Poet and translator Galina Rymbu speaks with the editor Ilya Danishevsky about the place of poetry, mass media, and literary texts in today’s Russia.
Ilya Danishevsky, a writer whose work blurs the boundary between poetry and prose, is also one of the best-known (and youngest) literary editors in Russia. He had his own alternative publishing project, Anhedonia, at the leading publishing house AST from 2015 to 2019. In addition, he is the literary editor of the general-interest magazine Snob and curates the literary program at Moscow’s Voznesensky Center.
Danishevsky’s first novel, Nezhnost’ k mertvym (Tenderness for the Dead), was published in 2014 by the radical publishing house Opustoshitel (The Ravager). The book is a fable about how violent life would be if it were a video game, exploring how the violence and the endless, pointless restarts would affect our humanity; the implication being, of course, that our actual lives are indeed affected by violence and endless, pointless returns-to-zero.
His second book, Mannelig v tsepyakh (Mannelig in Chains), was published by Poryadok slov (Word Order) in 2018. A hybrid of prose and free verse, it is part memoir, part psychoanalysis session, part confession, and part journey narrative (the poetic chapters call back to the Odyssey: “The Lotus-Eaters,” “The Laestrygonians,” “Circe,” etc.). A recurring question in the book is how we live with violence, both that which we commit and that which we suffer. Ukrainian and German translations are forthcoming in 2021.
In a 2019 interview for Russia’s Year of Literature program, Galina Rymbu spoke with Danishevsky about the place of mass media and literary texts today, the “impromptu reader,” poetic modes of diagnosing reality, and poetic languages that create a “parallel social media feed.”
Rymbu’s questions were translated by Helena Kernan, who has translated Rymbu’s poetry for Ugly Duckling Presse, Modern Poetry in Translation, and the F-Letter anthology of contemporary Russian feminist verse; Danishevsky’s responses were translated by Anne O. Fisher. Fisher and co-translator Alex Karsavin are bringing Danishevsky’s book Mannelig in Chains into English with support from the University of Exeter’s RusTrans project (read more here).
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Rymbu: In one of your previous interviews, you said that “in Russia, two different cultures continue to co-exist: the official and the unofficial. The former hides the latter from the reader, which means that the majority of the most interesting work out there is not widely read. (This is also because it doesn’t fit easily into publishing formats.)” Does this mean that you are trying to reinvent those formats specifically for unofficial culture?
Danishevsky: Is this a question about popularizing unofficial culture? If it is, then I don’t want to do exactly that, or rather I don’t see that as my mission. At some point, unofficial culture is bound to become our only culture (although it already is, essentially), but at the same time, there’s a certain charm in being constantly reminded of unofficial culture, isn’t there? A certain charm in the way that, every time, you can rehearse that same problem of whether I—or you, or the next person—want to restore that culture’s prescribed status; and I’m not convinced it’s a good idea to solve this problem so definitively, to zero out that charm.
Rymbu: Anhedonia [saw] itself as a project dedicated to researching institutions of violence and oppression in contemporary Russia. How do you personally carry out research on violence without aestheticizing it?
Danishevsky: The boundaries are porous, probably. To be honest, I like the nightmares and painful memories of psychotherapy: retelling something, communicating it to the world, is always partially aestheticizing it, as you choose your metaphors or describe the colors and stage set of your painful experience. But at some point, the process of elaborating the details also destroys fear. Yes, I like scary stories for their capacity to develop your resistance. There’s hardly a text out there that’s (subjectively) scarier than anything in our past, anything we can see out on the street.
Rymbu: Part of your publishing work [in Anhedonia revolved] around contemporary Russian political journalism. Why is it important to collect this journalism in book-length format and tell stories about the work of different media sources? After all, we see these texts every day . . .
Danishevsky: We don’t see them, we see the way they replace each other, the way they dissolve into the depths of our social media feed. Many media outlets repost their important stories again after a certain amount of time has passed. Publishing journalism collections is a way of prolonging the resonance of certain words. Publishing books of poetry is similar: I see poems every day in my feed, but the only way to read them properly is in a slowed-down state.
Rymbu: You coordinate the literary section of Snob. What goals are you pursuing there? How effective can a literary text be when it is embedded in online media?
Danishevsky: The same ones I am pursuing when I work with books. We don’t know how the literature of the past will be read in the future, whether we’ll be studying physical books or traces in the internet; by then, possibly (probably), there won’t be any difference.
Snob provides an impromptu reader for texts like these. I don’t think anything’s going to happen to the actual text itself, it’s just that when you publish something in, let’s say, [the online poetry journal] Polutona, you pretty much don’t think you might encounter the kind of reader who is repulsed by the basic foundations of your poetics, although surely Polutona does have this kind of reader.
Rymbu: Which projects and authors are important to you as a writer in terms of your own literary dialogue?
Danishevsky: It’s obvious that what Dmitry Volchek––[the creator of Mitin zhurnal (Mitin’s Magazine), which started as a samizdat magazine in 1985 and has continued to publish new, alternative voices to this day, and the Kolonna (Column) publishing house, which merged with Mitin zhurnal in 2002 to publish books of cultural critique from all over the world)]––is doing is important to me. At some point, it was a very long time ago now, I read Gabrielle Wittkop’s Chaque jour est un arbe qui tombe, and then I reread Chaque jour est un arbe qui tombe, and although that text was hardly intended to be a diagnostic tool, it answered a couple of very big questions I’d had since I was little: there is only fucking and god, the rest is redundant.
Vozdukh [Air, an alternative poetry journal founded by Dmitry Kuzmin in 2006 that was one of the first venues for LGBTQ poets] is important to me, but in a strange way: I don’t think I’ve ever actually read it cover to cover, and I’m more interested in reading the reviews than the poems. But one time, when I did go ahead and try to read it straight through, beginning to end, I kept finding myself coming up against either boredom or a failure to understand. And that barrier, between boredom and a failure to understand, is one I always felt to be a dialogue. We are usually closed off in our own tight little clusters where we read things and argue about the most trivial differences of opinion; I don’t know any other journal that so manifestly confronts the reader’s little world with reality. Reality (unfortunately?) is varied.
Rymbu: Anhedonia has published poetry collections by Maria Stepanova and Oksana Vasyakina. Collections by Konstantin Bogomolov and Lev Oborin are being prepared for publication. Elena Fanailova is also gathering material for her book. Why did you decide to publish poetry?*
Danishevsky: It seems to me—perhaps naively—that poetry has the ability to examine things in a maximally authentic way. This could be because it must continually reinvent itself and its language. Also because it seeks less to operate than to diagnose. These texts do not set themselves the task of immediately transforming reality; even the most politicized speech simply observes and discusses what it saw. What’s very important to me, in addition to the spiritual projects of poetry (which include resisting the world at every turn), is that its testimony be nonviolent.
And take, for instance, a discussion of love, a discussion in which it’s impossible to use dishonest words. After all, in nonfiction, we definitely don’t talk about love as living matter, or if we do, then we do it the way we do in prose: we talk about the external barriers that either serve as antimatter or simply intrude into it. In poetry, language about love is capable of expressing the very matter it describes.
Rymbu: In general, what makes a poetry collection viable for publication with a big commercial publishing house?
Danishevsky: And what makes a poetry collection viable for publication at a little niche publishing house?
Rymbu: How do you see the institution of contemporary literature? It’s clear that over the past few years, everything has changed. And you are involved in curatorial projects as well as publishing; you run the literary program at the Voznesensky Center and recently helped organize a reading in support of the Khachaturyan sisters [three young women charged with murder for killing their serially abusive father]. What do you identify as the aims of contemporary literature when it comes to a nonliterary audience? Is your project about popularizing contemporary literature?
Danishevsky: The reading in support of the Khachaturyan sisters was not held to promote the poetry that was read there. It was an attempt to give words materiality and weight. It was about being responsible for your words, it wasn’t about constructing poetic hierarchies; anyone who wanted to could perform. There was no literary curation there; there couldn’t have been any literary curation there.
The purpose of the Voznesensky Center is to tell a (hi)story in the language of multiple media, and when we’re talking about literature, it’s more likely to be the (hi)stories of authors than the (hi)stories of texts. We talk frequently about how authors are inseparable from their texts. And although I as a reader am capable of keeping them separate, I as a curator see the authors’ responsibility to their texts. To a large extent, this isn’t the story of good and bad texts, it’s the story of what conditions texts might be created under today; with what urgency, in reaction to what; and how texts differ from other everyday practices.
For me, whether a poetic discourse is contemporary is determined not only by the conversation going on inside that discourse about current political and social problems, but also by the extent to which it overcomes linguistic and formal inertia.
Rymbu: To what extent do you think contemporary Russian poetry has been successful in overcoming this inertia? And can you name some poetic practices that are important for you in this sense?
Danishevsky: They’re poetic practices that, despite the ambient informational and political noise, have found a language that is able to interrupt the notifications, able to break up the homogeneity of your newsfeed-as-worldview and create a parallel, alternative one. Anna Glazova, Lida Yusupova, and Lolita Agamalova are all doing this in completely different, individual ways.
Rymbu: This year, you were tasked with nominating poets for the Arkady Dragomoshchenko Prize [an annual award organized by the publishing house and cultural platform Poryadok slov]. Last season, you were shortlisted for the same prize. How do you feel about literary prizes in general? Are they necessary today?
Danishevsky: In many ways, I feel they’re a compulsory part of the profession. Refusing to participate, however, also comes across as an excessively radical gesture, one that doesn’t reflect my actual attitude. I understand what it means to be in the position of a nominator, but at the same time, I don’t really understand what it means to be in the position of a finalist. It doesn’t add anything to my words. But this is most likely my own failure to understand the significance of the distribution of power in the literary field (also, there’s never been a time when an award decision changed my mind about other people’s texts). Apparently, the open call that was introduced by the award management this year is solving this problem and transforming the award into a way of finding something new, not a way of reinforcing verticalization (I say this because I want to believe it, but I don’t believe it’s quite there yet).
Rymbu: You have written volumes of both poetry (Mannelig in Chains) and prose (the novel Fondness for the Dead) that have earned you a place on the shortlist of several literary prizes. To what extent do you personally feel integrated into the contemporary literary community?
Danishevsky: I don’t know whether that context actually exists. We probably exist in the same Facebook cluster where we like identical kittens and dogs, sign identical petitions, and, on the whole, experience the same strong emotions. I never felt that this was a community, or that I was part of this community, but at the same time, nobody else I spoke with about this ever felt that they were part of this community either. It seems that today this sense of “community” is to some degree an optical bug created by social media feeds.
It’s the same as how you called Mannelig a poetic work. For me, it’s not.
*The implication of Rymbu’s question is why did Danishevsky decide to include poetry among the works of journalism and cultural criticism he selected for Anhedonia? In what way was poetry able to contribute to Anhedonia’s project? Since, after all, this is an unusual combination for a single small imprint, to publish Zizek along with prominent Russian journalists along with poetry. But the uniting factor is the examination of institutions that promote or allow violence and oppression.
In mentioning the names, Rymbu is highlighting the contrast between the schools of poetry Danishevsky chose for Anhedonia. Award-winning poet and fiction writer Maria Stepanova (b. 1973) is an established literary voice, while Oksana Vasyakina (b. 1989) is a new feminist activist poetess. Konstantin Bogomolov (b. 1975) is a major mainstream (some would say conservative) theater director from whom one might not expect a book of poems, while Lev Oborin (b. 1987) is an actively oppositional poet and critic. Elena Fanailova (b. 1962) is a major Russian poet. For accuracy’s sake, it should be noted that the last book in Danishevsky’s Anhedonia series was published in February 2019, and this inverview was published in June 2019; Bogomolov’s and Oborin’s books both ended up coming out with a different imprint in AST, while AST did not publish Fanailova’s book.
First published in GodLiterature.RF. © 2019 by Galina Rymbu. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2021 by Anne O. Fisher and Helena Kernan. All rights reserved.