Thursday, December 29, 2011

Not Just Pretty Words

Image courtesy of Gvideon

I have known for a while about Konstantin Gadaev’s film that shows Sergey Gandlevsky and Timur Kibirov discussing poetry as they drink tea on a Russian train, but only today did I finally get around to watching it. Midway through the half-hour film, Kibirov offers this definition of literature (and by implication, of poetry in particular), which I find compelling:

“В армии я понял, что - может, потому, что впервые на самом деле столкнулся по-настоящему с реальностью ... Я вдруг понял, что вот тот любимый мной ... ‘дискурс’, [то есть,] язык серебряного века, что он не может эту реальность описать. Я впервые понял, что такое ‘литература’, что это - не просто красивые слова, а нечто встреча реальности с индивидуальным языком.” - Тимур Кибиров
“In the army I understood – maybe because that was the first time I had really run into reality … I suddenly understood that … the very ‘discourse’ that I loved, [that is to say,] the language of the Silver Age – that it could not describe that reality. For the first time I understood what ‘literature’ was, that it wasn’t just pretty words, but some kind of meeting of reality with an individual’s language.” – Timur Kibirov

The film features Kibirov reading several of his poems, while Gandlevsky acts as interviewer, asking questions on art and politics that prompt Kibirov to reflect on decades of his poetic experience.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Nativity Poem by Joseph Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky as a boy in winter (undated) / Image courtesy of Yale's Beinecke Library

NOTE: My English translation follows the Russian text of this poem, which is one of the first "Nativity poems" that Brodsky wrote. (I posted another one last Christmas.) This poem does not appear in the collection that Farrar, Straus and Giroux put out in 2001 under the editorship of Pyotr Vail.

 *     *     *

Рождество 1963

Волхвы пришли. Младенец крепко спал.
Звезда светила ярко с небосвода.
Холодный ветер снег в сугроб сгребал.
Шуршал песок. Костер трещал у входа.
Дым шел свечой. Огонь вился крючком.
И тени становились то короче,
то вдруг длинней. Никто не знал кругом,
что жизни счет начнется с этой ночи.
Волхвы пришли. Младенец крепко спал.
Крутые своды ясли окружали.
Кружился снег. Клубился белый пар.
Лежал младенец, и дары лежали.

январь 1964

*     *     *
Christmas 1963

The magi had come. The infant soundly slept.
The star shone brightly from the vaulted sky.
A cold wind swept the snow up into drifts.
The sand rustled. A bonfire crackled nearby.
Smoke plumed skyward. Flames hooked and writhed.
The shadows cast by the fire grew now shorter,
now suddenly longer. No one there yet realized
that on that very night life’s count had started.
The magi had come. The infant soundly slept.
Steep arches loomed above the manger.
Snow swirled about. White steam rose in wisps.
With gifts piled near him, the child slept like an angel.

January 1964

Translated from the Russian by Jamie Olson

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Russian (Women) Poets

Detail from cover of An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets
Image courtesy of Carcanet Press

Recently, I’ve been enjoying reading a collection of Russian poetry whose very existence many of its contributors seem to object to: Daniel Weissbort and Valentina Polukhina’s Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets. Actually, the anthology began its life as an issue of Modern Poetry in Translation (no. 20, 2002) and only later came out as a stand-alone book; the version I have is the journal issue. Reading between the lines as I moved through it, I got the distinct sense that the poets and critics involved on the Russian side were mystified by the Western editors’ desire to segregate the women from the men. (Polukhina, though Russian, lives and works in England. She is married to Weissbort.)

In one of the issue’s several prefatory pieces, Tatyana Voltskaya reminds readers that medieval theologians would often debate whether women even had souls, and she takes the demand for anthologies of women’s writing as evidence that the issue of sexism has not yet been settled, even if the writers themselves find it irrelevant: “I cannot escape the feeling that the shadow of that accursed question, formulated by pedantic theologians, still hangs over us, like the smile of the Cheshire Cat.” The anthologists’ urge to respond (“They do have souls!”) is especially perplexing when you realize, she says, that “if one ignores the very summit (Brodsky, in particular), women-poets in Russia, in recent decades, have been better writers.” There may be no injustice, she implies, that needs to be remedied. Likewise, Aleksei Alekhin, another preface writer, finds the need for such an anthology baffling: “It has always seemed to me that divisions according to gender should apply only to changing-rooms and public toilets—because of natural bashfulness. In poetry, there is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Friday, November 25, 2011

Wave on Wave

Installation of George Washington statue (1909) / Image courtesy of UW University Libraries

Within the past few weeks, I visited two superbly organized translation gatherings: Wave Books’ “3 Days of Poetry” in Seattle, and the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in Kansas City. In both places, I met a lot of talented people and heard a lot of great ideas, and I want to be sure I get everything down before I lose my notes or forget key details. I’ll start with the Wave festival in this post, and then I’ll move on to ALTA in the next one.

Wave’s weekend-long festival was held at the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery, located just off Red Square (seriously!) and right next to the hulking statue of General Washington himself. The venue certainly gave the festival a welcome aura of artistic inspiration, but I did have a hard time hearing some of the speakers inside the high-ceilinged galleries. Nevertheless, one of the highlights of the weekend took place in those echo chambers: Matthew Zapruder’s conversation with Sarah Valentine about Russian poet Gennady Aygi.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Keeping It Civil

From the Times:

The “Citizen Poet” project — conceived by three friends after a night of heavy drinking — is pushing the edges of Internet programming in Russia, delivering political satire to an audience that numbers in the millions rather than the thousands. It has also tapped into the sour response of many Russians to Mr. Putin’s plan to return to the presidency, a mood made darker by the absence of any viable course of action.  
Unless poetry counts as a course of action. 

For videos, etc., see the project's website and YouTube page.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mamin-Sibiryak's "Fly"

Cover of Fall 2011 issue of Chtenia / Image courtesy of the magazine

In yesterday's mail, I got my copy of the fall issue of Chtenia, which includes my translation of one of Dmitry Mamin-Sibiryak's "Alyona stories" (Аленушкины сказки, 1896). These were stories that the author originally told to his little girl, who lost her mother when she was still an infant. The one that I translated is called "Tale of How There Once Was a Fly Who Outlived the Others" ("Сказка о том, как жила-была последняя муха"). For a taste of the story's mood (grim), you might have a look at animated-film director Alyona Oyatyeva's adaptation on YouTube.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Melamed: The More Libre, the Less Vers

Cover of Russian edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads (trans. Igor Melamed) / Image courtesy of РГГУ

One of the key concerns of The Flaxen Wave, which is also a key concern for anyone translating poems from Russian to English for an American audience, is bridging the gap between Russian poetry, where strict rhyme and meter are the norm, and American poetry, where free verse dominates. This problem often occupies my mind, but I rarely know how to take it on directly. American translators of Russian verse have batted around the question of form for decades, and even though I don’t intend to enter into that debate at the moment, I do sometimes find it helpful to consider Russian perspectives on the matter.

Not long ago, I read an interview in Ex Libris with Russian poet and translator Igor Melamed, whose thoughts on form seem to me more or less representative of the status quo in Russia. (Incidentally, this year Melamed published a Russian translation of Wordsworth and Coleridges Lyrical Ballads.) When asked why he doesn’t use free verse in his own poetry, Melamed spoke of the “reckless creative freedom that dominates Western poetry and has practically killed it.” Like Frost, he would never consider playing tennis with the net down:
It turns out that the more libre you have, the less vers you end up with. Meter and rhyme are a welcome burden that keeps verse from falling apart and that, strange though it may seem, makes an impact on poetic thought as a whole. … Russian poetry has a viable enough rhythmic potential that we don’t need to hitch up our pants and go running after Eliot or Éluard.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dream or Nightmare?

Moscow metro logo / Image courtesy of Wikipedia
[From yesterday’s edition of the newspaper Rossiyskaya gazeta]

Until the end of October, the loudspeakers of the Moscow metro will broadcast poems about autumn.
The underground chambers will resound with the lines of Turgenev, Tyutchev, Lisyansky, Dementyev, and others. The poems will be performed not by actors, but by subway announcers.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Translation Comes to Seattle

Next month, Wave Books will hold its second annual “3 Days of Poetry” festival at the Henry Art Gallery on the campus of the University of Washington. The first one actually took place in April 2010, during National Poetry Month, so their year seems to have stretched out to about nineteen months. Will the third annual festival be in June 2013?

Since the festival is just up the road from Olympia, I might have gone anyway, but this year’s theme, “Poetry in Translation,” virtually assures that I’ll be there. And the list of participants is impressive. It includes presentations and readings by the likes of Matthew Zapruder, Sarah Valentine, Alissa Valles, and Michael Wiegers, the executive editor of Copper Canyon Press—an institution, like Wave Books itself, that seems to loom genially behind the scenes of the festival.

Perhaps most exciting, the program wraps up on the evening of Sunday, November 6, with “Translators on Translation,” a panel organized in collaboration with Seattle Arts & Lectures. Zapruder will moderate the panel, and the three participants will be Bill Porter (who translates under the pseudonym “Red Pine”), Nikolai Popov, and Peter Cole. Popov, who now teaches at the University of Washington, translated Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man into Bulgarian back in 1981, and Cole, among other things, has translated the selected poems of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, who passed away earlier this week.

This promises to be an excellent weekend to spend in Seattle!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Continued Canonization

Cover of Osip Mandelstam: 50 Poems (Persea Books, 1977), 
translated by Bernard Meares with an introductory essay by Joseph Brodsky

This year saw the release of new editions of work by the two poets who are, by my reckoning, the two major voices of twentieth-century Russian poetry: Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky. To at least one of these judgments, Brodsky himself would have agreed: he thought that Mandelstam’s poetry would “last as long as the Russian language exists,” as well as that Mandelstam’s stature as an artist could be measured by “the quantity and energy of the evil directed against him.” I can’t think of many artists who could beat Mandelstam in that contest.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Akhmatova & Brodsky via Venclova

Tomas Venclova (photo by Algimantas Aleksandravicius, 1998) / Image courtesy of

In a recent interview on Radio Svoboda, billed as a "conversation not so much about poetry as about politics," Lithuanian poet and Yale professor Tomas Venclova nevertheless made several literary connections that are worth stopping on. Venclova was a close friend of Joseph Brodsky, and on several occasions he also sat and talked with Anna Akhmatova. These titans of twentieth-century Russian poetry both came up in Venclova's conversation with interviewer Mikhail Sokolov (as did Pasternak). According to Venclova, here is what the two writers had to say about poetry and politics:

  • “Joseph Brodsky told me that poets should not become involved in the dissident movement. Not because it is bad; being a dissident is good and necessary. And not even because it is dangerous, but because it takes up too much time and keeps you from writing poems.”   (Иосиф Бродский мне говорил, что диссидентством поэту заниматься не надо. Не потому, что это плохо – это хорошо и необходимо быть диссидентом. И даже не потому, что это опасно, а потому что это занимает много времени и мешает писать стихи.)
  • “Akhmatova taught us to have a contemptuous relation to the powers that be. This was clear to anyone who talked to her, and he or she would also learn to have a contemptuous, perhaps even arrogant relation to all of it. But Akhmatova once said — I remember one political comment she made in a conversation we had: ‘The younger generation, like Brodsky who is now coming up (she also mentioned Rein, Bobyshev, Naiman — you know the group — Gorbanevskaya), they understand a lot, but they will never understand what filth and blood all of it grew from, what filth and blood my generation passed through. They will not understand this. Now the times are tamer.’ ”   (Ахматова учила такому презрительному отношению к властям. Это было ясно каждому, кто с ней общался, и человек тоже учился этому презрительному, может быть даже высокомерному отношению ко всему этому. Но было совершенно очевидно, что это нечто чудовищное, к чему примиряться ни в коем случае не надо. Но Ахматова сказала однажды, я помню одно ее такое политическое высказывание в разговоре: "Молодое поколение, вот растет Бродский (она упомянула еще Рейна, Бобышева, Неймана, вот эту группу, Горбаневскую), они многое понимают, но они никогда не поймут, из какой грязи и крови это выросло, какую грязь и кровь прошло мое поколение. Этого они не поймут. Сейчас времена более вегетарианские".)

[translations mine]

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Soft Clay

Alexander Kushner (by Alexei Balakin, 2007) / Image courtesy of Новая литературная карта России

“And the Russian language is arranged in such a wonderful way—it’s like a kind of soft clay that was created especially for poems: we’ve got shifting stresses, we’ve got wonderful suffixes. … It’s a very soft language. Take grammatical cases alone, or free word order within sentences: in our language, the subject can come at the very end, which doesn’t exist anywhere else. And it’s a shame that we’re moving over to vers libre, to free verse, and giving up on rhyme. I hope it doesn’t actually happen.”
– Alexander Kushner, interview on Radio Liberty (April 2010; translation mine)

«И язык русский устроен замечательным образом, он - как такая мягкая глина - специально создан для стихов: у нас ударения переходящие, у нас суффиксы замечательные. Одно дело - “нога”, другое - “ножка”, “пыль” и “пыльца”. Очень мягкий язык, падежи одни чего стоят, свободный порядок слов в предложении - у нас подлежащее может быть в самом конце, такого нет нигде. И жалко, если мы перейдем на верлибр, на свободный стих, откажемся от рифмы. Я надеюсь, что этого все-таки не произойдет.»
Александр Кушнер, интервью на Радио Свободе (апрель 2010)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

More from Gandelsman

Since winning the Moscow Count prize last month, Vladimir Gandelsman has been showing up everywhere. posted videos of him reading a poem of his own and a poem by Lev Danovsky, and several new poems were just published in Новый журнал (The New Review) and Октябрь (October). In the first selection, I particularly liked the poem "Элегия" ("Elegy"), which seems to contemplate the absence of none other than the poet himself: "To sink my teeth so deeply into the world that it ... cannot let me go. / What a floor this is! / Hardwood, pine, ice, sea, sky, / or what have you  without me you're empty and feeble!" ("Так впиться в мир, чтоб он ... меня не отпустил,  / каков настил!  / дощатый, хвойный, ледяной, морской, небесный, / любой  ты без меня пустой и пресный!")

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Counting on Gandelsman

Vladimir Gandelsman / Image courtesy of Стороны света

This week, poet and translator Vladimir Gandelsman won the Moscow Count award, an annual prize of fifty thousand rubles (about $1800) given for the best book of poetry published that year by a Moscow press. The book in question is Ode to a Dandelion (Ода одуванчика), which was put out by Russkii Gulliver and includes poems that the poet wrote between 1975 and 2007. Gandelsman cut his teeth among the Leningrad poets in the 1970s, who were under the sway of Joseph Brodsky, and since he immigrated to the U.S. in 1990, he has divided his time between New York and St. Petersburg. Besides writing his own poetry, Gandelsman has translated many English and American poets into Russian (though none of those translations appear in the new book), including Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Anthony Hecht, and even Dr. Seuss (Кот в шляпе). Radio Svoboda listeners may also know him from his frequent contributions – often about contemporary poetry, especially Brodsky – to Alexander Genis’s American hour on the program “Over the Barriers” (“Поверх барьеров”).

English translations of Gandelsman’s poetry have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, Metamorphoses, and John High’s Crossing Centuries, but none of those texts are available online. Therefore, to give you a taste of Gandelsman, I’ve translated (very hastily) the final two stanzas of “Ode to a Dandelion,” the title poem of his prize-winning book:

If you move at all, fluff will fly from
the dandelion, that unlucky flower.
I remember my mother’s whisper:
“Giving birth…” (about my aunt) “…she died.”
And then she’d do some sewing.
Or, let’s say, she’d sweep the floor.
An act of dispersion.
There, she’s done it.

Like a lamp, flickering as it hangs,
I’ll carry it off into a vacant lot,
and just then the light of
the dandelion will meekly fade.
Gone, beyond our ken.
Blow! It will tremble just a bit,
you’ll hear a distant clatter,
and out it will go.

(Шевельнись - и слетит с одуванчика / пух, с цветка-неудачника. / Помню шепот / мамы: "...роды..." - (о тетушке) - "...умерла". / Села штопать. / Или, скажем, пол подмела. / Распыления опыт. / Вот он, добыт. // Точно лампу, моргнувшую на весу, / на пустырь его вынесу, / и вот-вот свет / Одуванчика сгинет безропотно. / Там, где нас нет. / Дуй! - он дернется крохотно, - / в мире что-нибудь лязгнет, - / и погаснет.)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Laureate for the Little Ones

J. Patrick Lewis / Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

As I learned from a podcast yesterday, the Poetry Foundation has named J. Patrick Lewis the new Children's Poet Laureate, a role he will fill for the next two years. (He was preceded by Jack Prelutsky and Mary Ann Hoberman, whose speculative stuff I love reading to my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.) The poetry excerpted in the podcast had immediate appeal for me  as it apparently does for kids as well, once it makes its way past those whom Sylvia Vardell calls the "adult gatekeepers in between"  but what really caught my attention was Vardell's description of Lewis as a former "professor of economics in Ohio and a scholar of Russian history as well." It turns out that several of Lewis's books for children have been inspired by Russian folklore, including At the Wish of a Fish, an adaptation of the classic tale По щучьему велению (As the Pike Wishes). In his scholarly days back in the 1970s, Lewis also helped to compile a volume called The USSR Today : Current Readings from the Soviet Press. This is clearly a man of great talent and wide interests!

One of Lewis's best known poems seems to be this one, "One Cow, Two Moos" (you can also watch him read it here), though he admits in the podcast that sometimes younger children find it bewildering:

     We used to have a single cow,
     We called her Mrs. Rupple.
     But she got struck by a lightning bolt,
     And now we have a couple.

     She's walking sort of funny now,
     Oh pity her poor calf.
     Old Mrs. Rupple gives no milk,
     She gives us half-and-half.

As a reader of poetry, Lewis says, "I am always looking for that ‘ah ha!’ moment, and I like to bring that to children as well." I think that the 'ah ha!' moment must come in this poem with the rhyme-word "couple," which seems to me a fine example of Lewis's technical proficiency and sense of timing. Pushkin would be satisfied. In fact, if someone wants to make a connection between Lewis's Russophilia and his calling to write children's poetry, as Curtis Fox and Sylvia Vardell tried half-heartedly to do in the podcast, this just may be it: while the vast majority of Russian poems are formal, what audience is there in mad-for-free-verse America for that sort of thing? Children may be the only ones left.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Translation Back in "Poetry"

Cover of Poetry (June 2011) / Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

Today is one of those days when I’m happy to be proven wrong: I wrote last month about the apparent demise of Poetry’s annual translation issue, but when I picked up my mail today, I found a fresh copy of the magazine with the welcome words “The Translation Issue” emblazoned on its cover.

The issue contains some familiar names and some not-so-familiar ones—both among the poets and the translators—and Flaxen readers will likely want to start with Philip Metres and Dimitri Purstsev’s translations of poems by Arseny Tarkovsky (the director’s father) and Stephanie Sandler’s translations of Elena Shvarts—the ones I’ve been waiting for. (On the Poetry website, both poems are conflated as one, and "Shvarts" is spelled "Shvartz." The second poem begins with the phrase "I was thinking.") The issue also includes translations by H.L. Hix and Jüri Talvet of Estonian poet Juhan Liiv. And to give a local plug, Olympia poet Lucia Perillo is represented here with a translation of a Rilke poem (“Song of the Dwarf”).

The editors of the magazine have moved their translation issue from April to June, but that too seems like an improvement. What better month than June to lie around reading poems in translation? For an academic like me, it’s the freest, rosiest month of the year. I look forward to spending more time not only with the poems, but with the translators’ notes, which always harbor gems of practical wisdom. Let’s hope the editors give us the same opportunity in 2012.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Where Poems Come Alive

Тимур Кибиров
One of the best features of, an altogether fantastic site, is "Стихи вживую" ("Live Poems"), where well-known authors read a poem of their own and a poem by someone else on camera. You could watch and listen to these clips for hours, but one place you might begin is the page with the two videos of Timur Kibirov, whose poems I've been translating lately. (That's where I like to begin, anyhow.) Enjoy!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

MPT: Poetry and the State

The new issue of Modern Poetry in Translation is out, and the theme this time around is "Poetry and the State." In their introduction to the issue, editors David and Helen Constantine argue that the "relationship between poetry and the State must always be – because of the autonomy of the former and the unfreedom of the latter – at the very least uneasy." They say that poetry claims as its right "the freedom to be plural, various, to entertain and essay all possibilities of being human." As an editorial criterion, this turns out to be a smart one, since it allows poets of various political stripes to be represented.

Of particular interest for Flaxen Wave readers are poems by Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had vastly different relationships with Soviet power. The Mandelstam poems, including the infamous "Stalin epigram" and excerpts from the Voronezh notebooks, were done by three different translators: Andrew Mayne, Peter France, and Alexander Cigale. As for Mayakovsky, the poem published in the issue is the canonical "Verses about a Soviet Passport," translated by Steven Capus. The issue also includes Sasha Dugdale's interview with Larisa Miller and a batch of Ukrainian poets in translations by Steve Komarnyckyj from the aptly named "Executed Renaissance" (as the editors put it, "poets so important, they shot them").

Not much of the issue is available for reading online, but you can have a look at Komarnyckyj's translation of Mykhailo Draj-Khmara's "Swans" (Лебеді), a poem that at first blush seems apolitical but which supposedly led to the poet's arrest and subsequent death. Swans as symbols may seem harmless, but I suppose these were the risky lines: "They destroy cynicism and despair / With their unconquered song." It didn't take much, back then and back there, to get one into deep trouble.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Ism vs. Ism

Drawing by Nikolai Gumilyov / Image courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

Today marks 125 years since the birth of Nikolai Gumilev (or Gumilyov), one of the founders of Acmeism—a poetry movement that seems to find its parallel among the Anglo-American modernists in Imagism. The Acmeists defined themselves against another group of Russian poets, the Symbolists, about whom Osip Mandelstam wrote the following in his 1912 essay “The Morning of Acmeism” (Утро акмеизма):

The symbolists did not make for good house occupants. They loved to travel, but they felt unwell, not at home in their own bodies. … One can build only in the name of “three dimensions,” since any structure depends upon them. This is why an architect must be a good house occupant, but the Symbolists were poor craftsmen. To build means to do battle with emptiness, to hypnotize space.

The Acmeists saw themselves as doing practical, material work with language and even called their group a “workshop” (“цех”).  In his 1913 essay “The Legacy of Symbolism and Acmeism” (“Наследие символизма и акмеизм”), Gumilev explained that the poets in his movement sought “a greater balance of power and a more precise knowledge of the relationship between subject and object than had existed in Symbolism.” As I say, when reading statements like these, I can’t help but think of the Imagists, who advocated “direct treatment of the ‘thing’” and the use of “absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation” (Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect,” 1918). Appropriately, what the Acmeists found objectionable in Symbolism—that is, abstraction—is the same problem that Ezra Pound is said to have helped another poet grounded in symbolism, W. B. Yeats, to remedy.

The Acmeists included two figures well known to American readers—Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who was married to Gumilev—and two others who I think may be somewhat less familiar—Mikhail Kuzmin and Georgy Ivanov. As for Gumilev, he famously met his end in 1921 at the age of thirty-five when he ran afoul of the Bolsheviks, placing him on that seemingly endless list of Russian poets about whom we wonder, “What else might they have done if they’d lived just a bit longer?”

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Translation in "Poetry"

Detail of cover for "Poetry," April 2006 (Nathan Theis, "Voice") / Image courtesy of the Poetry Foundation

For a few years, there was no periodical publication I awaited more eagerly than Poetry’s annual translation issue. It came out each April, and it contained work by major poets in translations done by some of the best literary translators working today. From 2006 to 2009, I would open the April issue and encounter poems from familiar voices and new ones alike: Marina Tsvetaeva in a translation by Sasha Dugdale, Saadi Youssef by Khaled Mattawa, Rainer Maria Rilke by David Ferry, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill by Paul Muldoon, and Osip Mandelstam by John High and Matvei Yankelevich, just to name a few of my favorites.

Alas, those days are no more. I’m not foolish enough to hazard a guess at what went through the minds of the editors and publisher of Poetry, but for whatever reason, they chose to stop putting out the April translation issue. Still, the magazine has been including more and more translations in their regular issues. Last month’s pages contained translations of work by three writers, including a spellbinding set of poems by the fifteenth-century Indian poet Kabir (translated by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra), and the April issue features John Ashbery’s translations of prose poems by Arthur Rimbaud. In Poetry’s podcast for the current issue, the editors asked Ashbery why he had decided to translate the nineteenth-century Frenchman, and he replied, “I was just translating it originally for the pleasure of doing it, as I sometimes do with French poetry, and perhaps as a kind of exercise to see if it might have some kind of impact on my own poetry.”

Friday, March 4, 2011

Aflatuni on Post-Soviet Identity

Sukhbat Aflatuni (May 2009) / Image courtesy of A. Stepanenko and Interpoezia

In doing some reading lately on Sukhbat Aflatuni (a.k.a. Yevgeny Abdullaev), the influential Russian-language poet from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, I came across an interview with him that I thought worth translating and excerpting here. Aflatuni is one of the writers, along with Andrey Volos, Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, and David Bezmozgis, who Julie A. Buckler claims have prompted scholars to broaden their conceptions of Russian culture. In the interview, he makes several intriguing comments on how he views his own cultural identity and his position as a poet.

Here’s how the interviewer, Sandzhar Yanyshev, initiated the conversation:

Sukhbat, after what happened in the former Russian [sic] colonies, when the country itself emigrated from under one’s feet and people found themselves emigrants in their own homes without taking a single step, many native speakers of Russian preferred to “return” to the place where Russian language and culture reside—that is, they left for Russia. You, a Russian poet and Russian philosopher, stayed. Why?

And here is Aflatuni’s reply:

Every poet has his diagnosis… Some leave, others get stuck with their wings in their nests. Notice that I don’t say, “Every poet has his fate.” Fate is something heroic, something theatrical. But how is it that one can exist when we’re talking about a mix of passions, habits, dreams—that is, the very things that hold us to the place where we were born? That’s a diagnosis. It’s some kind of Oedipal complex. We all circle around it—the homeland—irrespective of whether we “left” it or didn’t leave it. You circle it, I circle it. We zigzag differently and our circling bears different fruit, but it’s the same mechanism of unquenched attraction to that place where you breathed your first breath and cried your first cry. […] And as for where language resides… Language, like the speech organ with which it shares a name [the word язык means both “language” and “tongue” in Russian], is always inside the author. If it’s outside, then it’s no longer language, but rather some kind of microphone or loudspeaker. For me, Russia, and especially Moscow with its literary salons and thick journals, is the acoustic environment, the amplifier, that allows me to be heard and not just mumble something into my scarf.

I find it fascinating that Aflatuni sees the question of Russian identity as a disorder that must be diagnosed—and he implies that everyone suffers an “Oedipal complex” about their home, not just writers on the periphery.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Kibirov in Cardinal Points

My translations of five poems by Timur Kibirov now appear on the webpage for Cardinal Points, the English incarnation of Стороны света, edited by Irina Mashinski and Oleg Woolf. They also published a short essay I wrote on Kibirov's poetry for their "Art of Translation" section. All of these texts will appear in the print edition in April (volume 12, number 3).

I wrote a little about Cardinal Points in another post, but here is how the journal describes itself:
The English version of the journal is entirely independent from the Russian one, called Storony Sveta (Cardinal Points in Russian). Whereas the latter has already had large and dedicated readership in Russia and beyond, the new Cardinal Points project is intended to reach out to the vast base of our readers who do not speak Russian, yet, have a strong interest in the Russian literature, particularly the 20th century works. It is often difficult to translate these works, which impedes appreciation of Russian literature by the non-Russians. But the genuine interest still exists and it greatly moves us, the fortunate native speakers.
If you'd like to see the Russian originals of Kibirov's poems, you can find them online either in Znamya or on Stengazeta. Kibirov also collected them in book form.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

From the New World to the Old

Photograph of Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott (undated) / Image courtesy of the Beinecke Library

I was pleased to read in the Guardian last week that one of my favorite poets, Derek Walcott, was awarded the T. S. Eliot Prize for his recent book White Egrets (as if the Nobel Prize weren't enough). The prize is given for the best new poetry collection published in the UK or Ireland, but the candidates themselves can apparently live anywhere. (Walcott comes from the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, and among his competitors was the American poet Brian Turner.) In any case, Anne Stevenson, who chaired the panel of judges, called White Egrets a "moving and technically flawless" work.

As it so happens, Walcott has a Russian connection, which I wrote about in my dissertation: his friendship and collaboration with Joseph Brodsky. The two men first met in the 1970s and remained close until Brodsky's death in 1996. They both contributed essays to a book on Robert Frost, and Walcott translated several of Brodsky's "nativity poems" into English (with a crib, naturally). Rumor has it that he also helped Brodsky with his self-translations of the "Part of Speech" series after Daniel Weissbort was snubbed. And Brodsky appears several times in Walcott's work, including in "Forests of Europe" and The Prodigal.

Below are the opening lines of an unpublished poem, "Dedication," that Walcott wrote for Brodsky in the early 1980s. I happened to find it while rooting around in Walcott's papers at the University of Toronto a few years back. And if I can ever figure out how to get in touch with him, I'll ask the man himself to let me publish it for him. For now, this little chunk will have to do. Enjoy!

More strength and grace to your work
I send you now, Joseph, from
the sunshine poured to the brim
of this hemisphere, to cypresses
wrestling in Tuscany, to the calcified bread
of heaven within whose holes
the anchorites died like weevils.
Joseph, we wake to wrestle devils,
and an aching cavity. Wine is stored
in the ageing cellars of the heart,
manna blossoms in the spring orchard,
and through the grid of terraces
the ancient flame is lowered after winter
and all of Italy throbs in heat.