Philip Metres with Stepan Brand

Stepan Brand
Stepan Brand

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, with new interviews of Russian and Russian-American poets. The complete archive will be published in book-form.

Philip Metres: When did you begin writing, and who were your influences?

Stepan Brand: As soon as I learned how to write, I started to write kinds of fairy-tales: some fantastic characters (knights, queens, fabulous animals) found themselves in Moscow subway, or they went to the zoo, or they faced floods, earthquakes, trials and wars (it was inspired by TV), or they explained and showed to each other how to build a house or what is the Moon and why nobody lives there (such chapters appeared after conversations with my father or grandfather). Sometimes I felt like versifying these things, but I was not able to. Suddenly in 2005, I wrote a short poem about my recent trip to Ukraine: it was about an orchard with pears, walnuts, woodpeckers and people playing harmonica and tambourine. So then or a bit later I made the earliest attempts to make poems I am not ashamed to read aloud today. Around that time I started visiting some poetry-and-prose studios and got to know people who wrote interesting things. From an early age my favorite poets have been Boris Pasternak and Ovsey Driz (a Yiddish poet translated into Russian by Genrikh Sapgir)—my mother read them to me when I was 4 or 5, as well as Pushkin’s tales, Daniil Kharms’ verses for children etc. I wasn’t interested in poetry at school until coming across Baudelaire and Verhaeren (at about 14-15). The first Russian poets whom I read attentively by myself were Alexander Vvedenskiy, Vladislav Khodasevich and Joseph Brodsky. They have faded a little since then, but still they remain near the top. Later came Mandelstam, again Pushkin, again Pasternak, Boris Poplavskiy and many others, including a number of contemporary names. My immediate influences are Dmitry Vedenyapin (b. 1959), Alexei Kubrik (b. 1959), Denis Kryukov (b. 1984), Mikhail Aizenberg (b. 1948), Nikolay Baytov (b. 1951). As for the latter modern poets, it took some time to learn how to read them, but eventually it became easier. At least as important is the influence of music I listen to. In January 2008 I discovered “The Well-Tempered Clavier” by J.S. Bach, and my ear changed forever. His music is extremely poetic.

PM: I noticed that you didn’t mention Sergey Gandlevsky [whom we’ve been translating together]. Would you say a word or two about him as an influence?

SB: Indeed, Gandlevsky is one of my favorite modern poets, but I don’t think there is any straight influence. Maybe, our backgrounds have something in common, but not so much. Anyway, Gandlevsky was one of the first poets I perceived when I started writing myself. When I was a student, I went to Sokolniki several times a week, for classes in one of the MSLU buildings. To get there from the subway station, you have to walk a little or go by tram. Of course, you can imagine that when you walk in a wintry November morning at 8 AM and it starts to snow and you mumble to yourself Gandlevsky’s verse about first snow in Sokolniki, about trams and strange Russian people wandering around in darkness, he becomes very important. All that wouldn’t have worked, of course, if I hadn’t been attracted by the way Gandlevsky puts words together, by his clear rhythm and stern intonation, by the amalgam of images that stand behind them, at the same time by the high freedom of the images that he achieves in his best poems, and also partly by his world view.

PM: A follow-up or two here. First, can you describe what you mean by a “poetry-and-prose studio”? This is an unfamiliar term to me. I’m interested in anything you know about the broader social climate of poetry, its institutions—for example, did you study “creative writing” in university? Are there opportunities to do so? Why or why not did you choose it? Second, what drew you to write, what did you get out of it at those early stages?

SB: A few words about “studio”. In Russian we say “семинар” [seminar]. A seminar in poetry or prose is a meeting of a group of young people who find it useful to hear criticism of what they write from people who understand what writing prose and poetry is. Usually a seminar is headed by an older writer or poet, who enjoys the respect of his colleagues. I have been a member of three such seminars: lead by Alexey Kubrik, Leonid Kostyukov and Dimitry Vedenyapin. The first two of them were organized under the “Debut” award—the best-known Russian award for young writers. In the early 2000s there were more seminars: Gandlevsky had one, for example.

In general, the Russian poetic environment is quite patchy. First, there is a network of so-called ЛИТО (literary associations), based on local departments of Russian writers’ unions (here we can add creative-writing opportunities that exist at some universities). Formally they work like the aforementioned seminars, but in fact most of them are absolute trash, either in poetry or criticism. So let’s quickly leave them aside. Of course, creative writing is taught at Gorky University for Literature, but its most advanced students say it’s not very good either.

By the way, the “Debut” seminars were created to give some new life to this old form of talking about poetry and to make it more professional. There is not only “Debut,” of course, but on the whole what is being done to bring modern and sane views of poetry to people outside Moscow and Petersburg is evidently not enough. There are annual contemporary literature festivals in Vologda, Tver, Yaroslavl, Kaliningrad and other cities, but the response from people is too weak. This is one of the reasons for which metropolitan (I mean Moscow and Petersburg) literary life I belong to is rather marginal. Despite this, it is fairly diverse, which is good, and I like this “tusovka” [getting together, hanging out]. There are old and young poets; experimentalists and traditionalists; alcoholics and non-drinkers; believers and atheists; leftist/feminist/gay activists and those who seem indifferent and/or keep their art separate from their social views.

Besides that, in Moscow and Petersburg there are frequent literary events, informal parties where writers, poets and others (altogether a “tusovka”) come to listen to someone and have a good time. There are several well-known expert organizers who take care of the process, look for sponsors, sometimes promote book-publishing and so on. But again, this is rather a narrow field of those who disagree that Russian poetry ended with Brodsky or Rubtsov. The rest are mostly sure it did. And last but not least, it always provides access to new names, since this community is not secluded and it is comparatively free of the “old boy network.” By “comparatively” I mean it exists, but the level of writing is at least as important as the connections.

PM: Did you have to pay for these seminars? Did you have to apply to them? Were they affiliated with the institutions or organized solo?

SB: The three seminars were free. The Kubrik and Kostyukov seminars were formally affiliated with the “Debut” award (Kostyukov closed his seminar a few years ago, and it doesn’t exist anymore). Vedenyapin’s seminar was established as a poetry studio at Moscow Journalism and Creative Writing University (Институт журналистики и литературного творчества, ИЖЛТ); now it still takes place there, but the participants are mostly not affiliated with the university. Actually it also has to do with the “Debut,” as last year Vedenyapin was its jury. The participants are either invited by the leader or the members of the seminar or they simply come there if they are interested. Sometimes people send their texts in advance, and very rarely someone is immediately told the texts are bad and there is nothing to discuss. But in general, anyone can come and then it is up to him or her to decide, whether to keep coming back. Criticism might be harsh, but objectively speaking it is not offensive. As for me, I was sent to such a seminar by my school teacher of literature, to whom I had shown my first works.

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

SB: At the moment of writing a poem I try to do my best to remain both enough sensitive and scrupulous. It is necessary not to lose tempo, like when playing chess, making tea with the samovar or blowing large soap bubbles. In a more elevated sense, it is important in which condition the inspiration finds you—many poets have said this. In terms of strategy, I don’t think there is any particular task I try to complete when writing. Maybe, to discover something new—let it be a square inch I can handle, or a millimeter I can move forward, but it should be mine. I try, if something, to be unique and natural at the same time, which are conflicting objectives. And this conflict is one of the driving forces, it provides tension, coming from music and leading to music. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, my writing is not a purely philological activity; to say more, I prefer to keep poetry and philology out of close contact. So it is an attempt to find my own voice in the through-the-looking-glass of my life. Currently I don’t think this search is possible without discoveries in the field of language, even within a temperate and conservative manner of writing. As for readers… I hope they might be interested in short texts that express that peculiar harmony I am trying to achieve. Some of them can even find them amusing—that’s okay.

PM: Your goals are technical and sound very modest. What happened to the idea of the poet being “more than a poet in Russia”? Do you think that your modesty is personal, or is it related to the contemporary postmodern moment, in which grandiosity and grand narratives seem always to lead to bloodshed? 

SB: On the one hand, they really sound modest. On the other hand, Russian poetry is a field of tough competition, first of all with those who lived before us, so to occupy a square inch in this garden one has to do something, and if he does, someone pay attention. Batyushkov said, “live like you write, and write like you live.” What is my life? My favorite things to do are playing with snowballs, making tea in the samovar, drawing insects in the garden, listening to music… As for the postmodern moment—well, I at least admit that our literature is deadly tired of pathos: as long as we prefer Prigov and V. Nekrasov to Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, it won’t change. By the way, Gandlevsky and Brodsky have many loud words, but that’s okay. So this thing is not so simple… And what it is – I don’t know.

When we remember these words by Yevtushenko, we say, a poet is more than a poet in Russia—he is also a street-cleaner. To be honest, I think the phrase “more than a poet” is not accurate enough to be as famous as it is… It was written in a peculiar Soviet situation, where literature had to be at the same time cinema, television and free press. That situation was of course unhealthy, and I’m glad it is over. In some cases, though, it is true, because in Russia poets are more likely than in other countries to oppose state power (due to the again unhealthy principles of this power); the brightest examples are Pushkin and Mandelstam, whose conflict was personal and very acute. These two were definitely more than poets. Both of them had to set themselves against an absolute tyrant and slave-driver.

PM: When I began this interview project, Russia was in the Yeltsin era. There was excitement and also great fear—of the unknown, of freedom, of capitalism. I remember seeing how much people suffered from the historical and economical changes—from the loss of economic security, and the loss of ideological certainty. Now we are in the Putin era. What has the Putin era meant for you as a poet, and as a citizen?

SB: To put it short, Putin’s time is another relapse of old Russian-Soviet troubles. It’s hard to add anything to this. Poetry is a part of the enlightenment; Putin and enlightenment cannot share one country. I must admit, however, that there is no open conflict between what is going on in Russia and what is going on in Russian poetry in general (except some leftist poets, for example Kirill Medvedev, who are involved into active part of oppositional movement). But they are two separate countries inside a larger territorial body (maybe it’s an old and rather doubtful feature of Russian intelligentsia, but such are the conditions we live in). As soon as they meet, it is painful.

PM: What do you think about the future of Russia, given this “relapse”? Is this just that old oscillation between “Slavophilism” and “Westernizers” again, between the tendency toward chauvinism and autocracy on the one hand, and democracy and liberality on the other—or is that a clichéd way of viewing this moment? Do you have hope for Russia’s future?

SB: I wish I were an optimist, but I’m afraid Russian ailments are much deeper one could have imagined in 1991, and the changes that have occurred since then have been, alas, absurdly superficial. But at least it is good that we’ve started to realize it. The oscillation you’ve mentioned is true, but in Russia these sides have never been equal: historically, as soon as there is an alternative, Russia prefers isolationism, slavophilism and confrontation with the West. The other side has always been declared, sooner or later, traitors and madmen. It might sound strange, but Peter the Great was not a true westernizer, in my humble opinion. Still, I hope that it is never late to choose another way, there’ve been good examples.

PM: I’d also like to ask you about the state of Russian poetry. When I began these interviews, there was no formal education in poetry; but now, it appears that while poetry does not have “mass appeal,” it has its own institutions. On the one hand, it appears that poetry is as weak as it is in the States—from a symbolic point of view. On the other, in the case of Pussy Riot’s performances and the crackdown upon them, it appears as strong as ever. What do you think?

SB: Frankly speaking, I don’t think that Pussy Riot belong to the world of poetry. Their texts are a sort of strong provocative manifestos that work in combination with time-and-place factors, but they are alien to poetry as I see it. 

PM: Two follow-up questions here. While you disagree with the premise that Pussy Riot’s work is poetry, do you agree with the fact that the Word is still powerful in Russia, or do you think there are other factors involved in the criminalization of Pussy Riot’s action? Second, what distinguishes their performative word-body actions from what you consider poetry? What is poetry, for you? What is it, and what does it do?

SB: Yes, I agree that the Word is still powerful (though not so strong as 100 years ago—or the Word is fine, but its speakers are not very strong). That’s why our government is doing much to suppress those who know correct words. But in case of Pussy Riot, it wasn’t really about the words. I think that if we speak about criminalization, we should admit that Pussy Riot was criminalized in court by judges and prosecutors. If there hadn’t been a task to punish them, no one would have said they were criminals. In this part their case looks like that of Bolotnaya Square: people are in prison for something they did not do, because someone wanted to show something to the society. Anyhow, even if Pussy Riot were imprisoned for the words they said, they were imprisoned for slogans, not for poetry. Sorry if it sounds absurd, but the aim of poetry is poetry (Pushkin, referring to Delvig), and if there is no poetry, it is not poetry.

If we compare, for example, [Pussy Riot member] Mariya Alyokhina’s own poems to the texts of Pussy Riot (which, mostly, she didn’t write), we’ll see they differ so much that I cannot admit these are just different kinds of same art. Some would say neither this nor that is poetry at all, but I disagree.

And what is poetry – that’s a really hard question! They say, Nikolay Baytov, one of my favorite poets, once decided to devote 15 minutes every day to meditate on what is poetry. I wonder if he has got an answer! What do we know about it? Not much.

Poetry cannot do without discovery. So if I write something I had already known the moment I started composing—that has little chance to be poetry, whatever the form is. That’s the main reason for which I don’t appreciate much what is called “social poetry,” including Pussy Riot’s lyrics: it all is based on ready-made ideas and manifestos. And when you write genuine poetry, in the end you can’t but surprise at where words and sounds have taken you. In some cases poetry can touch social issues, but it is always beyond any single subject. Occasionally poetry can be even ready-made, but then the author is not aimed at poetry: the one who comes across a ready-made is, but the author is not.

Poetry seems to be a perceptible metaverbal harmony, which appears from a specifically motivated rhythmical conversion of life into words on the way to some individual musical and existential discovery. It is not a pure reflection; it also works inversely: words that you write interact with your life. This interaction can be tense, and the more harmonic is your music, the riskier the contact. Life and music seem to be overlapping (or communicating) environments: agitation in the one causes a response in the other. And it is not simply mechanical, maybe we shouldn’t even separate them.

I can also try to describe poetry metaphorically. Let’s imagine that we are crossing a river or a lake, but our floatage is hard chuck or cracker. As long as you are smart and lucky, you row quickly and get somewhere in time. If you are not, your floatage falls apart and everything turns into trash no one is interested in. Maybe, writing (and sometimes reading) poetry is like successful and miraculous sailing on crackers.

Returning to one of your previous questions, I dare say that, concerning any practical aims of writing, the ultimate and desired goal is to somehow cause a shift in the reader’s being. Art offers us wonderful things, and to accept them we all, writers and readers, have to change. This is what I am beginning to realize – thanks to the experience of my own, of my friends and dialogues with them, and to this interview, too.

Stepan Brand was born in Moscow in 1989. He writes: “My father Vladimir is a musician and a classic and jazz guitar teacher. My mother Anna is an artist—a painter and mosaic maker. My parents tried to teach me their professions, but it came to nothing: I can neither draw, nor play guitar. But I have always been very fond of art and music. Since my early years, I’ve grown accustomed to the sounds of guitar, to the smell of paint and canvas.” He also notes the influence of summers spent in the country. He graduated from MSLU in 2011 and now works as a translator and a teacher. He is currently completing his first book of poems.

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.


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