The Russian Poetry Festival
Oct. 17-19, 1998, St. Petersburg
A report from Masha Zavialova,
via e-mail letter to Maria Damon
To: Maria Damon
At last I am up to writing. I'm so overwhelmed with the crisis here - and not only the crisis but the way things have been going here since an attempt has been made in the 90s to dismantle the Soviet regime. Now it's clear that they should have kept as much as possible from the past structure because now nobody is competent and noble enough to build something decent. Now the festival...
Oct 17,18 and 19 in St Petersburg. Moika 12, Pushkin's apartment. The hall in the former stables is packed full - about 200 people have come which is a marvel: the crisis in Russia is in full swing. The first two nights poets read - twelve poets every night. The last night - round table and reception. Among Moscow guests - prominent literary figures Lev Rubinstein who read his famous piece "This is me" filing through catalogue cards that he was holding in his hand (he worked as a librarian for many years) - the whole poem is a list of photographs of his family, friends and relatives with short comments, an attempt to catch the time long past and very amusing too. The way he reads holds the audience in suspense. Dmitry Prigov, a master of "sotsart" (socialist art) drawing heavily on soviet idiom. This time he gave a brilliant performance singing the first verse of Pushkin's "Evgeni Onegin" as a buddhist monk, Russian Orthodox priest and muslim muezzin. Someone said later: "How could he dare mock Pushkin, the sun of Russian poetry?" That's exactly what Prigov meant - to destroy the ideological structure built in the Soviet times on Pushkin. Bonifatsii (German Lukomnikov) - a charming person and performance artist read some of his short and extremely witty (for us who live here) poems. One of them: "Why don't I fly?" (several times with different modulations of voice but very romantically) And suddenly in a matter-of-fact and slightly offended tone "Why don't I fly? I fly." Dmitry Avaliani showed his inscriptions on large pieces of paper, cardboard, on bowls and other unlikely stuff that could be read upside down too making the two words reveal the inner meanings of each other. He is a superb master of anagrams and palindromes. Dmitry Vodennikov, one of the younger participants, with his outwardly unpretentious poems that manage somehow to convey the capricious mood of his generation, their seeking for the final truths and deconstruction of falsehoods. Viktor Krivulin of St.Petersburg, a basic figure in Russian underground literature of Brezhnev's time, opened the first night of readings. Among St.Petersburg poets - wonderful Vladimir Kucheriavkin and Nikolai Kononov, very deep Sergei Stratanovsky, Mikhail Eremin - all first-class poets of present-day. What was amazing in St.Petersburg was the atmosphere and the response of the public. It was so warm and energetic, so energetic that there were fistfights. Every twenty minutes there was a commotion in the audience, the people were expressing their various emotions ranging from disgust to appreciation by, for example, standing up and reading their own poetry in a loud voice and there was no stopping them. Dmitry Kuzmin, a leading figure in Moscow literary life, a poet and critic, a curator of the poetic salon "Avtornik" (meeting every Tuesday), even had to break the readings and appeal to the public trying to shame them into a better behavior. But his appeals were wasted. During Kononov's reading a man stood up (by the way he was a friend of Sergei Zavialov, organizer of the festival) and said, addressing the audience, that the poet in question was a bloody bustard and his poetry is a piece of disgusting bullshit (Kononov was reading a poem about man-eaters, cannibals and used some obscene language}, this confrontation of two aesthetic positions came to a climax in the interval when Kononov had a fight with his admirer. Moscow guests had a great time watching all this because (as we, St.Petersburgians found later , during the Moscow part of the festival) the sophisticated Moscow, tired of life and not to be surprised with stuff, haven't seen anything like this since the time of (maybe) Mayakovsky who loved scandal. They were happy to discover that there are still people in Russia who could kill for poetry. In Moscow the festival public was very respectable - only literary people came: poets, critics, curators of poetic salons; their girl-friends (a few) were the only independent observers. A propos girl-friends. What was notoriously missing at the festival were women authors and critics: nearly forty participants for three women (four including me as wife and helper for the organizer and a translator of a visiting poet from Germany Schuldt). On the last day of the festival at the discussion a visiting poet from Boston Jim Kates (who also gave a reading alongside with the German poet Schuldt) tried to raise the question of women-participants but no-one even cared to answer it properly. The only thing we seemed to be good for was washing the marble floors of the salon where the final reception was held (this action was performed by the author of these lines - I meant it to be a performance but nobody noticed). Now I would like to strike a serious key. The festival was intended to research into the phenomenon of Moscow and St.Petersburg poetry, two rival cities of Russian culture. Is it really that, as the Moscow poet Mikhail Aizenberg put it, there is good poetry, bad poetry and St. Petersburg poetry? The results of the research prove that St. Petersburg poetry numbers some first-class poets but, to my mind, they are those who border on Moscow styles, who like experimenting and who are ready to give up beautiful lines for freshness, throb of time and enjoyment their poetry could give to the public. Dostoevski called St. Petersburg "the most abstract and artificial city on earth". The same can be said about some of the poetry here. Some of the St. P. poets write the way as if nothing happened for the last eighty years, as if they can start right where the pre-revolutionary Silver-Age poets left off. Moscow people realize that they have to work through the Soviet period and incorporate it somehow into their writing. They act as psychoanalytics for the national sub-conscious working through phobias and anxieties accumulated during the desolate years of Stalinism and Brezhnevism. Strange as it may seem for you but this festival demonstrated that what poets write is not their personal affair. It's not true that there are good poets and there are bad poets as was said at the festival (and thousands of times before but here in the sense that there is no Moscow and St.Petersburg poetry there is good etc.) There is Moscow poetry (I think) that takes the time into account and becomes timeless and St.P. poetry that is timeless and dies the moment it is published (not all of it of course) Poets have to feel their way into the complexities of the time they are living in.And sometimes it's only much later that it becomes evident who was in contact with the spirit of the time and who was not. It doesn't matter what they write about, they always write about modernity.
Oh, dear, that's enough for today. I'm afraid it's too long already. If you have any questions please you are very welcome. Maybe I should add something or focus on some other things of more interest for you. So this report is subject to change. You could make it shorter. Or I could write another shorter one using some of the above.
-- Masha Zavialova
Image courtesy of http://www.geocities.com/TheTropics/Shores/6751/fortress.html