Mad Russia Hurt Me into Poetry: An Interview with Maria Stepanova

By Cynthia L. HavenJune 15, 2017

Mad Russia Hurt Me into Poetry: An Interview with Maria Stepanova
MARIA STEPANOVA IS AMONG the most visible figures in post-Soviet culture — not only as a major poet, but also as a journalist, a publisher, and a powerful voice for press freedom. She is the founder of Colta, the only independent crowd-funded source of information in Russia. The high-traffic online publication has been called a Russian Huffington Post in format and style, and has also been compared to The New York Review of Books for the scope and depth of its long essays. The Muscovite is the author of a dozen poetry collections and two volumes of essays, and is a recipient of several Russian and international literary awards, including the prestigious Andrei Bely Prize and Joseph Brodsky Fellowship. She was recently a fellow with Vienna’s highly regarded Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen. Her current project is In Memory of Memory, a book-length study in the field of cultural history.

 Stepanova has helped revive the ballad form in Russian poetry, and has also given new life to the skaz technique of telling a story through the scrambled speech of an unreliable narrator, using manic wordplay and what one critic called “a carnival of images.” Stepanova relishes this kind of speech “not just for how it represents a social language but for its sonic texture,” wrote scholar and translator Catherine Ciepiela in an introduction to her poems. “She is a masterful formal poet, who subverts meter and rhyme by working them to absurdity. For her the logic of form trumps all other logics, so much so that she will re-accent or truncate words to fit rigorously observed schemes.” According to another of her translators, Sasha Dugdale, myth and memory play an important part in poems: “She shares with her beloved W. G. Sebald a sense of the haunting of history, the marks it leaves on the fabric of landscape.” 

Maria Stepanova was already an important and innovative poet by the time of Vladimir Putin’s accession, but the times called for a tougher, more public role. Unfortunately, her recognition in the West has lagged behind the high profile she has in Russia. In this interview, she talks about both roles, and the way politics and poetry come together in her work.


CYNTHIA HAVEN: You’re a poet, but also a journalist and the publisher of a major crowd-funded news outlet in Russia, Colta. Yet Joseph Brodsky said, “The only things which poetry and politics have in common are the letters P and O.” Presumably, you disagree.

MARIA STEPANOVA: There is a third word with the same letters: postmemory. Contemporary Russia is a realm of postmemory. I think it is a territory where poetry and politics still can meet each other on equal terms.

Equal? Politics is a much more crude beast, surely. Look at our current elections. Look at elections everywhere.

Well, we know crude and not-so-crude animals coexist in nature — and sometimes even manage to get along.

So talk about this unusual coexistence, Russian-style. 

Russian reality is wildly political, but what is meant by “politics” is also wildly different — and not only because the Russian political world is one of repression. Remember that the ways and means of talking politics or even doing politics have long been different in Russia — not for a decade or two, but for centuries. Political thinking was impossible in the open, so it had to disguise itself. In order to form your views, or even to take direct instructions on what to do, you had to read some novel, or even a poem.

People built their political views on Nikolay Chernyshevsky [author of the programmatic utopian novel What Is To Be Done?] or Dostoyevsky, and thus expected a certain level of political engagement from authors, even from poets. This has a flip side: a reader may treat reality more lightly, as if it were a work of fiction. That’s why it was so easy to revise and rewrite official history — in Stalin’s time or right now, under Putin. You are always looking for an example — for something to imitate — but there is nothing final about it.

This search for an example, for a predecessor, is pervasive. When Russian politicians try to achieve something, they look for validation from the past — to Ivan the Terrible, to Lenin, to Brezhnev, or whatever. The same with Russian poets, who still rely heavily on different traditions. You can choose the one you like. You can look back to Pushkin or Brodsky, but also to, well, T. S. Eliot or Lyn Hejinian. It doesn’t really matter. The important thing is, we behave as if we are ascending the staircase but looking back. One always needs to feel the bannister under one’s hand. That is, we need something solid and from the past, which makes the present feel more real for us.

Do you find that poetry, for you, is a space of freedom, even though it’s affected by your political predicament?

I feel that the poetry is a powerful tool of inner resistance, because what’s important, what really counts, is how much you let the outer forces deform you. Poetry keeps you in shape. More important than outward protests is inner freedom, the ability to stay yourself. That is usually the first thing you lose. You can imitate the motions and doings of free people but be utterly unfree inside. You become an expert in deforming your inner reality, to bring it into accord with what the state wants from you — and this could be done in a number of subtle, unnoticed ways. This kind of damage weighs on us the most.

I like what you said at Stanford, that poetry is, by definition, a form of resistance, because the first thing it resists is death.

Absolutely. After all, it is one of the few known forms of secular immortality — and one of the best: your name may well be forgotten, but a line or two still have a life of their own, as it happened to lines of classic poetry. They come to life anew every time people fill them with their own voice or meaning.

In fact, any activity that involves creating something from nothing — or almost nothing — is a way of taming death, of replacing it with new forms of life. When you are making a pie out of disparate substances — grains of sugar, spoons of loose flour that are suddenly transformed into something alive and breathing — it’s a living miracle. But this is even more evident when it comes to poetry, where the operative space is pure nothing, a limited number of vowels and consonants, which doesn’t need anything to stay alive besides the human mind; poetry doesn’t even need ink and paper, because it can be memorized. We are more lucky than musicians or artists, who need working tools, and budgets, and audience halls — poetry is a lighter substance. You know it was essential in the concentration camps and gulags — if you knew a good amount of verse by heart, they couldn’t take it away from you. Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think that poetry is better equipped to withstand political oppression. If you want to make movies or build opera houses, you have to bargain with the state, to make deals, and inevitably to lose.

And yet you are a publisher and journalist, too. How do you balance the two worlds you inhabit?

Strange as it may seem, it was never a serious matter for me. I never felt that these two levels were connected, or even coexisted. Maybe this also has something to do with what I was referring to — the schizoid way of addressing the present. It’s quite common in Russia: you can be thinking “this” and “that” at the same time, as if two notions were commenting on each other. This is very typical of the Soviet or post-Soviet space, with its sharp cleavage between the official way of behavior and the way you behave at home, between the official history and the hidden familial history, or what we call the “minor history (malaya istoriia).”

And come to think of it, maybe I also divide my official face from my inner life. When I was a teenager, a student, I saw how the people who belonged to the previous generation were traumatized by the crash of the Soviet system of literary education and literary work. The Soviet Writers’ Union had been able to give writers enough to live on after publishing a book or a collection of poems in some literary magazine — for the official writers, of course, not to the authors of samizdat. You could live for three years after publishing a book, but it had to be a bad book, because it was the result of an inner compromise. Nevertheless, lots of people had the feeling that they could stay themselves and still, somehow, occupy some cozy step on the enormous staircase of the official Soviet literary establishment. When the system crashed, people were disappointed and disorientated. By 1992 or 1993, it became evident that the utopia wasn’t working anymore, especially for poets. It became evident that a book of poetry would never have a press run of more than 2,000 copies. It would never bring you money or even fame. I saw people crushed, melted, changed because of that. They had relied on a system that had suddenly vanished into thin air. They were still willing to make compromises, but there was no longer anyone to make a compromise with.

And where did you fit into that architecture? You weren’t tempted to put a foot on that staircase?

I was quite young and opinionated, so my attitude was rather harsh. I didn’t want to have anything in common with them. I refused to rely on poetry to make a living, to attain a position in the world. I would find some other professional occupation and would be as free as I could be in terms of poetry. It was the easiest way for me to stay independent. I split my world into halves.

And that’s how it worked. I started in the mid-1990s as a copywriter in a French advertising agency, and then I switched to TV. Journalism happened rather late in my life. I cannot say it doesn’t affect my poetry, because it does. Of course it does. The things I deal with as a journalist get mixed up with the problems that make me tick as a poet. That space I was hoping to make — you know, the enclosed garden — is not secluded enough. It’s not enclosed now — the doors are wide open, and the beasts of the current moment are free to enter. Because I’m changing, too. You have to open the doorways to let the world in — to make the words come in, in fact. Because if poetry is a means of changing language, and changing the language is a means of changing the world around you, you must make sure that you’re ready to receive new words — words you find foreign or even ugly.

That awareness is evident in your poetry, which features different voices, different registers, and discordant uses of language. Is that how today’s Russia affects your poetry?

I think so, yes — “mad Russia hurt me into poetry.” You could say that the poet — that is, the author as a working entity — always has a kind of narrative mask or an optical system to serve a special purpose in the moment. The need to invent and reinvent the self never stops: you cannot do it just once, and every single thing that happens demands a complete change. The “you” who deals with new phenomena — birth, death, shopping, an idle conversation at the bus stop — is a new entity that hardly recognizes the previous ones. You know that all the cells of the human body are constantly replacing each other, and in seven years not a single cell of your old body is left. All that holds our personalities together is mere willpower — and our selves are as replaceable as brain cells. The human mind is a flowing thing, it is a process, and it happens somehow that the only solid and constant thing we can cling to is the inner zoo of the soul. I mean the persons and stories from the past that have no relationship to our own stories. Antigone or Plato or Brutus, invented or real, are actors in the theater of the mind. They do not change; they are strong enough for us to test them with our projections and interpretations. You could call the destructive element in yourself Medea or Clytemnestra — but it is you who is switching from one identity to another. In a mental theater, a single person plays all the parts.

And that’s how you see the poetic process?

I guess it is a fair description. A play is being performed, or maybe improvised, and there is an actor for every part, and a certain idiosyncratic language for each of them. But it is all centered on some very urgent question that is formulated from the outside, something you’ve been dealing with all your life: you’re born with this question and the need to answer it again and again. W. H. Auden spoke of neurosis as a life-shaping experience that is to be blessed — we’d never become what we are without it. I’m totally sure that certain patterns are shared, extrapolated to the scale of the whole society, so that everyone you know is shaped, at least partly, by the same problem. I guess this could describe what’s going on in a number of post-Soviet states; one can only wonder if a country can undergo some kind of therapy, if it can do collective work on collective trauma. Especially in times that are rather allergic to any collective project.

I definitely share my compatriots’, my generation’s full range of traumas and voids. A few years ago, in 2014, in the midst of the Ukrainian wars, I suddenly wrote a longish poem about Russia. It was titled “Spolia” — you know, the architectural term, the densely metaphoric way of building new things, using some bits and parts of previous constructions in the process. You see it everywhere in Rome or Istanbul — pieces of marble, columns, stelae are used as mere bricks in a new wall. Sometimes an old building is demolished in order to provide elements for the new one. This involuntary coexistence of old and new is a good description of what happens to language in “interesting times.”

And my poem was the result of utter shock: language was changing all around me. Not only was it heavily peppered with hate speech, but it also became utterly hybrid. People were quoting Stalin’s speeches, or brilliantly and unconsciously imitated the style of Pravda’s columns from the 1930s or ’50s, never realizing that they hadn’t invented these words. You have a good example of this now in the United States. When Donald Trump speaks about enemies of the state, he doesn’t know whom he is quoting — or even if he is quoting. I was living in a red-hot climate, and I still needed to find some reasons to continue. I mean, you have to love the place you live in. If it becomes utterly unlovable, you need to leave — or to find some other grounds for love.

In the poem I quoted some of the criticism I was getting from critics regarding my “impersonality.” After my latest book, a number of them claimed that my work was a trick of sorts, empty and unrelatable, because I didn’t have a distinct and constant lyrical voice. I use other people’s voices, so I’m sometimes seen as an imitator, like Woody Allen’s Zelig, never having a full-grown ego, never able to speak in the first person — of myself, of my own needs and fears.

It rather reflects your views about your country, doesn’t it?

Well, that is exactly what I can say about Russia. It doesn’t really know what it is; self-definition is not our strong suit. It’s a huge, beautiful, and misused piece of land, inhabited by more ghosts than mortals, full of histories no one cares to remember, so they just keep repeating themselves — full of larger-than-life possibilities and a complete inability to avoid disaster. That was an image of the country I could identify with; in fact, for a while I ceased seeing any difference between myself and Russia, bizarre as it sounds. The Russian Symbolist poet Alexander Blok had called Russia his wife. I had a feeling that Russia was me — that our stigmas were the same.

I was, in fact, identifying with the country. Not with the awful thing that was happening — the invasion of Donbass, the annexation of Crimea; there is no explanation or excuse for acts of evil, pure and simple, and these are among them. But to oppose the evil you have to learn the language of love. And to love Russia at that moment was a hard job. One had to become Russia, with its wastelands, faded glory, and the horrifying innocence of its everyday life — to speak with its voices and see with its multiple eyes. That’s what I was trying to do: to change my optical system, to dress my hate in a robe of light. You have to be a trickster to do that effectively. Well, my way of writing poetry is distinctive, in that it has to irritate — not only to affect or penetrate, but also to irritate.

I’m still not sure that I’m answering the question, but maybe it’s the question itself that is important. That multilayered, multifaceted thing I’m trying to create aligns with what is going on in the Russian mind, in the Russian world. There is something very distinctive in the presence of the country, in the way it tends to describe itself, or to be described.

Of course, we’ve just given a Nobel Prize to a woman who tried to do much of what you’re speaking about in prose, in journalism.

You’re right, but Svetlana Alexievich writes nonfiction, or documentary fiction, and that’s another story. She is giving voice to real people; there are some true stories behind the books, a number of interviews, the feeling that you are dealing with documented reality. I am speaking with imaginary voices; they are real, but they don’t belong to me. (One Russian poet from the 18th century, Vasily Trediakovsky, used to say that poetic truth doesn’t inhere in what really happened, but in what could and must have happened.) I’m appropriating, or annexing, other people’s lives and voices, as if I were editing an anthology of unused opportunities. Sometimes it means I have to embrace the language of state officials, or criminals, or propaganda. The goal of the poetic, as well as of the political, is to make things visible, to force them into the light, even if they would prefer to stay in the darkness.

By the way, Marina Tsvetaeva also used those jumbled voices, those different registers. You feel a certain affinity with her, yes?

My parents conscientiously taught me reading at a very young age — around two-and-a-half, I guess. When I was six, I was reading everything I could lay my hands on, from Pushkin to The Three Musketeers, and lots of suspense novels, too. Then, on New Year’s Eve, someone gave my mother a two-volume edition of Marina Tsvetaeva. That was a rarity in Soviet times. It was an unbelievable gift, a kind of miracle — you couldn’t just go into the bookshop and buy Tsvetaeva or Mandelstam, you had to be a Party member to get it, or spend a fortune on the black market. I knew nothing about Tsvetaeva at the time. I was only seven. My mom read me lots of poetry, but this was something different. I opened the second volume, which had her prose. It was unlike anything I had read before.

I still have a special affinity with Tsvetaeva. Not in terms of working with the language, because my ways of treating it are different, but in terms of how I see reality. Tsvetaeva lived under ethical standards, a moral pressure that was a constant presence in her life — some moral entity or deity that shaped her life, literally telling her what to do. Sometimes she surrendered to it, sometimes she resisted wildly.

Nevertheless, she placed all her literary work in some kind of moral coordinate system. I find her example compelling. Because the question that’s essential for me is not the question of “how” or “what,” but rather of “who.” In the case of Tsvetaeva, we get that “who” in its fullest range, larger than life. You still can feel her presence — and that’s what counts.

Maria Stepanova speaks at the Stanford Humanities Center, Stanford University, on April 6, 2016.

Listen to an interview with the poet on Entitled Opinions with Robert Harrison.


Photo by Cynthia Haven.


Cynthia Haven is the author of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, forthcoming next spring. Her previous books include: Joseph Brodsky: Conversations (2003), Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven (2005), Czesław Miłosz: Conversations (2006), and An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz (2011).

LARB Contributor

Cynthia L. Haven has written for The Times Literary Supplement, The Nation, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and World Literature Today. Her work has also appeared in Le Monde, La Repubblica, Die Welt, Zvezda, Colta, Zeszyty Literackie, The Kenyon Review, Quarterly Conversation, The Georgia Review, and Civilization. She has been a Milena Jesenská Journalism Fellow with the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, as well as a visiting writer and scholar at Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures, and a Voegelin Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Peter Dale in Conversation with Cynthia Haven was published in London, 2005. Her Czesław Miłosz: Conversations was published in 2006, Joseph Brodsky: Conversations in 2003. An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz was published in 2011 with Ohio University Press/Swallow Press. Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, will be published by Michigan State University Press in early 2018.


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