Pocket Samovar: Interview with Konstantin Kulakov, Founding Editor, by Alex Karsavin

Today Punctured Lines is delighted to feature Alex Karsavin‘s interview with Konstantin Kulakov, Founding Editor of Pocket Samovar, “an international literary magazine dedicated to underrepresented post-Soviet writing, art & diaspora.” A huge thank you to Alex for the initiative to do this interview for the blog and to both Alex and Konstantin for their work on this piece. An equally huge thank you to the editors of Pocket Samovar for creating a space for post-/ex-Soviet writers. Submission guidelines can be found here.

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?

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932-2017)

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 Archive Press. 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 …

Bella Akhmadulina (1937-2010)

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).

Bulat Okudzhava (1924-1997)

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.

Archipelagic Model of Global post-Soviet Cultures (*)

About a year ago, when Yelena Furman and I decided to get serious about our ongoing Twitter conversation about Russian literature and to start this blog, I read Maria Rubins’s essay “A Century of Russian Culture(s) ‘Abroad’: The Unfolding of Literary Geography,” published in Global Russian Cultures (edited by Kevin M. F. Platt; a volume in which Yelena Furman’s own essay “Rewriting Gender: Russian-American Women Writers and the Challenge to Russian Femininity” also appears). In this programmatic essay, Rubins argues that “A polycentric, nonhierarchical model of global Russian cultures may be visualized as an archipelago, a chain of islands that appear independent and isolated but in fact are interconnected in space, as well as time, often owing their origins to a series of volcanic eruptions.” In this model, Rubins argues, “the metropolitan Russian ‘continent,’ … can be seen as just the largest island within the global archipelago of Russian culture.”

Prior to encountering this essay, I had heard of archipelagic studies from a friend and a colleague, Olga Blomgren, who is working on her dissertation in Comparative Literature. Olga pointed me toward this theory and to the ideas of de-colonization, as distinct from post-colonization, as promising ways of conceptualizing literatures born of multiple languages and cultural influences. In her own work, Olga discusses the writing of the multilingual authors from the Caribbean, Rosario Ferré and Edwidge Danticat. The notion of an “archipelago” offers a compelling vision and a path to undoing the hierarchies of values imposed by colonial regimes. “Landmasses traditionally conceived of as continents may be reframed as islands that are constituent parts, rather than continental administrators, of the global meta-archipelago,” write scholars Brian Russel Roberts and Michelle Stephens in their essay “Archipelagic American Studies and the Caribbean.” Just because a traditionally conceived continent is physically larger than an island, its claim on culture and influence isn’t more valid than that of an island.

Rubins applies these ideas to Russophone literature, including in Paris during the interwar period, literature created in the US during the Cold War Era, and in Israel in the more recent times. She quotes from the famed theorist Homi Bhabha, who argued in his book The Location of Culture that “peripheral locations are rich in innovation and can destabilize and refashion stagnating ‘centers’.” In fact, with the introduction of the archipelagic model, the very terms for “center” and “periphery” (so important to the 19th Century Russian writers, from Gogol to Chekhov) may become obsolete. “Diasporic authors and communities contest their alleged marginality and assert their hybrid character. Yet diasporic consciousness and patterns of writing inevitably spill over into the metropolitan world, eroding monolithic identities and discourses even as they participate in transnational literary systems,” Rubins suggests.

These ideas deeply influenced my thinking about what I wanted to accomplish with Punctured Lines, and it was exciting to find that Yelena was thinking along the same lines. In her draft of our mission statement, she wrote that we want to amplify the traditionally underrepresented voices from the post-Soviet diasporas. If I were to translate this into the language of the archipelagic theory, the idea is to unsettle the colonial maps of literary value that tend to place Russia at the center of the Soviet literary space and that of the Russian Empire, and to treat Russophone literature as one island among many of the metaphorical post-Soviet archipelago. This work feels all the more necessary to me on the personal level because in the earlier draft of this post (displayed in the comments), I have unconsciously defaulted to the colonialist language while actively seeking to avoid it. I’m very grateful to the comments that Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Christopher Fort, Mirgul Kali, and Kevin M. F. Platt offered on this post that helped me to unpack my own unconscious bias and tendency to conflate “Russia” and “the Soviet Union.”

(*) Title and content have been edited; the original version is in the comments below.

Moving from theory to practice, here’s a few recently published and upcoming books from the post-Soviet archipelago to read this summer.

Night and Day by Abdulhamid Sulaymon o’g’li Cho’lpon, translated from Uzbek by Christopher Fort. This novel comes to us from the 1930s and is set at an earlier time, in Turkestan under Russian Imperial rule. “Despite increasing censorship and previous arrests by Soviet authorities, Cholpon subtly employs a variety of techniques including satire and farce to undermine the legitimacy of the Soviet government that was being established around him. Bitterly portraying the hypocrisy and collusion of jadid reformists, Muslim clerics and local Russian officials, this unfinished novel, which was halted by the author’s execution in 1938, remains as one of the darkest comments on Soviet Central Asian history in the Uzbek language,” wrote Shawn T. Lyon about this novel. An illuminating interview with the translator aired on a podcast New Books Network.

Pub Date: November 26, 2019
Publisher: Academic Studies Press

Translated from Uzbek by Shelley Fairweather-Vega, Hamid Ismailov’s GAIA, Queen of Ants is set in England in the milieu of Central Asian immigrants. ” The pivotal relationship in the novel is that between septuagenarian Uzbek émigré Gaia and Domrul, her young Turkish carer. Readers may recognize hints of Harold and Maude,” writes Joshua Bird in a review of this novel. “Contact with Gaia brings up [for Domrul] conflicting feelings of lust, shame and longing, and through their complex relationship, Gaia draws the young man into her dark world of infidelity, sexuality and secrets.”

Pub date: February 11, 2020
Publisher: Syracuse University Press

Good Citizens Need Not Fear is the first book by Maria Reva, who was born in Ukraine and grew up in Canada, and has published a number of the stories from this linked collection in the most prestigious journals of the English-language world, including Electric Literature, Granta, McSweeney’s, The Atlantic, and others. “Set in the Ukrainian town of Kirovka in the 1980s and starring a set of characters who live in the same block of flats, Maria Reva’s enthralling debut of interlinked short stories achieves the double effect of timelessness and timeliness,” Kapka Kassabova writes in The Guardian.

In addition to her fiction writing, Reva translates from French and writes opera libertti!

Pub date: March 10, 2020
Publisher: Doubleday Books

Nino Haratishvili’s The Eighth Life, translated from German by Ruth Martin and Charlotte Collins has been probably the best publicized book on my list. It is currently listed as #11 in “Russian Literature” on Amazon — woo hoo! This book opens in contemporary Berlin, but the family saga begins in Georgia, at the turn of the 20th Century, and follows the central characters to St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, and then on through time and geographical locations. “The Eighth Life is narrated by Niza Jashi, a Georgian expatriate living in Berlin, as she writes a history of her family for Brilka, her niece. The novel explores the ways that various characters are fated not only by the political tumult and government brutality of 20th-century Georgia but also by the legacy of a family curse,” explains Lori Feathers in an interview with Haratishvili on Lit Hub.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020
Publisher: Scribe US

Three Apples Fell From the Sky by Narine Abgaryan comes to English in translation by Lisa C. Hayden. Abgaryan was born in a small town in Soviet Armenia, and later moved to the capital of Armenia, Yerevan, and from there, to Moscow. Abgaryan fictionalizes her hometown in her work with tenderness and care, showing us a range of fascinating characters and a lifestyle that seems as though of a different century. This is Abgaryan’s seventh novel, and the first to be translated to English. Due to the pandemic, the pub date for this novel has been delayed to late August, but I encourage all of our readers to pre-order this book (it is already available for pre-order).

While we wait, read Katherine E. Young’s translation of an excerpt from Abgaryan’s earlier novel, People Who Are Always With Me, in Two Lines 31.

Pub Date: August 4, 2020
Publisher: ONEWorld Publications

Don’t forget to order from your favorite local bookshop, they need our help! Bookshop.org is a good second choice.

An early reader’s review of Hamid Ismailov’s Of Strangers and Bees in Shelley Fairweather-Vega’s translation

David Chaffetz writes for Asian Review of Books:

“One could characterize the overall effect as Master and Margarita comes to the Uzbek Cultural Center of Queens, NY. The poet’s profusion of words underscores his passion for his experience as a child growing up in the fields of Transoxiana, the insouciance of being a state-sponsored intellectual, the desperation of being a stateless person in rigidly bourgeois Europe.”