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Three ways of being a Soviet poet

5:00pm – 7:00pm, Thursday 10 October 2013. Queen’s Building, LT4.2.

‘Three Ways of Being a Soviet Poet: Vladimir Maiakovskii, Boris Slutskii, and Bella Akhmadulina’. Natalia Karakulina, Katharine Hodgson and Alexandra Smith will introduce three poets who, at different stages in the USSR’s history, found their own ways of being a Soviet poet.

We tend to imagine poets in the Soviet Union as being either obedient ‘artists in uniform’, or heroic figures whose defiance of censorship and Socialist Realism exposes them to persecution. For Vladimir Maiakovskii, a Futurist, the October Revolution embodied the overthrow of restrictive tradition he sought in his art, and called it ‘my revolution’. Boris Slutskii came of age in the Stalin years, fought in the war, and left a huge legacy of unpublished poetry which charted his response to the catastrophes of the time including the Terror and the Holocaust. Bella Akhmadulina belonged to the generation of the post-Stalin Thaw period, but still had to negotiate demands for politically committed poetry, and managed to do so while creating a poetic persona with links to other cultures and other times.

Poster: Three ways of being a Soviet poet

The twentieth-century Russian poetry canon at the BASSEES / ICCEES Congress ‘Europe: Crisis and Renewal’

Throughout the course of the project, we have been exploring the ways in which the canon of twentieth-century Russian poetry has changed since 1991 and asking such questions as: ‘have all the Soviet-era approved poets been entirely removed from the post-Soviet canon?’; ‘are the poets in the post-1991 canon only those who were not approved by the Soviet leadership?’; and ‘have there been attempts to reconcile approved poetry with the unapproved of the Soviet period, and how does it fit with the poetry of pre-1917 and post-1991?’, so when we saw the theme of this year’s joint BASEES / ICCEES European Congress, it seemed appropriate to submit a proposal for a panel.

Thanks to colleagues Emily Lygo and Ursula Stohler, we were able propose two panels addressing different aspects of the canon forming process. In the first of the two panels, ‘The Russian Twentieth-Century Poetry Canon in the Post-Soviet Period: Changing Narratives’, Alexandra Smith’s paper demonstrated that the Romantic myth of the poet as martyr and hero continues to play an important role in the canonisation of Russian poets. Emily Lygo discussed the canon of Thaw poetry in the post-Soviet era, examining the versions of the canon of works and poets of the Thaw poets that have emerged since the fall of the USSR. Aaron Hodgson finished the session with his paper entitled ‘From the margins to the mainstream: Joseph Brodsky and the 20th century poetic canon in the post-Soviet period’, in which he explored how Brodsky has risen to fame from almost near obscurity in the post-Soviet period.

In the second of the two panels, ‘Canon formation in Russian and Eastern European literature: the influence of institutions’, Joanne Shelton explored the extent to which the Nobel Prize for Literature had guaranteed Ivan Bunin and his poetry a more prominent place in the canon of twentieth-century Russian literature. Katharine Hodgson discussed the ways in which the repertoire of poetry generally identified as belonging to ‘official’ culture has been reproduced in post-Soviet publications. In particular it will look at the use of allusion and quotation in the poetry of Timur Kibirov, arguing that that his work demonstrates above all the continued vitality of the ‘official’ poetry canon, as something that enabled readers (and poets) to create what Gronas describes as ‘meaningful and memorable patterns’ out of the real life around them. Ursula Stohler’s paper on domestic and foreign women writers in Czech literature textbooks (1948-2007) discussed the ways in which works by women writers were included in secondary school textbooks and how their inclusion has changed over time, in particular, during the post-socialist period.

The project team would like to thank Emily Lygo and Ursula Stohler for their papers, conference organisers for allowing us the opportunity to present the work of the project at the 2013 conference; and the audience for their helpful comments and questions.

My research trip to Moscow (the people and Vladimir Maiakovskii)

Written by Natalia Karakulina.

Studying the ‘best, most talented’ poet of the Soviet nation unavoidably meant that sooner or later I had to go to Moscow. This was a daunting prospect as I had no idea what to expect. Now I am back and in one piece and can recap on my experience:

The city

Everybody knows that Moscow is big. I knew that too. What I didn’t realise is that everything in Moscow is big: the buildings…

The Kremlin

…the roads…

The Ring Road

…the monuments:

The Space Museum











For some reason (and having never been in Russia before) I was under the impression that Russians dislike Leninmonuments of the Soviet era and have removed most of them. However, this was not the case and dedushka Lenin was the first historic figure to greet me, as I emerged out of the Metro.

A few more words about the roads

I lived on a street which led to the famous Sadovoe Kol’tso. It had ten lanes. I have never before even seen a street with ten lanes, now I had to navigate it. I realised that when checking the address, it was not only important to establish how to find the right street, but also what side of the street the building you are looking for was.

Crossing the street in Moscow was not a mere fact of walking to the other side of the road. With five or more lanes on average to traverse, crossing the road became a quest, a search for the underpass. I have spent many moments standing on the edge of the road, trying to judge from the posture of the pedestrians, the direction of the traffic, the position of the sun and the shape of the clouds, whether the nearest underpass was to the left or to the right of me.

Stalin’s Seven Sisters

I happen to suffer from the very stereotypical disease commonly attributed to women – complete inability to orientate in space. I still get lost in a small town I lived in for almost 3 years. Naturally I spent a considerable amount of the time dedicated to my research trip being utterly lost. One of Stalin's Seven Sisters

In the city centre I spotted a tall gothic structure and thought: ‘great, I can use that to orientate myself and get myself back to the Metro’. Somehow, it never seemed to work though. I would walk back to the building, and then past it, and still there would be no sign of the metro station. At the end of the second week of the trip me and my colleague Jo, a frequent traveller to Russia who had just arrived in Moscow, went for a walk and I, having spotted the building I’d tried to use for directions, vented my frustration at my complete inability to determine locations. Turns out, there are seven buildings like that in Moscow, all nearly identical, six of them being right in the city centre.


The Metro

The Moscow metro is very deep. As you stand on the escalator weighing up your life you can almost feel your hair becoming greyer. Russian people don’t like the metro. We were going down as the lady I met told me a story: ‘every person has a guardian angel, who always follows us around. But the guardian angel can’t go under the ground, so when we use the metro and start descending down the guardian angel loses us, and dashes around in the crowd desperately trying to find us’.

Maiakovskii metro station

Maiakovskii station, opened 1938.

The story finished, yet we were still continuing to go down the escalator. I presume the moral of the story is that nothing good comes from the metro, and that it’s generally a place where bad things are likely to happen to you (since there is no guardian angel to look over your shoulder).

And yet, Moscow metro is beautiful, clean, easy to navigate and exceptionally efficient. Fair enough, it becomes very crowded during peak times, but you expect it from any underground; and yes, it does take a while to go up and down the escalator. On the plus side, the metro is cleaned every day with sawdust. Every station is a piece of art and every station is different, and in my three and a half weeks of being in Moscow I have witnessed only one disturbance on one of Moscow’s twelve metro lines. This was a very pleasant surprise after the London Underground where it’s more unlikely to see all lines working normally, than to find disturbances. The disturbance I witnessed in Moscow resulted in trains running slow. ‘Slow’ meant every two and a half minutes… There is a watch on every station which tells you how much time has passed since the last train. Normally the trains run every one and a half minutes. To me this level of efficiency is worth spending a few extra minutes going down the escalator.

As you go down the escalator you are presented with the only advertisement in the metro: posters of cleaning products and convenience stores pass you as the voice from the loudspeakers tells you about the proper behaviour on the escalator and on the roads: ‘only cross the street in the designated areas and always wait for the green light. Think about the children: you are an example for them’. This touched my heart: a nation, where at least there is an effort to make child education a mission for the whole society.

Moscow’s inhabitants

Pigeons and Dostoevskii

One of the largest pigeon gangs in Moscow: together with Fedor Dostoevskii overlooking their domain at the entrance to the National Library (above). More pigeons (below).Pigeons

You can easily find out that eleven and a half million people live in Moscow.

However, far fewer statistics exist on the city’s other inhabitants – the pigeons. The pigeons of Moscow live in gangs and consider that the city is built to suit their needs: the monuments and roofs are good vantage points, the metro is there for them to huddle in the warmth when days are cold, and the roads are made uneven on purpose, so that water can be gathered for pigeons to drink. When I visited Moscow in April the pigeons were a happy breed. They were basking in the spring sun, bathing in Moscow many puddles and, of course, courting.

The libraries

During my time in Russia I visited two libraries: the National Library and the much smaller Pedagogical Library. First of all I went to the National Library, as I was warned that it was a long winded process. I wasn’t warned however about the general indifference of the library staff, whose job title, according to the plank on the desk, was ‘Consultant’. By the end of my first day in the library I was feeling worthless, close to tears and desperately lost (though determined to rather spend the night in the library than ask one more time for help).

The next day, still shaken from the experience, I went to a conference, where people I have never met before treated me like a VIP guest. During a tea break (which involved a table filled with various foods and treats) I was asked how I was finding Russia and I answered that it’s still all very new to me but that I found the general apathetic relationships between the people upsetting. I was quick to add that this did not apply to the welcome I received at the conference. They were first disappointed with my response but when they learned that I was basing my answer on my experiences in the National Library, they laughed and said that the library was ‘a special case’ and I shouldn’t base my judgement on it.

True enough the smaller Pedagogical Library had a completely different feel about it. And while nobody asked me how I was, or attempted to make small talk, people there were ready to answer my enquiries and help me out.

The Maiakovskii museum

The Maiakovskii Museum

                                              в комнатёнке-лодочке
                                      три тыщи дней
Maiakovskii Khorosho!

Visiting the Maiakovskii museum was on my agenda for the trip. Yet, between meeting people and working in libraries, it was quite late when I finally managed to visit the museum. I came on a Sunday, as the entrance was free, and was quickly completely mesmerised by what artists have managed to achieve there. ‘Maiakovskii museum’ is just a name, a label, in reality it’s an art gallery: an artistic representation of the poet’s life and time.

Almanacs of the Futurists (above) and Letters to Lili Brik (below).

Some don’t understand it: a middle-aged gentleman who walked into the museum with his wife shortly after me, looked around half disgusted and said that he could not understand how any of it had anything to do with Maiakovskii. I felt like turning to him and answering that if he wanted to see Maiakovskii, he needed to read his works. I didn’t, of course. To me though, the museum was a great success. It’s situated in a building which held communal flats; the room belonging to the poet, and his work cabinet for a large part of his life, is still there. The rest is demolished, made into uneven halls where rambling decorations are somehow just about pulled together, to celebrate the different periods of Maiakovskii’s life.

Letter to Maiakovskii.

A particularly interesting letter to Maiakovskii from one of his public readings: ‘Comrade Maiakovskii, how would you rate Esenin’s poetry if his ideological position was admissible to our modern times?’

In our modern times it would appear that it is Maiakovskii’s poetry which is often rated on its ‘ideological position’. This letter could have been written today, despite the fact that we have witnessed ideologies rise and fall, and the great poetry didn’t get any worse for it. And yet, ideological position seems to remain a factor in ‘rating’ poets.

Maiakovskii museum.

Maiakovskii Museum (above). From the museum self-guided tour (below).


The people

True I have had some bad experiences, I mentioned the National Library before, which was still an example of good manners compared to the treatment I got in the post office, when I tried to register my visa. However, the comment from a conference was true – these places are bad example of getting to know Russian people.

Before my trip I compiled a list of Moscow-based literature experts who might be able to help me with my research. I had never met these people, and, due to the last-minute nature of my funding, did not, perhaps, give them enough warning of my arrival. And yet, all of them were exceptionally welcoming. A lady who invited me to a conference gave me several books as a gift. Members of Maiakovskii study group in the Institute of World Literature invited me for tea and cakes. I was taken out for coffee, and shown around the city. All this despite the incredible amount of work that these people were doing: many suggested to call them after 11pm, as they didn’t get home earlier than that.

In my hostel I have met people who raised an eyebrow when I told them what I was studying and thought that I was out of my mind. To them my work seemed as irrelevant and pointless as counting pebbles on a beach. Equally, people I didn’t know came to me when they saw me working with photocopies on Maiakovskii, and when they learned what I did, said that it had made their day to know that young people were still interested in poetry and in Vladimir Maiakovskii.

Would I go there again

I realise that if I stay in my current line of work I will unavoidably go there again. However, when I go there next time I’ll know that it is not only a huge, noisy, confusing place where it is inadvisable to ask for help, but also an old beautiful city, with people who will be glad to see me again and care about my work.

Interview with Dmitry Bobyshev

An Interview with Dmitry Bobyshev after the conference on Russian émigré literature in New York City (27–28 April 2012).

By Alexandra Smith (University of Edinburgh) Dmitry Bobyshev

In  the end of April I was invited to participate in a unique conference dedicated to the jubilee of Russian émigré journal The New Review  (Новый журнал) – “Russian Emigration at the Crossroads of the XX-XXI Centuries”. It took place at Columbia university on 27-28 April 2012. The conference attracted many interesting scholars and cultural figures, including specialists on Russian poetry. In addition to hearing many informative and illuminating presentations – that testify to the fact that Russian twentieth-century emigration needs  to be studied more in a coherent and thorough manner– it was extremely interesting to watch a documentary film about the history of The New Review, one of the leading journals of Russian emigration. I have been also excited to learn about the forthcoming anthology on the representation of New York in Russian poetry which is being prepared by Yakov Clots. The report on this conference is available on this webpage:летие-нж

Despite a very busy schedule, I was fortunate to have had a chance to talk to Dmitry Bobyshev, one of the most prominent Russian poets of the post-war period, whose contribution to the survival of Russian poetry abroad is immense. Following our conversation in New York, I have asked Dmitry Bobyshev to answer a few questions related to his own poetic career and to the ‘visibility’ of his generation in the post-Soviet literary landscape. Dmitry Bobyshev has kindly provided me with his answers a few days ago. I hope that they will be of great interest both to the participants of our project and to all Russian poetry lovers.

Вопросы Александры Смит и ответы на них Дмитрия Бобышева (24.12.2012)

 “Как Вы думаете, достаточно ли хорошо представлена история Вашего  поколения в постсоветской России?

Если считать моим поколением тех, чьё детство прошло при Сталине, юношеские дебюты состоялись при Хрущёве, а молодая активность пришлась на правление Брежнева, то эта история ещё пишется. Прежде всего хочу заметить, что нас неверно называют «шестидесятниками» по аналогии с предшествующим веком. Это очень неудачное наименование. С базаровыми и со смазными сапогами разночинцев, пошедших за 100 лет до нас в литературу и в революцию, мы не имеем ничего общего даже в цифрах. Мы начинали в середине 50–х, а по–настоящему развернулись в 70–х и 80–х. А в 60–е годы дейстовали другие – официально признанные или полупризнанные советские либералы (Евтушенко, Вознесенский и пр.), с которыми мы резко межевались. Так что эта метрическая линейка совсем не приложима к литературе.

Несмотря на запреты и препоны советских властей, неофициальная литература оказалась живучей и непокорённой, и она теперь свободно размещается в истории. Есть уже справочные материалы, которые частично вбирают в себя сведения о моём поколении и дают некоторые предварительные оценки – например, пособия, составленные В. Террасом на английском или В. Казаком на немецком и русском языках. Позднее на русском вышла энциклопедия «Самиздат Ленинграда» (коллектив авторов–составителей под ред. Л. Северюхина). Я сам участвовал в подобном издании: «Словарь поэтов Русского зарубежья», где составил раздел «Третья волна».

Были в своё время изданы двуязычные (русско–английские) сборники стихов поэтов поздне–советского поколения под редакцией Дж. Лэнгланда, Дж. Смита, Дж. Кейтса. Вышли более полные антологии на русском языке (например, «Строфы века» Е. Евтушенко и Е. Витковского, «Поздние петербуржцы» В. Топорова и М. Максимова или «Сумерки Сайгона» Ю. Валиевой), где отдельными текстами представлены мои сверстники. Начали выходить собрания сочинений и биографии тех, кто наиболее прославился и, увы, закончил свой жизненный путь. Но до сих пор, к сожалению, наиболее полным сводом материалов на эту тему остаётся эпатажная и недостоверная антология «У Голубой Лагуны» Г. Ковалёва и К. Кузьминского.

Добрым словом надо помянуть западных славистов, европейских и американских: Д. Хастад, Б. Хелдт, Э. Лайго, М. Розен и многих других. Они нас не забывают: начиная с самых глухих доперестроечных лет выходили и продолжают выходить их статьи, книги и диссертации о литераторах моего поколения. К этой теме обращены теперь и российские литературоведы. Вот позднейший пример: книга очерков «Петербургская поэзия в лицах», где я хотел бы отметить с благодарностью статьи А. Арьева.

И, наконец, остаётся ещё один способ воздействовать на людскую память: написать свою, личную версию былых событий – воспоминания. Мемуарная литература о нашем времени уже сейчас довольно обширна, и я внёс в неё свою лепту. Первые два тома моей трилогии под общим названием «Человекотекст» вышли отдельными книгами в Москве, третий том целиком опубликован из номера в номер в журнале «Юность».

Я начал мой ответ с утверждения, что история нашего поколения ещё пишется. Но все эти перечисления выглядят так, что она в общих чертах уже обозначена.

Есть ли у Вас преемники, читатели и  почитатели?

Мне даже странно было бы представить моих «преемников», потому что я ведь не был главой литературного направления, не выпускал манифестов и отнюдь не являлся бесспорной фигурой. Но если кто–то из молодых поэтов найдёт плодотворные идеи или подходящие художественные приёмы в моих сочинениях, то ради Бога, пусть ими пользуется и их развивает.

Почитатели бывали, и порой довольно устойчивые. Я их очень ценю, особенно, когда они высказываются печатно.

Должен быть, конечно, и читатель у моих текстов, как у всякой письменной продукции, но читатели в целом представляются мне молчаливым расплывчатым облаком.

Что бы Вам хотелось увидеть в современных учебниках и антологиях о Вас и Вашем поколении? 

Об этом я не задумывался. Но, может быть, этого пока и не надо. А когда придёт время, нужно будет вспомнить демократический принцип хрестоматий, когда в первую очередь отбирались выразительные тексты, а не фигуры.

Есть ли какие-то тексты, которые, на Ваш взгляд, не должны быть забыты?”

Да. Я хочу, чтобы мои «Русские терцины» читались и перечитывались, – ведь они задуманы как психоанализ нашего «Мы».

Attitudes to the 20th-century poetic canon: Maria Galina and Arkady Shtypel’

By Alexandra Smith (University of Edinburgh)

Интервью с Мариной Галиной (5.11.2012), проведенное Александрой Смит.

а. Скажите, пожалуйста, существуют ли в постсоветский период понятия о поэтическом каноне? Можно ли говорить о сосуществовании нескольких канонов в России сейчас?

Советский «подцензурный» поэтический канон как бы негласно, но существовал  –  касался он не столько сочинения, сколько публикации в советской прессе, но в литстудиях, литературном институте и т.п. несомненно, транслировался. Не рекомендовалось писать слишком «пессимистические» тексты, не рекомендовалось слишком смело экспериментировать, писать «метафизические» тексты, тексты, «искажающие советскую действительность» (у лианозовецев ни одного «взрослого» стихотворения за годы советской власти, кажется, так и не было напечатано), не рекомендовалось слишком много внимания уделять телесному низу, вообще физиологическим отправлениям, была запрещена обсценная лексика, и.п.  В этом контексте, скажем, Иосиф Бродский был, безусловно, дерзким нарушителем. Сейчас никакого одного поэтического канона нет, можно сказать, канонов нет вообще, потому что нет регулирующих институций. Есть несколько направлений, между которыми существует что-то вроде взаимодействия, взаимного обогащения…

б. Как Вы думаете, кого из поэтов 20 века нужно обязательно изучать в школе и почему?

Изучение в школе часто, напротив, отталкивает подростков от поэзии – как любое насильственное навязывание чего бы то ни было. Но поскольку каждый любит пропагандировать то, что ему самому нравится – то я считаю, что в школьной программе обязательно должны присутствовать в каком-то виде серебряный век, Пастернак, Мандельштам, обэриуты и Иосиф Бродский. Остальное – опционально. Это, как мне кажется, те столпы, на которых зиждется большая часть современного «поэтического мейнстрима», и, конечно, их должен знать, что называется «каждый культурный человек». Остальное можно отдать на откуп специалистам.

в. Если бы Вы составляли антологию поэзии 20 века, кого бы Вы туда включили как самых важных авторов и почему?

Тут примерно как с предыдущим вопросом – какие-то авторы (см. выше) должны присутствовать (и присутствуют) во всех антологиях (а антологий в последние два десятилетия вышло довольно много), а какие-то обязательно должны быть в тематических антологиях – для специалистов. Русская поэзия ХХ века настолько богата и разнообразна, что, наверное, самое оптимальное было бы делать серию антологий по поэтическим школам, направлениям – от родоначальников до поздних последователей…

г. В последнее время часто говорят о том, что, может быть, рифма является анахронизмом и можно писать верлибром, как делается на западе. Что Вы думаете об этом? Может ли развиваться  верлибр в России?

И может – и развивается. Как мне кажется соотношение интересных текстов, написанных верлибром, и текстов, где есть рифма и ритм (в каком-то виде) примерно равно. Я лично воспринимаю регулярную, силлабо-тоническую поэзию и «верлибровую» поэзию как две совершенно разные поэзии, требующие разных инструментов для изучения, разных подходов при восприятии и т.п. Но существует очень много переходных форм, и обе эти поэзии взаимно обогащают друг друга. Я все ж таки полагаю, что возможности силлабо-тоники еще далеко не исчерпаны, и по крайней мере в русской литературе «регулярную» поэзию ждет долгая и  интересная жизнь. Хотя она должна как-то трансформироваться, конечно – что она и делает. Более того, я полагаю, что и для западной «регулярной» поэзии перспективы не столь уж безнадежны…

Интервью с Аркадием Штыпелем, проведенное Александрой Смит  (1.11.2012).

а. Скажите, пожалуйста, существуют ли в постсоветский период понятия о поэтическом каноне? Можно ли говорить о сосуществовании нескольких канонов в России сейчас?

Даже рассматривая советский период и даже исключая из рассмотрения андерграунд, трудно говорить о каком-то едином каноне, разве что об определенных рамочных ограничениях.

В наше время, мне кажется, тем более не приходится говорить даже о нескольких  канонах, если под каноном понимать более или менее внятную систему эстетических предписаний и ограничений.

Существует множество индивидуальных поэтик, естественным, то есть, вполне стихийным образом складывающихся в те или иные направления или тенденции, никоим образом не оформляемые ни организационно (группы, школы), ни идеологически (манифесты). Кое-какие расплывчатые попытки такого рода время от времени случаются, но без какого-либо канонообразующего эффекта.

б. Как Вы думаете, кого из поэтов 20 века нужно обязательно изучать в школе и почему?

Это очень трудный вопрос. Я бы очень хотел, чтобы подростки узнали и полюбили моих любимых поэтов, но я не уверен, что включение этих поэтов в школьную программу возымеет именно такое действие, а не противоположное. Вообще изучение литературы и особенно поэзии в общеобразовательной школе – дело весьма проблематичное, и рекомендации собственно литераторов, т. е. людей со специфически текстовым перекосом в голове, здесь могут быть даже вредными.

в. Если бы Вы составляли антологию поэзии 20 века, кого бы Вы туда включили как самых важных авторов и почему?

Русская поэзия ХХ века огромна. Вот новейший пример – «Русские стихи  1950 — 2000 годов. Антология (первое приближение). В двух томах. Составители И. Ахметьев, Г. Лукомников, В.Орлов, А.Урицкий. М.,«Летний сад», 2010. Т. 1 — 920 стр. Т. 2 — 896 стр.».   «Самые важные» авторы ХХ века очевидны – от, допустим, Иннокентия Анненского до, скажем, Дмитрия Пригова. Или Льва Рубинштейна. Или Олега Чухонцева.  Если говорить условно о первой половине века, то на таком расстоянии уже можно было бы назвать какие-то «важнейшие» имена, и то не меньше двадцатки. А вторая половина слишком близка, и историческое значение тех или иных фигур – за исключением Бродского да еще, пожалуй, Лосева – все еще туманно.

г. В последнее время часто говорят о том, что, может быть, рифма является анахронизмом и можно писать верлибром, как делается на западе. Что Вы думаете об этом? Может ли развиваться  верлибр в России?

Я и сам рифмач, хотя  и грешу порой верлибром, и вчуже предпочитаю рифмованную поэзию, хотя изредка и восхищаюсь иными верлибрами. Возможности русской рифмы далеко не исчерпаны, и я не думаю что верлибр может ее вытеснить на обочину, но свое законное и немалое место несомненно займет.


Short biographical notes:
MARIA GALINA, PhD, writer, poet and journalist, works at Novyi Mir, the oldest Russian literary journal, as deputy head of the department of criticism and social issues, and also writes for the journal as a reviewer and columnist. During the past two years she has been an invited professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU), teaching contemporary poetry and contemporary science fiction. Her most recent novel Medvedki (Mole-Crickets) has been shortlisted for the Big Book Prize.

ARKADY SHTYPEL’, poet and literary commentator, lives in Moscow. His essays and reviews on modern poetry have been published in the literary journals NLO, Arion, Novyi Mir, and others. His volumes of poetry include Stikhi dlya golosa (Poems for a Voice, 2007).

An interesting conference on post-Soviet literature

By Alexandra Smith (University of Edinburgh)

In the end of September I took part in a highly interesting conference on post-Soviet literature. It was titled in a provocative manner: «Decadence or Renaissance?» ( It was a very informative and enjoyable event that attracted many scholars and critics from the USA, Russia, Canada and UK as well as translators and writers, including such well-known figures as Irina Prokhorova, Mark Lipovetsky, Nina Kolesnikoff, Ilya Kukulin, Anna Ljunggren, Mikhail Shishkin, Zinovy Zinik and  Andrew Bromfield. It was very pleasing to hear several thoughtful presentations on Russian contemporary poetry. It was clear to me that Russian literary landscape became very diversified in the post-Soviet period and, as the case of Mikhail Shishkin demonstrates, it is not unusual for renown Russian writers to live in and out of Russia and become well established abroad as Russian authors writing in other European languages. As Mikhail Shishkin pointed out, his travelogues written in German were well received in Germany and in Switzerland. (A short report about the conference and my short interview with a journalist from Moscow – Olga Viktorova – appeared in “Nezavisimaia gazeta” on 10.11.2012)

I was also very pleased to see a special performance delivered by two prominent poets, writers and critics from Moscow: Marina Galina and Arkady Shtypel’ read their poems in the library located in the Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre, St Antony’s College. It was a lively and highly enjoyable performance. Following this performance, I have asked them to answer a few questions regarding today’s attitudes to the 20th-c. poetic canon. See the next post for their answers.

Short biographical notes:
MARIA GALINA, PhD, writer, poet and journalist, works at Novyi Mir, the oldest Russian literary journal, as deputy head of the department of criticism and social issues, and also writes for the journal as a reviewer and columnist. During the past two years she has been an invited professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU), teaching contemporary poetry and contemporary science fiction. Her most recent novel Medvedki (Mole-Crickets) has been shortlisted for the Big Book Prize.

ARKADY SHTYPEL’, poet and literary commentator, lives in Moscow. His essays and reviews on modern poetry have been published in the literary journals NLO, Arion, Novyi Mir, and others. His volumes of poetry include Stikhi dlya golosa (Poems for a Voice, 2007).

Discussing the canon in Edinburgh

How far can it be said that the literary canon is shaped by the books and authors studied at school? To what extent does a poet’s canonical status rely on readers engaging with her/his works rather than on statues, museums, documentary films dedicated to the poet? How might poets’ work reflect their own concern with establishing a place for themselves in the canon? These were some of the questions to which participants in the second project workshop found themselves returning over two days of discussion.

Natalia Karakulina discovered that while texts by Vladimir Maiakovskii studied in post-Soviet Russian schools have changed, and interpretations of the poet’s life and work have shifted, his personality and life story remain central. Aaron Hodgson considered how others have contributed to Joseph Brodsky’s inscription into the canon, in the US, Britain, and particularly in Russia, where there has been a proliferation of commemorative internet sites, a focus on personal recollections of the poet by his contemporaries, and engagement with his poetry. Denis Akhapkin looked both at how Joseph Brodsky’s work has been presented in schools, before turning to ways in which it shows the poet at work on his own canonisation.

Emily Lygo, contrasting the cult that has built up around the controversial poet Viktor Sosnora with recent criticism of Aleksandr Kushner for not having lived ‘the life of a poet’, asked how far canonisation relies on conformity to the model of the Romantic poet’s life. Alexandra Smith discussed the ways in which perceptions of Marina Tsvetaeva have been transformed since the early 1990s, with the poet attaining cult status as a symbol of Russian identity that reaches beyond geographical boundaries.

Alexandra Harrington showed how Anna Akhmatova’s poetry demonstrates the poet’s concern with her own canonisation as a survivor from the Silver Age of early twentieth-century Russian culture. Maria Rubins addressed the question of how the canon could be reconfigured to encompass poetry written in emigration in the interwar years, given that its reception by readers in Russia had been delayed for decades.

Katharine Hodgson explored how perceptions of the work of Boris Slutskii may change when it is no longer viewed against the background of ‘official’ Soviet poetry, but in the context of Futurist and later experimental writing. Ol′ga Sobolev examined the way in which scholars’ perceptions of Aleksandr Blok’s poetry changed during the Soviet period and afterwards, in relation to ideological and cultural shifts of emphasis.

Josephine von Zitzewitz considered how Elena Shvarts, a poet who began writing in the literary underground of the 1960s and 1970s, came to be recognised as a major late twentieth-century poet, rather than solely as an underground poet, as has been the case with many of her contemporaries. Joanne Shelton examined ways in which Ivan Bunin’s poetry has come to feature in the school curriculum, exploring possible reasons for his inclusion, and then comparing the extent of his canonisation as a poet, rather than a prose writer, in other publications.

The creation of a canon in the present, and what it means to study the canon as it is in the process of emerging, was the question addressed by Stephanie Sandler, who considered the effects of people and texts moving across geographic borders, the blending of different art forms, and the fact that poetry no longer occupies a place at the top of the cultural hierarchy.

The third project workshop will take place in January 2013 in Exeter, and a volume of articles based on contributions will be prepared for publication in 2014.

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