This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993). The interview with Russian poet, Alexander Makarov-Krotkov, took place in 1993.
Philip Metres: Why did you begin writing?
Alexander Makarov-Krotkov: I’m not sure. I began to read at a very early age, and took to poetry quite young because my father regularly quoted lines of poetry. And because during childhood I enjoyed [Sergei] Esenin (I can’t get rid of his influence) to the point of revulsion. I loved him so much when I was seven or nine—well, as a child. I think he’s not a poet for adults but for the young. So I really don’t read him anymore. He’s interesting but not enough to keep me reading. I don’t know why I began writing. I just stretched out my hand and began to rhyme some words. Naturally, it was all pretty light stuff, but. . . it’s hard to say exactly why. I’ve been writing poems practically since childhood, since my school days. The poems from childhood were just a form of play. Professionally, I began to write at about the age of 19.
PM: You said that you have read Whitman. There’s such a breadth to his poems. What do you take from Whitman?
AMK: I’m a minimalist. I don’t think I take anything from Whitman, because he’s interesting to me only from an historical point of view. He’s not my author. I have much more in common with the work of Carl Sandburg and William Carlos Williams. Whitman’s writing has perhaps too much rhetoric, too many unnecessary words. I’m a minimalist, and each word for me is like a sign; it has a little more meaning than when spoken in everyday speech.
PM: What exactly is minimalism to you?
AMK: Minimalism is the attainment of some kind of harmony by minimal means. In other words, the attainment of some picture, some spiritual state by minimal means. I guess I don’t consider myself entirely a minimalist poet by that definition, but recently I’ve become interested in its possibilities. Take, for example, the composer John Cage. His minimalism consists in creating a musical piece with minimal musical means. This is perhaps an oversimplified definition of minimalism. But that’s what it means for me.
PM: Don’t you think that minimalism is a type of conceptualism?
AMK: Not necessarily. Conceptualism is a way of thought, and minimalism is a form.
PM: Perhaps minimalism also has a way of thinking implicit in it.
AMK: Undoubtedly. It’s possible that conceptualism could be born within short forms. Take, for example, Vsevolod Nekrasov. He’s both a minimalist and a conceptualist. [Nikolay Alexeyevich] Nekrasov, [Lev] Rubinstein, [Vladimir] Sorokin and [Dmitri] Prigov—they’re the four best conceptualists. Of course, minimalism also is ideological, but it’s not as formal. Nekrasov writes about his minimalist matters, and other conceptualists are concerned with bigger themes. Perhaps another way to describe their relation is to say that one way of thinking is horizontal, and the other, vertical. Minimalism moves horizontally, and conceptualism crosses minimalism at a certain point. Nekrasov’s work exists at that point—he’s both conceptualist and minimalist.
PM: Why do you write in free verse now?
AMK: There’s probably an element of inertia to it, because I began to write free verse sometime at the beginning of the 1980’s. Then, of course, it was new, unusual and fresh, and now there’s inertia there. But now I’m trying to make a more articulated free verse with sharp inner alliteration, so that each beat writes, draws itself out. I’m not using rhyme at all because there’s an element of embellishment to it that gets in the way.
PM: In my interview with Yunna Moritz, she argued that free verse isn’t from the Russian tradition, that it’s simply taken from translations.
AMK: Yuna’s not the only person who has said that. She’s one of many official [meaning, part of the Writer’s Union, the Soviet parallel, perhaps, to what Charles Bernstein would call, in the American scene, “official verse culture”] people who’ve said that for many years, and many progressive poets have asserted this as well. The avant-garde poets of the 1910’s and 1920’s wrote free verse. Take Khlebnikov, who wrote a quarter of his poems in free verse. And the futurist writers—Mayakovsky, for example—have written in free verse: Vasily Kamensky, Aleksey Kruchenykh. There are examples of free verse in Alexander Blok’s work and in Esenin’s. Semyon Kirchanov also wrote many poems in free verse. And in [Daniil] Karms’. All of them tried writing free verse, about ten years after Apollinaire and others in France. Of course, for political reasons the literature became very one-dimensional and one-sided, purely formal in style—only because all other styles were prohibited at the end of the 1930’s did free verse fail to achieve further growth.
PM: Do you think, on the other hand, that the tradition of Russian literature has been lost in today’s society, or is this impression an illusion and it’s just the end of Soviet literature?
AMK: I think that’s an illusion because after the fall of the Soviet era, a certain vacuum has appeared concomitant to the desires of Russian mentality. Perhaps there is such a mentality, but it’s simply nationalistic to believe that Russia will rise above Asia and Europe. In Russian folklore, in funereal or elegiac songs there exists what are called “tonic” verses, without rhyme. It’s quite similar to free verse, but it’s not free verse. It’s proto-free verse, as it were. Free verse is a product of our urban, 20th century. In spite of the fact that Whitman wrote in the 19th century, free verse emerged in the 20th, amidst surrealism. Free verse is contiguous with the Russian avant-garde, with Kandinsky. Of course some will say that none of this is part of the Russian tradition, and that “you must not work that way.”
PM: Perhaps that reaction against free verse is related to the fallout from communism. Today’s relativism seems frightening for Russians. Before, it may have seemed there was evil and good and a person knew what was good and what was evil. And there was a sharp distinction, partly due to the government. Now it’s totally different, and ethical distinctions seem less clear.
AMK: Yes, many problems have emerged. Everyone’s dragging their chains. Economic problems give rise to ethical ones. And ethical problems are probably more important, though the two are simultaneous. Our new literature turned away from ethical problems to purely linguistic ones. This literature uses irony, self-irony, parodic speech, social and political quotes. Take Prigov, for example, who parodies mass consciousness. There’s still no positive, constructive literature; it’s just a destructive one right now. Although I can’t really speak of all contemporary literature, because there must be something positive in it. Even in the poems of Prigov. And Nekrasov, whose poems are simple lyrics. He constructed his own poetic language, but the essence is lyric.
PM: Another question emerged after perestroika, after the putsch attempt [of 1991]: How can the writer write about the self after communism and the notion of a societal consciousness? What is individualism for a writer in post-Soviet Russia?
AMK: In spite of the fact that there was a mass consciousness, there was always individualism. And of course we had two literatures. There was an official one and another, not merely political, but purely aesthetic. The avant-garde, the underground. The aesthetic didn’t necessarily enter into the realm of underground thinking. I never thought of myself as a Soviet poet—that wouldn’t be possible. And I don’t think that in terms of individualization some kind of changes have occurred, because the individual remains an individual, as always. Mass consciousness changes, but the individual remains. Whoever was able to think on one’s own will continue to think independently. And whoever thought with Soviet clichés will probably think with different ones: anti-Soviet ones, perestroika ones.
PM: Do you think that the avant-garde were suppressed not only because they opposed official literature, but because they wrote, in effect, political poems?
AMK: We have a perplexing situation with the underground. I don’t consider underground poetry to be what is called political poetry. In general, we had three literatures: Soviet, anti-Soviet and a third way which wanted nothing to do with this conflict, but wanted to be involved in pure art. And since it was pure art, it also wasn’t accepted and was thus somewhat political. There was a whole layer of real literature that came out in samizdat (self-publishing). But, again, in political samizdat, in the journals 37, Obbodny Kanal (Free Channel), Chasi (Watch). Or they were published as émigrés or by émigrés. I was published in the journal Continent in Paris. The anthology Mulet came out with some of my poems. Now the underground doesn’t really exist, because any poet can get published. The situations of the avant-garde in the West and here were quite different. If there is an underground in the West, it concerns art desiring nonconformity, but in Russia it’s art desiring not to be official, because we’ve never had commercial art. Perhaps now another underground will emerge, but it will be a completely new one and more similar to the West’s.
PM: And what would they be after?
AMK: I was recently told about the French underground. There’s a poetic movement called “the poet and the crowd.” I don’t remember his name, but there’s a French poet from Montmartre who sold hand-written copies of his poems. When he was approached for a publication deal, he refused, thinking that it was too base, that it meant sinking into the crowd. So there’s that kind of underground. Or, in another instance, I was recently talking with a young man from Austria. For the young poets, the underground of 20 years ago is already part of the establishment. So to get poems published in a journal makes it prestigious art. That underground’s become prestigious. The poets who are 50 years old live quite comfortably. They teach in universities. But young poets put out their own small journals with a small circulation, printed on bad paper. It’s a sort of samizdat. The new samizdat will be something like that here. But now the situation here is still complex and confused, so we don’t have an underground.
PM: And what about poetry groups?
AMK: You know, I was always an individualist, and I didn’t enter any group officially. The “Taganka” club was good because we didn’t have any kind of manifesto, no general program or agenda.
PM: What did you do there?
AMK: We associated on purely friendly terms. There were about 15 of us, and we were all absolutely different poets following a different line of poetry. This club existed for two years, just getting together to read each other’s poems. Occasionally we’d gather and recite poems in a house of culture. In 1988 necessity pulled us apart, and the club dissolved. I think it was partly the absence of any kind of aesthetic platform or program. And I didn’t go to any other group after that. The majority of them were composed of people with similar aesthetics. I’m not sure there were any clubs in Moscow like “Taganka.” Perhaps there were and I just haven’t heard of them.
PM: What do you think of Brodsky? Is he now a Russian or an international poet?
AMK: In general a poet or writer always exists in the culture of his country. If, though, he lives his whole life in Australia but writes in French, he’s a French poet. For example, Guillaume Apollinaire. In this case, nationality doesn’t play a role. There was a half-Italian, half-Pole I met who wrote in French; I would consider him a French poet. However, Brodsky’s case is a little different, since sometimes he writes in English. Perhaps then he is an American poet. If he writes in Russian, he’s a Russian poet. The notion “international” in literature is very complex. Painting is universally understandable and doesn’t demand any kind of translation, but poetry and literature are inaccessible arts to the extent that they demand translation into another language. A poor translation is often merely a literal line-by-line version, while a good one is a work of art written by the translator. The translations done by Pasternak, for example, are in a way his original poems. He translated the French poet Verlaine, but his versions keep almost nothing of the Verlaine original. I like Brodsky’s work, but to acknowledge love for Brodsky is like acknowledging love for [Boris] Yeltsin or [George H.W.] Bush. Because Brodsky’s a Nobel Laureate, a figure whose name is spoken about everywhere. Brodsky is certainly a great poet. But I don’t feel close to his recent, geographic poems. For example, he goes to Italy and writes poems there called “Travels.” They’re just uninteresting to me. But generally, he’s a very good poet. It’s unimportant that he lives in America. Yevgeny Rein, an old friend of Brodsky’s from their Leningrad group who met in the 60’s, says that Brodsky rarely returns to Russia, even just for a short time. He has this kind of psychological barrier which he can’t break through. As Brodsky himself says, “You can’t return to the place of your first love.” By the way, Brodsky’s poems are close to free verse, especially if you take out the rhyme. Although it’s closer to polymetric, octave verse. I don’t know American poetry very well, but there’s the point of view that Brodsky seems unusual for the Russian reader because he’s taken much from American and English poetry and carried into the Russian idiom and soil.
PM: How do you deal with political or historical events? What were you doing during the coup attempt?
AMK: During the putsch I met the tanks on Manezh Square. I happened to be in the center of the city on the mornings of the 19th and the 20th at the Hotel Nationale and saw the column of tanks. It was a grave moment for us, especially on the first day, something nightmarish. On the second day it seemed like a farce. On the third day, things escalated when I stood at the barricades in front of the White House [Parliament building] when the putsch finally failed. A few months later, apathy set in. In spite of this, though, a feeling of national ascent remained, that we had been victorious.
PM: You said it was a “farce.”
AMK: The putsch itself seemed a farce, even though the following day that still wasn’t the case. It was a couple of months later when I looked back at the events surrounding the coup attempt. It failed so quickly. In the first place, the actions weren’t well-conceived at all. Every hour they made some new blunder. Because of that, the putsch began to seem farcical. Could it not have been a joke, a joke on the public?
PM: You’re the second person who’s said that it was a farce, a joke on the public.
AMK: But this feeling of farce came after the fact. A week later I went to Switzerland and spoke with people there about it. Everything’s more visible from the outside, but they saw it on television. They said they figured out by the second day that the putsch was a farce, just not serious. But it was quite serious to us, even terrifying, when the tanks were driving throughout the city. It was an oppressive atmosphere; we believed that everything would be turned back and more repression would begin. So of course there was a great feeling of satisfaction when three days later, the putsch was defeated. And the feeling of farce, as I’ve said, came after. There’s one small footnote, however. The White House could have been taken in a half-hour by the Alpha Brigade, the special brigade for the KGB which, I read, took the palace of the president in Kabul in 1978. They needed only a half-hour to break apart the crowd in front of the White House, and go arrest the president. Why they didn’t do that, one can only guess. It’s already history. That perhaps they awoke to some humanitarian feeling is unlikely, because politicians of that feather don’t have such feelings. Today, my feeling about what’s happening in this country politically is apathy and indifference. I remain on the side of democracy, but when I sit and listen to the debates in parliament I grow bored quickly. In 1988, during the first Congress of People’s Deputies, people walked the streets with transistors or sat in front of televisions and listened unceasingly. But not now. God help us if the nationalist-communists come to power, because they’re such a crazy bunch. Then we wouldn’t have a red dictatorship, but a crimson one, and they really wouldn’t differ at all. Earlier I wrote poems in the socialist mode; it was unavoidable. For example, this poem in two lines, called “Address to the Afghan People”:
the international debt
The idea was this: It was thought that our invasion of Afghanistan was fulfilling our international duty. Thus, the poem’s like a boomerang. The “international debt” is of purely Soviet coinage, “address,” because during holidays we had these “addresses to the Soviet people.” It’s a parody of mass consciousness. Now, of course, fewer poems like this come up. I think that if in Switzerland, half the people don’t know who the president is, that’s normal, because it’s a sign of stability. It means all’s well. It’s not so important who the president is.
PM: Who are the symbols of your generation?
AMK: I remember the line from the Bible: “Don’t worship idols.” In the 70’s, when rock music was popular with the youth, it was Grebenschikov. Now the youth have their own idols. And the purpose of literature is purely psychological survival in such conditions—when they don’t publish you, when only your friend can read your poems and say if they’re good or bad. And then they lie in your desk. One of these generation-defining poems (well, actually a short story) is Benedict Yerofeev’s “Moskva-Petushki.” It was a symbol, a purely literary symbol. Now there are no symbols for my generation. For future generations there will be, but for mine there are none, because this apathy is not just mine, but my generation’s. Back then, Grebenschikov fulfilled his social role, his lofty ideal, which was to be the hope of the people. He fulfilled that, but he’s not as interesting today. Because what was most important wasn’t the music or the poetry, but the figure himself who made some protest. Now protesting is not necessary, because everything is possible—there’s full freedom.
PM: Russian poets have moved into the intimate world, the inner world. You write about love. Why has this movement inward occurred?
AMK: It’s difficult for me to speak for everyone, but such a movement really did occur, and it’s for the better. Because love is an eternal mystery, it will exist in every poetry, although in different forms. It gave birth to poetry, and when love dies poetry will also perish. It seems to me that in the poetry of youth, although there aren’t yet any recognizable names, the destructive element of our generation seems absent. Intimate moments exist and will play a chief role in the future.
Here is a short selection of Makarov-Krotkov’s verse, with a few notes by the poet:
In hospital beds faces
like Modigliani portraits
It’s not a matter of proportion
but the foretaste of resurrection
Once at night
I went out
on the highway
my own self
I stay home
“Highway” is an idiom, not just today’s “big road.” In the 19th century there was an expression “highway robber.” Russia was vast, enormous open spaces, and to travel from city to city in a carriage could take several days. These “highway robbers” waited for such carriages.
These poems don’t come about as much anymore, although my newer poems still have an element of joking, though with a more literary background. Pasternak wrote an early poem: “February, I found the ink, I cry / Sob about the February / Still rumbling slush / With tears it burns.” I use inversion with this poem, which was written in 1981. It echoes the economic situation when it was impossible to buy anything:
already February got the ink
I cry I cry
to no dice
alarm clock alarm clock
how long still to live?
It’s a Russian tradition to ask the cuckoo: “Cuckoo, cuckoo, how long do I have to live?” And the number of cuckoos gives you your years left to live.
I left the house and
came back again.
blessed is he
who has seen the light.
This is also ironic, combining the elevated and the base. The allusions to the Bible with “Blessed is he,” and the use of the word “Behold,” which begins many Biblical poems, combine with “left the house and came back again,” as if on an errand. This poem was written in 1988, and I first thought it was just a socialist poem. But later I realized that to “learn to see and not to understand” is an eternal problem for any political system or construct.
in a southern city
to sounds of recorded marches
but jasmine flowering
but mountains so near
the heard heartbeat of a lizard
facing you and sea at once
oh divine prospect
to live and understand
to love and suffer
This poem was written in Koktebel, the Crimea. Southern Crimea is half-mountainous, half-steppe. Where the mountains end, the steppe begins, and all kinds of herbs exist everywhere. When you walk along the seashore, an hour from your house, scents are everywhere.
I collect scents
wormwood marjoram thyme
without the scent of your body
already doesn’t bother me
but still unable
my night’s reflection
sculpture of your body
day after day
in thoughts of daily bread
wise and sober
I learn to keep my brains
in cleanliness and order
I learn to see
and not to understand
so subdued the dog howls
as if he wants to hang himself
and hasn’t learned how
sea and reef
more and more’s
Born in Russia in 1959, Alexander Makarov-Krotkov’s poems first appeared in 1980s samizdat publications and in the émigré publications Continent and Mulet in Paris. He has published a number of books, including Deserter (1995), Nonetheless (2002), The Specific Sonnet (2004), Next, Everywhere (2007), and Edited Impromptu (2013). Part of the free verse and avant-garde poetry movements in Russia, his work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as translations into English (Ireland, USA, Sri Lanka), Hungarian, Georgian, Spanish (Mexico), German (Germany, Switzerland), Polish, Serbian, Slovak, Ukrainian, French, Croatian, Czech, and Chuvash languages.