years ago I did; since then I decided that it does not work in my country, unfortunately, as long as paternalistic patterns remain absolutely predominant in common people's mind so that the very ideas of private initiative and personal rights meet rather hostile reception here in Russia). On the other hand, it is true that a public figure active in any social or cultural field can have an impact on people even beyond the scope of his or her activity. Facing a lack of political leaders with a more or less reasonable platform and agenda, a poet can speak politically (in the widest sense of the word) and be listened to with great attention. So being one of the very few, if any, openly gay figures on the present-day Russian cultural scene is kind of a test case for national public opinion, especially within the literary community. The main thing I am fighting for is personal freedom, understood as the will and capability of making one's own deliberate and responsible choices (let me say it is more about ethics than politics, though political implications are obvious: free choice of any kind is intolerable for a totalitarian state; that's why both Hitler and Stalin were so severe about body politics, implying that the citizen's body in just the same way as his/her mind belongs to the Power). To a certain degree my editing/publishing and critical activity and my own poetry are about the same thing: they are about standing alone with one's personal independent ethical and/or aesthetical position as the only prerequisite for the felicity of communication.


GSYou have previously anthologized gay literature.  Do you see this as project that will continue?  If so, how might it evolve?

DK I have just finished selection of texts for a new anthology of contemporary Russian LGBT writing in Spanish translation, forthcoming later this year. But in general, Russian literature possesses a rather small amount of authors working actively with these themes. I have stopped my yearly almanac of gay writing because of a lack of texts worth publishing. Some brilliant authors are present, though, and some inspiring debuts took place in the 2010s, but up to the moment, I think, it would be more fruitful to collect and compare texts on more subtle and refined ground: we need an anthology of gender-focused writing which asks more questions about the queerness of different roles and identities in present-day private and social life.


GS You won the prestigious Andrei Bely prize for service to literature.  Describe some of these services for us. How would you describe your role in the Russian literary community?

DK I have partly answered this question in the very beginning: For almost 25 years I have tried to do my best to collect and compile the works of very different authors with equally strong individual personalities. And it was very important for me to obtain this sign of recognition from the founders of that independent samizdat culture I have mentioned earlier (this prize, as distinct from regular Andrei Bely prizes for prose, poetry etc., is judged personally by Boris Ivanov and Boris Ostanin, co-editors of the most significant samizdat periodical of 1970s who started the prize in 1978). Besides Vavilon and Vozdukh and the LGBT almanac/anthology (by the way, the first great figure in contemporary Russian gay writing, Evgeny Kharitonov, was awarded with Andrei Bely prize as early as in 1981), I produced a lot of different projects, some of them rather tiny (such as Triton, the first ever Russian haiku periodical), other ones quite ambitious, like the anthology Ulysses Released: Contemporary Russian Poetry Outside of Russia (2004, about 1000 pages, 244 poets from 26 countries). On the other hand, most established Russian literary magazines, critics etc. keep treating me, at age 45, as an enfant terrible promoting something incomprehensible in order to ruin traditional values of Russian culture, and in a sense this stable reputation is much more impressive achievement.


GS You also produce a lot of translations. Which English-language poets are interesting to you? Who is your audience for these translations?

DK Besides Charles Reznikoff, my first significant foreign influence, whom I translated persistently (about 70 poems though mostly quite short ones), I usually translate single poems of different authors when exactly these poems are especially resonant to my own feelings and/or especially challenging for a translator. So among my favorite own translations, Auden's “The Funeral Blues” neighbors, “anyone lived in a pretty how town…” by cummings. On the other hand, it is extremely important for me to show the Russian audience some things that still have no place in Russian poetry. I mean some authors whose works might be read as a possible path for Russian authors to follow (within a different cultural and linguistic context so that this following results in quite original work), just as it was with Reznikoff and me. In this respect, I might say that, to a certain degree, the most expected audience for poetry translations is the tiny crowd of (rather young) Russian poets. And it is my pleasure to introduce some new names to them. (By the way, my translations of Princeton's C.K. Williams were highly appreciated with Russian younger authors.)


GS Most people think of writing as a private process. but you're such a public figure.  Do you see your writing as a public activity?

DK I think we should redetermine both these concepts, but that is rather long story. So - let me put it aphoristically: feel private, act public. Most of my poems express very private feelings and describe very private situations (there are some rather loud exceptions though), but at the same time they should be comprehended as witnesses of present-day life and the inner life of a present-day person, so that they act public on my behalf.


GS For American students who are interested in learning more about your work, which of your poems would you recommend that they start with?   On the site, which you coedit, poets post their their own “calling card” / “vizitnaia kartochka,” which they use to acquaint readers unfamiliar with their work to their larger opus.  What would you say is your "English language" vizitnaia karta?

DK To tell you the truth, for the aforementioned site it is not the poets themselves who choose their “calling cards,” but I, the editor of the project, who underlines in this way something especially important in the author's output. It is not so simple to repeat the trick with oneself, but let me submit rather recent poem in a nice English rendering by Misha Semenov, Princeton University '15:

sunny morning Vasya clad in heel-length terry towel

from the windowsill, the mandarin bush stretches out its branches to him

the house across the street dawns orange before his eyes

a pack of crab sticks and coffee without sugar for breakfast

(sugar isn't to the true Macho's taste)

“With love from Fyodor” written on the mug

and a little bunny with a giant butcher's knife

Fyodor grins silently from his corner

twirls the new skull ring on his finger

takes aim for the pastry with the most cream

Lerik in his silk pajama stern in his just-awakened state

prepares a steam omelet steeps a tea of complicated composition

sprinkles the hoya plant grumbles crumbs on the tablecloth again

again you Fyodor go for it without a spoon too scared to ask

Seva and Kirill tumble out from the bath

riled up by an argument over the elimination of the death penalty

Kirill's nose smothered with Seva's special cream

strictly pure and natural and helpful against every ailment out there

including but not limited to the spots of acne visible only to Kirill himself

the dispute drowns out at the news of further plans

for some the Infanté retrospective for some role playing in World of Darkness

Lerik clears a space on the table for the teapot

moves the vase with Vasya's roses over and smiles for the first time

you know, if you just imagine that you and I no longer exist,

I'd rather be more or less looking at all this from somewhere up above, wouldn't you?


GS You wrote your dissertation on one-line poems ("monostikh") and have also worked extensively in the genre of the haiku. Is there anything that attracts you to short forms?

DK I believe that in a sense every poem contains in itself its 'haiku moment'. It is perhaps that very moment which a human being might address, as Goethe's Faust had put it (in Philip Wayne's translation): “Linger you now, you are so fair!” Joseph Brodsky, by the way, proposed a remarkable correction in one of his poems: “It's not that you're particularly fair / but rather that you're unrepeatable” (trans. by George Kline). I agree although my moments could be rather longish (see the poem above).


GS You're teaching a class at Princeton on translating contemporary Russian-language poetry. Please tell us a little about what you're hoping to do in this class and what you hope students to learn in the process of translation.

DK It would be practical but a bit dull to know in advance what it is that you know and want to teach. As far as teaching is a dialogue, one's next utterance depends on the other person's previous answer. But basically, I hope to teach the art of careful reading first and foremost. The point is that most of translations fail because of a wrong or superficial aim, not because the translator lacks tools and skills. My main thought about poetry was formulated by Hegel two centuries ago: “Form is the substance transitioning into form, while substance is the form transitioning into substance.” But how does this principle work in this or that poem? How can we realize that in this case predominance of shorter words is what we must preserve in translation, while in that case it is proportion of verb tenses that should become our main concern? No guarantee; but we, the translators, must be eager to understand.

Dmitry Kuzmin's Biography