Genius Loci: Russian poetry now by Masha Zavialova

The “Genius Loci” festival of Moscow and St. Petersburg poetry —October 17-19, 1998 (St. Petersburg) October 25-27, 1998 (Moscow).

Last autumn’s economic crisis in Russia: bank accounts are arrested, prices are going up like mad, people are hunting for cheap sunflower-seed oil, sugar, and buckwheat. Buckwheat is the big thing in Russia, in Soviet times it was a prized treasure and you could get it only if you were a communist big boss, a shop assistant or a diabetic (the latter were given four pounds a month). After Gorbachev’s perestroika, buckwheat came out from hiding and people said, “Aha, the Soviets have collapsed.” Other people are standing in long lines at bank doors to get their savings back (some of them do).

We were neither hunting nor standing. The festival was to take place whatever the odds. Not only because my husband Sergei had already received a grant for it from the “Open Society” Institute of the Soros Foundation, but also because he and I just couldn’t afford to have the state interfere with our lives and decided to give it a cold shoulder this autumn.

The venue in St. Petersburg was Pushkin’s last apartment, where he died in 1837 after having been mortally wounded in a duel over his wife. Was it the display of his duel pistol on the premises that made the St. Petersburg part of the festival so wild? The house was packed full - about two hundred people – and practically without any advertising.

Twelve poets came from Moscow (Lev Rubinstein, Dmitri Alexandrovich Prigov – always with the patronimic – Dmitri Vodennikov, Bonifatsii, Tatiana Mikhailovskaia, Dmitri Avaliani, Sergei Gandlevski, Mikhail Aisenberg, Ivan Akhmetiev, Vladimir Aristov, Iulia Skorodumova, and Genrich Sapgir) with their critics and admirers. The same number attended from St. Petersburg (Viktor Krivulin, Sergei Stratanovski, Mikhail Eremin, Sergei Zavialov, Vladimir Kucheriavkin, Arkadii Dragomosh-chenko, Larissa Berezovchuk, Alexander Skidan, Nikolai Kononv, Dmitri Golynko, Alexei Purin, and Boris Constrictor) with their friends and relations. There was also a group of poets of the X generation called “Drill Everywhere,” a group of artists and designers called “The New Dumb” (in the sense of stupid), a well known and popular artist named Timur Novikov (blind with AIDs) and his followers from the “New Academia” group, members of the “Club of Isabella Lovers” (Isabella being a brand of wine), and some people from the establishment, those officially in charge of poetry in Soviet times and still retaining their positions of power.

There were members of the general public too – rare birds at poetry readings nowadays, unlike in Soviet times when stadiums were full of people who came if only to listen to a person who would admit in public that his feelings as a private individual have some worth. The crowdedness of the auditorium was a surprise for everyone and particularly for the Moscow guests, from a city where poetry has taken its marginal place, which seems to be its rightful place in all civilized countries (that’s what most Russians call the West – “civilized countries”) and where readings are attended only by those involved in the production and distribution of poetry. The auditorium was not only crowded, it was very receptive and vividly reactive. Poets’ recitations provoked a whole range of feelings in the public.

The festival attracted a constellation of really brilliant poets. The one to open the readings was Viktor Krivulin, a key figure in underground, or samizdat, poetry. There was also the famous and very inventive Lev Rubinstein who read his poem “This is Me” which he always reads filing through catalogue cards. For a long time he worked as a librarian so the habit remains. In fact he created a new poetic meter: a catalogue card.

There was the brilliant Dmitry Alexandrovich Prigov (don’t forget the patronimic) who sang the first lines of Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin as a Russian Orthodox priest, Buddhist monk, and Muslim muezzin, giving an artistic turn to a well-known fact that Pushkin had been made an ideological icon by the Soviet literary “generals.”

Bonifatsii was superb. His real name is German Lukomnikov and he is a brilliant performance artist, very unpretentious, very authentic, and very charming in his own shy way. He read his short and immensely funny two-line ironic poems. Like this one (it rhymes in Russian): “I am an agent of culture/Why is it that the girls I have are just dumb asses?” Doesn’t sound funny at all? In Russian it is.

The humorous effect in his poems is achived through a combination of ideological Soviet idiom (like an agent of culture, or a doer of culture – there can’t be an equivalent translation) and common, sometimes obscene, language. Like many Moscow poets he researches into the language of the Soviet period and tries to find a position from which to view and rework it. These poets act like psychoanalysts for the language, healing themselves in the process. It seems to me sometimes that, generally speaking, Moscow poets write as if they have been through psychoanalytic treatment, while many St. Petersburg poets don’t. Their poems are full of enigmatic erotic images (unclear maybe only for themselves), and often resemble an intellectual maze that invites the reader to decode the versatile intellectual ability and superb education of the author. Of course there are quite a few exceptions. One of them is Vladimir Kucheriavkin, a postmodern Pushkin whose verse is light and fast. Another is Nikolai Kononov whose exciting reading (making use of some nontraditional language) provoked a fellow poet to come up to the stage and state that the performer in question was a “bloody bastard and good-for-nothing writer.” The poet went down from the stage and they had a fight right there in the auditorium a bit later. Meanwhile in the back row a group of patriotically-minded artists of New Academia had a small demonstration shouting that the festival’s organizer Sergei Zavialov was “licking Soros’ ass” for having asked for money from his foundation. Russia is now divided into two opposing camps: people who say “this country” – they are democrats and westernizers – and those who say “my country” – they are patriots and Russophiles.

Still another very interesting poet from St. Petersburg is Alexander Gornon, a visual poet and zaumist. Gornon’s poems have no titles, neither do they have words in the strict sense of the word. As for sense – they don’t have that either, at least in any obvious way. What they have is syllables and many meanings depending on what syllables you choose to read. His poems have lines where one word flows into another and every line can have two or three simultaneous meanings. The effect is rather unexpected and both funny and dramatic in turn. The overall impression is that of a language that can be packed into itself and then unpacked as a matreshka, the well-known Russian toy consisting of several dolls of various sizes fitting into one another. You get a spontaneous feeling that the language is not quite the stuff we speak. This is very valuable: we can speak tons of words about the multilevel quality of the language and not actually experience it. Here one can experience the language physically, without having to think about it. It can’t be translated into a foreign language, I’m afraid, but it can be imitated just to give an idea of what it is like (the poet calls his technique polyphonosemantics):


Here is “Celebration at the Sea” (a name given by the translator for easier understanding of what’s going on):

cele-bra-in the sea
coals conval-ash-ent
eyes human-eye-zed

tinsmith flowed in
in tr-louse-rs er-mine

who-re-solved-a knot

Oh, it’s just impossible! English is not even my native language. No, I can’t do that, I am sorry.

At the festival he sang his poems. And they seem to want to be sung – they can’t be said, the words in them have no limit. The first part of a word is part of the previous word, its end is the beginning of the next.

Here are some poems by Sergei Zavialov, the festival’s organizer (he managed to get it all together with the Moscow editor and poet Tatiana Mikhailovskaia, one of the very few women participants of the festival). The poems require special explanation.

They’re a kind of made-up papyrus found (not really) in the Volga region, which, being the heart of Russia is ironically enough inhabited by the non-Russian, mostly Finno-Ugric peoples, the natives of these lands. The Mordva are one of them. Sergei is of Mordovian descent and he cherishes (or celebrates, as Americans like to say nowadays) the streak of Mordovian blood running through his veins, it being the oppressed part versus the Russian in him, the oppressor. The majority of Mordva speak Russian – a deplorable situation. There is a long history of Russification – the situation here may be similar to that of Anglicization in Ireland. The second of these poems focuses on this loss of the language by a nation. The grammar is deliberately broken, symbolizing the linguacide. The poem describes the devastation of Mordovian land by the Russians.

Elegiarum Fragmenta
in papyris reservata

Sed quidvis potius homo, quam de caruncula nostra.
(A human being is anything but our miserable flesh.)

3. < Anacharsis’ Elegy>

P. Saroviensis

[Some bird] cried.......... not [clear]
and now everything is coming down [on me]
    the whole world falling down [on me]
and drizzling with slightly hard [touches] on this paper
    is it snow or hail
[and sinking] somewhere between the trees
on what .......... [during short (?)] months of summer
might be grass
    and stays there [without melting]
........... while [the fields] lie
    .......... so sullenly grey
oh yes ........
    .......... so wistfully yellow.

Birch bark letters of Mordva-erzia
and Mordva-moksha


/avardema (lamentation). the year 1552. The sunrise on the Insar-river./

Now – is getting more – I
so much more that entirely

        blue dawn
       January-month sun
somewhat – maybe – black

Putting down
(in turn)
sword – hands
spears – eyes

(the language: it to forget)

The sun is setting
       site of fire
  (and if windy)
stinking dust

(stop: this to forget too)
even the dearest
even the sunniest

He brought his horses to Saransk-town
He made underground passages under the Saranka-river.

• • •

One of the two women poets invited to the festival was Larissa Berezovchuk, whose syllabic poetic meter is, as the foremost authority in Russian poetry Mikhail Gasparov said, very exotic for Russian verse:

Moss 1
Sneering at physics
green-colored mass has flooded the earth
Its substance is tenderer than silk.
God touched the kettle
of warm malachite broth, overthrew it.
The carpet poured out, and
began to prime the dim canvas of the ground
The painter – will paint. The space
will be pulled up by the self-confident architect. The yellow
will smile at the blue: then the architect
will build the cathedral of swampy unison.
Life is elastic under your feet.

A walker won’t notice broken
blades of grass – childish palms.
Their lanterns of moisture are caught by others.

In Moscow, where literary life is rich and well-structured, where half a dozen poetic salons function on a weekly basis, where there are able publishers like Dmitry Kuzmin (a poet himself and one of the organizers of the festival, who encourages experimental and innovative poetry and publishes young authors), the festival didn’t attract great numbers of the public, but the literary bonne monde was there. The atmosphere was strikingly different, no scandals and fistfights but the professional attentiveness of the audience. Only once when two critics started talking did Vsevolod Nekrasov, one of the greatest living Russian poets, kick them out of the hall, and he didn’t actually kick, just told them to leave at once.

The reviews of the festival readings in the St. Petersburg press were unfavourable, except for a few written by friends, while in Moscow it was the other way around. Why? Because the organizers and most participants are not from the poetic establishment of St. Petersburg. They belong to schools that are not popular in the city. St. Petersburg is conservative as far as poetry is concerned. The avant-garde and postmodernism are still looked upon with a good deal of suspicion. But there is not only an antagonism of poetic styles: what’s happening in the Russian literary world is similar to what’s going on in big politics: it is a redivision of power.

Issue Two

Editorial: Archipelagos and MFA's

Babylons: The Conclusion

Russian Poetry Now

Michael Anania

Joe Francis Doerr

Catherine Kasper

John Matthias

Orlando Ricardo Menes

Jeff Roessner

Reviews of: Janet Holmes and Stephanie Strickland

Samizdat Magazine, © 2000-2001 R. Archambeau

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