Click on photos to enlarge.
This building was a nice little find I made when I was in Oloumuc, in the Czech Republic, a few months ago. I should be more exact about that. I, indeed, did find the location, after traipsing around the city for some time. But there were several reasons I went looking for it in the first place. One is that I found brief reference on the net to a reading that the St. Petersburg poet Alexander Kushner gave in Oloumuc at the Poetry without Borders festival in 2002. It didn’t say where it it was; just that it happened. That’s when I did what usually works best – I leaned on a friend. I wrote to Martina Pálušová, a scholar and teacher at the university in Olomouc, and asked her if she knew anything about this reading. Sure enough, she did, and she knew it had taken place in the Divadlo hudby (Theater of Music). I dug around in the net for the address and came up with 47 Denisov Street. Convinced I had my prey in my sights now, I pulled out my map and headed for my destination. When I arrived there, however, I was confused. There was an Art Museum there, and a cafe. I didn’t see a Theater of Music. I took some shots of the exterior just in case, but went on my way assuming I had misunderstood the information I gathered. About 20 minutes later I ran into Martina on the street, as if the gods were stepping in to help. She asked if I was having luck with my searches and I explained that I couldn’t make sense of the Art Museum/Theater of Music. She grabbed me by the arm and marched me back over to Denisov Street. “Come on in here,” she said. And she opened the front door to the building. Sure enough, there in front of me was the sign that no one, myself included, would ever have seen from the street – in Czech and in English, no less – Theater of Music. (See second to last photo below.) Martina was not finished, however. She rang a doorbell and when a young man came to the door she explained what we were doing there. He smiled and shook my hand and, in English, said, “Come on in. I’ll show you the hall.” Which he did. So, even though my photo did not come out well in the available lighting, you can see in the final shot below the auditorium in which Kushner would have read his poetry.
Amidst the information that Martina sent me about Kushner’s reading, she sent a link to an interview Kushner did while in Oloumuc. In it, Kushner talks about his status as a quiet, unassuming poet, unlike those with big, spectacular biographies. He suggests that poems are capable of surviving authorities, social hostility or anything else, for that matter. “When they are good,” he says, “they have a long life. Sometimes it is only necessary to patiently wait for their time to come around.” He talks about how difficult it has become for poets to make a living in the post-Soviet era. He used to get decent royalties from books with press runs of 25,000 or even 50,000. Now, however, in the early 21st century, the press runs of two or three thousand bring in “peanuts.” “I feel for contemporary young poets,” he says, “who have lost readers as well as earnings.” Google Translate does a decent job of making the interview accessible to non-Czech readers. Give it a try if you’re interested. It’s what I used for my quotes here.
But today I want to come back to an old text of my own that I discovered almost by accident when earlier writing about a reading Kushner gave at Dartmouth College in 1993. You see, I, myself, had seen Kushner speak in Boston in 1987. Somehow, a text I wrote up about that event remained with me for nearly 30 years. I had forgotten about it, but there it was when I went digging through my old electronic archive: “Aleksandr Kushner. December 12, 1987. Boston University.”
I quoted a few excerpts from it in that previous post, but I’ll provide the whole thing here today. It is something of a historical document. It captures some of the flavor of an event of Russian culture abroad in the Perestroika era:
“Kushner is a relatively slight man who at first doesn’t make much of an impression. He appears to be quiet, modest, somewhat introverted, though not shy. As time goes on, one also comes to realize that he is completely at home as a poet, and with his poetry, but that as soon as he must step out of the poet’s role, he is more inclined to show a certain uneasiness and confusion. He begins by reading selections from new and old poetry for about 30 – 40 minutes, after which he takes questions from the floor. I would guess that the questions lasted for another 40 minutes or so, after which he again read from his works for maybe 20 minutes. He would give a short narrative introduction to most of the poems he read. Most everything in this account can presumably be checked against the video tape which was done by Boston University.
When introducing a poem ostensibly about the hard winter of 1978-79, he says, ‘Here is a poem about the surovaya zima [hard winter] of 1979. The hard winter somehow reflected something about the times.’ Several people throughout the audience began whispering among themselves quite seriously, ‘correcting’ his dating to 1978. They did not seem to realize that the date had nothing to do with the poem, since for Kushner, the event of the hard winter was a pretext for poetry, not a subject of it.
He introduces one poem as having a title, ‘Michelangelo’: ‘I don’t like to give titles to my poems, but my editor said no one will understand this if I don’t give it a title.’
As Kushner continues to read, you begin to get the feeling that he is a being who is almost entirely accepting of the world around him. He begins to exude (I say ‘begins,’ because it is only with time that one begins to perceive it – obviously, it is there at all times for those who would see) a sense of great patience. At the same time it is clear that he is a man who has a sense of his own value. Ego is entirely an improper word, I would say, to use in discussing him. Because to say he is without ego, is overstating it, while to say that he has a sense of his own ego is also overstating it. In any case, despite his sense of timidity before the animal/audience, he also presents the picture of a man who has a sense of wholeness and sense of self about him. At one point, he cuts off in mid-sentence while speaking and goes to close the door. ‘Open doors somehow irritate me,’ he says.
He says a few words about his trip to the United States: ‘I’m amazed to be here in America. Nothing like this ever happened and I never expected anything like it. It is my first time abroad, if you don’t count Hungary. That, by the way, was this year too. I’m only here for 10 days, and I haven’t seen much because Americans like to talk a lot. New York, of course, made an enormous impression.’
He reads a poem which contains direct references to the purges (‘he was shot in 1937’), which he says was turned down by Novy Mir, but accepted by Oktiabr.
His reading style, though chanting-like in the Russian manner, is not at all dramatic. Nothing whatsoever like Brodsky or Akhmadulina. But it is, in time, very hypnotic and sensitive. Everything about Kushner seems to sneak up on you – his presence, his manner, his poetry. His reading style is hypnotizing both by what it doesn’t reveal (emotion), and by what it does (language, verse, sensitivity). A certain softness, quiet strength and incredible goodness seem to emanate from his face and eyes.
After reading for about 20 minutes he hesitates to go on and says, ‘I know it’s tiring to listen to too much poetry.’ Several calls of ‘no’ are heard from the audience, and Naum Korzhavin shouts out, ‘That’s what we’ve come for.’
Shortly thereafter Kushner reads a poem, which he introduces by saying, ‘This poem can’t be published even today – maybe v sleduiushchuiu epokhu [in the next era].’ It contains the line, ‘i glasnost’ nuzhna; i pravda‘ [‘glasnost is necessary, as is truth’], which, of course elicits much murmuring among the crowd. But I am most struck that he succeeds in using the term ‘glasnost’ in a way that both refers to its new status as a slogan, while also retrieving the word’s original meaning [of openness] from inside the new cliche.
He reads a poem inspired by a recent trip to Armenia: ‘Last summer I visited Armenia for the first time, and despite the fact I had read much about it’ (he mentions several authors including Mandelshtam and Bitov among others), – ‘Da, eto chudo [Yes, it’s a marvel].’ He says it with a kind of quizzical smile and a sense of inner knowing, the kind which might appear on someone’s face who is referring to some miraculous, but long past and now irretrievable experience.
In reference to a question about an article he recently published in Yunost’ [magazine] which discussed the Leningrad-Moscow difference (I believe it was Mikhail Kreps who posed the question), Kushner says, ‘Leningrad forms its people. Muscovites, as Zoshchenko said, are nervnye liudi [nervous people].’ 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.’
He lists three of his favorite poets as Annensky, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam. He lists three new Leningrad poets who he feels are genuine poets (I did not get their names clearly; I think two of them were: Kunin and Meshchersky). He also mentions Yelena Shvarts, who he says will soon become better known. ‘Ona nerovny poet, mozhet byt’, no xoroshii [She may be an uneven poet, but she’s good].’
‘A cynical life attitude is now influencing poetry, which might be concisely formulated as zhizn’ – bardak [life is a mess]. There is a sense that many poets feel there is nothing of value in life. But poetry is an accumulator of life energy. A poet sits and works, attempting to use this energy. That is what is called inspiration. Mandelshtam is the greatest poet of the 20th century. He was able to capture the minutiae of life like no one else.’
‘Poezzia – ona nichego ne dolzhna – no esli ona dolzhna chto-to – ona dolzhna sokhranit’ podrobnosti zhizni. [Poetry is not bound to do anything, but if it does have a duty, it is to preserve the details of life].’
Kushner was asked a question: ‘What has changed?’ (i.e., in current affairs).
Answer: ‘The life of the intelligentsia, i.e. the needs of the intelligentsia has definitely changed for the better. But if you’re talking about life for the average person and for people’s everyday needs, then nothing much has changed. These changes must come gradually, I agree with that.’
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. There are a few in the audience who would force the conversation to continue on about politics (Alexander Sergeevich Yesenin-Volpin is one), but the majority, and certainly Kushner himself, want the meeting to return to poetry. Kushner is obviously interested in, and concerned about, politics, but as a poet, and at a lectern, he feels extremely uncomfortable with it. When too many questions keep coming about the reactionary Pamiat’ group, he gets frustrated, nearly upset. One can see how much he wants to get back on the topic of poetry. In reference to a question about Slavophiles such as Yury Bondarev and others (‘Are they dangerous?’), he says, with some annoyance, or at least discomfort, ‘Da, opasnye [Yes, dangerous].’ The conversation also turns for some time to the subject of various recent anti-Semitic incidents in Leningrad. He shows a genuine sense of outrage about it and clearly feels the need, as a person, not only to distance himself from such things, but to condemn them. He seems to feel cornered into expressing his attitude on Jews: ‘I think a Jew in Russia is a Russian, a Jew in Germany is a German.’ One also senses his distaste for even having to actually say such a simple, obvious thing.
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.
In trying to return the talk to poetry, Kushner says, ‘Poezzia nuzhdaetsja v predelakh [Poetry requires limits]. Real poetry,’ he says, ‘is a bad place for helping along these changes. I can’t stand journalistic poetry.’
He finally succeeds in overcoming the few who insist on talking about politics, and does return to poetry. However, for a moment, he has a difficult time. ‘I can’t just start reading again. I need the proper mood.’ After a question about his method of writing, he does begin reading again. After he has read for 10 or fifteen minutes more, there are 4 or 5 encores (one of which is an excerpt from a poem by Mandelstam). His final comments after the last reading are: ‘For some reason I found it very easy to read today. That is rare. Reading is a very hard thing. I would also like to say that I have a great sense of feeling for you who have come here today’ [clearly referring to the emigres, including Korzhavin, Kreps and Yesenin-Volpin, who make up 90% of the audience]. ‘I know how hard it is for you, and I want you to know that Russia has lost a great deal due to your absence.’
There is an incredible sense that this man and his poetry stand for the absolute best of what Russia can offer. Depth of intelligence, sensitivity, wisdom, insight, strength and modesty. When you watch him read his poems, you realize that you are watching a true poet, and that you are hearing true poetry.”