Philip Metres with Alex Cigale

Alexander Cigale
Alex Cigale

This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993), and has been revived, 20 years later, compiling new interviews with Russian and Russian-American poets. The complete archive will be published in book-form in 2016.—Philip Metres

Philip Metres: Can you talk a bit about your poetic education, at home and in school? I’m interested in what you were reading, who you were talking to, etc. (the subtext of this question is that I’m wondering how much poetry was in your academic education, particularly how much recitation, but also how much it was valued in your home).

Alex Cigale: I’d be glad to, Phil, but I don’t think I will be representative. I left the USSR when I was 9. My family is pretty much middle-class so that the only poetry influence were the universal ones of a Soviet childhood, the children’s poems of Samuel Marshak and Korney Chukovsky.

PM: It’s okay not to be representative—being ourselves is difficult enough. So I take that you weren’t memorizing poems, or hearing poems recited at home?

AC: I think what was typical of my Russian childhood is that there were shelves of books at home and I grew up reading “the childhood classics”: Jules Vernes, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Jack London. But there was no particular emphasis on reading. My parents were young when they had me and were not college educated. There was, all along, the aspiration and expectation that I receive and take advantage of the opportunities they didn’t have—beginning with piano lessons at age five and cello soon after. I am convinced that this early training has been the greatest single influence on my much later poetry, since my primary interest has always been with musical shapes over and above any content. I am reminded that as a barely verbal toddler, I was trotted out before grandparents and guests to sing, and knew by heart, for example, the Yiddish song “Di Grine Kusine” and the Russian Civil War “blatnaya” ditty “Tsepleonok Zharenny” (“grilled chick”?). Strangely, one could say these two songs were quite prescient about my political, economic, social future, though I am certain I had no conscious awareness of the meaning of the songs. I was and am a particularly rational person, good at math and interested in the sciences. Most of my reading to this day remains nonfiction which, along with the other arts, has fed my writing perhaps more than poetry itself. It was not until my senior year at the Bronx High School of Science, in AP English, that I came under the influence of a teacher, Ted Rifkin, who had studied with Ciardi and Van Doren at Columbia, and who turned me on to Yeats, Hardy, Cummings, Karl and David and Harvey Shapiro, Robert Hayden, etc. Having received a math scholarship to the University of Michigan, my family’s expectations for me remained (at LEAST perhaps until age 35) to become “a doctor or a lawyer.” I gravitated first to the social sciences and, by my last year, to the humanities. I’d taken my first poetry class sophomore year on a girlfriend’s dare: She accused me of being a “bump on a log;” I was taking a very full, and dull, load of upper-level science and social-science classes. I’ve written more about my “formal” poetry education in the preface to my Greatest Hits chapbook.

PM: I love the fact that American and English classics are very much the stock of the Russian intelligentsia. The Romantic and adventure novels you mention are ones that, for example, Sergey Gandlevsky mentions or cites in both his poetry and prose. And then there are the American and English authors that had a special relationship to Russia during the Soviet period (Jack London, John Steinbeck, among others).

But I want to ask about your translations. All of a sudden, your work (and you!) seem to be everywhere. How long have you been translating? What drew you to it? What is your mission as a translator?

AC: I should first say that I don’t believe such impulses and motivation are conscious; a poet, particularly, proceeds by intuition. What has been called the school of Russian translation may be a good starting point. You may know that it is famous for allowing a great deal of latitude, both adaptation and outright appropriation. Going back to its roots, from Krylov’s use of La Fontaine’s fables and Pushkin’s transformation of Byron’s Childe Harold for his own ends. A more recent example being, say, the children’s poet and translator Kornei Chukovsky’s appropriation of Doctor Doolittle for his Doktor Aybolit. Also from the Silver Age, in a broader sense, witness the adaptation to the Russian context of the Futurism and Imagism movements. And it’s been famously said that Pasternak improved on Shakespeare. In any case, he made him Russian. So translation has been an integral part of my poetic practice from the start, and for many of the very same purposes. It is an interesting relationship, between “one’s own work” and translation, isn’t it? It makes one quite aware that the boundaries of the self are porous. I’ve generally taken up translation when I’ve needed a break, cleansing the palate so to speak, to put my own work aside, as it seems I’d completed a phase and needed to first mature to go on to the next one. Of course, I feel greatly enriched by it, as my tastes are pretty protean and it allows one to stretch out, to become what one isn’t. I’ve done that, for several years at a stretch, every decade or so, for a third time now. I have “written” nothing for a few years, no poetry at least. And that’s a bit daunting, because every time I am away for awhile, it feels as though I do not know if I can still do it (I do know, or at least hope, that it will be different when I resume, but perhaps not). It is not an entirely equal symbiotic relationship, is it? Translation certainly takes one away from one’s own process, and I’ve already promised myself one year more and then basta (at least for another decade or so). Having lived with the best of the best for a few years, the bar has been raised almost impossibly high, so we shall see…

In general, I do think that, historically, the social role of the poet has been to preserve, present and expand culture, and that not only translation, but also editing, publishing and other organizational work is a requisite part of the job. That is, we are here to serve poetry, whether my own or not doesn’t matter (I get almost as much if not more pleasure helping others get the work out). Yet the ego always has the last word. I very consciously abandoned translation after college (having done some of Brodsky’s poems for my thesis) precisely because I did not want to be identified as a translator, nor to ride his coat-tails. This was just before and after his Nobel Prize in the mid-80s. When I got to Michigan, he had already left but his presence, and that of Carl (whom I’d studied with and briefly worked for) and Elendea Proffer, and their Ardis Publishers, were strongly felt influences indeed. And I must say there is still that insecurity: You know, those who can’t do, translate. Just think of it as the Anxiety of Influence multiplied. Can I still “do it?” Am I good enough (whatever that means)? More accurately, when will I be able to tell exactly how good my own poetry really is? In any case, I did strongly feel that I needed to find out who I was and at least try establishing myself as a poet first before becoming known as a translator.

Perhaps one thing I get from translation is greater objectivity, along with the sense of expansion, and a measure of proportion in the sense of everything being contingent. Of course there is always the pleasure of practicing and honing the craft, but unlike for translation or editing, for a poet craft is not enough. So translation at first was, in a way, buying time. And there is also the element of respectability that comes with the tagline. I recall volunteering for the Academy of American Poets when I returned to New York and being introduced in “polite company” as a translator. After all, it’s absurd calling yourself a poet at age 25. Identity is a complex thing. But I wouldn’t be true to myself, risking as it does sounding grandiose, if I didn’t say that, with time, as it became part of my identity, it really has become my mission—bringing awareness of the full scope of Russian poetry to the English audience.

I returned to translation in the mid-’90s, participating in a multi-year complex project that resulted in my contribution to Crossing Centuries: the New Generation in Russian Poetry, essentially an anthology of the last quarter-century of “unofficial” or “non-conformist” Russian verse. In the interim was a personal transformation as a poet. In the ’90s, I had abandoned my earliest work, turning against the biographical impulse and dedicating myself to a kind of found, egoless poetry entirely shorn of metaphor. I suppose that impulse was what allowed me to become a better translator (and editor, by the way), to be able to expand my own boundaries and empathize with work very different from my own. I do believe that translation is an act of reading with empathy, stepping into another’s shoes and voice. And this latest translation phase, which began roughly in 2005, was also instigated by a personal transformation, and by reaching an end or a transitional point in my own development as a poet. But I can address this, the present time, another time.

PM: How does your hybrid background (a native Russian speaker who nonetheless grew up in the Anglo-American poetry tradition) influence your practice of translation? Also, you seem drawn to a whole range of Russian poetry to translate, so what are you working on now, and what are your ambitions for it?

AC: I must say your first question (regarding the influence of being Russian-American on my translation practice) drew an immediate blank, that is until I re-framed it within the broader context of your initial point—hybrid identity. So, I’ll begin at the beginning and proceed to the end. I was born in Western Ukraine, the former Austro-Hungarian provincial capital of Chernovtsy (founded by Turks 600 years ago). I share this birthplace with numerous writers that, as a group, are representative of the complexity of identity. Firstly, Paul Celan (née Ancel), who of course wrote in German, but also in Romanian, but lived in Paris. Then there is the Israeli novelist, Aharon Appelfeld, and the great poet, Dan Pagis. And from the earlier generation, Wilhelm Reich, the psychoanalyst who exerted such an influence on the sexual revolution in the States (he’d crossed the border and fought with the Italians against the Russians in WWI). Incidentally, also Gregor von Rezzori, born to an Austrian civil servant.

The Romanian-American poet Valery Oișteanu, like many of my parents’ generation born during evacuation in Central Asia (my mother was born in Tashkent), with his family was able to cross the border from Chernovtsy into Romania some time after WWII.

My father, though born in Peter, after evacuation in Kazakhstan, returned to Chernotsy after the war because Leningrad was destroyed. My parents moved to Peter when I was one, and I followed soon after. In 1972, we were one of the first few hundred families to immigrate to Israel as a result of SALT 1 and détente, and we left in 1974 largely in reaction to the Yom Kippur War, and spent most of a year in Rome waiting for a visa (the story of how my name was transliterated from Hebrew into English in Italian). Afterwards, a New York childhood, with summers spent at a Bundist camp in the Catskills (that’s Bundist not Buddhist, though there’s some of that in my story too), and then the Bronx High School of Science (I mention the latter because my innate technical, rational abilities and early musical training, have at least as much to do with the origins of my translation practice as my “roots”). Now where was I? Oh, yes. I’m an honorary Midwesterner, having spent six years in Ann Arbor (and, more generally, I have covered most of this country on bicycle, car and foot—you know, there are many ways of being American, and I’ve known most of them). I would just mention that though I haven’t kept my Hebrew or my connections to Israel current, there are also many ways of being Jewish (consider that three of Russia’s greats, Mandelstam, Pasternak and Brodsky were to some extent also Christian poets). Just so, as you well know, the Middle East picture is quite complex. I would just mention two other important influences at Michigan: the Israeli Palestinian novelist and professor Anton Shammas who taught me biblical narratives, and the presence of the brilliant Lebanese-American poet, Lawrence Joseph. So yes, my influences and interests are broad.

PM: I expect you have more to offer, but I’d be curious if you’d like to address the problems of translating Russian poetry into our tradition, particularly the avant-garde poetry that you’ve been drawn to.

Alex, I’m just going to throw another two questions on, while I think of it. In your own poems, you are a stylistic rover, and thematically, you are also attracted to the journey as metaphor of identity. You make that conceit explicit, in “Crossing the Kansas Plains in a Greyhound Bus.” There, you end your collection with an image of yourself as amalgam of the places you’ve been. That final stanza is elegiac, because you’ve felt reduced to “becoming American”—or it is liberating, insofar as the “I” is now nonexistent? That sounds like the problem of translation. And second: I was also particularly drawn to the homophonic translation poems. In them, you find a new language for saying what may be impossible without translation. Could you talk a bit about that?

AC: Before I begin to address my own work, of translation and poems, “settling” this question of complex identity might provide a “wieldy” transition point. I have written before that I have never consciously thought of myself as writing a book, and view my “job” as making poems, each ideally somehow different from the previous one. That is not to say that there have been no thematic constants. Regarding the final line of the “Greyhound Bus” poem you mention (“becoming American, I have ceased to be”), I would say it is the latter. Even in my found poetry phase of the ’90s, what I was seeking is a way out of self (Kierkegaard says it’s the key to happiness). I have been referring to this as, and might one day title a book, The Distributed Self. And I suppose you are right that translation represents but one other means for a poet to do so, to lose oneself in order to find, and thus expand (the dying into eternal life of St. Francis’ prayer). The homophonic translations (rooted in the practice of the Surrealists and introduced to the States by Louis Zukofsky) similarly allow me to say things I didn’t know I wanted to say, and a means and music to say them. It has been a guilty pleasure, I must say, certainly the most fun I’ve had composing and possibly the most fruitful in terms of future possibilities.

And regarding your earlier question relating hybrid identity to my diverse translation practice, specifically my serving as an intermediary between the two traditions, and a guide to the Russian avant-garde more narrowly: Here, I would begin at the end. With respect to the avant-garde and “our” tradition, I believe that the myth, as it concerns issues related to class and break with tradition, has far outstripped the reality. Within that narrow scope, one can only point to the Russian Futurians, and even then only to Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky. What about the obviously upper middle-class (but among the most revolutionary) Burlyuk and Kruchenykh? Or the proletarian, but at times poetically conservative, Kamensky? Or his polar opposite Severyanin? Or the nearly aristocratic Pasternak, Khodasevich and Tsvetaeva? And this not even taking into account all of Acmeism. (Of course the same may be said of Eliot, Pound, Stein, etc.) In both my thinking/writing on the subject and in my choice of translation, I have repeatedly contradicted the accepted assumption of the complete break with tradition that theory seems to dictate, the reading that modernism and post-modernism represent clean breaks with the past. Where others have adopted this convenient propaganda as a world-view, I have always looked to the continuities and inter-relationships, and view tradition as consisting broadly of a range of possibilities, that may be (and have been) adopted and abandoned at will.

The Russian experience tells me that “our,” that is Anglophone, perspective (of modernism, post-modernism, post-colonialism, etc.) is a product of our isolationism and exceptionalism, which is at its core insular, snobbish and immature. So yes: Whereas, by analogy, a fragmented poetry readership would see irreconcilable differences, I am interested in the full scope of possibilities, in the encyclopedic approach, as much concerned with major as with minor poetries. And this has enabled me to act as a cultural ambassador of sorts, not just between the Russian and American poetry worlds, but to a lesser extent within American poetry as well. In all my editorial work, (I am thinking here of recent issues online and the five years of my ’90s annual Synaesthetic) I’ve consciously attempted to be “representative,” to bring together the otherwise almost always mutually exclusive streams of American poetry. And yes, the poetics of exclusion has certainly taken root in Russia as well, something that I think was far more inimical in the time of the avant-garde. Khlebnikov was almost universally hailed, for example, as a “poet’s poet.” And both Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva had great if grudging respect, even awe, for Mayakovsky (and the reverse was true), even if all external evidence is to the contrary.

I hope what I’ve already said about my understanding of tradition(s) as continuities/connections helps frame the absurd breadth of my ongoing projects, but just to summarize: I feel no sense of compulsion to identify with a particular school, or culture, or even time period—these always cycling so that I very much think we are at same historical moment culture was early in the 20th century. I understand and am not put off by the socially and institutionally determined sectarianism of American poetry, but hold on to my perspective of us all being on the same side, the whole enchilada: Team Poetry.

PM: One final question: If you were to write your literary obituary, what would you like it to say?

AC: Then may you be my Ghost of Christmas Future, Phil! Or, like an anthropologist whose observations will, unconsciously and consciously, shape the future data (the observer effect of “reflexivity”), may this help me see a way forward. I suppose we all want a chance at Life Redux or, alternatively, to write at least two, if not more, versions. In either case, to live with intentionality. I suppose again the Anxiety of Influence, in my case being remembered as its translator only, plays into my existential fears. And even then, is “he fiddled around with poetry” a sufficient legacy? Should I be working to accomplish something more practical? Oh, this is a very discomfiting lens indeed, but shifting from first (my, my, my, my) to third person (he, his) may help a bit (still, so depressing, to sum up one’s own life).

PM: Believe me, I sympathize. We cannot know whether we will be remembered, are merely part of the great humus of literature and language, or worse—just some detritus in which nothing can grow. What else to do, but what we love?

AC: Yes, as I recently found, Mikhail Eremin, poet of the so-called St. Petersburg philological school, has said in an interview, very patiently responding to the charge of difficulty verging on irrelevancy: “but poets are meaning-makers.”

He could’ve said: “You’re a lazy, imagination-poor shit.” I always recall, though, Pound at the end of his life, spoke with some self-acceptance and clarity: “Most poets fail as people first.”

Alright, this is how the world ends for me, in two versions:

Nov. 27, 2047 AP

While his death remains to be confirmed, and his remains located and identified, it is believed that the poet and translator Alex Cigale has committed suicide at the age of 84. In a note he mailed to his niece, Lily Cigale, naming her the executor of his literary estate, he wrote that he intended to end his life of natural causes. He insisted that while his action is likely to be interpreted as a social statement in support of the right-to-die movement, this was not the case. In his later years, Mr. Cigale had turned his attention to betterment efforts for the environment, education, health care and political representation, in part out of a believe that his single-minded focus on poetry made his life incomplete.

Simultaneously, he had returned to the spiritual practices he had lapsed in: Judaism and Native American spirituality. Having been given the Navajo name, Adits A’i, he who hears and interprets, late in life he moved to Santa Fe, NM to teach at the Institute of American Indian Arts. The method he chose to end his life, accepting death by exposure on a mountaintop, is consistent with Lakota beliefs he had also practiced (a natural life span being 84 years, 3 cycles of 28 years each—youth, adulthood and old age).

While he was primarily known as a translator of Russian poetry whose subject matter spanned over two centuries (he had considered his mission in life to be a cultural ambassador), he was also a respected, if at times quirky American poet. His own first collection did not appear till he was 52, a book of shorter lyrics impishly titled Phil Rizzuto Enters Paradise. He became more widely known for his second book (composed earlier) of Found Poems, Chronicle of Calamities/Good People Become Better, and his third volume of extended poetic sequences blended with prose, The Distributed Self.

Among two score of his published books of translation are volumes of Selected Osip Mandelstam; a recovery project, Who Needs a Sixth Acmeist: Vladimir Narbut and Mikhail Zenkevich (previously unknown to English readers); the Selected Shorter Poems of Velimir Khlebnikov; Russian Absurdism: The Selected Writing of Daniil Kharms; and anthologies of Russian Futurians, the Acmeists, Russian Poetic Miniatures and Minimalisms, and A Brief History of the Russian Epigram; along with translations of contemporary Russian poets too numerous to mention here. He is survived by his niece, Lily, and nephews John and Daniel Cigale.

(AND, if you will permit me this alternate take, composed by my in-house necrologist and partner in literary crime, the Russian-American Russian-language poet, Dana Golin):

Having struggled for many years with debilitating seriousness, Alexander Cigale (with a silent E) originally presumed lost in translation, but later found by Iowa University Press scouts to be hiding under a nom-de-plume and behind a stack of contacts at an AWP conference, subsequently returned to his tenure at a laptop and restored to World Literature by means of an experimental procedure fusing parts of his distributed self into a plausible lyrical persona; Alexander Cigale (with a silent E) admired and disregarded by many in the publishing world, beloved and beleaguered, ebullient, boisterous and buoyant, was discovered floating face down in an empty bath tub. No foul play is suspected or feasible. “He did not have an enemy in the world!” said his spiritual guide and sweat-lodge trainer, Big Face, in an interview with PBS’s Alan Alda for the Literary Timelines Series.

Alexander Cigale (with a silent E) who is considered one of the world’s foremost translators of Russian poetry and a formidable poet in his own right (or wrong,) was also an editor, publisher, art-connoisseur, film buff, naturalist and peddler (mostly, bicycle). He supported his many charities by teaching at Touchy Philly University, where his master class on Poetry as Self-Discipline has achieved cult status and record enrollment. He leaves behind scores of distraught students and demented (with grief!) mentees. He also leaves behind scores of Beatles songs that he practiced on his guitar bi-annually.

Alexander is survived by his irrepressible spirit, his formerly beautiful wife and his pet rock, Petrok, that he found in the canyons of his beloved Southwest and named after a little-known Kharms character. His archives are being donated to World Bank, in an effort to inject valuable cultural capital into the global economy. His critically acclaimed and bestselling book Phil Rezudo Enters Paradise, a remarkable compendium of Americana, has been nominated to replace the Bible in the swearing-in ceremonies for all future naturalized American citizens.

And there you have it: Anagram aficionado, Alexander Cigale, with a silent E, dead of (super)natural causes at 88. A moment of silence, please. THE END.


Alex Cigale’s translations from Russian, and his own English-language poems, have appeared in many venues. He’s on the editorial boards of Asymptote, COEUR journal, The Madhatters’ Review, The St. Petersburg Review, Third Wednesday and Verse Junkies. From 2011 until 2013, he was Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia.