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I attended a poetry reading by Alexander Kushner (born 1936) in Boston in the late 1980s. I can’t say where it was exactly, but I do think it was in Boston, where I lived, not in Cambridge, where I was going to grad school. I don’t remember many details, but I remember the general atmosphere well. I remember it being low-key. I remember the evening having a sense of innate structure, of it being conducted on a high intellectual level. I recall the respect and commitment of the large audience. I remember Kushner seeming small as a physical entity, but large as a poet, as a man standing before others performing his poetry. I remember that one of the attendees was Alexander Yesenin-Volpin, son of the poet Sergei Yesenin, prominent mathematician and Soviet dissident. That, by the way, jogs my memory and makes me quite sure that the reading took place at Boston University, where Yesnin-Volpin taught. I seem to remember the place of the reading being somewhere on Mass. Ave. It’s even possible that Yesenin-Volpin had something to do with Kushner being invited to speak. I remember that he – Yesenin-Volpin – seemed an important part of the evening.
And there, at least for the present, is the grand sum of my memories of seeing Kushner recite his work.
Stop the presses.
On a lark I just ran a search of an old, long-forgotten hard drive and I hit gold. There, in a folder called Vignettes, I found a text I wrote on December 12, 1987, to jog my memory in the future. It is titled “Aleksandr Kushner. December 12, 1987. Boston University.”
It is not very pretty reading. But it sure does show why taking notes is a good idea if you want to recall details of your life later on. Here are a few excerpts of the impressions I took away that night from Kushner’s reading:
“When talking about current events he is a bit lost, choppy, confused, angry, hopeful. When reading his poetry it is as if he hits an athletic stride, smooth, straight, clean, pure, with a quiet certainty.”
“As the conversation turns almost exclusively to political affairs, Kushner’s unease grows tremendously. It has absolutely nothing to do with fear, but with his unease at using a poet’s platform for a social tribune. This is a man who is through and through a poet, and as a poet he has a great sense of calm and inner strength, outside of that role, however, his sense of wholeness clearly begins to break down.”
“As he begins to talk about Leningrad, one senses he has a great deal invested in his relationship to the city. He talks about it with a quiet passion which is also visible in him while he is reading his poems. ‘There are dozens of totally unknown Leningrad poets who give up nothing whatsoever to Moscow poets who are incomparably better known. Moscow is an easier place to publish and to become known’.”
I will hold off revealing the entire text until I do another planned post about Kushner in the near future. Stay tuned.
For the time being, let’s finally move on to the original reason for this post: a reading Kushner gave at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, on November 11, 1993.
It took me a couple of days to nail down the precise location where Kushner’s Dartmouth appearance took place. An account in the college newspaper, The Dartmouth, states it was in the “faculty lounge of the Hopkins Center.” It was easy to find the Hopkins Center (known locally as the HOP) because my wife Oksana and I worked there almost every day for most of the month of August. Problems arose with my determining where the “faculty lounge” was located. I started, as I always do, by just going out and looking. I walked up and down floors and corridors, taking stairs, using elevators, peering through peek holes and under doors. I came up with nothing. Then I asked some locals where the faculty lounge would be located. A few shook their heads. One said, “Oh, it’s on the second floor in the next building over. You just take the passageway, turn right, go up the stairs, turn right again and then look to your left. It’s right there.”
With a few caveats not worth going into, my friend was right. In any case, I did find what is now called The Palmer Lounge – the only place labeled a lounge in the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts. I have no idea what it looks like on the inside, but the exterior of the lounge would be a challenge for photographers even of the prowess of Igor Tabakov or Vladimir Filonov of The Moscow Times. I cheated when taking the second photo below, for there were two huge trash cans standing right by the entrance to the lounge – that would be the gray door. I moved the bins out of sight, although I can’t say it improved the image. This photo is for those of you who would harbor thoughts that a poet’s life is always one of beauty and tragedy mixed mellifluously with exaltation and insurmountable suffering. Sometimes, in fact, it is just a banal, gray door tucked away in a tedious elevator landing.
But enough. Below the break, I offer Melissa Marroncelli’s entire November 15, 1993, article, “Poetry and Russian Politics,” about Alexander Kushner’s reading at Dartmouth. It is copied from The Dartmouth website.
Leading Russian poet and essayist Alexander Kushner said it is difficult to separate politics from poetry in today’s Russia.“Now we, in Russia, are living through very difficult times when we see the breakaway of mentality,” Kushner told a predominantly Russian-speaking audience in the faculty lounge of the Hopkins Center Thursday night. “We used to live in a real big country and now it is cut down in size by nearly twice. This is more difficult for poetry. These changes are telling upon the words we say.”
Kushner presented his speech called “Poetry and Politics” in Russian with Russian Professor Barry Scherr helping with some parts of the translation. The event was part of a three-day conference called”The Future of Russian Democracy,” that ran Wednesday through Friday.
Although political affairs is an integral part of Kushner’s poetry, he said it was still better if Russian poets did not substitute their poetry for political writing because poets who directly address political ideas in their poetry are often defeated by the statesmen.
Kushner gave an example of how he was once unable to publish in St. Petersburg for two years because of an official who said, “if he doesn’t like it, he should leave,” Kushner recounted.
During his speech, Kushner also read several poems from his collection, “Apollo in the Snow,” during his presentation.
In a poem called “Hoffman” he describes a character who “creeps along in a bureaucracy’s machine.”
In another poem, Kushner described the simplicity in living for Russians. “If you sleep and your warm shoulder isn’t abruptly jarred,” then the Russian can be expected to be happy, Kushner said. The poem expresses the desire for simple comforts that most people would take for granted.
At the conclusion of the poem Kushner said, “Is there something more? For us [Russians] there isn’t.”
The last poem Kushner read was “Apollo in the Snow,” the namesake of his collection, which he wrote after seeing”an Apollo in the snow on a cold winter’s day.”
Here he speaks of the statue as a symbol of courage: “The ice and twilight have locked in its cracks …, here is courage,” the poem reads.
He said his poems apply to anyone because they deal with real life situations, such as life, death, and suicide.