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.