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switch the language: interview with Charles Bernstein by N. Fedorova from #13 [Translit]

With this post we are continue new section (with the tag that will allow you to easily find its posts), in which we will publish foreign-language materials devoted to [Translit]. On the one hand, a lot of such materials have started appearing, on the other hand, they haven't been systematized on the blog at all but have just come through here and there as a one-off aberration.
We have never limited ourselves to a Russian-language audience, striving not only to translate Russian ad bring it into correspondence with other languages but also to serve as an apparatus for the transmission and re-coding of messages in foreign languages, in other words, a mechanism for the systematic defamiliarization of our own language in both the linguistic and poetic sense. The time has come to extend the metaphor of defamiliarizing translation ("translit") into the regular practice of publishing in foreign languages.
Here we will put poems and articles by the authors of [Translit] that have been translated and published in foreign languages (which will also allow us to study the infrastructure of foreign-language resources devoted to experimental literature), interviews from newspapers and journals of a wider profile, and also announcements and reports on [Translit] events that take place abroad. If you would like to limit your reading to the materials in this section, you can subscribe to the RSS-feed with the tag "switch the language.


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13обложкаNatalia Fedorova and Charles Bernstein in conversation in New York, 2013, originally published in #13 [Translit]: school of language

CA: Which of the Russian writers do you relate to?

CB: My closest friend in Russia was Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, but I also knew, and admired, Alexei Parshchikov and Dmitri Prigov. Sadly these three generational companions have all died recently. I met Dmitry Golynko at the University of Pennsylvania, where I work, and then I saw him again in Vienna recently. He is terrific. And I very much admire Lev Rubinstein. I also teach a number of stellar Russian poets, from Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov to Mayakovsky to Mandelstam and Akhmatova. Because of the recent translations of Matvei Yankelevich and Eugene Ostachevsky, I have also been reading the OBERIU – I love Kharms; Vvedensky has just been published.

CA: For decades in Russia, they weren’t taught in schools or known to the general public either.

CB: My students at Penn love Kharms. You don't even have to discuss it because they seem to just get it. I was reading Prigov this morning and now I see that there is a direct relationship between aspects of Prigov and Kharms, which I hadn’t recognized. One of Prigov’s “Seven New Stories about Stalin,” has Trotsky, Zinov’ev, and Bukharin coming to talk to Stalin, and Stalin takes a revolver and shoots them down. It has this absurdist or OBERIU quality, which, of course, I couldn’t have determined before reading OBERIU.

CA: In his final performance, Prigov was planning to be reading from the closet, which is a known Kharms trope.

CB: I didn’t know that connection. Now it’s apparent, so I am re-adjusting my literary history.

CA: What is your attitude towards the Russian translation of your work?

CB: I am especially happy with the Parschikov translation of my poem/essay “Artifice of Absorption” and other translations coming in the New Literary Observer, many done by Ian Probstein, who also published translations in Okno, Zhurnal POetov, and Innostrannya Literatura. I was knocked about by Parshchikov (and friends) doing “Artifice of Absorption.” Also Arkadi asked me to write an introduction of Charles Olson’s “The Kingfishers.” So that was written just for him, along with a piece on September 11 that I included in Girly Man. I don’t have a very good sense of what is happening in your generation right now. My first contact with Russian literature was in the seventies when I was reading the futurists, and seeing the work, the paintings and the visual-verbal. The handmade zaum books, like Pomade with the handwriting and drawings, were transformative both as works and in terms of a group of people working together.

CA: In what way was it transformative?

CB: Within the modernist moment you have too many dystopian examples of individuals or collectives. The futurists were a positive, if tragic, model. You remember Marinetti famously came to Moscow to read his manifesto in 1909.

CA: And nobody was happy to see him there.

CB: No, but still Italian Futurism was a much bigger thing. What I loved in the Russians was the connection between a social movement and art, and that critique of the museums, and the desire to employ the art in everyday life, and bring it outside the collaborations. And, of course, the wonderful graphic art.

CA: The Soviet state created that curated space.

CB: It was a part of a social revolutionary moment that ultimately turned against these people and destroyed them. Goncharova and Popova are two of my favorite artists, along with Rodchenko and of course Malevich and Kandinsky. Even the advertisements are fascinating – the ones Mayakovsky wrote. Some are hysterical: a model for “real” ads that also are ironically self-reflective. The vibrant relation of commercial graphics to the fine arts (as traditionally understood) is fantastic.  And then “The Word as Such,” that is, the poetics, which at first I didn’t understand, but after a while I did, as more began to get translated. For a lot of our circle around L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the futurists were crucial precursors and inspirations. More so than any of the other modernist movements, per say, and up there with poets like Gertrude Stein, who was so very different, especially in terms of her politics and her relation to the collective.

Speaking about Mandelstam, before my collaboration with Kevin Platt – he did a collection of Mandelstam and asked me to translate several poems with him – I never really understood his poetry. The problem, the block for me was primarily the way Mandelstam, Akhmatova and, above all, Brodsky were presented as Cold War figures by the official verse culture of the U.S. and U.K. The Cold War tainted their work even as it was put forward by a literary establishment that reviled radical American poetry (and ignored the futurists of course). I am still in the middle of my argument of Cold War ideology because I remain very much a product of the 1950s.  I also see my reaction-formation as being a large part of the problem, that I was misframing these poets (in my own mind) as much as anyone else.  Milosz was and is used in the organs of official verse culture as the exemplary anti-Communist and anti-collectivist - an emblem of individual, solitary figures fighting the totalitarian state. Of course, for a culture that is not particularly interested in poetry, and hostile to poetry that challenges conventional modes of representation and expression, it is this humanist thematic - resistance to totalitarianism - not the aesthetic, that is of interest. And ironically this neoliberalism is anti-political since it purports to place the poet beyond ideology.

You see this Cold War criticism still in full force in mainstream newspapers and magazines, decades after the official end of the Cold War. (I think especially of Charles Simic in The New York Review of Books.) So while I have not been able to get to the bottom of the issue, since I can’t read the originals, I believe the Cold War framing of the heroic Russian modernists (e.g. anti-Communist or martyrs of the state) have sacrificed the aesthetic radicalism of the work to conform to Cold War ideology, ironically torqued it toward propaganda while proclaiming it to be without ideology beyond neoliberal ideas of human freedom. And also those histories repressed the full range of Russian writing and art, which become increasingly accessible in the late 1970s.

I don’t mean to diminish the suffering or persecution of these poets or many other Russians – but I do object to these poets being enlisted into a program that reduces them to figures of martyrdom (poetry is not Catholicism) or uses them as cudgels to attack politically and formally radical poetics in the U.S. and U.K. This also had the effect of, at least for me, not seeing my connections of Mandelstam while being immediately drawn to Khlebnikov. But you can see how Dragomoshchenko and Prigov had an immediate appeal to me when I first encountered the work, more so than Yevtushenko or Voznesensky. So I have been recalculating since then, learning more of the history and trying to make up for my prejudices and ignorance.

For example, now I see Mandelstam in the context of, for example, the New York poet Louis Zukofsky, who is a little bit younger than Mandelstam, but not by much. Zukofsky, sympathetic to Marxism in the 30s, living on Lower East Side, wanted to move outside of the context of his Jewish and Yiddish background, to be part of, let’s just say international modernism, while keeping attuned to where he came from and the local particulars that gave his work its resonance.  I think about Zukofsky in relation to Mandelstam’s “Notre Dame,” looking up at the cathedral and thinking how does that relate to me? Can I make art that goes beyond who I am, my own given history or tradition?  Make art that is non-national and non-ethnic, or not only.

Notre Dame

Where the Roman justice judged a foreign people,
Stands the basilica; first and joyous,
Just like Adam, with nerves stretching,
The vault, a cross of air, flexes its muscles.

But outside a secret plan emerges:
Here labored the strength of arching stone
So the freighted mass won’t crush the walls,
And the cocky vault’s battering ram is still.

Elemental labyrinth, inscrutable forest,
The gothic soul’s rationalized abyss,
Egyptian awe and Christian timidity,
Reed by oak and plumb-line’s king of all.

But, citadel of Notre Dame, the closer
I studied your preternatural ribs,
The more I thought: from crude weight
Someday I too will fashion the beautiful.

1912 (tr. Ch.B. with Kevin Platt)
[published in Modernist Archaist: Selected Poems, ed. Platt]

Related to this is Frank O’Hara’s engagement with Pasternak. For O’Hara, Pasternak was attractive as a liminal figure, who worked in a space between public dissidence and the private. Perhaps that wasn’t really quite accurate to Pasternak, but that’s the way O’Hara thought of him. So that is one moment where a Russian poet intersects with the New American poetry in the Cold War, quite different than Alan Ginsberg’s engagements with Yevtushenko or Voznesensky.

At a recent memorial event for Arkadii, the Russian scholars mentioned his relation to Lyn Hejinian and language poetry in terms of an unusual Cold War encounter that suggested Arkadii’s alignment with the West. But I think those accounts misread or perhaps it’s better to say are reductive. At the risk of eliding the very Cold War frame I am otherwise insisting on, what was most powerful to me about my relation to Arkadii was our personal relationship based on shared aesthetic values. I see this in terms of non-national affinity, not to say we could ever negate our Soviet or U.S. shells but that we shared roughly similar views toward the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, if I can put it that way, and that indeed our aesthetic and political affinities (and aversions) might have put us closer to each other than to most of our fellow poets in our respective countries.

As I say this I realize how hopelessly utopian it sounds, but it suggests a different kind of kinship and one which perhaps, you may relate to yourself. And I feel this echoes with friends like Matvei Yankelevich and Eugene Ostashevsky who have one foot (and one ear) in both worlds. It’s one of the hopeful possibilities of non-national poetry just now.

Saying all that, I don’t want to negate Arkadii’s relation to Russian poetry and Russian literature or mine to American poetry, but I’d say we were company for one another, and for Arkadii this was most true of his relation to Lyn and hers to him. At the same time, the everyday life situation for Arkadii was diametrically opposed to what it was for us. So the social circumstances, the possibility of publishing, the possibility (and nature) of being public, the severe financial hardship . . .   Obviously, there was a great difference in material existence for Dragomoshchenko and for me in 1991, the year he and Zina came to Buffalo for a semester.

Jacob Edmond has a fine new book on just this subject called A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature – do you know that work?

CA: Yes. With chapters about Prigov and Dragomoschenko?

CB: I like Edmond’s concept of “common strangeness.” The place of exchange has to do with common strangeness, not common similarity. But also simultaneity within cultural conditions, and also historical conjunctions of traditions and engagements. Some of the new writing-exchange technologies (email, translation engines, social media) make possible different modalities for translation than we’ve had previously, for example compared to relying on the postal systems of the U.S. and Russia in Soviet times. And while valuing language, economic, and cultural differences, we also exist together in some “non-spaces” – again the web and social media, the transnational economy. So translation again would be the fundamental…

CA: Tool?

CB: Tool and also medium, because we have to re-invent what translation is and how it allows people to be in exchange with their contemporaries, translating . . . rather than selecting an individual poet’s translation of another individual poet (often older or historical), why not a collective translation of a rich creative context that would includes multiple poets translating the poems, but also the poetics.

Such an exchange would be more engaging and have a much broader base on both sides. The poetry culture that exists in St. Petersburg or in New York has many people involved. Translation tends to lose the base for the superstructure. It is not that the super-structure of selected poets are not valuable, but what might be most useful, initially, is translating a wider context to allow an exchange to emerge. Otherwise, it is like skimming the cream off the top and losing all the mile.

CA: If we look back to the samizdat practice … do you see any parallels between the practice of self-publishing in the U.S. and this self-publishing practice in Russia.

CB: I did a radio show with Matvei discussing these parallels . While I think there are similarities, I’d want to emphasize the differences first. In the U.S. the small press flourished unhindered, and to a large extent unread and unacknowledged (as it does now). So there is the famous inversion of cultural capital, with free and easy circulation losing some cultural status (and audience) versus censorship creating acute value (and mass interest).  You don’t as a poet get to chose the means of reproduction in your culture, but I think the virtues of cultural and state indifference to our work – it’s unpopularity! – are worth noting.

There is a great freedom in the lack of necessity, where the stakes are aesthetically high, but on your own terms, and the risks are not state sanctions but artistic failure or isolation. Not that your life, inner life anyway, doesn’t depend on what success you may have, on your own terms. There is an aspect to samizdat that is like that – not so much dissident (or clandestine) as unofficial. In any case, I’d say the unofficial is dissident but, perhaps, diffident too.

CA: What is the relation between poetry and tragedy? Would you agree with Badiou’s claim in “The Century” about the necessity of terror to provoke thought? What would then be the relation between poetry and thought?

CB: I don’t know the Badiou essay but I’d say poetry exists in spite of terror, or maybe to spite it. Poetry may be a site of mourning and a register of tragedy but more often than not both those things shut down thought. Here’s what I mean by a reductive Cold War reading: Charles Simic, - who often writes against what I take to be the most compelling U.S. poetry - in one of his haughty dismissals, makes an invidious comparison: who would you read if you were in prison – Gertrude Stein or Emily Dickinson?  In this way trying to put down work in the traditions of Stein, as if Stein and Dickinson were not in the same tradition, as if you could dismiss all nontraditional poetry by this swipe at Stein, as if the criteria of value for poetry was to imagine you were in jail.

Simic jails himself, all our imaginations, and indeed the New York Review of Books, where his is the prevailing sentiment on poetry. This kind of moral seriousness about poetry is tantamount to moral bankruptcy. Poetry should be wild, frivolous, and mock death. Well, though, you should never say should, should you (or so I like to say)?

Let me give you another more mundane example, and one that makes my point more troubling, I am sure. The PEN international writers conference this year has the theme “Bravery.” I totally support and applaud PEN’s work in supporting free speech and it’s activist approach to condemning governments that put writers in jail. But the “Bravery” frame reduces the literature presented to examples of political conscience and also to a very internationally readable and rudimentary criteria for literary value.

The good, the bad, and the ugly all suffer from political violence and oppression. A large part of the young black male population in the U.S. is locked up at one time or another for political reasons, under system-generated drug charges. The kind of poetry I want is not “brave” and many of my favorite poets would better be described as timid, to use the word Benjamin dwells on in his essay on Hölderlin.

What makes Mandelstam or Kharms great is not that they were subjected to barbaric treatment. If that human story of courage is what you read him for, then I don’t think you’ve read very far into his work. Which is not to say that we don’t admire such courage in many poets and piccolo players and podiatrists. That is not a special office of poetry but of citizens. Mandelstam and Kharms were great poets in spite of their persecution, not as a result of it. There is no question both would have done more great work without it!

It goes without saying but needs still to be said, perhaps not in Russia, I assume not!, but in the U.S.A. where the highest value attributed to poetry, for official verse culture –– or so it sometimes seems, I know I exaggerate! –– is the heroic dissidence or the survival narrative (poems arrayed around a personal tragedy), which just adds insult to very real injury.

As for poetry itself, whatever that is, who cares?  Mandelstam writes in one of his late poems that the one thing you cannot take from me is my words (#372 of Last Poems: “If our antagonists take me … But will write what I am free to write,  / And yoking ten oxen to my voice / Will move my hand in the darkness like a plough / And fall with the full heaviness of the harvest . . .”) In a way the Cold War reading of Mandelstam in the U.S. is one more go at taking his words from him, this happens when we make him into a product, celebrating him as a symbol and not for his aesthetic innovation and style. But if you don’t care about poetry as an art, then moral action is your only criteria for judgment –– and you separate the good from the bad with merit badges. But great poetry is written by the good, the bad, and the ugly –– and that is Mandelstam’s true company, not the righteous, not the victims, and not the anti-Communists. Lord, save us from Representative Poets.

So as to samizdat, I appreciate the pragmatism of it – that it got the work out as best as possible under the circumstances.

And now, with the web and less physically constrained exchange (other kinds of constraints still seem to be in full force) we can see what develops. As I was saying about Arkadii. The potential for affinity increases if we share similar readings and similar engagements, across national lines, against national lines.  Pussy Riot is a remarkable example. Here is something that goes beyond a Russian dissident export product that has become a shared struggle. We become our own self-identified constellations.

CA: In a national context Pussy Riot brought the vocabulary question to the fore, starting with the anecdotal use of “holy shit”, used innumerable times by the court officials, and continuing with the use of the word “feminist” as a swear word by the witnesses.

CB: And when it happens, as with this stigma against homosexuality, which wouldn’t have been the case in the 60s, even in the 70s: the more people say it – the more it changes.

One of the things that I thought about with the magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E in the late 1970s,  it is impossible to try to do … because things tend to get grouped and things seem more similar the further you are away …  But it was difference not sameness that I wanted to be the basis of our formation. Not at the level of ethnic or cultural or racial or gender difference, but rather, differences in form.

I suppose you could call it a demented kind of aesthetic Trotskyism. The collectivity would be that of particulars that didn’t fit in, that didn’t follow the norm. Anomalies. I don’t know how this would translate into a Russian context, but within the U.S. culture, I see the possibility of poetry (and of thought!) in places where you can explore radical forms of eccentricity. Disaffiliations and re-affiliations … which is not possible in popular cultures, which have other lambs to roast.

CA: Poetry then, and kind of now, too, is still seen as a form of prophecy in a very traditional or in a Neomarxist way. You were saying that eccentric voices reach a narrower audience, right?

CB: Not sure about prophecy, but, yes, poetry as a genre has an infinitely small audience compared to popular cultures of other kinds. And that’s what makes it a place for exploration, articulation, and exchange of the non-normative.

Ironically, it is the lack of commercial potential that creates the specific conditions for the work and great (if often unrealized) possibilities. And that does affect our international exchange. So coming back to Parshchikov, you can see him writing intimate, microcosmic poetry that has enormous resonance but that sets its own rules, that he can explore some unfinished business in radical modernism. And that while that would not have wide or mass appeal in the U.S. or Russia it does have an appeal for me in terms of its non-national affinity that begins to open up a virtual constellation where such poetry may find a home.

This is all background to your multiple questions about the small press. I would say … it is hard for me to say, and impossible for me to give any kind of guidance or advice, because of the asymmetry of our circumstances. Similarity in appearance is a trap, because it is the dissimilarity that is most significant and opens the possibility for affinity.

CA: In what ways do you see the web facilitating the emergence of this common ground?

CB: Certainly, the web creates new possibilities for exchange, but technological change offers as many problems as opportunities.

In poetry, the English-dominance of the web, or beyond that the dominance of four or five languages, is a good example of the mixed blessing. It’s a global tide with an undertow that will cause many languages to drown or require artificial resuscitation. For this reason, as a counter, translation becomes ever more crucial in our digital present. Translations can take place quicker and with more mobility than in the past. For example, I envision (or let’s just say, I am waiting for) collectives of young poets translating each other as a form of daily exchange.

Such collective efforts may counter the Great Poet model that tends to read individual poets in isolation from the field in which they work, often to the detriment of even those poets who are picked out from the crowd (sometimes for good and sometimes for bad reasons). What I mean is that to understand why a poem or poet is great, it is necessary to have some sense of the overall field and the kinds of exchanges that take place through publications and performances. This field of poetry – you can call it the tradition if you think about it diachronically but equally significant is the synchronic field – is the ground against which individual poems articulate themselves. So this activity of poetry is – ontologically! – more significant than any individual great poem or great poet. And sometimes great poets and great poems, as a concept, can obliterate this synchronous field of the contemporary.

Perhaps this is more apparent with music than poetry: the recognition of the primary significance of musical experience, people playing the piano themselves, people hearing music in everyday life in that John Cagean way. That’s what’s sublime about music. Not the beautiful object of the work, but what the work allows as an experience for the listener. The greatness of Chopin is not the composition “itself,” but the aesthetic experience it engenders. What makes great poets great is that their work intensifies aesthetic engagements in the verbal life beyond the poem, where poems are seen as part of a semiotic economy that draws upon and transforms the everyday verbal life (as you draw money from a bank and spend it). By everyday verbal life I mean something like what you might call in Russia folk knowledge, something we don’t have quite the same sense of here … the vernacular, indigenous language experience of the culture, which is channeled, refracted, and intensified by the particular poem (something along the lines of what Bakhtin proposes for prose but which really is the heart of poetry.)

CA: It is probably more obvious with our sense of collectivity, but less obvious at the same time with the authoritarian habits, too.

CB: There is a magnificent pathos to that contradiction, which haunts Gogol and Dostoevsky, no? And the more recent poets I’ve mentioned too. It’s necessary, for this reason, to understand the lyric not as an individual voice of the solitary individual resisting the authoritarian state but as a collective voice, as dialogic. This is what I have been trying to get at. I am not sure I have been able to.

CA: So how do you understand translation to be transformed by technology, and how would you like to see web-based translation practices evolve?

CB: I’d like to try, just try, to imagine new forms of web-based translation as Socratic. In other words the translation does not provide a series of answers – accurate summaries of meaning – but a series of responses. Translation as conversation not master/slave, original/copy. The open-ended use of sound files, homophonic and machine translations, collaborations would all sit next to more traditional forms of “faithful” translations. These would not be unfaithful, just a different kind of faith, closer to Pascal’s wager.

On PennSound we have very little material in Russian, but here’s what I think is possible: recording of a poem in Russian with a simple English interface. Title and author, date and place, perhaps a literal translation, quick, or a paraphrase or basic description or commentary suggesting style, subject, something about the poet, whatever is possible for first pass. So an English speaker could listen to the sound file and, without understanding Russian, would have some orientation, as he or she listens to the recording. And vice versa. You could take poems on PennSound and also provide a Russian interface.

CA: You can find all those paratexts that will help contextualize the work.

CB: Yeah, they are all there in one language or the other but the barrier, probably in both ways, certainly for a non-Cyrillic alphabet reader is enormous, to look at the Russian archive. So you can’t figure out what it is, so you want to have an English interface. I am using that word instead of translation. That’s a rudimentary way we can have an exchange. There are obviously things that you can do beyond that, but that would be a start.

The performance of poetry goes back as far as any knowledge we have that we call poetry. But the ability to exchange such performances across space in a way that is not prohibitively expensive (given the small economic scale of poetry) is recent, with the advent of the web and MP3s. The recordings or the ability to record might have existed for a hundred years, but our ability to easily exchange this material is new.

I read Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation of Golynko’s poems in a print book from Ugly Duckling Presse in New York. Maybe at some point I also read some translations on the web. But that still doesn’t include the sound material. And the sound of Golynko reading his poems and the sound is crucial for me, hearing him read in Russian, even though I don’t “know” Russian. But I do know Russian in some intimate way when I hear that sound file! It is the same way in English.

The crucial thing for me about what American poetry is people with different voices and different sounds, and different accents …  The alphabet is very thin. You don’t get those accents and sound textures, you don’t get the different rhythmic pattern. You just cannot get that from the alphabet. So the more we are able to have sound recordings available and accessible through the Internet, the deeper our exchange will be. Because listening to a sound file is infinitely richer than looking at a page in Cyrillic, where you don’t know how it sounds or anything about it! If the poem is in Cyrillic, given my ignorance, there is very little information I can gleam from it.  But if I hear that poem being read –– it can communicate an enormous amount to me. And that’s a huge potential that doesn’t involve translation in the traditional sense.

I am not saying that the translation of the poem is not useful, of course it is, but the sound file may spark that translation and is a prerequisite for it. We could do twin pages with recordings from New York and St. Perersburg made the same week, by poets of the same generation. These poems, posted online at the same time would ideally generate a simultaneous “fast” translation and commentary. Now there is the possibility of auto-generated close captioning. We could probably get a text roll of auto-generated translation to run alongside the sound file. We’d be on a roll and it would rock!

www.cosmonautsavenue.com/charles-bernstein-interview.html

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