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 following interview with the poet Tatyana Rizdvenko took place in 1996.
Tatyana Rizdvenko was born in Moscow in 1969 and graduated from the Moscow Pedagogical Institute. She has published two volumes of poetry and works in advertising.
Philip Metres: Let’s begin with your poetic life. How long have you written poems?
Tatyana Rizdvenko: Well, about 16 years, since I was 15, 16 years of age. I wrote and wrote, and later went to the university to study poetry.
PM: Why did you begin writing poems?
TR: I remember the very moment. It was summer. I was 15. I found myself suddenly writing a huge “long poem.” I always loved poetry, especially women’s poetry. It happened so suddenly, this wonderful moment when I began writing a gigantic poem, an imitation of the Romantic long poems of Gorky—like “Song of the Falcon,” I remember now. Such huge poems. It would be funny to read them now.
PM: What poets do you like?
TR: Mandelstam, very much. At 19, I heard [Sergey] Gandlevsky read and I loved him. Why? Because hearing him read, I understood how striking he was. It was clear that he was weary, but when he reads with such a voice, he’s such a specific and interesting person. From the Silver Age, I love Mandelstam and Pasternak.
PM: Why Mandelstam?
TR: Because it seems to me his poetry is so competent. He’s a poet in the purest sense. I don’t know all of it—maybe he has some lesser poems, but he’s a real poet, a poet in the purest sense.
PM: I think American readers often read him more as a symbol of the epoch than as a poet.
TR: But his poems are so striking; I tremble before them. That is, they give me exactly what poetry should give a reader: no toys of the pen, no enchanting things, no ironic word-plays. It seems to me that these are less than Mandelstam, whose poetry touches certain chords and gives what poetry should give.
PM: You’ve already lived through much in Russia—what you think of all the political and economic changes?
TR: Well, before these changes, before 1991, it seemed that a poet was something more, something larger. But now there’s no time for verses, for poems. Back then I found time to write, at the beginning of perestroika, but now things are more commercial, more energetic. In those years, a friend actually walked to the dacha, sat down and wrote 30 short stories and 60 miniatures. A person could work, do his task. I was very envious and was captivated. Before the changes, there was time, and a person had the strength to do that sort of thing. Now he’s practicing journalism to obtain money for his family. He works very hard, as he’s a very talented person. But in general, I’m not that interested in politics.
PM: Have things gotten any easier for you in the past three to five years?
TR: As a poet, no. Now I’m a designer and very involved in that technology. Back then it was a wonderful time for poetry, a more peaceful, less intense time.
PM: Your work now is also a kind of art.
TR: Yes, it does calm me down and consoles me, in a sense. It’s a kind of salvation for me. It’s habitual, a nine-to-five existence, but that’s okay.
PM: What do you think—has freedom of expression changed Russians’ relationship to words, to the Word?
TR: I don’t know. It seems to me, in the Russian situation, that restrictions were a wonderful foundation. That is, they artificially increased interest in the word, and poetry received increased attention from this. That’s specifically Russian, I think. However, the more freedom, the less interest (in poetry). Perhaps I’m mistaken, but that’s how it seems to me.
PM: So you think that a poet in Russia is just a poet?
TR: Yes, yes. Perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s how it seems. I wanted to say that I witnessed something once when I participated in an institute association. A person started to read a poem, and the leader, an older man, said, “You can’t read that here.” He said, “In this association, as long as I’m here, we won’t discuss this theme.” That was about eight years ago. He said, “I’m not going to read this poem and I don’t need to. End of discussion.” And we were shocked. I saw this with my own eyes.
PM: What aim do you have when you write?
TR: I don’t know; that’s an interesting question. Hmm. Let’s say, to free myself from something, but from what… the result is that I want to produce a good poem. If that’s it, then I’m unthinkably happy. The process itself. But now, unfortunately, it becomes more and more complicated as time goes by. I don’t know—there’s no goal. For me, it’s a means. It’s very important for me. Perhaps a means of living, let’s say. That sounds pompous.
PM: Does an avant-garde exist in Russia today?
PM: Or it did just become “official”?
TR: Perhaps it doesn’t exist, then. There is this guy named Villi Melnikov—have you heard of him? He sits on the roofs of buildings on the Ring Road (a huge road which encircles Moscow) and makes noises. So there is something. There are younger people. I just don’t know.
PM: Stella Morotskaya suggested that perhaps some traditional poets have become avant-garde. Do you write metered poems?
TR: For the most part, yes. I think that it’s a distinctive feature of my temperament, some ironic turn of mind, the short lines. It’s my character, temperament, a way of thinking.
PM: Why poetry?
TR: That’s a riddle. I don’t know. That also has tormented me—why some people begin writing and others don’t. I think that for some people it’s a means of living, probably, and then later they make it their profession. Some means of life.
PM: What do you think of Russian poetry today?
TR: I think that, right now, there’s a work atmosphere. It’s peaceful, without any exaltations, and as a consequence, perhaps a little boring. Humdrum, even. It seems to me that those who cannot write anymore are no longer part of poetry. There were writers that just decided to break off and become journalists. They stopped writing. Whoever couldn’t write anymore just stopped trying.
PM: Even the most popular, most famous poets?
TR: Well, there’s Vosnesensky (one of the most popular 60’s poets), but it’s a profession for him. He writes books the way he wrote 20, 30 years ago. I think he even exploits his muse. I don’t know. Sometimes he exploits the depths of his younger genius. I don’t like his poems. It seems to me that it’s funny, literary toys, playing around, not poetry, not coming from the soul but from the mind. If they were more clever, they’d be more interesting. He’s very recognizable; it’s true, he created his “image,” but now he exploits it.
PM: Many of the new poets have nothing good to say about the 60’s poets.
TR: They ride an old horse.
PM: Could you comment on this manifesto: “The market can become the grave of culture. Privatization of culture is first and foremost privatization of the soul”?
TR: Well, probably there’s something to that. It’s not the grave of culture, but a serious ordeal. A grave is a grave—that’s too unequivocal. It’s an ordeal.
PM: Do you consider yourself part of the avant-garde?
TR: That’s a complicated question. Honestly, I don’t know. I think I have something in common with the ironic poets like the OBERIU: Lennikov, Daniil Kharms. I’m probably more close to their work.
PM: What role does irony play?
TR: Many poets now exploit irony, producing really outstanding work: Lev Rubinstein, Ivan Zhdanov, Sasha Makarov-Krotkov, etc. Now, I think it’s even a little excessive. There was a time when there was a whole cohort of ironic poets—Igor Irtenev and the rest. And how could it have been otherwise?
PM: In 10 years, say, what do you hope to be doing?
TR: I started getting published relatively early, then at 20 years of age went to Germany with Sasha [Makarov-Krotkov] for a contest and a poetry festival. Not that I had an early development, but now I understand that in 10 years I’d like to continue to write, and write much better, let’s say. But to engage in this process is unthinkable. I was just talking to a friend, you know, and he just can’t write. He appealed to me for help. He thinks that perhaps that’s it; he won’t be able to write anymore; perhaps that time has passed. [Poetry] is my internal memory. It’s very important to me. It gives me a kind of awareness, a personal life.
PM: Could you describe the Russian relationship to the West?
TR: Interesting. Right now, I’d say respectful. But the question is, whose relationship? For me, the relationship has been enchanted. I have the feeling that it’s civilization, that it’s great and with us. The West is more civilized, but now with our appearance in the market there’s a lot of mixing and interchanging. That is, before we were proud of the particular Russian mentality. My friend who lives in England, she says Russians all think that we have a special status, and that this idea is nonsense—every nation has a special status. So that full self-admiration will change in light of more civilized countries. It’s striking to me: In England I was struck by the way they treat handicapped people. We have nothing in our culture like a toilet for the handicapped. Or the way they treat adopted children. In England they walk around with a mother and father. It strikes me as great. At the same time, though, there’s always a relationship to excessive nationality.
PM: There are people in Russia who hate the West, who feel that Russian culture is disappearing. A friend told me: “Your cartoons are very aggressive.” In general, I agree with them.
TR: Well, that’s mass culture. There’s high culture, and mass culture is not interesting to me. I’ve also seen these cartoons, but each searches for the culture she wants to find.
PM: But it’s sad that you get the worst of our culture.
TR: No, I think that mass culture will always find its readers and viewers. But in general, of course, a new Russian commercial film (what fantastic filth!) extends out to the American film, but it’s just junk in my view—tasteless and banal. But no one is forcibly imposing it on us. No one’s telling anyone: take this film this way, do it that way, watch this. There’s nothing like that, in principle. Don’t buy this cassette, turn off the television—it’s your choice. No one’s forcing anyone. No one’s going anywhere.
PM: What should a person know to understand your poems better?
TR: Probably something about Moscow’s layer of poetry, the Moscow intelligentsia milieu. I would have to say there’s a lot of self-irony. It would be important to me that the poems wouldn’t be taken at face value or too seriously.
PM: Do you have any questions for me?
TR: Why did you begin to write, at what age? You probably have more reasons to write than someone in Russia.
PM: For me, I began to write when I fell in love for the first time. That’s natural, I guess. I thought it was my fate, to make a chronicle of my life. Perhaps that’s a kind of pride.
TR: That sense of a special fate is a young person’s feeling.
PM: Yes, I don’t really feel that way anymore. I feel more that I must write, as you said, in order to survive.
TR: Yes, it’s a means of survival, even if it sounds pompous. Whether it’s to teach, to feed your children, etc. Could you work in business, for example?
PM: I feel as if I’ve already chosen my path. Perhaps I could work as a businessman… My family has always believed that everyone has a special vocation.
TR: Could you make a living writing?
PM: Very few do.
It was such a pearly, pink season
that we awoke and saw the winter.
We were roused, dipped into it our monitors,
our steamed-out motors.
The grandee stands, as if in reproach,
decks us warm sheepskin,
pours the cold of hygiene over all,
drives blue glass into our veins.
And now it has sprawled out across the route,
blaming, reproving, rapping our knuckles.
The child’s cheeks have reddened, father sniffs.
Everything’s paralyzed by the beauty of the moment.
At night it howls so resplendently.
As if a tale were unfolding there,
evil crushing good, jingling, raging.
But good will triumph, since there’s no other option.
Say thank you for these tales,
for the penetrating, lengthy drone.
For sitting solid, like a clerk,
like yellow glue on a dried-out edge,
and your gaze is unearthly, bewitched.
(Translation by Daniel Weissbort, in Contemporary Russian Women Poets)
Tatyana Rizdvenko was born in Moscow in 1969 and graduated from the Moscow Pedagogical Institute. She has published two volumes of poetry, and works in advertising.