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Two nibs


Dmitry Kuzmin
in conversation with
Peter Golub

Moscow, Summer 2007

Dmitry Kuzmin is an editor, critic, and poet. He is currently the editor of Argo-Risk Press, the poetry journal Vozdukh, and the creator of LitKarta (an online map of literary Russia). He lives in Moscow.

Peter Golub is a Moscow born poet and translator. His translations can be found in Circumference, St. Petersburg Review, Cimarron Review, and other journals. A bilingual edition of his poems, My Imagined Funeral, was published in 2007. He teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he is finishing his MFA in poetry. You can read his translations of two Russian Poets, Eugenia Ritz and Andrei Sen-Senkov, in this issue of Jacket.

Inventing Babylon

A note by Peter Golub: Kuzmin and I met in Moscow, summer 2006, in the Turgenev Library during a panel discussion on hierarchies in contemporary Russian poetry. As I would come to learn this meeting was standard Kuzmin. He had personally selected the panelists (who were at times diametrically opposed to one another), reserved the space, and publicized the event online (which is how I discovered the event). During the discussion Kuzmin served as moderator. This was my first impression of Kuzmin and I was, well, a little surprised. The scintillating and confident man was dressed in all black, had long black hair which he wore down, and stood in shoes with two inch soles. He struck me as a post-industrial rock band leader, not the most prolific curator of Russian poetry in the early 21st century.
      It was only my second week in Moscow, after a three year absence. The air was warm, and wet with summer rain; I stood outside under the overhang waiting for my friend Danilla Davydov to come out and introduce me to the gathering crowd of smokers. That night I was introduced to Kuzmin, and the following day I was invited to meet him in person.
      He walked and I followed. We stopped off at the Writer’s Union to make some payments, took several haiku anthologies and delivered them to a writer, made other rounds to places I can’t remember, finally sitting down at a café where I posed the question, which would eventually fuel my work in translation: “What is going on in contemporary Russian poetry? What is new?”
      Since that day Kuzmin and I have spent countless hours talking about poetry on the 13th floor of his spacious Moscow apartment, where he conducts much of his work. The following interview was conducted about a year after my first encounter with Kuzmin.
      I typed out a series of questions, and gave them to him during one of our conversations. He looked over the questions, and a few weeks later I received his answers.

 — Peter Golub

paragraph 1

Peter Golub: How would you describe your job; which of your literary projects do you think have the most value?


Dmitry Kuzmin: It’s always interesting what a person says when they are asked the direct question: “Who are you?” That is: “Who do you think you are?” In the beginning I identified myself as a poet, but on the eve of the 1990s it seemed clear that the occupation of young poet was unremunerative, and even hopeless. At that time publication and public appearance was allotted to writers who had been underground for thirty to forty years — there was a lot of catching up to do, and people just didn’t have the time for us debutantes. This created the need, among the young literary generation, for an independent form of existence, and someone had to build this existence, and move it forward into real life. Thus, the union of young writers “Vavilon” was born, and I began to identify myself not so much as a poet, critic, philologist, or translator (although I continued my work in these areas), but as an organizer of the literary process in its entirety. [Note: “Vavilon” means Babylon.] That is, I wasn’t just trying to be the guy who published books and organized readings. I was striving to consciously transform literature as a whole via these activities.


With time the word “literaturträger” made it into our lexicon. This word is analogous to the more common “culturträger which is taken from the German. Here, we get a telling shade of meaning, because the German word “träger” literally means “carrier”. This implies that if no one carries culture (literature) then it will remain in the same place, unmoved. And this is of course as it should be.


Thus, I think that the most valuable of my projects remains the first (i.e. the consolidation of the young generation which emerged in the 1990s). The project has manifested itself not only in ten almanacs, about three dozen books in the series “Biblioteka Molodoi Literatury”, over a decade of readings and festivals, etc. but in the very formation of a generational approach; we now have a cultural milieu of poets (born between 1968 and 1978) who from the very beginning of their careers participated in one creative dialogue, which has had many voices. However, I am only a tangential author of this project; the main author is the epoch: a unique socio-cultural situation in which Russian literature found itself at the time of perestroika. Perestroika created the demand for a figure who could organize the young generation. I just got lucky — I was at the right place at the right time.


As for the rest... much of what I do, or did, is significant in one way or another, even if it strikes many people in Russia as odd. For instance, in 1999–2002 I helped put together Triton, the first Russian publication dedicated to haiku, which included many Russian and translated works. In the context of national Russian poetry this project is rather marginal, but in an international perspective the project is pretty interesting, because haiku is the only real contemporary living poetic form; it’s not by accident that the successor of Triton, the current almanac Haikumena, is published under the patronage of the Russian Institute of Cultural Research. And then there is the site, which ten years ago was pretty much scoffed at as superfluous toy. Now, it’s understood that without a substantial internet presence, uncommercial Russian literature would be relegated to a cold dark place: there is simply no other way (considering the literary cabals and cliques, and the monopolization of the Russian book market) that literature in Russia can reach most readers.


Many of your projects (e.g. book series, anthologies) focus on the idea of generations. Can you say a little about this organizational approach? What are the main generations in contemporary Russian poetry? What are some good examples of poets who fall into these generations?


DK: I should begin by saying that I received the idea of literary generations when I was still in college. A friend had asked me to proofread her dissertation. Her work concerned the Spanish poet Luis Cernuda Bidon. The text was full of references to different Spanish literary generations (the generation of 1898, the generation of 1927, etc). The main idea of this concept is that major cultural paradigm shifts (e.g. the final fall of the colonial Spanish empire as the result of the Spanish-American war of 1898) radically change the socio-cultural context, and new authors, who step into the literary field at that moment, are faced with new demands from a new epoch. When I first came across the concept it immediately reminded me of our situation at the end of the 1980s when the quintessential state of soviet society was instability. In the past, the young intellectual, the young artist, was surrounded by a limited set of schema which he or she could follow, or against which he or she could rebel. However, at the end of perestroika the young individual — the author just beginning his or her creative life — was confronted with a multitude of paths, or rather, a vaguely construed almost chaotic space in which one had to independently, from scratch, find some orientation, create a line of action, and all this without the assurance that things weren’t going to look completely different the next day.


Literature was particularly affected by perestroika: during the first years following the lifting of state censorship nearly every day brought a new text (or rather, old texts which were previously banned); many of these texts caused us to radically reconsider our understanding of literature and culture. The result was a sudden dispersion of style and world view among young authors who entered literature simultaneously, and who seemed to share the same cultural environment. Biographical similarities often caused very disparate authors to band together. This is why aesthetic tolerance is manifest in the Vavilon generation, and not as much in authors from previous generations, whose aesthetics formed in more homogenous climates. Hence, the miscommunication between the younger and older authors, who, apart from some rare exceptions, didn’t support members of the young generation; most of the Vavilon authors don’t fit easily into the preconceived categories used by the older generations. It could be said that the Vavilon generation is more isolated from the previous generations than the previous generations are from one another.


The above shows that the metaphor of Vavilon is quite fitting: a multitude of artistic languages from which it is impossible to eliminate the cardinal, dominant language. Although, there are of course important names in the Vavilon generation: Stanislav Lvovsky, Andrey Plyakov, Nikolai Zvyagintsev, Mariya Stepanova, Sergei Kruglov, Andrei Sen-Senkov, Linor Goralik, Danila Davydov… have today become notable figures of contemporary Russian letters. For instance, Stepanova has received a number of important awards including the Andrei Bely Prize; this year Lvovsky was named the official Russian manager of the Joseph Brodsky Fellowship Fund.


The upshot of positioning ourselves as the young generation of Russian literature is that we must be on the lookout for the proceeding generation: do today’s young authors fit into our generational context, or are they starting to form their own? Simply put: when will the generation after ours appear? Here we are at the beginning of the 21st century; personal and artistic development has been greatly altered by the entry of new information technologies into everyday life. We aren’t just speaking of a shift in world view, or behavioral norms (as Stanislav Lvovsky said in one of is poems dedicated to the current shift in consciousness: “before people said — I had a feeling and so I came/ today they say — I got your SMS”), we are speaking about a new form of socialization. Internet sites, which allow free and instant publication, create unique communicative spaces, and it is in these spaces that all the debutants of the new millennium initially found their voice.


If we assume that important poetic works are products of the interface between fertile literary tradition and a call of the times, the unique sociological and psychological qualities of the epoch, then we see that before the young poet plugged themselves (even if merely by imitation) into the tradition. Today, many talented young poets from the get-go begin working with the plaster of contemporariness, taking as their foundation contemporary speech models, commercial texts, tabloids, film, and so forth. The plugging into tradition, enrichment of our collective cultural baggage, comes later. Thanks to this, it paradoxically turns out that some of Russian poetry’s “discoveries” of the last few decades (concrete poetry’s openness toward self-generating speech, post-conceptualism’s pursuit of sincere and authentic expression in spite of everything, the objectivist desire for clear expression of the surrounding world in all its originality and detail, interest in gender issue, etc.), these are already attained by the younger generation, and now they work in parallel with older authors. Maybe, with respect to authors who are around twenty-five, it is still too early to start naming major and minor authors, but as of today in the capacity of leaders the newest generation has produced a number of notable authors: Mariane Geide, Dina Gatina, Mikhail Kotov, Ksenya Marennikova, Tatyana Moseeva...


As of 2007 you’ve published some 300 books. How do you choose a book for publication? What do you look for in good poetry?


DK: What our classic Baratynsky used to call “faces with unique expression”. An author is the person who has an author’s “I”, i.e. the person who writes like no one else could. There is a schism in contemporary Russian poetry: there are those who first look for the search, the break into some sort of new meaning, new awareness — and this transcendental break cannot but be personally articulated — and there are those for whom art isn’t a search, similar to science for instance, but a form of production akin to handicraft, and the task of the poet is to manufacture texts with a particular look, which meets preconceived expectations and criteria.


If we were to name the sides, describe the general distribution of strength, then on the side of the “search for new meaning” are the descendants of previously censored literature, the children and grandchildren of samizdat, and on the side of “poetry as handicraft” are the successors of official soviet literary tradition who to this day control the majority of Russia’s literary periodicals.


That’s about it — I don’t really have any other special criteria... except for maybe a little “positive discrimination”. For authors of the youngest generation I have a separate series called “Generation”; about fifteen books have been printed in this series. For the New Literary Observer I put together a program dedicated to Russian poets abroad. Thus far the project has produced around twenty books plus the gigantic anthology Ulysses Released — 244 authors from twenty-six countries.


If you had more resources would you publish more?


DK: The kind I publish now? No. More of those aren’t needed. Currently I publish about thirty books a year (not to mention the poetry quarterly Vozdukh). These are small modest publications, but they aren’t chapbooks — they are complete, full-fledged collections. It should be noted that among publishers working exclusively with poetry this is the largest number of publications. Thing is, the situation is a bit dire: the almost complete absence of distribution, the catastrophic state of reviews and Russian literary criticism in general, a limited (compared with other large literatures) amount of literary prizes, the lack of systematized and orienting material (like say the anthology Best American Poetry), all this has culminated in conditions where a larger number of books would simply be left obscure — they would go undigested.


It’s a different story if we talk about the absence of entire classes of publications, primarily ones that are more labor intensive and more expensive to publish. For instance, consider those very anthologies, or projects which attempt to show the Russian reader (and the Russian author!) what’s going within the international poetry scene. Or even what about publications that popularize poetry. From large collections with detailed introductions explaining why a particular author is wonderful and how one ought to read him to thematic collections like Cats in Contemporary Poetry or Subway Poems. These are collections that are able to grab the interest of a reader alien to contemporary poetry... I guess if I were to publish more it would be something from the list above, that is if I had the time and resources.


How does the Russian literary scene interact with the larger international literary scene? Have the efforts of poets like Lvovsky and publishers like Ugly Duckling Presse paid off? Do you think there is much of a channel between international and Russian poetry? What do you think about projects such as the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg?


DK: Well, lightly put, there isn’t much interaction. This the result, the inheritance, of Soviet cultural autarchy, when it wasn’t necessary for an author to know foreign languages, when translations were published in a special journal called Foreign Literature which, with its very existence, underlined the idea that what is written in Russian is one thing, and what is written in any other language is the other... As a result Russian literati are simply not that interested in what goes on with the rest of the writers and readers around the world. These things can’t be overturned with one fell swoop, it takes time and work. Although, this work should be carried out not so much on the level of publications and festivals, but on the academic level, on the level of professional literary and philological education.


Today, we have big problems with education in our country. One of the biggest problems is that Russian universities aren’t universities in the full sense of the word: the fundamental principle of the university was extremely minimized (during the Soviet era of course) — the opportunity to choose one’s courses and professors was taken away from the student. In most cases, starting around the 1920s, the student was stripped of the right to choose, except for maybe the right to choose a dissertation topic and adviser (but even this wasn’t so in many cases). This meant that concurrence between different professors, in Russian higher education, was reduced to zero.


It shouldn’t be surprising that education, especially in the humanities, remains in a deep state of stagnation. What is there to talk about when the chair of the Literary Theory Department at Moscow State University is to this day professor Esalnek, whose dissertation was titled something like “Party Character in Soviet literature”! It’s obvious that a student isn’t going to learning anything about contemporary literary theory from such a professor. A similar situation existed with the neighboring faculty at the Sociology Department, which caused a student revolt in the beginning of 2007.


Another problem is the absence of the creative writing course, or some sort of analogue. To this day the only university that teaches creative writing is the Gorky Literary Institute, which has long since become a citadel of ultra conservative, nationalistic, literati. I myself am rather incredulous when it comes to the teaching of creative writing, because it’s too easy to turn into a kind of arts and crafts lesson. However, this doesn’t mean that this kind of education shouldn’t exist at all. Meanwhile, the experience of the Gorky Literary Institute has been so negative that many people in Russia now reject the usefulness a systematic approach to creative writing all together.


To get back to your question, SLS does have the potential of becoming a positive counter-example for the Russian literary community, but for now no one is really talking about it. I am reminded of the time when Robert Creeley came to SLS and the organizer of the seminars, Mikhail Iossel, told me with faintly concealed vexation: “Robert Creeley is reading in St. Petersburg and not one critic has moved an ear!” To share this vexation, even the classics of today’s foreign literature are almost completely unknown. For these authors to become known, even if just among the poets, there needs to be set of special programs. Here is an example of a characteristic trend: when Mikhail Iossel began his seminars for Russians — not for Americans — and chose authors to lead them, he didn’t invite Russian authors tuned into the international dialogue, but authors who are oriented almost exclusively toward Russian literature. This means that Iossel thinks that writers who are building international bridges aren’t influential enough in Russia, and that they aren’t enticing enough for the young writers who attend these seminars. Is this so? I’d beg to differ. It seems to me that Dragomoshchenko, Skidan, Lvovsky, Sen-Senkov, Skandiaka, Kiril Medvedev, and others, are for many young Russia authors important and quite enticing. This is so, even when young writers have no idea with whom their older colleagues are engaged in international dialogue.


There are definitely many opportunities and perspectives in this direction, but there is a lot of work still ahead: there needs to be a lot more translation, publication, exchange of poets, etc.


You once asked the rhetorical question: “Is the Russian language the main indicator of a new Russian literature?” This begs the question: “What is new Russian poetry?” Does it make sense to speak of a post-modern Russian aesthetic?


DK: That question was posed in the introduction to the aforementioned Ulysses Released, and it wasn’t asked rhetorically at all, and this should be most clear to an American. Why are English, Irish, American, Australian poetries written, relatively speaking, in the same language, but considered to be different traditions?


When there were almost no Russian writers (or readers) living abroad, the question wasn’t raised. But today countries like Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, and Israel have a high percentage of Russians, and the state of Russian literature in those countries leads us to consider these kind of questions seriously. In the introduction to Ulysses Released Mikhail Gendelev from Israel and Marina Kunovska from Belarus clearly stated: “we are not Russian poets, we just happen to be writing in Russian”.


If we, however, consider poetry, and not particular authors’ declarations, then in Israel it is easy to see a common collection of themes among many writers who are historically, culturally, and geographically connected; they share a similar appellation and relationship with the idiomatic lexicon of Israelis. If we consider other qualities it is hard to find a coherent center among them. If, for instance, some of Gendelev’s texts build to create a peculiar fragmented repatriate epic about the irreconcilable collision of people and culture, then Alexander Barash’s texts attach themselves to an Israel which he takes to be part of a collective Mediterranean civilization, and he sees the present military and political situation as a manifestation of an eternal schema. Although, all of these authors are so stylistically different that we can’t even refer to them as a regional literary school.


At the end of the 1980s a Fergana school of poets writing in Russian made themselves known. The members of the school are ethnically Uzbekistan, but found themselves in a Russian linguistic environment, and used Russian to address the relationship between central Asian mentality and western European poetry. Although, the worsening of the socio-political situation in Uzbekistan negatively reflected itself on the Fergana school: many of its members left the country, and their aesthetic unity noticeably faltered. However, the leader of the school, Shamshad Abdullaev, remains in Fergana, and continues to be a notable figure on the horizon of Russian poetry.


No less notable is the Riga school (also formed at the end of the 1980s), which has at its head Andrei Levkin: fiction writer, and editor of the first independent Soviet journal, Spring. And although the majority of the first generation Riga writers left literature, the second wave of Russian poets in Latvia (for instance Sergei Timofeev and the “text-group” Orbita) are actively working; in fact of all the former Soviet republics Latvia carries one of the most vibrant dialogues with Russia: Russian and Latvian poets are constantly translating each others’ work, organizing poetry festivals, etc. The Riga school is very westernized, and not only in terms of prosody (although in Riga, as in Fergana, vers libre is still seen as a sign of orienting toward the west). Timofeev’s poems, and those of other Orbita writers, reflect a particular western world view, which is an intricate balance between contemplation, and absolute enthusiasm; it is a state of enchantment and irony toward consumer culture, and capitalism as a whole.


In general I think that no matter how distinct the poets of Israel, Uzbekistan, Latvia, etc., it is impossible to sever them off from Russian poetry, because there are simply too many cross references between them and poets in Moscow, St. Petersburg, the Urals...


You align your own aesthetic with American Objectivist poets. For instance, you’ve translated Charles Reznikoff. American poets often cite painters (like Jackson Pollock) or musicians (like John Cage) as influences. Who, or what, has influenced contemporary Russian poets?


DK: There is a section Vozdukh where I pose a few thematic questions to a number of poets. I do this in part to compensate for the lack of criticism I already talked about. Just recently I put forth the question about influence. And yes, poets name their interlocutors as being painters (mostly, classics of the Russian “second avant-garde”, painters such as: Erik Bulatov, Oleg Vasiliev, Ilya Kabakov, Francisco Infante), and musicians (also with postmodernist inclinations, composers such as: Vladimir Martynov, and Vyacheslav Gaivoronski), to a lesser extent people named film directors... But these are the influences for older poets, who’ve more or less had the same influences for twenty, if not thirty years.


The younger generation has different influences. There is a wide range of musical influences. For instance, Russian rock, where lyrics play a larger role than they do in American rock, has influenced some poets. I could give names, but I doubt they would say anything to an American. There is also verbatim theatre and other new dramatic devices. Also, many authors of the two youngest generations build their texts by montaging different voices, not identifying with any particular one. On the other hand some writers compose dramatic, even commercial-like, monologues. The influence of the theatre is usually never overtly present, it just kind of seeps out here and there... It’s just that poetry and other forms of art have parallel courses. And then there is of course video art, which suggests that a complete, meaningful work of artistic expression can be built from small, seemingly unrelated, fragments. This is definitely an important idea for many contemporary artists.


What do you think is the role of poetry in contemporary culture?


DK: I think it is not unlike the role of science. What the world’s best poets or scientists are doing today is understood by a small circle of people, who are usually poets or scientists themselves. However, the shape of the future depends primarily on them.


I think poetry will do fine; there is a constant search for new language and experimentation with new ways of generating meaning.


All in all for someone the future has already begun. In the small circle of poetry readers there are many individuals who work with words: other artists, journalists, teachers, copywriters… And all of them, consciously or unconsciously, translate the insights of their favorite poets into their own language.


Of course there are authors who don’t want to wait, but want to sway minds today. These participate in slams, print topical poems in newspapers...And this also has a right to exist. Only it’s a bit silly when these people consider themselves progressive, while their work isn’t any different from that of someone who writes a rhyme on the occasion of their aunt’s 50th birthday, or the remarks we sometimes find on the inside of Hallmark cards. All of these satisfy the particular desires of different consumers; they all exist to meet specific expectations. The kind of poetry I aim to work with, in one way or another, goes against the expectations of the consumer.


At the same time I’m not saying that poetry is an ivory tower where the entrance is barred to all mortals. Anyone who wants to peek into the future has the opportunity. Knowing the new takes a great deal of effort — it is rewarding though difficult work.

Dmitry Kuzmin

Dmitry Kuzmin

Dmitry Kuzmin is an editor, critic, and poet. He is currently the editor of Argo-Risk Press, the poetry journal Vozdukh, and the creator of LitKarta (an online map of literary Russia). He lives in Moscow.

Peter Golub

Peter Golub

Peter Golub is a Moscow-born poet and translator. His translations can be found in Circumference, St. Petersburg Review, Cimarron Review, and other journals. A bilingual edition of his poems, My Imagined Funeral, was published in 2007. He teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he is finishing his MFA in poetry.

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