Wednesday, July 18, 2007
"The End(s) of Russian Poetry: An Interview with Dmitry Prigov" by Philip Metres
Here is my interview with Dmitry Prigov, taken in 1996. It illuminates Prigov's project, first and foremost, but it also provides a glimpse into the landscape of Russian poetry, art, and culture from a postmodern perspective. Prigov's postmodernism was not a desiccated version of Western postmodernism; it was entirely his own, and, for this young writer, completely eye-opening and generative. On a political note, one of the prophetic moments in the interview is when he discusses how the new "other," the new enemy for Russia that would replace the "capitalist," will be "the Chechen." He says: "I think that the enemy has shifted to the Muslims-they will now be accused of being the devil."
"The End(s) of Russian Poetry: An Interview with Dmitry Prigov"
by Philip Metres
Why did you begin writing poems and making art?
Well, I’m a sculptor by trade—at first I made sculpture, and I began poems...well, the fact of the matter is that as contemporary art drew closer to conceptualism, it seemed that a great part of the artistic sphere became verbalized-using verbal language very much. So I happened to be on the border between literature and visual arts—it was interesting to me how these ideas conceptually related. What did literature means to me? Russian literature, in terms of its social status, its role in culture, and the feelings of the poet, it was similar to the poetry of the 19th century.
This was in the sixties?
Yes, this was the last of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. So if you were to compare visual art and literature, in terms of their poetic ideas and their meaning of the role in society and the meaning of writing, the distance between them is a whole century. So it was interesting to me how literature could actualize contemporary ideas, which were later called “conceptualism,” or what Sorokin called postmodernism. So I began to use texts in objects, like on cans, and I wrote at the same time. Actually, I wrote earlier, but it was accidental, I really began to write intensively thanks to these ideas.
Have you been influenced by other poets and artists?
There weren’t any influential poets because I didn’t come out of poetry, but visual arts. I studied visual arts so long ago, and so my favorite artists helped me developed. If I began with the early twentieth century, my favorite sculptors were Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti. From more contemporary art, of course, I arrived at visual art when it was a recognizable international process; strictly speaking, I felt closest to the generation of “pop art” and conceptual art—names like Andy Warhol, Joseph Boyce, Fluxus-—everything connected with post pop art and conceptual art.
I read somewhere that you said you work with "images." What’s the origin of that word—of course it’s not a Russian-sounding word—and what do you mean by it?
“Image” is in general “obraz,” but since when you speak of “obraz” in Russian, it’s too closely connected with academic literary study, as in “the image of Onegin.” “Image” is a term more suited for the era of mass media. And it means that a way of acting for the present situation. Since Russian culture, especially in poetry, is very fixed and overdetermined, marked by definition-there are social poets, lyric poets, avant-garde poets, women poets. So it’s very easy to work with images. In what sense do I work with images? I take a certain image of writing and collide it with another image. And with that technique one can bear some type of writing matter because each piece of writing is very anti-social, totalitarian. Any discourse, any kind of speaking, is potentially totalitaran. It tries to take possession of the whole world—and if it tries to possess the whole world, then it certainly tries to capture man completely, presenting itself as the truth. Some great discourse like Marxism or Freudianism, having grown from a small sphere of activity—the psyche or the economy—then tries to describe the whole world with its terminology and seize the whole world into its penumbra. And then people, especially of younger generations, think of it not as a discourse but as the absolute truth.
My aim is simply to deconstruct any discourse, any piece of writing, as writing, as language. I began working with Soviet discourse, which presented itself as divine truth, but now I’m trying to return to signs of language, discourses, trying to take and uncover any “totalitarian languages” and return to them a feeling of living, natural, easy language. Well, that’s the strategy, which is not necessarily confined to Soviet language, and second, not necessarily confined to a method of irony. There are different methods, since I use many methods in different images-I wrote as a woman poet, a homosexual poet, absolutely lacking in irony. Because it’s not entirely correct to say that irony is an aim of my method [as I had mistaken said earlier during our meeting]. Irony is an external effect, from the unfamiliarity of a comparison, as it were, of uncompared discourses. That is, when we look at the surrealists’ work, a light feeling of irony, of gaiety even, arises. Actually, it’s a derivative effect, because irony as such is another type of activity entirely. Irony is the activity of a poet presenting and knowing the truth. So for him the object that is ironically described is an object without truth.
But in my activity, there’s no opposition even if I’m describing some “knowing” language, a language leading itself untruthfully-I try to contrast that language from within the language itself, with a truthful “modus” of that language and its possibility as untotalitarian. My aim differs from the ironic in that the ironic is closer to the anthological, not the gonosological and the metaphysical. By and large, poetry, especially from the beginning of the century, is anthological—-the first unit of text, say. My aims are metaphysical and gonosological, and perhaps epistemological, concerning the problem of truth—well, not truth itself, but the truth of utterances. But you know this kind of philosophy—the contemporary French philosophers—
Lacan, Derrida, etc.
Yes, yes, because in general Russian literary critics may explain poems well, but these ideas barely exist for them, if at all.
You’ve captured the spirit of the Soviet age, especially Soviet consciousness—what direction will you go now? Perhaps there’s a “New Russian” consciousness, or a [General Alexander] Lebed consciousness?
I work with the mainstreams of culture, and so any culture has this consciousness. You knew that I worked with Soviet language, then by the laws of classical poetry I would be working on that for the rest of my life-except I was working with language and with methods. The principle mistake imposed upon me is one of the customary associations connected with poetry. So I will work with the mainstream and it makes absolutely no difference to me whether it’s Soviet, democratic, patriotic-fascistic, liberal mainstream mass media, consumption, etc. In this way, I’m the phenomenon of a strategy of conduct and not of texts. So a person who writes texts—Gandlevsky, say, he writes good texts in good language and produces them as if they were good texts.
For me, any text is good if it is well-written within its axiomatic, as it were. A well-written text of an advertisement and a good poem by Gandlevsky are absolutely identical for me. So, for me, what’s Khlebnikov, what’s Brodsky, what’s Blok, or if someone works well within his axiomatic language. They are all my personages, as it were. I love them all identically-Brodsky, Khlebnikov, Khruchenov, the Oberiuty, Gandlevsky, Nekrasov—they are all personages of my activity. I write like like they write. But in principle it’s already less interesting to me, because this discourse is already well-known. This kind of writing, artistic writing. For example, one could paint matryoshka dolls very well, but there’s no risk in it, to write like Malevich or like a matryoshka or like Akhmatova, or like an impressionist. They are all good texts but there’s no strategy in it because the ideal boundaries of this writing is well known, the conduct is well known—all of it is well known in principle.
If you were born in America, say in Chicago, what would you be doing now?
It depends. I would either be engaged in culturology or social anthropology, or with strategies of computer research.
Yes, yes of course. I work with strategies of conduct, not specifically with texts.
Some American postmodernists have said that postmodernism is, more than anything, a nostalgia for the present, for the real. Can you distinguish between Russian postmodernism and this kind of postmodernism?
Well, first off, the thing is, postmodernism, like anything else, is not a monotypical concept. Nostalgia, or some other type of writing...postmodernism is a sum total of such markers. There’s, let’s say, the person who’s defined the postmodern direction and there’s the person who’s simply lost in the epoch of postmodernism. For me, postmodernism is in no way a ostalgia for the present or real (whether it exists or not). Postmodernism is-especially in art and literature... if the fundamental aim, the problem of the avant-garde was to find a personal expression [lichnoye vyskazivanie], then in postmodernism the problem is different, not a problem, but the problematics of personal expression. Does personal expression exist, if it’s not an illusion, the illusion of personal expression?
In this way, postmodernism is an exploration of the possibility of individual expression, each time, each activity, it seemed to you that you found a personal expression, later you find out that the personal expression either is not personal or instantly alienates itself in cultural expression. This is the constant existential drama of the problem, the problematic nature of personal expression. As a rule, for me that’s the definition of the postmodern artist. Because the artist who is satisfied with his texts, that they have a layer of personal expression, is not a postmodernist, he’s a modernist. For him the problem of personal expression is located in personal expression, and he’s proud, peaceful, etc. The postmodern artist does not have this tranquility in the world. This is generally what I know of American postmodernism.
In Russia very little is written about or by postmodernists. I’m not speaking of the usual definitions of postmodernism-as irony, the use of “shock,” sex, rape, all these things—these are all constant things. Actually they are all characteristics of the search for the tragedy of personal expression. It’s all closely related to the problems of the French philosophical cultures inquiries-[Roland] Barthes’ poststructuralism, the type of discourse, the problem of discursive writing, the problem of automatic writing, the problem of simulacra. All these problems are really the problems of postmodernists in their artistic activity, trying to reveal some new drama, when time will reveal the dramaturgy and drama of the artist. As a result, they later become the cultural conduct with their etiquette, which is not a personal drama, but a customary drama. That’s how the artist who writes and conducts himself considers the problem of “the poet and the crowd”-it’s customary.
Postmodernism also has its problems, its dramaturgy, its problematic, its heroes, its personages. I think that the time has already come when postmodernism is the cultural etiquette of conduct. But in principle, since it’s still living, some other kind of conduct has not yet arrived which could estrange postmodernism in its personage. If another artist came and put the postmodernist in his personage! But until then postmodernism will control all the personages. Just like in an animal farm-the animals need to be alive in order to conduct research, but really it may be possible to do this research without any animals at all.
You’ve lived through much—what do you make of the economic and political changes here?
If you take my situation in life, strictly speaking, then my status has changed fundamentally. Under the Soviet government I was an underground man, as it were. I had a complicated relationship with the regime, with the KGB, I was imprisoned, summoned to the KGB office, I could not publish anything, could not go into anything, could not earn money with my art, could not travel abroad-—I could not be a normal artist and writer. So for me, of course, as an artist everything has fundamentally changed. If I look at the historical changes...I don’t have any special faith in what’s going on now. Because I suppose that Russia has no functional time—just a natural cycle, as it were-spring, summer, fall, winter, and again spring, summer, and now we’re in fall. So it’s neither bad nor good. It’s a kind of phenomenon of this culture, of this geographical and national place. I don’t think that Russian is becoming part of a homogenized culture. It will be it’s own as it was before. Different, perhaps from the Hindu “frozen” culture-that there is some circular movement but it’s illusory. It’s difficult to say whether it’s good or bad.
Russia has two possibilities-have you heard of Kipling’s Mowgli, whom the animals stole? In Russian folklore as well, there are wolves and monkeys that steal children and raise them as their own. Then people find them and return them to their human parents—but if the child has lived for more than five years with the animals, then it’s already impossible for him to speak, use utensils while eating, etc. It seems to me that Russia, from the point of view of Western culture, has already passed that “five years,” it’s already unadapted to enter into Western culture, although it always has a segment that has the tendency to find its way to Western culture. These children can hold a fork and spoon when they eat, and this is the intelligentsia. But as soon as the external influence leave, or when some terror comes, then it begins to walk on all fours again, and loves natural ways, not connected with a simulacral existence. Actually, this is connected less to technology and more to the “communal body,” which transcends some general ideas and correlates with it. “Privacy,” a particular life, seems like it will appear and then does not. But it can, for a certain layer of the population, at the expense of the rest of the population. Thus it organizes a manorial society-nobles, freedmen, slaves—-each has its own laws and does not bother the other. A neo-estate society now organizes itself—one segment of society can live by its own laws, say, and another by its laws. In essence, there’s now this tendency to a neo-estate society. Whether it’ll be successful or not is unclear, because each time an estate society develops, it ends in revolution.
Speaking of animals, Americans and Russians looked at each other like exotic wild animals—-I’m thinking of your poems about Reagan and the American elections. Do you think this relationship has changed or will change?
The thing is, this is a surface reading of my poems, because this culture creates these metaphysical enemies, these devils. What that devil is called—Reagan or not Reagan—is not important. Concretely, it’s about the relationship to Reagan per se, I wasn’t writing political poems. Simply, the enemy was Reagan, the American president. Actually, these are not political-critical poems they are mythological—it was a Soviet myth with all of its devils, it Manicheistic, dualistic culture. It could have been Napoleon in another age. There are also positive heroes, protagonists—the “Policeman,” Pushkin, but they have also changed. So really the concept of the enemy still remains, but now it’s not Reagan, but, say, a person of Caucasian nationality, a Chechen for example. The rigid membership of our enemies is hierarchical and since they myth has died, it has actualized itself as “ours and not-ours.” Since the concept of global pretensions has left Russia—not left entirely, but has weakened, fatigued somewhat for the time being-the idea of Americans as the enemies also went away.
Although, it’s true, sometimes the notion reappears in the population, that America is the fundamental enemy, an imperialist power, especially regarding the problem of NATO—that has reawakened the image of the devil as America. I think that the enemy has shifted to the Muslims-they will now be accused of being the devil. I think that for Russia to stabilize itself, stabilize its inner problems, it will find the image of an external devil. So when I was writing about Reagan, it was just the simplest, most superficial, anecdotal level of how people not used to multiple layers of meaning reacted to him. Traditional Russian poetry thinks homogeneously—as if I write that which is the singular truth, and that the relationship between the author and the text, the relationship within the text is one of layers. For them, especially from Khlebnikov to Mandelstam, the fully esoteric text, which is identified with the author, the bounds of the text can only be understood by the author.
Speaking of the “Policeman,” I was recently going to meet someone and was stopped and detained for an hour and a half by a policeman because I had not registered my visa. I waited for hours, standing in line with a bunch of drunks, and apparently the policeman wanted a bribe—I told him, “let’s go to the station, I’ll pay the fine.” Later he tells me, the fine is $50,000 rubles [about $10 at the time—so I paid him off and left. It was an interesting moment, because I don’t think that would have happened three years ago—
Not three years ago, before perestroika. The “Policeman” that I wrote about was a symbol of the government-even more than that—he was the representative of a divine government. On earth, he was a cultural hero, suffering to pay a divine government, and since it’s impossible to pay a divine government, he’s a suffering hero—a kind of mediator between heaven and earth. A normal mythological hero—it was a singular myth. But now this mythological hero is entirely different-at first he became a trickster and then a dark power, a devil, a Baba Yaga. Now the “Policeman,” once a mediator between heaven and earth, has become just dishonest.
A businessman, perhaps?!
I don’t write about the concrete, for me that’s less interesting. I write structurally, the transition from the cultural hero to the trickster. Why should I write about the Soviet regime? Whom does it interest? In this way, the “Policeman” is a completely normal mythological hero whose concrete existence is not important—mythological discourse is always a constant in society.
Have you any other new heroes emerging in your work?
You know, the thing is that no great myth exists now in which a hero could appear. I have written other discourses-the liberal-democratic, the national-patriotic, the contemporary homosexual, the mass metaphysical—these are big discourses—but it’s not necessary to write about heroes. One could just describe a kind of writing. Then there’s the very complex problem of self-presentation-as poet not existing in quantity of poems but as “manipulator.” I have a big project which is about images—I have to write 2,000 poems per year, 24,000 poems overall. It’s also a project that is a type of poetic conduct, more than anything. So I don’t have any problem finding material—some people just don’t understand the structure of this work.
Are your “images” like masks?
An image is more than that. An image is a kind of existence. I must, first, understand it, then enter into it and live. A mask, generally speaking, implies that another person exists behind it. But I, as a person, cannot exist. Behind a mask, one can act like a director, but a director can never substitute for an actor. A traditional poet like Brodsky or Gandlevsky goes out on stage and writes poetry, and his aim is completely connected to his texts. I have a different aim. I can go out on stage as an actor and I myself am not there. So I am by way of virtual expression. I am insofar as they act. I am personally like a director, not on the stage but existing in every point of action. So that’s why I say that all poetic conduct involves personages. I’m not in my texts but at the same time, just as the director is not on the stage, I am the play. I am the structure.
In America, postmodernism opposes our mentality of identification with a work of art. Isn’t that problem for one’s audience?
I deconstruct any totalitarian language as a language. I presume a multicultural world. Any consciousness, any poetic consciousness wants to think of itself as the only one. In principle, it’s just one language, no more than that. There are others in the world. My mode of deconstruction affects high culture, because high culture is also totalitarian. That is one of the signs of postmodernism-it opposes high culture, the dominating culture. Any succeeding generation that arrives also opposes the hegemonic culture. But everything depends upon how. Postmodernism is a repetition, but it opposes itself against high culture not as another high culture but as a culture that makes equal all other marginal cultures. When Futurism came, it also said that culture is terrible but opposed itself as a better culture. Postmodernism comes not as a better theory, but as a better type of conduct.
It seems that you relate to your images like Lacan’s “empty mirror” to his analysands-it’s intriguing, but also terrifying for the audience.
Lacan’s is just one way. But I relate to these images like animals in a zoo. I like them. Like a leech, that used to be used for healing purposes. I take this image, put it on myself, and when it’s done drinking my blood, there’s a poem, and then I take it off me. So in principle, Lacan was correct, with his Lacanian writing, because in his writing when one looks askance one sees a way. There ought to be many descriptions, however. Each French philosopher describes his own postmodern problem—for Barthes, for Derrida it’s writing, for Deleuze-Guattari it’s schizo-conduct, all of it’s correct, all of it in sum is postmodernism. I don’t reject Lacanian writing per se, but accept it as a complement to the others.
About your plan to write 20,000 poems—
Yes, one poem per month for 2,000 years. Now it’s a project for 4,000 years. Now an acquaintance goes on the Internet each month of this 4,000 years and posts one poem—it’s a problem of time of course. I stand, as it were, in the middle—it’s quite postmodern—and I live at the same time 2,000 years behind and 2,000 years ahead.
Does an avant-garde exist in Russia today?
It depends how much you invest in that word. There is the general concept of avant-garde, but it’s a perspective of hindsight. The avant-garde is everything after what precedes it. Then there’s the concept of defined style of 1920’s art. Avant-garde now is some type of conduct of the avant-garde artist. Avant-garde is a name for people who can work in many entirely different styles. So the identification the avant-garde requires a strict definition of what avant-gardism entails. If you ask whether there are people who work as the avant-garde did in the ‘20’s, then I’d say there are many. If in postmodernism, in that specific manner, then there are very few.
What role does today’s avant-garde play in society at large?
Generally, as social culture, it’s very insignificant. First, it’s a small number of people. Second, all culture in Russia was always centralized and immediately connected to political power. Since all power is social and administrative, all these cultural people raised on socialist realism, the sixties generation, they consider the avant-garde to be “shock” and they don’t accept it. Also, this new economic and financial establishment has been brought up on a connection to the Western world, and they see the market of contemporary Western art as a region of financial exchange. Only through external imitation do they try to have a contemporary avant-garde. So the avant-garde is not influential in social culture and is just the lot of a small circle of intellectuals and artists, although in terms of its connection to Western culture, it is a fundamental zone where a connection between Western and Russian art takes place. In this way, the border, the passage, the customs house is very influential. But only in this very specific way.
The tradition in Russian poetry, that a poet in Russia is more than a poet, is diminished. Does this epoch seem sad to you?
In Russia, especially in Stalinist Russia, there was a hierarchical kind of culture, like the 19th century, where the hierarchy of culture and art were connected. But in principle, this change could not happen instantly. All ideologies of contemporary art are founded on entirely different interrelations between cultures, artists, and markets. They all have their different problems. It’s like when you leave school and go out on the street-school has its own hierarchy—teachers, good students, bad students—but when you go out on the street, there’s an entirely different world, comprised of different laws. So it’s difficult to say for whom is this value of the poetic position and problematic. But in the sphere of visual arts, which has long since departed from these 19th century problems, even in Russia--these poetic problems are simply laughable, just absurd. For me it was never a problem and really since I developed in a different problematic, that is a problem for my personages, not for me.
Have you been to America? Have you seen “Beavis and Butthead”—two teenagers who sit on a couch and watch television and comment on it.
No, I haven’t seen it.
They’re very primitive, but they’re very interesting as well—they watch rock videos and when they don’t like something they say, “that’s cool,” and if they don’t they say, “this sucks.” I think these two could be good personages, images of our culture.
That’s true, but it’s a matter for me of an insulting consciousness. I also have personages like them, but I prefer to describe a multicultural situation. They are, if you take them as singular, becoming a totalization of some kind of consciousness. For me, there is a fundamental principle of not discovering my consciousness, not finding it absolutely. That is, many critics of contemporary American life correct detect their limitations, but they absolutize their critique and immediately become a counterbalance to totalitarianism-say “mass consciousness”—and they themselves become a totalitarian consciousness. So for me, both consciousnesses possess elements of totalitarianism. I want to deconstruct this kind of consciousness as just a discourse, and not as absolutely just. Because with totalitarian consciousness, I could deconstruct at any definite moment the Soviet myth, the homosexual myth, the consumption myth, the mass media myth. Myths that want to swallow the whole world, if they become successful, becoming a dominating myth, act aggressively against the world.
How can the critic deal with these questions of totalitarian consciousness?
Generally, there is a strategy—where the critic describes not the elements of consciousness, but the structure of thinking. He understands that a person’s consciousness is inclined to totalization. First, he describes the structure of that consciousness with some mechanism of testing. He can test any cultural consciousness as Foucault did. But in my consciousness there are also elements of totalitarian consciousness. You could describe each consciousness as either an absolute total consciousness, or as a consciousness not rising to discourse, or as a consciousness working strictly within elements of other totalitarian consciousnesses, or as a consciousness equal to your own. This is a definite theme.
The thing is, the whole difference between the position of contemporary poetry and the new traditional poetry-the traditional poetic consciousness is fixed, at peace, with no doubts about its own discursive position. The postmodern consciousness, of course, is subject to these doubts. The tradition of Russian poetry is hierarchical—-Mandelstam, Pasternak—it doesn’t subject itself to the doubts of the position of the poet. As if it were the truth. All contemporary poetry, basically speaking, believes that it’s telling the truth, not just speaking with poetic language. Namely, of the problematic of one’s own expression. Doubts about another’s expression is completely normal, but to one’s own writing—that’s a cultural shock. They assume that poetic expression is truthful utterance. For them, it’s absolute truth, transcends into heaven.
I remember an interview I did with Gandlevsky. He says to me, about poetry, “of course it’s good.” I said, “how can that be if the reader is bored?” I told him, “the problem is that what makes you happy might make me bored, and vice versa.” If you’re interested in chess, then the board is an expanse of beauty. If you’re interested in soccer, then chess seems very complicated. “It’s your problem” kind of thing. But for the person who plays it, “how can you think that? It’s the only truth.” There’s no concept of conventional discursiveness in Russian culture.
You know, I want to think that Gandlevsky is right, that there’s a reason to write poems.
Of course he’s right, but the thing is our time cannot reflect on his position. He’s right, but he ought to know why he’s right. In his type of writing, there is no position from which it looks at itself. They don’t develop that position. It’s nonsense to them. So each time it’s shocking when someone refuses to accept his idea of poetry, and he immediately takes it as opposition. When I qualify his work as discourse, he doesn’t understand that I’m neither for nor against it, I’m just qualifying it. In this way, he can write this kind of writing, but as a personage. There are all kinds of motives. One can paint matryoshka dolls for one’s whole life, but that’s a motive of contemporary culture, because there’s no concept of artistic conduct. It’s just handicraft. He can do that kind of writing, but it’s handicraft—writing like Malevich, Khlebnikov, it’s neither bad nor good. So when a person who paints matryoshka dolls says, “I create beauty. And you, devil, what do you create?” They are different things, it’s not the same art. For me, I can use this man among my personages. But he cannot respond to me as a personage. For him, the author is transparent, transcendental. My relationship to Gandlevsky is neither bad nor good. He is a personage in his artistic behavior, and contemporary culture for him is transcendental.
Of course, there are motives for writing-you can have any motive you wish. But if you enter into and think about the categories of high culture, then you ought to understand it to the end. The person who paints matryoshka dolls has no pretensions to high culture, he knows that he is a craftsman. And that’s his greatness. He instantly understands his place in culture. But as soon as he begins to think that he’s making great art and from that art that he can save the world—that’s from an unchanging culture. And that’s not principled professionalism. My pretensions are not how they [the traditional poets] write, but how they orient themselves in the cultural situation. But unfortunately that level, that organ is absent in people of that type of conduct. Take a radio with a dial-when it’s not on the right frequency, it’s just noise. One could explore this phenomenon-that’s noise there, noise comes from this point, etc. I can describe various parameters of noise. For me, their behavior is completely clear, as artistic conduct, but for them, my conduct is just noise. They look upon my behavior as “wrong.” And my poems as “incorrect poems.” But I don’t write poems. So it’s a difference between cultural activities...motives for writing exist, of course, as do motives for watching television, walking in the forest. I don’t judge whether they’re bad or good.
If it’s no secret, how do you earn money these days?
Now I earn money in different ways. First, through publications, through there’s no money in it of course. I earn money through visual arts, either by selling pieces or when a museum pays me to do an installation, or I do musical performances. I’m a “musician.” It’s a “sound performance.” A type of mantra, very loud, alluding to church services, but I write the texts. From the surface, when you don’t see the texts, they’d remind you of mantras, that type of activity, but it’s totally different from that.
Are there any poetry clubs in existence today similar to the ones that existed in the ‘70’s?
“Clubs” as an institution, ended-it was a general system of the old cultural structure, financed by government sponsors. Now, since that funding has ended, clubs have ceased to exist. Now there are places where people can read poems. In Moscow, they are generally libraries. With changes in the economic situation, the whole cultural system also changed. The old functional system collapsed and a new system has not yet been born. Perhaps because an academic system doesn’t exist. All over the world, academic institutions organize around themselves some kind of literary exploration. In Moscow, there are two huge universities, but they don’t study contemporary literature there at all, and if they do, then they don’t have any money, don’t organize anything or have any readings, etc.
Today, a system of grants and awards doesn’t exist. There’s no system of “creative writing.” There are almost no “festivals.” There is no market for avant-garde literature or visual art, but you could say that visual art is included in the Western market. But literature, in this way, seems to be an activity not included in culture. There are places where people read, but it’s a very marginal activity. If before the activity of poetry was prestigious, social, if you were a writer you could live on your publications, and by tradition it was culturally prestigious, then now that prestige has been destroyed and the most talented and energetic people went into more prestigious spheres, either business, or politics, or mass media, or pop music. Poetry is now marginal activity, so we’re the last generation to arrive into poetry during its prestige. And we are still the last people attracted to it to have actualized ourselves in it. If I were a young person today, I would probably say I wouldn’t need poetry—-why should I-now people like me who could actualize themselves in poetry are leaving poetry. To poetry come less energetic, weaker people now. But when the sphere of poetry finds its niche, then talented people will be drawn to it again and practice it. A person who goes into poetry cannot at the same time make an academic career because it’s neither customary nor easy, since an academic career is also neither prestigious nor pays well, and has also become marginal.
Do you have any prognoses for the future, culturally and politically?
Well, culture depends on the political and social structure. If we have a market economy, then that means that culture will organize itself by the principles of the market. If there will be a mono-culture again, not economic but governmental, then culture will be like it was under socialism, or possibly like in India—half of culture serves the urban population, and an opposing culture serves the village or peasant population. Something like that exists here already—a market, pop culture serving the urban population, and another culture serving the village population. But generally, I began such a long time ago and any change....
At first, an artist enters into his period in the bounds of the dominating style. Then, when he grows, he begins opposing the contemporary styles, and then a third style—-he is already the producer of the next type of style and direction. Then, he creates his own language, which sets him apart from this style or direction. Then there’s his own myth—for the remainder of his life, he works with his myth, which is appreciated. And later, he’s interesting as a launching pad for other artists. And he, say, Renoir, during WII and mass hysteria was all about, he wrote his women. When in the bounds of myth of Renoir it’s not important who’s also painting women at the same time. He entered into culture during postimpressionism and afterwards, his whole life, he was “Renoir.” I think that I am old enough that I have gone through different changes that I think I’m playing with my myths. So I don’t think that future changes with concern me somehow fundamentally. I don’t enter into situations thinking of myself as a tragic poet or artist.
Three years ago, in an interview with Gandlevsky, I asked him if he’d been on the barricades during the August coup attempt in 1991. He said he’d been helping his father-in-law making some shelves and couldn’t leave him. Later, [poet Timur] Kibirov and said he should go, but it was already past the crisis. Where were you at the time?
Well, first, I just wasn’t in Moscow. But if I were, I wouldn’t have been making a shelf. I would’ve gone to the barricades. For me, as for an American, there were some interesting social meanings in those events. As for Gandlevsky, I think his explanation is not a matter of shelves, but the traditional poetic consciousness-“poet and crowd.” He is very conventional, his themes are mundane existence: “for me a shelf is more important that the world.” It’s a Pasternakian notion—”my shelf is much more important than these political events—it’s an ideology of conscious action. For me, these events were interesting in every way, first as a citizen. Poetic values don’t cover everything. I’d have gone there for many reasons. Gandlevsky’s poetic is arrogant, but it’s typical of that poetic conduct.
Has freedom of artistic expression changed forever the Russian relationship to the Word?
The concept of freedom of artistic expression affects only a small circle of people in literature. Critically, for the mass of people, “freedom of expression” is not yet salient. If a person has the right to critique something out loud, that’s doesn’t mean it’s freedom, a person could yell out something else—the discursive relationship to any expression is not yet personal. A person, in the paradigm of freedom of expression, doesn’t necessarily accept a different “expression,” he’s just allowed to express a kind of totalitarian discourse. So it’s not just connected to problems of the freedom of expression, but also with problems of cultural and economic strata. It’s a whole mentality that generates verbal expression, so it’s not just a problem of verbal literary expression, it’s a problem of any expression.