Philip Metres with Stella Morotskaya

Stella Morotskaya
Stella Morotskaya

This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993). Stella Morotskaya was born in 1962 in Nizhny Novgorod, and graduated with a major in Computational Mathematics and Cybernetics. She has worked as a programmer, a tour guide, the director of the theater of fashion, a journalist and a host of leading television programs for women. She lives in Moscow, and is a contributing editor at Vokrug Sveta Press (Around the World Press). Her poetry has been translated into German, Hungarian, Polish, Serbian and Chuvash. This interview was conducted in Moscow in 1996.

Philip Metres: You’ve been writing free verse—what poets have influenced you?

Stella Morotskaya: It’s hard for me to say, because there’s the normal answer: Everything that I’ve read. On the other hand, I don’t have any idols. I can’t say: These are the poets I love, and everyone else doesn’t exist for me. If one is speaking of free verse, then I’ve always thought Vladimir Burich was very interesting as a free-verse poet. What I do is not entirely similar to what he did—and not just him. There is an elemental cry present in my poems, more often than not. His poems don’t have that. I like him for the depth of his ideas, for his ability to express the highest poetic things in a language seemingly without excessive embellishment, without what’s externally demanded of poetry. And as a free-verse poet, I’m very close to (I enjoy) Alexander Makarov Krotkov [her then-husband], since his poetry has the ability to communicate the most subtle and deepest things, completely without the use of unnecessary epithets. I myself didn’t immediately understand what was remarkable about his poetry. In my most recent poems, for some reason, his short forms are influencing me. On the other hand, I also have other poems built on repetitions, and they are often longer. Minimalism is not merely about small poems, not miniatures, but stinginess of technique. That is, I take some technique, I take a sound, a certain word, and create a poem from it. It is the use of a minimal number of artistic means. That’s minimalism to me, just like in music.

PM: Has music played a part in your poetry then?

SM: At the least, music did influence me at one time. Now, probably less. I would like music to have a greater presence in my poetry, but clearly I don’t have the opportunity to relax, wind down. And using shorter forms is also, in its own way, a fight for survival because longer poems require more time.

PM: I was surprised to find out that you dedicated poems to certain American composers that I’d never heard of before—Steve Reich, for example. Where have you heard them?

SM: I took an active interest in music. My first husband was a composer. Thanks to him, I know a lot of music, especially avant-garde, academic and different, interesting music. My enthusiasm for music was very strong then. Also, since I heard and listened all the time, the necessity to listen to my husband’s work coincided with the possibility to hear lots of other music.

PM: When did you begin writing poems?

SM: I began writing poems like everyone does—as a child (they were not poems, of course). Like all children’s poems, they are not literature. But really, since 1988. I didn’t write free verse, but regular rhymed and metered poems, completely economical, hard forms. I just wrote normal rhymed poems and my first publication was one of these purely rhymed texts. And then, in 1988, something happened inside. I understood that I could no longer write this way; it wasn’t interesting, wasn’t necessary, and that the very form and expression of free verse seemed more natural. When I began to write free verse, I really didn’t know theoretically what free verse was. I don’t think I even read any free verse poets. I purely, accidentally came upon it. I couldn’t tell whether it was good or bad. When I began to write it myself, I became interested in reading different theoretical works concerning free verse, like those of Burich. I just got very interested in it.

But at first I wrote—so first was the practice, then the theory. I was very lucky in quickly finding a circle of people who studied the same thing. Although it was very strange, because in Nizhny Novgorod there was no such circle. At the time, there was a pair of graphic artists who wrote in free verse. But most of the group was made up of normal, good poets who wrote normal, metered poems. I got together with them, but when I began to write in free verse, they didn’t accept it. And my first naive attempts to find journals in Moscow were also fruitless, because this free verse just evoked thoughtlessness: Why do you need to write free verse? On what grounds do you refuse to rhyme? They would ask me such questions. The answer for me was very simple, a counter-question: Why am I beholden to rhyme? You see, I needed a foundation to use free verse. For me, rhyme became an element of play, unnecessary as an artistic means. In my opinion, I would need a reason to use something external, something that has no relation to poetry. Why would I need it? That’s just an inner tenet of mine. As a matter of fact, I just can’t use rhyme. But I’ve wandered off the subject. A completely unexpected thing happened when I found out about the Free Verse Festival in Moscow in 1990. I just went, without invitation. It was so strange, so amazing that I was around everything I’d understood. Then I got acquainted with all the people who write free verse.

PM: You’ve said that humor plays a role in your poetry.

SM: There is an element of play; the use of different meanings of one word—double-meanings, triple-meanings.

From “All Twenty-Three Pleasures”

morning sex coffee cigarette
morning still morning sex cigarette
and still morning coffee cigarette
still it’s not time yet

утро секс кофе сигарета
утро еще утро секс сигарета
все еще утро кофе сигарета
еще не время

PM: Some think that good art has both an element of play and an element of seriousness. How does that work out in your poems?

SM: It’s difficult for me to say how it works out. I would like to speak of the serious in a way that’s unserious. Because it’s boring to talk about the serious in a serious way.

PM: What goal do you strive for when you write poems?

SM: The goal is by no means great; nothing large-scale, like the writing of a masterpiece. The goal is to catch the breath of words, if I could say it that way. You just need to find it—a few words that wouldn’t bother each other, to express with these few words something arisen that’s fleeting; to search through your brain for what would be difficult to define. Perhaps it’s an unclear thought or some kind of emotion that would be impossible to relate literally, in regular words. Something that you can describe only “around” it. You could just form some situation—the situation isn’t as important as what stands around it. And in the end, it’s again an attempt at self-expression. Though perhaps that’s said a little strongly, because in principle, poetry is always self-expression. At the same time, I don’t think that all of this—this book here—is me. I don’t like that and I don’t understand it when a person takes up his book and says “All of me is right here.” It seems funny to me. A person is always more than what he’s written.

PM: There was a time in Russia when people said that “A poet in Russia is more than a poet.” What’s the place of the poet in society today?

SM: It seems to me that today the situation is becoming normal. That is, the poet in Russia was more than a poet when the poet was a citizen. When the poet took on the responsibility to speak for politics, for the masses, in stadiums, to be a town crier, express someone’s will, some feeling, consciousness, in some way. But really poetry is a personal matter—personal, intimate, subjective. And therefore, a poet doesn’t need to be more than a poet. And that abnormal situation—when a poet in Russia is more than a poet—was what gathered those stadiums of people [during the Khrushchev Thaw period in the 1960’s], because it was impossible to speak about these things any other way, only in poetic language, as it were. He’s just a poet, but he has to express something else—some higher aim in his texts and performances. But now the situation is just approaching the situation in Europe, worldwide, in America. That is, a poet is just a poet, no more than a poet. It’s a private task, and now that only poets are interested in poetry, this is (for the most part) probably normal. I write for myself, not for Vasya, Masha, Petya.

PM: Do you think that an avant-garde exists today?

SM: That’s a terribly complex question. I don’t really know if the avant-garde exists today… the avant-garde probably exists in the writing of traditional texts. Because at the present moment it’s the biggest experiment.

PM: Could you comment on this quotation: “The market can become the grave of culture. Privatization of culture is first and foremost privatization of the soul.”

SM: The phrase isn’t totally clear to me because the soul, generally speaking, is “privatized” from the very beginning. I don’t completely understand what a common or shared soul is, but perhaps a shared soul is the shared culture. Perhaps they are really the same thing, in a sense. Privatization of culture—I think it’s absurd. It’s an attempt to say something with a lot of meaning, but from this little quote, it turns out sounding absurd. It’s nonsense, really.

But culture, from the point of view of the word “culture,” is in principle a grave. In and of itself, a grave. Culture is already a layer—a layer of rock, let’s say. It’s what’s already been, what’s piled up. Culture is like history. And art is what’s happening now—it’s what’s bursting out, what’s new, what culture has not yet become. And when it becomes culture…

PM: It’s already a dead thing.

SM: Not exactly. It’s a grave, but not in the negative sense of the word. Roughly speaking, art appears against the backdrop of culture, in a singular war of opposites. It advocates conflict with what has stood before. Time passes and that art becomes another layer. That is, art continually becomes culture.

PM: Culture, though, doesn’t just exist in museums, but in the lives of people. There is elite culture and…

SM: Yes, in Russian the word “culture” has many meanings. There is elite culture, and mass culture is something entirely different.

PM: How have you reacted to the economic and political changes in your country?

SM: At this moment I don’t understand what’s happening. Sincerely. I understood what was happening a year ago, two years ago, when all the democratization and privatization began, and I liked it very much. Yes. I think that it’s correct. At the very least, for literature it’s a normal process, a happy process. Because before, literature couldn’t exist the way it does today. It’s clear, even if there are risks or trouble, that I have the right to say what I want, write what I want and in some sense do what I want. For me that’s more important than something else, some inconveniences or problems. I would not want things to return to the life we had.

PM: What do you write about?

SM: I can’t define what subjects I write about. I have no pronounced direction in this sense. I don’t write about love. I don’t write about nature. Though I do, in fact, write about all that. That is, I just write. Occasionally I expound on something. But poetry lives in everything, and that means I can hear, see, catch it, write it and touch the subjects of the world, the feelings. But at the very least, I think that language as such is the subject of poetry—not the means, but the subject. I am a “language” poet.

PM: There were a number of avant-garde poets at the beginning of the century, Khlebnikov among them…

SM: I don’t write like Khlebnikov. There are interesting Russian poets who are the real followers of Khlebnikov, like Sergey Berekov from Tambov, who write in the “zaum” style. But I don’t write that way, even though I love Khlebnikov very much. It’s a different thing.

PM: Let’s have you read a poem.

SM: This one is purely playful, by the way. It is constructed on the different meanings of one word: перевод.

I received
a monetary translation of a poem.
Pardon me,
a monetary transfer
               for translation of a poem.
I’m sorry
a monetary transfer
               for transmission of a page
               for translation of a poem.
I’m sorry, could you translate that please?

PM: It quite nicely describes the linguistic impossibility of translation.

SM: So on the one hand it’s playful, but on the other hand, it’s something serious. In general it seems to me that the poems where I’m not playful, but simply trying to say something, those poems are less interesting, really.

PM: For you they’re less interesting?

SM: I think they turn out objectively less interesting. Though everyone has his own opinion and perhaps I just like the more playful ones. Here’s another built on word-play, but it is actually rather serious too:

The artist paints something white
With white, across a white field
On the white snow of a white animal
The cold white sky
One a white table, white milk
At the white oven in the front room
A white cloud in a white night
The white flame of a white light
The artist paints something white

His palette
blackened with black
from the mixing of paints

It is nevertheless playful, and therefore, for me a small revelation.

PM: Tell me about your job.

SM: I edit a magazine for girls from the ages of eleven to eighteen. It’s one of a kind, and so it’s interesting to me. And generally, it’s not the worst work in the world. I’ve felt, purely professionally, that it’s become interesting enough to me. I know what I want to do with this journal and how to do it. And it’s very important that I immediately see the usefulness of this work. Because these letters here, thousands of them, are girls writing sincerely to me that there’s nothing in the world like Marussya. It’s very important that they can write and ask us (ask me) questions that they’ve never even asked their own mothers. They confide the most intimate revelations. The knowledge that I can really help someone… These girls will listen to me and make a decision correctly. And not just whether or not to use eye-shadow or mascara, not just how to wash right, but they won’t make a serious mistake in their personal lives. On the other hand, I’m aware of my responsibility, because I could say something incorrectly and, in light of the readers’ confidence in me, I could make a terrible mistake. They take advice from very literally, very straightforwardly. We are little gods for them, in our own way. Perhaps big gods. We’re important to them and I like my work because I know how these girls need me. There’s the chance, too, to work with language. Of course, this has its problems though, because I spread myself very thin. It’s not the best influence on poetry.

PM: I feel the same way teaching composition—you get tired of dealing with writing altogether.

SM: You need to have a free mind. Better to do some hard labor, like being a yard-worker or a fireman, where you don’t have to burden your brain.

PM: By the way, I interviewed Burich, but I heard that he passed away…

SM: When I read Burich for the first time about seven years ago, I envied him very much, because it seemed to me that he wrote exactly what I wished I could say. That’s a serious impression—when you read another poem and you think “That’s exactly what I would’ve said, but he’s already said it.” That’s probably the highest assessment, when a person correlates with your feelings. Since Burich’s poetry coincided very seriously, and my own poems didn’t correlate with my own feelings… He really was a kind of ideal. But, at times, there was something more heavy in his work than I would like to read. Heavy in the sense that… I perceive it’s something of a fault when a person tries to say something too large. He had some poems that were a little unpoetic, burdensome from excessive profundity. When a person tries to write about something large—the earth, humanity—I perceived his poems with trepidation. He was a kind person, but a little strange. He had his strange habits. He had an odd appearance; looked more like a bureaucrat than a poet. But in the last years he grew a beard and became a real woodsman. It looked good on him.

PM: Last question, nonsense really. Complete this sentence, “Only in Russia…”

SM: My head spins with the most foolish phrases, the most inappropriate… Only in Russia… are there such disgusting cops.

[Postscript. I emailed Morotskaya in August 2013 to ask what she thought of our interview, and how things were going. This was her reply].

SM: Hello, dear Philip!

Sorry I did not answer you right away. At first I thought hard, then I was traveling and now I’m back again… And here again, I do not feel prepared to respond.

It’s complicated. My life has changed since then. My personal life collapsed, and I had no energy for literature. For a long time, even thinking about poetry was painful.

In the last ten years I’ve had to work. I am no longer connected with the literary community, and it has changed significantly. I would like to answer you, but I have to collect my thoughts and feelings. I work like crazy these days. I am now the editor of a travel magazine, Around the World. And the comments and additions to my old interview require a serious dive… I cannot promise that I can do it quickly. But I’ll try… Sincerely, Stella Morotskaya


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