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Mikhail Aizenberg in conversation with Peter Golub, 2008
Peter Golub: You graduated from the Moscow Institute of Architecture, write literary criticism, work as an editor, and have taught at the Russian State University for the Humanities. How do all these activities influence your poetry? Do they widen your range of possibilities, or impede upon your poetic work?
Mikhail Aizenberg: Poems, it seems to me, occur in their own, unique time, different from everything else by many criteria. This time is solid and continuous, but thought in this time/space moves not sequentially, but rather in bundles, with great speed and in different directions. The question is: can a person exist in this time permanently? If not — as I am not — then he can occupy his time with anything, even criticism.
By the way, I don’t really consider myself a critic. I can write something distinct and interesting only about those authors whose work has occupied and intrigued me over many years.
If an author has some sort of a mystery, I try to understand it better; initially I don’t think about how this or that thing was made, but about action, about the work that it accomplishes. And only then, after connecting the effect of the work and the principles of action can I understand how the poem was made.
This is an attempt at comprehension, directed more at the nature of poetry than specific details; it is a kind of reflection built into the act of composition. It is always present, but its distinct voice can only be heard when the other voices are quiet.
PG: You started writing in the USSR — where you were not officially published. How has the current situation influenced you? What is the difference between being a poet in the 20th and 21st century?
MA: It seems to me that if we speak of poetry only as the life of words, then we will inevitably remain on the surface of substantive discourse. The life of words is also a life in words. The main task before the poet writing in the second half of the previous century was whether such a life was possible. Believe me, this problem was far more important than getting published.
In the second half of the 20th century Russian poetry was born anew. For a very long time Russia had poems, but no poetry. Some didn’t feel this at all, some felt it so strongly that for them the very possibility of poetic speech was entirely spent or highly unlikely.
Perhaps the initial impulse to write was nostalgia for language and its instrumental qualities, for the possibility to focus in on real occurrence, and in this way to discover it. This language was collected almost by individual letters, with effort, with great resistance, and this “resistance of the material” deformed expression. In fact, negotiation with this resistance was the expression.
It is possible that the meaning of “work” came to us from modernism, but now it existed in a completely new reality. The packaging remained the same, but the content became unrecognizable. The world of representation and literary relation turned on its axis.
According to my internal clock, the end of this systemic paradigm shift occurred at the end of the 1980s. During the 1960s and 70s I had an insatiable cultural — or rather sensory — appetite for new poems.
Of course, this feeling hasn’t left, but somewhere in the 1980s it waned significantly. So for me, the split between the two epochs, which you allude to in your question, doesn’t happen at the turn of the century, but somewhere in the 1980s.
But if the 1980s were followed directly by the 21st century, one false impression, which concerns my/our life might go overlooked. The false impression lies in that we did not consider our work to be for or against the political life of the Soviet Union. We were not agitators, but we wrote (and could not have done otherwise) about our relationship with power.
Our art was always mindful of power: distance to power, the character and degree of association with power, involvement with power; it simply took up too much space to go unnoticed. This was the most extensive, cumbersome reality of our lives; power attempted to occupy all of life, and much of one’s strength was expended in order not to let this happen.
In a simple culture, social and artistic space are contiguous: there is a direct translation from one to the other. The more complex a culture, the more intermediate space it has between these two. Today, the social arrangement is more complex when compared to Soviet time. The weight of power, characteristic of the Soviet period, is still present today, but this problem is now without its — how do I put it? — metaphysical component.
The work of social art and conceptualism had its effect: a space was cleared; a conscious person is now able to distance himself enough to see power as a distinct, separate entity. An individual can see society as a complex system of echelons, and not as a gelled organic whole in which one is stuck once and forever.
Today’s era has its own deep fears and frustrations, which need to be approached with new methods. In my opinion, the main contemporary problem was articulated, with vicious precision, by Josef Brodsky in a comment about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “He thought he was dealing with communism, but he was dealing with humanity.”
We thought we were dealing with communism, fascism, etc. It wasn’t that everyone was so naïve; it was just that the wind blew in another direction, carrying away from us certain animal smells. Today, since the wind has changed, we’ve come to realize that it smells of fascism from all directions, including from some of our own acquaintances (i.e. regular “normal” people). One must learn to exist within it without succumbing to it.
PG: You once said that regularity is antithetical to poetry. What do you think about American Creative Writing programs? Do you think such a system will ever establish itself in Russia?
MA: In the interview you allude to, I said that the compulsory regularity of performances and meetings is somehow antithetical, in my opinion, to the very nature of poetry, which does not stand for anything compulsory. But a wider interpretation is possible.
I think it is a worthy goal to teach people how to write well and with ease, because the better you write the better you think. This is the first step toward “an equal plain of possibilities” in literature, but this is also the last step.
Such an education will never make people into writers, let alone poets. A poet does not write with ease, but with difficulty, and every word puts him in a dead end from which he must find some sort of exit. I sincerely do not believe in the benefits of regular writing. When poetry becomes a habit, there is nowhere for the new to come from.
We, of course, in this — or more precisely: and in this — we are a backward country, but something like what you mention is happening in this country as well. Soon drafts for writers will exceed that of drafts for soldiers. Where did these thousands of fiction and poetry writers come from? Only recently we were terrified by hundreds. What stature one must have for just a few readers to give you a look-over in this crowd?
This feeling probably feeds the idea that today one can’t simply write poems, but must have some grandiose projects. Thing is, this doesn’t just concern the personal ambition of writers. I believe there are things not determined by degree of distribution, and that the influence of poetry is not restricted to a determined environment.
But this is true only if the environment remains open, the author has a connection to the first — most important — readers, and ties occur between the first and secondary readers...
PG: You once said that contemporary poetry finds him, who searches for it. Who is searching for contemporary poetry?
MA: I can only repeat: it is unclear who is searching for whom, or who chooses whom. Rather, poems choose those who can hear them, and after hearing, continue the life of the poem within themselves. You are first called, and only then respond. Poetry slips away from the indifferent eye and this is its primary, salutary, quality. It finds those who look for it. Poetry needs only this kind of reader, only in this reading (which Mandelshtam called “active understanding”) can poetry be that, which it really is: “performative expression” and “an act of speech”, or in other words: energy and force, living matter.
Poems are not what they might seem. Poems are the keenest things in the world; they bring together collective linguistic experience and personal pre-linguistic intuition. Historically, or rather pre-historically, poetry was the beginning of language. And it is even more important is that this continues: language renews itself via poetic resources, and poetry commands these resources par excellence.
Poetry has what is not yet present in language: there exists a conversation about that which is most important, that is the future. Not many are ready for such a conversation, and I am not convinced that poetry needs to be propagandized. Moreover, it’s as if poetry itself is not convinced of this fact. If it does go toward the reader, then it does so not by the regular avenues; more likely it goes from the reader: changing until it is unrecognizable — it hides.
But it hides, in a way to get some reader to follow it. So that it may be found by the most curious, by those referred to by Boris Dubin as the “first reader”: he who cannot go on without it...What exactly is it that he can’t go on without? I would begin with, what I referred to above as, the “nostalgia for language” or with the “trauma of unarticulated experience.”
The first reader is distinct because he feels this nostalgia and trauma as strongly as the author. And in the special “work of language”, “production of reality”, he is an equal collaborator, almost a co-author. We might say that the future success of such work depends on the first reader: they determine, if not the direction of the wave, then its speed and distance.
This kind of reader remembers the poetry by heart, lets it inside himself, where both poetry and reader exist in a unique space of resonance. Some quotations, recollections, poetic memes enter into his speech and become the language of his interaction. He begins to speak poems.
But poetry can also be studied as a philosophical operation. Poetry works to bring the individual person into a condition of incomprehension: the absence of the usual supports. Here we see the reason for a certain widespread aversion to poetry. First readers are those who can exist in this condition, for whom such a condition appears as work.
PG: What are your impressions of contemporary Russian poetry? What are its pluses and minuses?
MA: Art lives according to exceptions, and general comments are unproductive. Is it worth to consider them? I am not convinced it is, but the question suggests an answer.
First, what kind of impressions can we call “contemporary?” A) Those produced by new, very young authors; and b) those resulting from older authors who’ve somehow changed their poetic practice. Let us begin accordingly.
The very young are those under the age of thirty. This is the first Russian generation to grow up with such an enormous amount of information, and due to unfamiliarity with such an influx, this information quickly began to seem superfluous.
My generation got its information like spies, capturar un lengua; whereas the young generation seems to instinctively eschew information. So much previously censored and foreign “culture” came onto the scene — in the 1990s the redundancy of publication and reader fatigue was almost universal — that it all seemed an impenetrable fortress that was best circumvented, rather than confronted.
Therefore, many of the young generation poets have had an “independent” entrance into poetry. To them the possibility of poetry seems a natural law, and not a surmounted impossibility. This approach is in principle different from the previous (“our”) relationship to words, which is built on the idea that poetic language cannot exist without some sort of special foundation; the belief that poetry is an amalgam of disparate circumstances that give poems the chance to exist, the chance to begin.
It was once important to answer the question “Is poetry possible?” But this inquiry seems to be losing its energy and force. And no wonder. We already have some sort of an answer.
The younger generation of authors grew from different soil, not in the usual poetic garden. The experience of predecessors, those far and near, is unneeded in its personal form. It’s not vital. Everything is transferred via an airy ether. Quotations are used, but I don’t hear any real dialogue. And this paradoxically brings us to the indecipherability of voices, to the absence of individual, substantive — discovered — language. All the words seem to be generic; poems descend on you like a thick verbal fog. What can penetrate it? Only some sort of concreteness.
This problem is also felt by authors who are “new” not because of age, but because of the acute literary situation: plot, narrative, and fable are all making their way into Russian poetry. And this encroachment was conveniently synchronous with the popularization of vers libre. Narrative is not the only way of achieving concreteness, but it is the most simple and obvious. You have a story — write a poem.
This is what I think is really new: there seems to be a new genre added to the existing ones. This genre has many of the qualities associated with poetry, but in reality, it is a form of prose: laconic, flexible, eloquent, and very beguiling.
In 1907 Vyacheslav Ivanov wrote that one of the great achievements of his time was “the separation of poetry from ‘literature’ by the new poets.” Well, it seems that the separation was too heavy for the separated, and they are now once again uniting.
In general, writers can still be sharply divided into the two camps of fiction and poetry; however sometimes the former will actually write poetry their entire lives, and the latter only fiction. What is the difference? Prose deals with the material of life, and poetry deals with the matter of life. They have different sources of rhythm, and this is always apparent. Prosaic things are written only by the author, but these things don’t participate in the composition.
Artistic paradigms are not changed like sentinels, but are found and emerge gradually. Now, it seems to me, deconstruction, fragmentation, the break-up of speech, is not disappearing or going anywhere, but nonetheless is fading behind the scene of poetic work. And on the surface we notice the traces of some “new clarity” and large (e.g. epic) forms, which appear to be the new face of Russian poetry.
Simplicity and clarity don’t occur on the top of complexity, but at the expense of it; in this new artistic paradigm this happens as a consequence of reduction and remission. That is, a certain triviality enters the terms of artistic work — and success.
PG: Does contemporary Russian poetry have a canon? If so, how has this canon changed over time? To what degree can we even speak of a contemporary canon, or even contemporary poetic schools?
MA: To some extent I’ve already answered this question, when I talked about the young writers who “grew up out of different soil.” The word “poetry” has never had a very concrete meaning, but today the word is so blurry, that it means virtually nothing. There were always many different kinds of poetry; every author goes his own direction, and these directions are multiplying rapidly. Orientation in the field stripped of “vertical power” became difficult even for the specialists.
What is this? An extensive mastering of the desert? There are many different versions, and it’s not clear to me which one is the least speculative. But it is clear that to talk of a single canon in this environment is impossible; we might be able to speculate as to the number of different canons, but only with a mass of qualifications.
It is even harder to talk about schools. A school implies the existence of a particular convention relative to general poetic language, and poetry as a whole. Or more simply put, it is the belief that poetry exists according to a set of ostensible terms; that poetry can be studied from without, and even before the work of poetry begins. It is the search, analogous to the philosopher’s stone, for a poetic principle that must produce the Culture of writing, and most importantly, its regularity.
I think that my previous answers show how impossible I believe for such a thing to exist.
PG: You once said that the generation of young poets see themselves differently from how they are seen. What did you mean by this? How are these two views different?
MA: Every generation has its own particular zone of wishful thinking. It is here that the generation’s unique artistic problems effervesce, problems it feels are its destination. Here, and only here, the production of these problems is seen in light of its solution. This is why young authors are different: they view themselves as seeing both the present and the future.
In the beginning, innovation comes as a promissory note, and exists as a promise for sometime, and only later is this promissory note paid off, or not paid off. Most of the authors who enter into this contract are interesting to their peers, even if their work never transgresses that of the promissory note, because they share similar intentions. But if the young author’s work does not follow through with the promissory note, he is interesting only to his peers, and for the rest is invisible, indistinguishable.
PG: You have written a great deal about the Soviet conceptualist poets, and how Soviet atmosphere influenced their work. This school had its own set of thematic problems. What or who exerts the greatest influence on contemporary Russian poets? Are there any “problems” before contemporary poetry? Are answers needed?
MA: It is worth talking about not thematic problems, but internal themes. Conceptualism is not only an art form, but in its own right an operative philosophy, to which Wittgenstein’s saying from the Blue Book is applicable: “Philosophy, as we use the word, is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert upon us.”
Language is not the world, but the imagining of the world. The object and its imagining are melted in our consciousness, and this is what we can (and must) work with. Conceptualism attempted to separate, slice across, the language-imagining of the Soviet Union and limit its plenary power.
It showed us that our language wasn’t monolithic, that there was a plethora of linguistic possibilities. It was possible to simply decide that you were no longer living in this semantic system, but in another. This experiment was conducted on the Soviet language and its specificities, a language that was already dried up, ready to peel back like snake skin. In essence it was already a mere skin.
Conceptualism was a phenomenon: it occurred and showed us something we didn’t understand before. As if we hadn’t seen it. In this consisted the unique quality of the conceptualist “revolution”: the discovery of another constituent of one’s own personal, conventional-linguistic, nature. However, conceptualism looked for new linguistic strategies, not a new occasion for speech that would stand behind the language and proceed it.
It is very hard to talk about conceptualism as a “proper” poetic movement, because poets are hostile to any “preconceived” language, but the conceptualists took the position of observers, and their relationship to language wasn’t normative, but neutral. Possibly this is why Russian poetry, in its subsequent evolution, recognizes conceptualism, but doesn’t make it its own. And anyway, it seems to me that the process of being influenced and overcoming influence is often unconscious.
But this theme can be taken another direction. Conceptualism was a radical phenomenon, and like all radicalism it had an aspect of desperation. We could say that new Russian poetry — long before conceptualism — was born out of desperation. “True ideas come from a man drowning,” said Ortega y Gasset. In the beginning of new Russian poetry these “ideas” where laid down, unwilled, instinctive vocal movements; the reflexes of a man in a chamber deprived of oxygen. And if there hadn’t been a desperate doubt about the existence of poetry, there would have been no new poetry.
Superficially this seems a pessimistic position. But it is not so. Desperation is not the sum all, but an instrument, or more precisely, a heuristic condition, which may be more productive for the contemporary author. New poetry exists after desperation.
Today’s situation is much less defined. We are living in a new — entirely new — epoch, and this always begins with a period of ambiguity and incommensurability. It’s like the depiction of spring in War and Peace: some undecipherable shifts and movements are taking place in the morning darkness. This period of ambiguity is still in its process, so anyone can think that no new epoch has begun. But it has begun, and a long time ago.
The author at present is tempted to appropriate the lens of a detective, pointed to all the fields of culture. But an artist is not a detective, his particular optical skill is the ability to see in the dark: to differentiate the borders where one epoch shifts into another. A German romantic once said that on these borders stands a menacing angel with a fiery sword. Our main problem now is not even to cross this border, but simply to spot it.
PG: Should a contemporary reader read differently? How should the reader approach contemporary poetry?
MA: I don’t think there is the possibility of some new “different” way of reading poems. Poems are one of the possible ways to communicate with the world, for some this is one of the most forward and productive ways. The world changes. But we are not always ready, not only to understand these changes, but even to recognize them, because we see what we think. Our sight is really mind-sight. The seen still has to be carried to the mind.
But our “fragile consciousness” (a synonym for the soul) immediately responds to any change with new, yet unfathomable fear or joy — new trembling. It trembles differently, not like before. Poems can catch this trembling, be sick with it, and themselves become it; they don’t explain the unexplainable, but reveal it via a different rhythm, different linguistic habits. It is not a lexical change, but one of rhythm and plasticity, of frequency.
We don’t live in today’s day; we “break” into it. Poems are, if not the only, then one of the most practiced and real manifestations of this break. Poetry is an open system, and demands of the reader to carry on the work of the poem.
PG: What does poetry mean for you? Are there any criteria by which you define “good” poetry?
MA: Poetry is a bridge between nature and culture; it equally belongs and doesn’t belong to both. Poems are messages of a unique kind, which are simultaneously realized in language and in some condition before language. These are bits of existence not yet embodied in cultural forms, not yet entirely separated from corporeality. For instance, kinship and movement in poetry have many similar characteristics: rhythm, speed, placing of the pause. The existence of a poem in space and time has a material, physical, quality. During the composition of a poem this movement begins from within, literally in the body and blood.
In some cases, it is worth listening to the first, non-metaphorical meaning of words. We refer to the effect of a poem as “being moved”, we unconsciously comment on its literally physical action. Poems are more dance than plot — a language of strong pulses and gestures of intonation. A complicated mimetic action in which the entire human body — every nerve ending and secret root — participates. To some degree, we “live” the event of composition, so that the body of the poem is synchronized with our body: heartbeat, circulation, the tightening of muscles...
To define a poem as “good” does not seem adequate or definitive. When my poems are called “good”, I become a little tense. For me, poems are not divided into “good” and “bad” but into alive and dead. To understand how these two are different is both incredibly difficult — all the external characteristics are the same — and rather easy: living poems breathe, dead ones do not.
Live poems are the movement of intelligent air, which has taken on a particular form. We can feel its direction, strength, and even taste. Poems that do not give us any of these sensations shouldn’t be called poems — they are something else.
It is always clear what came first: whether the poem was heard first and then written down or vice-versa. There are many methods that can make your things “good” and interesting, but all of these methods are written. But real proficiency is marked from the first words by sound, deep and triumphant, like a strike against a ship’s bell, and it’s as if the whole thing fits inside that sound. This sound is the ethereal body of the poem, or if you like: its music. Although this sound is poorly given to instrumentation. Here the blood sings, the skull resonates.
PG: Who are you favorite poets today?
MA: If there is one thing that’s clear it’s that Russian poetry is not hurting for good writers, and what goes on inside Russian poetry is far more than meets the eye. I could easily name more than thirty interesting, and in my opinion wonderful, authors. These are the poets whose work I will definitely read, if I come across it. But for a list of favorite authors this is much too much: such expansive souls don’t exist, and I am no exception.
So I’ll name those whose work, as it was twenty, thirty years ago, is interesting and important to me: Lev Rubenstein, Evgeny Saburov, Lev Losev, Sergey Gandlevsky, Alexei Tsvetkov, Nikolay Baytov...For me these authors haven’t vanished from the zone of relevancy... but this zone is growing with younger authors. Today there are the forty year old authors such as: Gregory Dashevsky, July Gigolev, Elena Fanaylova, and Oleg Yuriev, and thirty year old authors such as: Evgenya Lavut, Maria Stepanova, and Mikhail Gronas.
PG: What do you hope for? What would you like to see changed?
MA: If things can’t be changed cardinally in the making of the world, then it’s probably best to leave everything as is.
Mikhail Aizenberg is a poet, critic, and architect born in 1948. He graduated from the Moscow Architecture Institute. His works were not officially published in the Soviet Union, but in post-Soviet Russia he has published five books of poetry, two books of essays, and a memoir. He is the recipient of the Andrey Bely Prize (2003) and the Znamya poetry prize. Say Thank You, a selection of his poems in translation, was published in 2007 by Zephyr Press.