Interview With Dmitry Golynko

In Calque 4 we published a poem titled "Elementary Things" by Dmitry Golynko, translated by Eugene Ostashevsky. What follows is an interview with the poet and a section from the poem "As It Turned Out," forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse this September.

• • •

CALQUE: Tell us about your first two books; in his introduction to your work in Calque, Eugene Ostashevsky said they were quite different in style from "As It Turned Out."

Dmitry Golynko: My first chapbook called Homo scribens was published in 1994 by the small independent publishing house Borey-art, strictly, the part of the most significant bohemian art center in the Petersburg of the midnight of the nineties. Basically it contains the poems dated between 1989-1990 and written in the post-futuristic hyper-metaphorical manner with tons of allusions to ancient Russian literature and twisted allegories borrowed from Italian Renaissance culture.

The second book, called Directory, was released by Moscow publishing house Argo-Risk in 2001 thanks to the enormous efforts of Dmitry Kuzmin, the most advanced content-provider and promoter of the contemporary Russian poetry tendencies. This book demarcated the intrinsic trajectory in my literary technique from short and condensed experimental poems to the long, multi-line and narrative novels-in-verse, which were ironically depicting the ludic chaos and anxiety of the post-perestroyka Russian society.

The third volume, called Concrete doves, was published in 2003 by the most prestigious publishing house, New Literary Review. Chronically and conceptually this book is divided into two parts, radically differentiated in the sense of the poetic intensions and procedures. The first one, written before 2002, contains the poems which deal with the images and myths generated by the media environment around (and inside) the contemporary (post)human being. The second – more innovative and provocative – contains the poems more-or-less similar to “Elementary Things,” which started the new period in my writing, the period of the serial de-contextualized poems. The ‘language turn’ invented in this part presupposes that the poem consists of the shadows and traces of the trivial everyday speech and therefore I’m constructing the bricolage from the decontextualized fragments of the alienated expressions without any subject behind it. In the recent unpublished books called Pierce and Probnik (The Probe) this manner is reinforced and accumulated for the purpose of the inner scanning of Russian contemporaneity in its linguistic dimensions.

CALQUE: In the introduction noted above, Ostashevsky also mentions that nine years passed between Concrete Doves and the book that contains "Elementary Things." What did this period represent to you as a writer?

Golynko: Actually the five years passed between the Concrete Doves (2003) where “Elementary Things” appeared in Russian for the first time and its publication in English by Calque. This period represented for me, first of all, the radical change in the status of the literary language in the Russian cultural milieu. In the middle of the first decade of this century the sacral metaphysical status of literary language was totally corrupted and it was reduced to the pragmatic tool in the everyday electronic chatter of the office-serves which are increasing and increasing due to the notorious Putinesque affluence. The state cultural ideology based on the market interests demands the obscure simplification of the poetic language – and the task of the Russian poet today is the resistance against this demand by the recognition of the inner aesthetical and ethical content of contemporary social processes.

CALQUE: How did you first come into contact with Ostashevsky? Describe the experience of working with a translator into English.

Golynko: I met Eugene Ostashevsky in the mid-nineties in the charmingly ruined post-perestroyka Petersburg where he stayed meanwhile half a year or little bit longer. Immediately we found a lot of common interests and references – basically in the perspective of the mutual dialogue between Russian and American poetry. Now it seems that at this time we both were seeking out the urgent correspondences between the postmodern carnival of the empty signifiers and the profound baroque metaphysics of the poetic tissue. In the next decade the carnivalesque had gone and the poetic expression seems to me (and I hope, for Eugene sometimes too) as the clarification of the emotional skeleton which supports tenuous human existence. For me the long-term work with Eugene on the English translations meant the terrific experience of self-understanding. In the process of our common work I conceived the poetic language as the spontaneous field of the occasional meanings and also very dense artificial product – and this dubious and contingent proliferation of the language could be discerned both in the Russian originals, and the brilliant English translations. What was the most tricky thing for us to find out it is the correct and pliant correspondence between Russian new-millenium-slang with its scrupulous stratification to the utranslatable jargon of tiny social groups and the slang diversity in English based on the principle of the ethnic and cultural multiplicity.

CALQUE: The American detective writer Raymond Chandler sounds like he directly influenced some sections of Ostashevsky's translation of "Elementary Things." What kind of influence does the mid-century crime novel have on Russian poetry today? Was this at all a part of your discussion for the translation with Ostashevsky?

Golynko: The significant nuance is that Raymond Chandler had been widely translated in the Soviet Union in the 70s. In my childhood I accurately read these translations performed in the very severe and brutal language which seemed so unusual to the facile and sleek language of average Soviet prose writing. In the nineties and at the edge of the new millennium the distorted everyday life in post-Soviet Russia looked like the vulgar and crumpled citation of the western noir tradition, because all the new things were faked and all the old things were crippled and ugly. Some elements and passages in “Elementary Things” are galvanized by the impression of the new-born Russian social situation as the noir-reality, the spiny dark side of the common human existence – and this noir-reality should be scrutinized thoroughly for the sake of the emotional liberation from its gripe.

CALQUE: A related question—What kind of influence (if any) does literature in translation exert on your work and the work of poets you identify with?

Golynko: The specificity of the late Soviet period was that the young writers, not involved in the Capitalist consumptive enjoyment because of the deficit economic system, should be enormously well-educated in the world literature, the only sphere of autonomy from the social order, totally corrupted by senile ideology. At first, Soviet translators showed the remarkable achievements in the professional and well-skilled transposition of world poetry into Russian – not only the classical tradition, but also modernist and sometimes post-modernist writers (Rilke, Leopardi, Eliot, Cavafis, Ferlinghetti and Olson, for example). Second, the main field of references for the young intellectuals was the widely opened context of ancient Greek and Roman poetry, Renaissance, Baroque and Romanticism rhetoric and the captivating scope of the avant-garde, Dada and surrealistic experiments – and this phantasmatic openness compensated the lack of the real social chances in the enfeebled Soviet state.

In the new capitalist and glamorous Russia such cultural utopia is totally gone away. The writers now need to work hard in journalism, computer engineering or university teaching for the miserable task of the physical surviving. This means that they haven’t enough time to be acquainted with the all new publications of translated foreign literature. Therefore, the writer has to choose this or that narrowed subject of interest or inspiration, and the knowledge of world literature now is not universalized as it was in the Soviet past, but specialized and tied to the pragmatic reasons and target groups.

Actually my aim is to resist this process and to stay in dialogue with world poetry, observing in it the universalized entity. For me or for the most advanced contemporary Russian poets such as Arkadii Dragomochshenko, Alexander Skidan, Kirill Medvedev or Elena Fanailova (all of them were widely translated into English) the act of translation or the reading of translated verses means the intense training and broadening of the poetic vision. Furthermore, the process of translation could be interpreted as the furious competition with your rivals in other languages, in which you are always belated in comparison with this strongest figure, but this belatedness guarantees for you the accumulation of your own creative efforts.

CALQUE: Who are the contemporary Russian poets and writers who you read regularly?

Golynko: Among my favorite Russian poets I could mention Viktor Sosnora, the most radical innovator of the contemporary poetry language who is strongly connected with the Futurist tradition, Arkadii Dragomoschenko, who is writing the labyrinth-like poems clothed in a baroque camouflage and similar to the Language School masterpieces, Alexander Skidan, who invented the dispersed aleatoric kind of depicting the contemporary human being through the broken glass of the XX century infinite thought, Lev Rubinstein belongs to the conceptual school that composes poems from neutral expressions written on index cards, Alexey Parshchikov, the distinguished poet for whom the metaphor, twisted and discontinuous, serves as the repetitive model of the imagined (and unimagined) universe. I would like to mention a lot of other figures but it would look more like an encyclopedia and not a list of preferences.

CALQUE: In the USA, the culture of poets and writers is widely thought to be exclusive, elitist and petty, and at the same time insulated from the culture of people who do not write, causing many to say that modern poetry and prose, especially what is called "experimental writing," is detached from and irrelevant to the society at large. How would you describe the culture of Russian poetry and prose writing?

Golynko: Historically throughout the XX century Russian poetry had been burdened with a messianic and prophetic status. In the socio-cultural consciousness it served as the tool for the salvation and redemption of the nation from the complexes of suffering and guilt, from the crimes and atrocities committed by the totalitarian state. In the nineties because of the notorious crisis of logocentrism and the turn to the neo-capitalist way of production, Russian poetry was depraved from its sacral status and lost it significance as the powerful atonement of the nation. In contradistiction to the American situation, Russian poetry was not involved in the academical university system, and the number of the literary magazines (and the printing runs) decreased catastrophically, diminishing now to one or two irregular poetry magazines for the whole country. It meant the complete ghettoization of the literary audience. The contemporary literary scene in Russia I could name as the ‘brotherhood of the solitudes’, i.e. there are several outstanding and remarkable poets which had to (in solidarity with each other) invent their own personal strategies of the social legitimization in the depressive and cruel wild-capitalist conditions.

CALQUE: What are you working on now?

Golynko: Now I’m working on a number of poems which deal with the plots and themes, intrinsic to the social and symbolic order in the global world and in the local Russian contexts. At first I’m trying to depict the confusion and abandonment of the ordinary human being (young and ambitious women predominantly) in the situation of the insolent abundance of goods and the frightening deficit of the emotions, the situation which is so well-known to the fast developing semi-peripheral territories (such as Russia or Eastern Europe for example). Second, for several years I stayed in South Korea and China and in my ‘eastern’ poems I would like to reveal the civilized interconnections and conflicts which are so inevitable in the contemporary cultural dialogues.

• • •

Lots of Different Things

the reader scrutinizes a pile of books
he found out lots of different things from them once
lots of information, many sensible theories, big idioms
lots of correct and precise observations
now these springs of doubt and anxiety
gather dust, piled up in the corner, on a chair
the reader is surprised at himself, what a bookhead
how many of them he managed to read through, sneezing

he flicks the dust off the top covers
he’s been feeling too lazy of late
to read much, educational ardor
put on the back burner by
deadlines, he can absorb only
so much, now he values a book
not because of what the mind, the vanity of the author,
his genius had put into it

but for something else entirely, the condition
or the situation when the book lay
on his, the reader’s, knees
on in front of him on the table, the book triggers
associations in his memory of the moment
in the past allotted to reading it
carefully, in snatches
unable to put it down, aslant

in his own way, he feels gratitude to each book
it allows him to remember the good and the ugly
this one here he read on the terrace
during a soggy summer, suffering from unrequited
and this one, blissful in a EuroNight
express train second class, a real picture
of beauty with natural goldylocks leaned her
head on his shoulder, fully at his disposal

these two books hooked up in his memory
the first one he was reading almost a decade ago
on a bench in an imperial park, his
twenty-year-old companion bent over
an Italian textbook, one passerby
an amicable middle-aged woman
was delighted, what a beautiful couple
wished them happiness, didn’t help

it took years to separate, row after row
the second book he had read on that same bench
in that same park, roughly three months ago
now his girlfriend was about eighteen
not adept at reading, she tugged at him, fidgeted
a woman in her late fifties saw and warmly
decided to pay him a compliment, what
a lovely young lady you’re with, didn’t fail

to promise them happiness, but shot over
it’s already two weeks that they went their ways
this book is associated with difficult moments
for hours he read it in the hospital waiting room
near the office where the consultation was happening
a hopeless diagnosis given a person
very close to him, had to be confirmed
or overturned, the type kept blurring

one more book he took along while camping
with fellow students, they went kayaking downriver
another he packed for a trip
to America, convenient pocket edition
this one he borrowed but didn’t return
because he forgot? because the owner never asked for it back?
A visiting girl of Turkmen origin
left this one at his place after she stayed there

as a gift? a reminder? an indecipherable sign?
in his youth he read rapturously, devoured
serious works on history
philosophy, the humanities, sometimes
even the hard sciences, then there came
either exhaustion or arrogance, a foreign whodunit
from a best-selling series was laid aside at the most
suspenseful point, he never found out who the murderer was

the reader blows the dust away, some of the books
have nothing to do with anything, don’t recall anything
he had read them as well, with interest, he decided
that illustrated coffee-table editions
belong elsewhere, moved them to
another space on the bookshelf, straw-colored light
the cellphone had been trilling insistently for some time now
he said, yeah, yeah, of course, I’ll be there

From the poem “As It Turned Out”
Translated by Eugene Ostashevsky with Matvei Yankelevich and Simona Schneider

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