This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of Philip Metres’s Thomas J. Watson Fellowship (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.
Philip Metres: When did you begin writing poetry, and who were your influences?
Dmitry Kuzmin: This is a complex and somewhat funny story. In theory, I am a third-generation writer. My grandfather, Boris Kuzmin, who died in the Second World War, was a literary critic, a specialist in English literature, particularly Byron and Goldsmith. My grandmother Nora Gal survived him for half a century, in 1941 defended a thesis on Arthur Rimbaud, and after the war became one of the most famous translators in the USSR. Here one should note that after the death of Stalin, the Iron Curtain around the USSR was not so strong as before, and the masterpieces of 20th century world literature (the ones that were allowed by the Soviet regime) were much more important events for the Russian reader than for foreign readers, and translators—the people that make acquaintance with these masterpieces happen—could be quite famous, as perhaps did not happen with translators in any other era in any other country). My grandmother translated many things, from The Little Prince by Saint-Exupery and The Stranger by Camus to three dozen short stories by Ray Bradbury (one of which, “The Best Part of Wisdom,” in which an old man on the verge of death suddenly decides to visit his beloved grandson in the capital—and discovers that his grandson lives with another young man—were not brought into publication in the Soviet Union. One could not publish anything on this subject, and this translation spent fifteen years in the desk [unpublished], and when I got it out after her death, I took it as a blessing of my union with my beloved man).
But in the early years my grandmother wrote poetry, imitating her favorite poet Boris Pasternak—and, as the family legend has it, read me the poetry of Pasternak instead of a lullaby when I was an infant. Her daughter, Edwarda Kuzmina, my mother, became a literary critic and editor, and also loved to read poetry to me, preferring to have idols of her youth—Arseny Tarkovsky, David Samoilov, Bella Akhmadulina. As a child, I was more interested in maps. But once my grandmother went to a special summer resort for writers, the so-called House of Art, the legendary village of Peredelkino where for decades many stars of Soviet literature lived. Her neighbor, playwright Leonid Zorin, was famous in the USSR in the 1960s, I guess I amused him (I was about 11). And he taught me to write poetry—I mean the craft, the technical aspect of it: how to choose a rhyme, how to build an image…. Well, I learned it. At first I used this skill for school essays, and then I needed it to deal with the dramatic ups-and-downs of first love, and then it happened that one evening, at age 15, I went to my father, whom I hadn’t seen for eight years, and said now I’ll live with him. And I went to sleep on the couch in his office (my father Vladimir Legoshin is an architect, one of the leading Russian specialists in the design of large medical centers), and he came to his senses accidentally, in the morning he put at my bedside the next two books which he wanted me to read: a novel by Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift, and a samizdat collection of poems by Natalia Gorbanevskaya. Thus began my acquaintance with the most important line of Russian literature of the 20th century—the one that was certainly prohibited in the Soviet Union. And from this acquaintance, my poems eventually started to turn into something not entirely meaningless.
PM: I remember the delight I felt when I found the site of Babylon in the late 1990s. You bravely continued the tradition of samizdat, in the digital age. You are probably the most important impresario of contemporary Russian poetry. There were many reasons for the need for digital publishing and publishing for independent poetry. I was surprised to read that you felt that Soviet culture still plays an important role in modern poetry culture. Is it fair to say that Russian poetry is beset by the Scylla of Sovietism and the Charybdis of wild capitalism? How does poetry survive today?
DK: Soviet culture is a corpse that is not so easy to drive into the grave forever. However, for the Soviet regime, culture has always been a minor part of the ideology—and it allowed some Soviet cultural figures to compromise, creating a pretty decent art within the boundaries of the permissible. But what were these boundaries exactly? It’s not that just opposing the Soviet regime was prohibited. Permitted art generally does not have to create matters of principle, seek new forms and go beyond the usual content—because the Soviet government wanted to keep the integrity necessary for the survival of their anthropological type: an easy-going man, a man who has no doubt and does not reflect. And today, seeing how quickly and efficiently the Kremlin Fuhrer Putin restores Soviet ideological schemes (while maintaining wild capitalism as the economic basis of his regime), we understand that in the anthropological aspect, work of Soviet power was completely successful.
But we cannot keep silent about the fact that over twenty years of post-Soviet Russia, a certain part of the intellectual elite prevented all available methods for Russian culture to rid itself of its grim Soviet past. Just as KGB officers entered the post-Soviet power structures to prevent the necessary lustration [purge of ex-Communist officials] and finally now again are trying to reverse history, official Soviet figures of literature in post-Soviet times managed to keep many controls. First of all, they kept control over the so-called “thick journals,” the most important institutions in the Russian literature, and otherwise prevented reassessment of values, while continuing to promote as the main virtues of Russian poetry “moderation and accuracy” (a quality considered the main virtues of the footman MOLCHALIN [n.b., a name playing on the word for silence], one of the most unsympathetic characters of Alexander Griboyedov’s classic satire, Woe from Wit), and even the notorious “Russian spirituality,” which is actually nothing more than a renamed “Leninist Party” (no wonder the poet Olesia Nikolaeva, now one of the main spokesmen for “Russian spirituality” is the daughter of the poet Alexander Nikolaev, the standard-bearer of “Lenin partisanship” in Soviet poetry).
And in 2013, a jury consisting of renowned Russian literary figures awarded the Poet Prize (a lot of prestige and quite a lot of money taken from Anatoly Chubais) to Yevgeny Yevtushenko—one of those “official rebels” that the Soviet government appointed fifty years ago, who performed his poetry in stadiums in front of thousands of fellow citizens duped in the very years when the future Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky was exiled to Vologda region and had to work in a barn. I think that the members of this distinguished jury have part of the responsibility for the fact that Russian policy, Russian press, and Russian mass consciousness so easily now revert back to the grim Soviet past.
With wild capitalism, poetry has an easier time: the worst thing capitalism can do to poetry is that it doesn’t give it money. But does poetry need a lot of money? For 21 years now I have been publishing books of poetry in my own small press “ARGO-RISK.” Now, the total number of these books is approaching 400. This is not such an expensive pleasure, and I am not rich, but we can afford to spend 500-600 dollars for a book. Web-based projects cost almost nothing. Yes, wild capitalism interferes with the normal spread of books of poetry: a business that virtually monopolized the book trade in Russia cannot make a profit of minority demand, so a book of modern poetry can be found in only 10 or 20 bookstores in several major Russian cities. Well, we put our books on the Internet as a whole, because we don’t aim to make money by publishing poetry. Wild capitalism is indifferent to culture—it can survive, especially if we remember that in time wild capitalism is replaced by civilized capitalism, which also has a lot of its flaws, but it also creates certain niches for culture (of course, if I lived in a society of civilized capitalism, its shortcomings and the need to struggle for a more perfect system of society and culture would mean more to me). Soviet authoritarianism (as well as any other authoritarianism) is not so indifferent to culture: if the former cannot kill the latter, it seeks to castrate it.
PM: I want to ask you more about your journey as a poet. When did you begin calling yourself a poet, and who have been your greatest influences? I hear a little bit of the traditions of Baudelaire and 19th century French poetry, as well as poetry like Frank O’Hara’s, in addition to the libertine traditions in other poetry traditions. I’m curious also about your relationship to form – given the predominance of the classical forms of Russian poetry.
DK: Just as many Russian poets of my generation, I experienced a strong passion for poetry of Joseph Brodsky in my early youth. I still love his poems and often import them in my own poems as intertext—a very important, although quite an alien voice. Over the years, the Russian classics of the Silver Age (from the first quarter of the twentieth century) have meant much more for me—but in this field my feelings as a reader do not quite coincide with my experience as an author. I immensely love and appreciate Osip Mandelstam—perhaps the finest and the most wonderful Russian poet of the last hundred years—but I do not think that he is ever-present in my poems. By contrast the fierce stoicism of Vladislav Khodasevich, it seems to me, has penetrated into my poems. Generally Khodasevich was a very important author for many of my contemporaries—from Michael Aizenberg and Sergei Gandlevsky to Dmitry Volchek; it’s great that now the English-speaking reader can meet him in perfect rendering of translator Peter Daniels.
Now I’m going to violate the chronology of my biography again. At the turn of the 1980-90s, I was the organizer of the Union of Young Writers “Vavilon” (the name was later inherited by the eponymous website)—and then (in my early twenties) a huge influence for me was the creative dialogue with my peers, great poets of my generation: Stanislav Lvovsky, Sergei Timofeyev, Alexander Anashevich, and many others. Some of them were my usual partners in all-night-long arguments mixed with reading of our poems to each other, other ones remained almost unacquainted to me personally with only knowing each other’s works—but in both cases it was a very important experience. The main point of it was that we lived in a very unstable context (both social and literary). We were writing something on the basis of certain knowledge about what happens in Russian poetry in those days. But almost every day we made amazing discoveries: outstanding poems previously unpublished, or known only to a narrow circle of readers of samizdat, or not previously translated into Russian. And with every such discovery we had to redefine our position in the expanse of Russian poetry, to re-decide what to do and how to write now. This unique experience has formed a literary generation, the main figures of which, above all, value difference, otherness, and the ability to admire the Other and the Different and from a variety of sources—to acquire something useful for their own poetics.
Personally, I have many different sources of inspiration. Yevgeny Kharitonov, who deeply researched in his poetry and prose the psychology of gays in a homophobic society. Viktor Krivulin, whose later work focused primarily on the acute sense of history that revolves around us and permeates our everyday life. And not as known in Russia (and, I think, completely unknown outside), Viktor Polishchuk, who dispassionately captures the decomposition, decay, catastrophe of the late and post-Soviet life. And the great Vsevolod Nekrasov, developing in the reader incredible confidence and incredible sensitivity to the smallest voice and intonation movements….
And, of course, you’re right, I’ve absorbed a lot of foreign poetry, including American poetry. I am pleased to hear the name of O’Hara in connection with my poems, this is flattering comparison—and I do feel some kinship with him, but it is a coincidence, I read it quite late (generally O’Hara in Russia is virtually unknown, the first magazine selection of his Russian translation appeared only in the spring of 2014—even Ashbery, though he’s much more complex, is more familiar to the Russian reader).
But Charles Reznikoff really influenced me a lot. Early, pre-war Reznikoff is a very discreet, very ascetic poetry, free verse, the essence of which is that the author makes us do a micropause where he arrives at the end of the line. That is, the reader is forced to breathe in rhythm with him. And this breathing—as the most important property of poetry—Reznikoff taught me. The fact that you can just look for something in your life and in yourself, look to bring into focus, highlighting the desired fragment—and to share them, at the same time sharing with the reader the rhythm of your breathing. I translated about seventy short poems by Reznikoff into Russian—and I’m not afraid to admit that this work has become incredibly important to me (though I write very differently than he does: my texts are longer, more abrupt, with more abundant detail, with a permanent presence in a poem of some other people …).
Well, there were other important American poets for me—usually the ones I translated, at least a little. I cannot say that I was particularly close to Auden, but when I translated “Funeral Blues,” I felt a very special resonance. It was the same for me with the famous poem by cummings, “anyone lived in a pretty how town” and some poems of C.K. Williams. And the last time the strong influence that I have experienced (because I believe that the influence is never too late: it is very sad, when the poet becomes completely ossified and is no longer available to be influenced)—is the impact of modern Ukrainian poetry, which I also read a lot and translate. It is something close to Russian, but in many ways it is very different from (I would say that it is more open towards world experience), and my favorite Ukrainian poet Ostap Slivinskii developed a pleasing brushwork: melancholy, introspective, but full of inner fire.
As for the dominance of the classical form of Russian versification, it should not be exaggerated. I would say that the grass-roots, amateurish versification in Russia is still strictly formal—but the higher the level of poetic journal or regional school of poetry, the more equitable traditional formal verse and free verse. For many brilliant writers of my age and younger, up to the leaders of the current generation of 20-year-olds in Russian poetry, the question is not whether to choose between pentameter and free verse—but to provide one’s own verse with the individual rhythmic shape. For them, as for myself, free verse which is not bound up with the a priori restrictions of meters serves as a starting point for further developing the rhythmic pattern of the poem. Free verse is not a verse without rhythm but a verse with another type of rhythm; the greatest Russian poetry theorist Yuri Tynyanov wrote about it as early as in the 1920s,—and in the American tradition, this is well understood, as I’ve read in a smart and fine book on free verse written by Charles O. Hartman. While I am certainly willing to accept Marjorie Perloff’s statement that free verse should not be treated as an ultimate step in development of verse form, we can expect many further adventures in this field.
PM: I want to ask about queer poetry in Russia. In the age of Putin, LGBT people have come under increasing repression; it has always been a conservative society, but now gay life is essentially illegal, which has led to people like Masha Gessen to emigrate. Can you talk a bit about what it means to be a queer poet in Russia, and why writing and publishing freely are more necessary than ever?
DK: I’m responding to your question two days after I left Russia with the intention of not returning to it unless absolutely necessary—as long as my unfortunate country bears the disgusting Putin dictatorship. I cannot say that my queer identity has played the most important role in this decision. The peculiarity of the situation in Russia (at least I see this as a special Russian feature while being inside this situation)—is that society as a whole is monstrously unfree, so that discussing selectively rights and freedoms for gay people is virtually meaningless. After all, it cannot be that LGBT people living in a certain society drastically differ from it. Just go to any forum for Russian LGBT online to see that most of them are fighting in patriotic hysteria, praise Putin and curse the West and America, in the same way as other Russian citizens. Whether they want freedom? No, they want to remain in slavery, just dreaming of their Master making their lives a little easier.
In the meantime I know perfectly well that in Russia there is a minority longing for freedom, especially for independence of thinking and feeling. Perhaps this kind of people are not so numerous in percentage terms (roughly, 8-10% of the population), but the country is quite large, so that this small amount counts in millions. And there are many quite young girls and boys in this social group.
Eighteen months ago, I was in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, a big city almost devoid of its own literary life, except for the annual book fair, a kind of gift for the region from the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov who made his fortune there. After the reading a local twenty-something poet came up to me, wearing a pin with a portrait of Arthur Rimbaud, and I read in his face the uncertain thirst for new knowledge, for the wider horizons. After our conversation he decided to move to Moscow and in a year became a well-known figure in the younger generation of writers, now evoking cummings and Jerome Rothenberg, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko and Gennady Aigi as his father figures.
And now I look at him, and his friends and lovers, guys and girls, and I see a queer-idea in action: a readiness to place under question any social norm, the ability to construct one’s own life not by a single earlier well-known drawing, but according to a creative decision, for which a person carries his own responsibility… But today’s Russian society doesn’t need a free person, it throws him on the sidelines, depriving him access to the social elevator. So that whatever I do today—in my poems, in my articles, and in my Facebook presence, and in my organizational projects still going on (the journal Vozdukh (Air) or the book series for young poets, “Pokolenie” (Generation)), as well as in my plans for future (I have some new ideas)— my main goal is to protect these free and endangered youth, to explain to them that they are the salt of the earth, the best thing Russia possesses, and some day our country will need them.
Born in Moscow in 1968 to a family of literary renown, Dmitry Kuzmin is an important poet and publisher, whose contributions to Russian poetry have included Argo-Risk Press (which has published hundreds of books of poems); a massive online archive of Russian poetry, “Vavilon” (Babylon); the first Russian magazines of gay writing; and his own selected writing book, It’s Fine to Be Alive (2008), winner of the best debut poetry book. 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.
Philip Metres is the author 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, the Creative Workforce Fellowship, the Cleveland Arts Prize and the PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant. He is professor of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland. http://www.philipmetres.com