Maintenant #40: Sergej Timofejev
“I want to share simple truths with you” – an interview with Sergej Timofejev by SJ Fowler.
One of the most adventurous and groundbreaking poets in the Baltic, Latvia’s Sergej Timofejev is a fundamental part of the radical reconfiguration of his nation’s poetic culture and landscape in the last few decades. A urbane, grounded, naturalistic stylist, the power of his poetry has allowed him to implement numerous innovations in a region associated with formalism. Experiments with poetry and music / art installations / performance / video & even computer games, have seen his popularity soar in Latvia, though he remains a poet writing in Russian. In the 40th edition of Maintenant, Sergej Timofejev discusses the influence of Western culture, the healthy state of Latvian poetry and the reward of poetic collaborative innovation.
3:AM: You utilise the Russian language in your poetry, do you think it lends itself to poetic expression in a unqiue way?
Sergej Timofejev: I think that it’s all about structures. You find some new structures in everyday life’s language and bring them into poetry – of course it’s not only street, conversational language. For example in the beginning of the 90’s, I was inspired by a style of “music journalism” in NME and other music magazines which I started to read in English. And I wrote a poem “Three albums of the 80’s” devoted to The Clash, U2 and Joy Division, which was inspired by this music journalism discourse. Because I perceived this music (which was at the moment so far from me as a part of another western world) like one drop of water from which you can get an idea of the ocean… All the things are little bit similar inside. So when I was speaking about how this albums were created it was actually about life, emotional situation on the boundary of 80 and 90’s, my East-European perception of this music et cetera, et cetera…
I have an old theory that all the actual things (structures, ideas and so on…) are already in the air. Every poet is like a radio. He has to have an antenna (spiritual self) for getting the things (waves, ideas…) from the air. But he has to have tuning knob for getting signal clear – and that is his professional skills. And also he needs loudspeakers for making the sound powerful and recognizable – that’s his talent. Sometimes people have an antenna but their tuning knob is not precise enough. Sometimes their loudspeakers are too quiet… Actually I wrote one poem about a person – a young girl – who is at the same time a radio wave and in 2001 we, with the animator Diana Palijchuk, made a poetry video based on this poem.
3:AM: What is the feeling in Latvia towards the Russian language in poetry? Is it favoured over Latvian? Has there been a historical precedence of Latvian being relegated?
ST: Modern poetry written in Latvian, I think, is very interesting and also very successful in the local society. Latvians are quite a small nation – around 2 million together with all the emigrants around the world. But poets publish around 500-1000 books. And it’s the same quantity of copies published per book like in Moscow. That’s really good. In the 20-30’s of XX century there was one incredible guy called Alexander Chak, who was writing really inspiring and human urban poetry. I don’t think that he is known in Europe and that’s quite sad. Then the Soviets came and actually my family moved here by the order of Stalin in the 50’s. In the 60’s-70’s poetry became quite oppositional to the regime and extremely popular. Then there was the time of perestroika and some poets even became politicians but of course hardly the best ones. Around this time also appeared the phenomena of Russian poetry from Latvia. At that time appeared a whole generation of Russian poets inspired by underground, samizdat poetry. I also started to write at this time. But then independence came and Latvia became a state oriented generally on the culture in Latvian language. But in the end of 90’s there was more interest in the poetry in Russian in society and at that time we (5 young poets from Latvia who are writing in Russian) organized a project called Orbita which was concentrated on new ideas of how to perform and to publish poetry. We were performing readings together with DJ’s and video artists (sometimes we were dj’iing and vj’ing ourselves), publishing poetry books together with photo- and visual artists, publishing CD’s and DVD’s with poetry performed with special music and videopoetry. This was quite new in the post-soviet space and we got a lot of attention also from Latvian audience and media, not only from local Russians. Now we even make some art-installations with poetry (for example – ‘Time Room’ – the poem about time and short unmeaning activities which actually fill up our everyday life was illustrated by short animated clips which were screened on the walls and the roof ot the special construction).
3:AM: Where do your own poetic influences lie? In the immense Russian tradition? What poets have had the most resonant effect on you?
ST: I didn’t feel so much inside the Russian tradition when I was looking for my own style. My greatest inspiration were beat-poets from USA from the 50-60’s. Before there were T.S. Eliot and some French, Greek and Italian authors. Maybe it’s because I was trying to find something different from what we had around. I also started to read samizdat literary magazines where new Russian poetry was published – Arkadiy Dragomostchenko, Dmitriy Prigov… And also poetry of Latvian poets, of course, – Klavs Elsbergs, Uldis Berzinsh.
3:AM: Your poetry maintains a free, colloquial tone, reminiscent in places of the great New York poets, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery. Has Western poetry come to influence poets across Europe, do you think poetry has become globalised, or does there remain national poetic traditions that will be kept by nations?
ST: I think Latvian poetry was and is much more oriented on the values of Western poetry then Russian classical verse. Here, even in the Soviet time, free verse was something quite normal and understood by the audience. In Russia it was different. Until now some Russian critics and authors think that free verse is something too easy and non significant. Once I personally heard from a guy who is writing only with rhymes that “free verse poetry” is oriented towards easy translation to the Western languages and participation in the Western festivals. I answered him that, for example, I started to write this way in the time when I had no chances both for translation and festivals. But he was very self-assured.
3:AM: You are well regarded for your use of multiple mediums, for your engagement with performance and with music. Do you feel poetry must not been limited to formal verse and formal presentation? Do you think poetry will increasingly cross boundaries in medium in the future?
ST: When we started the Orbita, poetry readings were actually kind of gatherings of sad drinkers with beards who were dressed in big polo-neck sweaters. After or even during every poetry reading people got drunk and depressed. We didn’t like it this way. We never had a manifesto or something like a new poetical ideology. We just grow up in the tusovka where poets, artists and musicians were mixed. And that was quite natural to us – to make efforts to bring poetry into collaboration with other forms of culture, to find for poetry an equal position amongst these forms. But we just pushed some boundaries further, of course, not more. I think that poetry nowadays both in writing and performing can be also quite classically oriented. Poetry could be very different. We never said that every poet now has to record with trip-hop stars and to make videopoems. For some authors it suits well, for others – absolutely not. But if we are crossing boundaries we are getting new audiences which were not so “literature oriented” before, that’s for sure. When we were performing in the clubs some young people came after and said: “We are surprised, we never thought that modern poetry could be just about us and what we feel…”
3:AM: Could you details the history of the Orbita project?
ST: We started in 1999, in 2000 already we published first CD with poetry +music and also our first almanac where poetry and prose were published together with black&white photos from Latvian photographers. Then in 2001 we organised first videopoetry festival in Europe (the German festival Zebra started in 2002). Also we made a few “poetry shows” and when we were performing we called ourselves text-group (kind of similar to rock-group). Then we were making more festivals, performances, almanacs and even computer games based on poems.
3:AM: Do you believe collaboration, not often associated with poetry, is vital for the artistic production of poetry?
ST: As I already said there are no universal laws how to make poetry and what poetry should be. For one poet it is absolutely necessary to sit in a closed room with all the phones turned off and after 3 years of that kind of writing to finish a perfect book, for another – is significant to write his poem in crowded internet-café and immediately publish it in the blog and to read responses of people and may be even correct something in the text after these responses.
But when poet, musician and videoartist collaborate in a good balanced way they finish with a thing which is getting all the attention that person in the audience can give. You perceive audio, visual and textual symbolical information at one time… But it’s also not an universal law – some people in the audience, especially from the older, “book” generation say that it’s too much. That they want to separate these experiences – first to read a poem, then to listen to it, then to see the visual part…
3:AM: What is your methodology of writing? Your poetry uses potent imagery and deliberately energetic style, do you restrict yourself and edit your work, or do you simply write in bursts of creativity?
ST: I cannot really control it. Something comes into the air and sometimes I get it and sometimes I miss it. I’m editing of course when I’m writing but after the last line comes I really rare re-edit the text. Some of the poets I know publish in their blogs 2-3 poems a week. I’m not like that, really. It’s just a very special condition which comes and you sit down and write and then it goes away and you can do other things.
3:AM: There seems to be a great number of excellent Latvian poets, is poetry popular in Latvia as it seems to be in other Baltic states like Estonia, where the print runs dwarf those of Western countries, in relative population terms?
ST: Yes, I think poetry and theatre are quite popular here because they still give us that intimate feeling of contact and understanding. We have a great theatre here called New Riga Theatre with director Alvis Hermains, sometimes we organise our readings there and sometimes I also translate their performances from Latvian to Russian when they are performing in Russia.
And for Latvians it’s very significant what is happening with the Latvian language and in the Latvian language. That’s one of the reasons why poetry is also significant. And the literary scene here I would say is quite human and friendly, also for beginners. One of the “bright young stars” is Arvis Viguls who’s become famous just in a few months and his first book The Room was republished a few times.
Poetry still is not really mass or commercial product, you can not invest your capital in poetry too. That’s why poets mostly can not make their living with poetry. That’s sad because sometimes you have to go for jobs which just take all of your energy away. But from the other point of view it means that poetry still is a very “clean” and human field of creativity. It helps people – of course if they know at least something about how to read it or to listen to it. Modern poetry still needs some cultural baggage from audience. But I really believe that new forms of existence for poems like videopoetry or audio recordings mixed with good, not banal music are ambassadors of the grand country of Poetry, and they do their job well.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 12th, 2010.