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Maintenant #87 – Eugene Ostashevsky

An interview with Eugene Ostashevsky by SJ Fowler.

An irrepressible poet and thinker, the work of Eugene Ostashevsky has been a dynamic presence in the New York poetry scene for some years. Born in Leningrad and emigrating while still a child, like so many who have left their homeland, alongside the ebullience and humour of his own poetry, Ostashevsky has been a tireless translator and advocate of Russian poetry, most specifically the OBERIU group, whose radical experimentation was led by the near mythological Daniil Kharms. Teaching at New York University, the energy and vibrancy, and intellectually buoyancy, of Ostashevsky places him as an invaluable link to both the Russian past, and future, in poetics. He reads in London for the first time on March 8th 2012 at Pushkin house, and celebrating that event we are pleased to welcome him as the 87th respondent of the Maintenant series.

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3:AM: You have translated the work of Daniil Kharms, and it seems like his work is centrally important to your own work. Do you see connections between his obsession with a wild undermining of one’s own privileged source of meaning, and your own work’s advocation of a kind of energetic humility of humour and immediacy? Are you drawn to Kharms’s surrealist unpretentiousness?

Eugene Ostashevsky: I translate Kharms only occasionally; his main American translator is Matvei Yankelevich, responsible for Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniel Kharms. Matvei’s Kharms is very much an underground writer, with the emphasis on the physical activity of writing, of note-taking, of living the life of note-taking, with all the fragmentariness that results. He is the Kharms of the event, of the now; a writer in the margins, in both senses of “writer” and both senses of “in the margins.” This is the Kharms you see not only in Matvei’s editing choices but in Matvei’s own poetry. My angle is pretty different. My Kharms is the person whose writings on mathematics articulate some of the philosophical positions of the Lipavsky circle, to which both Kharms and Vvedensky belonged. My Kharms is the philosopher who asks, what the world would be like if the successor function were not true, if you could not “automatically” get from number n to number n+1? If all actions were atomic; if there were no such things as logical inference, causation, time? And then he says, “Well, actually, the world IS like that already.” But the two pictures are complementary.

Sorry, I just twisted your question. Or rather I didn’t. Look, Kharms and his friends are the first Russian poetry group to take something akin to a linguistic turn. They are not after the Logos, as the Futurists and Mandelstam are. They distance themselves from language—by “language” they mean all cognitive frameworks, not just linguistic ones—emphasize its alterity, conventionality. Yes, their position is historically contingent. The Russian around them is Stalinizing, words move further and further away from their referents. But despite their historicity, Kharms and Vvedensky match our concerns very closely, infinitely more closely than the attitudes of their predecessors. By “ours” I mean two things. One is the people of today, or some people of today, but I don’t want to get into a genealogy of that, or a sociolinguistic explanation. The other is me. Let me talk about me! English is always going to be second-skin to me. It’s never going to be first skin. And that’s the basis of my poetry. However native my English gets, it still builds on the experience of somebody learning the language for the first time. You know how absurd other languages seem when you start learning them? You have this big external structure that claims to be transparent but it ain’t transparent at all, not to you! Hence the main move in my poetry is the pun. I even introduce myself as a pundit.

3:AM: Is the mode of experimentation you arguably share with Kharms, a futurist engagement of dynamism married with a formalist manner, a way of circumnavigating the official language of poetry that you seem to be engaged with avoiding?

EO: Yes and no. I don’t set myself in opposition to whatever might be construed as “official poetry” in the US, as the Language School used to. American poetry is vast, there’s space enough in it for everybody. It’s like Noah’s Ark… Although—Noah’s Ark was full of poop. Because they had only one window and it was closed. Sometimes you look at poems in the New Yorker or similar magazines, and lo, there’s the poop! This one is from a giraffe, and that one’s from an iguana. I don’t get that about the New Yorker. Their investigative journalism is so good, but the poetry… Maybe it would be the other way if I were a journalist.

Moving right along. I grew up in a poetry culture that was all about classical prosody. I mean, I grew up on it in the States. On Joseph Brodsky island. We had a Pushkin tree, a Mandelstam tree, and a Tsvetaeva bush. To jump from that into American poetry, no meter, no rhyme, just print, print, silence—that’s the real culture shock. The real divergence is not so much between Russian and English, as between Russian as the locus of classical prosody, and English as the locus that classical prosody got ripped out of. This is why when you translate Russian poetry your main mode is the ironic. Or rather the ironically phlegmatic.

I don’t know if I am being clear enough. Vvedensky has an astounding play—if it’s a play—called “A Certain Quantity of Conversations.” In the third conversation a singer sings about how poetry is dead. Coming from classical poetry to print poetry, that’s how you feel. Everything is different: not just the prosody, but also the concept of poet, of the work of poetry, and so forth. It takes many years before you grasp how the second system works, before you start to internalize the meaning and the function of it. Besides, the classical tradition is more obviously beautiful, and it is the tradition of childhood… I mean, who doesn’t like Mozart? So there is a great deal of nostalgia.

But I am not a fan of poetry as nostalgia. I don’t think poetry “should” be in rhyme any more than it “should” be in quantitative meters or alliterating accentuals. People who use rhyme in English as if the change to print poetry has not taken effect, they need a mirror. You can still use rhyme, but you can’t use rhyme as if it’s still 1880.

Jacques Roubaud, a French OULIPO poet and mathematician, has an article on free-verse types, where he observes that first-generation free verse poets still define themselves in opposition to classical prosody, and you can hear the rhythms break in their work, while with second-generation free verse poets you already can’t. (It’s in in Perloff and Dworkin’s The Sound of Poetry, The Poetry of Sound.) To me, that is the meaning I attach to Célan’s idea of “broken music.” I don’t mean to steal the term from its proper historical context, but as a tagline it helps me conceive what happens when when I translate, or even compose.

3:AM:: You studied in the US, were you born in Russia, emigrating for study, or had you relocated previously?

EO: My family emigrated to the US in 1979, as I was turning eleven. We came from Leningrad, in the big Jewish exodus that preceded the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I was a teenager in New York, in high school when Run-DMC came out with “King of Rock” and the Beastie Boys with “She’s On It.” That was very exciting. They could rhyme.

3:AM: Do you write in English first and foremost? If so, the process of writing in a language that is not your first must have been an overwhelming experience.

EO: I write only in English. That’s how I started when I was a teenager. It made sense to write in English. Emigrants from the Soviet Union were totally cut off from the old country. Our citizenships had been revoked. We were never to see anyone from our past unless they emigrated also, and then with Afghanistan the gates closed. When the Soviet Union opened up and then fell over, I returned and even lived in Petersburg for a year. I tried my hand at Russian then. The results were trite. I think that even if you are bilingual, you can’t just throw into one language what you do in another. You’d have to start almost all over again. I am sure that if I persevered in Russian, something would have come out. But why? It’s hard enough to work in one language.

Or, from another angle. My English relies on the fact that my English does not sit entirely naturally with me, which in English is fine. At least in American English. In Russian, it’s not fine. If your Russian is a bit off—and mine would be a bit off, whether deliberately or not—people inform you, “It’s wrong, you made a grammatical mistake.” You can’t tell them, “I was thinking of an idiom in Latin.” Russians are not tolerant of nonstandard language. You also can’t tell them, “This is the Russian we speak in New York.” They think there can be only one Russian. My favorite Russian seventeenth-century poet, Andrei Belobotsky, was originally from Poland, and his Russian is full of Polonisms. The main man of Russian seventeenth-century studies said of him, “He is not a good poet, his Russian is full of Polish.” I was, like, you should drink less.

3:AM: Is there a danger there might be an increased reception for a poet who appears somehow ‘authentic’ to American readers and academics because of their status as a European poet, moreover a poet following in the footsteps of those great ‘defectors’ of the 50s, 60s and 70s and in your case, the ‘authentic’ avant-gardes?

EO: No. You can’t throw a rock in New York without hitting one or usually more foreign-born poets. For example, there is City Lore, an urban anthropology organization that promotes poetry by New York immigrant communities. Their range is amazing. Iranian, Caribbean, Ethiopian, Quechua—all sorts of traditional and print-culture work in original languages. New York has great transformative potential for poetry. But it’s a niche economy. There is not enough creative interaction between native-born and foreign-born poets, especially if the latter write in their first languages. As far as American avant-garde poets go, the older generation is weirdly conscious of its poetry as “American”; they use the word “American” quite a lot; they don’t want to be just “English-language.” I think it’s insecurities left over from the seventies, when they were trying to define themselves against the mainstream, and opted for the image of national tradition. Paradoxically, they are neither chauvinist nor insular at all, rather the reverse. Michael Palmer, Charles Bernstein—these are some of the most intellectual people I’ve met in my whole life, and I say “intellectual” with all the oomph assigned that word in the Russian-Jewish lexicon. They translate. They opened up to the Russians of their generation—to Parshchikov, to Dragomoshchenko, to Zhdanov—with great selflessness, earnestness and generosity. But these Russians did not tell them what to do. With Brodsky it was a different game. To describe it adequately one needs a great deal of space, and research. The Brodsky Misunderstanding is the real story of the divergence between Russian and English-language poetries. I think it’s a horrendous missed opportunity; it still makes me uneasy.

3:AM: In the way that Nikolai Zabolotsky seems to have overshadowed Kharms for some, do you think the work of Alexander Vvedensky has become overshadowed by Kharms himself?

EO: Vvedensky is hardcore. You don’t need to know anything about poetry to enjoy Kharms at the first go—it’s his prose that’s popular anyway. But you can’t be total rookie, and still like Paul Celan or Mandelstam. Ditto for Vvedensky. I am now preparing his first English-language solo book. We’ll see whether there are any responses when it comes out next year. For me his work is phenomenal, the closest poetry comes to being poetry. But when my OBERIU Anthology got reviewed, the responses singled out Kharms rather than Vvedensky. As far as Zabolotsky goes, I love his work up to, say, 1934, when he tried to go loyal. Afterwards, it has splashes but the main current is not for me.

3:AM: You are reading in London at Pushkin house. How did this event come about? What are your expectations?

EO: It came about through nepotism. My main expectations, or rather hopes, are to be awake, because I fly in from New York a few hours beforehand—and, boy, will my arms be tired!

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of three poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 4th, 2012.