Sergey Gandlevsky with Philip Metres

Sergei Gandlevsky
Sergei Gandlevsky

This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993). A version of this interview was first published in Asheville Poetry Review (vol. 6, no.1, 1999). Thanks to Jacqueline Orchard for her editorial suggestions.

Philip Metres: Let’s discuss your creative history. I’d like to know about your family, when you began to write, what poets were influential to you.

Sergey Gandlevsky: I was born in 1952 to a religious family. My mother by birth was from a “church family.” One of my grandfathers and one of my great-grandfathers were priests. My mother had to hide during the Soviet repression of the Church. And one of her grandfathers actually was in Solovki [a concentration camp] and later died in exile in Kazakhstan. My father was a Jew. It was a very strange marriage ceremony, only possible after the Revolution. He came from a Jewish family of the Ukraine intelligentsia. His parents were doctors, children of doctors who arrived here in Moscow after the Revolution. They, like many Jews, were sympathetic to the Revolution and had many children, working hard and honestly. They all were technicians. My father was already a skeptic about the Revolutionary ideology, and my mother—I don’t remember where her sympathies lay, but she really worked hard because she was from a “defeatist” class; that is, she was deprived of rights. But she did have the right to receive higher education, only needing to hide the vocation of her parents. And I was born to them, and lived in peace, normally, undisturbed until entering school. I finished school and began writing at age 15. At first I wrote prose stories. No, when I was eight or nine, like all children, I wrote poems, but I soon stopped.

When I entered the philological institute, it was against the tradition of my family, because my father always impressed upon me that under socialism it’s impossible to be a humanist, because there’s no freedom of the word and no right of expression. But since I loved to read and my interests were generally in this field, I entered the department of philology. And there I got acquainted with writers, we were all kids then, 17 years old—and probably imitating them, I also began to write poems.

These people, later, became fairly well-known. There was a certain Alexander Soprovsky—he was my best friend, died two years ago in an automobile accident. And Aleksey Tsvetkov—he was older than us and influenced us greatly. He was, and is, a complex, talented man. And Bakhit Kenzheev—also a man of great talent. There was, by the way, also Alexander Kaznitsov. If you know the present-day arrangement of power in literature, then hearing this name, you’ll be surprised that now he is an extreme rightist. He acts as the chief editor of the journal Nash Sovremennik (Our Contemporary). And there before the referendum [April 1993], I even saw Alexander Kaznitsov on television. He sat on the same stage with the communists, some kind of thugs in black uniforms with red armbands. But back then we were all friends. Now we don’t see each other, of course, because our lives are different.

Well, that’s how I began to write poems regularly. At the beginning they were weak, now I hope less so.

PM: Which poets influenced you then?

SG: In our family it was customary to read Pushkin. I was a very contrary child, and everything that was customary in our family (almost everything) I criticized or doubted. But this position—that Pushkin is the greatest Russian poet—remains inviolable. It seems to me that our family’s tradition was right.

PM: Are your poems a chronicle of your life or that which you wanted to live?

SG: My poems are to a great extent biographical. But nonetheless it’s a kind of idealized image of me, of the poet. But. . .yes, if you were to ask me what is my life about, it would be advantageous to me to show my poems, because, on the one hand, it’s the truth, on the other hand, it’s a dreamed primeval truth.

PM: Your writing seems to have captured the spirit and atmosphere of the time, especially the Brezhnev era. But there’s something deeper in your poems. Do you consider your poetry a symbol of the age, a symbol of something Russian or something universal?

SG: A difficult question. I love Russian poetry very much, and I like what it’s done. Not because I am somehow attached to Russian or believe in the “Russian idea.” I am attached to Russian poetry, like Korolenko, when he said: “My homeland is Russian literature.” Do I think that I reflect the Russian idea or the world universally? You know, it seems to me that even puddles in a field path and a city park pond, and the sea—all, to a certain degree, reflect the sky and in that sense are universal. On the other hand, they are different reservoirs. If it is pure (by “pure” I imply not ethical purity, though desirable, but aesthetic purity) and talented, then in the end, it’s not important if others decide it’s more interesting to you that I reflect something especially Russian or have a relationship to world experience. Russians, Japanese…we’re all people.

PM: You’ve spoken about an aesthetic weariness. Is this a sign of the times or your own feeling?

SG: It seems to me that it’s like ebb and flow. I spoke of aesthetic weariness. It has nothing to do with creative or human weariness. Only, there was a time when there was a given number of artists who were enthusiasts of some kind of method, and it seems that the beginning of our century was characterized by this artistic weariness. Symbolists were convinced that they had the truth. Futurists had in mind something different. We are a little like old men in our relation to them. We are indifferent to it. But you don’t need to issue some convictions as the final convictions of humanity, because a time could come. . . and by the way, it’s fully possible, that still in our century, this aesthetic weariness will engender a reaction—a very great energy, and again will arise some kind of new miraculous method with its own enthusiasts. It’s not impossible that they’ll articulate their world and will remain in the history of art. It’s another thing to say what will pass and what will come back another time.

Thus these periods of aesthetic weariness—I just can’t say off the cuff—I’ll call it postmodernism. If this is so, then I’m a postmodernist. Really, all these conversations about a single true progressive method are understandable, because in the end talent still remains a large factor.

PM: Is this aesthetic weariness—this postmodernism—related to the current cultural-historical situation here?

SG: You know, perhaps it is, because here the real history of literature was closed from those interested in literature, and we who received it [during perestroika] immediately were granted some truth, some artistic truths. And it became evident that these truths and methods were relative. And there was possibility and choice and the combination of different methods for writers.

PM: What role does memory play in your poetry?

SG: Some poetry is biographical in one way or another, but mine underlines the biographical, at least it has so far and I have not yet grown tired of enjoying it. Certainly, memory plays a great role in my creativity. It’s a cunning memory, not simple-hearted and very selective. I remember that which makes me formulate—not for the reader, but for myself, of course—my inner world. But I forget some things.

PM: In translation of Russian poetry, we often apprehend not only Russian poetry, but Russian history through poetry. Perhaps in Russian poetry one must express not only poetry, but the history of the Russian soul?

SG: Isn’t this true for every poetry?

PM: There is a time when one must say something about the government and about what has happened historically. But it’s not the crucial thing in poetry. And I think that in relation to Russian poetry, Americans have wanted to take in simply the history and not discover the poetry.

SG: I think that in poetry there is fact, but there’s also a special spirit, a spell. And in every poet those things don’t contradict, and the spell will arise if one writes about the timetables of electric trains, about the driest facts. Well, certainly this spirit is very difficult to translate into another language. It disappears, and besides that, the Russian tradition has expected too much from literature—that it will be philosophy and economics. And even honorable people (I’m not speaking here of charlatans) began their involvement in literature in the first period of what we call perestroika. Many of them were not poets and thought that perestroika would be modeled on Krushchev’s Thaw, something very short. And now it seems permanent, as I would like to hope. And that second thaw passed. I believe it passed. That is, by tradition, there are such shadowy relationships in literature, but in my opinion they’ll pass. I’m not a masochist and think poetry should be admired. But, nevertheless, it’s a branch of spirit, like religion, philosophy, the humanities.

A friend was here recently and said: think about this—and listed off the names of writers who now do business and don’t find the time for literature. It made me happy. It means their energy already found them a serious and adequate means for their character. They are simplifications of fractions.

PM: There is a line, perhaps, in prose—a line of realistic art from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn. Now, socialist realism is already disappearing. Socialist art played a big role in relation to art in general, because it was official. It made it necessary for others to do something else.

SG: You’re asking about innovations, right? About the reaction to official literature. For me, when one talks about art, I become bored when people look at processes. And in general, by my convictions, art is that which is inspirational. And if some avant-gardist with a cold head or some socialist realist with a cold head or some realist with a cold head—if he doesn’t draw with anything, if he himself isn’t moved, his waves won’t communicate audibly, visibly. Thus all of this for me goes into a boring and unhappy area in which all spans are equal, all equally gray. And when really talented people force themselves to edges of art because they’re crowded or they simply want to expand out, I can like it or not. But it calls out my admiration in any case. As long as it has not become fashionable to enter that realm. So I wrote using irony, and I think that I invented it myself. And then arose ironic poetry, and I became uninterested in ironizing. Not because I want to remain original, but because I, like others, am convinced that I don’t resemble the rest. That doesn’t mean that it’s a sheep crowd in poetry. No. The crowd doesn’t exist. But let each person in the crowd prove that he is individually gifted. So I was turned off by it and attempted to depart from irony.

PM: What goal do you strive towards when you write poetry?

SG: I will answer this question: I don’t strive to any goal besides quenching my desire to write a poem. It seems to me the best stimulus occurs when you write a poem or a piece of music for its own sake. Because when you write with some higher aim—even if it’s an admirable one—I don’t believe that the result will come to be a real success. One needs only to write from selfish reasons, and with one’s own desire. In general it seems to me that any selfish activity (be it the doings of a bootmaker or a doctor) is the best means of creativity. It is good if a doctor empathizes with a patient, but if he’s interested in defeating the sickness…. In general, I’d be better off not with a kind doctor but with a specialist who was interested in defeating the sickness. Although I’d probably befriend a kind doctor, when I wasn’t interested in his professional qualities. You know, Nabokov said accurately he didn’t believe in writers with kind characters. So ethics and aesthetics can come into contradiction. Thus I write poems, of course, because I am interested in writing poems. Then I think, turning around, what have I done, what has come of it? When a person is young, the unprincipled nature of art greatly disheartens him—that you begin to write about unhappy love, but you end up with a poem about how good it is to sleep on the bank of a creek at sunset. Where did you betray your love? You didn’t betray love—your intentions came in contact with harmonic laws. It seemed a simple idea. And when you move in line with these harmonic laws, these laws set straight your intention little by little. Why does it seem to me, for example, that rhyme is not an obstacle to expression of feeling? How can I express such a remarkable feeling without the durability of rhyme? Do you understand what I want to say? If it’s a really strong feeling, then rhyme it. If rhyme changes your feeling, and it wins from this, becomes more harmonic, that means that it wasn’t fully true. That’s how it seems to me. So, working backwards, I think that I searched for truth, that I didn’t with seriousness draw close to truth, but I ended up in the area under which the laws of truth extend themselves. Not because I pridefully decided: “Okay, quickly, ahead to truth!” But because it just happened that way. It happened with me and not only with me. It happens that way with everyone.

My favorite expression of this pertains to the odious Kazakh poet Dzambul. This primitive poet sang and wrote songs about Stalin. I don’t know what’s true in them and what’s not. It seems that he is the best definition of what is poetry: “Poetry is the art of consoling, while not deceiving.” Do you understand how tricky this is? Usually consoling presupposes a deception. And like consoling, how can you say the whole truth in the face of this? Thus, a third result occurs: A person finds that which he didn’t search for.

PM: And why do you write in classical form?

SG: Because. . . it’s been given to me by birth—I really didn’t know poems not written in classical form except Mayakovsky’s. So there really wasn’t any choice for me in this regard. But I will not pridefully say: “I chose classical form.” I didn’t choose anything. My understanding of poems regularly flowed with syllabotonics—with regular meter and with rhyme. And I myself wrote that way, and my circle of friends wrote that way. And when the time came that the possibility arose for me to choose. . .I don’t know, I just didn’t want to change my choice.

In general, it seems to me that it’s good when there are some kinds of obstacles. If there aren’t any, one must invent some new ones, formal ones. And here there wasn’t any need to. And besides that, the effect of my poems, if it exists, partially comes from the convergence of classical, almost sculptural form and everyday content. It’s something like that. Again though, I didn’t mechanically move: “Okay I’ll take this form and fill in this content.” I did this as people selecting notes who don’t know the notes of the scale.

Of course, professional cynicism, not only yours, but mine as well. . . we’re together in this. Only I’ve already stopped being ashamed about it—I’m older than you, and this happens often. I was once working in a theater, and this cynicism first became clear to me when a crying actress ran backstage and said: “Hurry up with the beer and cigarettes! I’m sopping wet. It’s so hot!” And she just had been crying wonderfully, together with the audience.

There’s a great story, I don’t know if it’s worth it to waste the tape. . .in any case, there’s this legend. I didn’t read it, but heard it from my father. Korney Chukovsky, you know, was a children’s writer, and a critic—a really amazing personality. One day he sat in the theater, and Shaliapin was singing in Boris Gudonov. Shaliapin was a genius Russian singer. The audience was sobbing—he had so entered the role. During intermission Chukovsky went to him backstage and began to tell him all sorts of funny things. He didn’t spare anything, almost dying of laughter. Then Shaliapin had to return to the stage and asked: Where are you sitting? He told him the row and seat. And then during a really torturous scene, Chukovsky saw that Shaliapin moved his eyes, found his place and winked at him.

PM: I heard that you rewrite frequently. . .

SG: I write (try to write) very accurately. Each word is important to me, each particle. I write, weighing everything on a druggist’s scale. In the beginning I listen for intonation, because for me it’s more important to carry through intonation than the content of a poem—that’s second in line. Here I can sacrifice, and that also bears witness to my professional cynicism.

PM: So the first step is intonation.

SG: Yes. Then I begin. . .to choose words, metaphors, some poetic material. And this period is very unpleasant, because you’re always afraid to alter the intonation, that it won’t work out. And then, finally, the stage begins when I can write the whole poem out. That is, I still don’t know what the stanzas are about. But I already know that there will be nine stanzas, and that the poem will begin in this way. In the center there will be these lines. And near the end there will be something like this. As a rule, this doesn’t change, although sometimes there are surprises. When I have a skeleton, a draft of the poem, I can go about a month, or two, or even a year—I just put it away because it hasn’t finished yet, I can’t yet finish the poem. Sit and write.

So in this sense I envy those who tell me: “Call back later. I’m working.” How do you work? How is it with you, does the light fall on the left, or is there some beautiful magic in your writing hand? I can go months and then only suddenly it flashes: this is how it should be. So I like my poems very much because I like the way I write. I need to do it this way. That is, I cannot judge the aesthetic effect it gives. But for me there’s no choice. That is, I find it when I stumble over it. It’s impossible to choose: “It would be better that I fall not here but on another street.” You’ve already stumbled. You’ve already fallen. And in this sense I cannot overestimate my poems because they are like a fact to me. I could not, after twenty years, rewrite my earlier poems like Pasternak did. You just can’t rewrite a fact that’s happened.

Well, and then finally one must finish, so that “the mosquito doesn’t sharpen his nose.”

PM: And how many poems have you written now?

SG: I think that in my entire life I’ve written about 300-350. I’m not ashamed to show 50-60 of them. I’m least ashamed of 30. And I hope that about 5 are just simply good.

PM: One of your poems, “It’s Time to Change the Record. . . ” captures the feeling I’ve had waiting for local trains.


Не сменить ли пластинку? Но родина снится опять.
Отираясь от нечего делать в вокзальном народе,
Жду своей электрички, поскольку намерен сажать
То ли яблоню, то ли крыжовник. Сентябрь на исходе.
Снится мне, что мне снится, как еду по длинной стране
Приспособить какую-то важную доску к сараю.
Перспектива из снов – сон во сне, сон во сне, сон во сне.
И курю в огороде на корточках, время теряю.
И по скверной дороге иду восвояси с шести
Узаконенных соток на жалобный крик электрички.
Вот ведь спички забыл, а вернешься – не будет пути,
И стучусь наобум, чтобы вынесли – как его – спички.
И чужая старуха выходит на низкий порог,
И моргает, и шамкает, будто она виновата,
Что в округе ненастье и нету проезжих дорог,
А в субботу в Покровском у клуба сцепились ребята,
В том, что я ошиваюсь на свете дурак дураком
На осеннем ветру с незажженной своей сигаретой,
Будто только она виновата и в том, и в другом,
И во всем остальном, и в несчастиях родины этой.

It’s Time to Change the Record

It’s time to change the record—but I’m dreaming again
Of the motherland. Bored, shouldering past crowds
At the station, I wait for the train, since I intend to grow
Some apples or gooseberries. September’s leaving.
I dream that I’m just dreaming of crossing a wide country
To nail some important scrap of board to a shed.
Perspective of dreams is a dream within a dream within a dream.
I smoke, squat down in a potato patch, burn off time.
And over the muddy road I head home,
From my small dacha plots toward the train’s plaintive cry.
But damn, no matches, and it’s bad luck to go back.
So I knock at random doors along the way. Matches.
And a strange old woman leans through a low frame
And blinks and mumbles as if she were to blame
That the weather’s bad and there are no smooth roads
That Saturday at the club the guys came to blows
That I wander the halls of the world like an idiot,
An unlit cigarette in this hard autumn wind—
As if she were to blame for this and that,
And for the rest, for the troubles of the motherland.

SG: It seems to me that with believability I do well. The shortcoming of my artistry is what maddens me. I hope that in my best poems there is artistry. But when a poet has only an artistic beginning, and there’s no blood, sweat, and tears in his creativity, then he’ll stop being moved, it seems to me. But if there’s only blood, and no tears, this also won’t move him. Yes, in this circle we all live. You don’t need to be a poet to live fully. But for myself, I would like the flow of artistry. I would like to compose, pulling ideas right from my head. In the end, in my opinion, with enough experience, I’ll be able to have that luxury.

PM: What’s your relationship to the avant-gardists?

SG: I relate to them in different ways. I think that avant-gardists in art must encroach on the laws of art, encroach on its sanctity. And conservatives of art must preserve the laws of art. And in response to what comes up, I can be on one side or the other. If we were in a time when academics were in force, figuratively speaking, academic, self-satisfied poetry, then I’d be on the side of the avant-garde. But it seems to me now that the avant-garde is more progressive than the powers of preservation. The avant-garde has taken a general place, and for everybody anonymously gifted, this is profitable for them. It’s profitable for them to practice avant-garde poetry. It’s become a professional approach. In general it seems to me that life consists of norms and wars with the norm. And where the battle with the norm has very serious reasons for those who fight it, there you need to break it with your hands. Well, if you really can live by the norms, then live by the norms.

What was the revolution about? It was a period when the outside norms became society’s general norms. And what happened from this we all know. What’s the avant-garde? It’s a crime, in the literal sense of the word, when the borders of the permissible are incriminated. I’ll give you an example from literature. Do you remember, if you read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, there in the inn Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov are talking. And Ivan Karamazov tells the story of various horrors, including how someone killed a slave child with rabid dogs, and asks: “Now, what would you have done?” And Alyosha, whitening, says: “Execute them.” And Alyosha says this, a Christian, a man of amazing meekness, and his saying “execute them” acquires great weight. Today, in all the queues one hears “we need to execute them.” “Execute them.” Of course those who say “execute” don’t have Alyosha’s experience. They don’t have that battle within themselves. If for avant-gardists a new word in literature is worth such inner strain, like an inner battle, as for Alyosha Karamazov the word “execute,” I’d be unusually sympathetic to such an avant-gardist. If an avant-gardist finds saying “execute” easy (of course, you understand, I’m speaking metaphorically) I am against such an avant-gardist. Not only because it’s become the norm.

I have a secret conviction that to live a normal, boring, routine, human life, to go to church, to believe a little in God, to give flowers to women, to yield them your place, to have children in normal ways—perhaps this is unbearably boring, is a good way to live. What intellectuals in the West live, perhaps I’m mistaken, is that measured life. You can live that way. To live by the laws of hysterics is impossible. Then life turns into a hell. What began with the avant-gardists (Blok, Bely) hysterical, raising into law, ends in a boredom more frightening than boredom in America. It ends with Kaliningrad. It ends with gulags. It ends with boredom, sadness, and blood. All these avant-garde ideas, as soon as they possess the masses, they go into fashion. To live by the laws of the avant-garde is impossible. I understand that I allow someone unique to break the laws, the norms. I cannot not allow them. Nothing would change from it. They break the laws anyway. I can understand the principles of each, admirable principles. They couldn’t care either way. But now, when the avant-garde is aggressive, then I make exceptions only for those people who find avant-garde a matter of life, those who aren’t kidding around. Because nine-tenths of today’s avant-gardists tomorrow will become classicists, as soon as classicism comes into style. That’s about it. Did I answer your question?

PM: Yes.

SG: Do you agree with me? It’s a personal question.

PM: Yes. As in the Bible: “There’s a time to gather up stones, a time to cast them away.” I think that now in Russia there is a time to gather stones. Avant-gardists play a large role, when society. . .when it’s too self-assured.

SG: Yes. Agreed.

PM: But perhaps it’s impossible to live by their law.

SG: Of course. But happy is that culture where Mandelstam and Khodasevich can be contemporaries. Those two unyielding to each other in human genius, writing in two completely different keys. And even critical thought—Khodasevich has a distinct, almost Pushkin-school critical approach; and then completely defying rational constructs, “Conversations on Dante” by Mandelstam. When this becomes neutral, it’s good.

PM: Yes. I think the avant-garde is an important, normal part of a good culture. But only a part and not the main part.

SG: One of my good friends, an excellent poet and admirable critic of mine, Mikhail Aizenberg, said about my poems: “Whoever doesn’t like the invented word will find the poems of Gandlevsky pleasing.” I can object to him. The invented word is a rarity and it’s impossible to demand from everyone, especially paying attention to the sphere of the reader, that a writer write with such language. To write thusly, one has to be born a certain way, to make a geographical discovery.

PM: It demands a certain character.

SG: Yes. You know, there are geographical discoveries, but when we take a boat from London to New York we’ll take a set route. And it’s better to go that way. Yes, I guarantee I’ll develop this image. I guarantee the connection between London and New York. Honor and praise is given to those who discover new lands, but it’s impossible that from ten ships, nine with passengers (readers, in this case) would depart for nowhere, never coming to anything, never finding anything.

PM: Take “Blue Velvet,” a very good film. But when college boys lionize the sadist as if he were the hero, then something’s lost. I don’t mean to say that art must explain itself all of the time. But there’s a certain responsibility implicit here.

SG: You’re on my side then. It doesn’t seem to me that I’m right in my argument with Dmitry Prigov [an avant-garde poet]. But I don’t think that he’s right either. We made our points clearly, and what lies between us is what artists must have in mind—that I’m for a condition of alarm, an artistic one. And in general whether I’m right or he, we’ll know when we know if there’s a God. If there is God in the world, then there is some absolute. And then, probably, I’m right, because in God there is no contradiction between ethics and aesthetics, only truth. And if it turns out that there’s no God, then Prigov’s right. So everything here is a relative “Yes.”

PM: Yes. Art is a valuable thing, but dangerous.

SG: People don’t value invention enough. It seems to them that they live by the laws of the real world. Our materialistic government, for example, argued the power of idealism. There wasn’t meat here—people saw pork on television and everyone thought that they lived well, and that there was meat. Here was the realization of the German philosophy of the dreaming intelligentsia. And please, go ahead, you can live in such a world. It was “the evil empire,” of course. Reagan said it simple-mindedly, but…

PM: What role does the poet play in Russian society today?

I think that the weight of a poet in society strongly depends upon the regime in which the society exists. If the regime is totalitarian, then the weight of the poet is very great. If he praises the totalitarian regime, he will be great because the regime will help him, as we’ve seen with Mayakovsky. If he will be in opposition, the secret opposition of society will help him. This explains the honor of Galich, for example. Galich was a good poet, but he had such praise. . .or Vysotsky, his was a more universal honor.

Disillusionment awaits many avant-garde poets now. They would like to live in a free country but would like to have the praise only possible in an unfree country. There won’t be any miracle. Let them hope not. They must all work, receive stipends, and become fairly unknown members of society. But in general, to understand poetry fully, only other poets can. So real understanding and real success—regardless, is guaranteed, even if only one person three hundred years from now reads through one unknown loner. They won’t be popular. They won’t become powerful weapons. But in my opinion, that’s right. A poet isn’t a stage singer, not a sex-bomb movie. Yes, Yevtushenko had the fame of Madonna. But it was a different time, and Yevtushenko spoke (only in rhyme) what the middle intelligentsia felt, for example.

PM: And what kind of picture arises in Russian poetry in general today? I’ve met with official writers, with avant-garde writers—each ignored the other group. They are like two poles.

SG: I always like judgment not by one’s stay in some camp, but by talent. For example, I like the book Quiet Flows the Don, although written by the reactionary Mikhail Sholokhov, better than the novel Doctor Zhivago, although Pasternak is the standard of the liberal intelligentsia. How can that be? Well, it happens that a great poet wrote a weak book, and an obscurantist wrote a talented book. Here I’m now mixing maps and poles. It seems to me that there are enough charlatans amidst alternative art, the group in which I include myself, and amidst official art. But there are talented people there. It’s another matter how it’s regrettably difficult for us to understand and sincerely love art: for me, we’re official poetry and they’re unofficial. Here there is a gulf. It was as if we lived in different rooms. We have different values. What we like, they don’t like. And vice versa. And when I sit in on poetry readings of admired official poets, I want to hide my eyes—I’m not even close to what they’re doing. I think they must feel something of the same thing at our readings.

PM: And aren’t you now a member of the writer’s union?

SG: Yes. But it was all done in my absence. Well, I’m a nominal member. But the telling fact is that I’ve gone twice to the restaurant at the House of Literary Workers with my friends—unofficial poets, having come from America, émigrés. They paid. I brought them there. And about ten times I went to the Book Table of Writers; that, really, also lost its meaning, because, well, there were some writers. . .

There was a bookstore at Kuznetsky Most, and on the second floor it was written: “Entrance only for members of the writer’s union.” On the first floor now everything’s the same as on the second. So I received the privilege too late.

It seems to me that in poetry it’s not a poor picture. We now have Nobel Laureates for Poetry, and I believe they justly received the award. There are brilliant poets. I cannot remember all of them—Aizenberg, Kibirov, Eistenstein—in Russia, in emigration. It doesn’t seem to me that our time will be imagined as a history of fruitless literature. I don’t know about prose. Well, I know a little something. Take, for example, Sasha Sokolov. His first two books were quite good. You’re a researcher, and you inevitably ask me general questions. That is, you’re a poet, but now you’re in the role as researcher, and now you ask me general questions. And I, as a poet, must break with generalities and speak in particulars. And thus I violate your plans a little. Well, I will interview Yuri Miloslavsky tomorrow and we will change roles. Do you know this writer (he writes prose)? A good one. He lives in America. He’s also an emigrant. And now we’re changing places—I will ask him general questions, and he…it’s that kind of genre. Research classifies, and poetry, nevertheless, insists on particularity.

PM: Has your poetry changed as a result of historical events?

SG: You know, not really directly. I never was a fighter for the regime for political writers. And in general, the questions of justice, injustice or battle with the Soviet Power emerged in my creativity, since the Soviet Power got involved in my life. But Soviet Power was such a disgusting power that it was involved in everyone’s life, always. And it was very difficult to write blue lyrics. It was difficult to be pure lyric. And an unfortunate habit arose pushing against Soviet Power. And suddenly, the wall fell, and everyone lost their equilibrium. It doesn’t seem to me that the events of recent time have found a reflection in my art. And then, the recent events came at a time in my creative life, human maturity. Why did I stop writing or begin to write so rarely? Because of Gorbachev or because I’m forty years old?

PM: My last question. I think all Americans are interested—what were you doing during the August putsch [the failed communist takeover of 1991]?

SG: Which putsch?

PM: The August putsch.

SG: Well, first off, I don’t think that all Americans are interested. Maybe five are. I must say with shame that when the August putsch occurred, I was putting up these shelves. But not because I’m a coward. I’ll explain. It’s simply that my hands were not made for work. I can’t make anything. And on the night of the nineteenth I asked my father-in-law to come over (he can do everything) to help me. And when he was here, I uncomfortably, humanely, couldn’t begin to tell him: “Good Nikolay Alexandrovich, you came all the way from home, with tools, but I’m going off to the barricades, so you just lie this board over here.” And when it was the next day, I already was prepared to go at night to the barricades, and even that was a great heroism for me (my friends sat here, having been there—Timur Kibirov, by the way, was there, and came with a bottle of port). I said I can’t leave today, and I’ll go to the square at night; but by that time the radio broadcast that they caught the insurgents. No, I wasn’t a part of it. I am really sorry about that. Perhaps I should have told my father-in-law “Sorry, but a citizen’s terror is stronger.” I guess I’m sort of uncharacteristic.


Winner of the Russian National Poetry Prize in 2010, and both the Little Booker Prize and the Anti-Booker Prize in 1996 for his poetry and prose, Sergey Gandlevsky was once named in a critic’s poll as “the most important living Russian poet.”  He is the author of a number of books of poems; a memoir, Trepanation of the Skull (1996); a book of essays, Poetic Cuisine (1998); and a novel [Unintel.] (2001).  A Kindred Orphanhood: Selected Poetry of Sergey Gandlevsky, translated by Philip Metres, was published in a bilingual edition by Zephyr Press in 2003.

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  1. […] poetry as A Kindred Orphanhood (2003). One of several interviews he has done can be found in The Conversant.  Susanne Fusso published a translation of Gandlevsky’s creative autobiography Trepanation […]

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