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.
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .
Jocelyne Saucier’s Twenty-One Cardinals is about the type of unique, indestructible, and often tragic loyalty only found in families. For a brief but stunningly mesmerizing 169 pages, Twenty-One Cardinals invited me in to the haunting and intimate world of the. . .
We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .