This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993).
Poet and theorist Vsevolod Nekrasov (1934-2009) was an important figure in the Lianozovo circle, a group of underground experimental artists in the 1960s, and one of the crucial founders of the “Second Russian avant-garde” and Moscow conceptualism. His work began to appear in samizdat (self-published) in the later 1950s, and continues to impact a younger generation of experimental poets.
I met with the poet Vsevolod Nekrasov in Moscow in 1993 and interviewed him about his life and poetry. In the text that follows, I have interpolated Nekrasov’s poems and my translations of them. Thanks to Jacqueline Orchard for her editorial suggestions in revising this interview.
Vsevolod Nekrasov: I was born in 1934 and began writing seriously in 1956 when I became involved in a literary association. I got into the “Potemkin” Moscow City Pedagogical Institute in 1955 during the cataclysmic change of power. 1956 was the year the 20th Congress addressed the legacy of Stalin, and the year I first became acquainted with [Marina] Tsvetaeva and [Osip] Mandelstam. Tsvetaeva’s poems were sharp, unusual, not customary and gave off a strong impression. It wasn’t just for the shock, but enough for one to ask seriously: “What exactly is this? How do I feel about this?” I say about it now: I became that question. But then I just had the feeling that one ought to write like that.
Today I feel the poetic routine. But then I felt it stronger. It’s tough to say when it was stronger, but then it was connected to Soviet grayness and the Soviet poetic tradition like Shipachev, Isaakovsky and Simonov, who were all popular then. Then it seemed that only members of the writer’s union could write that way, and whoever was not a member of the union had to write differently. Now it’s not that way—there are so many young people who are trying under the Nobel Laureates [Joseph] Brodsky and [Boris] Pasternak; they’re marked as the very best poets, and one should write with that developing poetic.
There was nothing of that sort then. Pasternak hadn’t yet received the Nobel, and personally I didn’t like his later work much. But when I read early Pasternak, like My Sister, Life, I understood the real Pasternak, and the elusive but large difference between early and late Pasternak. These elusive things ought not escape from one’s view. The Soviet tradition of mass, pioneer, imperial poetry is one thing, but “Vassily Tyorkin” by Tvardkovsky was another thing altogether. That was my favorite poem since childhood, after the Second World War, when he used to read it on the radio. I never returned to his work but don’t need to. Many say that “that’s from the grayness of the time—we didn’t know anything.” But many knowledgeable people emerged from this grayness.
Those people who knew languages and could understand foreign poems were princes. I couldn’t be part of this because I didn’t know another language enough to understand its poems. Translations really didn’t interest me, and Russian didn’t seem to make for good translation. Take Nazim Hikmet, the Turkish poet. Perhaps he’s a good poet, but in Russian it’s information, not poetry, even if it’s interesting and leaves an impression on you. But really such a poet exists, only he writes in another language. Take Marshak, the Russian translator. There’s a huge difference between his translation of Shakespeare (very similar to Pasternak’s, in my opinion) and his translation of Burns or Kipling. The latter was real poetry.
From a genuine step, less than a step, an imperceptible distance decides everything. These things were important then, not to jump from a walk, not to bang into radicalism—and I tried to beware of that. In that way I didn’t have a very active dislike of traditional poems; I just understood that many traditional poems are written in this country. And I never had the idea that one can’t or must not write them. When I was shown Brodsky’s poems, a few of them were interesting to me. In 1966, when I first read [Aleksandr] Kushner, I was so surprised how lightly and wonderfully it was written. It seems to me that Kushner is one of the best Russian poets and far better than Brodsky. But it would sound strange to say that Kushner is a Nobel Laureate because other factors play a role, not merely poetic ones, but biographical and political ones.
I really don’t like the “informal” style, it’s not for me, and I can’t write that way. Though, I have tried to begin writing them, for about a year and a half with moderate success. One poem was published in a well-circulated newspaper of about 1,000. The poem was about the 1957 film Flight of the Cranes. It was the first serious Soviet movie after the War, and I enjoyed it a lot. Letters started flooding our institute over the poem—they wanted to give me some kind of award. I liked the reaction, but they weren’t all my own words.
I should say just one thing: the Lianozovs [Nekrasov was one of the members of the Lianozovo artist movement, one of the pivotal Soviet underground art groups of the 1960s] were terribly fascinating, though frictions arose among us immediately. It wasn’t necessary to be interesting but rather that you were to be totally original. It didn’t quite work out for me, and I knew that there were other good writers out there like [Aleksandr] Tvardkovsky, [Leonid] Martynov and [Boris] Slutsky. I like them less now, but then they were great influences on me and gave my work a nudge. And then different groups began to get organized.
Something was in the air at that time—a kind of poetic collapse for 20-30 years and then an epidemic passion for poetry. It was the lyricism of the barracks [communal apartments]. Now there aren’t any more barracks, but people should know our roots and our history. But it’s not that way, to put it mildly. Take, for example, my 1975 book Freedom is Freedom. It’s a great little collection without a single barrack poem and has a fantastical backdrop. It has roughness, talent and confidence without a single barrack. There were cosmic poems, abstract and fantastic. Heaps of repetitions.
The title poem goes like this:
Свобода есть свобода
There is freedom
There is freedom
There is freedom
There is freedom
There is freedom
There is freedom
This freedom is freedom
[The play of the poem is that the insistence upon the existence of freedom (in the first six lines) is suddenly reversed, when the repeated phrase suddenly changes its meaning (from “there is freedom” to “freedom is”) when introduced to the final word, thus rendering freedom to be an utterly self-referential term, a word delinked from external reality.]
СТИХИ ПРО ВСЯКУЮ ВОДУ
Вода вода вода
Вода вода вода вода
Вода вода вода вода
Poem About Any Water
Water water water
Water water water water
Water water water water
It’s now termed conceptualism, even though this kind of writing began in the ’60’s; much like other recent poets, though these repetitions enhance each other, and add up to something. But in principle they’re the same. The Lianozovs were those who came to see [Oscar] Rabine. Imagine the picture, from 1958-60. For you, things didn’t get bad because there was no revolution. They say that America ceased to be provincial under Kennedy, but that’s coquetry. America was provincial even through Kennedy. Of course, a different reappraisal made American civilization central. But it’s all nuances because art isn’t 60 years old here. It’s been episodic. There was compensation because the thaw meant a lot, but laughter is laughter, murder is murder.
For many, 1956 was a directive—“don’t love Stalin.” But how could that be? Well, it was like that then and is still like that today. And at that time the French comedies came, and we realized how much we didn’t have, what we’d missed. Our film at the time was confused, disorganized because everyone was terrified. No one understood what we needed. It was generally an interesting characteristic of Soviet art. There’s an anecdote: a Soviet worker came five minutes late to work and was liquidated for treason and sabotage. Another came five minutes early and was liquidated for arson. A third came on time and was liquidated for being too formal. It’s just a joke [anekdot], but that’s how it was with art. It’s worthwhile to look at our architecture of the 1930s right before the War—it’s so massive that it seems eternal, that industry is our strength. But it’s also visible that our architects had nothing upstairs.
Philip Metres: It seems to me that conceptualism is not a departure from realism, but a departure from “traditional” reality. I sense that conceptualism has a different relation to its content. What reality do you strive towards in your art?
VN: I’ll try to answer your question. In my opinion, conceptualism and reality are not conflicting things. They are one and the same. We say art exists. Art is the second reality, differing from the known first reality of our existence. Art is somehow connected to life, it’s based on it, and in the ideal situation something is created. And we sense that art is not less than our first reality. There are heights of realism. Take, for example, Lev Tolstoy. Realism is the second reality. But it will never become the first.
PM: And do you think that today it’s impossible to write in that style like Tolstoy?
VN: Probably. At least concerning the novel, only Tolstoy could write that way.
PM: They say that after Tolstoy realism had reached a dead end.
VN: That’s not entirely true. In Russia, we also had Chekhov. He’s not a copy of Tolstoy. His is a different relation to reality, but nevertheless it’s intimate and narrow. Tolstoy is the peak on which all the points you could have gone on your recent path are visible. It’s the peak of the second reality, not worse than the first.
Conceptualism is born from the relation of the second reality to the first, but not because art negates itself or battles the first, or is deceptive. It simply confirms itself, that it’s art. And there’s a second misconception—that conceptualism is the merging of art and life. No one can prove the merging of art and life. When it will be proven no one will know what is art and what is life. We still don’t have any sense of that and have no examples to go by.
There were people who ended up committing suicide who had said suicide was the greatest act, as if it were a sound thing to do. I don’t think suicide, even when successful, does anything. In a similar way, I think that art sometimes removes itself from certain frameworks or limits. When all these limits disappear, something radical occurs. But really it’s much simpler than that, much more fundamental and traditional, but completely different. Art as “material” leaves, and everyday life becomes the material. And our reality, behavior, society, personality lose their functional sides. For example we’re having a conversation because we got acquainted, because Sasha Makarov [poet Alexander Makarov-Krotkov] connected us, because we are glad to see you at our home, because you’re from the United States, because you will write something there, because you’ll mention it, because you became interested in my poems. They are functional, practical, and they have patterns and meanings. In art all of these motives are cleared away. We can consider a mystery together. We can create conditions in which these motives won’t exist. A bunch of people could get together and drive to the countryside. Not because they decided to take a walk in the fresh air. And not because they themselves want to create some kind of work of art. And our motivation would be unclear like “hey let’s go and see what happens.” And nothing will happen. It’ll be just a few people in a peaceful place.
So the object is an action, the health of these people, an attempt to create something. And the attempt is not premeditated, because if it is premeditated it will be boring. If they go, they have a program. For example, there’s a field about 300 meters across and a forest nearby. In the middle of the field is a table; on the table are ten poles, and on each pole is a spool; on each spool is a string. So we pull the string and go. And along the way unreel the string. Everyone goes like burlaki [boat haulers] pulling a boat over a dry river. In the forest there’s less snow, you can go out onto some road. You see, there are no obligations. You can decide not to reel and go back to the station. I would rather go to the station because the road is already close. Some other people show up and other things happen. There’s no artistic, esthetic, extraordinary moment. It’s just something colloquial, constructed with natural curiosity. Unwind, unwind and what will happen?
Another time we pulled branches from bushes. For one hour we pulled them off. It turned out we had about a kilometer of branches after a few hours. It was just the simplest thing to do: if you want to pull them, pull, if you don’t, don’t. Just human curiosity. Another time we met at Sokolniki Park. We walked a long time and wondered: when will the action begin? The action actually already was happening. Behind us people were walking with tape recorders, taping our conversations, our passing comments. It turned out that we were the artists, we made something. In that way, reality is the most valuable, richest material. And at the same time, the most familiar. It seems that one can free up the working material of art and the working means of art. And your routine—for example, you need to get a group of people together: the more ordinary the material, the better. Conceptualism is not the art of realism, but the art of reality.
PM: Have you read Chuang-Tzu, the Chinese philosopher? He wrote much about the importance of play, doing something without an end or reason.
VN: That’s how I’d like to relate to reality. Unfortunately, a kind of bitterness inevitably rises with unofficial art because of its relation to officialdom.
PM: In your opinion, is there a connection between historical and political changes and avant-garde poetry in the 20th century?
VN: The connection is clearly visible. You can see when something happens in your life, something happens in art. One could explain that relation in different ways.
PM: Could you be more specific? Has your creative work changed as a result of recent events including the fall of Soviet power?
VN: I don’t think it’s changed. The urgent necessity to write is not as it was before. I remember the urgency, the double feeling. On the one hand, because we have appeared on the earth and your work is to live your own life. And differently, what is life? It’s natural that a person considers himself better than those around him. No original work could occur without human individuation. That aim always exists. And in these circumstances it happens that art is old and one must write a different way. It is for the most part a temptation.
That’s how I felt when I began writing at about 23, which is late for a writer. Again I must return to “Tyorkin” of Tvardkovsky, which understands contemporary poetry as a kind of misunderstanding. During that time there was a feeling that something was needed. It was the magical word “contemporary,” but it didn’t suffice. Although around us much was contemporary—design, plastic. Everything was quite Soviet, and I wrote about this in my poetry.
Hemingway wrote, “only the names of places had dignity,” [A Farewell to Arms], written about the First World War, when everything seemed terrible, shameful, so that one could only explain geographical names. Hemingway, an American who fought in the First World War, said that the war not only defiled civilization, but language itself. But how did the Germans feel about 1945? Or the Russians after 1953 or 1956? I didn’t have any stunning reversals of this magnitude. I guess I look upon this questioning with skepticism. Of course there were events which deeply influenced me.
The political processes have found their way into the painting of [Ilya] Kabakov and the poetry of [Dmitry] Prigov and [Igor] Irtenev, in a negative way. I think that this is due to the doubtfulness or instability of the change. Because for these people, for Vasiliev and for Molotov, nothing happens unexpectedly. The epoch has not outgrown them. Not everyone sees what they saw and understand what they understand. They were normal, kind people, my artist friends. They didn’t renounce anything, made art at home and liked not going to jail. They couldn’t fall into any mob, hysterics, or reprisals. It’s somewhere in the work, in the critical approach to creation and to the material. A rejection, but a constructive rejection.
That’s the story of Molotov and Vasiliev. They could preserve human dignity and didn’t hitch themselves to the reputation of the left. All these revolutions, even democracy, produce feelings of doubt for me because I see where selling out and corruption begins. And they hold it like they did in Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s time. In this sense no revolution occurred, a caricature of one occurred. I don’t like it at all. What needed to come to light didn’t.
PM: I’m remembering Ecclesiastes: there is a time to gather stones, a time to cast them away. It seems like this is a time to gather stones.
VN: That’s exactly what I mean. The only thing is that we’ve had a lot of time. Ancient people had about five years, and we have about thirty or forty. In general the surprise of 1953 was more amazing than the surprise of 1985, because then there was a real iron curtain. One could say there was a complete censorship, an absence of information. It’s harder to say that about today. Now information can’t do what it could then. Of course the psychology of the masses plays a role. It was easier to do that then than today. But I didn’t feel this as strongly. The people around me weren’t apologists for the regime. Even today, if someone doesn’t want to know, they won’t know. Then it was more glaring. Everything was known about Stalin only in 1956. There was a harshness about it, a rare falling out. This falling out, because of its harshness, felt stronger than it was in reality. The casting away of stones could have been done. But it shouldn’t take 30 years. Whoever didn’t have the strength 30 years ago won’t now. In general, art is the art of gathering, making something, and also destroying, but it won’t ever get some specific political result.
PM: Mikhail Epstein writes that your poems play with Soviet mass consciousness.
VN: And what is mass consciousness?
PM: I’m not quite sure myself. But take, for example, your poem about jeans.
Без пятидесяти пяти
Снятся даже и сны
We’re alive alive
Without fifty five
Some dream, scenic dreams
VN: Yes, there’s such a poem. I remember thinking about it. In every unpleasantness there’s something to explore. Even in the Soviet regime and in the backwardness of its art. It’s as if until now no one except these critical monkeys knew about mass culture. Now that’s become a reality of our gray past lives. They all knew about it because they read it somewhere. In the center of Moscow there’s such architecture. On the one hand, respectable and sound, on the other, stupefying. So terrifying it makes you shiver. If that’s not art, I don’t know what is. Art was very strong before there was much of it.
For some reason, Italian films, considered classics, don’t give us the same strong impressions that French films do. People went to these movies, but not like they did to the French ones. Perhaps it’s also because there wasn’t such a flood of actors to Russia as the French had. But probably it’s that Italians look at history with a certain respect. They give a less immediate impression. Do you know the French-Italian collaborative film “The Law Is the Law”? It’s a hilarious comedy about formality at the borders. On the one side, the French, on the other, the Italian. There’s an honest Frenchman who works in a custom-house and an Italian swindler and contrabandist. And the Soviet person relates closely to the bureaucratic laws depicted in the film. A remarkable comedy regardless of whether it’s neorealism or new wave. Most importantly there was the right tone. That’s true for poetry as well—“how to tell without falsifying?”
When we finally emerged from the idiocy of the Stalin years, all of a sudden we realized there were other people who enjoyed great humor. The influx of film and Western art was accepted as a freeing, a “thaw,” like a breath of fresh air. There was a feeling of truthfulness among people. Those films were good, but everything here seemed a lie. That’s not entirely fair, of course, but within this background there was a thirst for piquant, challenging art, despite false opinion that our art was cultivated, civilized, preferred, and it meant something that we were the most literate nation, we had clubs, houses of culture in every little village. So the art after Stalin’s death was the most brilliant in lieu of its total absence.
From 1958-9 many artists other than Rabine appeared. Every Sunday, people clowned around together, and they formed something like a circle. Many became friends sitting together on Rabine’s couches. People came and went; sometimes 10 people would come, then three, then seven more, another time 12 more, from morning until night. These people called different people, and perhaps someone would bring three new people with him on the train. A sort of underground organization came about, organized by no one, formed from the great interest in Rabine’s work. His work couldn’t be shown to the regime. That’s one side of the matter. The other side knows what we could do and what wasn’t possible, what would get us in jail. No one knew that for sure. But there were polar extremes. If someone yelled out “death to Khrushchev,” it was clear they’d jail you. On the other hand, if one would sit so very quietly and not do anything, you wouldn’t be jailed. But between these extremes there was a great uncertainty—what was possible and what was impossible.
We waited for Rabine and [Vadim] Sidur to be put in jail for about five years. Our apartment was a barrack, but a good one, not the kind in which the door is at the end of the corridor. This one was a barrack with a separate door. There was even central heating and a gas stove. The apartment had two families, one room for five people. Our place was a zone of free visiting, and anybody could come and visit on Sunday and we wouldn’t ask who he was, where from, or who told him about us—it was strange. At the same time many courageous people came—poets, artists, people who did things without the permission of the authorities. Later when the KGB came, people would say they didn’t remember who was there: “Only some drunkards.” There were many different episodes in our lives. People were occasionally jailed so that they’d attend, not episodically, but regularly for seven years (1958-1965). Most importantly, people got together, poets read poems, artists brought their work and showed it.
There weren’t any conversations about politics—they simply stopped, as we figured it would lead to serious trouble. There were enough political goings-on anyway with Rabine’s work of 1958, 1961, 1962. It was the understanding of the time to draw city courtyards, barracks, garbage dumps. It was all there. Ocheshirsky, who edited newspaper Soviet Culture, wrote some essays about this, but he was an ideological criminal. It was a risk, and I think people realized that this kind of politics couldn’t be defended. Everyone was doing his own thing. And then in 1965 with the jailing of Daniil Sinyavsky, there began a movement to fight for one’s rights. People collected signatures and the intelligentsia got acquainted with each other and began to understand their relation to the government.
Of course, not adapting to the new environment, others continued to protest and get jailed, preferring their fetters. There were pure defenders of rights, not political or citizen’s rights, but the right of existence itself. They were always taking people in, listening to conversation. The authorities called on me a few times. I can’t say they hurt or yelled at me, but nonetheless I ran into that. I thought it was routine. More brave and scandalous people said, “I’m not going.” But I didn’t do anything like that. If they called me in, I went. They’d ask me questions and let me go.
PM: Do you consider your work “conceptualism?”
VN: In the Russian understanding, conceptualism is not a movement or trend, but comes out of a natural tendency, a fundamental tendency which has always existed. Take impressionism, for example. It once existed, but did it really go anywhere? In some sense, it never left, was and will be, if impressionism is the movement of the eyes over the reproduction of color on a picture. Impressionists proposed and discovered it, but it did not originate with them; it’s not that before them it wasn’t reached, but that they felt it and thought it central to their art. Conceptualism is similar. It’s art which enters into a relation with the public or the viewer, not necessarily with the help of some work or material. For example, the material work is a picture. Or a text of poems. The text has a beginning and an ending. The geometry of Euclid is not the only one, it’s the most convenient, most classical circumstance, but it’s important to know that it doesn’t quite match up to reality. The relation to the reader is important. And even more important is that the relation doesn’t change into a personal relationship, one in which the reader could suggest what the writer needs to write. These are the same laws of art, just wider than suggested before. The quality of the relation: why does one need to speak of quality—surely there’s something substantive . . . it would be tough to say. And it comes out practically, in concurrent situations. In situations when one author does better than another. If the public is good-hearted enough, they will choose what’s better in their relation to it. We can’t say what’s better in painting even though there’s a whole science constructed around color and composition. Science can’t be compared to the practice of human life. And in some sense, art is simply more colloquial and everyday. How can you determine the value of a person at all—who gets your sympathies? That’s how conceptualism works, from our life experience, through the language of art. It strives towards non-material art, but the notion of non-material art is still problematic.
PM: I’ve noticed that the language in your poems is quite musical, harmonic, but that you use a limited lexicon. Have you used this approach to create a certain atmosphere?
VN: I can’t say that I’ve given myself a goal to write with a certain group of words. But I don’t believe the wealth of language is a foundational criterion for artistic merit. Because whatever’s easily measureable is suspicious in our life. There are two poets—Pasternak and Mandelstam, similar in some ways, differing in others. They are like opposing artistic positions. Pasternak has a tendency to see the unusual word, and his use of words works well most of the time. Mandelstam also values the immediate word, but his is more concentrated. It’s of course not accidental, and it’s often profitable to do it. There’s a tendency to funnel, concentrate. Everyone has his own motives. But the processes are inevitable. The most important thing is that they’re well balanced. If there’s a poet who writes with an intentionally limited lexicon, it’s Daniil Kharms. But he had a specific aim. My aim is somehow less specific, and that has its pluses and minuses. It seems to me that one ought to use a rude method for literature—that what’s most important is description, meaning and development. Descriptiveness itself is a dead end without some kind of result. It’s more interesting to me when an image creates a description that, if it were altered, would utterly change the poem. When you do it with one or two words, it’s immediately visible whether it works or not. The extreme of description, prose, thinks it must “describe everything.” And having described anything, we have lagged behind. Description always lags behind the phenomenon itself.
PM: So what is absolutely necessary for a poem to be a poem?
VN: I’m afraid I can’t answer that definitively. One must have an image, and some means to express it. Perhaps with description. But to prove it would be difficult. Chekhov once said, “I can’t prove that Shakespeare is better than Kobachevsky [a contemporary of Chekhov].” If you could explain it, then you could hook up some machine to make art and we wouldn’t need it because it would be mechanical.