This interview is part of a series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” which began as part of Philip Metres’s Thomas J. Watson Fellowship (1992-1993). It has been revived, some 20 years later, with new interviews of Russian and Russian-American poets. The complete archive will be published in book-form.
Philip Metres: If it’s not too boring, let’s begin at the beginning—when did you begin to write poems? Who was influential to you?
Polina Barskova: The question of when and how I started to write poetry still haunts me—like an improper mystery, and it is not clear if it has an answer, or even if it’s necessary. Even now, my publications biography reports that I am a child prodigy; on the eve of my fourth decade, it now sounds like an embarrassing joke. Here the special effect, I believe, is not that I began writing at age eight (since many children write poems, just as many children draw, and often the results of their activities are excellent), but the fact that my poems were published, that they continue to be published, and that I continue to write them.
Sometime after my descent into graphomania (I could not stop describing and rhyming), my mom, who was very interested in the literary process, heard about a circle where young people and very young people gathered to read and write poems at the newspaper Lenin Sparks. She got me there and determined at that moment that no other field of knowledge and creativity would be available to me at all.
So this was the situation: every Thursday from ages 8 to 15, I ran down Zodchi Rossi Street (which in my opinion embodies the spirit and the body of St. Petersburg—all at once a very heavy and very light ballet) to a completely ugly building, Lenizdat, on Fontanka. And there among all these completely degenerated, already phantom-reflections of Leniniana gathered enlightened children, and a man trapped in the role of their teacher gave them some lessons in the field of belles-lettres.
They called him—and still call him—Vyacheslav Leikin, one of the writers of the Leningrad period, who from understandable disgust did not search for publications and publicity, had worked in many walks of life, and did not require the immediate purchase and sale of the sluggish reigning ideology. His lessons, first and most important of all, were limited to reading lessons. From him I first heard (and curiously still remember those moments of first “hearing”) names such as Baudelaire, Celan, Whitman.
I remember how, when I was around 13 years old, Leikin gave me a foreign-published volume of Annensky and said, choose what you like and read it to us for next time. That is, it was a school of literary taste—and under the same roof, I repeat, of the newspaper Lenin Sparks, which probably somehow were supposed to ignite . . .
The proximity to these sparks was, really, not entirely safe: the temptation to publish arose, and we knew that if we would write something particularly good and correct, they would publish us. But what is good and correct? In discussing these questions, I wrote two poems, about the childhood of Lenin and Soviet cosmonauts, and brought them Leikin for his approval. He read and wondered how close I was to these issues, for example—whether I myself had been in outer space or close to someone who had been. I was disappointed, and admitted that I hadn’t—and Leikin happily advised me to write about what I know directly, straight-forwardly. It turned out to be quite useful advice (although some of the finest examples of literature created yet, it should be noted, are in spite of it). I went myself to write about my cat, city, parents. And they began to publish me (it was already 1985-86)—i.e., a child Lenin in space was not very relevant anymore.
Still I remember how in 1987, my mother handed me the new issue of the journal Novy Mir (“New World”) with the first publication of [Joseph] Brodsky. We were standing near the “Friendship” Children’s Cinema, and it was very sunny and cold, my mother’s face had an expression of some sort of special importance, an urgency of what was happening: I read it right there and then. I remember this very stage setting—given that the next five years, I basically just read Brodsky—that is, it was just that (uncomplicated pun) daily bread. It took many years before it occurred to me that modern Russian poetry might not always be so beautiful, not so self-confident, not so focused on oneself. I took very long to be cured from that (by the way, very happy, but harmful) all-consuming love of him.
PM: This is about the state of Russian poetry. When I began this interview project in 1992, there wasn’t any formal training in “creative writing” as an academic discipline, but poetry had cultural value. Now, it appears that Russian poetry doesn’t have mass appeal, but it has its own institutions like in the U.S. On the one hand, it appears that poetry is as weak as it is in the U.S. On the other hand, in the case of Pussy Riot, it seems as strong as ever. What do you think?
PB: I want to say that the attention to poetry is always the same, but we tend either to exaggerate it or to downplay it according to our polemical goals.
There is the myth of nation-wide attention to poetry in some moments of the [Khrushchev] Thaw—but let’s look more closely. Probably in truth Yevtushenko and Rozhdestvensky were popular, and with their words, folk artists sang folk songs that began nationally-popular songs—as popular as, say, Alla Pugacheva, allowing herself to sing songs based on poems by Shakespeare and Arseny Tarkovsky. Today they use the work of very popular poets like Bykov, Vodennikov, Pavlova. These are charismatic personages, whose work is formally associated with a pre-digested tradition. Their poems are often sharp, charming and pleasant—as Sei Shōnagon said: “There is nothing better than the second night with a lover”—that is, when you more or less know what to expect. These poets deliver to their listener-viewers a solidly predictable pleasure. But if you try to read any of Victor Ivaniv or Dina Gatina: what to do with it all? It’s like comparing reading Khlebnikov or, say, Lokhvitskiy—it’s very different occupations that require different skills and desires. And it would seem, here and there, is poetry.
Let’s return to the Thaw. No one needed Khvost and Volokhonsky, Aronzon or, say, Rein. They were cooked in their own juice, i.e., port wine. They read, attracted and repelled each other; they were doing complicated things because they were new. In one case, because of Brodsky’s show-trial, one of these “secret” poets, invisible to the society and the reading public (and we know now, almost at random), became a political phenomenon. But I still refuse to believe that as a result of the trial of Brodsky coming to light in Soviet newspapers, citizens began to grasp the meaning of [Brodsky’s] “The Great Elegy for John Donne,” shaking their heads and thoughtfully glancing at each other.
And now, a few dozen poets, if we talk along that same sweet Hamburg Score, write for each other, about each other, from each other—and are reading each other.
It’s another issue that the general political and social situation at the moment that makes poets into complex machines: Masha Stepanova makes Colta, and Pavel Arsenyev makes Translit, and Alexander Skidan cooperates with different convergences of contemporary art… And, curiously, it is namely the creators, the drivers of extremely complex, unpopular, avant-garde poetics that have turned to politics. Here, of course, it’s worthy to reflect on the parallel with the early 20th century futurists.
So one can say that poetry today, as always, is not read, but it is noticeable.
PM: When I began this interview project, Russia was in the Yeltsin era. There was excitement and also great fear—of the unknown, of freedom, of capitalism. I remember seeing how much people suffered from the historical and economical changes—from the loss of economic security, and the loss of ideological certainty. Now we are in the Putin era. What has the Putin era meant for you as a poet, and as a citizen?
PB: I belong to the category of people who are from the Yeltsin era, which prompted my search for adventures in other lands. And this, of course, is an eternal, but not terribly interesting, question—what defines us, text or context, the economic, the overall situation or our completely individual upbringing, our unique heart and mind. When I left, I was 21. I was scared, victoriously frivolous. I remember, it was around 1990, that my mother sent me to buy bread, I went, and there was a queue, and the queue says to me, come back in five hours, then maybe the bread will be delivered, and with a memorably indelible pencil wrote a three-digit number on my arm. I figured with high-spirited mind and realized that this amount of time was just enough to go out on a date, and the main problem was that the number on my hand could not disappear. I was a very quick-witted girl. I returned, produced the bread, bringing joy to my mother—and saw this all as an adventure, not a prison. Then this was important—the border opened, there came the unearthly radiance and I succumbed to it, as any Peer Gynt story.
But here’s another thing. Just now I’ve realized that I very clearly was defined by the generation of my peers in adolescence, which absorbed the revelation of Perestroika; we somehow seem to be particularly surprised by what is happening now. The next acute attack of amnesia. I remember how my historian-dad at dinner read the Anatloly Pristavkin’s novella “The Golden Cloud Slept”—it was, characteristically, about the famine: and here I was eating soup, and I was ashamed that people in the book were starving, and I was eating. I cried with shame, and soup became mixed with snot and tears. We read “Ogonyok” by Korotich, watched the St. Petersburg “Fifth Wheel”—which was mostly about the history of Stalin. I remember the greed that was passed on to me from my mother—the greed to talk about it (she, like the famous aunt of [Sergey] Dovlatov, knew everything during the period of Brezhnev, Andropov, or the blond boy Putin—they did not know, or they knew differently, or they didn’t know otherwise). I grew up with the feeling, that if the past were always washed, as a wound, with care and pronunciation, it would be healed.
But then I left, tempted by emigre thoughts, myths and complexes, and already could not know how it happened that all our knowledge was unnecessary.
PM: In the poem “When someone dies,” you speak of the Russian Word. I’ve been thinking about the idea of the Russian Word, and of the poem “Word,” by Lev Gumilyov, and “Word,” by Arseny Tarkovsky. I’m trying to understand what’s unique about this Russian Word? Does poetry have a unique place in Russian culture? It’s such a radical metaphor, to compare the Taliban soldiers licking each other out of thirst to Russian poets thirsty for words! It converts these Taliban into vulnerable creatures. It connects them with the poets. You are not a political poet in the sense of writing protest poetry, but your poems are political, in the way that Akhmatova or Adrienne Rich were political.
PB: This is a very interesting thesis, that Akhmatova is not a political poet, yet she still wrote “Requiem,” one of the central texts of her not-overly anti-totalitarian and multi-dimensional canon. It’s another thing, again, that these poems are so monstrously complex in structure (how much in there is paratext?! How many dates ?!), which does not quite correspond to our idea of protest speech: that there must be such an obvious message, as in advertising and promotion.
And what’s the “message” of “Requiem”? It’s a monument, forgetfulness, one’s own grief a friend, a prayer, shame, guilt: it is very difficult.
The poem of mine that you cite is a poem about enjoying the hedonism of Russian verse, which is without end—I can only speak to myself; I just do not know how it is with others. Russian poetry is a huge and excellent thing, unfortunately, it’s very difficult for me to connect with the poetry of other languages, to read and write poetry in a foreign language. It is prohibitively strange thing: you are moving in the dark and at the same shell-shocked, wondering why you have nervousness and amnesia.
But I guess, getting accustomed to different limits (poetry, say Latin or Polish, American or Ukrainian), that there are also gaping, magical worlds—but I can’t quite enter into them. But Russian poetry—it is open to a complex, ever-changing slightly-opened love, as if there is no end. Today, Zhorzhik (Georgy) Ivanov, tomorrow, Parnok, then Gor and Aronzon, then back to Batiushkov. I always feel like a fairy tale character who finds herself in some inconsistent squiggle of a plot, in a cave, where everything is lit and shimmers, you take and treat rubies and sapphires one by one…
PM: What purpose do you seek when you write? What do you hope that your readers will get from your poems?
PB: Recently I read in the prose of Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam a strikingly-accurate, attentive observation of the physiology of the creative process of her husband: she sees how it envelopes him, how then he totally belongs to this movement, the birth of the verse, and the movement of the verse belongs to him, and he does not care anymore where the work is going, or what surrounds him. Or take Akhmatova. When it “came upon her,” Khardzhiev compared her to a parrot—she was all tensed when she prepared to go inside. This is me in the sense that I, like every writer, first and foremost seek to get free myself of some burgeoning verse—that is my main goal, like a cat trying to cough up a stifling hairball that hinders its breathing.
What else did I expect from a verse? As trivial as it may sound, I took the position of the individual in the world, among the things of the world. I find it interesting to think and speak about how inner and outer states relate. You walk down the street, crowded with things happening . . . For example, I periodically walk in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. There, everything is yelling, gazing, smelling, redolent, appealing to you. A scuttling crab tries to escape from the one who is trying to cook it, proud beautiful children in pajamas with some teddy creatures under their arms, all have made some headway toward some unknown destination … And while your inward thought oppresses you, any strong desire, the search for love or fear of love, the search for freedom—now the interweaving of these musics, inside and out, is interesting to me. Perhaps it’s interesting for some readers, too.
PM: While it is possible that there are some myths about poetry and its place in Russian culture, because of the “stadium poets” of the Thaw, it is also true that almost every Russian I know has some verses by heart, and that many more Russians write verses and consider it a sacred kind of speech. This is in contrast to the American culture, which seems suspiciously magical speech (if it’s not in the context of the Orthodox religion).
There aren’t too many Russians around me now who relate to poetry as “sacred speech.” But this attitude toward some poets as if they were a bit like wizards, yes that exists. But I myself treat them, some of them, like master-wizards. I like to think of the conversations carried on toward to the end between Brodsky and Milosz, say, or Walcott and Rein, about the value and meaning of the Word, the defeat of the Word. For a number of years I was engaged in pottery: the great potter in me was not very successful, but I had a lot of fun, and took special pleasure in watching the masters. Old men sit in circles and produce perfectly-precise movements, and I watch them as if watching the sublime—as a dance or a perfect act of love, full of meaning for the participants. Masters do not look at each other in the process, but they feel they know each other’s processes. I do not know what poetry, what kind of work people consider sacred in Russia now—I haven’t lived there for sixteen years. But I think that they are people like me, highly curious about the emerging skills of each other.
PM: What do you think about what is happening in Russia, and between Russia and the United States?
PB: I’m an absolutely useless politician, but I set forth here one impression of what is happening now with Russia. I heard that there were, or perhaps there are, cases where surgeons during the operation detect a terrible tumor that would be incredibly difficult to operate on, touch nothing, sew him up and tell him that he’s on the mend and send him home. The patient goes home and dies. It seemed that Russia was different, but probably the historical shock of the 80s and 90s with all publications and discussions proved to be insufficient. There were metastases, and here they are blooming and creeping and striking—and a lot of people do not want to remember and think. They want the half-naked man with a flabby little body and immobile face to tell how it was all good, and everything will be even better. What could be better…. The state of civil society was on the level of evil, wanting to protect their fears and the teenager’s complexes, which yearn for saber-rattling. All this is disgusting and scary and shameful.
PM: Has your poetry changed as a result of your life in the States?
PB: I’m sure it has. I’m not sure that I too can easily assess how. My life in the United States has developed fantastically—all these years I’ve been engaged with Russian literature. One day my mother asked me in confusion: “Don’t you think it’s strange that you read Nabokov, and they pay you for it? It would seem more natural if it were the other way around….” In other words, I have lived this life in a cocoon of youth: I, a gloomy botanist, a total nerd, spent my whole youth reading, and I brought this gloomy cultural capital to the New World, and contrive to sell this skill—to tell young people about how this text is made, what it’s made of. That is, my whole being and all the texts coming into it were incredibly associated with their breeding ground, to speak. On the other hand, this medium is entirely cerebral, and although Khodasevich wrote that he picked up his homeland in the form of eight small volumes, this holiday is not always with you—if you leave it, it leaves you: in general, you remain outside and without a homeland, without a home. It never fails to give me trouble, sometimes bordering on grief, but I get distracted by trying to extract benefit from grief, for example, in the form of knowledge. I, for example, fully understand that if I stayed there, I would hardly be engaged by the blockade of Leningrad. To study this “from there” in my youth, it seemed really pointless and boring and unchaste. But life in the United States has taught me a certain intellectual rectitude—if you want, shamelessness, and yearning for this city made me always look into it, yes, from a distance, and I saw it still hurts, the shadows, still hurts from the fact that it’s been robbed of a history of voices and names. Separation is a powerful, violent means, it changes you so; in particular, it makes you very attentive.
In her homeland of Russia, Polina Barskova was considered a prodigy, one of the most accomplished and daring of the younger poets. Born in 1976 in Leningrad — now called St. Petersburg, as before — she began publishing poems in journals at age nine and released the first of her eight books as a teenager. She came to the United States at the age of twenty to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, having already earned a graduate degree in classical literature at the state university in St. Petersburg. Barskova now lives in Massachusetts and teaches at Hampshire College.
Philip Metres is the author of Pictures at an Exhibition (2016), Sand Opera (2015), I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (2015), To See the Earth (2008), and others. His work has garnered a Lannan fellowship, two NEAs, the Hunt Prize for Excellence in Journalism, Arts & Letters, two Arab American Book Awards, the Cleveland Arts Prize and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland.