24 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Will Evans on Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets, a collection of poems from Zephyr Press by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova, translated by Catherine Ciepiela, Anna Khasin, and Sibelan Forrester.

For those who don’t know, Will is the face behind Deep Vellum Publishing, based in Dallas, Texas, and is also a translator of Russian. Here’s the beginning of his review:

Two women dominate the history of Russian poetry: Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva. Both authors transcended the label of “woman poet” and live in the realm of the eternal untouchable legends of Russian poetry. To wit, I remember a Russian professor in college correcting a short essay I wrote on an Akhmatova poem because I used a feminine noun to describe her, as what in English we would call a “poetess.” My professor crossed that word out emphatically and wrote in the column in bold Cyrillic letters: “Akhmatova is a POET,” using the masculine-gendered noun to correct a term Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were both outspoken in rejecting. In the strictly-gendered Russian language, this choice of gender is not a trivial distinction, and provided a lesson in gender politics that has stuck with me to this day.

Yet since these two grand dames, standard bearers of the rich Russian poetic tradition and shining lights of 20th century poetry, passed away, there have been precious few Russian women poets translated into English. This is where Zephyr Press comes in, and bless them for it. Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets is their latest bilingual collection of contemporary poetry by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova. Relocations was released around the same time as their edition of Anzhelina Polonskaya’s Paul Klee’s Boat (which I reviewed for Three Percent in late 2013), and in just two books, Zephyr Press has published more Russian women poets than all other American publishers in the last 20 years combined. And they’ve been doing it for a while now.

For the rest of the review, go here

24 January 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Two women dominate the history of Russian poetry: Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva. Both authors transcended the label of “woman poet” and live in the realm of the eternal untouchable legends of Russian poetry. To wit, I remember a Russian professor in college correcting a short essay I wrote on an Akhmatova poem because I used a feminine noun to describe her, as what in English we would call a “poetess.” My professor crossed that word out emphatically and wrote in the column in bold Cyrillic letters: “Akhmatova is a POET,” using the masculine-gendered noun to correct a term Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were both outspoken in rejecting. In the strictly-gendered Russian language, this choice of gender is not a trivial distinction, and provided a lesson in gender politics that has stuck with me to this day.

Yet since these two grand dames, standard bearers of the rich Russian poetic tradition and shining lights of 20th century poetry, passed away, there have been precious few Russian women poets translated into English. This is where Zephyr Press comes in, and bless them for it. Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets is their latest bilingual collection of contemporary poetry by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova. Relocations was released around the same time as their edition of Anzhelina Polonskaya’s Paul Klee’s Boat, and in just two books, Zephyr Press has published more Russian women poets than all other American publishers in the last 20 years combined. And they’ve been doing it for a while now.

Relocations is a 21st collection of poetry in constant dialogue with Russia’s past, present, and future. The ghosts of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva haunt the pages, as does the brutal history of Russia and the Soviet Union’s 20th century, with its revolutions and wars, and the middle-class stabilization and increasing internationalism of Putin’s 2000s. These three quite different but well-paired Russian women poets are each attempting to “modernize” Russian poetry, while at the same time reclaiming the status of “woman poet”:

“. . . they [Barskova, Glazova, and Stepanova] confidently leave behind Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova as poets of female desire, while remaining conscious of themselves as writing women. Stepanova insists on calling herself a ‘ poetess,’ a knowing postmodern reclaiming of a category Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova felt necessary to reject.”

In her introduction, editor Catherine Ciepiela notes that these women live and work internationally, in contrast to their lyric Russian poet forebears like Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and Joseph Brodsky, whose movements were restricted by Soviet authorities. The “relocations” of the collection’s title are as much physical as artistic, as each poet’s work “relocates” across genres of poetry as much as each poem represents part of the international lives these 21st century Russian women live in Russia (in the case of Stepanova), abroad (Barskova and Glazova), and the spaces in between.

Polina Barskova’s poetry is included first in the collection, translated by the collection’s editor, Catherine Ciepiela. Her work is dominated by a conversational tone that puts emphasis on the sounds of words strung together, stretched across the page in unrhyming, varying forms free verse. Dual language poetry books are awesome for this reason, especially if you know the original language, and Ciepiela does a fantastic job translating Barskova’s language into a playful, yet serious, English, as in this excerpt from “The Translator I”:

bq, We flounder through powdery snow
Siamese t-t-
Twins joined by the tongue’s sweet saliva,
My round-the-word dawns break inside you over you
With awkward precision—
A tattoo job,
Wet still, trace of blood from the needle,
The trace of my writing stains you.

Barskova writes from a first person, seemingly autobiographical narrative “I”, unafraid to link herself to the history of Russian letters, as in the epic “Leningrad Directory of Writers at the Front 1941-45,” which provides creative interpretation of the choices made by the Soviet Union’s most famous poets and artists to survive the brutal Leningrad siege in World War II. And at the same time, Barskova is capable of moments of profound beauty in imagery and ideas, as in her section’s closing poem, “Tomatoes and Sunflowers”:

Brimming—branches, shadows, lineaments,
Flavor and scent not quite stench, just exhaling.
Grasses black, brown, blue, then down from the
Sky, a gust—there’s a rush, shuddering.
But as soon as the picture completes itself
And perspective shrinks to zero, everything
Collapses. You know what will stay with me?
The spider web—its dire embroidery,
The tomato—the crack that won’t close again,
Half-minute foretaste of ashes, calamity—
I was given it all, none of it promised to me.

Anna Glazova, translated by Anna Khasin, is a quite different poet from Barskova and Stepanova, and writes much shorter poems that are unnamed, uncapitalized, and unrhymed, with a detached narrator observing the essence of the world around them in a style that is at once sensually lush and haunting:

the work of hands is the work of ears of grain.
through bread we want to touch death.
who eats bread.

we, wheat, growing, don’t know.

he who cuts
breaks the whole thing with all.

Glazova’s style is described in the introduction as “phenomenological,” reflecting the individual’s direct interpretation of their surroundings. The closing poem in Glazova’s section is a fitting image of her style, encapsulated in the haunting final line, a rare instance of the narrative first-person:

it takes all kinds of thoughts to come of departure,
hid the throat in the collar, somebody standing in the backyard
or taking a feral way to the through yard.

given that to wait for an answer
is simpler for me than to arrive home.
and the sense of a foothold keeps getting lost.

this is me remembering how hard it is sometimes to walk before the wind.

The poems of Maria Stepanova, translated by Sibelan Forrester, are bold, narrative reflections on the world, especially current affairs, with a strong narrator writing in the first person. Stepanova is well known in Russia as the founder of Openspace.ru, an online journal of cultural commentary akin to The Huffington Post. She more recently founded Russia’s first publicly-funded cultural journal, Colta.ru. Unlike Glazova’s work, which straddles ambiguous narrative spaces by not identifying the narrator, Stepanova writes strongly feminine and feminist poems that play with form, rhyme, meter, and content, that drop endings off of words, leave out lines, and hint at what remains unsaid between the lines. These poems are quite different from the works of Barskova and Glazova, both in terms of form (longer, rhyming at times) and content, they all refer directly to the feminine form in its many forms, with political intonations both indirectly and directly expressed, as from the “The Wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, Broadcast Live by RTL German TV”:

But who is a man, and who inhabits him,
Puffs him up, follows after him as if he’s a plough,
As pregnancy reduces the female form to zero,
Traces the coming contour with an unseen circle,
So its cramped O will be filled from within,
And are you and I to remember it forever?

Between the poems on current events and contemporary political topics, the Russian and Soviet past makes an appearance in Stepanova’s work as well. Like to Barskova’s poem about the Leningrad siege, Stepanova’s “Sarra on the Barricades” gives a history of Stepanova’s own great-grandmother, who participated in the 1905 revolution, and who miraculously lived long enough to know her great-granddaughter. The poem is a spectacular recreation of Russia’s 20th century history, dominated as it was by women, the women who were left home, left to make do and keep the country running with what ravaged remnants of society remained while the men went off to fight and die by the millions in revolution after revolution, war after war, purge after purge:

Now—just in my own cramped skull.
With her daughter.
With her granddaughter.
With her great-granddaughter me.
The storm cloud swallow of feminist skies.
Noah of a female ark.
And when she crowns the barricade,
I shall not bare her arms and breasts,
But neither will I drape her with a flag,
Because there’s no such flag.
And neither the color red, nor the white and blue
Are suited to such a task.

In the cacophonous lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in a few weeks, these last lines remind the reader that politics in Russia is an inhuman constant, whether under the flag of the Soviets or the ostensibly democratic Russian Federation. Their sentiment of the flag as beneath humanity echoes one of my favorite poems by the American poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz, writing in the height of the George W. Bush war era: “I don’t believe a flag / is important / / enough to kiss— / or even burn. / / Some men would hate me / enough to kill me / if they read those words.”

Reviewing poetry presents a world of problems. Reviewing translated poetry presents another world of problems in addition. Reviewing translated poetry by women poets throws the male reviewer into a universe of problems that could take lifetimes to extract himself from. As with most reviews, context is everything. How to contextualize the contents of the work under review is the most important task any reviewer faces, and with a collection like Relocations, the reviewer could go in any number of contextual directions, before settling, finally, on presenting these three incredible female poets as a vital new chapter in the history Russian poetry.

Relocations is a highly enjoyable collection of poetry introducing the English-language world to three incredibly diverse and talented women poets writing in Russian that could be as meaningful to a casual fan of poetry as to a comparative literature scholar. Since the 80s, Zephyr Press has published more Russian poetry than just about anybody, including numerous women poets, starting with the comprehensive collected works of Anna Akhmatova, a thick tome that has become the standardized edition that I remember all so well buying from my college bookstore as a wide-eyed freshman, Akhmatova’s legendary profile on the cover. It would have been easy for Zephyr Press to stop there—after all, most publishers do, rarely delving into contemporary poetry; but Zephyr Press started publishing contemporary Russian poetry in the 1990s in a bilingual anthology called In the Grips of Strange Thoughts, which morphed into a series of Russia’s most interesting contemporary poets.

Relocations is a fantastic addition to the In the Grips list, and a much-needed, timely, fun, and all-too-relevant read in 2014. The best part about anthologies like Relocations is that no matter what style of poetry you like best, it’s included within, though you’re more likely to enjoy all three poets as their poems strike various chords in your mind as you make your way through the collection. A great anthology, highly recommended.

4 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Will Evans (aka Bromance Will) on Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good, which is translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen, Mark Krotov, Corry Merrill, and Bela Shayevich and published by n+1/Ugly Duckling Presse.

By now, most of you know who Bromance Will is, but for those who don’t, he was an apprentice here last summer and is starting up his own publishing house in Dallas. (And I have to give a public shaming to University of Texas at Dallas for not snatching Will up and hiring him. Huge loss, UTD. Huge.)

Anyway, here’s the opening of his review of this really interesting sounding collection:

To call Kirill Medvedev a poet is to focus on only one aspect of his work: Medvedev is a committed socialist political activist, essayist, leftist publisher, and literary critic who lives in Moscow and who uses the medium of poetry as his artistic base for a broader discussion of art and politics, and the artist’s place in today’s global consumer capitalist society.

In 2004, Medvedev renounced the copyright to his own work and forbid any publication of his works via a LiveJournal blog post (included in this collection), announcing that any collected editions of his works henceforth would be pirated and published without the express permission of the author. Subsequently, a publisher in Moscow followed his advice and published a pirated collection of Medvedev’s works up to that point and fittingly titled it Texts Published Without Permission of the Author. Two of America’s best indie publishers, n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse, have teamed up to present the first English-language pirated sampling of Medvedev’s works up to this point, It’s No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions, featuring wide-ranging excerpts selected from the first decade of his writing, including a well-curated selection of poetry to his most significant blog posts, along with lengthy essays on politics and art, descriptions and accounts of his political “actions,” and literary obituaries, all written between 2000 (the first cycle of poems published as It’s No Good [Всё плохо]) and 2012.

You don’t need to know anything about Russia today to read and enjoy Medevedev and, further, to identify universal themes within his work. This edition presents a potent mixture of Medvedev’s poetry and prose that, in his own words, explores the “link between politics and culture.” Medvedev breaks with centuries of Russian (and Western) artists’ attempts to create an apolitical world for themselves outside of the political and economic system in which they create their art: for Medvedev, art and politics are wholly inseparable, the artist cannot escape the influence of power and capital on their art.

Click here to read the full piece.

4 March 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

To call Kirill Medvedev a poet is to focus on only one aspect of his work: Medvedev is a committed socialist political activist, essayist, leftist publisher, and literary critic who lives in Moscow and who uses the medium of poetry as his artistic base for a broader discussion of art and politics, and the artist’s place in today’s global consumer capitalist society.

In 2004, Medvedev renounced the copyright to his own work and forbid any publication of his works via a LiveJournal blog post (included in this collection), announcing that any collected editions of his works henceforth would be pirated and published without the express permission of the author. Subsequently, a publisher in Moscow followed his advice and published a pirated collection of Medvedev’s works up to that point and fittingly titled it Texts Published Without Permission of the Author. Two of America’s best indie publishers, n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse, have teamed up to present the first English-language pirated sampling of Medvedev’s works up to this point, It’s No Good: Poems/Essays/Actions, featuring wide-ranging excerpts selected from the first decade of his writing, including a well-curated selection of poetry to his most significant blog posts, along with lengthy essays on politics and art, descriptions and accounts of his political “actions,” and literary obituaries, all written between 2000 (the first cycle of poems published as It’s No Good [Всё плохо]) and 2012.

You don’t need to know anything about Russia today to read and enjoy Medevedev and, further, to identify universal themes within his work. This edition presents a potent mixture of Medvedev’s poetry and prose that, in his own words, explores the “link between politics and culture.” Medvedev breaks with centuries of Russian (and Western) artists’ attempts to create an apolitical world for themselves outside of the political and economic system in which they create their art: for Medvedev, art and politics are wholly inseparable, the artist cannot escape the influence of power and capital on their art. As Medvedev states in his essay “Literature Will Be Tested” (evoking Brecht):

The metaphysical consciousness of the artistic intelligentsia is based, as I’ve said, on the idea that any product of nonmaterial labor exists outside its context and speaks for itself . . . “There is no freedom from politics”: this is the banal truth one must now grasp anew. Political passivity also participates in history; it too is responsible.

In his poetry, Medvedev uses a brutally simple free-verse style, rare among Russian poets, evoking a sentimental humanism in constant dialogue with the world around him, be it artistic, political, or wholly personal, reminiscent of a mixture of Vladimir Mayakovsky with Charles Bukowski, whom Medvedev has translated into Russian, and with whom he shares a “genuine contact” (24) that explores the collective aspect of human experiences.

(I remember this about myself:
when I was little I thought
that when it came time for me to die
that everything would be different
and that it wouldn’t be me anymore exactly
and so for me, in the form that I was then,
there was nothing to fear)
children think that
in the form
in which they now exist
they will live forever

In contrast to his poetry, Medvedev’s essays use simple language to explore complex political and cultural issues on power and art, whether it is the attraction of aesthetic appeal of fascism, or the hierarchies of power in the Russian poetry underground. In a long biographical essay on the underground poetry publisher Dmitry Kuzmin, with whom he’d had a falling out, Medvedev calls for a new form of socialist-democratic art, with the artist as a leading figure in creating collective political consciousness and inspiring direct action:

For a leftist art, there are no individuals: there is simply a single human space in which people exist . . . But no work of art is a thing in itself, as bourgeois thought claims, nor is it a divine reflection, as religious thought claims, but evidence of all society’s defects, including the relations of the dominant and dominated. The task of innovative art is to insist on the uniqueness of the individual while revealing the genuine relations between people, the true connections in society, and, as a result, to forge a new reality.

Throughout It’s No Good, in all of the literary methods and actions that he employs, Medvedev cycles through series of questions on the role of the writer as artist; the role of the artist as political figure; the role of art in politics, in general; the way art morphs and is shaped by money; the importance of leftist art in the fight against neo-fascist and capitalist hegemonies. Medevedev continuously evokes the work of political artists from outside of Russia who came before him, from Pasolini to Brecht, placing himself among an international tradition of artistic activism for leftist, socialist, anti-fascist political causes: “whereas I want—revolution / to change the face of everything, / to overthrow everything and everyone— / they want / a petty bourgeois revolution—”.

It’s No Good is presented in a beautiful paperback covered with Russian avant garde-esque art (Tatlin’s tower is evoked on the front cover, the back cover descends into lines floating in autonomous space), which segues nicely with Medvedev’s theories of art as political weapon, and recalls the intentions of the Soviet Constructivists in the post-Revolutionary period, when artists felt like they had the power to create a better place on Earth, a truly harmonious socialist society, through their art. The American publishers of It’s No Good are no strangers to leftist political thought: Ugly Duckling Presse puts out some of the best poetry and prose from around the world of a truly independent and radical nature, while n+1 published the first collection of writings on the Occupy movement, and publishes some of the best international literature in their journal, as a recent issue featured an excerpt of Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair.

The impressive team of translators for It’s No Good include Keith Gessen, a co-editor at n+1 who helped translate Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Killed Her Neighbor’s Baby, as well as Mark Krotov, an editor at publishing behemoth-extraordinaire FSG. Two other translators, Cory Merrill and Bela Shayevich, combine with Gessen and Krotov to give Medvedev a powerful and sympathetic voice in English that is remarkably unified and direct, overwhelmingly sympathetic, and refreshing and enjoyable to read.

As a poet, Medvedev will appeal to the casual poetry reader as much as the avid chapbook hound, and his nonfiction prose will undoubtedly help It’s No Good land on many graduate student bookshelves for years to come. It is Medvedev’s unique mixture of poetry and prose, artistic and political at once, that gives It’s No Good a lasting power that immediately places him in the forefront of international activist art. While Medvedev delves into the complexities of art’s role in Putin’s Russia from his place within the Russian context, the American, and Western reader, in general, comes away not only with a greater understanding of the complexity of a political activist’s lot in Russia today, but burning with the universal questions about every society’s relationship between art and politics.

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