New World, New Planet, an Open Letter by Ivan Sokolov

Punctured Lines is grateful to Ivan Sokolov for the opportunity to publish his letter and a collection of links. Author’s idiom is preserved.

I am thankful to everyone who has reached out to me—I am safe and away from Russia at the moment. Let this post be an update for my anglophone contacts who have expressed concern about Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, possible sources of following the events and the lives, as well as means of giving aid.

I feel compelled to mention, however, just to be fair, that if I find myself displaced and unhinged in every sense of the word, it is far less so than the hundreds of thousands of other Russians evacuating these days to neighbouring countries—and doing so, unlike myself, without visas, academic affiliations, language skills or any experience of living abroad. I did not think I’d live to see (and run into!) my own acquaintances, mostly young, crowded in airports by random gates—the sheer extent of the exodus is mind-blowing. The fate of those who remain in Russia may look bleak—and even if a massive campaign of arrests and repressions does not ensue, the economic deterioration will hit everyone hard. But if we find our plans, ways of life and peace of mind disrupted and displaced, it is unthinkably more literal and cruel for the livelihoods of our friends within Ukraine and those that have managed to escape the war crimes being committed there.

These days, the hearts of many go out to our friends in Ukraine, such as Galina Rymbu, the recent UDP author and her partner Yanis Sinaiko (also an excellent Russian-language poet, in the Celanian tradition), who are sheltering from air strikes in Lviv, the gem of Western Ukraine and itself a site of gruesome WWII history. Meanwhile, the thoughts of some will also be with friends on the other side of the front lines, such as Igor Bobyrev, a notorious personage but a sublime poet working in Russian, who is sheltering from air raids and military duty in Donetsk. I could list dozens more friends or simply authors whose work I follow, many writing in Ukrainian, some from the still younger generation, some as endowed with stardom as the recent Kharkiv-based Nobel-nominee Serhiy Zhadan, who are all living this crisis ever more viscerally than any of us could imagine—not all of them sheltering in fear, some (including my peers) taking to the front lines or signing up for Territorial Defence units. Not all are writers either: the most important russophone composer living in Ukraine, Valentin Silvestrov, has, thank God, just evacuated from Kyiv to Berlin (here’s an interview, auf Deutsch; Facebook users can listen to a bagatelle he wrote literally the other day).

*

I am writing this letter on 16 March, on the 130-th birthday of the great César Vallejo, a one-time convict and years-long exile. I am thinking on the life of this native of Santiago de Chuco, who had to flee Peru only to end up broke and sick in Paris. 2022 also happens to be the centennial year of Vallejo’s great poem Trilce. I don’t speak Spanish but last year I had to translate bits from the original, via other languages, when I was working on a poem by Clayton Eshleman, the Vallejo translator in the US, for an essay of mine on Eshleman & Vallejo (available in English). The poem is a cento, a pastiche from Eshleman’s version of Vallejo’s Trilce. It is called «Planet Trilce», as Eshleman reports to have understood at some point that Vallejo «was assembling in a kind of jump-cut cubistic way a world that operated with much different laws than we think ours does. It seemed as if he was envisioning a new planet». As houses are being torn apart in Ukraine, as discourses shatter globally and literal «meridians» in motion overwrite the poetic ones, it is hard not to wonder what that globe of Vallejo’s mind would be like. Well, it is a rather sombre planet:

<…>
On Trilce, there is more than enough sweetness for the whole shroud.
<…>
Dead exist who have never lived.
No two days ever touch each other.
<…>
When that which cannot burn does burn, pain doubles up its peak in laughter.
<…>
All retreats are made across exploded bridges.
<…>
On Trilce, all are cadavers of a life that never was.

And yet, it is also a planet of hope, as claims the fortissimo finale:

On Trilce, there is still hope of finding, for the saltatory power, an eternal entrance.

*

Because I’ve been asked by some, I thought I’d dedicate this message not to the «saltatory power» of russophone culture in English per se, but, first, to spreading some word of the ongoing disaster (one where «that which cannot burn does burn») through less formal a channel than the media outlets you must each be following. This and other essays by the Odesa-born US poet Ilya Kaminsky might already be on your radar. In such a case, please check out this piece by the Russian-American poet & translator Tatiana Retivov recounting her flight from the strikes raining on Kyiv. There’s also a riveting series of daily dispatches from photographer and writer Yevgenia Belorusets—straight from Kyiv (available in different languages, scroll for other translations). A selection of diary entries by others is available here; it includes a bit from the striking diary by Kyivan poet and translator Olga Bragina (available elsewhere in Swedish, Italian & Slovak). Here’s another, large set of such accounts written by young people, including some by Lviv-based russo&ukrainophone poet Danyil Zadorozhnyi, 2019 winner of the Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Young Poetry Award (in Russia), and his Minsk-born partner Yulia Charnyshova, a noteworthy long-lister of the same award from last year—both in their early twenties, now working as volunteers in Lviv. There’s also a short essay on and translations from the native of Donetsk, bilingual poet Iya Kiva who’s just fled from Kyiv (read more at this link).

Feel free to follow the writers above on Facebook: you can access many of their day-to-day posts in automatic translation, whatever the original language.

For a more official English-language coverage of the events from the russophone (and antiwar) angle, please follow Meduza.

*

Second, I thought I’d use this opportunity for sharing ways of giving aid to those who need it most now—for the «retreats across exploded bridges». I am far from the illusion that my writer friends have much monetary capital they could spare but I’m hoping that if you were to share these links further, perhaps someone who has the ability to donate will do so and make a difference. All of the links come from trusted friends.

  1. Razom for Ukraine https://razomforukraine.org/ (emergency relief for Ukrainians)
     
  2. Nova Ukraine https://www.give.novaukraine.org/ (humanitarian aid to Ukrainian residents and refugees)
     
  3. International Rescue Committee https://www.rescue.org/ (urgent help for Ukrainian refugees)
     
  4. World Odesites Club (help Odesan writers! wire $ via Western Union for Ms. Oksana Shalashna (Malinovskogo, 13, Odesa, Ukraine; osunny@ukr.net, +380504903053) 
     
  5. ABASTAN: Refuge for Ukrainian and Russian Artists and Writers in Armenia
    https://www.gofundme.com/f/abastan-emergency-residency-for-artists-writers (this might really help dozens of people I know who’ve relocated to Armenia at a moment’s notice; I hear the foundation is inundated with applications—perhaps more funding would allow them to support more people?..)
     
  6. For more links, follow this one: https://infohelpua.com/ru#help-from-abroad—you’ll find a much longer list there, please use Google Translate (it’s in Russian) or contact me, I’ll help you make sense of it.

Also, this page: https://how-to-help-ukraine-now.super.site/ lists a number of other concrete ways to help Ukrainians now, besides donating. 

*

I’d like to close here with two more poems that some of you may have seen but they are worth revisiting. One is the recent translation by John High and Matvei Yankelevich of the great 1937 requiem by Osip Mandel’shtam, «Verses on the Unknown Soldier»—one of those gripping poems from Russian modernism that so many of my friends and I felt to be beautiful and true but never in our nightmares did we have any inkling they might be this urgently relevant to the present day.

Another will be a poem by Aleksandr Skidan that deals with some «exploded bridges» of our own. Published on 1 March and translated within hours by Kevin Platt, it is a work of art that both documents the poisoned desperation of inhabiting, powerlessly, the aggressor country, and essentially sums up the entire thirty-year period of post-Soviet St Petersburg culture—a Weimar that has come to an end:

too late to scroll through news on facebook too late to write about personal and collective guilt

too late to read hannah arendt and carl schmitt in love with the schwarzwald too late to be provost of the state of emergency

too late to stand on the troitsky bridge and gaze at the loveliest city in the world too late to gaze at the ice of the loveliest river in the world

too late to go out on the ice of the loveliest river in the world and write fuck war on it too late to raise to disengage bridges

too late to cry over bridges too late to build bridges too late to say too late to loved ones too late to hug them

too late to rename the troitsky bridge as the trotsky bridge too late to say neither peace nor war

too late to say my grandma was born in poltava in 1909 too late to say her name was trepke von trepke

too late to say we are pissing our pants

too late to remember valery podoroga in 2001 after getting the bely prize in that café on liteiny and him saying who have we elected not only elected but with these very hands helped gleb pavlovsky and his media outlet

too late to say blockade patriotic war lydia ginzburg

too late to say i warned you in 2003 caution religion caution

too late to say genocide wwi turn the bayonets against imperialism as bakunin kropotkin taught and bruno shulz dreaming of maggots when he walked vinnytsia’s streets to drink with arkadii

too late to say dehumanization

mobile crematoria

special operation

it remains to be said

reread antigone return our dead

i want to lament them

this precedes the polis precedes its violence and the law the law as violence this is sister this is brother becoming a bottomless grave and a promise of love

and maybe it’s still not too late to stop the mobile crematoria

to bury our children

Let it be not too late for at least some other shard of life in this new world—for a hope «of finding… an eternal entrance», as says Vallejo/Eshleman.

__________________

P.S.: Update (5 April)

I’m sure some of you will have read the essay by one of Russia’s leading poets, Maria Stepanova, that was recently featured in the Financial Times. She is one of the few still to be able to tap into an essayist’s reservoir of figurative language and to investigate the ruins of ethics, the ruins of sociality—the very same that are depicted in Skidan’s “Too Late.”

To complement that panorama of the planet in ruins (“the whole shroud,” per Vallejo/Eshleman), I would like to add a few links to the digest above—these have become available in the days since I wrote the letter. Russia’s atrocities in Bucha and other towns render many speechless, but I want to keep sharing testimonies and leads for giving aid.

I.

Masha Gessen’s podcast on the Russian exodus to CIS countries that I referred to has been reworked (and enriched) into an essay in The New Yorker.

See also this piece in The NYT by Sophie Pinkham as well as another one elsewhere, all documenting the peregrinations of new Russian exiles.

Please read those alongside this vox clamantis of a Russian anarchist who remains in Russia and, hence, writes anonymously.

II.

More war diaries: February24.net.

Olga Bragina’s extraordinary diary is finally available in English in full.

As Yevgenia Belorusets continues to capture Kyiv’s unthinkable reality in words and photographs, The Atlantic has run a short interview with her.

A great many other first-hand accounts like those are available in a Facebook group “War. Stories from Ukraine” run by Kyivan poet and journalist Maria Banko. There’s also a specific collection of dispatches from the besieged Mariupol.

See also notes on war and displacement (auf Deutsch) by Berlin-based Russian philosopher Oxana Timofeeva.

III.

Danyil Zadorozhnyi’s and Yulia Charnyshova’s poetry from Lviv has appeared in English translations in LARB and on Words Without Borders and on Collateral.

Springhouse Journal has launched a new Russo-Ukrainian series of poetry translations that’s worth following.

Ostap Slyvynsky, a truly exceptional lyric poet from Lviv, has begun writing a serial work of docupoetry, “War’s Vocabulary,” registering the minute though visceral shifts in word usage that the war is imposing on people and their personal stories. Its first section is now available auf Deutsch.

IV.

Ilya Kaminsky has put out an essay in The Paris Review with a panorama overview of Odesa writers sharing testimonies of war-haunted existence.

To support Odesan writers, please go to this GoFundMe campaign.

To support strikes among Russian military draft evaders, please send USD to U12753559 on Capitalist.

To fund emergency evacuations from Ukraine, see this Helping to Leave page.

If you are looking to donate, a further list of vetted organisations aiding the victims of Russia’s war in Ukraine can be found here.

*

Finally, I’m going to conclude this brief addendum by two more Russian poems in translation. One is a powerful echo of Paul Celan, Europe’s most crucial war poet himself born in Chernivtsi—a city that is yet again being under attack, this time from Russian troops: it is a poem by Ekaterina Zakharkiv, endowed with such resounding cadences that it already has been translated into English twice: by Eugene Ostashevsky and by Joseph Simas.

The only poem here that I am going to share in my own English translation is one by Zakharkiv’s partner and an outstanding voice of Russian opposition—Dmitry Gerchikov. Addressing in many ways the same readers that were captured in Skidan’s “Too Late,” Gerchikov offers an explosive combination of self-irony and despair, where it is only rhyme and repetition that can make the new reality ever so bearable. The poem opens with an artistic reappraisal of Theodor W. Adorno’s famous question concerning poetry after Auschwitz; in the work’s grating gyres one can almost hear the philosopher’s own, less well known reply: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream”:

can there be auschwitz
after poetry

can there be gulags
after prose

can there be aleppo
after criticism

can there be moscow
after the end of the line

can there be police trucks
after autofiction

can there be ovd-info
after ovid

can there be lefties
after lviv

can there be music
after mariupol

can there be a 25 feb
after 24 feb

can there be war
after voina art group

can there be abramovich
after abramović

can there be void
after the fuckoids

can there be medals
after the muddle

can there be putin
after slava mogutin

can there be victims
after girard

can there be virno
after the guilt

can there be air defence
after thesis defence

can there be a before
after the after

can there be a #jesuis
after solovki

can there be cherubim
after hiroshima

can there be u.s. bucks
after roland barthes

can there be you
after we

can there be i
after this

can there be this
after me

Ivan Sokolov is a poet, translator and critic from St Petersburg, and a PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley. Author of four books of poetry. Russian translations of selections from G. M. Hopkins’s Journal, of Frank O’Hara’s Oranges (short-listed for the Nora Gal’ Award), poems by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, Clayton Eshleman, Barbara Guest, Norma Cole; currently at work on translating Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath. Contributing editor for an upcoming Russian anthology of Language writing. English translations of the poetry of Nataliia Azarova (Trafika Europe, 2018). His poetry has been translated into English, German, Greek, Spanish, Italian and other languages. Finalist of the Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Award for Poetry (2016) and other prizes. Participant of the Russo-German poetry project VERSschmuggel (2015) and of PEN AMERICA’s Writers in Dialog translation seminar (2020). Member of the editorial board at GRIOZA, where in 2020 he curated an international festschrift for the centenary of Paul Celan.

Revealing Poetry from Within: An Interview with Alla Gorbunova, by Alexandra Tkacheva

Alla Gorbunova is a Russian poet, prose writer, translator, and critic. She has published six books of poetry and four books of prose, and her work regularly appears in major literary journals, including Znamia, Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, Vozdukh, TextOnly, and others. Gorbunova’s poems and prose have been translated into many languages. She has taken part in Russian and international festivals of poetry and prose, and in 2012 participated in poetry readings in New York and Chicago. English-language translations of her poems and prose have appeared in Poetry, Words Without Borders, Columbia Journal, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, and Nashville Review.

The English translation of her book of prose It’s the End of the World, My Love by Elina Alter is forthcoming from Deep Vellum Press in 2022. Gorbunova is a laureate of Russia’s most prestigious literary awards, including the Andrei Bely Prize, the NOS Literary Prize, and the Debut Prize. She is a graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy at St. Petersburg State University.

This interview was conducted in Russian and translated to English by the interviewer. The Russian-language edition of Gorbunova’s collection It’s the End of the World, My Love is available for purchase from the publisher, NLO Books.

Alla Gorbunova

Alexandra Tkacheva: When did you start writing? How did you come to think of yourself as a poet? Some of your lines, such as “Дом сверчка в золе и саже / За окном его горит / Чёрной башни карандашик / С чёрной тучей говорит” [The cricket’s house in the soot and ash / Outside his window / A pencil of the black tower is lit / It is talking to a black cloud] can be read as ars poetica. Is this a common and/or deliberate effect in your work?

Alla Gorbunova: In her “Young Mother’s Diary,” kept by my mom, she notes that I started composing poems when I was a year and nine months old. But these poems did not have words yet. My mom describes them as combinations of sounds with a strong rhythm. Since then, I’ve been composing verse, which gradually acquired words.

In childhood, I had a favorite game. I took books (preferably but not necessarily with pictures), sat down and ran my finger over the pages until the paper became threadbare. I muttered to myself, made up a story, sometimes relying on the pictures, and imagined that it was printed on those pages. Reading other people’s texts also encouraged me to play this game. When I liked what I’d read, I took the book and began declaiming my own words in the same spirit and style. I kept up this practice for many years, having felt a deep need for such creative expression. It seemed vitally necessary, a true inspiration. 

As for ars poetica, yes, in my poetry you can often encounter a reflection on the poetic experience itself. A form of autoreferentiality. In that moment of unfolding, poetry poses a question about itself, about the foundations and possibilities of poetic speech. I feel that we lack the language capable of revealing what poetry is from within. When I’m writing a poem, regardless of its subject, there is always a revelation of poetry itself, poetry turned not only outward but also towards itself.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Tell us about your creative process. How are your poems written? What about prose? Where does the work on yourself end and the work on the text begin for you? Is the material world (the nighttime, a table, a cup of tea) important for creativity? Do you edit yourself? Does your “mental controller” (a character in Gorbunova’s short story “На правах рекламы [Advertisement]”) intervene? What is the most difficult part of writing?

Alla Gorbunova: Usually, a target appears (sometimes I catch it, like a hunter), a point-like and precise note, a condensed whole, a pure creative possibility, a certain intensity, a call for me. It can be said that I “see” this intensity, this target. However, a more accurate metaphor here is perhaps recognizing the smell. Indeed, not only a word or an image can carry meaning, but also a smell – in a more primordial way. There is something from hunting prey by its smell in the creative process for me.

The distinction between poetry and prose is not critical to my process. Both are about seeing for me. Sometimes I see something, and it’s clear that this is poetry. Or that this is prose. I mean, it’s clear that this particular intensity is meant to unfold as poetry, while that one – as prose. And sometimes, I see that it can be unfolded both ways and I can put it down as either poetry or prose.

Working on a text, when it’s taken out of the context of working on one’s own self, is a purely technical handicraft. In my case, it would be more correct to say “work within the text” instead of working on it. Someone working on the text creates an object, cultivates it.  I don’t work on the text but within it. I have to work so that the text can work. Creativity, writing, poetry, and prose are all a work of consciousness. Here, the quality of visual and mental attention plays a more important role than craft. 

The material world is important. The transcendental can permeate things. Things can accumulate memory and time. They can speak and think. Sometimes I get to hear their thoughts. Strictly speaking, these are not thoughts in our habitual understanding, but a certain murmur, noise, movement, tension – something happening inside the matter, though nothing semantically meaningful. Things are restless on the inside.

Actually, all things are foam—quantum foam, which has been theorized to be the basis for all matter. Things accumulate memory, they are not stable inside, they consist of this foam and can hunt people and steal our consciousness. Things constantly invite a body: eat me, take me, touch me, play with me. Inside our consciousness there is a selective mechanism determining which invitations to accept and which to reject. This selective mechanism can function poorly or even be broken, and then things do whatever they want to a person.

I edit myself very little. The evaluative function that judges the text as though from an external critical perspective works automatically and usually at the moment of writing. I constantly want to be writing something new. I simply don’t have time to write down everything I want, so I’m unable to focus on things already written, because, otherwise, that new thing that I urgently need to put down will slip away. By the way, it wasn’t always like this for me in terms of editing. When I was younger, in high school, I worked on form a lot. Back then, I felt that I needed this, constantly gave myself assignments, polished my craft, forced myself to write poetry in all the complex ancient meters, and so on. I wanted to know many words and forced myself to read the dictionary. This is how it was before, and now I usually write the final version right away and rarely revisit it. I don’t have multiple drafts.

The hardest part of writing is also the easiest. To be alive, not just physically, but in the actual sense, to keep your heart alive. Is it difficult or easy? On the one hand, it is extremely easy, and on the other hand – impossible. I feel I need to balance on that single point at which a person is alive. That point at which there is no yesterday or tomorrow, where you part from yourself and reach that something you were created for – life. The creative act happens at that single point – where there’s no past or future, where you yourself cease to exist. When you create within that point and not here, in this world – it becomes clear in the text written here. There’s life in the work.

Alexandra Tkacheva: What role does the reader play for you? What life do you imagine for your words once they become available to the reader?

Alla Gorbunova: I think the poet writes not for the reader but for the perfect addressee – a certain absolute instance that cannot be embodied in any concrete reader. And the reader can come and live in this text if they can and want to. The work is, like Nietzsche puts it, for everyone and no one.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Which of your predecessors or contemporaries have influenced your work? Is there a point in tracing Platonov, Gogol, or Kafka, who you once said were your favorite writers? After reading your essay on Elena Shvarts, I’ve started noticing the overlaps in imagery and tone between your and Shvarts’s poetry. How do you feel about such attempts to establish a literary genealogy? 

Alla Gorbunova: In my view, the search for influences and overlaps is often an attempt to understand the unfamiliar through the familiar. Or worse than that: to reduce the unfamiliar to the familiar. As a result of this attempt (regardless of the validity of these influences and overlaps), the seeker is left with the familiar piece of art and fails to recognize the unfamiliar.

In any case, I leave the search for contexts, connections, and overlaps to the critics.

Alexandra Tkacheva: What is your take on criticism? How do you combine creative and critical practices? What are your guiding principles for analyzing texts written by others?

Alla Gorbunova: In Russia, we have some absolutely wonderful, subtle, and insightful critics and I’m grateful for their reviews of my books. I cannot complain really, I have seen a lot of interesting texts from critics and bloggers about my work and these have brought me great joy. But generally, it seems that many people who undertake the task of writing about books and even have authority in certain circles, do it superficially. They briefly describe the work and provide their assessment. They don’t want to analyze and work with the text, fail to see its context or perceive what lies outside the scope of their expectations and ideas. Most importantly, their hearts are not open or ready to try to understand and hear the other. Even the way they write carries a surprisingly revolting, brash intonation, as if they have seen all things in the world and know everything about everyone. This intonation is full of fatigue, smugness, depreciation, and contempt. These critics do not presume the author innocent: the fact of publication means for them that the latter wants to sell them something, foist it on them, while they consider it as consumers and say: “alright, this will do” or “ugh, I don’t wanna buy this.” There is no understanding that the author writes their book not because they expect something from the critics or society but for no reason, because they cannot behave otherwise. These people often have a consumerist attitude to books, it’s like a food cycle for them: consuming and then producing an evaluative review. And they think everything exists just for this purpose. I’m reminded of the time when I taught philosophy to first-year physics majors. We were supposed to discuss the philosophical texts and try to understand them, but often the students simply expressed their value judgements and opinions. I found this practice strange. “Opinion” is actually a cunning thing, a lot has been written on it in the philosophical tradition. Opinion and thought are widely distinct.

Criticism, for me, is definitely not about opinions or judgments. It’s rather a possibility of thought. A possibility of understanding or misunderstanding, where the latter can also be valuable. When I engage in criticism, I combine the analytical and the hermeneutic approaches, trying to understand and shed light on how the text is organized on different levels and what stands behind it. In a way, I explore the author’s artistic mind. Tracing the links and contexts, I primarily draw on my own encounter with this text, analyze the interaction that happened between us. Hence, my criticism is not only about the author I’m writing about, but also about me, I also open up in it. I can be biased but I try to see and acknowledge my bias. Fundamentally, I try to withhold my own taste and ideas about literature from my analysis of the work under review, but instead look for its inner law, read it according to the rules that are most applicable. And my own plasticity is important here. Not judging the text based on the primitive procedure of correlating it to my idea of good and bad but seeing it on the atomic level. For example, when you write about different poets, you can see very clearly that they understand poetry and poetic utterance differently on the atomic level. You have to change your optics accordingly. You have to be extremely flexible but cannot lose yourself. And here’s how I combine poetic and critical practices: I try not to write criticism at all. And if I write it, I try to do it in a way that enriches me as a poet. So that I get something out of exploring another poet’s thinking and their poetic world, or clarify my relationship with this author, or understand something I was trying to understand. That is to say, for me, criticism is a work of the conscious mind just like poetry and prose.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Your poems and short stories have been translated into many languages, including English. Is it important for you to participate in the translation process, and maybe affect how a prospective readers’ community that doesn’t speak Russian receives your work?

Alla Gorbunova: I prefer to meet a good translator – a professional and a fellow thinker – and entrust my work to them. In the case of English, I try to check translations for obvious semantic misunderstandings, which can happen with the best translators. In the case of other languages that I don’t speak, I cannot do this for the obvious reason. But I’m always open to participating in the translation process and ready to answer in detail any questions from the translator.

Russian cover of It’s the End of the World, My Love (NLO Press, 2020)

Alexandra Tkacheva: It’s the End of the World, My Love was categorized as autofiction. How did you come to this genre? What kind of relationships exist between the author and the heroines in your texts?

Alla Gorbunova: No one knows what genre this is. You may categorize it as autofiction or not. Honestly, I have discovered this word “autofiction” only recently after the release of It’s the End of the World, My Love. I saw it in the reviews and then googled the definition. Current interest in autofiction was news to me: I didn’t aim for any trends and just wrote the book that felt organic to me at that moment. However, I think that the fact that different writers in various countries choose this genre or, to maybe put it better, create it, is not because of a fad but rather because they independently exhibit the desire for this kind of writing. Most likely, this desire is caused by certain underlying changes in our perception of literature and the demands we make on it, by the cultural shifts and the changing forms of our sensibility. Probably, there is an ongoing search for new ways of building a narrative and assembling a text, and autofiction is a possible direction of this search.

But when you talk about autofiction in contemporary Russian literature – here everything instantly turns into a trend, a movement that seeks to capture, expand, and mark the symbolic field. I can’t stand all this hustle. I like it better when my books are described as “fuck knows what this is.”

Alexandra Tkacheva: What is your literary-artistic world built upon? Your childhood memories, the books you have devoured, dreams, the collective unconscious? Is it a single Wonderland with multiple entry points, the three worlds you mention in “Пред вратами [Before the Gates],” a folding shelf at your mom’s bed-foot? Who are your guides here?   

Alla Gorbunova: I cannot answer this question, you see. Because if I do, we will end up with another blueprint or outline. My books speak for themselves; everything is visible there. I generally think the world has no foundation. Not only the world created by a work of art, but also our common world is founded on the lack of foundation. And artistic possibility emerges from this lack of foundation as well. However huge and total the world created by a work of art is, there must be an empty space, a blind spot. That empty space is a pledge of openness that enables the world, including the world of a work of art, and prevents it from turning into an enclosed structure. The world cannot be captured by a net.

Alexandra Tkacheva: You write about your experience of growing up, female friendship, sexuality, and motherhood. Are you embracing a woman’s perspective? Does your work have a feminist agenda?

Alla Gorbunova: I never had a female identity as such, I don’t identify myself through the traditional gender binaries. I just write about human experience and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a female experience or not. Some regions of this experience are considered female, while others are not. There’s nothing deliberately feminist in my writing but there’s something else that might also work to benefit women. My internally free heroine can also liberate, and annoy certain kinds of men, those who believe that a woman should know her place and that thinking, art, self-knowledge, extreme freedom, and radical experiments are not for women. My heroine, in my view, dramatically illustrates that this is not the case.

Alexandra Tkacheva: In your poems we often observe metamorphoses, the borders between opposites are erased, and the human lyrical subject dissolves, while animals, plants, and objects acquire agency. How do you feel about a posthumanist reading of your poetry?

Alla Gorbunova: It’s true, in my poems, everyone and everything is alive, animals speak, and there is no clear distinction between the living and the dead. The borders between opposites are being erased and everything turns into everything else. Some people can interpret this as posthumanism, others, in contrast, as a return to archaic mythical consciousness (maybe these approaches are not mutually exclusive). But the connections in this world are poetic, amorous, and existential and not based on technical rationality. I still understand posthumanism as a technological utopia (using technologies to transform bodies, seeking physical immortality, merging human consciousness and the computer). And I don’t really trust technological utopias.

In my view, the main poles of attraction that determine the direction in which we reflect on technicity today are Heidegger and Gilbert Simondon. Heidegger’s philosophy treats technology with caution and focuses on revealing its threatening side. And Simondon analyzed technical objects from another side, offering a strange inhuman optics. The possibility of intersection of digital and human lives, the possibility of a not quite human perspective on our everyday life, unusual, bold ideas and futuristic forecasts ushering in anthropotechnic hybrids and affecting our existence as humans scare and fascinate me at the same time. They always make me question whether, in our mixing of human and technical, we are starting to schematize the unschematizeable, universalize the unique, count the uncountable – apply our calculating thinking to the things that cannot be calculated.

Alexandra Tkacheva: Do you identify as a Russian poet? Is your writing grounded in time and space of contemporary Russia? Do you feel the need or responsibility to make sense of the ongoing events for your readers?

Alla Gorbunova: I perceive my poems as a part of the Russian poetic tradition as well as a part of world poetry. For me, these two things are not contradictory, and I think that contemporary Russophone poetry can, on one hand, be deeply rooted in the Russian poetic tradition and, on the other hand, be completely open, future-oriented, and welcoming to the experience of other cultures and languages.

Actually, I have my own take on tradition. For me, tradition isn’t an “inheritance.” I cannot say I need any inheritance. It feels like creation always happens from the ashes, in conditions of an original catastrophe. There is no default “cultural heritage” or “tradition” at all, it’s a fiction we’re taught in school. The continuity of a poetic tradition is established by every poet anew. Every poet assembles this tradition themselves: it’s a shadow cast into the past, and a searchlight directed towards the future. A poetic tradition needs to be obtained, assembled from the initial ruin. Every creator started from the ashes: in the 19th and in the 18th centuries, as well as today. For me, as a poet, this beam through the past illuminates names that are very different from each other. My favorite poets from the first part of the 20th century are Velimir Khlebnikov and Osip Mandelstam, and from the second – the poets of the Leningrad Underground: Leonid Aronzon, Elena Shvarts, Aleksandr Mironov, Sergei Stratanovskii. 

I think it’s hard to avoid reflecting on the local and global events without being a hypocrite today. There are two kinds of danger: the first comes from following the headlines too closely and turning art into a front page, and the second – from building an ivory tower and treating your art as detached from reality, so it becomes a decorative embroidery. I think we need to seek some living, non-trivial ways of letting social reality into the text.

There are things around us that you can hardly ignore because if you pretend you don’t relate to them or don’t see them or they don’t exist, this is also a certain position, a way of relating. There are things you simply cannot stay away from because it equals betrayal. And there are more and more things like that every day.

But we should not forget that art has an autonomous capacity to produce its own differences: it creates its own space and time so it cannot live simply as a socially mediated phenomenon or be reduced to certain conventions. (Which does not contradict the critical potential of art: the creation of space and time itself is an act of radical social critique as it creates an opportunity to change our point of view and highlight things and ideas that had previously gone unnoticed.)

After all, contemporaneity does not contain things but is created by them. Time doesn’t act as a container for things, but things themselves create, produce time. An object of art does not merely satisfy the requirements of some conventionally established contemporaneity, but creates its moment in time. The so-called contemporary moment is always being created by writers, artists, among others. A work of art defines and forms time.

Alexandra Tkacheva is a PhD student in the Slavic Department at the University of Michigan. Her research interests include modern and contemporary periods in Russian literature and culture. As a graduate student, Alexandra applies feminist and posthumanist critique to the works of canonical and lesser-known Russian-speaking authors. She graduated from Nazarbayev University (Astana, Kazakhstan) with a BA in World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures in 2019. When not deconstructing patriarchy, she rides her bike, learns about the human mind, or wanders through the local coffee shops.

Telling the Story of People Who Didn’t Want to Be Noticed: An Interview with Maria Stepanova

By Svetlana Satchkova

Maria Stepanova is a Moscow-based poet, essayist, and journalist. She’s also the editor-in-chief of Colta, a crowdfunded online publication that she created eight years ago and that has become a major outlet for long-form think pieces on contemporary Russian culture. Stepanova published ten books of poetry and three essay collections and has received numerous literary awards. In 2017, she wrote her first book of prose, In Memory of Memory. It’s a documentary novel that tells the story of the narrator who, after the death of her aunt, goes through the archive the aunt left behind, discovering her family’s history. In parts of this book, there’s no narration – just excerpts from diaries and letters written by Stepanova’s relatives; its other parts engage directly with other authors who wrote about memory – Osip Mandelstam, W. G. Sebald, and Susan Sontag. Despite or, maybe, because of the book’s non-traditional form, it gained a wide readership and won two major Russian literary prizes. On February 9, In Memory of Memory comes out in English from New Directions, translated by Sasha Dugdale, a British poet and playwright. This interview was conducted in Russian and subsequently translated to English by the interviewer.

In your novel, you quote someone saying that quite a lot of books have been written in English by people investigating their family histories. In Russian, though, your book is the only one of its kind.

Actually, it’s not the only one, which makes me very happy. To me, this is a discovery of sorts – that things we usually consider private and insignificant are turning out to be the most interesting not only for me, but also for a large number of people. And the stories they tend to tell sometimes are quite unexpected in their scope and variety. In some of them the twentieth century shows up in all its terrible glory, with all of its tragedies and disasters, but in a number of cases these are just regular domestic stories of how somebody’s grandmother arrived, or how someone left to work in the north, or how three sisters lived in a distant Hungarian village, but then decided to leave for the big city. And yet one can’t get enough of these stories. I think that this is a very important shift, this interest in familial memory. There’s an increasingly palpable hunger for contact with the past which grows stronger as the present becomes less acceptable to us. A couple of years ago, I worked in Berlin for a year, teaching memory writing in Humboldt University. I had large groups made up of different kinds of people, all of them hooked on this search for the past despite it sometimes being painful – because traveling to the past isn’t always pleasant. Moreover, this interest in memory is a global, international phenomenon, which is now shaping the outlines of a new community and works as a link between generations because it attracts people regardless of their age.

Do you have any idea why you became the first person to write about these things in Russian?

I wasn’t really the first one – writing one’s family history is something fairly normal in Russia, as elsewhere, and there is a good number books devoted to the legacy of the twentieth century and the traces it left in private lives…. Maybe the genre is something that makes a difference in my case: I was most interested in trying to shape a new territory between fiction and nonfiction: in my book, a novel, an essay, and a research project meet one another. I guess no one else wrote books like that at the time.

Do you think there isn’t a lot of experimentation happening in the Russian literary space?

This is how it works: since the beginning of the nineties, when literary awards appeared in Russia, the way contemporary fiction works has been largely determined by their existence. Winning one of them is the only opportunity for a prose writer in Russia to receive a substantial amount of money that can greatly improve their life. These awards, in one way or another, are geared towards finding the great Russian novel that is very similar to the great American novel. It’s a long, philosophical narrative without any stylistic nonsense – because it should be easy to read and digest – shaped within the mold of a nineteenth century novel. That is, the writer is forced to reinvent the wheel for the umpteenth time.

In other words, you didn’t expect that your book would become successful and would win two of these very same awards – NOS and Big Book?

I didn’t think about those things at all. I’ve been writing poetry all my life, and it always seemed to me that prose was the medium that wasn’t required of me, that if I wanted to write prose, I could easily write it in verse. And I did: I’ve written long narrative poems and all manner of ballads. At the same time, I always knew that someday I would write a book about my family, even though I didn’t know how I would go about it. I’d been meaning to write it from the age of ten, but I was taking a long time, endlessly getting distracted, looking for a chance to procrastinate a little while more. There came a point, however, when I realized that I had to do it. I set out to write a text that would be convincing to me, and there was one more goal that was even more important. You know, Brodsky has this essay called “To Please a Shadow.” This was what I wanted – to please my dead. I constructed my book in such a way that they would feel good in it. Maybe I could’ve written it in a completely different way, without all those historical and cultural references that work as a large structure into which my own stories then fit. I could’ve written a story about my family and nothing else, but I had in mind something that would belong to the realm of contemporary art. I wanted to create a space in which I could arrange the few remaining photographs, letters, and testimonies, and to make it so that they would feel good in this space, so that they would be seen and understood in the right way. This is how you work when curating an exhibition – you start with the space. I really didn’t think about anything else, and the fact that my book wound up being widely read was a shock both for me and for my publisher, who didn’t hope to sell more than three thousand copies, I think.

How did you arrive at this particular form for your book?

The book is about inconspicuous people, people whose lives resembled those of everyone else: they loved, they fell out of love, someone died, someone was born. As a family, they managed to survive many times, perhaps because they deliberately stayed on the sidelines. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they tried to be actors of history, but later they moved to its margins and spent almost a hundred years there. So, what worried me was the question of how to tell the story of people who didn’t really want to be noticed – and how to talk about people whose fates had nothing extraordinary about them.

I found the story of Lyodik who went to the front and died at the age of nineteen absolutely heartbreaking.

Lyodik’s letters have been in our family for as long as I can remember. When I was little, my mother told me about him sometimes and read his letters out loud. But it’s impossible to surmise from his letters what was actually happening to him and around him – he kept silent about that. In order to look beyond and understand what he kept silent about, I had to read a lot of historical literature on the blockade of Leningrad and the Leningrad front. A documentary novel is a genre in which there are a lot of gradations, that is, there’s a toggle switch that can be moved to the left, towards the documentary, or to the right, towards fiction. I’m probably keeping to the left of this spectrum. I have serious problems with the type of novel writing that uses people who are no longer alive as glove puppets to convey the writer’s own thoughts and emotions. I think and write a lot about the ethics and the etiquette of writing about the dead, about what is allowed and what isn’t, and at what point it turns into the exploitation of people who can no longer object to this treatment.

Have you come across books that dealt with the dead in a way that you liked?

There are a number of books that are great examples of how one can write about the dead without trying to make the story “interesting,” without trying to deceive, and at the same time doing this miraculous work of resurrection. First of all, I should mention W. G. Sebald because he balances on the border of fiction and essay writing in such a way that there’s a constant flicker. We want to, but we cannot ask: was this all real or not? Is this narrator Sebald or someone else with his mustache and his last name? It seems to me that a new type of literature is emerging which still doesn’t have a name, but it no longer fully belongs to either fiction or essay writing. The books I love most belong exactly to this type of writing that is gradually becoming more and more important.

You’ve mentioned in various interviews that fiction is becoming less and less interesting than documentary writing. Why, do you think?

Remember Mandelstam’s article “The End of the Novel”? It was written in 1923, almost a hundred years ago. He says in it that everything has changed, that the man of the nineteenth century had an individual fate and was therefore interested in the individual fate and its trajectories – hence the success and the significance of the novel as a genre in the nineteenth century and beyond, due to some kind of inertia. But we all know how the twentieth century dealt with these trajectories: it took these individual fates, collected them in a bundle, and broke them over its knee. Later, when the smoke cleared, it turned out that the individual survived, though not in the place where we kept looking. It’s no longer where the typical hero appears in the proposed circumstances and carries on their shoulders the novel construction. In the century in which people die in millions, one person isn’t quite the measure. An error, a detail, a very small thing – oddly enough, that’s the measure.

What kind of thing?

For example, a button that I saw at the Museum of the International Memorial in Moscow where they keep the belongings of the prisoners of Soviet camps. They have many remarkable things there, including an archive of drawings made by the prisoners. It amazed me – and I want to write about it sometime – because there are no scenes we remember so well from the Russian camp prose: no barbed wire, or German shepherds, or security officers on the watchtowers. But there’s a huge number of still lives with flowers as well as landscapes and portraits. For some reason, it was important to those people to create beauty rather than to give a realistic depiction of their circumstances. In this museum, I saw a button in which one of the prisoners had sent a note to his wife. This is a striking detail: they were horribly tortured, but they could give their overcoats to their wives for cleaning. This officer handed his overcoat to his wife, and from one of its buttons a corner of this note was sticking out slightly. On tissue paper, he wrote in microscopic letters about how he was arrested and beaten, and he added that he probably wouldn’t come back. The twentieth century is the time when life turns out to be so inhuman that people become speechless and can speak only for all of humanity, while objects do the speaking for them.

You’re fluent in English, and I assume that you’ve read Sasha Dugdale’s translation of your book. How did you like it?

I think it’s brilliant. Sasha is a wonderful poet and a close friend; she translated and still translates my poems – but my book is maybe the largest piece of prose she had ever translated. And what she did with this huge volume is, in my opinion, absolutely incredible. The Russian type of writing involves endless subordinate clauses that circle around the principal meaning until they finally find their way to it. The Russian syntax imitates the confusing, complex work of human thought, while English, it seems to me, entails a completely different logic and a completely different language etiquette. If you translate a Russian text aiming to convey mainly its syntactic features, it won’t deliver the intended message. What Sasha did was amazing: she found a balance between these two things. She delivered the message that is still the main objective of my work, and at the same time she created this English Russian that isn’t a literal reflection of the original, but somehow gives the reader an idea of how it works.

Your book has a subtitle – romance.  In addition to its other meanings, this word designates a certain kind of song in Russian.

In the book, there are several definitions of the subtitle, and the reader can choose the explanation that they like best. To me, the English meaning of this word is the most important. I feel that this book is a love story, only it’s facing backward rather than forward, as is usually the case with love stories because love is always looking for some kind of completion in the future. Here, love is addressed to people who are no longer alive, so, on the one hand, my love is happy because I love them and I feel that they love me, but on the other hand, I can’t talk to them anymore, and this love is doomed in a sense.

Your book makes clear that your ancestors had to stifle their literary ambitions. Why was that?

When I began to sort through my archive, it struck me: they were all in one way or another people of the written word, even those of them who never intended to study literature. Therefore, there are parts in my book in which I don’t speak at all: I publish excerpts from letters or diaries to give my ancestors the opportunity to speak in their own voices. It seemed wrong and inappropriate to me to invent a voice for my great-grandmother where she had her own. On the contrary, I wanted them to say once again what they already said once, to get a final chance to be heard. My grandfather wrote poetry all his life, mostly comical, but when his daughter – my mother – began to write poetry too, he strictly forbade it, saying, “You’re Jewish, so you must have a profession.” My mother worked as an engineer all her life and never wrote poetry after that.

Was it the same way with you? Were you told not to write poetry?

In a sense, I’m the result of this half-century of their non-writing, because the first thing my mother taught me was to read and write. She was too shy to sing, so at night, instead of singing lullabies, she recited poetry to me. I turned out to be the completion of my family’s hope that someone could write and speak for everyone. It’s a lot of responsibility, because it’s like dragging around a suitcase full of family stories that haven’t been told, and I’m the knot in which they converge. I have to decide whether to talk about them or not, and what exactly to tell. On the other hand, I was infinitely happy, writing this book and doing almost nothing else for several years. I traveled to all the places where my ancestors once lived, and it was very strange and exciting. For example, I went to this microscopic village in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Arzamas and Nizhny Novgorod, and there was no train there, only a bus that went there once a week, there was no hotel, no cafes, no nothing. And I looked at all of that and realized that there was some thread that connected me to that place.

Since nonfiction is more interesting to you than fiction, does this mean that you don’t read mainstream novels?

I have a very special reading routine: I read a book a day. This means that I constantly have to throw new texts into the furnace. I really love genre literature: for example, detective stories that have clear rules upon which the author agreed with me. It’s a game the author and I are playing. I also read complicated, experimental texts, and academic stuff. I do sometimes read mainstream psychological novels, but they don’t make up the bulk of my diet. If someone I love comes running and says, “Grab this new novel immediately and read it,” then, of course, I’ll grab it and read it. But when I’m in a bookstore, the shelf with freshly published novels isn’t the first one I’ll be looking at.

You don’t hide your political views: you oppose Putin’s regime. You must’ve had opportunities to leave Russia. Why have you stayed?

This is one of those questions that I have to ask myself every five years or so. When my parents left for Germany in the early nineties, I didn’t go with them. I stayed because I was fascinated by what was happening in Russia. It seemed odd to me to leave when the most interesting things began to happen. And now, I feel that someone has to love this place – with its monstrous situation into which we have driven ourselves, with Putin, with these comic-opera poisoners, with this “insane printer” [in colloquial Russian, this is what the Duma, or the state legislative body, is called – Punctured Lines] that passes these insane laws. Someone has to live here and to treat this space as their home, to make it meaningful. Which isn’t to say that I’ll grip this earth with my teeth and stay here under any circumstance. But as long as it’s possible to live here somehow, I would try to stay here. Because the worse it gets here, the more this place needs our love.

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Svetlana Satchkova is a writer and journalist from Moscow, Russia, who currently lives in New York City and is working on her MFA at Brooklyn College. Her most recent novel People and Birds came out from Moscow-based Eksmo Press to popular and critical acclaim.

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