Feminist and Queer Russophone Poetry

This year, English-speaking readers will be introduced to three books in translation from Russian, each of which is groundbreaking on its own terms; taken together, these books showcase the aesthetic potential of feminism in contemporary Russian-language poetry. The feminist and queer voices in these books are amplified by the group of poet-translators, whose own politics and identities allow them to negotiate the cultural gap between russophone and anglophone contexts, enriching both. Punctured Lines is proud to introduce the three books and our conversation with Ainsley Morse, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Joan Brooks, who as editors and translators served to bring these books to English-language readers. 

Update: This post was originally published on October 14, 2020. Subsequently, Joan Brooks asked us to remove their answers to the questionnaire, and we’ve done so on December 11, 2020.

The Books

Lida Yusupova’s collection, The Scar We Know, edited by Ainsley Morse, with translations by Madeline Kinkel, Hilah Kohen, Ainsley Morse, Bela Shayevich, Sibelan Forrester, Martha Kelly, Brendan Kiernan, Joseph Schlegel and Stephanie Sandler 
(Cicada Press, Winter 2020/21)

F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, an anthology edited by Galina Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky and Ainsley Morse, with original poems by Lolita Agamalova, Oksana Vasyakina, Elena Georgievskaya, Egana Dzhabbarova, Nastya Denisova, Elena Kostyleva, Stanislava Mogileva, Yulia Podlubnova, Galina Rymbu, Daria Serenko, Ekaterina Simonova and Lida Yusupova; translated by Eugene Ostashevsky, Ainsley Morse, Helena Kernan, Kit Eginton, Alex Karsavin, Kevin M. F. Platt, and Valzhyna Mort
(isolarii, October 2020)

Galina Rymbu’s collection, Life in Space, translated by Joan Brooks with an introduction by Eugene Ostashevsky and contributions by other translators
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020)

NB: Dear readers, please pre-order and buy these books and request that your local libraries purchase them for their collections. This directly supports the work of everyone involved in their making.


PL: These are Rymbu’s and Yusupova’s first poetry collections in English, and many authors in the anthology are being published in English for the first time. How did these books come to be? What’s the story–or stories–behind their near simultaneous publication in the US? 

Ainsley Morse: I met Yusupova in 2017, when we invited her as the “poetic guest” to AATSEEL (the annual conference of the Association of American Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages)–when funds allow, we like to invite a poet to have translators workshop some of their poems and to give a reading. The idea of making a book started then but really took shape as, over the ensuing couple of years, I kept encountering other translators who were interested in Lida’s work and wanted to take on various texts. (I am the editor of the book and did some of the translations, but really couldn’t have done this project on my own.) Most of the other books I’ve done have been labors of love–me wanting to bring something strange that I love into English, but not always with a huge resonance–but my sense of Yusupova’s book is that it almost made itself; it sensed its English-language audience ready and waiting.

Eugene Ostashevsky: It’s both a coincidence and not a coincidence. Historically, it’s not a coincidence. It has to do with the emergence of feminist and queer poetry in Russia in this decade, mostly written by the young poetry generation, i.e. by people who did not live in the USSR. Yusupova, who is older and did live in the USSR, was the inspiration for some of this poetry. Rymbu is currently its most visible representative. I first came across a poem of hers by chance, online: it was during Maidan, in February 2014. It was the Lesbia poem, about the coming of fascism to Russia. It was obviously the work of somebody who had a vast poetic erudition but was doing something new with it, and something wildly compelling. So I did a feature on her in Music and Literature with Joan’s translations. Sebastian and India, the publishers of isolarii, read the feature and contacted me. We decided to do an anthology that she would edit and that would represent some of the people from her circle. It just so happened that all three books–the anthology and Rymbu’s and Yusupova’s English-language books–are coming out simultaneously. I think we have COVID to thank for it, because they all got held up by the lockdown in different ways.

PL: There have been a number of writers in the russophone space who wrote to queer and feminist themes in the past, including Yusupova herself, who published her first collection in 1995. In 2017, a collective of poet-activists launched “Ф-Письмо [F-Writing],” an online platform, specifically dedicated to feminist poetry. F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry gathers the work of poets associated with the F-Writing collective who intentionally blur the lines between poetry and activism. They do this both by breaching taboo topics–for instance, the physiology of the female body (as in Galina Rymbu’s recently published poem “My Vagina”)–as well as by breaking with tradition in Russian-language poetry by moving away from rhyme and meter. What do you see as some of the most exciting and innovative aspects of the poems you worked with? 

Ainsley Morse: A noticeable shift away from rhyme and meter has been underway in Russian poetry for at least twenty years now, probably more like thirty (depending on how you understand “noticeable”). But this shift has had a political charge, since it certainly coincided with other, more noticeable rapprochements with the West, and to this day the majority of Russians would certainly tell you that poetry is something that rhymes. Some of the poets in the anthology, particularly the ones with personal experience of life in the USSR–Ekaterina Simonova, or Elena Georgievskaya, for instance–started out writing much more traditional-sounding verse. Lida Yusupova (b. 1963) certainly grew up in a poetic environment dominated by rhyme and meter, but her years of living (and reading) abroad have also surely affected her general sense of poetry. In any case, when she gives specific instructions to translators / editors to “let the lines run on as long as the page will let them”–you know this is someone who has a sense of the constrictions imposed by a neat stanza, such that these unhinged rambling lines are a really meaningful part of her poetics. I’d say, though, that most of the poets represented in the anthology came of age as poets in an (admittedly rarefied) environment that saw free-verse as the new normal; as Eugene describes, their innovations are happening more in the realm of selfhood, subjectivity, identity. 

Eugene Ostashevsky: Feminist and queer work–and left-wing political work in general–is what’s exciting in Russian poetry now, at least as far as movements are concerned. Russian poetry has for many generations generally tended to avoid politics. There were a number of deep reasons for it, from the cultural policy of the state to ideologies about poetry held even by people who were deeply anti-establishment. Of course, the aim of the state was to knock out the political instinct altogether, or rather the critical political instinct, to make people believe that politics is corrupt, so that conformism may rule. (This is still the current strategy because it works.) At the same time, stylistic experimentation sufficed to demonstrate your anti-establishment colors, because stylistically interesting work generally could not be published under the Soviets. In the aughts, during Putin’s first decade, some poetry started to break away from the general aversion to political engagement. And it was also a poetry that started breaking other taboos–including talking about the body, and about sexuality in ways that ultimately turned out to be socially impermissible and politically volatile. This poetry moved towards reflecting upon the self in new ways, towards constructing the self differently, and that self would very obviously no longer be a Soviet self, and not even a post-Soviet self. So it was anthropologically innovative, which made it politically innovative also. 

However, it was the state that took the crucial step of making such poetry necessarily and obviously political. The state politicized sexuality by associating LGBTQ+ issues with the decadent West, pretending that LGBTQ+ posed a danger to Russian society, as if they were some sort of rainbow-colored NATO special forces, largely criminalizing them and positioning itself as the defender of family values. Once that happened–once Putin, as dictators everywhere, consciously threw in his lot with defense of patriarchy–feminist and queer poetry automatically got shoved onto the political frontline, and automatically became–it’s perhaps unsuitable to use military metaphors here but in Russia we/they like military metaphors–the vanguard of resistance to Putin or the putative Putin or the state.  

PL: Most of the poets included in the three books are closely connected to each other by personal and artistic ties. F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry was edited and includes work by Galina Rymbu as well as Lida Yusupova’s poetry. What connections between the three books strike you as the most meaningful?

Ainsley Morse: As someone who teaches / tries to teach Russian poetry to American undergraduates, I love that these books are coming out in hot succession–it’s a rare moment when the slow and painstaking world of translation publishing comes a little closer to the pace of the “real life” of this subset of Russian poetry, where these poets are all constantly releasing work that is in conversation with, responding to, each other. Single-author books always give a broader and deeper sense of a writer than a couple of poems in an anthology, but here we also have this anthology providing a whole additional level of context to both Rymbu’s and Yusupova’s work; I would hope, too, that readers intrigued by some of the anthology authors might feel empowered to suggest further translations of some of them. Another rare treat (pedagogical and otherwise) is the possibility, at least with the anthology and Yusupova’s solo book, to compare the voices of different translators grappling with the same poet’s work. I’m also excited and curious about the way English-language readers will react to all three of them being available at once: it seems like an unusual opportunity for a more in-depth and nuanced cross-cultural poetic dialogue, more or less in real time.

Eugene Ostashevsky: Well, it’s the same corpus. Poems don’t really get written individually. They are always collaborations. When you’re a loner, you collaborate with dead people. But here you have work by contemporaries responding to each other–you have a conversation of the living, who are trying to make sense of themselves and of their surroundings. The F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry anthology has an incredible poem by Oksana Vasyakina, “These People Didn’t Know My Father,” which starts by talking about the importance of Yusupova as a catalyst. For me, I love Galya Rymbu’s slightly earlier, more anthemic poems in White Bread, that Joan translated, and it’s really interesting to see her return to the same area in “My Vagina” but years later, as a different person. But she works in a number of different directions, and another direction picks up, for example, on the poetics of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, a Petersburg poet of an older generation, who died a decade ago, and a lot of whose images are apophatic, nonvisualizable.    

PL: Despite their similarities, these are three very distinct books, published by three separate presses and presumably aimed at different, albeit partially overlapping audiences. What are some of the unique aspects of each of these books? 

Ainsley Morse: As I said earlier, I really have this sense that the Yusupova book “made itself”–I don’t ever remember having a serious conversation about the contents, it just came together in what now feels like a strikingly harmonious and well-balanced structure. All the texts were proposed by the individual translators, with the exception of one poem (“Patchwork Quilt”) that Lida asked us to add (otherwise she did not comment on the contents, except to say how delighted she was). I suspect that the excellent quality of the translations and the overall pleasing shape of the book comes out of this shared creative satisfaction, the fact that everyone was following individual inspiration. Perhaps I should also add that we took our time and agreed on deadlines collectively–no one was rushed.

Eugene Ostashevsky: One aspect that F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry shares with Rymbu’s Life in Space, as well as with Yusupova’s collection, is that all three are bilingual. The bilingualism of the books means they are addressed to several audiences at once–to poetry audiences in the US and UK (not at all the same audience), as well as to English-speakers globally, because we, or at least I, aren’t writing for just American readers now. Being bilingual, the books are also addressed to Russians–to global Russians also, meaning to Russians outside of Russia, to people fluent in Russian, and to people just beginning to learn Russian. I ended the introduction to Life in Space with a request that readers who don’t read Russian at least learn the letters so that they can pick up some of the materiality of the language on the facing page. It’s not because I have a Russian fetish, it’s because I think poems are material things, and especially material in the original. Just reading the translation is not enough for me. But I digressed and said nothing about the differences between the books, only the similarities. Sorry. 

PL: Though Russian is the common language from which these poems originated, most of the poets have lived experiences in a number of cultural and linguistic contexts. Having grown up in Petrozavodsk, Karelia, Lida Yusupova lived in St. Petersburg and Jerusalem, and currently divides her time between Canada and Belize. Galina Rymbu was born in Omsk, Siberia, and Oksana Vasyakina further East, in Ust-Ilimsk, Irkutsk oblast. Lolita Agamalova was born in Chechnya and Egana Dzhabbarova spent her childhood in Georgia and currently lives in Yekaterinburg. What do you think these complex mobilities contribute to their poetics?  

Ainsley Morse: In Yusupova’s case, I would say complex mobility makes her poetics. A lot of the poems in her 2013 book Ritual C-4 (excerpts from which open The Scar We Know) are outright multilingual and/or strongly gesturing toward other cultures, histories, languages, etc. This is a really interesting problem for translation, since part of what makes these poems powerful and strange is the simple fact that they tell these stories in Russian, and Yusupova–as someone who spent several decades living in Russia–is fully aware of how dramatically different these (Belizean, Canadian, American, etc.) scenarios and names sound and mean when they are transplanted into Russian. To some extent she is playing around with exoticism in a way that can seem not entirely politically correct. But both in Ritual and in more recent work, she also uses the distance gained from her own personal displacement to look back to Russia (to her own past and the present day alike) from an estranged position. I think this crucial shift in viewpoint is one of the moves that made Lida’s work so inspiring for some of the younger poets in the anthology.

Eugene Ostashevsky: It makes them modern. Modernity is displacement. But, on the less slogany level, it also shows that Russia is not just Moscow and Petersburg anymore, because Russia, with its history of absolutism, used to be like France–just Paris.

PL: Translators have played a very active role in bringing these books to English-language audiences. Some of the translators are themselves poets and activists, and many were born in the Soviet Union or to USSR-born parents. Considering that poetry translation is the act of co-creation in the new language, what do you think these complex identities of the translators contribute to the shape of these books? 

Ainsley Morse: I have to say that I still don’t know very much about the personal background of the translators who did the bulk of the work on the Yusupova book–Madeline Kinkel and Hilah Kohen. I know that they’re both younger than me (by how much, I don’t know), hard-working, bright, responsive, creative and generous, and driven by a vested interest in the work. 

With the anthology, I do remember feeling that we needed to involve younger translators–many of the poets there were born in the 1990s, and it seemed important to me that the English come from people reasonably coeval with them. But that was an easy task because there are so many fantastic young(er) Ru-En translators out there right now! I suppose that does bring the conversation back around to the question of family background, since for some of the translators growing up with Russian in the family probably means they achieved a greater degree of bilingual fluency at a younger age (without years of study). But we also worked with several marvelous translators who have just learned Russian from scratch.

The question of translators-cum-activists is interesting. In some ways the history of twentieth-century Ru-En translation is one of activism, since the Cold War narrative of oppressed writers drove much Russian literature publishing for a long time. To some extent this anthology will draw attention precisely because of the persistence of the Cold War model: Russia’s government is still/again villainous, and some of these poems call direct attention to this fact. In the internet age, though, translators have an easier time finding writers they find compelling for whatever reason–they don’t just automatically translate prominent dissidents and Nobel Prize winners. Also, although many of the translators whose work is featured in these books identify as queer, the problems that are relevant for queer poets in the US right now are not necessarily the same ones being grappled with in Russia. So it’s probably more important that the translator has a connection with the poems than necessarily with the poet / the poet’s self-identification.  

Eugene Ostashevsky: Since translation is, at bottom, work with language, before you get to gender, ethnic or other identities, the translator needs to know how to write in the target language and how to read in the source language. The translator also needs self-control–you need to check even things you think you understand and you need to make sure you are not smothering the text with your own ideas. Having said that, it is also important–in fact, it’s crucial–for the translator to have an internal connection with the author. This can happen on any level. It can happen on the more existential level of shared, say, gender or sexual preference, although this kind of internal connection strikes me as impossibly broad if unsupported by others.

I personally need a connection through poetics. I really wanted to translate Lolita Agamalova’s Dilige, et quod vis fac, although it’s a lesbian sex poem, and I’m neither young nor a lesbian. But I also know what it’s like to use philosophy, even Neoplatonic philosophy, to talk about sex, I am at home in the kind of metaphysical poetry that she writes. And my job is not to imitate what she, as a character, is doing with another character, but to imitate in English what she, as a poet, is doing with the Russian language. We did aim for a range of “complex identities” of translators in our anthology but I don’t know to what extent that shows up on the page. Like, my “complex identity” is probably differently complex from the “complex identity” of Alex Karsavin, who is a terrific translator I first met working on this book–inventive, thoughtful, precise–but can you read the difference in our word choice? Translation is not the same as original poetry. It’s not about the translator, or rather it’s about the translator very, very obliquely. So identities don’t work in the same way. 

PL: In the anglophone world, we have seen a growing interest on the part of translators and editors to give space to Russian queer and female writers. In 2019, for instance, Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation folio Life Stories, Death Sentences,” was co-edited by Anne O. Fisher and Margarita Meklina. This increased interest came on the wings of the reportage about the socially regressive laws passed in Russia that decriminalize domestic violence and criminalize “gay propaganda” (conveniently loosely defined), and most notoriously the persecution of gay men in Chechnya. On the geopolitical scale, we’re seeing Russian leadership align itself with the socially conservative values maintained in the US by the political far-right, upholding patriarchy and heteronormativity. In the Russian context, many if not most of these authors have engaged in acts of dissent. What do you think of the potential for these books to also act as works of activism in the anglophone context by, for instance, helping to build socially progressive alliances? 

Ainsley Morse: I don’t know how much activism these books are capable of bringing about in the anglophone context. I am very glad they are all bilingual, because I think they are definitely capable of sending small shock-waves out into the Russian-reading community–because many of these texts really are earth-shaking and unprecedented in Russian. But my sense is that many of the poems come across as much less shocking in English, where women in particular have been writing the body and sex, etc. for a while now. I’d make an exception for Yusupova’s cycle “Verdicts,” composed of found poems made using court documents she accessed on various Russian legal websites. Several of these are extremely graphic and brutal, in English just as much as in Russian. But I worry too that the English-language poetry reading public has this special category for “brutal Eastern European art” and there’s a kind of automatic distancing that neatly sections off the visceral violence and pain there as the sort of thing that happens elsewhere. Ironically, I think the more programmatic work, which highlights the legal and social differences between the US and Russia, can be less effective at bridging that gap. That said, I recently taught Vasyakina’s “These People Didn’t Know my Father” to a class of non-Russian-speaking students and several people really responded–not as much to the narrator’s fantasies of an underground feminist-terrorist organization, but to her nuanced portrait of economic disparities and social-medical stigma. The “feminist poets” in the anthology are really addressing so much in their work–their “feminism” is often so far-reaching in its calls for human rights and general decency, it almost seems limiting to use that designation (even as we can see the crucial importance of specific demands for women’s rights).

Eugene Ostashevsky: Especially now, given Russian interference in elections in the US, the EU, and elsewhere, and given international cooperation among extreme-right-wing parties and the Russians, the enemy seems to be the same in many locations all over the world, and the systems seem increasingly similar. But that may be an optical illusion. Let me think about it. Well, Russia is just more patriarchal than the US, because the Russian state depends on the traumatization of men–of all of its male citizens–during army service, as well as by the casual violence of the family, of the street. Being a Russian man–a “common,” “normal” Russian man–has to do with the internalization of violence directed at you, with directing violence at others, with accepting it as the natural economy of manhood. I think in the US, which does not have the draft, but does have gun ownership, there exists systematic abuse of men in order to rule them, but it’s directed at a smaller subset of men and it’s organized differently. Just think of American prisons and of the likelihood that an African-American man will go to prison, as opposed to a representative of another group. But it’s less obvious how it works in the US, because oppression in the US tends to be by the indirect, alienated violence of money, rather than by simple beatings or shootings. I understand about police brutality, but there is also money brutality, and I hope I am not downplaying real physical violence if I say that money brutality is more in charge. Anyway, I don’t live in Russia and I don’t even live in the US now, and I’m not a sociologist, so my pontificating is not to be taken too seriously. What I was trying to get at is the obvious point–well, obvious to you and me but clearly not for everybody–that feminism and queerness are extremely good for “straight” men also, because these ideologies aim at constructing a different body politic, one where the men also would not be brutalized, where the state would not depend on the brutalization of men, and of others by means of men, to survive. As it does in Russia. As it does in part in the US, although the violence of money is so much more complicated and less clear cut, and maybe to some extent compatible with nonpatriarchal thinking. Maybe. I don’t know. 

But I didn’t answer your question. Do I think these books can act as a work of resistance in an anglophone context? No doubt. I never say “no doubt,” but this is really no doubt. Much of the material in all three books translates pragmatically as well as semantically. 

PL: In the process of translating and editing these books, what images, concepts, and/or words have emerged as some of the trickiest to carry over into English?

Ainsley Morse: Encroaching multilingualism! I talked about this some in relation to Yusupova above; her poems have words from English, Spanish, Kriol (in one poem, Inuktitut), as well as a persistent orientation toward a kind of “other” or foreign space (even when they’re written in plain Russian). Likewise some of the anthology poets use foreign words or phrases, and it’s always so hard to get–and then convey–a sense of how that feels and means in Russian (especially since the “other” language is so often English). 

The legal language in Yusupova’s “Verdicts” cycle also offered a technically tricky problem. We, non-lawyers, were not familiar with this kind of language in English, and the Russian legal code is just different. In one case we had to redo a significant chunk because Lida pointed out that there isn’t a manslaughter charge (this had been our approximation of what was, crucially, “causing death by negligence”). Even “Verdicts” should technically be “Rulings,” but we went for the etymological rhyme (the root of the Russian word, Prigovory, is speaking or saying, di(c)t-).

For me, the “Verdicts” cycle also entailed a different kind of difficulty because of the extremely brutal and graphic violence toward women and LGBT+ people depicted in most of the poems. I should acknowledge right away that Madeline Kinkel is the translator of the cycle, for which I’m very grateful–I always knew they would need to be a big part of the book, but was reticent to translate them myself because simply reading them was such a viscerally wrenching experience. Since translating entails getting deep inside of texts and reading them over and over again, translating the “Verdicts” was sure to be hard going (of course, as editor of the book, I ended up working closely with them anyway). I remember Bela Shayevich told me that while she was translating Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time, which abounds in tales of relentless and horrific suffering, she would cry pretty much every day.

Eugene Ostashevsky: Relatively speaking, this is not hard material to translate. Older poetry is much harder, both because of greater linguistic materiality, especially in the case of classical forms, and because of greater conceptual dissimilarity. With contemporary Russian feminist poetry, though, we all live more or less in the same world, or at least we live in a world whose parts are kind of legible from the vantage point of other parts. Maybe the hardest part of the anthology was the title. F-pis’mo really translates as F-Writing, referring to écriture feminine, but to translate it as F-Writing into English would be like living in the 70s all over again, because the idea of poetry as écriture, which appeared in Russia only recently, becomes a key idea in experimental poetry in the US with Language poetry. So I translated F-pis’mo materially, because pis’mo originally means letter, the kind you send, but if you combine it with F, its meaning alters once again, to letter like ABC. So the title became F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry. The F is actually a Russian F, Ф, because it’s a what’s-the-f-you-lookin-at letter, and there’s even an obsolete expression, стоять фертом, to stand like an Ф, which is to have your elbows out and your hands by your waist, but figuratively it means to stand in a what’s-the-f-you-lookin-at pose. It’ll be a tiny book with an Ф on the cover. This kind of translation may be called a double sdvig.

Ainsley Morse translates from Russian and Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian and teaches at Dartmouth College. In addition to F Letter and The Scar We Know, she has worked mostly on Soviet-era poetry, prose and theory, including Vsevolod Nekrasov’s I Live I See and Igor Kholin’s Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems (both with Bela Shayevich, published by Ugly Duckling Presse), Andrei Egunov-Nikolev’s Beyond Tula: A Soviet Pastoral  and Yuri Tynianov’s Permanent Evolution: Selected Essays on Literature, Theory and Film (with Philip Redko, published by Academic Studies Press). 

Image credit:  Una Ostashevsky

Eugene Ostashevsky‘s books of poetry include The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi (NYRB 2017), wonderfully translated into the language of German by Uljana Wolf and Monika Rinck, and into the language of music by Lucia Ronchetti, and The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza (UDP 2008), now available in digital copy here. As translator from Russian, he works primarily with OBERIU, the 1920s-1930s underground circle led by Daniil Kharms and Alexander Vvedensky. He has edited the first English-language collection of their writings, called OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism (Northwestern UP, 2006). His collection of Alexander Vvedensky’s poetry, An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets, 2013), with contributions by Matvei Yankelevich, won the 2014 National Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association. He is “against translation.”

3 thoughts on “Feminist and Queer Russophone Poetry

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