This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993). During a year living in Moscow, I pursued an independent research project called “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Response to Historical Change,” which involved meeting poets, translating and living through the tumult of post-Soviet economic “shock therapy.” My interviews have continued in subsequent visits to Russia and with Russian poets over the past twenty years. In the introduction to my original Watson Fellowship statement, I quoted the following: “Once Alexander Blok quite rightly stated that at a time of historical storms and alarms, the most intimate recesses of the soul are also filled with alarm. Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote: ‘That’s how it was with the soldiers, or perhaps with the country, or maybe that’s how it was in my heart.’ The indivisibility of the macroworld of ideas and the microworld of the emotions, this merging of the interests of society with the individual’s private interests is reflected in our art not as mere declarations by as the norm in our way of life (Fifty Soviet Poets, 14).” These interviews were conducted in Russian and in person, and later translated by me—with just a couple exceptions. Thanks in particular to Dimitri Psurtsev, not only for his mentoring and friendship, but also for helping me connect with some of these poets; his tireless enthusiasm for Russian poetry in its rich diversity, its mysteries, and intoxicating musics helped deflect my initially sociological approach (which included a survey of undergraduate students about their relationship to poetry), and complicate my initial desire to read easy equivalences between societal events and a poet’s work.
Philip Metres: When did you begin writing poetry, and can you remember why?
Dimitri Psurtsev: I wrote my first poem when I was seven or so. It was about an old man in a country house attacked by winds. Now I think I was trying to write “A Winter’s Tale” by Dylan Thomas, but I didn’t know it at the time and I didn’t know English. As for my first real poems (“real” in the sense that I knew they were mine and nobody else’s and had the right to be), I wrote them when I was about thirty, the age many people stop writing poems. I almost avoided writing up to the moment when I knew I would express something of the Inexpressible, that mystic domain where all real poems seem to come from and where each poet has a place and doesn’t have to fight for it. Also, we have a rich literary tradition in Russia, and you should be terribly sure you have something to say before you just open your mouth.
Anyway, to answer the “why” part of the question, I wrote my first poems at the same time as a very close friend of mine emigrated to the U.S., which made me realize why I was not going to emigrate, what Russian history and just living in Russia meant to me, what was the focus of living. And a lot of things that had been dormant came to the surface in the form of poems.
Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Thom Donovan’s book The Hole (Displaced Press). Recorded July 5th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: Could we start with a brief chronicle of this book’s making, which doesn’t describe necessarily its present function? Can we track how its structure and identity have changed over time? Of course The Hole presents its own narrative on both accounts, but I’d like to hear your own in case that’s different.
Thom Donovan: The first hundred pages or so (the book runs about 160 pages) originally appeared as individual poems with titles, often dedications, on a weblog I’ve edited since 2005, called “Wild Horses of Fire.” Many occasional poems directly engaged with some cultural phenomenon or particular group of people. An event often triggered the poems. Over time I assembled a manuscript, circulating it in various forms, less to find a publisher than to receive feedback from friends and peers. As far back as 2008 or 2009 Brian Whitener, who publishes Displaced Press, approached me about doing a book. But his commitment to publishing The Hole came gradually. I started to revise the poems, to think about design questions, still uncertain whether or not it would happen. Then in the summer of 2010 I drafted an email in order to address how these poems had emerged amid this very rich constellation of people and events, here inviting addressees of the poems to produce something, some kind of response, to my manuscript. After lots of hesitation and conversations with Brian, finally in December 2010 I sent this letter. The published book presents about 40 pages of facsimiles from those solicited contributions. Again, after I’d received them, an intervening year occurred with this publishing project still up in the air. Scheduling issues arouse and further questions. During that period I began to write what I came to call the “prefaces”—essays about the state of the book, the status of a poetry book after social media, theorizing in some ways the manuscript, its conditions of production. That accounted for an additional 20 pages. The remaining material consists of low-res facsimiles from email exchanges with Michael Cross as we designed the book last summer and also an envoi, which I composed at the tail-end of this design process.
Over the summer, Andy Fitch has interviewed 60 poets about their latest books. Ugly Duckling Presse will publish these collected interviews in 2013. This interview focuses on Yankelevich’s book Alpha Donut(United Artists). Recorded May 8th. Transcribed by Maia Spotts.
Andy Fitch: You’re the first poet I know to have a selected shorter works published. But why selected “works,” not “poems”? Does “works” suggest something more constructivist, less lyrical? And to what extent have you stitched together a coherent book-length project out of these shorter works?
Matvei Yankelevich: I call a few pieces a “Poem,” but it doesn’t feel like a collection of poems. Many prose fragments come from a series called “Writing in the Margin.” Then the book culls from another series and miscellaneous projects. I was wary about assembling a collection. So I took this idea of the collection, of disparate parts, to its extreme—placing beside each other various rhythms and visual designs. The book doesn’t cohere the way a conventional poetry collection might, with each section offering specific types of poems. I wanted to resist the process where you submit a manuscript for a contest or something and think about . . . people suggest a certain sequence will grab the reader from the start and announce a basic structure. This book runs counter to that. So “selected works” of course sounds ironic, though it also makes clear you won’t find a book of self-contained lyrics. Alpha Donut coheres through typesetting, not content.
Over the next year, Andy Fitch will be asking participants from his Ugly Duckling Presse interview project to pair up and interview each other. By placing parallel interviews alongside his own, Fitch hopes to demonstrate that no one talk is definitive, that there are an infinitude of possible trajectories for such a discussion to take. In this interview, Thom Donovan and Matvei Yankelevich discuss their latest work.
[mp3j track=”Donovan and Yankelevich@http://theconversant.org/staging/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Donovan-Yankelevich-Interview.mp3″ caption=”Listen to the conversation”]