Andrey Gritsman: A Poet in Intercultural Space

Elena Mancini



y first encounter with the poetry of Andrey Gritsman occurred on a cheerless winter night in 2004. Gritsman was giving a poetry reading at the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York City. The RCI had invited him to promote the Romanian translation of one of his recent poetry collections, In Transit (2004). The evening began with a warm reception in his honor—tables richly bedecked with vegetarian and meat-based hors d’oeuvres, spirits and several varieties of Romanian wines.  Gritsman approached the podium flanked by two of the finest voices producing poetry in Romanian and English today: Nina Cassian and Carmen Firan.

Gritsman, a charming, silver-haired man of hearty build, greeted the audience with a wry joke and began, in a hypnotic rhythm, reading a poem dedicated to Nina Cassian.  In just a few cadenced strokes, Gritsman’s poem evoked more than just an atmosphere of living, breathing ironies drawn from the habits and places that color everyday life: it transmitted a feeling, an intimate vantage point into the paradoxical nature of intercultural existence.  From Cassian’s 5pm whisky ritual to the surrealistic experience of geographic and spiritual distances, Gritsman brought together the comforts of mundane existence and the alienation of the DP, the displaced person.

These first impressions I had of Gritsman were, I was later to discover, the driving force behind his poetry. Most of Gritsman’s compositions are inspired and informed by the virtue of being in between cultures—of not only inhabiting, but also cultivating what he refers to “an intercultural space.” This intercultural space for Gritsman constitutes more than just an intimate connection with his native Moscow and the US, that place that in his youth fueled the landscape of his imagination and would later become his adopted home and the home of his children. Its scope extends beyond mere recognition of the unique and multifarious cultural, linguistic and identity fusions, fragmentations and compromises that grow out of the intersection of two or more cultures. A poet occupying the intercultural sphere feels an immediate connection, a spiritual kinship of sorts, with all of those who have felt at odd ease in their geographic and national surroundings—those who Gritsman refers to as “displaced persons.” For Gritsman that which connects displaced persons—these individuals who speak in an intercultural voice— is neither delimited by time nor geographic boundaries. This displacedness and intercultural awareness are the qualities which both unite and distinguish poets of foreign origin like Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Nabakov, Zbignew Herbert, Derek Wolkott, Czeslaw Milosz and Nina Cassian.

Poetry produced among diaspora in intercultural space is according to Gritsman, “poetry in solitude.” This can be attributed to the relationship the artist in intercultural space has with the literary language process: he or she tends to be alone with it.  “The surrounding market and landscape are indifferent to the radiation of creative energy. This is the space where different physical and lyrical laws are enforced. And that is good; it is good to be alone. It is also good to be with others who are alone as well, nurturing something precious, placed somewhere in the middle of the chest. Such an artist has tempting opportunity to be a voyeur. There is something mysteriously wonderful of not only watching but also experiencing the surround through this alien prism.” This view is consistent with how he identifies himself as a poet in intercultural space. He is adamantly opposed to being seen as a Russian poet. He finds this qualification both restrictive and misleading. Gritsman prefers to describe himself as an “American poet with an accent.”

One need not search long in Gritsman’s Long Fall (his latest poetry collection in English) to discover that this bilingual soul can credibly maneuver within the English language and the tropes of American life with the aplomb that is characteristic of one who is observing the culture from the inside. But oftentimes, and perhaps it is also so with Gritsman, it is precisely the experience of having been an outsider that makes one acutely sensitive to what distinguishes the insider. However this tension may or may not have resolved itself in Gritsman, one thing is for certain: he is remarkably able at articulating the archeology of suburban New Jersey with not only authentic immediacy but with both affection and uncompromising irony. Thus metaphors like “the greasy homey warmth of the diner by Route 547 local” occur as naturally in Gritsman’s poetry as do the “Presbyterian bluish eyes,” “the air conditioners set on low cool” when he satirizes “the regulated certified environments.”

Gritsman is also a talented essayist. In his essay “The Poet in Intercultural Space” in Long Fall he candidly expounds on the role of the poet and poetry in contemporary society. Here Gritsman expresses a genuine distaste for the ways in which institutionalization pervades the very fiber of relationships, everyday life and poetry. Poetry that subordinates itself to current cultural trends, political platforms or market demands is completely out of sync with the poetic impulse and the union between word and life. Poetry must have a vital impulse. What must come through in a poem for Gritsman is a vital impulse accompanied by what he terms, the poet’s “intonation.” “Intonation is the poet’s internal tone” and what Gritsman sees as the “most important feature that comes with talent; everything else is earned.”  Yet, that which the “literary industrial complex” seems to reward and recognize is precisely the type of poetry that comes out of distinguished MFA-granting institutions.   

It is also compelling to consider the way in which Gritsman conceives of the poet and his role in society. Gritsman does not subscribe to the hermetic brand of poetry that is common at present.  What a poem should convey is an intonation that expresses the way in which a poet registers a moment in time, it should not solely engage in self-analysis. “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.” While believing that poetry is an autonomous enterprise, not beholden to politics or history, he also believes in its capacity to strike notes that apply to the historical and universal qualities of the human condition. If the urgency to change course in Gritsman was doubted it becomes abundantly clear in his invocation of the late Czeslaw Milosz: “hermetic literary culture” is like “a cage in which one spends all of one time chasing one’s own tail.” And for someone who is passionate about exercising his poetic intonation and cultivating intercultural space, chasing his own tail is without a doubt something which Gritsman has neither the time nor inclination to do.



Andrey Gritsman is a native of Moscow, Russia, and immigrated to the US in 1981. Gritsman has authored four volumes of poetry in Russian: No Man’s Land (Petropol, S.-Petersburg), Double (Hermitage, New York), Transfer (Arion, Moscow) and The Island in the Woods from the Pushkin Foundation Publishing House in S.-Petersburg. His poetry collection Transfer was nominated for the prestigious Russian literary award MOSCOW COUNT in 2003. He has written a bilingual book in English and in Russian View from the Bridge (Poems and Essays), which was published by WORD in New York in 1999. His new collection of poems and essays in English Long Fall has just been published by Spuyten Duyvil Press in New York.  His poetry collection In Transit in English with Romanian translations was published in 2004 in Bucharest, Romania.

Gritsman’s poems and essays in have appeared or are shortly forthcoming in Richmond Review (London, UK), Ars Interpres (Stockholm-New York), Poetry International, Manhattan Review, Poet Lore, Eclipse, Hawaii Review, New Orleans Review, South Carolina Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Bayou, Confrontation, New Press, Poetry New York, Berkshire Review and others and were anthologized in Modern Poetry in Translation (UK), in Crossing Centuries (New Generation in Russian Poetry) and in The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place, CavanKerry Press.

Gritsman was nominated for the 2005 Pushcart Prize and for the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry at the PEN/American Center. He runs the Intercultural Poetry Series at the literary club Cornelia Street Café in New York City and is the Editor and Publisher of the on-line international poetry magazine INTERPOEZIA