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.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/svetlana.satchkova

Lida Yusupova’s Poetry Collection The Scar We Know

In the spring of 2007, in St. Petersburg to visit my parents and to promote my first collection of stories, I decided to attend a graduation party of the Gender Studies program at the European University. I’d been a semi-active participant in the Russian-language feminist blogs, where I learned about this program. I contemplated applying; or, at least, since by then I lived in San Francisco, I dreamed about befriending the students and the faculty and making myself useful to them. I had just graduated from a Master’s program in Comparative Literature in San Francisco, where I learned a few things about feminism. I thought my experience could be useful and interesting to my Russian peers. My ideas were somewhat far-fetched.

European University building until 2017

Established in 1994, European University had the reputation of a progressive institution, focusing on social studies, including history, anthropology, economics, politics. I had never been there before, and I was imagining something akin the American universities that I knew: welcoming signage, flyers everywhere, friendly faces ready to help. I forgot to account for one small thing: my native city’s culture.

The address of European University took me to a grand old palace in the old part of town. The entrance should’ve been obvious, but there were a few young men smoking right outside. Intimidated by the smokers (there was very little smoking on campus in the San Francisco by then) and confused by where one palace ended and another began, I’d walked past the door, before eventually turning around. The smokers–students, presumably there for their exams–stared at me in a way that was evaluative and none too friendly. Once finally inside, I had instructions about where to go, but the instructions simply said “auditorium,” or some such thing; not very descriptive. I remember walking up and down the halls and stairs of this labyrinthine building, feeling very sorry for myself. Did I ask somebody for directions? I can’t remember, but I remember my fear that if I did, the response would be dismissive. “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there”–something along these lines. I never made it to the auditorium. I was doomed to being an outsider.

Ok, this was a low moment, but I wasn’t really doomed. The next day, I turned to my aunt Maya for help. She, a librarian, helped me find a bookstore where I could buy the books written by the program’s faculty, and later still I was able to meet some of my LiveJournal friends at cafes and conferences in Russia, Ukraine, in the US. These relationships shaped much of my writing.

Many years later, continuing to lurk on the Russian-language feminist sites, I came across Lida Yusupova’s poem “the center for gender problems” (link to the Russian-language version):

i called an organization by the name of the center for gender problems
could i come to your library
it was January of 1999
i had come back to Russia
from Canada
where i had read a whole lot of books
about feminism
in English
i thought i had a lot of useful knowledge i could share

Though it’s not set in European University, the space that the poet describes is socially and geographically very much adjacent to it (the poem includes a physical address!). I felt absolutely seen by this poem; moreover, the poet had managed to capture and deliver lines I’d been too scared to even fully form in my head: Yusupova’s poem is also about the speaker’s realization that she’s a lesbian and the desire to meet other lesbians. Her words gave me courage and opened a few doors in my mind for me. I became a devotee and sought out Yusupova’s Russian-language book Dead Dad and read everything I could find online.

Given the above, you can imagine what an honor it was to be asked to contribute a blurb to Yusupova’s first English-language collection, The Scar We Know, forthcoming from Cicada Press on March 1, 2021. I had to hold myself back from gushing, and nevertheless wrote the three paragraphs below. The editors, advisedly, picked one sentence for the book cover. One benefit of co-editing a feminist blog is that Punctured Lines gives me lots of space to gush…

The “blurb”:

Arriving to the literary scene as the USSR disintegrated into the new Russia, Yusupova gathered her poetic influences both from within and from far outside the mainstream Russian literary tradition. Writing in free verse and relying on line breaks and the blank space of the page for emotional effect, Yusupova anchors her poems in the physical human body. Edited by Ainsley Morse, The Scar We Know is a celebration of Lida Yusupova’s groundbreaking poetry by a community of translators. Madeline Kinkel, Hilah Kohen, Ainsley Morse, Bela Shayevich, Sibelan Forrester, Martha Kelly, Brendan Kiernan, Joseph Schlegel, Stephanie Sandler all contributed to this collection.

The bodies in this book have vaginas and penises, they suffer from dog bites and rape and mental illness and brutal murder, they deliver dead children and alive children that they don’t know what to do with; and they experience occasional bursts of joy, those, too, provoked by the physical bodily sensations: a touch, a look, a good fuck. The poet brings the dead close to us and allows us to grieve for the ways they died, no matter how far away and long ago. Yusupova frequently draws on the language of news reports and court summaries, transforming our relationship with the bureaucratese. In English, her translators juxtapose vocabulary from different registers and patterns of speech and incorporate Russian to insist that the reader looks closely at the subjects of these poems in both their familiarity and uniqueness.

Yusupova has become a leading voice for the new generation of feminist and queer poets in Russia and in the global Russian diaspora, and this translation is a radical gift for the English-language readers, offering us an opportunity to draw deeper connections with the transnational humans who have been marginalized and othered, and to do so while dismantling the accepted patriarchal narratives and systems of value.

Finally, three more links:

In October, Punctured Lines ran a piece about contemporary feminist and queer Russophone poetry, and it included an in-depth interview with Ainsley Morse, the editor and one of the translators of The Scar We Know. Lots more there about Yusupova and the way this book came together.

On January 25, 2021, Globus Books will be holding an online event to celebrate the publication of this book. This event will be held on Zoom at 9.00 am PDT, 12.00 pm EDT and will be streaming on the Globus Books YouTube channel. To register for the Zoom conference, please send a private message to Globus Books Facebook page.

Please preorder and buy the book from Cicada Press or your local bookstore!

Feminist and Queer Russophone Poetry

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

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

The Books

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

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

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

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

Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Image credit:  Una Ostashevsky

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

Genrikh Sapgir’s Sonnets: A Performance from ALTA

On November 9th, 2019, Olga Livshin, Dmitri Manin, and I hosted an off-off-site at ALTA (American Literary Translators Conference) in Rochester, NY. Olga Livshin introduced A LIFE REPLACED, her hybrid collection combining own and translated poems; and I introduced LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES, my English-language collection of fiction. Both books deal with issues around parent and children relationships, immigration, and processing the complex inheritance that we brought to the US from the Soviet Union.

To open the evening, we staged a brief performance of Dmitri Manin’s translations from the work of Genrikh Sapgir. A Soviet Jewish poet, Sapgir combines a whimsical imagination with the sharp eye for telling details. Watching this video a few weeks after the performance, I’m surprised to see how effectively Sapgir’s images and Dmitri Manin’s words helped us to recreate a certain spirit of the late Soviet Union, a kind of festive carnivalesque environment in the face of increasing challenges of everyday life and crumbling social structures. Obviously, none of us are trained actors, but we all reveled in the performative aspect of Sapgir’s work.

These poems come from Sapgir’s book “Sonnets on Shirts” that was first published outside of the Soviet Union, in Paris in 1978. Dmitri Manin is working on translating the complete manuscript, and we’re publishing these sonnets in English with his permission.

Thanks to Shelley Fairweather-Vega for recording the performance, and to our lovely and supportive audience! The sonnets below are reproduced in the order in which they appear in the video.

Sonnet of Things Gone Missing

To Ian Satunovsky

At times there is — no beef or ham or cheese
Now hats are gone from store shelves everywhere
But I have known calamities to spare
No place to live. No health. No relatives

No happiness no moral sense no peace
For one’s own labor no respect nor care
No warm and comfy place to take a piss
No prospects for a harvest come next year

But there are FISH-BASED MEATBALLS in a can
And goals — both hazy and utopian
Betrayal cosmos vodka boredom missiles

There’s forest, steppe, construction and ballet
And even people — somewhere far away
And God’s my witness! — though God’s also missing

Something — Nothing

A metaphysical sonnet

A sphere swings. Towards the sphere
A sphere swings. Where they meet, they all
Collapse: one — a pair, one — a pair, one — a pair
We watch from a spherical mirror hall

Everything’s a reflection. A ball or a troll
A thing or a cloudю It swells like a nightmare
Then without a crash… a ball disappears a ball disappears a ball disappears
Gobbled up by a ball

Streaking and splitting they fold and go —
In the third — in the tenth — all the host to the faux
Infinity: one after the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next the next etc.*

Stop it! Enough! I can’t stand this ordeal!
A ball on a thread in an infinite reel —
A universal game on a childish pretext

*The line stretches to a misconceived infinity. 

Chart of Life

Three wise old men bent over to review
A chart of life in their benevolent wisdom
“He’ll be a poet… under socialism…”
“A wretched fate, indeed” said Lao Tzu

So I was born here not without a reason…
Wartime… cat scavenging the yard for cukes…
Oppression by the bastards and the crooks…
The tedium was stifling like a prison!

And suddenly — a trip to Singapore
On this sweet break from the routine and chore
I saw a mural in a Buddhist temple

On which among pagodas and bamboo
Three wise old men bent over to review
A chart of life and smiled around the table

Recently Published: Paper-Thin Skin by Aigerim Tazhi, translated by J. Kates

In May, Zephyr Press and publisher and translator J. Kates brought to us a collection of poetry by Aigerim Tazhi, a writer who lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan and writes in Russian. According to the Press’s announcement, “Fish, insects, birds, the sea, the sky, humans seeking connection, and death figure frequently in these succinct poems, as do windows, mirrors, and eyes: these are poems of observation and deep reflection. Tazhi gently insists that we look at words and the world “in the eye,” as she seeks to create what translator J. Kates calls a “mystic community of communication.”

A beautiful bilingual book, produced with care and attention to white space around the poems, Paper-Thin Skin speaks to layers of loss–from personal and private to the loss of the country (I read these poems in the post-Soviet context) to climate change and the loss of habitats.

Translating Tazhi to English, Kates makes carefully weighted choices for clarity. In the example below, he changes the poet’s line “Чёрным вестям из нечёрного ящика” — literally “Black news from the not-black box” to read “At dark news from the bright box,” making sure that the English-speaking reader will understand the image of television. He makes this change with attention to the rhetoric device that the poet employs and finding an opportunity to create a sense of parallel and contrast in the image.

Pub Date: May 21, 2019

Publisher: Zephyr Press

Translator: J. Kates

The book has been reviewed by Eric Nguyen in Empty Mirror, Peter Gordon in Asian Review of Books, Alison Mandaville in World Literature Today, Zaure Bataeva on her blog.