This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993). Born in 1961, Anna Kurt graduated from the Institute of Foreign Languages in 1983. For a few years she worked in the State Museum of Literature. In addition to writing and publishing her own poetry, Anna Kurt has worked as a translator and editor for numerous publishing houses in Moscow, where she currently resides. She has been a member of the Russian Union of Writers since 2003. This initial interview took place in 1993, but was extended in 2013 with a postscript.
Philip Metres: When did you begin writing, and why?
Anna Kurt: I’ve been writing poetry seriously for four years. I wrote poems in my youth, like everyone, but only a little. And then a kind of change occurred. Since then, my writing became my profession and my vocation, not just a hobby, and also my passion and happiness. I treat it very seriously.
It started with some very sad circumstances. Once a very young person, whom I did not know well, died unexpectedly. I respected him very much, because he was a very gifted physicist, the best young physicist in Russia (see the poem “In memory of Vadim Knizhnik”). It was a shock. It was then that I started to think about death, reevaluate values. In the light of his death, I desperately wanted to do something, to become someone, at least a professional. So I started to write completely accidentally (though as I now know there are no accidents in life). At the same time, I became a Christian, and religion and poetry became connected. It’s strange that, through my own poems, I arrived at God. Or rather, He came to me; it was a real revelation. Of course, the nature of this is quite a mystery. Surely the very best poems are born from strong feelings and inspiration. Even when I wrote little, it was all connected with some kind of personal experience. Generally, it’s always personal—love, religion, faith.
PM: How long have you been religious?
AK: For about three years. Actually, the death of Alexander Men—the charismatic Russian Orthodox priest who was murdered in 1990—changed my life. He was the first person to reveal the Gospels to me. After that, I started to read religious philosophy and somehow worked out my own philosophy.
What I know I learned myself; we Russians often have no education or foundation. The Gospels became a part of my life and education, because the Church gives knowledge. I began to go to church regularly. Perhaps religious education is the most important; each person must have it. And of course, you need to know Russian poetry if you write poems, although I can’t say that I know Russian poetry perfectly (I will probably have to read Russian poetry for the rest of my life for this to happen).
PM: To me, the Russian tradition of poetry seems more spiritual than American poetry, emanating more from the emotions than from the mind.
AK: I suppose that American poetry is on the whole more rational or intellectual than Russian. Truth arises from the emotions, experience, reasoning, but most of all—from Revelation. This is true for both poetry and in life.
PM: Which poets do you like?
AK: All the poets that Russian readers and scholars love: Pushkin, Lermontov, Tyutchev. I have also studied poetry of the Silver Age, works by Akhmatova and Mandelstam. Of course, I admire Pasternak and Tsvetaeva. And poets like David Samoilov, Joseph Brodsky, Bella Akhmadulina, Semen Lipkin; they were the best. I studied their works not as a literary critic, but rather, because of my love for their work.
PM: Do you read contemporary poetry?
AK: I read it but just a little, as there’s nothing in it that inspires me. However prose, and especially philosophy, inspires me. There’s one prose writer I consider a classic—Andrey Bitov. Perhaps not everything he wrote was equal in terms of quality, but what he wrote on Russian poetry and traveling, I enjoyed a lot. In general, prose must influence poetry and vice versa, and to my mind, Bitov’s prose always feeds off of poetic sources. His prose is stylistically very poetic, like that of Nabokov or Platonov.
PM: Today I read Vladimir Solovyov. He seems crucial to the Silver Age.
AK: He’s certainly a genius—a classic, for the ages—and he also influenced my life. The Silver Age had a great influence on me. When people seriously study Akhmatova, for example, they might find hundreds of original quotations and aphorisms. As for Solovyov’s influence, I admire his well-known article “The Sense of Love,” as it may be the best of all articles that has been written about that topic. It influenced my life and poetry.
There are parallels between Solovyov and Pasternak, but they’re indirect, oblique, such huge philosophical categories. It’s impossible to say that Pasternak borrowed from Solovyov—perhaps he didn’t even read him. It just sometimes happens that geniuses find themselves on the same paths. What happens in science also happens in literature. Perhaps it’s even greater than that: surely everything that’s great, that’s genius, comes from God. And if Solovyov happened upon it, why couldn’t Pasternak also discover it?
PM: What role do women play in Russian poetry?
AK: I don’t think any particular role, nothing with any set meaning. Although women have played different parts through the ages, it seems to me that it’s not a foundational, great role. And it’s not that there are many Russian women poets. There have always been few talented ones: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and a few talented ones still remain—Bella Akhmadulina, Yunna Morits, Inna Lisnyanskaya. Probably a woman’s nature means an acuity of emotions, purely feminine, and surely men and women experience love differently. These poetesses impressed everyone, because they wrote the truth. God gave them that kind of talent. If women are gifted, they can express their feelings better than men, can think deeper and come to some interesting discoveries.
The creative person is alone, not resembling anyone. Berdyaev wrote that women have a disposition to submission. Though this may be true, it is not true for poets, because a poet experiences freedom at the highest level. One may say that in women, the emotional foundation, the foundation of love and spirit, is very strongly developed. Certainly then, talented women have succeeded in saying something completely their own in poetry. When it becomes the subject of their own tribulations in life, and not something contrived—well, such as it is with all poetry. When it was vital and daily—they succeeded.
PM: Do you think that Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were religious poets?
AK: Akhmatova certainly was religious but not fully Orthodox. To some extent, Tsvetaeva was religious when she spoke about absolute truth. Both became examples of Christian martyrdom and morality, and what the Lord reveals to us in the Gospel. That was all in their lives and in their poetry. But it seems to me that that faith, which the prophets and the Gospels preach, Tsvetaeva did not have. Nevertheless, the values and categories of Christianity was a part of their lives, and they all took it in their own ways, though not in the traditional sense.
Tsvetaeva is a splendid example. Her entire life emanated conscience, truth, compassion, love. She denied the evil of the world, the world which she just couldn’t accept. But her personal, romantic life was far from the Lord’s law. And her end, what she did to herself, the Lord prohibits. She did it out of despair, of course. No one judges her for either sin. We need to pray for her, but it’s a sign of our godless age. Faith would have saved her. She was always a person of gospel truth, gospel values, in life, in creativity—in everything, but without faith. With morality, but without faith. And that, perhaps, is not enough in the traditional sense, in terms of the Gospel. I don’t say this aloud, but in my heart I analyze. Without tears, without shudders, it’s impossible to analyze her life and destiny. This example, which brings us to tears, as we cry when we see the tears of others, violence, the blood which is shed upon the world…that is how I cried for her fate, when I began to read her. I was so impressed by such a terrible fate. You remember the words of Zosima from The Brothers Karamazov: “Woe to the people who don’t have the Word of the Lord.”
Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva could love their neighbors as themselves, but “above all, love God” for them was like an abstract category. They were extremely talented, and if they had believed in the Incarnated God, Tsvetaeva could have been saved.
And Mandelstam, who gave his life for his friends, would have been saved as Christ did for his disciples. He affirmed all Christian truths in all his life, in each of his lines of poetry—truth, dignity, conscience. But he didn’t believe in the Resurrection. Why this was, I do not know.
These were certainly excellent and talented people—a thousand times brighter and better than we. Mandelstam was such a brilliant, thoughtful person. He was a prophet in the genuinely Biblical sense of the word, because his poems were of the most real Biblical revelation. Blok too, as well as Akhmatova.
Pasternak and Akhmatova were real Christians. It was probably the secret of their comparatively long lives.
PM: What can the Church do during this present crisis?
AK: Yes, there is a crisis now, but there are many gratifying things now as well. Why would I, for example, want to live in this country, in the center of Moscow? Because there are people—religious, intelligent and worthy—who teach the word of God truthfully and worthily. And thus it’s impossible to say that culture is dead and that the word of the Lord is forgotten. No. The Word comes to the world, like the kingdom of God comes to this world, only imperceptibly. And some people are saved.
PM: Did things get complicated when the Church became involved in politics?
AK:They are two different worlds. The external world does not know Christ and his Word, it does not understand the true meaning of the true Church. Historically, the official Church has been involved in evil matters, and it may become involved in them again. The evil will just have a different name. Fifty years ago the official Church was so covered in evil that it was visible to everyone, as it was perfectly clear that the regime was a different evil. The true Church where there is a presence of God has meaning only for some souls, for this small remainder—and maybe for the culture.
PM: Can a poet write about political things? How does a poet relate to the world, to one’s time?
AK: Everyone deals with it in a different way. For example, in the ’30’s Mandelstam, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova all responded in different ways: Mandelstam used to say that poetry should be civil and wrote the best anti-Stalin poem; Akhmatova wrote “Requiem” for those that perished in the camps and prisons; and Tsvetaeva wrote the best anti-fascist poems about the former Czechoslovakia. All this poetry was superb.
Civic poetry may be not so straightforward, so evident, but the rejection of evil is evident in every real artist. A real poet can never support evil. A poet must always be on the side of the condemned, the doomed, the suffering.
Now evil is of a different kind. There’s nothing like half the country being in labor camps, the other half fearing it or writing denunciations.
Where does the evil lie now? It lies in the fact that there’s no spiritual worth. Now values aren’t simply materialistic but rudely materialistic. And this isn’t summoning a protest; everyone’s accepted the very worst, the most bestial face of capitalism. In the West, everything is more or less balanced out, as the capitalist tradition came gradually. In the Gospel there is no condemnation of social inequality—there must be rich and poor. It’s something else, though, that Christ said, “Woe to the rich.”
But here this process came very quickly, in just a few years, and took on a completely monstrous form. There were people who worked in some specialized academic fields—science, literature—but they moved to some more lucrative field. Poverty is not a pleasant thing, is it? As a result, culture and spirituality is withering. On the other hand, the spiritual still exists—there are some remarkable priests, artists, poets, interpreters. But there are very few, and one would hope for more.
PM: Some have argued that Russians just weren’t ready for freedom.
AK: Well, that’s a difficult question. What exactly is freedom? Each understands freedom in his own way. I understand freedom in light of the Gospel, freedom from sin; that’s the freedom the Lord brought when He came to the world. And from this freedom does freedom arise in society. The presence of inner freedom from sin gives the presence of freedom in the external world. Because of this, I believe that education must begin with the Gospel, with explanations of simple ethics and religious truths. Then there will be freedom. Man will be free inside himself.
And what kind of freedom is there now? The freedom to shed blood, the freedom to barter and speculate. True, there is freedom of speech. Now everything’s been published, but it’s clear that little changed.
PM: Perhaps much of what was written in the Soviet period has little importance to post-Soviet Russia?
AK: Yes, to some degree it’s not interesting anymore. But really talented works will remain. It’s probably not even interesting from the historical point of view if it’s not a work of genius. That’s how it must be, that’s evident.
PM: The poet Yunna Morits has said that people use freedom to be greedy now. They say: “We are free,” and do what they want.
AK: Well that’s not freedom, is it?
PM: It’s a difficult situation, because an atmosphere of complete lack of freedom existed for so long.
AK: But one could always search for the truth, and those who thirsted for it, found it. Of course there were few, but there was truth. Talent and conscience are rare phenomena in this world, but still, whoever searched, found. Their names are famous to everyone. And their fates were hard, tragic. That is, whoever risked something, lost something, and then everything came to in its rightful place. One needs to risk in order to approach one’s ideals.
My friends, though, are mostly church people, or I’ve known them by fate. I’m not amidst poets. Although when I was in America, I met Joseph Brodsky twice. I think he liked my poems—I’ll recite them aloud to you. In any case, he checked off some of them. But he’s a wise person and correctly said: “Everything here is good, but something’s still missing to make some kind of conclusions. Just live longer, write more.” And that was all of a few pages, a small notebook. But he’s an excellent critic, very wise, accurate person who reads poems with precision.
PM: Do you think Brodsky is a Russian poet now, an American poet, or something else?
AK: I think he’s a fine essayist now, a brilliant teacher who’s interesting to listen to. But his poetry has faded. He himself said in one of the interviews that he had left his muse in Russia (or maybe she left him). When he was in jail and exiled for five years, experienced hardships, suffering and treasons, then the great poems appeared. (On the other hand, Leo Tolstoy, Afanasy Fet lived and wrote in ideal surroundings and could accept the “stream of heavenly inspiration.” That’s also something of a mystery.) Brodsky’s peak of writing came in 1972, before he left Russia. In general, the best poems are ones that the poet lived through, suffered. And this happens regardless of the poet’s strivings. Take, for example, the collection of works from big poets, say Blok. Very little remains.
PM: I’ve read much about the poetry circles of the 1980’s. People just gathered, read poems, talked about them, did what they wanted to do, and a kind of society emerged. Does a poet need a group, a community?
AK: It depends on the person. Of course, you need some kind of circle that gives you inspiration, but it’s impossible to create that artificially. It has to arise by itself. And if there isn’t one, well, God gives to those who search. I have the Church. That’s my circle (though frankly speaking, I am very lonely everywhere, in the Church as well).
PM: On the depoliticization of poetry: as I understand it, in Moscow there were organized poets in the House of Literary Workers, and there was an avant-garde or those who weren’t official. And now it seems the poets are tired of politics.
AK: Everything depends on the individual. Everything has to be transformed through creativity, must be burned pure. And if a person is really talented, then his work will be good, and in politics perhaps one can find a theme.
PM: Is a “domestic poetry” emerging in Russia today?
AK: Tolstoy, Bunin, Rozanov all wrote about the family, and it is an eternal theme. If someone discovers something new in it, then it will remain for the ages. It will remain interesting to read.
Do you know what Pushkin’s last words were? He said in French: “Je dois arranger ma maison” (I need to arrange my home). It means that one must begin with what each was given from his birth: his family values, his home, his family. And perhaps he predicted the appearance of the future Russian literature which, according to a famous saying, is “Pushkinsky dom” (the House of Pushkin).
A talented person can write about whatever he wants. For example, Rozanov wrote about his family—it’s genius—and Dovlatov also wrote about family, as did Brodsky, quite beautifully. It’s always fascinating when a person writes about family. I like to read about the family from a philosophical point of view. Rozanov writes about those things that everyone experiences. And the Church proclaims that a family should be a domestic church.
When you begin to write, the desire to immortalize yourself appears. But not in the vulgar sense, just simply to leave some trace behind. “On the windows of eternity my breath takes shape, my warmth” (Mandelstam). We all have to write on the windows of eternity.
PM: It’s not bad?
AK: No, it’s nothing bad. Just don’t be prideful, self-congratulatory, poseurish. You don’t need to seek praise. You need to thirst for eternity. And that’s Christianity—the way to eternity.
PM: Dima Psurtsev suggested that there are seven levels of the soul; Mandelstam arrived at the seventh level.
AK: In what poem?
PM: He just lived that way.
AK: I don’t know, I wasn’t counting levels. I only know that my view on life spontaneously, unconsciously began to concur with the Biblical. I accepted what the apostle Paul said quite naturally—that there is a physical body and a spiritual body. Few have written about the spiritual level. It’s difficult to get to that spiritual level neighboring God, it’s so rare that a person has spontaneous contact with God. A spiritual experience can be unconnected with the Church, anytime: before baptism, after baptism. But for some reason people talk little of these experiences.
Pushkin had strong religious experiences. His poem “The Prophet” is a vivid manifestation of it. Poems about Christ, which Boris Pasternak composed, are certainly the fruit of spiritual experience. But what is interesting? Not all so-called Christian poetry speaking of the Lord or things sacred is really spiritual. We discern great poetry through its inner music, perfect form and uniqueness, and not through the Christian theme or subject.
PM: I wonder if it’s possible to translate that unique characteristic of Russian life in poetry.
AK: I don’t know. It seems to me that it’s all words. Because poetry is more a reflection of personality than of the objective world. This world has many rhythms, and each poet chooses his own rhythm, so I don’t know if that can be translated into another language. It probably depends upon the measure of your talent.
PM: Translation seems more of an ethical than an aesthetic endeavor, because translating poems is on some level impossible. A new poem always comes out of translation.
AK: Of course, good poems need good translation. But it’s a matter of aesthetics, of the literary talent of the translator. It’s inarguable that all translations are to some extent inadequate, they can’t be otherwise.
PM: I’ve been quite afraid that it’s impossible to translate.
AK: Yes, is it possible to translate Pushkin into English? There are more and less successful attempts. If it is a great poet and a good translator, and it’s already become real English, then it’s probably not Pushkin but the translating poet. But if it sounds spectacular in English, then it was worth doing it. That’s how it should be.
PM: What do you think of the future of Russian poetry?
AK: I don’t know.
PM: Are you interested?
AK: Very interested. I just believe that as long as there’s civilization, there must be culture, language and the poet. I very much would like it that way for the existence of this nation and this time. The poet is the truth of his time, like a saint, although really, a poet is no saint. Instead, he is the justification of the world, of a terrible, evil world. I see my role in this and believe that as long as there is this earth, this country, this language, there will be poetry and prose. That’s the meaning of life and history.
PM: Do you think poetry can change life?
AK: It must. For a given person but not for a society.
PM: What do you think of the idea that “A poet in Russia is more than a poet”?
AK: It’s a beautiful line, it means a simple thing. The word of a poet meant much to people, to culture, to the intelligentsia—more than other words. It was powerful. And there was always a state power that tried to kill, to exile, to torment. I think that the tradition of Russian poetry is the tradition of ethics, of truth, of conscience. It was inspired by the search for truth, beauty and harmony, and each writer differed because they sought in their own way. They all had their own inner world.
В какой непостижимый край
Ведет поэзии дорога,
Души истрачено так много
Влекут свободные умы
Еще нехоженые тропы,
Поверх житейской кутерьмы
Ты прав, растоптанный пророк:
Сей труд воистину безгрешен,
Когда судьбою каждый слог
Как на весах точнейших взвешен
И рифма не вторенье строк,
А Богом заданный урок!
The road to poetry leads
To some unfathomable place,
The soul has spent so much
Not in passing, not by chance.
Minds that are free
Are drawn to untrodden ways
Paved by Calliope
Above the hubbub of every day.
You’re right, trampled prophet:
This work is truly righteous
When each syllable’s fate
Is weighed by precise balance,
And rhyme’s no mere reverberation,
But a divine lesson.
Песнь Сафо (Декабрь 2011)
Будь я прирожденным живописцем,
я бы целыми днями рисовала
серебро волос его дивных,
чтобы зрителю захотелось их коснуться,
перебирать, как драгоценные монеты,
бархатистую смуглую кожу
с филигранным узором и резьбою,
что влюбленному взору Сапфы
кажется всего милей и краше.
Я б тончайшей и острейшей кистью
тщательно выписывала каждую ложбинку
бесподобного этого тела
и изгиб его уст лукавых, и сверкающий взгляд иудейский.
Тут перо Алкея было бы кстати,
ведь словарь мой довольно-таки скудный,
и убогое у меня воображенье.
Я умею только любоваться
обожаемой земной плотью,
ибо душу осязать не дано мне.
Будь я скульптором вдохновенным,
вроде Фидия или Мирона,
я бы вылепила эти руки
или в мраморе их запечатлела
знатокам и ценителям на радость
и вложила бы в портрет всю мою нежность,
бездонную, как океан бурный
или наше Эгейское море.
Но я всего-навсего художник бедный слова,
а слова у нас, как драхмы, истерлись,
и метафор запасы истощились,
или воск свечи моей истаял.
Song of Sappho (December 2011)
If I were born a painter
I’d spend whole days drawing
the silver of his wondrous hair,
so the viewer would want to touch it,
to sort out, like precious coins,
his velvet dark skin
with filigree pattern and carving,
that the lover’s gaze of Sappho
would seem completely mild and beautiful.
I’d use the finest and sharpest brush
to write out, carefully, every hollow
of his matchless body and the curve
of his sly mustache and sparkling Jewish eyes.
Here, the pen of Alcaeus would be handy,
because my vocabulary’s meager,
and my imagination’s wretched.
I can admire only
my beloved’s earthly flesh—
for I can’t feel his soul.
If I were a sculptor, inspired,
like Phidias or Miron
I would have molded these hands
or captured them in marble
as connoisseurs of joy
and invested all my bottomless tenderness
or our Aegean Sea.
But I’m just a poor artist of the word,
and our words, like drachmas,
and reserves of metaphors were depleted
or the wax of my candle melted away.
Уже не слепая лавина,
Не тень, наводящая страх,
Я, Господи—мягкая глина
В Твоих милосердных руках.
Ужели, бессмертный и крепкий,
Приняв поклоненье и честь,
Искусство ваянья и лепки
Желаешь всему предпочесть?
И низким не брезгуя жанром,
До самого Судного дня,
Как будто на круге гончарном,
Всю жизнь обжигаешь меня.
I’m not a fearsome shade
Nor a blind avalanche—
I, O Lord, am soft clay
In Thy merciful hands.
You, immortal and tough,
Accepting worship and honor,
Is it possible that you love
The art of molding sculpture?
You won’t disdain your skill
In this base art, until the end
Of time. On the potter’s wheel
You burn me my whole life.
* * *
PM: Twenty years later, can you share a few words about your current poetry?
AK: Verse comes extremely seldom. Now, as usual, strong feelings, passions and sensations inspire me, but naturally they happen infrequently. Another impulse, and a very sad one, comes from the death of someone precious to us. I have also noticed a strange thing: if you refuse from something inwardly, say, from wealth, well-being, this refusal and your decisiveness with it may become a source of inspiration. Probably this explains why true poetry is so rare today. On the whole, we are striving for the opposite pole—for well-being, for material and spiritual stability. Who will voluntarily accept ill-being or poverty for the sake of creativity, for the sake of art? Yet, I know some people of this kind. I think that here, in Russia, they are more numerous than in the West (though it is difficult to evaluate), where the consuming spirit and selfishness is stronger.
In the long run, this refusal means a “secret” freedom, which Alexander Blok chanted, without which there cannot be any creative work. Saint Paul said: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty.” And creative work is always there where the Spirit breathes.
PM: What is the state of poetry and literature today in Russia?
AK: There have remained a few good poets in Russia belonging to the famous generation of the ’60s—Alexander Kushner and Evgenii Rein. I like Dmitry Prigov. He was a talented poet, so-to-speak a grand-child or a spiritual descendent of Oberiuts (Kharms, Oleinikov, Vvedensky).
We also have a few fine prose writers; I have already mentioned some of them. In my opinion, the most gifted of them, the most interesting—both stylistically and intellectually—is Andrei Bitov. Fazil Iskander is another fine writer. Actually, it is not so little, two brilliant writers working in the same epoch.
Olga Sedakova is very popular among intelligent people. Our great scholar Sergei Averintsev called her the most talented of our poets. I like her very much as a person and an essayist. She is a well-educated, learned, intelligent person. She has written a lot of interesting essays, but I cannot say much about her verses. A great poet is a very rare bird. Probably one of the best living poets now is Inna Lisnyanskay, who is living in Israel (her husband, Semen Lipkin was even better).
Bakhyt Kenzheev and Timur Kibirov seem quite interesting to me. But I do not see, in any of the above-mentioned poets, that extraordinary stylistic boldness which makes a person a real poet. I don’t see breakthrough to the highest reality (maybe except Lisnyanskaya) and don’t hear the voice of the Spirit in their poetry (metaphors and imagery are the manifestations of it)—and only the Holy Spirit can dictate great, immortal poetry. That is all so far.
PM: Can you say a few words about the current state of Russian life?
AK: I cannot say anything particular or original about it. Social inequality and injustice are blatant. In the 18th and 19th centuries in Russia, wealthy aristocrats often were highly educated, cultured, civilized people. The best of them cared for the people, their serfs and raised their voices against serfdom, poverty and savageness of Russian life. Now the privileged are the most unworthy, illiterate and mediocre people. Nouveau riches, magnates, bankers, mafia (legion is their name) are not educated and do not have talents or ethics. None of them care for the well-being of the people and their country. Everyone knows and writes about corruption, about the zero moral and cultural level of the government, but it does not change anything. All this is appalling. Only God knows how scientists survive, especially scholars, humanists, poets and interpreters.