Interview with Andrey Gritsman

Elena Mancini


LOGOS – EM: Who were your earliest poetic influences?

AG: Well, certainly in Russian poetry Lermontov and Pushkin. I would say Vladimir Mayakovsky was very important during my early years, mainly because my father liked him a lot and read his poems to me aloud.  To a certain degree Yessenin.  In other words, these two giants in Russian poetry at the beginning of the twentieth century. Not so much  at the time Alexander Blok and symbolists or Acmeists: Mandelstam and Gumulyov, not Akhmatova and Pasternak, mainly because they were really not published or there was not enough published during my teenage years.

Pasternak was very minimally published.  He was a very well known poet, and I heard his name.  But Akhmatova and particularly Mandelstam were not published for many years.  They were really published probably in the early to mid sixties, or even the late sixties. So for my generation the knowledge of Russian poetry of the twentieth century was rather biased.  To a significant degree, we were exposed to the so-called group of “war poets.”  There were some very good poets among them. They were very popular when we were at school, such as David Samoilov, Alexander Mezhirov, Semon Gudszenko.  There was also a famous group of Komsomol poets right before WWII and at the beginning of WWII, an early generation of war poets, such as Mikhail Kulchitsky, Pavel Kogan, all of them from the Moscow Literary Institute, before WWII.  Many of them died in the first phase of the Great Patriotic War.  So, we also knew some poems of those people who were actually very good.  Some of it is very strong poetry.

LOGOS - EM: In this wonderful essay in Long Fall, “The poet in intercultural space,” you talk about intonation as the feature that separates original writing from a product that is born out of “borrowed” air.  Could you elaborate on what you mean by “intonation?”  

AG: I would say that every poet should find or hear the voice of his or her own soul, its original intonation.  There are a lot of great influences and the person who either does not have a significant original voice or is not trying hard, can easily be seduced by infectiously wonderful cadences and voices in poetry surrounding him or her and use this.   Contemporary American poetry is somewhat different because it is mostly in free verse so to a lesser degree one can recognize a specific voice.  Although an American poet could fall into this prosody trap as well. Sometimes I can see that one is using Charles Simic’s method or Mark Strand’s method or C.K. Williams’ approach. Or somebody all of a sudden feels that he is Charles Bukowsky. 

It is more recognizable in Russian poetry due to sound influences, because of more formal, mostly rhymed cadentical poetry. Such influence may be very great.  So the main difficulty and the main task is to free oneself from Pasternak, to be free from Mandelstam or for many female poets to free themselves from Tsvetaeva or Akhmatova. This is kind of the curse. 

LOGOS - EM: Speaking of intercultural space, you were born and grew up in Moscow and immigrated to the United States as an adult with your young family, what is your relationship to the US in terms of your own feelings of national identity? 

AG: I think that it is more complex than it seems to be since I am certainly rooted in Russian culture in terms of language, cultural references and an attachment to many places. Ideologically, as a young developing person, I felt myself, at least in my mind, more at home in the West, and particularly in the U.S. than in the Soviet Union.  I always felt and feel this more so now, that the U.S. is in some ways similar to the Russian Federation because of the sheer vastness, complexity and multicultural nature of the place.  The U.S. certainly much more so than Russia.  Because in Russia there are many nationalities, but still there is one strongly dominating and definitely overwhelming nationality in terms of culture and language.  I also felt Jewish, although my native language was Russian.  It seems to me that European countries are much more confined to their own cultures, to their own histories and destinies and in those countries one would always feel like an outsider no matter how comfortably one can live there. 

LOGOS - EM: Andrey, I really appreciated what you said in that essay about the poet and the importance of historical and political consciousness: “An author should be talking about himself, placed, then, into the broader context of his or her time, not, merely, into the context of life’s petty crimes perpetrated on the individual: divorce, sleeplessness, underappreciation by one’s peers, etc.” (8).  What do you think would need to happen in order to draw American poets and writers out of their insularity and into more of an intercultural space?   

AG: I believe that the poet should really represent only himself or herself.  Not any specific political, social, or ethnic group. And I think that there is an inner core, an inner voice, that should be speaking in its own voice, and not in the voice of some platform or group.  Unfortunately, we know too many historical examples of very gifted poets and authors who associated themselves with some movements and eventually turned out to be in a big internal or external crisis.  We remember Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, really great lyrical poets in their strongest verses. 

With respect to the issue of “intercultural space,” I think that one should concentrate less on literary competitions announced in poets and writers magazines, or on a number of publications, on where the book is published, who said what about whom, and things like this. The craft is certainly very important and one should go through years of exercising the craft and finding his or her own voice. But I think that one of the problems of contemporary American letters and in particular poetry, is what has been called “creeping MFA-ism,” a tremendous number of programs which produce “poets” who know something but who are the products of the MFA system. The higher echelon poets teach in the MFA programs or in various English departments, Slavic departments, Hispanic, Arts departments, particularly in the English departments, etc. By the way, I have a tremendous respect for many of these people. Many of them are editors of wonderful, very strong, very good, smaller and a little bit larger literary magazines. I really admire this and think that these people are the “crusaders” in the darkness of contemporary American pop culture and everyday life. For some reason they find it necessary to put so much effort and time and talent into this and work and produce these magazines, including your own magazine Logos. I really admire this. And many of these people I have found when I sent my submissions to various journals. They do really love poetry, do read it and very deeply understand and this is amazing.  On the other hand, there are a lot of people who treat poetry as just another profession, another field of applying some kind of energy. It could be poetry, it could be studying textiles, or medicine or paralegal and I think that this is a problem. 

LOGOS - EM: What is your relationship to Russia and the Russian literary scene? I know you see yourself as a Russian writer in Diaspora, but do you identify with that scene as well?   

AG: Well, I don’t really live there. I visit quite regularly and give readings and see people and publish my verse and essays.  By virtue of being a Russian writer in Diaspora, I do belong to the Russian language literary scene, not necessarily to the Russian political literary scene.  This way I am to a significant degree an outsider, but on the other hand, to be a Russian poet in Diaspora is also a certain position, or I should say a “classifiable position”.  So, I know what is going on, I know many of the active actors. I am pretty close with some other writers in Russia and perhaps have some usual dislikes with others, but I am certainly not completely insulated from the Russian literary scene.  Now, that magazine that we started publishing, Interpoezia – in Russian and in English – that certainly helps a lot to establish and maintain contacts. It contains some of the most contemporary Russian poets who live both in Russia and outside of Russia, in North America and in Europe, in Siberia. 

LOGOS - EM: Do you feel yourself as part of a community of Russian writers in Diaspora here in New York?  

AG: Yes, I am a Russian writer in Diaspora here on location in New York.  But there is really no strong community or cohesive group here in the New York area.  Most of the talented writers or poets, of which there are several, live mainly in New York and some others scattered around the United States mainly in the universities. But in New York, there is a group.  We all know each other, we come to each other’s readings, sometimes participate in the same magazines or anthologies, but it is really not a school or a movement or a cohesive group at all.  For some time, I really wanted this to happen.  It never really materialized that way, I guess for a variety of reasons.  One of them is perhaps to a certain degree being scattered in contemporary American life. Trying to live your own life. There are certain qualities of alienation in American life.  Everybody lives in his or her own job, family, and so on.  So this perhaps reflects on how Russian creative people live here in America. They live to a greater degree as Americans.

LOGOS - EM: How did you come to titling your latest collection of poems, texts and essays “Long Fall”? It’s a very suggestive and metaphysical metaphor and I’m intrigued by it.  

AG: Your suggestion is absolutely correct.  What I was looking for when I was thinking about a title for this book was to try to put a poem on the cover of the book.  And a poem is a metaphor first of all. And this is certainly a double metaphor. Long Fall related to some movement and to the time of the year and to whatever else one might see behind it.  So because of this dubious ambivalent meaning I think it becomes a poem in two words.  And that is why I liked it and wanted to put it there.  Besides I think that to a certain degree it reflects my inner condition and really my inner landscape.