Not long after I graduated from college in 2000, I was working in a Border’s in Tucson, AZ and I discovered Crossing Centuries: The New Generation in Russian Poetry. This anthology, brand new at the time, includes poets such as Dmitry Prigov, Aleksei Parshchikov, Ivan Zhdanov, Nina Iskrenko, and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. To say this book broadened my understanding of poetry is an understatement. Specifically, the poems within this book helped me to come to terms with language as a construction rather than language as inherently meaningful.
At The Kelly Writer’s House last Wednesday night I was fortunate enough to see and hear Arkadii Dragomoshchenko give a reading and interview for Charles Bernstein’s Close Listening. In total, Dragomoshchenko read and talked for nearly two hours. In one of his poems, unfortunately the title escapes me, he says “meaning is a change of the ink.” As a poet, Dragomoshchenko continually explores the fact that language and meaning are constructions. This is not a concept I learned in college. In fact, I don’t think I heard anyone, professors or otherwise, ever mention this to me. Or, perhaps they did and I didn’t listen. Or, perhaps I already knew, but couldn’t articulate it.
In his introduction to Crossing Centuries, editor and poet John High points out that “[p]ropaganda in [the Soviet Union] made language itself suspect.” It’s as if language is a material (or a resource) that can be fought over/for in much the same way countries wage war over borders or oil. Language is the primary vehicle that dictates our thinking, so it would be necessary then to control how it operates. Perhaps Rea Nikonova’s “A Free Alphabet” first pushed me towards the idea that language is a contested resource:
A_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Z
During the interview Dragomoshchenko suggested that hearing and response are the core of authorial responsibility. He then added that the fat cats of poetry have made it a bit more difficult. Who are the fat cats? He never said, but perhaps one ought to insert one’s own fat cat. Dragomoshchenko’s line “meaning is a change of the ink” foregrounds materiality in terms of physical substance while his insistence that hearing and response are crucial to a poet’s practice make clear that meaning operates in interrelated realms: aural, oral, and written. I think Dragomoshchenko put this idea best when he said at another point in the interview, “explain to the page why you write.” As I sit here, I’m impressed with how precisely Dragomoshschenko compresses his ideas into epigrammatic statements not only within his poems, but also within his speech.
After the reading and interview had ended a bunch of us decided to head home rather than heading out for a drink. Fortunately, we all talked and lolly-gagged long enough at KWH to change our minds and luck into having a drink with Bernstein and Dragomoshchenko at Bridgewater’s Pub in 30th Street Station. They were both catching a train to NYC that night. As we drank and talked, I asked Dragomoshchenko about contemporary Russian poetry and whether or not he feels aligned with poets such as Ivan Zhdanov and Aleksei Parshchikov, poets whom the editors of Crossing Centuries refer to as Meta-Realists. He said, no he doesn’t, but that’s not to say they aren’t his friends. In fact, he said he feels connected to French poets, not Russians. He didn’t say which French poets. And I didn’t ask because he was talking and I didn’t want to interrupt. The one American he feels similar to? John Ashbery.
As we were all about to share a toast with our last drinks before Bernstein and Dragomoshchenko’s departure, Ryan Eckes said, “We say cheers in the U.S., what do you say in Russia?” Reluctantly, Dragomoshchenko said, “We say na zdorovye (to health), but no one says it anymore.” “Okay,” we all said, “then what do you say now?” At first, he said, “Nothing.” But, then he surprised us. “Now, we might say,” as he demonstrated by raising his glass, “I kill you.” We all chuckled at Dragomoshchenko’s black humor. But, now I see his ability, perhaps his predilection, for epigrammatic statement at work once again. In one brief moment Dragomoshchenko demonstrated to all of us at the table that what we hear about contemporary Russia is true. In other words, a culture of vast inequality, an oligarchy in Russia’s case, breeds murderous competition. Not one for killing, “Na zdorovye, Arkadii, na zdorovye.”