New Series No. 20 - 2002
Interview with Kekova
Grigory Kruzhkov recently wrote in Arion about metaphysical poetry and he used your poetry as an example of this among contemporaries. Did John Donne play any part in the development of your poetic style?
Well, poetry is in essence metaphysical. Even a very simple metaphor is metaphysical, disclosing a hidden relationship between things. Rhyme, in its essence, is also metaphysical. The correspondence between phenomena of the visible world is reflected in poetic language and shows that everything which exists has one source, one Creator.
For me, without metaphysics, poetry loses its value. But to what
extent my own verse corresponds to the canons of metaphysical poetry, I can’t judge. As for Donne, I was not influenced by his poetry at all.
The March 2001 issue of Novy mir published a cycle of your poems, expressing a deep love for your parents. Can you say something about them?
My father was a military man. He was an ordinary soldier in the war, he fought at Stalingrad, Kursk and on the Dnieper. He never told us
anything about the war, but every year on May 9th he’d put on his
medals and weep. He was a very kind man, loved children and people in general. He could talk to anyone; he had some kind of special gift.
My birth is a sort of miracle. My aunt, father’s sister, told me that
during the war my father suffered shell-shock and at one point was
taken for dead and was about to be buried in a common grave. Only by accident did they discover that his heart was still beating and he was taken to hospital. After the war he graduated from military academy and stayed on in the army. The family moved from place to place. For several years we lived in Sakhalin where I was born. Afterwards we lived in Tashkent, in Tambov . . .
What did your mother do?
She was the wife of a military man with all that follows from that. In the most difficult circumstances she demonstrated truly Christian virtues: humility, patience, gentleness. She followed father everywhere and took us with her. For a long time she had no job – with all the moving around it was impossible. When I was older I left for Saratov University and mother found a job.My parents were raised in the same village in Penza Region, attended the same school. They both came from large families – my mother had five sisters. One other interesting fact: father’s birthday is the same date
as mother’s Saint’s Day.
You were born in Sakhalin. That is pretty exotic. What do you remember of it?
Very little. We lived in the southern part. Our house had been occupied by a Japanese family before us. So, it was an old Japanese house. Rather miserable premises.
Is Japanese culture of any interest to you and did it influence you?
Yes, Japanese culture is something special. It has its own aesthetic of the home, and a particular attitude to objects. There’s a mysterious connection between landscape and architecture and ceramics. A silence of rivers and lakes. Drawings on silk always stimulate and attract me. Artists and poets in Japanese culture don’t cut themselves off from nature; they work in so-called parallel perspectives, where there is no far and near,
past and future. Everything is happening here and now. As a result,
experience of the moment is particularly intense, the equivalent of
eternity. In my childhood I loved books on the art of China and Japan. The poetry of these countries embodies an experience which is close to me on a subconscious level.
At the beginning of the 80’s I saw a film by Kurosawa, “The Shadow of a Warrior”, every scene of which I found electrifying. I couldn’t understand why. None of the European films, including those by my favourites, like Tarkovsky, has had such an effect on me. The impression was not just of something close; there was a veritable explosion in every cell of my body. It was such a powerful experience that I found it hard just to sit there, in the cinema. I thought about it a long time and realized that it had to do with my early Sakhalin experiences. I wasn’t baptised until I was three years old and the spirit of those places seems to have got hold of me. My parents told me once that, as a child, I was carried off by a wave, but they scooped me out like a fish! Water, fish, the whole submarine world attract me almost unbearably.
When did you first write poetry?
I started writing very early, before school. Although I can’t really say
‘write’ – it was oral, as with most children. At school, I wrote poetry – it was just a natural part of life. And then I suddenly noticed that what I wrote about quite often happened! And I saw that poetry doesn’t coincide with life, doesn’t describe what happens in life. It is about something else altogether.
Did you have any teachers who influenced you as a poet?
Not as such, but I was always interested in poetics, in the logic of the development of a poetic text. For instance, when you read Mandelshtam you always think: Why does he use such metaphors. Or early Zabolotsky. How would you explain a “square of wheels”. I developed a whole analytical system in my dissertation: “The Poetic Language of Nikolay Zabolotsky. An attempt at a reconstruction.” I came to the conclusion that a poet reveals his world view through a system of tropes which, like a net, he lays over the world.
When did you start exploring Biblical themes?
Biblical themes, as far as I can recall, were always there in my poetry. It’s just a matter of to what extent. In the last few years, everything I write is related in some way to Biblical themes.
Was it difficult to get published?
I never contacted any editor and didn’t think about publication. My first appearance was in Literary Georgia, in 1981. There’s a whole story behind that, but . . .
And then in the magazine Talinn and in 1989 three poems appeared
in Yunost. In 1990, a large selection was published in Znamia. Then two books were published, with the help of Tatyana Voltskaya and Gennady Komarov.
What is the impulse for a poem? Some event, something you’ve read, music?
Very often, just the first line appears or a musical image, some intonation without any words at all. And then the words emerge. And sometimes it takes a month or more and the whole line will lie dormant and then suddenly a poem grows out of it. And the combination of words falls into a rhythmic pattern; religious philosophy and spiritual writing help me a lot. I find some kind of seed or bud there. I love dictionaries, especially Dal’s, and encyclopaedias, especially Biblical ones.
Is a poem a conversation with God or with people about God?
In one of the Psalms there’s a line: “Every breath praises the Lord.” This is the real task of poetry. The real conversation with God is a prayer and not every poem is a prayer. There are poems where you want to tell people about God and about your own soul. Sometimes you experience enormous joy and happiness but you write tragic poetry, and then you realize that it was a false joy and happiness. You begin to understand your own poetry.
So, what do you write poetry for?
I think a human being writes for himself, moving freely in time. A
conversation with God or with the readers about God? A very good
question. In Russia now they write a lot about God with a capital letter, and some readers are annoyed. Why be annoyed? It is a tradition and not just a Russian one. Why should we reject it? Poetry always thought about or meditated upon the relationship between God and Man. And where other than in poetry will modern man encounter this theme? Look at the life of a modern man or child. He walks down a street and what does he see about him?
You are very pessimistic about contemporary young people.
It comes from my extensive experience in teaching! I’ve worked with students for the last twenty-five years. I can see how these eternal questions are much further from the young now than they were from me when I was that age.
Could you name any twentieth-century poets who are close to you?
I can think of Arseny Tarkovsky, Akhmatova without doubt.
Akhmatova’s life is absolutely unique for an artist. I read a lot about her, but I don’t know about her religious life. I very much like the poetry of Inna Lisnianskaya, Olga Sedakova and Olesia Nikolaeva. In my life, my encounter and correspondence with Sedakova was very important.
And what about the younger generation?
I’m very fond of Irina Ermakova and Polina Barskova. Barskova was very young when she published her first collection.
Your poems, even those which express an admiration for the world, always sound a tragic note. Is that how you conceive your personal fate or is it a feature of Christian consciousness?
You know, Inga, the essence of the Christian view of the world is
expressed in the words of the Apostle Paul: “Always rejoice, pray
endlessly, give thanks for all.” But this ideal is a long way off! Man
cannot help noticing that people around him, those close to him, are
suffering. That he is mortal. This alone is enough for him to regard life
as tragic. How does man overcome this and what does he do with
himself? That’s the big question and it’s what his creativity is all about. Man lives and man writes.
[Translated by Daniel Weissbort]
Translated by Daniel Weissbort
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