A Normal Interview with Bich Minh “Beth” Nguyen

Bich Minh "Beth" Nguyen will join us Summer 2018 for The Normal School's Summer Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute, July 16-29, on the campus of Fresno State University, where she will lead workshops, participate in panel discussions, and meet one-on-one with students. Apply now. Scholarships and course credit available.

In regular life, Bich Minh Nguyen goes by the name Beth. She is the author of three books, all with Viking Penguin.  Stealing Buddha's Dinner,  a memoir, received the PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center and was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year. It has been featured as a common read selection within numerous communities, schools, and universities.  Short Girls , a novel, was an American Book Award winner in fiction and a Library Journal best book of the year. Her most recent novel,  Pioneer Girl , is about the mysterious ties between a Vietnamese immigrant family and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Nguyen has been a Bread Loaf Fellow, among other honors, and her work has appeared in anthologies and publications including  The New York Times . She is at work on a series of essays about high school, music, and the Midwest, called Owner of a Lonely Heart. She has also coedited three anthologies:  30/30: Thirty American Stories from the Last Thirty Years; Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye ; and  The Contemporary American Short Story .

In regular life, Bich Minh Nguyen goes by the name Beth. She is the author of three books, all with Viking Penguin. Stealing Buddha's Dinner, a memoir, received the PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center and was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year. It has been featured as a common read selection within numerous communities, schools, and universities. Short Girls, a novel, was an American Book Award winner in fiction and a Library Journal best book of the year. Her most recent novel, Pioneer Girl, is about the mysterious ties between a Vietnamese immigrant family and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Nguyen has been a Bread Loaf Fellow, among other honors, and her work has appeared in anthologies and publications including The New York Times. She is at work on a series of essays about high school, music, and the Midwest, called Owner of a Lonely Heart. She has also coedited three anthologies: 30/30: Thirty American Stories from the Last Thirty Years; Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye; and The Contemporary American Short Story.

By Tara Williams

 

Tara Williams: In the event of a zombie apocalypse and your imminent evacuation taking only what you can carry, which books would you take with you to a remote island compound serving as the last bastion of literate civilization?

Bich Minh Nguyen: This is an incredibly difficult question to answer! Right now the answer might be: Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson; Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen; and if there’s room, Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey.

 

TW: The resonance of the choice to build your memoir around food memories is fascinating to me, especially with the dual meaning of the word assimilation, with its social and digestive connotations. I'm curious whether you started your memoir with this central theme in mind, or if it evolved as part of your writing process.

BMN: It evolved, definitely. When I started writing this, I didn’t know it was going to be a book. It was just an essay. And then another essay, and another. I had no great hopes or aspirations. But then I realized that I kept returning to food, and that food moments were natural markers for time, memory, significant events. And that’s basically how the pages became a book—when I recognized that food was the main anchor and symbol. Every book-length project needs an organizing principle, and food became mine.

 

TW: It struck me as I was reading that you are a kind of pioneer in the terrain of establishing American identity space for people who are not outwardly Euro-American in physical appearance but for whom American culture is a dominant influence. What does being American mean to you? Do you think there are definitive American cultural traits beyond consumerism and pop culture?

BMN: This is a tough question in late 2017. I grew up thinking that to be an American was to have the privilege of freedom—of expression, of ideas, of movement. I grew up with this belief that surely America is the best place to live. That is now in question, in this current administration. But what’s also in question is the definition of “American culture.” Basically I’ve been taught (most people are still taught) that “American” = white, and that white is the norm and the default; everyone else is still expected to assimilate, and ask if they belong, and wait to be included. If there’s one good thing to emerge from this current political landscape/nightmare, it’s a growing national awareness that that old model doesn’t hold up and cannot stand.

 

TW: I notice after your memoir, you have published two novels. Could you elaborate on your choice to switch genres in your writing?

BMN: I studied fiction and poetry in college and grad school. I started writing creative nonfiction out of pure frustration with myself, because every time I tried to write about my family’s story through fiction it didn’t sound quite real—because it wasn’t! It took me years to realize that I needed the genre of truth in order to tell the truth. (This isn’t the case for all stories, of course, but it was for mine.) And then it was like I’d gotten something out of the way for myself, in my head, which allowed me to write the fiction I’d always wanted to write. People often think my novels are autobiographical but I’d say they’re probably 80% fiction; the autobiographical parts are mainly about setting. My next book, which I’m still working on, is a series of linked essays about high school, college, music, and post-refugee life; it’s currently titled “Owner of a Lonely Heart." I encourage every writer to be fluent in more than genre, or at least to explore or try out other genres. Doing so opens up possibilities and ideas, and sometimes we have to let the genre choose the work.

 

TW: In many ways, it seems the current presidential administration embodies and seems to promote many of the xenophobic attitudes you encountered as a child. Does this affect you in any way?

BMN: I think we are all affected by this, daily and deeply, though yes, people of color and immigrants are affected in a far more urgent way. The people I worry about the most are the ones whose safety and status are being threatened. The racism and xenophobia I experienced and witnessed in my childhood has not changed. In many ways, it’s gotten worse.

 

TW: Do you still eat junk food? If so, what, how often, and under what conditions?

BMN: I eat a lot of gummy bears. Does that count as junk food? I also love pizza rolls (except they’re Annie’s organic, which seems ridiculous even to type) and I’m a huge fan of bad pizza and frozen pizza. For the most part though, I have to admit that I don’t really eat the kinds of junk food that I dreamed about when I was a kid. I think for three reasons: once I had total access to it as an adult, the allure went away; as I grew more socially and politically aware, and more able to accept my own identity, junk food no longer held the same kind of symbolic power or value; and I realized most junk food just doesn’t taste good! For example, I haven’t had a Coke or Pepsi or any similar kind of soda in probably 20 years, simply because I don’t want to. They don’t appeal to me at all. I feel very grateful that my grandmother Noi taught me to have a good relationship with food—to think of it as something that can add joy and goodness to one’s day.

 

TW: I see your memoir has also been optioned for movie development, and I'd ask about that too, but I know authors don't always have much say in how such a project develops.

BMN: You are right that I have no say in any of this. I do think it’s very strange and kind of hilarious!

 

If people wonder about the use of the name Beth, I started going by Beth a few years ago as a social experiment to see how my life would change—if people would perceive me differently (and yes, they do!). I’ve been writing an essay about the experience, which will go into my next book. :)

stealingbuddhasdinner.jpeg

Bich Minh "Beth" Nguyen received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where she won Hopwood Awards in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She currently directs and teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco. She and her family live in the Bay Area.

Beth Nguyen will be a Guest Artist in July 2018 for The Normal School’s Summer Workshop and Publishing Institute in Nonfiction, part CSU Summer Arts:

http://blogs.calstate.edu/summerarts/courses/the-normal-schools-summer-workshop/

[A note on pronunciation: Bich is pronounced like "Bic"; Nguyen, the “Smith” of Viet Nam, is pronounced something like Ngoo-ee-ehn (said quickly, as in one syllable), but most people tend to say "Win" or "New-IN" instead and that has become acceptable.]

 

Tara Williams is an MFA candidate in Fresno State's Creative Writing Fiction program. She has previously published nonfiction books and articles on natural healing modalities, and interviews with cultural icons including Leonard Peltier, Russell Means, Julia Butterfly, and former WIBF World Champion boxer Lucia Rijker, "The Most Dangerous Woman in the World." 

Imagine Wanting Only This: Interview with Kristen Radtke

Kristen Radtke will join us Summer 2018 for The Normal School's Summer Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute, July 16-29, on the campus of Fresno State University, where she will lead workshops, participate in panel discussions, and meet one-on-one with students. Apply now. Scholarships and course credit available. 

Kristen Radtke is a writer, artist and editor whose graphic memoir,  Imagine Wanting Only This,  has just recently been released by Pantheon Books. Her debut book boldly explores the all too human experiences of loss, family, and adventure. Radtke uses visual art in a way that hasn’t been seen too often in memoir, and the end result is remarkable. Her illustrations bring vivacity to the story that pull the reader even closer to her powerful prose. The graphics and the narrative work together seamlessly to present an imaginative and refreshing memoir.

Kristen Radtke is a writer, artist and editor whose graphic memoir, Imagine Wanting Only This, has just recently been released by Pantheon Books. Her debut book boldly explores the all too human experiences of loss, family, and adventure. Radtke uses visual art in a way that hasn’t been seen too often in memoir, and the end result is remarkable. Her illustrations bring vivacity to the story that pull the reader even closer to her powerful prose. The graphics and the narrative work together seamlessly to present an imaginative and refreshing memoir.


Krystal Cantú: I’ve read graphic novels before, but I haven’t come across a whole lot of graphic memoirs. Where did you come up with the idea to do a graphic memoir?
Kristen Radtke: I was always writing nonfiction, so when I started working visually, it just made sense to me that the visual work would be nonfiction, too. I didn't intend to make it a memoir--that came later when I worked with my agent and editors. I originally envisioned it as a collection of essays, but creating a cohesive narrative was important to my publisher, and in the end, they were right. I love essay collections, but it wasn’t the right mode for this book.
KC: I think, and I think you might agree, that without illustrations the book would be something completely different. How does the addition of visual art help to narrate a story like yours?
KR: I'm honestly not totally sure. I think that's more for a reader to say than it is my place to speculate--for me, I just began seeing this book in images, saw it in my mind unfolding in panels instead of paragraphs. I like to think that any idea or project can function in some form in any medium, but the more I talk to others about this, the more they say that's nuts. Who knows? For me, the graphic form just made sense to me.
KC: One of the things I love most about your book is the boldness of it. For example, I love your use of print photographs mixed with illustrations. It seems that you weren’t afraid to just do what you wanted and tell your story the way you wanted to. In what ways does mixing different mediums of art open up more possibilities in storytelling?
KR: Thanks for saying so! I love that you saw something fearless here, but the process for me was quite the opposite--every time I tried something new, I thought, "am I allowed to do this?" I'm new to comics and wasn't working in the medium before I began the book, so I had a lot of anxiety about doing it "right." I’ve tried to let that go. I love mixing mediums, and it certainly does open up more possibilities in storytelling, simply because there are suddenly more tools at your disposal.
KC: I’m curious about the illustrations. Why did you choose to use black and white illustrations rather than color? What other kinds of craft choices did you make in this book, in regards to the visual art?
KR: Black and white seemed like a practical choice when I began the book—both in terms of economical printing costs, but also because I’ve never been all that comfortable with my skills in terms of color. I’m working on projects now in non grayscale palettes, and love doing so, but it’s a whole new language to develop, and one I didn’t quite know how to begin with when I started drawing Imagine Wanting Only This. Many of the other craft choices I made didn’t feel so much like choices as they did intuition. I just worked in a style that felt natural to me, and then tried to refine that over time.
KC: I’m also curious about how you divided the chapters in your book. You don’t seem to be a stickler about chronology here, so I was wondering how you decided to break up the chapters?
KR: The structure emerged very slowly, and evolved dramatically over the last few years that I was working on the book. For me it’s always one of the last things to take shape. I can’t say that I can pinpoint specific methodologies regarding how I broke up chapters—eventually, everything just started taking shape. It feels like a miracle every time that happens, because so much of working on a long project—even something short, really—is the feeling that it’ll never come together.
KC: I’d love to know what your process was in writing Imagine Wanting Only This. Did you write all the prose first and then work on the illustrations, or did it all come together at the same time?
KR: The first pieces of Imagine Wanting Only This began as a handful of disparate prose essays. It took me a long time to realize that they were a part of the same project, and longer still to realize that the project would be graphic. After I’d developed that first initial prose framework, I had to negotiate how images could function with the text I’d written, and as a result a lot of that text got cut. When I entered the second half of the project, and when I work on new projects now, the process is a lot more fluid than it was initially. I move back and forth between text and image, and they emerge together much more organically than they did when I started working in this medium.    

Kristen Radtke is the author of the graphic nonfiction book Imagine Wanting Only This (Pantheon, 2017). She is the managing editor of Sarabande Books and the film & video editor of TriQuarterly magazine. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. She lives and works in Brooklyn. Find her on Twitter @kristenradtke.
Imagine Wanting Only This has received rave reviews from numerous sources including the Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times.

Krystal Cantú is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in fiction at California State University, Fresno. She serves as an editorial intern for the Normal School.

The Healing Art: An Interview with Elena Fanailova

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."

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.
— Elena Fanailova

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,

It disappeared

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

Possibly because

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?

This forgotten

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

But I

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

Aquarium fish

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

 

In short

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,

Like now

 

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.


Born in Voronezh, Elena Fanailova graduated from the Voronezh Medical Institute and earned a degree in journalism from Voronezh State University. She worked for six years as a doctor at Voronezh Regional Hospital. In 1995 she became a correspondent for Radio Svoboda, and has lived and worked in Moscow since the late nineties. She is considered one of Russia’s best contemporary poets, receiving the Andrei Bely Prize in 1999 and the Moscow Count Prize in 2003. Her work has appeared in English in The Russian Version (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008), translated by Stephanie Sandler.

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.