By Philip Metres
A Normal Interview with Elena Fanailova:
The symbolic power of poems in current culture, the state of Russian poetry, fusing identities, and a deeper look at her poem, "Lena, or The Poet and the People."
Philip Metres: When did you start writing poetry? What poets and writers have influenced you?
Elena Fanailova: The first poem I wrote in the second grade, and I’ve been writing ever since. My childish poetic experiments were corrected by my mother, who was a literature teacher. Her favorite poets were by [19th and 20th century Russian poets] Nekrasov, Lermontov, Mayakovsky, Apukhtin, and she recited a lot of poems by heart, so I suppose as a child I was influenced by these poets. Of course, Pushkin. At fifteen, I read Dante’s The Divine Comedy, translated Michael Lozinski; I was greatly impressed its structure. In early adolescence, I read the poets of the Silver Age, the Symbolists and Acmeists, everything that one could get in the Soviet period. My main love was (and remains) Osip Mandelstam.
The second most important influential figure during the late 1980s-1990s was Joseph Brodsky. Although it’s difficult to detect the direct effect of his work on my poems, his corpus—and the way he constructs ideas and technique—are very important for me as a poet. I really love the OBERIU poets; like Kharms and Vvedensky, I use the art of paradox, like Mikhail Kuzmin. Of the deceased poets, I loved my contemporaries Elena Shvarts, Viktor Krivulin, Aronson, Parshchikov, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. Of the living, I love Olga Sedakova, Alexei Tsvetkov, Stratanovsky. In my poems from the 2000s, I’d admit the influence of the prose of Vladimir Sorokin—its absurdity and rhythmic structure, its use of repetitions, its construction by musical principles. In general, absurd and automatic writing for me are very important, although I use them in my own way, within the strict limits of rational organization of the text.
I’ve been constantly thinking about Czeslaw Milosz, for the past five years; he is important as a thinker in poetry. I’m very influenced by everything that is written by my peers. We have many common techniques and methods of writing. Among my peers, I’ve been watching Ukrainian authors, long before the recent political developments; I actually read in Ukrainian. I love classic English and American literature of the twentieth century. Recently I re-read Faulkner and Hemingway. I avidly read Evelyn Waugh, in Russian translations that date from the period when there was a great school of translators (alas, my English is enough only for simple texts from the news).
I’ve been influenced by the movies, as a provocation for the mind. I try to watch von Trier, Haneke, Patrice Chereau, Tarantino—they are usually the main statements of the modern world. I look forward to the second series of “Sin City.” Earlier than the provocation of film was rock music, both American and Russian. In the eighties, I was listening to Pink Floyd; in the nineties, Guns ‘n’ Roses, garage rock. I listen to the music of many other countries, and now, more German and Eastern European—both pop and avant-garde. Sound is very important for the poet. Writing is associated with rhythm primarily, meaning organized in rhythm.
The world of contemporary art, its techniques, also seriously influences me. I follow the major trends in contemporary art. I’m very interested in the sociology and psychology of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century; I’m less interested in the Americans, because Europe is closer and more understandable due to the trauma of the Second World War. And Eastern Europe, because of its connection with the Soviet world.
PM: Do you think your poetry is a continuation of Russian unofficial poetry? In a sense, the gap in American poetry between “experimenters” and “mainstream” also existed in Russia, even when I started this project. But your poetry seems to bridge this gap.
EF: Yes, it’s true. From the late eighties to the early nineties, when my poetic generation began to write and publish, there was a sense that poetry should move away from Soviet language. And what was very helpful was having knowledge not only of the Silver Age, but also of the texts of uncensored poetry in St. Petersburg samizdat journals, and with Moscow conceptualists—the poems of Prigov and Rubinstein, the SMOG circle [a group of young poets established in 1965 dedicated to samizdat publication], the Lianozovo School. The journal “Vesna” once played a crucial role in my taste of the time, which was published in Riga; from this publication, I learned about the German expressionists, Paul Celan, American poets of the late twentieth century, Latvian avant-garde artists of a century ago. Generally, my generation of writers was omnivorous; we tried to combine the tradition of Russian modernism, killed off by Stalinist cultural policy in the late thirties, with all the contemporary practices of the world. I am grateful to all my friends and poets who were involved in translation. Basil Kondratiev played a special role in this process, the young St. Petersburg poet and translator who died young. His major work, which Alexander Skidan continued, was The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. The task of our generation was to become citizens of the world, to bring Russian poetry from conservative existence, associated with the self-imposed isolation of the country and the Iron Curtain.” I think we succeeded in doing it for the competent Russian reader. Another thing is that the institution of translation has not kept up with the work of Russian poets. In this sense, the efforts of the American and German translators are most significant. But it’s silly to complain, the best Russian translators have not kept pace with the best American and German poets). There are efforts between Russians and Poles to translate each other; it’s amazing, but we hardly know each other, and we’re such close countries.
PM: On the state of Russian poetry. When I began the interview by Russian poets in 1992, there was no formal education in creative writing as an academic discipline, but poetry still had cultural value. Now, it seems that while poetry does not have “mass appeal,” it has its own institutions—both in the United States and in Russia. On the one hand, it seems that Russian poetry is as culturally weak as it is in the United States, from a symbolic point of view. On the other hand, reflecting on Pussy Riot’s trial and incarceration based on their Punk Prayer, it seems as strong as ever. What do you think?
EF: I think the comparison between American and Russian situation would take a long article. One would need to disassemble the principles of education and cultural management, which are very different. In the last 10-15 years in Russia there are philological departments now engaged in contemporary poetry: in Moscow (Russian State Humanitarian University and the Higher School of Economics); St. Petersburg (Smolny Institute); major provincial centers, like Samara, Saratov, Yekaterinburg, Perm, Novosibirsk and Voronezh. There are good publications, workshops, and scientific work.
But few contemporary poets now work as teachers or supervisors in education; this is due to the fact that the specialty of “creative writing” is not recorded in the documents of the Ministry of Education, and the fact that the salary of teachers is quite low. That is, the poet as a university lecturer is the exception rather than the rule in Russia. Institutes of poetry in Russia are extremely weak and hold only the enthusiasm of its fans—that is, philologists and poets themselves. The Russian state does not support programs of modern poetry, and in light of the new conservative policy in all areas of life, such a program is not expected.
Poetry does not seem as important as it was in the sixties, when the “light modernists” Vosnesensky, Rozhdestvensky, Akhmadulina, Yevtushenko coincided with the period of the Khrushchev Thaw. Poetry is connected with politics more than they would like, although poets still often joke on the theme of Yevtushenko’s line, “A poet in Russia is more than a poet.” [Contemporary] poets who know how to combine political topicality and lyrical simplicity—like Vera Polozkova, Vsevolod Emelin, Andrei Rodionov—or use other media platforms, like Dmitry Bykov’s “citizen poet” project—have been able to reach beyond the narrow circle of poetry readers in Russia to achieve real popularity. Bykof’s poems are actually limericks on news of the day, very witty. The symbolic meaning of poetry does not disappear; even Dr. Freud has spoken about the therapeutic power of metaphors, rhythms and rhymes. Do you think the man who painted the star on the Moscow high-rise in the colors of the Ukrainian flag was a poet? In terms of working with symbols and the collective unconscious, I think he is, definitely.
PM: I was thinking about the fact that you were a doctor and now you are a journalist. Can you say that your three major labors—as a physician, as a journalist, and as a poet—have a common metaphysical goal, of diagnosing and naming disease (whether the body of society, or spirit), and healing these diseases? Or do you think that your work as a doctor and a journalist is more direct in its responsibility to others, while poetry is more free from specific duties? Your poem, “Lena , or The Poet and the People,” for example, clearly shows the dilemma of the modern poet in Russia.
Lena, or The Poet and the People
There’s a clerk in the all-night store
Where I stop after work
To buy food and drinks
(I hate that word, drinks).
One time she said to me, “I saw you on TV
On the culture channel
I liked what you were saying.
Are you a poet? Let me read your book.
I’ll give it back, I promise.”
I say, “I don’t have a spare copy right now,
But when I get one,
I promise I’ll bring it to you.”
I wasn’t at all sure
She’d like the poems.
That actor’s urge to be liked
Is astonishing, whorish,
After Sasha d–d,
But now it secretly returned.
Eventually an extra copy of my book
The Russian Version turned up
A poet has to get involved
Distributing books, after all
Publishers don’t do much on this front.
I handed it over. Right there, as I was paying for the food and drinks.
(Kefir for in the morning, one gin and tonic, a second gin and tonic,
Plus a little vodka,
And farewell, cruel world,
To quote Lvovsky’s version
Of two Nizhnii Novgorod boys’ conversation.
No question, I remain a provincial teenager.)
It turned out that Lena and I were namesakes.
I hate that word, namesakes
And even more I hate the word connect
It arouses physiological spasms in me
The word has echoes of coitus and sex,
But I prefer pure fucking, pure and simple.
After all, I am my own highest judge.
“Could you autograph it,” she says.
To Elena, I write, from Elena.
I hand it over nervously.
For a few days she doesn’t look me in the eye.
Then one day there aren’t many other people,
She says, “So, I read your book.
I didn’t understand a word of it.
Too many names of people no one knows.
I had the feeling that you write
For a narrow circle. For friends. For an in-group.
Who are these people, who are they, Elena?
The ones you name?
I gave it to my girlfriends to read,
One of them knows a little bit about literature.
She felt the same way:
It’s for a narrow circle.”
I say, “Well, the part about St. Tikhon of Zadonsk,
You didn’t get that?”
She says, “No, I got the part about Tikhon.”
I say, “What about Seryozha the drunk, did you get that?”
She says, “No, I got that.”
I say, “And the essays, you didn’t get them?”
“I got the prose,” she says,
I even wanted to read more
About the people you were writing about.”
So I say, “Lena, believe me, I didn’t do it on purpose.
I don’t want it to be hard to figure out.
It just turns out that way.”
She looks at me sympathetically
And says, “Okay.”
I keep on justifying myself, “You know,
I write plenty of articles,
And if you understand the ones in the book,
Then you’d get the other ones too, right?”
She says, “Okay, I get it.
So, do you want two beers and menthol cigarettes?”
“Yes,” I say. “Lena,
I’m going to work on myself.
The balloon came back, a sign of wealth.
Look, that’s almost a rhyme.”
Why in the world do I care if she gets it?
Why am I trying to justify myself?
Why do I have this furtive sense of unease?
Wish that she like me?
Do I want to be beloved by the people,
Like Vodennikov (poet or pianist?),
Am I conducting a purely socio-cultural experiment
Like D. A. Prigov?
I already conducted one experiment
In his memory
At the election of a king of poets
At the Polytechnic Institute
(I read and anti-Putin ditty
At a festival sponsored by his Administration.
The pure wave of icy hatred
That rushed at me from the audience —
Students from provincial theater institutes --
Was more than I had felt in a lifetime.
Now that’s a useful experiment.)
I always used to say:
Never show your poems
To your children or relatives
To workers or peasants
You have to show factories and production plants,
To the poor – other people’s problems, to the rich as well
Show the work of native speech
In a country of natural resources
I am not fucking anyone over,
Like that poetess, Johanna Pollyeva.
Obviously, this is an unthinkable claim
And an illegitimate assertion of power
My father was right to be angry
When he read in my adolescent diary:
I would not want to pretend
That I am the same as everyone else.
(“What, do you think you’reabove the rest?”
He asked me with a passion
That bordered on sado-masochism.)
I was fifteen
And depressed for the first time
My parents didn’t notice a thing
I wasn’t a complainer
And wasn’t used to asking for attention.
I don’t think I’m better
My claim is tougher than that
I think I’m different – male, female, other, the others
Like in the movie by that name
With Nicole Kidman in the lead
I don’t understand why
On New Year’s Eve
People run around looking for a tree
And for gifts
I don’t understand the dumb habit
Of waiting around
For the President’s speech on TV
Before the drinking and eating
I spent this New Year’s Eve
On a train
From Moscow to Voronezh
With Chinese workers
Their Year of the Rat begins in February
So they went to sleep at eleven
And I fell asleep with them
As opposed to my usual habit of
Staying up until four
I like to look into
Windows all lit up
Live there among the seaweed
This is all terribly interesting
But I do not understand how it works
Who thought up the idea
Of drinking champagne
At the Metropolitan Opera?
On the other side of the world
It could have been entirely otherwise
I can’t pretend any longer
I walk home, thinking:
Who is she, this Lena,
A clerk in an all-night store
Heavy-set, fifty years old, with glasses
I love the word heavy-set
She is plump, not all flabby, tall
A solid, bleached blonde
She watches the Culture channel
When she’s not working around the clock
Coming out to smoke on the stoop
And joke with the security guard.
Who was she in that previous life?
An engineer? A librarian?
I have to remember to ask next time
If there’s aren’t too many people around
And of course, she’s right:
It’s a complicated text,
Even when it pretends to be simple,
2008 / (translation by Stephanie Sandler, reprinted from Jacket Magazine)
EF: Of course, I try to think responsibly about all three statuses of my work and professional identities. You are right, they are very connected. My education and experience as a doctor does not leave me; they give me special research optics on information, whether the information is from a news feed, or from the field of shamanic free verse. A doctor gathers information, and analyzes it; the doctor’s intuition is important, and it’s not by chance that in ancient times medicine was considered an art and a science. I try to remember the writers and poets who were doctors. In my secret list, Somerset Maugham, Mikhail Bulgakov, the terrible Russian conservative Konstantin Leontiev, the Russian saint Luka Krymski—he’s the great surgeon of Voino-Yasenetsky, the author of classic books on surgery.
By the way, is it clear that “Lena, or The Poet and the People” is a parody? A parody of Pushkin, Nekrasov and Tsvetaeva simultaneously, with their poems and reflections on the role of the poet in society and its relationship to the public (and it is also a secret dialogue with Ortega y Gasset, with his “Dehumanization of Art” and “Revolt of the Masses”)? I think the American translation is fine, thanks to Stephanie Sandler. When I read this poem in American universities, the students laughed, and that’s the appropriate response, as an author I told her I was happy. At the same time, this text is an analysis of the anthropology of the poet, in the style of Charles Bukowski, as he represented his life of sin to the reader. Doctors usually look after their own health, and the diaries of Chekhov are also a model for me. “Lena and the People” was a poem of self-hygiene, if I may say so.
I relate to my work as a poet with the same degree of responsibility and a practical understanding of my work as a journalist and a former doctor.
PM: Despite the fact that Russia remains a very patriarchal society, there are a lot of great poets today who are women: Olga Sedakova, Olesia Nikolaeva, Vera Pavlova, Polina Barskova, Anna Russ, yourself, etc. Your poetry recognizes the heritage Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva (and others, of course), but it also moves in new directions. For example, you are a thoroughly postmodern poet—you employ slang and mix several discourses, you mix formalism with free verse, etc. Is the present moment a kind of golden age for women poets in Russia? What intrigues you about Russian poetry today?
EF: You ask how the ideas of feminism influenced those beautiful women authors on that list? Firstly, all of the authors you’ve listed are well-educated and know the history of the feminist movement. Secondly, life in a patriarchal society provides an excellent opportunity to test the strength of their beliefs in everyday social and family life, in family disputes about politics, finally, in their religious beliefs (you mentioned Sedakova and Nikolaeva, and we can see clearly how these Orthodox women differently describe their relationships with men). We love our men, I think it shows in our poetry. But we also know how to criticize their prejudices inherited from their fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. We women have these prejudices too, don’t we? Modern life is far from patriarchal; intelligent men and women can only sneer at the old stereotypes about gender roles.
By the way, when I write about love, my addressee is not always a man; it can be a woman too, as an object of admiration, or a role model. These are different discourses, formalism and free verse, slang and classic style. In the relations between the sexes there should be improvisation, not just rules. Artists, as well as all thinking people regardless of gender and personal preferences, are obligated, even, to break them. This includes the gay canon, which ranges from positive developments (to speak broadly, homoerotica in poetry) to negative ones (macho chanting in texts by women). It is a question of a common future, an important humanitarian issue. That’s what intrigues me: How does Russian poetry cope with the conservative challenge? Is it free from any internal restrictions? I certainly don’t know what they would think when they read the poem “Lena and Lena” and what the subtext, erotic and political, they will want to find.
PM: When I started this project of interviews, Russia was under Yeltsin. There was excitement and great fear—fear of the unknown, fear of freedom, fear of the savagery of capitalism. I remember how many people were affected by historical and economic changes—the loss of economic security, as well as the loss of ideological certainty. Now we are in the Putin era. What does the era of Putin mean for you as a poet, and as a citizen?
EF: I liked the Yeltsin era’s unpredictability. I love the power of freedom; I changed social roles in this period, like a huge number of my fellow citizens. I like excitement, and I go to my own zone of fears, in a certain sense; they are my research material. I’m pretty critical of this era and the figure of Putin, in both my poems and articles. I wrote several practically poetic pamphlets where he is referred to directly. I was inspired by the experience of Catullus, Dante, Octavio Paz, Lorca, Lermontov, Mandelstam, Brodsky, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, who wrote political poetry. Putin is my challenge from the 2000s, and my challenge now is modern Russia. The main challenge for Putin and Russia now is now the Ukraine—its rejection of the Soviet world, a serious challenge to the Soviet empire. So, for me it’s become the time of Ukraine, in all its complexity.
Philip Metres is the author of Sand Opera (2015), A Concordance of Leaves (2013), abu ghraib arias (2011), and To See the Earth (2008), etc. A two-time recipient of the NEA and the Arab American Book Award, he is professor of English at John Carroll University.