Philip Metres with Olesia Nikolaeva

Olesia Nikolaeva
Olesia Nikolaeva

This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993). This interview took place in 1996. 

Olesia Nikolaeva was born in Moscow in 1955 and graduated from the Gorky Literature Institute in 1979. She joined the Writers’ Union in 1988 and has been a member of Russian PEN Center since 1993. She is a winner of the Boris Pasternak Prize, a past holder of a scholarship from the Alfred Tepfer Fund (Germany, 1998) and a winner of the City of Grenoble Medal (France, 1990). She is the author of twelve volumes of poetry, in addition to numerous prose books and collections of religious journalism. Olesia Nikolaeva’s works have been translated into English, Italian, German, French and Japanese.

Philip Metres: What’s your view of contemporary Russian poetry?

Olesia Nikolaeva: Let’s begin with the previous period of literature, Soviet literature. In the background of official literature was the “underground.” In the background of Soviet aesthetic, another aesthetic could exist that rebelled against the Soviet aesthetic. In the Soviet aesthetic, different streams existed. There was a pro-Western stream (that is, it seemed at the time to be pro-Western). A unity of cultures meant two poles, as it were, a Soviet and a Western pole…

PM: Wasn’t there also a stream of peasant poetry?

ON: Well, yes. It’s not entirely a “peasant stream,” but in general, yes. The fundamental value of peasant life is located in Christianity, but peasant life conserved these spiritual, human values. In the city, all that is invisible… Now, perestroika arrives and ends, and this unified field of existing literature ends. The “underground” becomes official. You understand, Lev Rubinstein, once an underground poet, now reads his texts for huge auditoriums of people, like it was during perestroika. That was nonsense. Absolute nonsense—when what was once considered underground now becomes official culture. They begin to travel abroad, begin to represent Russian poetry. It’s a completely symbolic situation.

And so a poet feels as if he were taken out of his usual context. First, the writer begins to feel, in this new situation of mass culture, that no one needs him, departing from the meaning once given to the printed word here. It used to be difficult to publish. Why? Because the printed word was feared. You needed to get some institutional permission. The Politburo, during its meetings, used to look through the publication Novy Mir. Can you imagine that? It was for us as if an American senator sat and analyzed and discussed some short story in The New Yorker, discussing its structure and meaning. Quite absurd. The writer felt himself a very important figure because they were afraid of him. They were afraid of him, and people would run up to him as if he were an expert. As if he were an expert in agriculture, in spiritual life (like a church father), a philosopher, a ruler.

PM: This was also true in Dostoyevsky’s time.

ON: Yes, it’s always been that way. In Russian literature the writer has always had a “tormented” role. But in the Soviet era it was completely crazy. And then perestroika came. Half the literary journals closed down, and if something were published then no one noticed: “Whatever you want, go ahead.” The writer suddenly had no influence in society. No one reads; no one reacts. Literature doesn’t exist. I don’t exist. There are no people analyzing what’s taking place in literature. So it’s working out that an absolute literary vacuum is coming into being, a vacuum that is completely full of disorder and is difficult to figure out. Perhaps literature is just getting its bearings.

PM: Isn’t this related to the new “freedom of expression”?

ON: Of course it is. It’s connected to many things. First, the absence of censors, complete absence of censors. What does a censor do here? It’s been noted already. You know Andrey Bitov? He was correct, I believe, in noticing that the censor was an element in the expression of [literary] form. That is, the censor was like some restriction (for them an example of expression) for the writer, who expressed his ideas in metaphors, images, etc. Then when freedom of expression began, suddenly writers began to feel that no one needed them. They found themselves in a real problem—the literary crisis after perestroika. During perestroika, everyone that wrote was published. And suddenly when one could say everything, it seemed that one could say almost nothing.

PM: So how are you dealing with this situation?

ON: You know, I think that I’m an atypical case. I’m atypical in this way: I’m a person existing within two layers of culture, simultaneously. On the one hand, of course, I entered the literary life very early, and existed as if I were both official and underground. That is, I was given themes to publish, but everything was with difficulty, and of course, censored. That’s on the one hand. And also within this writing context, I started publishing very early. On the other hand, I had very strong support from a completely different cultural layer. This layer was the Church (monasteries, monasticism, etc.). What is a monastery? It’s a gathering of people who have left the world, but who were poets, artists, graphic artists, police, peasants—all in one monastery. The monastery is a cultural formation. Because of its support, I always had it a little easier, I could run from one to the other. I had backup. When there was a literature crisis here, when all seemed hopeless, a desert with nowhere to go, I always had friends, always had this other region. I could always run there. I had the feeling of being influenced by the new Church. It helped me as a writer very much, because during the crisis I took up new things. I began to learn Greek, lectured in the literary institute, etc. I had a way to leave the crisis and return anew. And those who were stuck in the purely literary context, it was very difficult for them. Very difficult. Because the context turned you on your head. The earth simply rocked and quaked.

PM: So you had another way out. What place does your faith have in your poetry?

ON: Faith is simply a region of metaphysics. I think that real beauty cannot exist without some kind of metaphysical root. It loses its fragrance very quickly. If we’re speaking of faith’s place, then I’d say it is the source…

PM: Some more purely aesthetic poets often say that one must make a distinction between poetry and belief.

ON: Well, these poles are not unique—because faith is so aesthetic and always has been aesthetic, in its very nature. No, in general, in all its elements. Let’s say the [Orthodox] Church has its magic texts, the Psalms, the ceremony in which faith is enshrouded, etc. If we just glance at it, we see a huge aesthetic tradition compared with the purely literary version, say the Silver Age. With its oral creativity, with the astonishing tradition of pronunciation in the Church, even the Silver Age seems a pale imitation. Because the Silver Age tried to continue this tradition but in a paler way. Much has been written about that. You could write a whole book on the Christian allusions in the work of the Silver Age, in the work of Blok, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak, etc. You could write a huge tome on that. Moreover, when I had enough experience in life, I understood that a person could have his own ideas about faith and that these ideas could be simply more profound than the ideas of aesthetics. But if you’ve read any contemporary religious text, you’ll find that most are amazing, stunning even. So I don’t know: I think that it’s a false assertion. Probably whoever suggested this notion to you was thinking of fanaticism. And fanaticism is something else entirely.

PM: Why did you begin writing poems?

ON: It was a story just like one that I later read from Nabokov, “The Luzhin Defense.” I was probably around eight years old. I had a girlfriend, and we were together at the dacha. We walked around the orchard and the grounds. It was quite a mystical atmosphere (wind blowing in the emptiness), and I decided that I would write poetry. It was a mistake of fate. I thought it was completely rational. After this I began to write prose and poetry, and wrote about a family in the 16th century, a chronicle of sorts. And later I began to have the feeling that it was my vocation. So I began to write very early. In general I think that poetry is the most primal means of expression, because when there are periods that I don’t write, I feel very deficient. You know why? Because I stop understanding the main passage of fate. Because I have the kind of relationship to poems whereby if I don’t know something, I’ll understand it when I write about it.

PM: I feel the same way. When I’m not writing, I can’t seem to take in the world. Could you say that your work has changed as a result of recent events in this country, namely the fall of the Soviet Union?

ON: No, I can’t say that it has. No. Such things don’t have an effect on me. There are poets with a very strong social bent, and they work with social effects. I make some social allusions, but it’s just conversational language, not specifically social.

PM: So you have a more intimate, inner relation to your poetry?

ON: You know, I wrote an article about the fall of the Soviet Union as a consequence of the decentering of identity itself. If we speak of inner experience, then people’s inner mentality simply changed—and the U.S.S.R. fell. The nucleus began to come apart, fell apart from the inside. That change of mentality, perhaps, affected me more than the events themselves.

PM: So the changes had already occurred inside people?

ON: Absolutely.

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.”

ON: First, culture has more than one meaning—there’s mass culture, elite culture. We lived through an epoch (the Soviet period) when mass culture and elite culture were mixed together. Let me explain. It’s rather amusing. At the end of the 70s, or the very beginning of the 80s, suddenly and unexpectedly, it was decided by our government that the poets of the Silver Age should be published. They had been forbidden, and now they were to be published, these “elitist” texts. At the time, there was a congress of collective farm workers, and the participants were awarded with “deficit products,” precious rare commodities: crystal vases, carpets and a copy of Tsvetaeva. Because of its “elitism,” this poetry became a fact of mass culture. All culture was symbolic. It was just a system of signs.

For example, a huge tome of Innocent Annensky, a poet at the end of last century (a huge influence on Akhmatova and a real cultural father), was published in 150,000 copies. It was very elite, very refined, for a small circle of poets. So this book came out, in a very bad newspaper, sold in kiosks—and it sold out immediately. Not because it was Annensky (his grace, his spiritual brilliance), but because it was forbidden—and now it was allowed. And thus we had this confusion where elite culture became mass culture, even if it was generally for an elite culture. Lev Rubinstein’s work, for example, was intended for the 10 people with whom he began writing. He didn’t count on a huge crowd of people, applauding even if they didn’t understand his writing. Everything just continues toward this. It was this way and will continue to be this way. You know what’s happened? Even if you weren’t published, if you sat among some yard-keepers or watched guard, if you wrote on a piece of paper unrhymed lines, you already think that you’re not a yard-keeper, but a poet. A moment of prestige. And now it’s almost not decent to write. But in general that’s just what it’s like in America, I understand. What’s a writer? A bum.

In our institute, there had been a huge influx of students. Every year there was a creative competition, and there was such suffering because of all the crowds, all the work, and because it was very prestigious. It was so prestigious that (here’s an example) I could go to the train station, and there wouldn’t be any tickets, so I would go to the stationmaster and show my documents, that I’m a writer and get a ticket. Now that would never happen. Now, at the institute, we have very few people who want to enroll. Because many want to be managers, businessmen and no one’s interested. Perhaps just like in America, now a well-known writer cannot even write and live on his publications. It’s not possible. Rubinstein is now a journalist, Gandlevsky works at the Foreign Literature journal. I don’t believe they worked when they were in the underground—no, Rubinstein was a librarian. If before there was a huge interest in writing culture, it was because writing was a means of survival of a horrible reality, Soviet reality. It was like a kind of antidote (poems of Brodsky, say, or Rubinstein, someone going here, someone organizing something there). Now, that’s over. People go to psychics, extra-sensory practitioners, etc. I think the days of gathering huge people for poetry are over. Perhaps there will be a cultural interest, who’s doing what, what’s happening, but no longer as a requirement for life, for survival. Perhaps what’s happening now is no worse than what’s happening in your country. And that’s also an interesting thing, because we have such different traditions. We also weren’t always under Soviet power, we had an 18th, 19th century. We always had a societal relation to literature. We had a different mystery. And so it’s interesting to guess what will come next for us, what will follow. I don’t have any prognoses. I don’t know. I think, in the end, there will be an elite culture with its circle of readers, mass culture and simply full freedom to do what you desire.

PM: Complete this sentence: “Only in Russia…

ON: I don’t know. In this country we have so many amusing elements. Such a rattling mixture, namely because there are many languages—not, say, Yiddish or Ukrainian, but languages of mentality. We have Russian people who will speak in such a way that another Russian will have no idea what they’re saying. I don’t know how this period (liberalism, freedom of speech), how that will affect these people. The thing is that we were always told, since “village prose,” that the Russian man is so dreamy; he doesn’t do anything practical, can barely move. And yet this recent period of our life (market reform, privatization) did not result in merely another immigration to America. Nothing of the kind. The Russian is very practical, very vital, surprisingly alive. Adjusts stunningly. Adapts at a moment’s notice. It’s very interesting when such a human metamorphosis occurs. It’s not the human being changing. He just has the ability within him already. When yesterday’s Communist Woman (who sat and observed the students, such a terrifying aunt—we had such ideological aunts, so severe, obese, with the harshest glares) suddenly is wearing tight Western clothes…and it’s not just the clothes! It’s to know that something inside them was broken. This is about mentality. We lived in such poverty, such squalid conditions, and when we saw Western films, we felt enchanted just by the clothes. We had a dream of Western life, because it seemed like a fairy tale, and so of course there was such a romantic relationship. And now in any Russian province, in far Siberia, any particular perfume may be found. It’s perhaps just a little worse than what we have here in Moscow. People have begun to experience a modicum of comfort, not functional rationality. The relationship was once romantic and now much more functional. Once, we dreamed about reading Western philosophers, and later they just blended into this context, for there already was a societal philosophic culture. It’s also an interesting relationship. Now it’s very pragmatic. Now one can go to the West and earn money, live there and not waste any money…

PM: What aim do you have when you write poems? 

ON: I strive to some ecstasy, because occasionally when I’m writing something, if I’m succeeding in touching some reality, it fills with an ecstasy. Then I think that I’ve reached my goal. Because I’m a professional I can write about anything: write poems, verse, articles, novels, short stories, book reviews, etc., practically everything but plays. I’ve never written a play. I can write just about in any form—but perhaps that’s a bit cold

When I write I must feel some surprising inspiration. That’s probably how it is. Perhaps even some spiritual experience, because I arrived at the conclusion that when you sit and write about what you know, you will never experience wonder. But when you write something you don’t know, suddenly something, some power, begins to help you. When I feel that strength. I’ll think: “But I didn’t know that; that’s impossible!” Of course that doesn’t happen often, but it does at times. Of course I think that the goal of creative work is some feeling of transfiguring the world. Transfiguration. A writer can write about anything, the most trite, commonplace thing, absolutely. If there’s a transfiguration, then there’s inspiration, ecstasy, a completely new region of life—the feeling of freedom. Not official freedom, but the sense that you’re free, liberated, you’ve broken loose from all cause-and-effect connections. I think, if you write yourself, if it doesn’t affect you, doesn’t torment you, then no one else is going to feeling anything when reading your work. If you yourself float down that river, then your reader can as well.

PM: Do you have any questions for me?

ON: Well, I’m very interested in what’s happening in poetry in Europe and America; of course that’s interesting to me. But I think that the greatest poet was David, or Solomon, of the Song of Songs. I’m interested in the intersecting fields of poetry and religion. How does that intersection manifest itself in America?

PM: In different ways. It’s a dangerous area, because there’s a cynicism about religion. Everyone wants to live his own way. The poet wants to write something, and yet, as Gandlevsky said, “Teacher, stop your teaching!” The poet W.S. Merwin, for example, writes in a prophetic, elliptical style. James Merrill wrote an interesting epic poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, composed of ouija conversations with the spirit world. Perhaps that’s not interesting to you, but he was seriously involved with it, for years. Robert Cording, another American religious poet and my teacher, his second book, What Binds Us to This World, takes the root word of religion—“religio”; to bind—in its title. I also happen to like the early poems of Rilke, about Russia, which have been translated. Is there a good Russian translation of Rilke?

ON: Yes, we’re very lucky—Pasternak translated him. Of course, Pasternak pulled his own poetry into his translations, so actually, Rilke speaks from Pasternak’s lips. Pasternak translated Rilke, and various Georgian poets, that way. They turned out very well, but they sound like Pasternak.

I’ve heard that rhymed poems, because of structural reasons in the English language, have an ironic or completely comic effect on readers. So now blank verse or free verse is written most of all.

PM: Of course there are good rhymed poems, even now, but our tradition begins with Walt Whitman’s free verse—not “free verse” exactly, but something from the King James Version of the Bible. Do you write poems with rhyme and meter?

ON: I write poems with rhyme, not pure free verse, mostly intonated blank verse, but not always. Some time ago, I wrote very precise, metrical poems. I began to feel very confined by it. I wanted to breathe a little, break out of the form. So I began to write in very long, endless lines, which I didn’t understand until a rhyme might appear in the line. I used conventional ABAB rhyme schemes, finding the rhyme at times in the middle of the line. They would almost unconsciously rhyme; the rhymes prompted me. Sometimes I think I’m writing prose and suddenly I’m excited to find out that it rhymes. So rhymes help me, prompt me on to what’s further. The Russian language can rhyme endlessly because of its regular endings to cases and nouns. There’s more possibility to rhyme in Russian than in English. I tell my students that if you write in rhyme, you must remember that rhyme has a mystical meaning—that if you have an untrue rhyme then you haven’t said something the right way yet. You must say something in such a way so that the search for meaning prompts you.

You can go on holiday now, you can dabble in verse,
Or buy yourself a red coat with buttons in shocking pink:
You can make good money, or bad, or worse;
You can do the Lotto, you can take your friends for a drink.

You can get your house seen to, get your car fixed, or your teeth:
You can demonstrate, stop the world going down the drain;
You can say what you like about politics, or the police,
Or sit and look all morning at the falling rain.

You can rig up a darkened mirror on your own window-sill
To tell your fortune by the stars, draw down the kindly light:
You can pack up a parcel with a purple wax seal
And send it to Chile, or doodle with ash off your cigarette.

Now there aren’t any rules and we’ve torn up the script
You can do all that, and more. But what’s the point?

Translated by Catriona Kelly