Philip Metres with Ivan Zhdanov

Philip Metres and Ivan Zhdanov
Philip Metres and Ivan Zhdanov

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.

I met with Zhdanov in Moscow in 1996 and interviewed him about his life and poetry. In the text that follows, I have interpolated my translations of selected Zhdanov poems. Special thanks to Anna Kurt for her transcription of the original recording. —Philip Metres

Philip Metres: I just met with Dimitri Prigov, and we talked a lot about postmodernism. Do you consider yourself a postmodernist?

Ivan Zhdanov: Why is there a certain degree of suspicion in my attitude to postmodernism? I can’t imagine the diversity and scope of modern American literature.  I suspect that postmodernism has become a very good catch for graphomaniacs. Their mode of thinking goes like this: a text is just a text, and personality has nothing to do with it. Actually, the problem of talent is removed. Why should we discuss talent? We have a text, and you can pick around in it. But when Gogol wrote a text, it was one thing, and it is quite a different thing when a text was written by some unremembered author of that time.


Möbius strip by Ivan Zhdanov (translation by Philip Metres)

You need me to need you.


PM: What your aims in your own poetry?

IZ: I don’t have any specific aim. It simply seems to me that modern theory of literature has surpassed itself, that it has started to play with texts too much. Indeed, you may take a text and do anything you want with it. There is no piety toward the text and the author. There is a certain familiarity regarding the text. As if a table-talk about it is going on. Is Gogol an authority to us? Is Dostoyevsky so important? We understand everything not less than they did. But they created all this. They were authors. That is the difference. Literary critics started to dictate how literature should exist and whether it should exist at all.

At a recent conference, someone said several times that a time will come when there will be neither a reader nor a writer—just a single person comprising both of them. How can it be? I cannot even imagine it. They can only force it, drag it in by the head and shoulders. It is the same as saying that we witness the revival of the time when there were no authors. The text existed by itself and was completed, and reproduced, and endlessly interpreted for the sake of collective creative abilities. It was so-called collective art. We call it folklore. This genre comprised historic songs, bylinas [traditional Russian folk epic poems], epics, and so on. The author was really anonymous. Literature didn’t have a personal element to it. In the Middle Ages something similar happened when monks wrote treatises and did not sign their works.

PM: Some say there is a certain affinity. That our postmodern age is somewhat like the medieval period.

IZ: I don’t agree. At that time impersonal literature was the product of high spiritual intensity, strong religious conscience and spiritual quest. In our time a person is confused: he cannot clearly imagine what kind of religion he needs and what he can do in the framework of this religion.

How can religion answer the questions he is anxious about, like any man throughout history?  I cannot answer this question. He hesitates between complete nihilism—not believing that religion can serve him as simple instruction, asking “What is God? What is the world?”—and, on the other hand, he is eager to find the ultimate Truth, the ultimate Word about the Truth.

Recently I read an article in “Literaturnaya Gazeta” written by Grigorii Pomerants, a distinguished historian of culture. He argues that he would like to see an ecumenical convergence, not only of all Christian churches, but of all the world religions. It would be fine to unite them, to bring them together. In my opinion, this is a sign that in our time people mistrust a particular religious denomination. We doubt that it can answer all our questions. A clergyman objected to him, but he said that there was nothing wrong about it. Imagine a flowerbed with different flowers growing there in harmony. We should completely understand religious conscience.

Or, for instance, some postmodernists operate with such a notion as “metaphysics.” Metaphysics in Greek means “something that comes after Nature.” “Meta” can be translated as “after.” There is a certain play with a prefix, because “meta” can be translated as “after,” “above,” and “beyond.” But they don’t mean nature. What super-nature can we speak about? Any nature is reduced to a text that should be read. But there are things that cannot be read, and therefore they are called metaphysical. They are perceived by the same area of conscience which once perceived religious revelations. People doubt not only the truth of these religions but their own ability to understand them.

Yet, I don’t want to go too much into philosophy. Mainly, what I don’t appreciate in this literary movement is nihilism. That is first and foremost. It turns out that if a person breaks out of generalization which postmodernism claims, he is outside the common law, even if he is a very gifted person. The drawback of modern literary critics and cultural studies is that a theory exaggerates its role and allows too much to itself.

PM: Given where you came from, did the so-called peasant tradition influence your work?

IZ: Not at all. I was born at the time when there was no peasantry in Russia in its traditional meaning, one that existed a thousand years ago. Actually peasants who existed in my childhood were simply agricultural workers.

PM: Did they influence your worldview?

IZ: Actually, the surroundings influenced my worldview. I was born in the mountains. Nature was particularly lovely. I think that childhood spent in nature seems better than childhood spent in an urban environment. Yet, everything seems extraordinary and beautiful in your childhood, wherever it takes place. For instance, if a person grew up in a steppe, he can say that he had marvelous childhood and that steppe is remarkable. And if an adult person visits it, he will say: “It is awful, a flatland, there is nothing interesting to see.” Childhood is a special gift. A person develops optimism and a kind of support for his whole future life. Every person has something to remember that could make his dull existence brighter.

The world of peasantry is nothing special. I spent only my early childhood there and we lived in a settlement not for from a town.  Well, there is a village dweller and a peasant in any person, in his ancestors, if you look behind the veil. Because this transformation took place not long ago—the transformation from the peasant way of life into the world of industrial cities.

But my life had nothing in common with the way of life typical for peasant poets of the beginning of the twentieth century. First of all, our way of life was very simple. At that time people could not have many domestic animals. The law forbade it. You could have only a garden and small domestic animals: fowl, sheep. And there were many pigs, of course.


Untitled by Ivan Zhdanov (translation by Philip Metres)

When a bird dies,

a tired bullet cries inside it,

which wanted only to fly

like the bird.


IZ: I knew little about my family history. It was forgotten. The so-called “kulaki” [landowning peasants] were deprived of their belongings and exiled to Siberia and other remote places. It was forbidden to speak about it. Later on, in the epoch of Khrushchev, they gradually started to speak about it. I used to hear some interesting stories. Every person is interested in his family history. Who were his grandfather and his great grand-father? In our country it was forbidden to speak about those people. Collective history and family history were forbidden.

Every person treated his own personal history the same way. He kept certain periods of his life clandestine. And since the person is not the author of history – he only possesses it – it exists and develops apart from his will. Therefore it causes a conflict between this self-censorship and the further sense of his life. I think that this conflict strongly affects the conscience of a modern Russian person exactly for this reason. I would not like to generalize, but maybe for this reason our youth so easily take after the tendencies that are not very natural to Russian culture.

It seems to me that this process is taking place all over the world. We may witness the eclectic approach everywhere. In France or in the US, eclecticism manifests differently than in Russia. In the West there existed particular reasons for it, not related with any interdiction of this kind. It implies some subtle things as well.

Maybe mass propaganda affects people the same way as this censorship or self-censorship. Who knows? I would not like to elaborate on sociological issues. One should be very careful, very attentive in order to make any conclusions. I mention all this because on this basis one can make some assumptions about why my poetic contemplation developed this way and not another way.

My parents’ life—during the War and after—was very hard. They did their best to give their children an education and a good background so that they didn’t perish in this soil. They didn’t want us to dig and be buried in this native soil. There was no development, no future, no perspective.

My father would break a neck in order to send his children to study in the city. There were different possibilities. At that time certain officials came to the villages in order to select young men who wanted to get vocational training. They also needed young workers. They needed to look for young men and to teach them, to train them. So they travelled around the villages.

But life in the towns was very poor. Here in the native village, parents could provide us with a minimum.  We didn’t starve at least. Our life was not very comfortable at that time. We even didn’t know the word “comfort.”  One of my brothers entered High Navy and Military School and went to Vladivostok. He served as an officer in the Navy and retired in the rank of captain. He influenced me. I wanted to see the world too.  Imagination carries you far away in your childhood, up to Mars. You dream to travel around the world as a child. At the same time I felt the negative attitude of my family to all this.

Well, I didn’t like the peasant way of life. It wasn’t harmonious, natural, like in the poetry and prose of the nineteenth century. And yet, when I was under five or six years old, I loved that life. Any person remembers his childhood as the most blessed time in his life, even if he spent it near some terrible plant or factory.

PM: Why did you start writing poetry?

IZ: Who can say why? It was God’s will. I made attempts to write several times. Once upon a time I wrote some verse based on the tune of a “criminal” song. At that time there were plenty of such songs. When they were forbidden they naturally spread very fast because they were criminal. The third part of the country was kept in camps and prisons.  These songs and tunes were popular everywhere. So I took a melody and wrote a ballad which I shared with my friends who lived in a settlement. It was humorous, of course. And I wrote it very easily. I was very surprised. I didn’t make any effort. Then I didn’t write anything up to high school. And in high school you had to compose something like rhymed greetings. So I tried to make rhymes and to add some fantasy and so on.

Yet I didn’t think that I would compose poetry in the future. I was very impressed when I entered Moscow State University. We started to study Spanish and had ten hours of Spanish a week. They taught languages very intensively, so I could read texts easily from the beginning. And I started to read a Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who impressed me tremendously. And in our group every third person composed verse. We read our poems to each other.  It was a tradition, a custom. It was not a literary institute; it was just a Department of Journalism. Now it is not so common, but at that time that’s how it was. Naturally it can influence anyone. There was a spirit of competition, and everything happened fast.

Well, so I started to compose poetry.  My fellow learners appreciated what I wrote. When a person is encouraged, he continues to do it. So it has continued. These were the external circumstances. It may manifest differently in different people. If I were enrolled in the Army, it would be quite a different thing. I could have been enrolled in the Army, but they gave me a deferment, and I entered the Moscow State University. If I were taken by the Army, I might not have written anything.

PM: The literary critic Mikhail Epstein has written that your style is metarealistic. I think that it is metametaphorical. What do you think about it?

IZ: Well, it is difficult to signify, to give names. I did not and still don’t take these terms seriously. How can you take it seriously? I’m glad that I don’t take seriously the term “conceptualism”. All these terms are too serious. Only time will show what they imply, what they mean in fact. Why did we accept this term? There was quite a different situation at that time. You had to fight your way if you wanted to do and to achieve something. Of course, you could do nothing, only write and read your poetry to each other. You could just meet, and talk in the kitchen, and drink tea.

We recited poetry in different clubs and other institutions like the Central House of Art, or the House of Architects. If the officials wanted, they invited us and we did not refuse and recited poetry. Actually at that time it was as good as publishing your verse in a magazine. These were public recitals.

PM: Did they take place in the seventies?

IZ: They took place at the very beginning of the eighties. In the seventies it was impossible. We met at the kitchens, at homes.

PM: Did you meet in poets’ clubs?

IZ: The poets’ clubs were organized during perestroika, around 1986. It existed just a few years. When the situation changed, it became senseless, first of all economically. Since all these recitals have been held long ago, I want to remember the studio of Kirill Kovaldji. He is a brilliant organizer, a person with a good literary taste and love for poetry and literature. If he met a worthy, a talented person, he would not suppress anyone. All of us developed as we wished. He did his best in order to support this wave of poetry. Famous writers and poets did not suggest anything worthy in order to support this movement so that it could take a certain shape.

So we developed and grew in this studio headed by Kirill Kovaldji. At the beginning of its existence our famous poet Dmitrii Prigov came there. All kinds of people visited it. It was at the beginning of the eighties. Kovaldji was working in the magazine “Yunost’” (“Youth”). He headed the critics’ department in the offices of this magazine. There is still a conference hall in this magazine, a small hall comprising just a hundred seats. Poets recited their poems there, discussed them and argued.  Not only Moscovites recited there, but people from other towns also came and recited their poetry rather often. The term you’ve mentioned was coined to distinguish a new group that had said something new that was different from what had existed before.

PM: Who else belonged to this group?

IZ: Parshchikov, Eremenko, Kutik, Shatunovsky, Arabov, Vladimir Aristov, Alexander Chernov, etc. There were many people there. And he called this movement “metametaphorism.”  But can we apply it as a serious scientific term? No. Olga Sedakova came there too. Yet, all these people are very different. And all of them had different experiences and developed in their own way.

Actually it was a working term. We all gathered and made up a group. Circumstances were such that we had somehow to enter the literary process and if to do it without detriment to our names or personalities. There were different ways to please the public or the state, to comply with political situation, but we have managed to avoid them.

PM: Do you feel nostalgic about that time?

IZ: No, I don’t feel any nostalgia for that time, perhaps only for my childhood and early youth. But it’s natural. That time was very hard. I would not like to speak about politics. I don’t see the spirit of some particular reforms at the moment as I understand them.  I don’t see them. I only see the destruction of the former Soviet state. This I clearly see. But there are no reforms that could make for the formation of a new state.  Well, the country exists. As for state power, I don’t understand anything about it. So, what kind of nostalgia can I have? For me, this time continues. The only thing that has really changed is that everything can be published. And this is the only thing that justifies what is taking place now.

PM: Do you think that freedom of artistic expression has changed the attitude of people to the Word and to poetry?

IZ: This complicated period is connected with circumstances that we are going through now.  We must take as Truth what we actually see. It is not the circumstances inherent in this phenomenon. We have changed and become different people. That is the reason of the loss of interest in poetry and literature that we are witnessing now.

External conditions seem to explain it, purely pragmatic conditions that are not very interesting. You cannot publish more than 1000 copies of a poetry collection. If you publish more than a thousand copies the tax will be so high that you’ll never be able to pay for its production. And if you cannot pay for the production, there is no sense in publishing it.

Why do I consider that our Soviet existence both continues and simultaneously collapses? Because the publishing industry is a monopoly. There are paper monopolists. There is a monopoly of publishers. And the distribution of books is actually impossible. The books published in Petersburg are distributed in Moscow. And the books published in Moscow are distributed in Petersburg.

And these are two cities situated close to each other according to the Russian scale. I visited Barnaul [West Siberian Plain, near Kazakhstan] and there are no books at all there. They don’t reach it. Transportation is very expensive. That is a monopoly as well. That is how I understand it, how I understand the causes and effects. If there is a certain obstacle between me and a reader we should evaluate the situation objectively.

I recited my poems in Chelyabinsk, in Perm, in Ekaterinburg, in Barnaul. Two hundred people came to the hall, not more. Barnaul is my native town. I know many people there including my relatives, etc. Many people did not come. I asked them: “Why didn’t you come to the recital?”  “The tickets are expensive.” “Are they?” “They cost five thousand rubles.”  That’s about two loaves of bread.  It means that a person starts to think: to go or not to go because the ticket costs five thousand rubles. It is nothing. Two loaves of bread is nothing. What does that mean?  It means that the part of the population mostly interested in literature and music is not able to make a breakthrough, to act as a rammer. And the people who have money are not interested in it.

What are the so-called “new Russians”? They are former profiteers. They existed in the Brezhnev era. They were persecuted and taken to prison for speculation, and now they are absolutely free. But do the speculators have their heads in the clouds? No, they don’t. Their interests are extremely simple. And we cannot hope that they will help art. They are absolutely indifferent to art, they don’t care for it.

That’s how I understand the situation you ask about. The attitude to literature will change only if there is wishful thinking. Some facts seem real. They are on the surface, but they cannot be explained the way some people want to interpret them. They say: “The attitude to literature, to the Word has changed.” But it does not change anything. People are waiting for something.  Well, people are procrastinating. They are not completely desperate, they hope for something. And we must take into account that they had very bitter experience in the past. There were a lot of wars and different battles. And this experience remained in the subconscious. And there is nothing else apart from the national conflicts. To equate national conflicts to the Civil War is nonsense.

PM: What other poets have influenced you?

IZ: When I entered the University I was very ignorant. Of course, school had given me some knowledge.  I finished night classes where the best and most skilled teachers in the town taught. As for literature, you know a lot of things were unavailable. Student community was very deep and people could learn what was forbidden.

For instance, [Velemir] Khlebnikov. He was neither prohibited nor published. His books were not sold anywhere. I went to the library and read his verse there. That was the situation at that time; people discussed something and I didn’t know it. So it was like a conversation in a foreign language for me. In order not to look like an idiot, I went to the Library and tried to close the gap. I read a lot.  I read Khlebnikov, Tsvetaeva, Khodasevich. You couldn’t read Mandelstam at that time. His poems appeared later in typed copies. You could not find his books in the libraries. Blok was published. Pasternak was more or less published. In senior classes I was not very enthusiastic about poetry. When I entered the University, the community of intellectuals, of young and very gifted guys impressed me tremendously.  I had not seen such a number of gifted people in my hometown.  I knew contemporary poetry and it didn’t disappoint me, but its influence was much less than the influence of the above-mentioned authors.

Besides, I started to visit the galleries: Pushkin museum, the Tretyakov Gallery. It turned out that I didn’t know art. I knew only what I could find in reproductions and albums. I started to go to the Conservatory and realized that I could listen to the music. Before that I had only listened in. And what was on the radio at that time?  “Polonaise” by Oginsky, “Bolero” by Ravel, “Waltz-fantasy” by Tchaikovsky. It was classic, but it was mass culture intended for mass consumption. They didn’t play Bach over the radio. They could broadcast it only on a special channel. But there were no special channels at that time. There was only one entire radio frequency. When I lived in Barnaul, I didn’t go to concerts. I thought that I would not understand anything. I had a complex, and it worked. I didn’t learn music. So, all these circumstances strongly affected me, as well as this intensive communication with the students.

PM: What philosophical works impressed you most?

IZ: Kierkegaard impressed me tremendously. The legend which broke his life, when he returned a wedding ring to his bride Regina Olsen. He had the overwhelming feeling of guilt in God’s eyes. This philosopher impressed me tremendously, and thus my interest in philosophy sprang out. I was a young man at that time, and this story coincided with my character. It was extremely difficult to get his books, only few of them had been published. I have read Either/Or. Then I read Berdyaev, Solovyev, Rosanov and others. Alexey Losev strongly impressed me. I wasn’t carried away by German philosophy. Kant seemed rather dull to me. I can’t say that I was so stupid that I didn’t understand anything, but it was not interesting to me. It was the purest philosophy that didn’t appeal to me spiritually. I was interested in the philosophers who were at the same time writers, like Rosanov or Sartre whom they published later in the Soviet Union. Since he was a communist they published him.

We had to sieve everything thoroughly. We read everything in monographs. Philosophical monographs were written in Marxist manner but they were written honestly. There were many quotations and the views of the subject exposed to criticism were related in detail. So, one could understand something reading between the lines. Plato was published freely. I admired him. I enjoyed reading him. He also impressed me. It is very easy to understand him.


Untitled by Ivan Zhanov (translation by Philip Metres)

We too were swimming at the shores, where we had stood

sometime before, and now someone sees us off,

looking with the eyes of a flow, losing the detail.

Does time heal everything it destroys?

Why recall the water, flowing past?

It has no shores for the one who grieves.

Saintliness and sinning burn down, not feeling the smoke—

everything is perfect on the bottom of precious ruins.

Everything is perfect and it’s not even frightening as you see

a suppurating place, killing, betrayal, turmoil.

From this place you will not move, you won’t cause pain or insult,

that which is transparent to sin is inconspicuous for a gift.

But we too have loved as were losing

sight of that which loved, wordlessly, noiselessly.

In this way the deep hidden garden—far, invisible, All-High

with its leaves in disarmed grief—opens.

Or like sight is lost by the fading body:

covering the eyes with hands—is the blindfold tight enough?

Seeing as if not what they would, they’ll grow used to it.

Did it all exist or is this just a fairy tale?

Or like love has been chased into the heart—but you cannot hide,

how it stirs, responds by vomiting,

whips, scrapes, and there’s no washing your soul

either by the emptiness of perfection or by bitter caring.

I’m not singing, but I’m crawling along the bottom of an unbearable howl

or along the bottom of leaves tearing to someone else’s deception.

More than that I wasn’t and what I really am

in this stream I cannot become.

If I ever chance to meet myself—I will not recognize:

meeting in time is not far from farewell.

Still he sees by the back goes away along the edge

who hasn’t been forgiven by you and hasn’t given his word.

He, whom you haven’t forgiven, who continues to crowd

as dead longing between the poles of a cataclysmic age.

Who are you, seen by me?  Why are you dreaming

the same sole dream of light unknown?

Who are you, unequal to yourself? What science can measure you?

You’re not taking your eyes off me, but looking calmly

and as a bond of purifying pain, leaving as a chance

for swearing all shall be committed with dignity.

Be swearing surely the bond and is like a blindfold

of the blindness, which is not worse than some kinds of sight returned.

There are no shores for it—only light without color,

light on the eyes, but likelier from the inside than the outside.

Go out, take a look with whatever eyes you have,

are clouds still floating like long ago, in the beginning,

are you still remembered and gazed upon with the skies,

through the stream and serenity of irreducible grief?


PM: What would you like a person to know in order to understand your verse properly?

IZ: I understand your question. If a person has an inborn taste, a feeling, and it can be only inborn, he will perceive everything. If he does not have an ear, it is senseless no matter how hard you teach him. You may teach a person to play the piano, but he will never play freely, with imagination. It is a very complicated problem.

If a person does not have the disposition to perceive art, painting, it is very hard to teach him. The knowledge given in secondary schools all over the world does not oblige to anything. If a person has no abilities, inclination, nothing will come of him. School will not give him anything. If a person perceives art, than he is gifted. If he does not it is senseless to explain it to him. I abandoned these attempts about twenty years ago to explain it to anyone.

Last year, in November, when I traveled around Russia, a guy asked to publish a book of my poems with comments. This project seemed very strange to me because I didn’t know what to comment on. If I comment on my poems for myself a lot of things seem vague, unclear to me. I try to withdraw from this philosophizing. Now, plenty of authors write philosophical essays. So, I start to philosophize. It carries me further into interpretation and perhaps I will choose another theme and will write something else. But to say that I will comment so that it would be interesting to the reader, no, nothing will come out of it.

But an interesting incident emerged when John High wanted to translate some of my poems. Ed Foster promised to publish a book.  Up to the moment, he translated about thirty of my poems. And then we discussed the nuances of interpretations, what this or that word meant, why you employed this or that word. Well, if a person without complexes puts this question, he is not confused.  A Russian interlocutor is confused, embarrassed, experiences complexes. So, when we discussed the details and nuances with a foreigner, I came to the conclusion that I could make up such a dialogue with a Russian who is interested in the subject.

Why do people confuse me with postmodernists?  Commentary is sometimes necessary. A question arises: why is commentary so necessary if people have not used any commentary before? Poets wrote their poems, verses without any commentary. Well, in fact sometimes there were commentaries. Pushkin provided many footnotes for Eugene Onegin. Of course, they are very brief and relevant. They do not interpret any phrase. Footnotes mean notes, commentaries, remarks. It is a form of commentary. Many people have tried to comment on their works. Coleridge wrote a poem and then a whole description where he tried to comment what he wanted to say. There is nothing extraordinary about it. Maybe our education prescribed to us that it was unethical to comment on your own poem. Write from your belly-button, so to speak, implying from the heart, of course, so that everyone could understand it and no comments should be necessary. I am absolutely sure that the medieval tradition also implied commentaries of the author. What is Vita Nuova by Dante?  It is a collection of texts and commentaries to them. Ten years ago, people told me: “Write your own Vita Nuova. It would be interesting.” Where did this imperative come from? They just wanted me to do it.

Let’s say I am speaking with someone who asks me about my verse. He doesn’t understand something.  I don’t see anything bad about this. If he doesn’t understand my verse, I try to interpret it. It confused me at first. I didn’t like it. I thought that if he were a clever and a well-educated person he should understand them himself. On the other hand, through some long and thorough reading and interpretation they would start to understand. People were eager to understand, innocent but intelligent people who had no complexes. If you cannot understand a text, it is not poetry. So, I put off the attempt to write Vita Nuova or something of this kind. I needed a dialogue and a commentary to correct my own worldview. It corrected my own subjective point of view. If I am ripe and able to write it as I would like to write, then I’ll have clear understanding what to do and how to write.

Recently, after a recital of my poetry, a person asked me about the meaning of the line: “And music is your wife.” What does that mean? Was she killed? What has happened to her? In Russia, the first meaning of the word «поразить» is “to kill.” The second meaning is to strike, to impress. Since music exists infinitely, when it starts to materialize with the help of different instruments, it objectivizes in the literal meaning like a hammer, a head-saw. An instrument is an intermediary between a human hand and an object. Here also between an object and a hand there appears an instrument. And a hand is a more multifaceted notion than just five fingers. This instrument somehow domesticates this object. The head-saw split the wood into lumber, a hammer clinches a nail. Scissors cut paper or cloth. And here a piano transforms into an instrument which materializes what is not material. And landscape is on the background. It is snow. A stubble. A harvested field.

PM: If it is not a secret, what are doing now? How do you earn a living?

IZ: I do everything I can find. [President] Boris Yeltsin has given me a fellowship. It is temporary help. I don’t know whether they will give it next year. It is tiny. Sometimes I have odd job, edit or do something else. Sometimes I recite my poetry. But you cannot earn a lot reciting poems.


Untitled by Ivan Zhanov (translation by Philip Metres)

Stone swims in the earth somewhere here,—

a slate of golden time, guardian of games and crowds,—

but it tears the way from under your feet

and sends it upwards to burn like a pillar.

I didn’t swindle like a thief, didn’t steal my freedom,

didn’t pour out my soul like wine into sand,

but shame approaches so that I would only know

what on the outside is a cross inside is a window.

You can’t break into splinters what’s impossible to subdue

and an unknown light pollinates your gaze,

and through the roots of flowers drives and drives back

the color of a golden time, the future before you.

To each earthling, the moon is closer than blood

and the lunar kin multiplies by the number of humans.

Look: above the head of streets or open fields

the wedge of lunar landscapes lifts as if in migration.

Philip Metres is the author and translator of a number of books and chapbooks, including Sand Opera (2015), A Concordance of Leaves (2013), abu ghraib arias (2011), and To See the Earth (2008). His work has garnered two NEA fellowships, the Watson Fellowship, five Ohio Arts Council Grants, the Beatrice Hawley Award, two Arab American Book Awards, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2014, he received a Creative Workforce Fellowship, thanks to the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, residents of Cuyahoga County, and Cuyahoga Arts & Culture. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland.

Ivan Zhdanov was born in 1948 in Sibera. He gained notoriety in the 1980s for his complexly beautiful poetry, admired by traditionalists and experimentalists alike. Mikhail Epstein has called his work “metarealist,” noting that Zhdanov “is the master of depicting forms that seem already to have lost their substance but regain themselves in memory, in times of waiting, in the depth of the mirror or the shell of a shadow.” He has published numerous books of poetry in Russian, and has been translated into English by John High and Patrick Henry in the volume The Inconvertible Sky (Talisman House, 1997). More information is available at his website.