Irina Mashinski’s The Naked World, recently published by MadHat Press after many years in the making, is an impressive achievement in the hybrid genre. The collection combines pieces of original and translated poetry and prose that together illuminate not only the author’s past but also her way of seeing. Thematically, this book centers four generations of a Soviet family from the Stalin era to the 1990s and immigration to the United States. Writer, translator, and editor Irina Mashinski has penned ten books of poetry in Russian, and this is her English-language debut that also includes her Russian-language poems in translation by Maria Bloshteyn, Boris Dralyuk, Angela Livingstone, Tony Brinkley, Alexander Sumerkin, and Daniel Weissbort. Mashinski is co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry and of the Cardinal Points Journal.
We are grateful to the author and the publisher for permission to reproduce an excerpt from this remarkable book. The two prose pieces and poem below are included in the fourth and final section, “Borders,” preceded by two epigraphs. The first is a musical one, “The Second Piano Concerto—Rachmaninov/Richter.” The second is a quote from Susan Sontag: “My library is a library of longings.” As Ilya Kaminsky says in his preface, “Irina Mashinski looks at time between this Wednesday and next Friday—and sees eternity.”
The End of an Era. November
All classes have been canceled: Brezhnev, the immortal Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had died. The university administration orders us to stand in one long endless line along a wide desolate avenue on the Lenin Hills, by the University’s main Building built in the 1950s by inmates and German POWs.
We shift from one foot to the other and jump up and down in the frigid air that has enveloped Moscow. They often make us stand like this, stupidly, for hours, in an endless line, so that we could greet the leaders of brotherly socialist states. And then it comes: the stopped cars begin to honk as a sign of obligatory mourning—endlessly, desperately, hopefully, victoriously. We don’t know yet what is coming—all we know is that it is something different.
The arbitrary Soviet realm that had arrogantly pretended to be the only one imaginable, a space both eternal and dead, a space frozen for as long as I have known myself, is now shaken awake, and the outline of the university spire pointing in the white sky becomes blurry.
During the four decades that follow, after each political shock—dispersed demonstrations in Lithuania and Tbilisi, and the power battles that spilled onto the streets, and this or that little victorious war—the system, even after it officially expired and reemerged under a new name, will behave like the mercury in those old Soviet thermometers cherished by expatriates—after being shattered and, you’d think, dispersed forever, it would converge into the same familiar dimly glowing spheres.
On the Fall of the Tyrants
This night I got up and came out of the trailer. A strange sound woke me: as if statues were falling again and again.
The forest stood solemn, alert. The light sky was an oak trunk away. Those were leaves, leaves, leaves, falling loudly, —dictators, chiefs of the secret police, field marshals all of them falling at last one by one rumbling colossus,
peeling bronze skin, toppled by crowds after 74 years— little dry mummies . . .
Oh how they used to watch, watch from above! Only birds painted them with their bold blue, white, green strokes of shit
(as at dawn a careless camper drops toothpaste on the perfect grass by the brook), tried to enliven with their warm dung dull flat shine—birds flew at the statues,
colliding with merciless bronze. Leaves were falling, like in August 1991, when we stood mesmerized by a moment no one had dared dream of, falling, toppled, each a dry little earthquake.
“Oh, let them, let them go down,” I thought, “let them roll down that slippery hill, over clay, over breccia, and never return, let them pass all the traps of soil and ores, straight, straight to the core of the naught.
On October 25th, the old calendar anniversary of the October Revolution, we left forever. Plodding on foot downstairs from our 9th floor for the last time, I habitually glanced at our mailbox between the last two landings of the stairwell, as if there could be letters, or news—something that would keep me back here. Our crudely painted blue box still bore traces of a red hairy swastika someone daubed on it recently, and the black tar from a burning match someone else threw inside.
We were crossing my childhood city, the one and only city I knew, that was now turning into a hyperactive stranger, booming with flashy neon signs in a new language—neither Russian, nor English or French—with flickering kiosks, storefronts, and traffic lights that somehow seemed different. I was trying to recognize the familiar places that were flashing by—and to say goodbye to each one. The first autumn frost made the crisp darkness that was punctured by blinding lights even brighter. I knew I would never return, but as I was parting with Moscow, I wasn’t sure that the feelings I had were the ones I had expected.
For decades, I hadn’t been able to imagine myself without this city and its inhabitants, my friends, my kindred spirits, the likes of whom, I was sure, I would never find again—after all, one can’t be this fortunate twice,—and without the country itself, its landscapes, the entirety of Russian Nature, although I knew very well that, contrary to the comforting belief instilled in Soviet citizens by the propagandistic songs, these landscapes, with their iconic birch trees, their anthemized fields and rivers, were not unique—one can find very similar ones in other places on Earth.
Taking your beloved books with you into immigration is intimately familiar to those of us who left the Soviet Union. My parents’ двухсоттомник—”200-volume set”—of Russian and world literature, was quite literally my lifeline to the language and culture that I may have otherwise forgotten, and they are still the editions I turn to today. The covers of the volumes are different colors, and some key moments of my life are associated with them, such as the dark green of Gogol’s Мертвые души (Dead Souls) when I started college. Reading Maria Bloshteyn’s essay was genuinely heart-wrenching, because the experience she describes is that of an acute loss of books that mean so much to us, not just for their content, but perhaps even more so because they have made the immigrants’ journey with us and sustained us in our new homes. In the current moment, this poignant essay is framed by the war in Ukraine, where people like us are losing not just their books, but their lives. If you are able to help, please support translators who are struggling due to the war and this initiative to give Ukrainian-language books to refugee children in Poland. Ukraine’s cultural sphere has been badly damaged by Russian forces, and we will continue to look for ways in which those of us in the West can help. Maria recently participated in the Born in the USSR, Raised in Canada event hosted by Punctured Lines, and you can listen to her read from an essay about reacting to the war in Ukraine while in the diaspora.
Maria Bloshteyn,A Motherland of Books
Written just before the war in Ukraine began, this essay elegizes the home libraries lovingly gathered and treasured by their owners in the Soviet era, these very libraries, with these very editions, that are being bombed today in Ukraine, along with their owners.
The books are a heartache. I have been dreading this moment for years. My mother, the adored and formidable matriarch of our small family, had moved into a nursing home after struggling with dementia for the past several years. She doesn’t care now what will happen to the family library, but I do. These are, after all, the books that we brought with us from the Soviet Union, when we left it forever in 1979. I grew up looking at their spines both in our Leningrad flat and in our Toronto apartment: light brown for the complete edition of Pushkin, mauve for Heine’s poems, beige for Tolstoy’s collected works. The classics, the translated classics, the poetry chapbooks, the art albums, the subscription editions, children’s literature—they are all here. Once, they provided the continuity between the two vastly different worlds: one that was forever lost to us and the other that we were slowly learning to inhabit. Reading and rereading them kept me sane as I, rarely at a loss for words, found myself suddenly language-poor and unable to either defend myself against nasty verbal attacks I faced in school as the Russian kid, or to express myself adequately to friendlier others.
These are the books that I am now packing into large cardboard boxes, as I am deciding their fate. Lowering them in, one by one, I think of the books that we weren’t allowed to bring with us as we left: most prominently, unfairly, and painfully, the single volume of Pushkin’s poems that my grandfather, part of the 13th Air Army during World War II, sent to my mother, evacuated to a village in the Urals. We weren’t allowed to take it, because it was published before some arbitrarily assigned cut-off year, which made it, ridiculously, a possible antiquity of value to the State. The passage of years hadn’t dimmed my sense of outrage.
The books that we were allowed to bring were mostly purchased by my parents during the years of their marriage. My father, whose promising law career was tanked by a prison term received as a result of taking the Soviet Codex of Labor Laws at face value, worked as an auditor for Dom knigi, the largest and most famous bookstore in Leningrad, located in a landmark building on Nevsky prospekt. Once a month, he would bring home a list of books available for purchase. It was a privilege extended to the associates of Dom knigi. And a real privilege it was.
The Soviet Union proclaimed itself to be the best-read country in the world. This boast was largely true. If you got onto a bus or a streetcar in the seventies, most passengers would be reading. Entertainment at home—where television meant two or three channels of largely boring programming—was also reading. Yet, if you walked into a book store, the selection of books available to an average customer without special connections was pathetically limited. You could choose from Leonid Brezhnev’s speeches and, if you were lucky, Lenin’s collected works. There was, however, a thriving black market for books. Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s collected works, for example, fetched ninety roubles on the black market—the monthly salary of an engineer. Books were a hot commodity and having access to books at the official prices (helpfully stamped onto the back cover) was a coveted benefit. Not that anyone ever resold books in our family—we bought our books for keeps.
And so my father and mother would sit at the kitchen table, endlessly going over the list, comparing and contrasting, underlining, and debating with each other, as they chose the books that the family would be acquiring. Whichever books they selected, they’d have to make the same decision: would the family money go toward books or toward some needed items, say, for example, new clothes or pantyhose? Every single time, the decision was made in favor of books.
Later, when we would least expect it, my father would arrive home carrying a cardboard box, around which we’d all gather in eager anticipation. The opened box would release the heady smell of printer’s ink and paper—the intoxicating scent of new books. We’d take out the books one by one, resplendent in their glossy dust jackets, and admire them all. Next, we’d find a proper place for them on the bookshelves, among other books already residing there. And then we’d read them. Once the books were settled in, they were all equally accessible. That’s how I got to read Alberto Moravia and Georges Bernanos, whose vicious critiques of Western bourgeois society made them a logical choice for publication in the Soviet Union, as well as the first Russian translation of Jin Ping Mei, a scandalous 16th-century Chinese novel, all at the ripe old age of seven.
Then, in 1979, we left the USSR. We could have, theoretically, sold off the books, though it would have been emotionally wrenching, but the State helped us decide against that. At the time we left, we were only allowed to bring a small, almost symbolic amount of money with us, given that we were forced to sell whatever property we had, including our flat and our dacha. The money we received from the sales could just as well be spent on crates and packing material as on anything else. That settled it: the family library was accompanying us into the unknown. Our journey took us by airplane from Leningrad to Vienna, where we stayed for a few weeks in a seedy hotel previously used by the city’s sex workers, and then by train from Austria to Italy, where we spent both fall and winter in Ladispoli, a sleepy little seaside town not far from Rome, as we applied for entrance to Canada as refugees. We came to Canada in April of 1980 and then, what seemed like an eternity later, crates full of our books and other belongings finally arrived to our first Toronto apartment on Roselawn Avenue. I greeted the books with the joy and relief usually reserved for long-lost family members: here was the cure for loneliness, frustration, and boredom; here was the portal into other worlds that I could inhabit instead of the coldly unintelligible one in which I found myself.
The books came, however, with an unexpected financial blow. It turned out that the money we had paid in the Soviet Union for shipping the books was not nearly enough. The crates sat in storage for months upon months and we had to pay the shipping company two thousand dollars in order to redeem them. The amount, substantial in any situation, was staggering to new arrivals with no financial reserves. But walking away from our books was not an option. My parents took out an interest-free loan from the Jewish Immigrant Aid Service. The family paid off that loan by sewing shoes—leather loafers. We’d pick up the large bags full of slips to be sewn together from the factory and then returned them there, completed, for $30 per bag. Although, to my shame, I never did get the hang of it, everyone else sewed, including my 80-year-old grandmother. It took about three years of loafer-sewing drudgery to repay the loan, but the books were worth it.
The books were there for us as no friends could ever be—a 24/7 resource to be reached for as support, entertainment, escape, and a source of wisdom. They were there as I grew up, went to university and to graduate school. They were there as I amassed my own library of books, in Russian as well as in English, got married, and had kids. My husband is Canadian-born and has no connections with Russia except through me. My kids read in English. The books that I am taking from the family library now will therefore be for my own use. I can’t possibly keep all or even most of them—our many bookshelves at home are already overflowing with books and I have given up many of my other books to make space as it is. So now I’m deciding which books to keep and which books to donate to our multicultural resource library. They won’t be put on the library shelves—they’ll go to the book sale section, where anyone can purchase them for a symbolic sum that goes to fund the library. I know the book-sale section well. I picked up all kinds of treasures there over the years, all in fierce competition with other book hunters.
The books I’m leaving at the book sale will be someone’s windfall to be treasured. Yet, I still feel like I am betraying the books. Their aged, weathered covers exude reproach. I might as well, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, be drowning them deeper than did ever plummet sound. I go again through the books that I’m giving away, pull several out of the boxes and set them aside, take a deep breath, and drive the boxes to the library. One of the librarians is Russian—she knows what I’m going through. If it wasn’t for Covid, I’d get a hug. “Don’t worry,” she says, “they’ll find good homes.” Maybe, but still… I go through the boxes again, just in case. I take the lid off one box and eight volumes of the collected works of Anatole France stare up at me. I never liked Anatole France. I can’t imagine dipping into one of his books for pleasure. But my mother loved his ironic detachment and reread his books more than once. Maybe that’s what I need now, I think to myself—ironic detachment… I pull out all eight volumes from the box, holding them close as I struggle to balance them in my arms. “I’m taking these home,” I say to the librarian. “I’m not letting go of them just yet.”
Here’s a video from yesterday’s poetry reading featuring poets from Ukraine and their English-language translators. Thanks to poets Olga Livshin and Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach who organized this event 800 people from across the globe came together for Ukraine. This event, put together as a part of an ongoing poetry series Words Together Worlds Apart was a fundraiser, and it’s not too late to DONATE to UNICEF.
*Words Together Worlds Apart spearheaded by poet Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach is a virtual reading series. Its mission is: “To maintain & build literary community across distance through our shared love of words. Featured readers will share their work around a weekly theme, followed by interactive discussion.”
Many of us have been wondering how to help Ukrainians who are under a renewed attack from Russia. Poets Olga Livshin and Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach have put together a reading by poets from Ukraine writing in Ukrainian and Russian, and translated to English. Read the event description below and register for the event happening March 1 at 12:30pm ET. This message includes links to organizations where you can make donations to support Ukraine in this time of war.
*Words Together Worlds Apart spearheaded by poet Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach is a virtual reading series. Its mission is: “To maintain & build literary community across distance through our shared love of words. Featured readers will share their work around a weekly theme, followed by interactive discussion.”
From Olga and Julia:
Amid the current catastrophe in Ukraine, a brutal invasion of a sovereign nation, it is more urgent than ever to listen to the voices of its people. While media provides overwhelming coverage, literature, poetry, and art are just as important for processing, coping, and surviving trauma.
Hosts Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach and Olga Livshin unite Ukrainian poets and their translators alongside US poet-allies in Voices for Ukraine–a transatlantic reading spanning from Kyiv, Odesa, and Lviv, to LA, Atlanta, Philly, and Little Rock, as well as recordings Ukrainian poets have sent in the event they are unable to join us live due to internet outages and air raids.
Alex Karsavin: Can you briefly give me the origin story of Pocket Samovar? How did a project that began as a localized conversation between two students at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School end up involving so many international actors? How did you go about establishing these lines of communication? And finally: how has Pocket Samovar been able to, in a remarkably short spate of time, reach such a dispersed and disparate audience?
Konstantin Kulakov: It started in fall 2019, in Boulder, Colorado at the Jack Kerouac School. It was Kate Shylo, who’s from Yalta, Crimea, me from Russia, and Ryan Onders, who’s from Ohio. Late in the summer, Ryan and I struck a relationship over poetry performance, especially our obsession with Yevtushenko and the orality of Soviet poetry. Shortly, the three of us got together over borscht and spoke about a magazine dedicated specifically to diasporic communities. At first, the word we used was “Eurasia.” Later we realized that “post-Soviet” would be a more accurate term, and we brought it up to Jeffrey Pethybridge, who connected us with Matvei Yankelevich. Matvei was brilliant; he put us in contact with Boris Dralyuk and Eugene Ostashevsky, which ultimately led to the establishment of an advisory board. We didn’t just want this to be a trendy journal that’s translating East European writing. We wanted to highlight underrepresented writers of the post-Soviet space: queer, LGBTQ, Muslim, writers of color, including writers from Transcaucasia, Central Asia, and so on. The hardest part, of course, was to establish these links across time zones, languages, and cultures. Our advisory board proved extremely useful in finding people like Paata Shamugia and Hamid Ismailov. I myself found people like Evgeniy Abdullaev, whose pen-name is Suhbat Aflatuni; he’s based out of Tashkent. It is important to emphasize, for us, the diasporic part of our mission does not center writers in the west; instead, the magazine aspires to be rhizomatic, bridging the gap between North American and Eurasian literary communities.
Alex Karsavin: I was struck by the claim on your site that Pocket Samovar was influenced but not necessarily determined by its editors’ relationship to “Soviet cultural memory.” This is a very rich and arguably fraught territory. Before we go into the particulars, would you mind delving into your (or your colleagues’) relationship to the region at large (be it personal, literary, or academic)?
Konstantin Kulakov: I can only confidently speak for myself. I left Russia when I was 10 years old: a kind of identity rupture or separation at a formative time. And that longing for homeland is really what it’s about for me. The only way I could connect to Russian contemporary literature was online or books. And there was something missing in that, like: Oh, here’s a poem. Here’s an anthology of contemporary Russian poetry by Dalkey ArchivePress. And that’s it. I opened the book, and I never felt that it offered me an opportunity to improve my Russian, or to meet Russian people. (Before the pandemic hit we had hopes of actually having events and things of that nature.) So for Kate and me, it really was founded around diasporic longing for a connection to the post-Soviet space, and specifically the kind of literary culture where people can stand up and recite a poem by heart. Living and going to school in Russia as a kid, I hated recitation, because it was required and I wasn’t good at it. In my early childhood, I was moved between Russia, England, and America. I was bilingual and confused, often wonderstruck by language, and maybe that’s why I’m a poet. In many ways, for me, editing this magazine is a return to the language at a time when I feel ready to appreciate it. In Kate’s case, she was born in Yalta and also traveled; she has this nomadic sensibility. I think what interested her was the emphasis on publishing underrepresented voices (particularly feminist and queer). Ryan, of course, came to us via Yevtushenko and translation.
Alex Karsavin: Could you say a bit more about your personal relationship to Soviet cultural memory specifically (given the prominent role it plays in the site’s call for submissions)?
Konstantin Kulakov: Soviet cultural memory. Hmm. I mean, I was born in 1989 in Zaoksky, a town outside of Moscow.
Alex Karsavin: Right at the tipping point …
Konstantin Kulakov: Yeah. I entered a world of collapse, in a state of flux. My memory of that time is mostly of things falling apart and being built up. I actually grew up during the construction of the first Protestant seminary co-founded by my father. So there’s this idea of: “Look! Democracy, religious liberty, international dialogue, etc. are finally coming to Russia!” But at the same time, having been in the United States for 20 years (I’m 31), having experienced individualistic consumerism, there’s now this longing for the samovar, for the communal aspect of poetic memorization and recitation, a longing for something as immense as the stadium poetry of Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina. The longing was also in part a reaction to this feeling among some exiles that Russia is authoritarian, that the arts are neglected or backwards, etc. And something in me always knew the latter was false. I thought: “I know there are poets in Russia and all over the post-Soviet space.”
Alex Karsavin: Why Pocket Samovar for the title? To my mind, the samovar draws obvious connotations to the Tsarist Empire, and nationalism more broadly. Yet, and correct me if I’m off mark, there seems to be a dislocation happening here (even in the simple reimagining of this bulky static object as something miniature and mobile). Am I wrong to interpret this as a sort of queering?
Konstantin Kulakov: There are some things to unpack here. In fact, the mission statement used to be a history of the samovar. It actually emerged in Azerbaijan. The samovar finds archeological origin in the tea drinking devices of Azerbaijan, not Russia. So we were not trying to center the Russian space but rather the region as a whole, its complex, boundary-crossing geography and culture. The communal aspect is also very important. The samovar is circular and presents a spatial situation that is meant to be enjoyed among friends, conversing as equals in a non-hierarchical, free, and spontaneous manner. In the end, we’re trying to be more like a tea room than just a competitive journal that publishes the best of post-Soviet writing. So, if the samovar, something bulky, fits in the pocket, you can definitely say this is a queering; in many ways, the situation of the diasporic writer demands an understanding of fluidity. For us, national identity can change overnight, and language, when queered, affords that fluidity.
Alex Karsavin: Pocket Samovar appears to be the newest in a series of recent publications which take this particular region as their focus (Mumber Mag, Alephi,to some degree Homintern). The magazine is unique, however, in its attempt to put the stateside literary diaspora in communication with its FSU (former Soviet Union — PL) roots. Why is this emphasis on dialogue so important for Pocket Samovar? How does it relate to the magazine’s stated desire (to paraphrase Madina Tlostanova) to reimagine the post-Soviet condition not as a lamentation of lost paradise, but as a way to re-existence?
Konstantin Kulakov: We emerged in Boulder, Colorado, although we are expanding now. One of our editors is in Brooklyn; I might be moving to Brooklyn soon, actually. And then two of our editors are based in Europe, specifically in Luxembourg and in Basel, Switzerland. Daily operation and editorial decisions present new limits and opportunities. So the idea behind Tlostanova’s quote is that we’ve already opened Pandora’s box, so to speak. We can’t go back. Globalization is everywhere. And I think the name “pocket samovar” speaks to that question very concretely. Being in this globalized, fast-paced world, everything is now pocket-sized, everything is mobile, it’s almost like you have to be that way to survive. Ryan Onders, our managing editor, asked me one day: How would the magazine exist physically as a print edition? And I said: It’s a diasporic thing. It’s nomadic. So it has to fit in the pocket, right? That’s when I realized it had to be Pocket Samovar.
The thing is, we can’t go back in time, nor can we escape the Soviet legacy. The “re-existence” Tlostanova speaks of is the ability to create something new and necessary, something that’s based around community in an individualistic and competitive globalized world. For this reason, our new issue emphasized the virtual tea room recordings (of which Stanislava Mogileva‘s was my favorite). We strategically decided to put the video at the top of the page to make it central, and the text secondary. So when you click the link and open the video, there’s this feeling that we’re still honoring that tradition of orality and community, a re-existence of sorts.
Alex Karsavin: Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but what kind of international reception has Pocket Samovar had so far? Also, I want to dive a little deeper into the question of inter-scene dialogue. Given that your contributors represent such disparate literary (and feminist) movements, what kind of exchange (intellectual or affective) have you noticed cropping up in your virtual tea room? Do you think the formal arsenal and thematic concerns of the writers featured in the first issue coalesce into some sort of recognizable whole? Particularly I’m interested in the way writers deal with the theme of dislocation (for example, Stanislava Mogileva appears to recoup the folk song and oral epic genre in the service of Russian feminism, while Elena Georgievskaya queers the biblical language of Revelation).
Konstantin Kulakov: It’s interesting. International communication is definitely happening, even as we speak, on social media. That’s where I’m seeing it and I can’t really talk about the nature of the dialogue yet because we first need to have more events. But it’s generally a sense of excitement that I’m seeing. To borrow a term from Durkheim, it was something of a collective effervescence, albeit virtual. At first, there was this fear among the editors that in calling ourselves post-Soviet, people would freak out and not want to be affiliated with that authoritarian, violent legacy to which we all have our own complicated relationship. However, I think the nature of the post-Soviet space is integrated in such weird ways that there is always literal and discursive travel occurring between the various republics and Russia. For example, Evgeniy Abdullaev is based in Tashkent and has a manifesto called “Tashkent Poets,” but he writes in Russian (not dissimilar to the Soviet-era poet, Bulat Okudzhava, who was of Georgian and Armenian descent). So there’s always this traversing of borders going on. In terms of the response to Pocket Samovar (going off the website traffic), it’s clear that it went completely international. It hit every continent. Because some of the contributors shared it in Azerbaijan, it ended up going all over Central Asia, Transcaucasia, and even to parts of the Middle East, like Afghanistan and Iraq. That, to me, was really encouraging.
It is important to emphasize how literature of the post-Soviet space and literature of the post-Soviet diaspora define the issue. In regards to writing from the region, I would like to highlight Stanislava Mogileva, Elena Georgievskya, Vitaliy Yukhimenko. They are all queer/non-binary poets. Although they have differences, they are united by the similar role sociality, orality, and free verse plays in their work. Learning from these writers and movements–through their work, talks, essays, interviews– is exactly what future issues of Pocket Samovar will be devoted to.
The post-Soviet diasporic writer, on the other hand, finds themselves in a contrasting position to homeland. The post-Soviet diasporic writer may reject their homeland, share an ambivalent attitude to it, adopt a hyphenated identity, or alternate between all of these. Alina Stefanescu’s poetry definitely does not shy away from the brutality of the Soviet experience, but nor does she reject it. “Pickled Plums” celebrates familial traditions illustrating how a planted sapling or thimble of tuica can impart her diasporic life with a sense of safety or vitality of speech. Anatoly Molotkov’s “Poison in the DNA” is aware of the powerful role of the past, but the speaker firmly resists identification with his Russian roots because the roots are “rotten.” However, after reading his poem, “Letting the Past In,” we see Molotkov’s more positive kinship to another Soviet artist: Andrei Tarkovsky. Nonetheless, given the complexities of nationality, our magazine conceives of diaspora very broadly. For example, Steve Nickman’s poetry concerns itself not with land, but with the lives of post-Soviets in the United States. It is too soon to tell, but I can only expect that such literary encounters will continue to demonstrate the need for further exchange and connection, especially given the global challenges we face.
Alex Karsavin: What’s the long-term vision for the magazine?
Konstantin Kulakov: We eventually want to turn the magazine into a nonprofit similar in format to that of Brooklyn Poets. We of course want to grow in funding. We imagine ourselves as a platform for the diasporic community that features poetry and translation workshops, reading events, and conferences. We want to serve as our own social platform, where poets can comment on each other’s published poems. We want to optimize interaction and user experience. The fact is that everything nowadays is becoming more mobile; for example, 60% of the people visiting the website are using phones. At the same time, we don’t want to lose the physicality of a print magazine, of literary evenings (to use a Russian term), which is why our current emphasis is on raising funds for the print issue.
Konstantin Kulakov is a Russian-American poet, educator, and translator born in Zaoksky, former Soviet Union. His debut chapbook, Excavating the Sky, was published by Dialogue Foundation Books (2015). Kulakov is the recipient of the Greg Grummer Poetry Award judged by Brian Teare and holds a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. His poems and translations have appeared in Spillway, Phoebe, Harvard Journal of African American Policy, and Loch Raven Review, among others. He is currently an MFA candidate at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School in Boulder, Colorado and co-founding editor of Pocket Samovar magazine.
Alex Karsavin is a Russian-American literary translator, with translations and writing published in the F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry anthology, PEN America, Columbia Journal, New Inquiry, Sreda, and HOMINTERN magazine. Ilya Danishevsky’s hybrid prose-poetry novel Mannelig v tsepyakh (Mannelig in Chains) forms Alex’s main translation project, a collaboration with veteran Russian-English translator Anne Fisher, funded by the University of Exeter’s RusTrans project. They are currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at UIUC. They are a 2020 ALTA travel fellow.
Today, we’re thrilled to present a Q&A with Boris Dralyuk — renowned translator, writer, LARB‘s Executive Editor (thank you for fine-tuning my reviews), former colleague, and old and dear friend. Based in Los Angeles, Boris has been instrumental in promoting Russian and Russophone literature in translation both in the United States and abroad. His recent poetry cycle can be found here. Boris answered our questions by email.
Punctured Lines: Your family emigrated from Odessa to Los Angeles when you were eight. In an interview with Melissa Beck on The Book Binder’s Daughter, you’ve told the story about turning to translation at the age of 14 in the hope of sharing a Pasternak poem with an English-speaking friend. You felt that translation was something of a calling for you. And yet there’s often a long path between that first desire to translate and professional translation. What were some of the challenges you’ve encountered at the beginning? What resources (mental, emotional, literary, etc.) did you draw on to keep going?
Boris Dralyuk: First, let me thank you both for inviting to review the path I’ve traveled. It seems, from here, to be longer and more winding than I usually imagine it to be. I tend to focus not on the path itself but on the small number of items I’ve picked up along the way. It’s these items – discrete memories, some pleasant and inspiring, others disappointing and embarrassing – that offer comfort and refine my perspective when I run into new challenges. A large part of professionalization is learning about yourself, about what you need – mentally, emotionally, physically – in order to do your best work. Is your mind clearest in the morning, the afternoon, or the evening? How quickly can you translate? How many words of prose can you render each day before losing steam? How much coffee do you need, and how much is too much?
One discovers these things over time, often the hard way. And they change – so it’s important to keep watching yourself, adjusting. When I was starting out, I translated omnivorously, at breakneck speed. The practice was useful, but the results were, as you can imagine, mixed… I learned soon enough that I can seldom translate, at a high level, more than 500 words of prose a day. It’s still the case that I move quickly when I translate poems, but two things have changed: I now translate only those poems that speak to me, that won’t let me go; and after I complete a draft, I share it with my most trusted readers, read it after the first blush of inspiration fades, let it sit as I wait for the second and third blushes to arrive, revisit it again – I put the poem through its paces. To sum up, I now have more faith in my personal taste in literature and less faith in my initial satisfaction with my own work.
I can’t imagine coming to any of these realizations earlier than I did – it all takes as long as it takes. What has helped me through every stumble, setback, and paralyzing fit of regret was the sympathy and encouragement of my mentors, who had cleared these hurdles before. The smartest thing I did in my early years as a translator was to seek out such mentors, and they all became dear friends – Mike Heim, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, Maria Bloshteyn, and others.
PL: Some of us were lucky enough to study with Michael Heim at UCLA, but you also worked with him in terms of translation. You touched on this experience in your very poignant tribute when he passed away. Can you talk a bit more about what it was like to work with him?
BD: As I wrote in my little piece, it was the time Mike devoted to my infantile efforts – the interest he showed, when he could well have shown me the door – that proved decisive. I wish I could say that I didn’t need encouragement, or that I don’t need it now, but I very much did and do. Yet I want to stress that Mike didn’t give me encouragement because he felt I needed it, he did it because he believed in translation itself, believed that it was an important art, that it was possible to improve one’s skills, and that I was dedicated to the work. His purity of intention was unmistakable. It was precisely what I was looking for in a teacher and reader, what I look for still, and what I try to manifest whenever I’m asked for feedback or advice. When Mike sat down with a student to go over a text, it isn’t that the world outside the text would disappear, it’s that the text would become the world’s center. And you’d leave his office with the sense that your work had, in its own small way, restored order to the world – had shaken it out as if it were a bedspread, revealing its true design. I feel that way every time I discuss a translation with Robert, Irina, Maria, and my wife, Jenny. Their tastes and sensibilities are even closer to my own than Mike’s were, but they all share the same world-shaking, order-restoring purity of intention.
PL: You’ve translated a range of writers from Russian, from Tolstoy to Babel and Zoshchenko to contemporary prose and poetry by Maxim Osipov and Julia Nemirovskaya (here, your translations of poetry are to be commended for often keeping the original meter and rhyme scheme, which is extraordinarily difficult in English but is precisely what lets these poems come through, as opposed to being rendered unrecognizable, in translation). What draws you to a particular author or project? What are the differences, and/or similarities, in the way you approach translating the various genres and sensibilities of the writers?
BD: The greatest training ground and door-opener of my career was the invitation, extended by Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, to coedit The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. The correspondence we conducted over the nearly four years of work on that project led me to discover the range of voices inside me, voices capable of resonating with those of Vasily Zhukovsky, Afanasy Fet, Nikolai Gumilyov, Marina Petrovykh, Georgy Ivanov, Anna Prismanova, and other poets. I learned what I could and couldn’t do, my strengths and my weaknesses. Most importantly, I learned to listen closely in a hundred different ways, from every angle. Of course, when translating Isaac Babel, I don’t need to strain my ears – his Odessan language is the language of my family, of my childhood; and Zoshchenko’s tragic gags are also like mother’s milk. What I need to do, in both cases, is to find Anglophone equivalents for their voices, and, luckily, American literature is full of them. In the case of Babel, I was aided by Daniel Fuchs, Samuel Ornitz, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, and, for good measure, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. When Zoshchenko came knocking, Ring Lardner and Robert Benchley opened the door, with Damon Runyon peeking over their shoulders. In the case of Maxim Osipov and Julia Nemirovskaya, something rather different happened. The voices I use in my translations of their work are often versions of my everyday voice. Better versions, because they always have more important things to say than I myself do. I loved what Anna Aslanyan said in her TLS review of Maxim’s Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories, which I co-translated with the brilliant Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson: “Dralyuk’s idiom packs a punch, Anne Marie Jackson lends Osipov’s prose a gentle English timbre, and Alex Fleming meticulously recreates its cadences and wordplay.” We all make use of what we have inside us, of what we acquire from our reading and from our colleagues – the key is to make the very best use of it.
PL: In addition to translating, you also work with books in another way: as a frequent reviewer, including for the Times Literary Supplement, and of course as the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. It is thanks to you that this publication has come to amplify coverage of translations from the former Soviet countries, as well as diaspora literatures and scholarly works about the region. What do you look for in terms of the books/writers you feature in LARB?
BD: My editorial goal is, first and foremost, to empower and encourage the editors of our sections – which represent over a dozen genres – to cast as wide a net as possible, and to ensure that we’re covering a diverse array of books and uplifting the voices of critics and reviewers who may not have access to other major venues. We love giving authors their first break. I’m not interested in boilerplate reviews of the latest bestsellers or political exposés. I want our pieces to dig deeper, to be deeply informed but also deeply felt, and to come at books from unexpected angles. A good number of our reviewers are associated with colleges and universities, and their first drafts often bear the telltale signs of academic discourse: lots of jargon, sentences that are far more convoluted than they need to be, etc. The jargon may have its place, but one must remember that many readers are encountering these specialized terms for the first time. We always remind our contributors that they’re writing for a general audience of curious non-specialists; the goal is to welcome people into the discussion, not to stupefy them with a display of one’s erudition. The good news is that academics usually learn quickly – that’s why they’re academics.
PL: We talk a lot on Punctured Lines, and elsewhere, both about how to promote translations from Russian in general and of women writers in particular. In your essay “The Silver Age of Russian-to-English Translation” for Translation Review you name the stellar translators and publishers that have made translation from Russian an incredibly vibrant field. What are your thoughts on how we as a community – of translators, scholars, publishers, editors, reviewers, book bloggers, etc. – can work toward greater visibility of female authors within Russian-to-English translation overall?
PL: Soviet and post-Soviet lives don’t always fit neatly into the contemporary American classification of identities. For instance, in conversation with Katya Michaels at Odessa Review, you described Babel as a Jewish-Ukrainian-Russian-Soviet writer. This sounds about right and yet in American parlance this often gets shortened to “Russian writer” or “Soviet writer.” How do you approach this work of identity constructions that critics and translators are often asked to do?
BD: Yes, this is always a challenge. I suppose the first and most important step is to determine how these authors see – or saw – themselves in their own time and within a given tradition or set of traditions. But once you establish that, what do you do with it? If your press allows you to supply the text with an introduction, or even a brief translator’s note, that’s an opportunity to enrich a reader’s understanding of an author’s identity. And there are, of course, decisions to be made within the text itself. Is it appropriate for Yiddishisms, both syntactic and lexical, to color a Russian text in English translation? If you ask me, Babel wouldn’t be Babel without them. And would Lev Ozerov, a Soviet Jewish poet who, although he wrote in Russian, was raised in Ukraine, counted Ukrainian intellectuals among his closest friends, and translated scores of Ukrainian poems object to our using the spelling “Kyiv” in our rendering of his work? I think he’d heartily approve. Needless to say, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach – and that’s the beauty of it.
PL: What are you working on now? What project(s) is/are on your wish list?
BD: Right now I’m awaiting the publication of my translation of Andrey Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees – a moving, gently surreal picaresque set in Donbas and Crimea two years into the current war. (Talk about Ukrainian place names!) Alex Fleming, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and I are also making great progress on a second volume of Maxim Osipov’s beguilingly nuanced stories and essays, and are relishing every minute of it. Julia Nemirovskaya’s humbly revelatory and incomparably humane verse continues to work its way through me, and I’m always on the lookout for little treasures to share on my blog – like this delightful poem by Sofiya Pregel.
In April, as COVID19 was already changing our lives, a new literary magazine entered the world. “Literature pretends only to reflect the way things really are, and it is always there for you when everything else has failed,” writes Harry Leeds in his editor’s note to the first issue. “I hope that our magazine is a distraction while you are stuck the hell home.” Leeds is a writer, editor, a translator from Russian, “cat papa,” and is on his way to becoming a nurse. He has a sick sense of humor, he says, which I think gives him a leg up in the whole literary mag game.
We are so delighted to welcome MumberMag’s stellar Mumber One issue. (Gosh, some sense of humor really went into the making of this mag–and I LOVE IT!) Joining Harry in the editorial team is a much beloved poet D. A. Powell, who serves as a Founding Poetry Editor (here’s a profile of him in The New Yorker).
The first issue holds many wonderful gifts for the readers, and for us, interested in post-Soviet literature, there are Boris Dralyuk’s translations from Julia Nemirovskaya who lives in the U.S. and writes poetry and fiction in Russian, and teaches Russian literature and culture at the University of Oregon. Three poems appear in Mumber One, Lamp, Little Box, and Toilet Paper — “Kin to napkin and book.” (Poets really know what’s important in life, long before any crisis strikes.)
Last but not least our MumberMag editors are working on creating their list of Top Literary Magazines Ranked By Influence on Social Media. As a huge literary magazine fan, I deeply appreciate the dedication that it takes to create a list like this — and a sense of joy from the fun of it all. Thank you, people!