Dimitri Psurtsev with Philip Metres

Dimitri Psurtsev

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.

PM: Who are some of your poetic influences and how have they influenced you?

DP: There are poets I like even love, but I don’t think they are influences in a way that you’d find their tones in my work. I am just happy reading them. I am very fond of Derzhavin, Batyushkov, Annensky, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Yesenin, Kluyev, Khodasevich, Kharms, Vaginov, Tarkovsky, Rubtsov, Tryapkin. It’s a big world. I like Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin, and Wallace Stevens. Also, I have found poetic revelations in prose writers, like D.H. Lawrence, John Steinbeck, Ivan Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov. But I don’t think other people’s work makes you write this way or another. You can only be what you are. Your own life, your personal history, your wife and children, the landscape, the smell of a grove where mushrooms grow, the cats and dogs you had when you were a child, the feeling that you are a part of your people, a nation still alive despite everything, these are your influences, sources. My house stands on the eternal sand of Russian history.

PM: In your early poetry, you largely eschewed rhyme while keeping a sense of meter. Why — for what effect, and with what ideas in mind have you chosen this style? While in more recent poems you seem to have let in the rhyme, this typical feature of modern Russian poetry . . .

DP: It’s a very interesting and a very difficult question. To start with, I’ve always been quite aware of a lot of stupid and amazingly tasteless things rhymed and published in the past sixty years or so in our country. In a popular notion, rhyme still remains a synonym for poetry, and I see no harm in that. I love good, rhyming poems. For example, Arseny Tarkovsky’s work is some of my favorite. But I just didn’t write in rhyme, I didn’t have a rhyming voice and my music was in a non-rhymed key. I felt that my poems should prove their worth to me, their right to exist without rhyme supports. Maybe it was like a personal antidote against the rhymed banalities my system was intoxicated with. Also, without rhyme, I could introduce subtle nuances into the meter and meaning that would be lost, overshadowed by the over-obviousness of rhyme. Or, to put it another way: absence or SILENCE of a rhyme to me was more significant, more archetypal than rhymes themselves, as it already contained all possible rhymes, and more, and so I found it richer, more charged with new possibilities.

But again, it’s not something that I was trying to follow consciously. One doesn’t really CHOOSE a style, the style must emerge and evolve by itself as you write. To me, thinking about style in a technical sense, trying to work with the form as a craftsman does, is not poetry’s raison d’être. Probably someone else might generate great poems working to that technical end, but I know it would kill mine. I try to write down only what I have been hearing in my head for a while. It can be several lines, an opening line or most of the poem — and it should be something that is there whether I want it or not, and then I write it down and work from it or around it, or rather let something build itself around it, with a minimum of participation from my analyzing mind. So I guess what I really mean to say is that my early poems came into being without rhymes, just like other people’s poems come out rhymed.

Here are two examples of unrhymed poems from Tengiz Notebook:

ОСТАНОВИ МЕНЯ КАК КРОВЬ 

Вот, ратник здесь лежит давно,
Чуть тёпел бок его пока,
Но он сознанье потерял,
Наверно, триста лет назад.
Останови меня как кровь,
Лижи меня, чтоб я не тек
Из бока теплого, на-сквозь
Судьбы пробитого копьем.
–(Судьба же, выдернув свое
Копье, трясет своим щитом,
Как дева грозная Афин,
И снег выходит из брегов,
Беззвучьем наполняя мир,
И тихо ели у дорог
Спят, крылья черные сложив.)–
Я бредом речь его сочусь
Незримо в воздухе полей,
Останови меня как кровь.

Stop Me Like Blood

The warrior has lain here a long time.
Though his side is still warm,
He lost consciousness
Three hundred years ago.
Stop me like blood,
Lick me, so that I don’t spill
From his warm side, pierced
With the spear of fate.
(And Fate, having pulled out
Its spear, shakes its shield
Like the fearsome goddess Athena,
And snow leaves the banks,
Filling the world with silence,
And along the road the fir trees
Sleep, their black wings folded).
I ooze his delirious speech
Invisibly in the air of the fields.
Stop me like blood.

(translation by Philip Metres)

Or this:

Я лезвием в ручей опущен нож. Что может
Вода мне причинить? Что я могу ей сделать?
Вода, как ни точи, мне сердца не согреет.
И я не дотянусь до дна её, хоть близко.
Обратно, в острый воздух, знаю, буду той же
Руки произволеньем взят, но прежде должен
Вернуться хлеб домой, отпущенный по водам.

I am the knife blade

I am the knife blade dipped into the creek—
What can water make of me? What am I to do with it?
Water, no matter how it carves, does not warm my heart.
And I will not touch its depths, though it’s near.
I know I’ll be pulled into the same sharp air
By the same hand, but not until
The bread cast upon the waters returns home.

(translation by Philip Metres)

At a later stage I found that some of my new poems began to come into being rhymed. My rhymes in most cases are not experimental, but rather simple and traditional — some of them being rhyming verbs, pretty easy given Russian conjugations. My personal feeling is that these poems have a shorter breath, so to speak, they don’t fly but rather walk with rhyme steps or rhyme stops. Also, when you have rhymes, you tend to work them somehow into stanzas of a certain length and configuration you feel optimum for a given poem. At the same time, other poems are still without rhymes. It’s like fair-haired and dark-haired children that both are yours. It’s a fact of life and you can’t do anything about it and it’s good.

Here’s an example of a rhymed poem:

Вот, тьму разбавь немного светом,
И аспидною ночь не будет.
Фонарь победоносный лета,
На пляшущем шесте воздетый,
Про наши пляски не забудет.

Пусть наша жизнь была воспета
Не большим, чем поэт, поэтом
И кто-то нас потом осудит,
Пусть кости холодом согреты
И мир про нашу смерть забудет, –

Мы жили пламенем одеты
Незримым, словно были словом
Из книжки, уж которой нету,
Но слово снова стало новым.

Dilute the dark with a drop of light
And behold, the night’s no longer
Blackest black. Triumphant summer’s
Lantern swaying on a pole’s height
Will not forget our dancing.

And though our life was sung
By a poet no greater than a poet,
And later we will be condemned,
Though the very cold will warm our bones
And the world will forget our very death—

We lived as if dressed in fire
That could not be seen, like words
From a book that’s lost forever,
But in which all words became flesh.

(translation by Philip Metres)

As for the meter, syllabic/tonic patterns, I don’t believe that Russian poetry exists without them. Some sort of regular meter or variations of regular meter are as natural for Russian poetry as, for example, free verse narration is for the American tradition. I feel you can express more of the truly Inexpressible if you stay within the mainstream of your national tradition than if you try to devise something that seems at first sight more original, unusual, attractive but is in fact less organic. You shouldn’t worry about a new wineskin or your wine will get old before you design a new wineskin for it. The good old wineskin of language, of literary tradition, can change quite miraculously just to the degree proportional to the novelty of your wine. Designing some plastic wineskin with a fancy little spout doesn’t make a new wine. Again, it’s not a matter of conscious choice, it’s a matter of feeling, preference on a subconscious level.

PM: Your poetry frequently uses archaic diction, Russian folklore, and often situates itself in an undesignated, ethereal, perhaps unrealized past—this is most recognizable even in the choice of title for your first book, Ex Roma Tertia (From the Third Rome), that moniker of Moscow   — how do you reconcile yourself to the tumultuous present of today’s Russia?

DP: I was born near Moscow and spent all my life near Moscow. My major formative influences were nature, pet animals and books, the original Russian idiom of my grandfather and also feeling that I lived in the very heart of Russia, that Russia is a unique country and I have a place in its uniqueness that will be revealed to me only later when my time comes. Right now, it seems to come, and I am on my secret way. But since it’s a secret, I won’t tell anybody what exactly it is. I think I am a poet, and not only in the sense that I write poems sometimes when I hear them in my ears but in the wider sense like a poetic anthropologist reconstructing and recreating deep Russian things in my heart and maybe on paper —for Russia’s future.

As for the choice of title, Ex Roma Tertia, it is supposed to echo not only the well-known notion of Moscow being the Third Rome (which is obvious), but also, in some self-ironic way, Ovid’s Ex Ponto. And the tumultuous present of today’s Russia? If you look at the paradigms of Russian history, there is very little in our present which has never occurred in our past. Someone said that Russia is like a window through which chaos is coming into the world and our mission is to handle it first-hand, to smooth it before it becomes everybody else’s. There may be some truth in this statement, but I also hope that we get some of the light first-hand.

Before perestroika, the evil was clear and personified in the communist regime. Now it’s been dissipated all around with its multiple temptations and uncertainties. It’s different, but it’s still there. We should be aware of it. I would hate to make any political statements but feel tempted to. The 1990’s were a time of wild capitalism, the 2000-s were relatively stable (because of the high oil-price this country lives on) and a lot of lies and deceit have gathered behind the façade by now. Contemporary Russian history is as controversial as ever. We should pray, work and hope for a better future. I feel somewhat disappointed though that the people in power are so petty and so driven by their personal wealth prospects. They don’t care about reforms that the whole society could benefit from. Russia loses precious time and misses historical chances.

The present regime will have to dissolve, and it’s just a matter of time. A lot will depend on the world oil prices. The majority of the people put up with a lot of bullshit from the government because the critical mass of patience has not yet been passed. They don’t even care that rigged elections happen. And the active part of the middle class that would be ready to oppose the government is scattered and the government propaganda portrays the potential opposition as agents of the US State Department. It’s very funny because our dishonest rulers have a lot of money in their bank accounts in the West and in the US in particular. But to our people, they would like to appear anti-American and patriotic. On the part of the “rulers” it’s just a game to win them some time and slide their stolen money into the Western safes so that their heirs will be later recognized in the Western money world. Russia for them is just a resource, a place where they extract raw materials from. They don’t care about the people.

It’s hard to feel reconciled with all this. I just keep saying to myself, the people deserves its rulers. What’s the point of worrying too much if these things can be only cured through natural historic and economic processes? Suffering and compassion are eternal. They are the driving forces of poetry — along with love — at all times.

PM:  Many writers have commented on the nebulousness of today’s literary scene. Easily dichotomized categories (official v. underground, traditional v. avant-garde, etc.) appear to have broken down due to economic and cultural changes post-1991. How would you characterize today’s Russian poetry, and what do you envision for its future?

DP: Nebulousness is a good way to describe it, but we could look at it from a different, even broader angle. Post-modernism is not eternal, it has to end somewhere.

There are good poets who have been around for awhile (I am not giving any names because names are a matter of preference). But it also seems to me that a lot of today’s Russian poetry is post-modern — in relation to our own “modern” Silver Age and post-Silver Age — and at the same time deeply provincial. By provincial I do not mean nationally peculiar but rather locally dull and narrow. In the late 90’s some poets still played with Soviet images. Now as you look back it looks ridiculous, and young people nowadays cannot even recognize and understand the hints and quotes in Prigov or Yeremenko.

On the other hand, the new poetry that is recognized by some intellectual middle class young people as a herald of their generation (someone like Vera Polozkova) is too predictable and easy in its newly-found sensuousness and hip-hop metric structure. It’s like reinventing the bike, the Russian saying meaning you invent something that is already well-known, but they re-invent an electrical bike or something. Other young poets who call themselves “Russia’s patriots” are too traditional in form and banal in meaning. However, there are also young poets who are just good poets and the future of poetry perhaps lies with them. I think that some new, clever regaining of national identity —strange as it may sound — would take us back into the bigger world of literature, or into the world of bigger literature, where the 19th and 20th century’s best writers belong. This applies both to poetry and prose. Of course, Russianness is much deeper and complex than putting our birch bark shoes back on or saying “we love Russia,” or brandishing quotes from Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov or Mandelstam. Our way is the same as theirs, but we should walk our own part, they can’t walk it for us, even though they are in our hearts.

PM: Years ago, when we first met, I was pursuing a project that explored how Russian poets were responding to the historical changes around them; most of the poet averred, saying that nothing really had changed for them. But in fact, two poets whom I’ve translated (Gandlevsky and Rubinstein) have gone on to write far more prose than poetry, which seems to me in part a response to the rise of mass culture and in part a development in their own evolution as artists. What’s the state of poetry today?

DP: Regarding Gandlevsky and Rubinstein, it’s also a matter of their age. “The years bend me toward austere prose,” as Pushkin wrote. It’s hard for me to comprehensively assess the state of poetry. If I were a literary critic I would have some categorized and well-thought-out answers. I’ll try to map it from my point of view, quite personal and patchy and reflecting my own sensibility more than perhaps the objective state of affairs.

First of all, there are “traditional” poets (good and bad and so-so) who have written for a long time, and there is no point commenting on them. Then there are new “traditionalists,” as I said who follow the regular syllabotonic and rhyming patterns of Russian poetry and also the typical genres of philosophic landscape, lyrical love poems, etc.  They are different from the first group only in their age. Then there are more people than before who try to use “Western-like” free verse techniques.

If we correlate them to presses, the traditional tribe is published by the traditional old-style magazines, while the “foreigners” seem to group around Air almanac published by Dmitry Kuzmin. It’s funny that Mr. Kuzmin still thinks and speaks of his journal as “underground,” though no one seems to mind or oppose his publications. If we speak of the new readership, many young people are ignorant in the field of 20th century non-primary names. A new important factor in poetry these days is the Internet with its numerous poetry competitions, poetry sites and projects plus the ability to electronically publish whatever you want. A lot of people publish pathetic things that no one would have seen in any kind of public print in the old times. The Internet also helps disseminate your favorite poets, old or new, whatever. If we speak from a true perspective, among the new poets there are, as usual, bad ones and good ones. And that’s all that matters.

PM: Pussy Riot has garnered quite a bit of international attention for their dissident performance/actions and trial — often around the questions of free speech and authoritarianism. What’s your take on their work, its merits as political art? What do you think we miss in the Western coverage?

DP: I am not really an expert in political art. But I did sign a collective petition from Orthodox Christians to the Patriarch that was posted on the Internet during the first week after they were arrested. From the very beginning it was clear that the authorities were overreacting and using non-applicable articles from the criminal code. I wasn’t following the Western coverage close enough to say what was missing. So I’ll just make a couple points.

The punk performance in the temple, in a way, was a counter-reaction to the Patriarch’s politically committed position during the elections when the Patriarch tried to use his reputation and the Church’s to campaign for Putin. Many people, Christians included, were upset and indignant about it. So Pussy Riot tried to capitalize on this mood. Though perhaps they’d planned it for a long time. The way the Church behaved during the trial (it didn’t do anything to appease the authorities) split the congregation in two halves, a bad sign.

The case was a political touchstone. It was not so much a political art trial, as a political trial. Which highlighted not just the general issues of free speech and authoritarianism, but first and foremost, the political problems of this regime, of Mr. Putin.

If you want my take on the artistic merit . . .  you may consider me a retrograde, but to me if art in political art is completely overshadowed by politics, it’s not art. Artistically, both text- and music-/singer-wise, Pussy Riot are weak, close to nothing. On the other hand, it was terribly effective, in terms of reactions and repercussions, and if political art is judged by its effectiveness, then I could close my eyes on its being banal and giftless from the purely artistic standpoint. Also, its feminist message (asking Holy Mother to become an ally and “drive Putin away”) seemed to hit at the very heart of patriarchy, which is still the core of Russian mentality (Putin is the father of the nation as president, Patriarch Cyril is the father of the Church, etc.).

If you in the West take all these things into account then you have a clue for assessment. I mean you can assess the actual text of the “feminist punk prayer” even in its English translation published by the Guardian, namely:

“Punk Prayer”                                                                                      

(Chorus)

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!

Congregations genuflect,
Black robes brag gilt epaulettes,
Freedom’s phantom’s gone to heaven,
Gay Pride’s chained and in detention.
KGB’s chief saint descends
To guide the punks to prison vans.
Don’t upset His Saintship, ladies,
Stick to making love and babies.
Crap, crap, this godliness crap!
Crap, crap, this holiness crap!

(Chorus)

Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
Be a feminist, we pray thee,
Be a feminist, we pray thee.

Bless our festering bastard-boss.
Let black cars parade the Cross.
The Missionary’s in class for cash.
Meet him there, and pay his stash.
Patriarch Gundy believes in Putin.
Better believe in God, you vermin!
Fight for rights, forget the rite –
Join our protest, Holy Virgin.

(Chorus)

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, we pray thee, banish him!

(translation by Carol Rumens)

PM: Regarding the role of poetry in culture, I wanted to know whether mass commercial culture has swallowed Russian poetry as fully as it’s swallowed (or buried) American poetry. In other words, in Russia, is a poet more than a poet still?

DP: A poet is still more than just a poet in Russia, although perhaps less so than before. Parts of him have been nibbled off by mass commercial culture, but it’s not this mass culture that has done most to destroy this image, it’s the historical and political changes. The poet in the old Russian image was supposed to be a prophet, following the famous Pushkin poem (1826), where the six-winged seraph appeared and:

 . . . forced my mouth wide,
Plucked out my own cunning
Garrulous evil tongue,
And with bloody fingers
Between my frozen lips
Inserted the fork of a wise serpent.
He split my chest with a blade,
Wrenched my heart from its hiding,
And into the open wound
Pressed a flaming coal.
I lay on stones like a corpse.
There God’s voice came to me:
Stand, Prophet, you are my will.
Be my witness. Go
Through all seas and lands. With the Word
Burn the hearts of people.

(translated by Ted Hughes)

This mystical role in our modern age is perhaps somewhat out of date and tune and it’s dissolving whether we like it or not. The second part of “being more than just a poet” has to do with being the defender of the people against the cruel authorities, in the vein of Nekrasov, the 19th century populist poet. This idea was still alive in the Soviet times when we had a tyranny of a kind, and the singer poets like Vladimir Vysotsky expressing the hopes of the people (to be heard, to be reckoned with, to change something in the country) were perceived as searchers for truth. There was something almost religious (in this country of ruling atheism) about reading the smart lines criticizing the communist rule in a language of hints and jokes.

Now we have relative freedom, and the evil is dispersed all around us so it’s not clear who the defender poet should defend us against — against the banks? oil tycoons? taking parts against one another in cases like Pussy Riot’s? But, if some major uprising against the authorities occurred, then I am sure the poet’s star as the defender/champion could shine again, as this concept is still deeply embedded in our psyche.

 


Dimitri V. Psurtsev, a Russian poet, was born in 1960 near Moscow and has spent all his life there. He has a PhD in Linguistics and has published papers on linguistic theory and translation. He also has translated fiction (John Steinbeck, D.H. Lawrence, F.L. Baum, Dylan Thomas, David Malouf, A.S. Byatt). Dimitri divides his time between teaching at Moscow State Linguistic University (MSLU), translating and writing. In 2001, his two books of poetry — Ex Roma Tertia and Tengiz Notepad — were published. He lives outside Moscow with his wife Natalia and daughter Anna. English translations of his work were published by the Hudson Review in 2009 and 2011 and online by The Dirty Napkin.

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