New Series No. 20 - 2002
To the Reader
With Perestroika, under Gorbachev, in the late 80s, there was a burgeoning of poetry in Russia. Suddenly, it seemed, the whole of world literature, including the work of Russian poets living abroad, became accessible. Nobel prizewinner Joseph Brodsky’s influence grew enormously and was assimilated, profoundly enriching the scope of poetic language. Arguably, Perestroika had no less dramatic an effect on the cultural life of the country than the so-called Thaw (late 50s, early 60s), and Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalinist excesses. This period witnessed, among other things, the startling popularity of performance poets, notably Yevtushenko and Voznesensky. Bella Akhmadulina, also included in the present issue
of MPT, is associated with the latter two but, as Catriona Kelly comments, “[H]er work has little in common with theirs; she writes for a small circle of readers, rather than an auditorium and does not pose as a political commentator.” The alarming prospect of a disintegration of Soviet power, with the Hungarian uprising in 1956, led to a re-imposition of controls by the Party and the stagnation of the Brezhnev years, many of Russia’s best poets eventually being forced to leave the country, most notably Brodsky in 1972, and later, Gorbanevskaya, Loseff, Kublanovsky and many others.
Originally, our intention was to represent the whole of contemporary
Russian poetry, but we quickly realised that this was far too ambitious. We then decided to focus on women poets, not least because we had noticed that the anthologies still appeared not to be giving equal or adequate representation to women writers.
There have been a number of anthologies attempting to represent
recent literary developments in the former Soviet Union, but none, to our knowledge, based on a comprehensive survey of the scene nation-wide.Of course, in the past the difficulties and dangers of samizdat, not to speak of censorship, which sometimes yielded surprising or unpredictable results, made for a certain selectivity. Technological advances as well as the Internet have hugely increased the availability of writing, from Moscow to Vladivostok. This greatly complicates the task of anthologists, particularly when the net is cast as wide as it is in the case of the present issue of MPT. An interesting recent anthology, for instance, Crossing Centuries (Talisman House, 2000) focuses on conceptualism, polystylistics,
the elimination or demise of the so-called lyrical hero, retreat from egobased poetry, the apparent apoliticism of post-Thaw poetry (even if the subversive nature of this was arguably no less real than that of the dissident writing of the 60s). However, the emphasis on language as such, harking back to the avantgardism of the early twentieth century, renders translation into other languages problematical. In any case, we do not accept that the lyric hero is as dead as has been claimed. Consequently we have tried, in our selection of contemporary women poets, to be somewhat
more eclectic. In a recent article in Novy Mir, the poet and critic Dmitry Polishchuk writes: “The 25-35 year old generation is now experiencing an efflorescence – a new type of poetic vision, with a distinct poetic language, a new kind of baroque; with novel structures, combining the far-fetched, the heterogeneous, the incompatible, in a poetics of contrast.” This is particularly true of women’s writing, which transcends post-modernist or even feminist (Western style) tendencies, otherwise so much in vogue
now in Russia.
It was our aim from the start to concentrate on more recent work, on writers who achieved prominence or at least visibility in and after the mid-80s when Gorbachev and his team took over. Our focus, therefore, was on what is now the middle-generation, writers who have lived through the changes as adults. But we have also sought to represent the most recent generations. Furthermore, we have done our best to look further afield than Moscow or Petersburg, and to examine what was being produced in provincial centres like Voronezh, Saratov, Samara, in the Urals, Siberia and the Far East of Russia. Poets from outside the two traditional capitals, Moscow and St Petersburg, were featured at the Second International Festival of Poets in Moscow, in October 2001, converging on the capital from Novosibirsk and Ekaterinburg, from the Krasnodar region and the farming community of Vesyolyi in the Rostov region. Also represented in our collection are Russian-language poets in
former Soviet Republics, like Ukraine and Georgia. Finally, we have
included a handful of poets residing outside Russia (e.g. USA, England, Italy), although not as many as we might have wished, a primary concern being to represent those who had remained in the country.
Even so, our limited generational focus would not allow us fairly to
represent Russian women’s poetry at this time. We have therefore
extended the range somewhat to include a few prominent poets of older or founding-mother generations, such as Bella Akhmadulina, Yunna Morits, Inna Lisnianskaya, and abroad, Natalya Gorbanevskaya.
Although, as has been noted, there was a practical reason for making gender the basis for this selection, it soon became clear that the very notion of an anthology of women’s poetry, or of poetry by women, was a problematical one. Strangely, from a Western European or American perspective, “women’s poetry, as such, seems hardly to exist in Russia”. Dmitry Kuzmin, in an exhaustive account of types of anthologies (“Present Day Russian Poetry in the Mirror of Anthologies”) does not even mention the possibility of an anthology of women’s poetry. Nevertheless, I should like briefly to address this issue, since it seems to me a real one.
We put the question to several Russian women poets and received
some quite equivocal responses. Naturally, many were pleased at an
initiative which presumably would encourage the translation of a number of admired and hitherto untranslated female poets into English. On the other hand, familiar and sometimes rather unfamiliar objections to the notion of such a collection were also raised. Some poets, not so surprisingly, felt that this enterprise was dated and even demeaning. As Tatyana Voltskaya points out in her essay, it inevitably puts one in mind of the question, formulated by mediaeval theologians, as to whether women were even human! Russians, male or female, were more critical, less ambivalent, in their responses to our initiative than, I suspect, West European or American writers might have been at this time. (This may in part be due to the fact that Russians – if I may be pardoned the stereotype – are more adamant in expressing their opinions. But in any case I’m not sure what it signifies and wouldn’t wish to speculate here.) In the event,
rather than abandon the enterprise, we stubbornly pressed on, but
decided also to print two or three of the responses we had received, even if they were implicitly or openly negative.
Valentina Polukhina has read or scanned work by nearly 800 poets.
Still, she does not feel that the task she set herself of comprehensively surveying the scene is by any means complete. Indeed, it would have required a team of readers to complete it, and then the collection would have lost whatever unity a single sensibility can give it, although she insists that she has been relatively objective, applying critical standards acquired in a lifetime of scholarly and artistic activity devoted mainly to poetry and poetics. It remains for me to pass on her caveats! Firstly, that there are many other poets, even as we go to press, of whose existence she is becoming aware and whose absence from this collection she regrets. As noted, we have attempted to represent poets from nonmetropolitan
Russia. Again, while to some extent we may have succeeded,
it would have required a team of researchers and a good deal more time comprehensively to survey the regions. Indeed, it would have been hard to do so from abroad, since many of the publications that should be consulted, are unobtainable outside Russia.
Some 70 poets have been selected. This is a very large number for the magazine, but under the circumstances it was felt that inclusiveness was necessary, to give a sense of the range of poetry being produced by women in Russia. We tried to match authors with translators and we were, as always, limited by what we could accomplish in this respect. It is no use asking someone to translate a poet for whose work he or she has little liking. Furthermore, there is such a thing as translatability (or, more accurately, translatability at this time).
A personal note. Since we wanted to represent so large a number of
poets, I have myself translated more than I might have done otherwise, though I have no regrets about the time spent with these poets. In one or two cases, I simply failed and as a result the poet is not represented. Often I was able to benefit – and benefit immensely – from direct (or email) contact with the authors themselves. If I wasn’t entirely sure before, this has convinced me of the use of e-mail in this context – it is certainly the next best thing to direct communication, and somewhat better, I think, than the telephone; one is not conscious all the time of the expensive minutes slipping by, particularly since translation (as any visitor to a translation workshop can confirm) requires an inordinate amount of silent thought.
So much for excuses! We hope, nevertheless, that the present issue of MPT will do something to complicate, as it were, the rather simplistic – and depressing – picture of post-Soviet reality that is generally propagated. To that end, we have also included a handful of essays and short interviews, some of the latter conducted especially for this issue, others excerpted and translated from other publications. Poetry has always been particularly significant in Russia and even though poetry sales there are now more like those to be expected in the West – and greatly reduced from the huge print-runs of the Soviet period – its influence is still formidable. The provinces in that vast country are beginning to assert themselves and poetry again is one of the principal cultural means of doing so. With so much poetry being produced and published, in one form or another, the need for anthologies is, of course, greater (as Dmitry Kuzmin points out also in the essay alluded to above).
Now, some thanks! Besides reading as much as we could lay our
hands on for over a year, we have followed many leads. Small volumes of poetry have been arriving from all over Russia and from Russian poets based abroad. Advice was forthcoming from Russian poets (both in the country and abroad). All those we approached responded with extraordinary generosity and enthusiasm. Thanks are due also to scholars, critics, editors, in particular Dmitry Kuzmin, editor of the Internet journal for younger poets, Vavilon/Babylon [see his article in this issue], Aleksei Alekhin, editor of the only magazine in Russia dedicated solely to poetry: Arion [see his article], and Gleb Shulpiakov, poet and critic, poetry editor of Ex Libris, a TLS-type supplement of the mass circulation Nezavisimaya Gazeta) who also interviewed some of the poets for us. We have surveyed leading Russian journals, like Zvezda, Oktiabr, Znamia, Novy mir and Novaya Yunnost, as well as many of the principal non-metropolitan literary journals.
Heartfelt thanks are due to the poets who, despite sometimes
questioning the validity of an anthology devoted to women’s poetry,
allowed us to translate and publish their work and, in many cases,
collaborated in the translation thereof, answering questions put by their translators. As noted, e-mail has immeasurably facilitated this kind of collaborative work, permitting an immediacy obtainable hitherto only when translator and translated were in the same room together. I suspect that these electronically generated translation “papers”, drafts and comments, as they begin to proliferate, will be of considerable value to would-be translation theorists and critics, and the translation theorist in me cannot help but urge translators, if they can bear it, to preserve them, not consigning them to the ether. So, equal thanks are due to the translators who have contributed to this collection: scholars and Russianist poetry translators, like Peter France, Gerald Janecek, Catriona Kelly, Angela Livingstone, Robert Reid, Stephanie Sandler; poet-translators of Russian poetry like Richard McKane; and poets like Maura Dooley, Ruth Fainlight, Elaine Feinstein, and Carol Rumens and Yuri Drobyshev, who
worked, in most cases, from drafts and who interacted directly with the Russian poets they were translating.
In particular I should like to thank my co-editor, Valentina Polukhina, who has given herself entirely to this work. It had been my original intention to present a dozen or so contemporary Russian women poets, most of whose names were already familiar to me. I knew what I liked and was not interested in looking much further. For practical reasons and also because it was magazine policy to represent poets by a fair number of poems each, rather than to present a large number of poets with only one, two or three poems, MPT has tended to limit the number of poets presented. I took some convincing that in the present case it was well worth being more inclusive, which, in practical terms, meant considering as much as Valentina Polukhina was physically able to take on. The result
is a collection which at least aspires to comprehensiveness, even if it
cannot of course include every noteworthy poet. The further we looked, the more we found, but in quite a few cases, it was simply impossible, in the time available, to match poets with translators. There is of course room for other anthologies, reflecting other tastes and receptive to other schools or tendencies, even though we have, as indicated, aimed at a certain catholicity.
It is our hope that others will draw from the present collection –
focusing on the work of individual poets and/or groups of poets that we have been able to sample. To render this further work a bit more
manageable, we have appended Valentina Polukhina’s bibliography.
The reader will note the large number of magazines cited. The proliferation of journals publishing poetry is a feature of the contemporary scene in Russia and Valentina Polukhina has asked me to mention that she has by no means consulted all of them. Nevertheless, publication of this bibliography is some kind of tribute to her dedication and extraordinary industry.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The