The interview with E.J. McAdams took place between January and March of 2013. It focuses on McAdams’ chapbook TRANSECTs.
Philip Metres: E.J., I read your chapbook, TRANSECTs! What I want to propose is a poetry dialogue over them. Are you game? If you are, let me begin with this question:
As an urban environmentalist (someone who lives in the city yet advocates for nature—who sees the permeable connections between what we call the human and the natural, between built space and the organic planet), can you talk about what drew you to the acrostic procedure, and how you went about the composition of these poems? In other words, was your process of selection entirely chance-bound, or were you picking particularly juicy juxtapositions along the way?
This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993). The interview with Russian poet, Dimitri Alexandrovich Prigov (1940-2007), took place in October of 1996.
Philip Metres: Why did you begin writing poems and making art?
Dimitri Alexandrovich Prigov:Well, I’m a sculptor by trade. At first I made sculpture, and I began poems…well, the fact of the matter is that as contemporary art drew closer to conceptualism, it seemed that a great part of the artistic sphere became verbalized—began using a lot of verbal language. So I happened to be on the border between literature and visual arts. It was interesting to me how these ideas conceptually related. What did literature mean to me? Russian literature—in terms of its social status, its role in culture, and the feelings of the poet—was similar to the poetry of the 19th century.
This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993). A version of this interview was first published in Asheville Poetry Review (vol. 6, no.1, 1999). Thanks to Jacqueline Orchard for her editorial suggestions.
Philip Metres: Let’s discuss your creative history. I’d like to know about your family, when you began to write, what poets were influential to you.
Sergey Gandlevsky: I was born in 1952 to a religious family. My mother by birth was from a “church family.” One of my grandfathers and one of my great-grandfathers were priests. My mother had to hide during the Soviet repression of the Church. And one of her grandfathers actually was in Solovki [a concentration camp] and later died in exile in Kazakhstan. My father was a Jew. It was a very strange marriage ceremony, only possible after the Revolution. He came from a Jewish family of the Ukraine intelligentsia. His parents were doctors, children of doctors who arrived here in Moscow after the Revolution. They, like many Jews, were sympathetic to the Revolution and had many children, working hard and honestly. They all were technicians. My father was already a skeptic about the Revolutionary ideology, and my mother—I don’t remember where her sympathies lay, but she really worked hard because she was from a “defeatist” class; that is, she was deprived of rights. But she did have the right to receive higher education, only needing to hide the vocation of her parents. And I was born to them, and lived in peace, normally, undisturbed until entering school. I finished school and began writing at age 15. At first I wrote prose stories. No, when I was eight or nine, like all children, I wrote poems, but I soon stopped.
This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993).
Poet and theorist Vsevolod Nekrasov (1934-2009) was an important figure in the Lianozovo circle, a group of underground experimental artists in the 1960s, and one of the crucial founders of the “Second Russian avant-garde” and Moscow conceptualism. His work began to appear in samizdat (self-published) in the later 1950s, and continues to impact a younger generation of experimental poets.
I met with the poet Vsevolod Nekrasov in Moscow in 1993 and interviewed him about his life and poetry. In the text that follows, I have interpolated Nekrasov’s poems and my translations of them. Thanks to Jacqueline Orchard for her editorial suggestions in revising this interview.
Vsevolod Nekrasov: I was born in 1934 and began writing seriously in 1956 when I became involved in a literary association. I got into the “Potemkin” Moscow City Pedagogical Institute in 1955 during the cataclysmic change of power. 1956 was the year the 20th Congress addressed the legacy of Stalin, and the year I first became acquainted with [Marina] Tsvetaeva and [Osip] Mandelstam. Tsvetaeva’s poems were sharp, unusual, not customary and gave off a strong impression. It wasn’t just for the shock, but enough for one to ask seriously: “What exactly is this? How do I feel about this?” I say about it now: I became that question. But then I just had the feeling that one ought to write like that.
This interview series, “Conversations after the Fall: Interviews with Contemporary Russian Poets,” began as part of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship year (1992-1993). During a year living in Moscow, I pursued an independent research project called “Contemporary Russian Poetry and Its Response to Historical Change,” which involved meeting poets, translating and living through the tumult of post-Soviet economic “shock therapy.” My interviews have continued in subsequent visits to Russia and with Russian poets over the past twenty years. In the introduction to my original Watson Fellowship statement, I quoted the following: “Once Alexander Blok quite rightly stated that at a time of historical storms and alarms, the most intimate recesses of the soul are also filled with alarm. Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote: ‘That’s how it was with the soldiers, or perhaps with the country, or maybe that’s how it was in my heart.’ The indivisibility of the macroworld of ideas and the microworld of the emotions, this merging of the interests of society with the individual’s private interests is reflected in our art not as mere declarations by as the norm in our way of life (Fifty Soviet Poets, 14).” These interviews were conducted in Russian and in person, and later translated by me—with just a couple exceptions. Thanks in particular to Dimitri Psurtsev, not only for his mentoring and friendship, but also for helping me connect with some of these poets; his tireless enthusiasm for Russian poetry in its rich diversity, its mysteries, and intoxicating musics helped deflect my initially sociological approach (which included a survey of undergraduate students about their relationship to poetry), and complicate my initial desire to read easy equivalences between societal events and a poet’s work.
Philip Metres: When did you begin writing poetry, and can you remember why?
Dimitri Psurtsev: I wrote my first poem when I was seven or so. It was about an old man in a country house attacked by winds. Now I think I was trying to write “A Winter’s Tale” by Dylan Thomas, but I didn’t know it at the time and I didn’t know English. As for my first real poems (“real” in the sense that I knew they were mine and nobody else’s and had the right to be), I wrote them when I was about thirty, the age many people stop writing poems. I almost avoided writing up to the moment when I knew I would express something of the Inexpressible, that mystic domain where all real poems seem to come from and where each poet has a place and doesn’t have to fight for it. Also, we have a rich literary tradition in Russia, and you should be terribly sure you have something to say before you just open your mouth.
Anyway, to answer the “why” part of the question, I wrote my first poems at the same time as a very close friend of mine emigrated to the U.S., which made me realize why I was not going to emigrate, what Russian history and just living in Russia meant to me, what was the focus of living. And a lot of things that had been dormant came to the surface in the form of poems.
This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Philip Metres’s Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront Since 1941 (Univ. of Iowa Press, 2007).
H. L. Hix: Your book starts with the observation that “exclusion of dissenting voices . . . has continued throughout our history” (4), but implies near the end that the exclusion may be more complete now than ever, since “war’s televisual representation . . . nullified the kinds of lyric responses upon which war resister poets traditionally relied” (197). If the exclusion is more intense than ever, what justifies the sorts of hope you express in your coda?
Philip Metres: There are at least two ways to address this question—via the personal (i.e. my own story vis-à-vis poetry and the peace movement) and intellectually. My own journey through Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 had many stages. It was borne out of an intellectual and poetic attempt to understand the failure and despair of peace activists (myself included) during and after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when I was a junior in college. I was stunned by what seemed to me a mass psychosis, in which everyone huddled around the television (myself included) as if it were an intense sporting match—but which was a war not unlike any other, though the corpses themselves were disappeared in the official media coverage. Journalists—particularly the television media—seemed more interested in making amends for its purported liberal bias during the Vietnam War, to heal the wounds of the Vietnam defeat; I can see it now as a classic example of what Richard Slotkin called “redemption through violence,” in his pivotal work of American history, Gunfighter Nation.