Saturday, November 18, 2006

An Interview With Danila Davydov

During the summer of 2006 I spent some time in Moscow and conducted a set of interviews, which I recorded and later transcribed. This an interview with the poet, critic, and editor: Danila Davydov.

There are at Least 2000 Good Poets: An Interview with Danila Davydov
Interviewed by Peter Golub

PG: When did you first start writing?

DD: I began writing early, and I think I understood what it meant to be a writer. I’ve always loved literature, but this did not get in the way of other interests. I read books on chemistry, biology, physics, etc, but no matter what I did I was always reading and writing poetry.
My first work was written around the age of thirteen. These early poems were naive, yes, but I understood that there were many different positions one could take toward the canon; it was then that I became interested in not just articulating the tortures of my soul, but working with the text as an object –working with form, and how form shaped content. In this sense I was a pretty precocious child. So, I was lucky. I had some talent, but also, I was very fortunate in terms of my company, both in school and at home. The adults I associated with recognized my talents, but didn’t parade me around, as is often the case with gifted children. We know of many cases when gifted children are put on display, and later exhibit signs of psychological damage. For instance, during perestroika a young girl by the name of Nika Turbina became a popular poet when she was very young, but later ended up hanging herself, or jumping out a window… I don’t remember the details, but it was a great loss. Or take for instance Vika Vetrova who wrote acclaimed Tsvetaeva style poetry at a young age, and now has reverted to a kind of hapless graphorrhea. So, it should be said that although I proved myself talented at a young age I had a perfectly normal childhood.
My literary socialization occurred at the age of 17-18. After graduating from high school I applied to the philosophy program at Moscow State University, but to my great disappointment was not accepted. Reluctantly, I applied to the literature program, from which I graduated. One of the most productive things to come out of my admittance into the literature program was that it acquainted me with the scene. Prior to this I really knew almost no one in the literary world. So, despite my reluctance to enter the program, it quickly absorbed me into the literary world. There was one rather closed literary circle with nationalist orientations, though a nationalism completely apart with any official orientation. The group met at Lesha Koretsky’s apartment. Natasha Chernikh and Ira Shastakovkaya, two excellent poets, were part of this circle. This was one circle. It should be mentioned that it consciously put itself in opposition to the Vavilon circle, and specifically Dmitry Kuzmin. On what principles this circle was contra to Kuzmin is not important, what is important is that I learned about Kuzmin through this circle, and this led me to meet him soon after. Shortly after meeting him I joined Vavilon, Kuzmin and I have been great collaborators ever since.
At this moment I considered myself a literatus and writer, but not a philologist or a critic. I became a critic after realizing that if I didn’t say certain things no one else would. Also, as is often the case with writers, I was looking for a way to make some extra money, and non-fiction gave me that opportunity. So, I began carving out a critical position. My first critical article was published in 1996.

PG: Did you have any creative writing classes at the University?

DD: Yes. At the university I attended a seminar led by Ruslan Kirilov, from whom I learned virtually nothing. Although, I am grateful that this was a prose, not a poetry workshop, because after all prose is more grounded than poetry –it helped me get a more abstract understanding of writing. Also, at the center of literary scene was the legendary seminar of Fila Kovaldjhe, which, by that time I attended it, was conducted in part by Evgeny Burimovich. Then there were of course the various Vavilon projects; Kuzmin was constantly getting people together.

PG:What effect did these seminars have on you?

DD: I can’t say that anything had a particular affect on me. What resulted was a widening of context. Things were beginning to come into focus. I was beginning to place myself in the field –authors, movements, histories were all something I could now position. Also, I have always been a proponent of self-educations; the best teacher you will ever have in life is yourself. This isn’t just regarding art, but all forms of education as well. My formal university education was in many ways obstructive, and I learned most of what I know on my own. I remember being 14 and going to 19th October (the only non official Moscow bookstore at the time) and inanely picking books off the shelves in the poetry section. The names at that time meant almost nothing to me. I was going purely off what I did or didn’t like. With this approach I discovered Elena Shvarts, Sergei Gandlevsky, etc. Plus, it was a strange epoch; there was this mad wave of publishing after the end of Soviet censorship. Suddenly, so much being published by journals, tiny presses, magazines like Ogoniok, etc. There was a huge amount of pre second world war material being published; many obscure Silver Age poets were being exhumed. During my young formative years I was submerged in a deluge of poetry. There were new niches constantly being discovered… But, to answer your question the seminars didn’t affected me nearly as much as individual people.

PG: Like who for instance?

DD: Well, Dmitry Kuzmin, Yuri Orlitsky, Viacheslav Kuritsin…

PG: How did they influence you?

DD: Well, first there was a kind of positivist pathos toward knowledge; a pathos toward diversity, in the ecological sense –a pull toward heterogeneity in culture. They saw many different events taking place at the same time, and understood that the ability to speak different languages, aesthetic languages, was a must for any artist or critic, or any cultured person for that matter. For me, this wasn’t a discovery. But these individual’s formulated for me these ideas better than I could have myself.

PG: Do you think this approach is different from what we had before?

DD: In a sense this multilateral approach has never been very popular, and isn’t all that popular to this day. Periodically a multilateral positivist approach is voiced, and then stamped out… long live individual tastes, or long live a specific school or hierarchy; it’s really all the same. Hierarchies are necessary –there is a cultural literary field that is not a collection of stochastic phenomena. The field can be made sense of, but it is not composed of one linear trajectory. It is composed of different parallel hierarchies. These hierarchies exist. It is a very complicated landscape. Our task (i.e. the task of people who seek to understand) is not simply to drift along, but to understand these various hierarchies, and comprehend the mechanisms that hook them all together, and not climb one particular hierarchy, and from it spit on the rest, proclaiming: “here we have culture and there we have profanity.” This of course isn’t anything new. I didn’t think this up, nor did Kuzmin for that matter. Lately I’ve been studying the critical writings of Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov. Bryusov formulated this position a hundred years ago, and was criticized just as Kuzmin is criticized now. It’s all exactly the same –a closed circle.

PG: What role has post-modernism played in this debate, or is it even relevant to this debate?

DD: Post-modernism exists as a theoretical construct. At the beginning of the 1990’s it had a great affect on young Russian literature. It demonstrated a kind of widening of horizons. Of course, it must be said that Russian post-modernism is quite different from Western post-modernism. Examples of Russian post-modernism are represented by several authors, varying in their insight: Irina Skoropanova, Mikhail Epstein, Viacheslav Kuritsyn and Mark Lipovetsky. One thing they all have in common is the idea that anything written in the “post-modern” epoch is post-modern i.e. we are all post-moderns. Now although this thesis may be charming it has no value from the point of criticism. This is the equivalent of saying that everything written in the modernist era is the product of modernist culture. I don’t know… post-modernism was a useful concept, but now this word has been used so much that it signifies everything, and too often nothing. I think that if you want to speak clearly you have to distance yourself from this word, and show what you mean through concrete examples. This is not because post-modernism doesn’t exist, not because this idea is a lie, but because in practice this word encompasses too much; in a way it was too successful. When I was 17, 18, 19, years old I freely referred to myself as a post-modernist, now I am not ready to say such a thing. This is not simply because certain personal views of mine have changed over the years (I now believe in a metaphysical truth that post-modernism cancels) but because I feel that the post-modern position is a distraction, an attempt to say nothing in the place of something.

PG: Ok. Do you think there are any clearly defined schools in Russian poetry? Schools formed around certain individuals, prizes, awards, etc.

DD: It seems to me that when talking about schools…this is a complicated question… I can’t answer it without certain qualifications. In Anatoly Naiman’s recollections of Akhmatova an episode is described in which Akhmatova criticized the Symbolists, and at one point Naiman interrupts saying something like “but you have to agree Symbolism was a distinguished important movement…” Akhmatova paused and glared at him, and then said, “Do you think that I don’t recognize that the Symbolists were the last great movement in Russian literature?” This was a very apt statement. Symbolism wasn’t just a poetic movement, but a worldview that affected people in many different disciplines. After Symbolism ended other schools formed (e.g. Futurism and Acmeism), but these groups and those that followed them (e.g. Oberiu) weren’t formed around an all encompassing cultural worldview, but around particular artistic scenes. Then there was that horrible gap between the thirties and fifties, in which things of course went on, but we know little about them. And this leads us to the Conceptualists who were their own particular movement. It is a myth that everyone was welcome in the Conceptualist circles. There was more than just one group of Conceptualists, and each circle had its own rules. We have to understand that Conceptualism according to Dmitry Prigov is very different from Conceptualism according to Andrei Monastirsky or Pavel Pepperstein. It seems to me that today certain groups work together, publish together, read together, and even argue in one voice against some other group, but still are not aesthetically coherent. We can’t say that the artistic process is anamorphous –it is varied– and this variance doesn’t map onto these different groups and scenes. There are aesthetic constants that work above the group level, that connect people in disparate groups. And I believe, that one of the main problems in contemporary criticism is related to this mess, when people mistake a certain social group for an aesthetic group and vice-versa. For instance, consider the category of a “Vavilon poet”. The Vavilon project now has so many different poets under its banner with such different, contrary, aesthetic values that to call someone a Vavilon writer could mean anything. And this is what is so wrong, or not wrong, but unfortunate about contemporary criticism –an individual becomes a synecdoche. When Dmitry Kuzmin is criticized it suddenly means that everyone associated with Vavilon is under attack. Again, history is repeating itself. This is all reminiscent of a careless article written by Alexander Blok (entitled Godless and Uninspired) directed against Tsekh poets, who were not a literary group. The Tsekh poets included not only Acmeists but Christian poets, Futurists like Khlebnikov, nonpartisans like Vladislav Khodasevich, Post-Symbolists such as Mikhail Kuzmin etc, etc. This tendency to lump different poets together is an old problem still seen in contemporary criticism. Meanwhile there are real boundaries that exist as the result of age, geography… these may be harder to distinguish, but I think these divisions are also the most interesting.
Consider the Debut generation, in some sense it has some aesthetic coherence. This was a generation that evolved on the web. My generation, although it overlaps somewhat with the Debut generation, was already mature when the web really took off, but Julia Idlis and Marianne Giede were raised on the internet. The writers who spent there formative years online, had an atmosphere which both helped and deterred serious literary work. The online community helped them in the sense that it created a generous community of authors and readers, where the cock praised the cuckoo and the cuckoo praised the cock. However this community complicates things; it’s too cozy. As the result of this I see a sort of leveling of language where the same words get repeated again and again. I am not trying to assign value to anything. There are epochs defined by opposition and breaks, and there are epochs defined by an evening of standards. This is the simple state of affairs.
Now, if we look at the Vavilon generation, and count all the differences among its writers, (which I attribute to the sudden deluge of a great poetry in the late eighties and early nineties) then it is obviously a generation of diversity. There were so many potential orientations a poet could take in the early nineties. This led to a hybridization of Symbolism and academic European poetry, the Oberiu and Conceptualism. The work of the 1990’s was to orient yourself among the different canons, and to create your own style…In the 21st century I’ve noticed a kind of unification of language, an attempt to speak in a language that everyone understands. Is this good or bad? I don’t know. Personally, it makes me uncomfortable, but this is no doubt my own prejudice coming to through. In the beginning there was this plethora of voices. Now, the roads have been built, some voices were chosen over others, some were coupled with a particular style of experimentation. This created a distinct lyric that is predominant today: a kind of neo-acmeism. And I’m not just talking about Brodsky, but the language represented by Gandlevsky, Tsvetkov, Kenzheev, and the St. Petersburg authors such as Elena Schwartz, Viktor Krivulin, and young authors such as Elena Fanaelova; and also there are the poets who have oriented themselves toward the west such as Stanislav Lvovsky, Alexander Anashevich, Lenor Garalik, etc. Now, from these authors we get a common language. The Debut authors follow all this, and consequently use this speech. I am not saying that the Debut poets don’t have their own individual voices; these poets are simply working in a narrower linguistic diapason.
The paradox is that the retreat from formalistic experimentation is still interpreted as a linguistic experiment. Tatyana Moseeva, Julia Idlis, Marianna Geide, Mikhail Kotov, and Piotr Popov are still heavily criticized by the assholes in the main journals. Overall the Debut generation is seen as the new avant-garde, and it is often criticized for not doing enough, for being formally lazy. In the mid 1990’s Znamya ran an article called: Shadow Know Your Place. This was a controversial piece in which the author argued that the status of emerging poets was too high; the idea being that they were mere shadows of their predecessors. Of course, “who is whose shadow?” is an open question. Today we once again see senior critics accusing the younger generation of not knowing their place; and even though these critics are aging and will eventually pass on, it is they –not Ilya Kukulin or Danila Davydov– who are defining and building contemporary criticism.

PG: Do you think the younger generation is conscious of this or are they simply writing there poems, and these poems just happen not to fall in line with critical expectations?

DD: I don’t think that anyone is consciously creating a particular kind of lyric, aside from two or three authors (whose names I won’t mention) who are consciously working through a particular method. But all in all I think there is a historical cultural movement afoot that is greater than individuality.

PG: They’re just writing their poems?

DD: Yes, yes, yes, in the 1990’s there was a distinct feeling of opposition to the official cannon. Poets were defending their own, pointing and saying, “These, these are our poets, fuck Voznesensky and Okudzhava, but Nekrasov, Prigov, Krivulin, Shvartz, Dragomoshenko, etc. These are our poets; this is who we are.” There were many different combinations that people chose to call their own, but the point is that they defined their position in opposition to another.

PG: And now?

DD: Today, everything is mixed into one common cultural tradition. One can easily inherit the traditions of Dragamoshenko or Pushkin, but it will all have the same value. In the 1990’s it would have been a shock to see an established hip poet prefacing a poem with a quote from…I don’t know… say Tyutchev. Today this wouldn’t surprise anyone. This is an aspect of the contemporary scene that I like: all traditions are up for grabs.

PG: So, what are the values of the young poet?

DD: Well, like I’ve already said, the neo-acmeistic language represented by Brodsky, in part the Moscow and St. Petersburg schools, several new authors that I’ve already mentioned… I don’t know. I don’t know how to assign a set of values to the contemporary situation. The present state of things feels like a period of transition, although who knows when this transition will end. In ten years? In twenty? Who knows? Also, periodically we have groups, who quite sporadically, decide to orient themselves toward a western school unknown in Russia (e.g. the circle of Sergei Ogurtsov which orients itself toward American Academic poetry, like the Language school).

PG: Like Dragomoshenko?

DD: Dragomoshenko in the senior generation and Skidan in the middle generation, but in the new generation we suddenly have these other poets… This leads us to assume that there won’t ever be an absolute, unified, language of poetry.

PG: I noticed that the majority of Russian poets don’t have an academic background in poetry. What role does the academy play in contemporary poetry?

DD: Unfortunately a negative one, though it has the potential to play a positive one. This again, is the old story of Russian culture. The idea of an academic literary education, not coincidentally, belongs to Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov. He organized the first literature program at the Russia Theater Arts Institute, or… I can’t remember what it was called, we can look it up later. Bryusov believed that a musician should get an education at a conservatory, or that a painter should get his education at an art school. It’s obvious that you can’t teach someone to be talented, but technique can be taught, and this is what Bryusov set out to do. Of course, earlier I mentioned my belief in the autodidact, but this is my own personal belief. But as a whole, Bryusov’s idea was a good one, and other important writers supported him (e.g. Nikolay Gumilev). They were both teachers and proponents of the techniques behind good poetry. It is arguable whether they produced any good poets through their teaching, but they certainly produced some great translators. Later in the thirties the Soviets opened the Gorky Literary Institute. The goal of this program was formally the same, but in essence completely different. The Gorky Institute had two objectives: first, educate the proletariat, and second, create a place where bourgeois writers could interact with the proletariat. The main point of this school was to teach people who was Shakespeare and who was Pushkin, because at that time, people were horribly ignorant. Thus, the main job of the Gorky Institute was to provide a basic standard education –a kind of production line approach. And this is basically still the model of the literature program to this day. This is the model upon which the Russian academic literary education was founded. This also goes for the discipline of philology. From my point of view a poet must be a philologist. But the contemporary state of academic philology in Russia is atrocious. This isn’t to say that the academy as a whole is atrocious; I’m just talking about philology. Russian philology still functions according to the old Soviet bureaucracy, both in the capitals and in the provinces, and this prevents it from playing a major role in the actual creation of poetry. The old Soviet models deter the academy from becoming the center of literary life. This is why Russian artists must find alternative resources, through non-academic publishers and salons. But as a whole it’s a pretty sad state of affairs. Also, I must add that I think that many young poets are quite capable of holding their own, and many of them are even more capable of producing quality criticism than those with an academic education in philology.

PG: In America, people still think of Yevtushenko and Voznesevsky reading poetry in soccer stadiums; Americans believe that in Russia, poets and poetry are far more popular than in the U.S. How much truth is there to this? Who cares about poetry in Russia? What is the poets status?

DD: First, we have to keep in mind that the success of poets like Yevtushenko and Voznesensky was the result of a political culture that doesn’t exist anymore. People piled into stadiums to listen to Yevtushenko and Voznesenky not because of any aesthetic beliefs about good poetry, but to simply hear: “Stalin’s an asshole!” or “Get Lenin off the ruble!” Also, we have to remember that Russia was a very repressed country –the films of Fellini, Anotnioni, Bergmann, etc. where accessible to a small minority of people. The aesthetic niche, which poetry fills, was much emptier back then. The same can be said for the Silver Age –Blok could pack a hall full of people. But the role poetry occupied back then has been spent; to what extent it has been spent is an interesting question, which could be the subject of a dissertation. The answer to this question will depend on what counts as poetry. Maybe poetry hasn’t spent all of its capital but simply transferred it? For instance, consider rock poetry, which began to fulfill the function of mass poetry back in the 1970’s. Viktor Tsoi and Boris Grebenshchikov work according to the same models as Yevtushenko and Voznesensky.
The legendary status of the poet in Russian isn’t completely a lie. No matter how much the poet is replaced by other forms of media, there will always be this sense that the poet works at the height of art. This can be seen when critics and journalists refer to a painter or a singer as a poet. This means that the title of poet still has important value in the eyes of culture… The role of poetry diminished greatly in the 1990’s, but I believe there is a rebirth occurring today. In part this rebirth is connected to the internet, and the small presses willing to publish young work. There are also the various projects like OGI, and the Debut Prize. All this puts the show back into poetry.

PG: What are your ideas concerning the trajectory of Russian poetry? How is Russian poetry going to develop? What is it going to look like?

DD: What awaits poetry? Lots of things, probably. Certainly a split between an academic practice, and the more amateur practice. Signs of this can already be seen online. From the point of view of world culture this happened first during the post-Alexandrian epoch in Greece, when suddenly both traditional academic poets existed side-by-side with a rich folk and theatre culture, which functioned independently of the academy. This split is in its first stage but I think that after a couple of generations these two poles may form into their own distinct phenomenon. Is this good or bad? Who know? It is an objective process, and one cannot assign qualitative value to such a process. Is it good or bad that this summer was so hot, and then suddenly so cold? It was uncomfortable, but we can’t say that it was good or bad –it simply was.

PG: Do you think there is a new narrative trend in contemporary young poetry?

DD: I don’t know. Poetry has always had prosaic attributes, and prose has always had lyric attributes. They diffuse into one another. This is nothing new.

PG: I noticed that most Russian poems don’t have titles. Why do you think that is?

DD: It is the result of a minimization in poetry. It is the process of trying to distance oneself from formalities. For instance, considered texts written in the 16th century with titles that stretched on for eighteen lines. By doing away with the title the poet is letting the text speak for itself without formalities. It’s like taking the frame off the painting to maximize the ratio between painting and everything else. The reader is given less and less markers, which allow him to guess the nature of the work. Think about how people define a poem? If it rhythms, it’s a poem. If it’s in stanzas, it’s a poem. If it’s in meter, it’s a poem. If it’s called sonnet or ode, it’s a poem. Now the poet is saying, “No reader, you’re going to have to work, and figure out for yourself what is, and isn’t, a poem.” This approach puts more responsibility on the reader. This is a trend which can be seen in all art. The history of art has been defined in part by a stripping away of the clichés that signify art.

PG: You were an editor for the poetry anthology Nine Measurements. In his introductory essay to the anthology Ilya Kukunin comments that your choices were the most radical and avant-garde. How did you go about choosing poets for this anthology?

DD: Nine Measurements was a pretty strange project, although it is very dear to me. It was a project that aimed to both, put forward the poetic beliefs of the selectors, and to present an objective representation of young Russian poetry. Of course, the selectors didn’t simply choose who they liked. We bartered. There was a lot of: “I’ll give you these two if you let me have her.” We all know how these things go. I’d have to answer Kukunin’s comment about my selections with a question: “What exactly is meant by avant-garde?” I tend to think the term avant-garde is dated. It’s a term tied to the first third of the 20th century. Anything called avant-garde after this time should really be called something else –post avant-garde, neo avant-garde, etc. Today, you have people using the term avant-garde when talking about themselves, while at the same time adhering to a tradition. A writer adhering to a tradition can’t be avant-garde by definition, even if this tradition is composed of avant-garde writers.
The term radical also needs qualification. An author is radical only within a specific context. One author might be radical in their form, and another might be discursively radical. In this sense the term radical isn’t very thoughtful either, but I suppose within the context of the anthology my choices do stand out. In this sense my choices might be called radical, but only in this sense –within the context of the anthology. For me the authors I chose are actually central to contemporary Russian poetry.

PG: Your own work includes both prose and poetry. How is your approach to prose different from your approach to poetry?

DD: Well, aside from the formal separation, there really isn’t any principled difference. This is why I write such short prose. I like the western tradition of including short prose in poetry anthologies. I think the two complement one another quite well. The concept of putting short prose and poetry together is also beginning to gain acceptance in Russia.

PG: What about the use of the aphorism in your work? Does your work have anything invested in truth telling?

DD: For me, truth and morality are important. Again, if we turn to Bryusov (who thought truth was very important in poetry) we see the idea that each subject has its own kind of truth. Maybe there are eight or nine kinds. Who knows? The post-modern project wasn’t meant to dilute truth, but to show its many aspects. The great physicist Niels Bohr once said, “A triviality is a statement whose opposite is false. However, a great truth is a statement whose opposite may well be another great truth.” In this sense a question about truth and morality has to be about some specific thing.
I want these truths to have some value over time. The aphorism of Daniel Kharms is really important for me: Poems should be written so that when thrown at a window, the window breaks. Although, unlike Kharms I am not an abstruse poet; everything I write has a specific meaning behind it: I am not an absurdist. The most important thing for me is the organic coherence of a text. It is an organism. What’s the meaning of a rabbit’s, an oak’s, or a person’s existence? We cannot talk about the meaning of a human as a type, we can only talk about the meaning of an individual life. The meaning of a human as a type is biological. The meaning of a text as a type is to be whole and alive. In this sense we can see how complete, meaningful, truthful texts can be in opposition to one another. The wolf may live in opposition to the rabbit (one eats, while the other runs away) but both are complete and true. This for me is what is important about a text, that it be whole and complete. Yes… As for an investment in the truth…Yes, I feel responsible to tell the truth, but I respect the person I was in the past, and that person is quite different from the person sitting in front of you. My beliefs change quite often. I am not talking about my philosophical, aesthetic principles (although these change as well, but more smoothly). What I am talking about here is my detailed approaches to the world. These change rapidly, and quite schizophrenically. I recognize this, and to some extent welcome schizophrenia, while respecting the truth held by the many selves before me.

PG: Who are some of your favorite contemporary Russian poets? Who are you reading write now?

DD: I hate this question! Lesha Denisov has an old poem in which the followinh line appears: “according to some there are only 500.” He got that line from me during a conversation about how many good poets are in Russia. I said that there were no less than 500 good poets in Russia today. Although, this is a very conservative number, the number is probably closer to something like 2000. I really couldn’t answer the question you asked without naming at least 200 poets. I also change my mind. The list I give you now might be inadequate in a week. As to the later part of your question: Who am I reading? I am a professional critic; my job is to read everything. What do I like best? I don’t know. It is impossible to answer this question.