Dmitry Kuzmin: the well-known publisher, editor of anthologies, and engineer of literary life is also well known, though less distinguished, as a poet, critic, and translator. I want to write about him because I think he is one of the most important and interesting figures in contemporary Russian culture, and because over the course of a decade I have observed his work—both from the outside and from within, as his colleague.
We were introduced by the poet Danila Davydov at the beginning of 1998. Davydov and I were studying at the Gorky Literary Institute; Davydov had been working for a while on one of Kuzmin’s many projects, the paper Moscow Literary Life, which on a monthly basis published firsthand reports about practically every literary event in Moscow. After reading one of my essays in Russian Journal, Kuzmin invited Davydov and me to a reading at Avtornik, on Maly Kiselny Alley. Afterward the three of us left “to drink kefir,” as Kuzmin put it, at a bar above the arch that leads to the Kuznetsky Bridge metro. Kuzmin actually did drink kefir, which he then had to share with Danila and me, since we didn’t have any money. Over kefir Kuzmin explained to me his vision of the paper and his work in general.
So I began to go to literary readings (mostly poetry) and write them up. I adopted the thinking of the paper pretty quickly; in truth I was close to it already. The idea was to evaluate poets not according to one’s vague and subjective emotions, but to the context from which they’d emerged; to insist on the author’s right to innovate; and to criticize everything traditional and passé. Innovation was the key. If Kuzmin saw even the slightest inkling of it in a poet, he drew him in, either by publishing him in his annual literary anthology, Vavilon, or by encouraging him in some other way—basically, one way or another, he kept an eye on him. He proceeded according to what he called a general “ecological” approach—the creation of a large metaspace (an ecology of poetry), which was to include the most varied but at the same time interdependent poetics, consisting of all the authors working in some new vein, regardless of the scale or even quality of that work. The idea was that over time, with the success of liberal reforms and the general emancipation of the population, this poetic space would become a major cultural phenomenon and play an important and positive role in Russian culture. In the meantime, Kuzmin would reinvent the Russian poetic sphere. He published papers, magazines, and dozens of small books; he hosted events, engaged in polemics, organized conferences. Not long after we started working together, he made one of his savviest moves: he decided to make the Vavilon poetry anthology a web-based publication, dramatically expanding its reach, its frequency of publication, and its archival potential. In this, as in so much else, he was so far ahead of the rest of the literary field as to be playing some different game entirely.
And so I went to readings and wrote my reports. I can’t say that Kuzmin and I became friends—we had strictly professional, or rather collegial, relations. I shared his central preoccupations and believed that we were doing something important and progressive. When I began to write my own poems, Kuzmin took to them with great interest—sincerely, as far as I can tell—and really saw something in me, I think, with all his heart. He began to publish and promote me. I in turn followed him with great interest and, in general, sympathy, as a man, a poet, and an activist. Kuzmin was, quite clearly, a very powerful irritant to the average Russian cultural (un)consciousness. He possessed and possesses qualities that in discrete doses are more or less tolerable, but at his level of concentration produce a phenomenal effect.
What are these qualities? He is, in no particular order, a homosexual; a Jew; a libertine; he doesn’t drink or smoke, has an exceptional work ethic, and a personal poetics. It’s his work ethic that has allowed him to achieve so much. Prize juries, magazine editors, and festival coordinators all want to deal with a more or less finished product. They therefore inevitably gravitate toward familiar names and recommendations. To find a new and controversial author in the slush pile and take responsibility for his publication: this is incredibly difficult. And there’s no question that all editors in all times and places simply throw away a large portion of submitted manuscripts without so much as a glance. Isn’t this the true explanation for the conservatism of Russian literature, and of literature in general? Kuzmin, by dint of his extreme curiosity and interest in others’ work, is able to dig through huge masses of texts in order to find the occasional diamond. As a result he simply out-competes the editors of the print literary journals with their conformism and delayed reactions. Kuzmin is also an indispensable figure in the organization and hosting of literary events, festivals, and the like. He does this work with real flair. He loves the visibility, to be sure; but it’s also the case that a literary conference is as important and pleasurable to him as digging through the submissions of young unknowns. This is important not only on a personal, but also on a general cultural level. He once explained it like this: People come to him with some idea for an event, out of which they want some kind of gain, but at which they do not particularly want to work. Kuzmin happily accepts, does the work of selection and organization, and while his “customers” get the short-term benefit, whether it’s money or prestige or whatever, in the long term it’s Kuzmin who wins. He and his project. This is great; and it’s also entirely fair. He is disrupting, in a way, the entire literary (and social) system whereby the higher you climb, the further you get from the dirty work, and the more you profit at the expense of others. Kuzmin in that respect is a rare type.
Starting out in the early ’90s, Kuzmin understood right away that you had to be independent, to build your own organization from the ground up. That was a very important thing to realize back then. But of course there was a catch. In order to attract attention to your unknown organization and its obscure writers, you had to get well-known writers and organizations involved. You needed to create an autonomous institution, yes, but make it so that eventually other, more established institutions were (in a good sense) dependent on it. Kuzmin did all this with his usual scruples and taste; he never lined up the usual suspects. He printed previously unprintable classics from the late Soviet underground (Sapgir, Aizenberg, and others had their first “official” appearance in Vavilon), and published these alongside younger poets just starting out. Thus his project eventually broadened, and new poets emerged. He published a multitude of authors no one else would have taken on. He truly, sincerely believed in all of them as writers, never publishing anyone, for example, out of charity or friendship. (This was, by the way, one of the nastier aspects of the Soviet system, the fact that editors so often published their friends. This is pure feudalism. Of course it goes on everywhere and always, but in Soviet times it passed all bounds and infected everything.) Faced with various temptations, Kuzmin stuck to his principles; these were, ultimately, the true calling card of his entire project.
Its other aspects were provocation and systemization. Kuzmin excelled at giving names to poetics and movements, slotting them into categories, finding antecedents for them in Russian literary history. This may sound boring or academic, but in fact it is immensely useful; it gave young poets an immediate pedigree and helped readers and critics orient themselves in the new literary space. At the same time, Kuzmin was oppositional. What did he oppose? It would have been disingenuous for him to oppose the post-Soviet regime that made his project possible (and, as we’ll see, he would not have wanted to in any case), and so Kuzmin’s chosen target of scorn was the “Soviet.” Official Soviet culture was anathema to Kuzmin, and he frequently associated himself with the Soviet underground, assuming for himself a deep split and rupture with those (disappearing) authorities. There was always something fraught about Kuzmin’s conflict with the Soviet; Kuzmin himself was in many ways a product of the Soviet intelligentsia—his grandmother, for example, was the Soviet translator of such beloved classics as The Little Prince and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s not clear that had Kuzmin been born twenty years earlier, he would have found himself in the underground; it’s possible he would have been the editor of some more or less progressive journal. And he would have used his power to fight for interesting, worthy authors. (Now that I’ve written this, I start to doubt it. In any case, had Kuzmin been a member of that culture, the culture would have had to be different. Otherwise he would have been thrown out of it. Or maybe not? I don’t know.) Either way, Kuzmin’s systematizing and provoking and anti-Soviet tendencies sometimes found themselves in direct conflict. He has argued, for example, that the popular notion of a chaotic or even anarchic underground is false, that in fact anti-Soviet literature was an ordered system just like any other. But this is a quixotic point to make. To be sure there were networks and nodes in Soviet underground culture, and figures around whom much revolved, but the only place where it is anything like a real system is in the imagination of Western Slavists and in Kuzmin’s head. Also, in the archives of the KGB.
The most important thing about a poem for Kuzmin is whether it’s new. He tends to assume that everyone knows what is meant by this, but in fact no one does. What makes a poem new? How can you tell? There are its formal qualities, to be sure, but the number of formal qualities a poem can have is limited; whereas the potential for innovation must be unlimited. So there are other qualities, too, that can make a poem new.
In my experience, the mark of novelty is less formal than social—that is to say, it is an intersection of what is on the page with what is off it.
When I read a poet who is truly new, I find myself seeing not only the words on the page but, behind the page as it were, a new group of people. This is the poet’s imagined audience, to some extent; every poet has one; the new poet is one who in the process of imagining this audience also brings it into being. These aren’t just his friends or people who could be his friends; they are people who could be his readers, who could relate to what he’s put down and the way he’s put it down. They won’t all necessarily come into contact with his poetry; in fact most of them won’t. But in a truly new poet these people suddenly come into view.
To take one example, there is a poet named Stanislav Lvovsky, whom I have long loved and whom Kuzmin also loves, often citing him, for various reasons, as an exemplary Vavilon poet. In his poetry Lvovsky describes the social, cultural, and emotional lives of a particular social stratum—the young Moscow Russian-Jewish intelligentsia, aged about 25 to 40, which finds itself working in various quasi-cultural spheres—advertising, design, journalism, TV, and so on. Lvovsky began to ply this terrain in the mid-1990s, just as this particular stratum was first coming into being in our country. He did not, in other words, start writing his poems in response to a demand that already existed, but rather formed alongside this group and its demand for self-expression. He wrote about the problems of money, and freedom, and up-to-the-minute technology, problems that his (and my) parents’ generation could only really dream about. Here he is, for example, on what it’s like to be the first generation of Russians in nearly a century that is able to travel widely, freely—and lose touch with one another:
I’m sitting in the Cafe-Zen near the Belarus train station;
it’s got see-through windows
opening on the square
near the trains for Kursk and Orel.
(I went to Kursk with
my first wife.
We knew a priest there.
I especially remember one winter.
The sea wouldn’t freeze near the nuclear reactor.
There was frost on the sand
and a dormitory
by Polish prisoners.)
It’s our war with ourselves
that’s brought us here.
Look at the traffic.
This is the only place in Moscow
with such traffic.
Where you literally cannot breathe.
Where the diesel spills
into rivers that float down toward a sea
that isn’t there.
Where the fires also float
in the heavy current,
and this is the storm.
The train for Berlin leaves from here.
Samarina lived in Berlin.
You should remember her.
(I don’t know what to do
about this habit of writing
about the living,
although to be perfectly honest
I’ve long since ceased thinking it was a problem
because of course
I write about them
as they live inside me,
rather than as they really are.)
Then she turned up somewhere in New Haven.
they’re straight out of the Bible.
We lost touch,
We were returning once from Kursk,
smoking in between train cars
(it was extremely cold for some reason
I told her I
I said: If I could,
I would say
that I love you.
In fact I did love her.
And now I can say it
to whomever I like,
but it’s not clear
whom to say it to.
I always write
about the same thing
about how the sky
above us is somehow new
and the land beneath us
was born yesterday.
And it seems like
is not just mine,
in the Cafe-Zen,
with a burnt-out cigarette
that I’m still trying to smoke,
even though it’s gone out.
But if this is what we were promised,
once, long ago?
I’m telling you—if this is
of the promise,
well then I would like
to free everyone from
these particular words,
and from all the other
finish this cigarette,
for the check.
Lvovsky is a good poet. But how do I know he’s an original poet, a new poet? It’s because I know that I can gather a group of people together in a room in Moscow right now, and this group will either know and like Lvovsky’s poetry already, or they will like it as soon as they hear it. And what’s more, their affection for Lvovsky’s poetry will be the only thing they have in common. There is a sense in which this group did not exist previously; now it exists; and Lvovsky may be said to have created it. A decade ago it would have been hard to see the outlines of this group, or say with certainty that it was there. Now there’s no question. And in fact to some extent Lvovsky is no longer as interesting a poet as he was, because the group he describes, and speaks for, and once brought into being, is now a fairly familiar group. The point is, when Lvovsky was first writing those poems, it wasn’t. At that time, Lvovsky managed to organize the nascent group of Moscow yuppies along different lines, in some kind of different way, from the strictly professional or social or geographic way in which they were otherwise organized. And at that time therefore as a poet, he was new, and his poetry was, objectively, original.
I apologize to anyone who finds this approach to poetry too strictly sociological, not to say crude. And yet you cannot understand the significance of Kuzmin—and the failure of Kuzmin—if you do not also appreciate the extent to which poetry always comes from among a certain group of people; and addresses certain other groups of people; and eventually organizes and inspires the activities of those people, or fails to.
Kuzmin’s poems need to be discussed separately.
When he was young, and apparently up until the mid-’90s, Kuzmin wrote traditional poems: that is to say they rhymed. As far as I know, these poems weren’t well received. At least I never saw them published anywhere. I don’t know how Kuzmin feels about this—he may well feel it’s for the best. In any case, he eventually started to write a kind of realistic free verse, in the spirit, as he said, of “the objective school.” These were well-constructed texts, sometimes merely elegant and nice, at other times more provocative. They could shock, and sometimes do shock, the average reader. Nevertheless, Kuzmin published them sparingly, following one of his firm principles—never to use Vavilon to promote his own work.
In my opinion, Kuzmin was a good poet. He has described himself as a second-rate poet, and, what’s more, has listed the characteristics of second-rate poetry and pointed out how they fit his own work. For some, it may seem old-fashioned for a poet to speak of himself in this way. In my opinion, Kuzmin did right. Moreover, he was right. He was a good poet even if he was not the best poet. He mastered a poetics that is unique for our country even if it’s not a discovery on a global scale.
The subject of his poems is the relatively stable and happy life of a gay man in a disturbing, violent, and oftentimes hypocritical society. Kuzmin emphasizes the normality of gay domestic life, even as he insists on his right to extend this domesticity to other men besides his partner. It’s a difficult position, and a very difficult experience, given the prevailing hypocrisy and lies about this in our country, particularly among closeted gays. Such a stance turns out to be much more radical than that of someone like Yaroslav Mogutin, who “shocked” Moscow society a few years ago with his advocacy of a carnivalesque Nietzschean gay promiscuity. The profligate, the libertine, even if he’s gay, is fully acceptable—he does not call society’s moral foundations into question. The idea of nontraditional relationships and the simultaneous acceptance of traditional family values, especially if the person openly follows his principles in life, is much more serious, because it attacks the comfortable Russian status quo—on the one hand, “sinning shamelessly and unceasingly,” and on the other a tireless sanctimony.
In a sign of protest, Kuzmin dramatizes this topic in his public life as well as in his poems: openly embracing boyfriends and walking with them arm-in-arm down the street, taking them to readings, et cetera. He is also an activist for gay culture, for example in his launch of the gay literary magazine Risk.
I track two basic experiences in Kuzmin that inform his poems. First, his romantic and sexual life. Second, his interactions with “the people.” What does “the people” refer to? For Kuzmin, who is a dyed-in-the-wool intellectual, “the people” is always a different world—sometimes touching, sometimes nightmarish, but always chaotic and impenetrable. Given Kuzmin’s drive toward systemization, however, “the people” is first and foremost the bearer of chaos. And any confrontation with them affects the author so much that it is, as far as one can tell, his most powerful creative stimulant and source of subject matter. The girl begging for cookies in Minsk, the boy writing funny words in his diary on the metro . . .
A tall boy
in a black shirt
was being pelted by the rain
(to get out of it
he hopped on this bus).
The little pimples on his sunburnt arms
make the little hairs on them
If you were to run your hand
through his hair, that’s been cut too short,
he’d hit you in the face.
I stand next to him in silence.
He hops off.
And through the window I see him walking
Kuzmin’s subject—“the people”—and his romantic themes are of course related. The boys he often writes about in his poems are the thread that binds Kuzmin to and in some ways reconciles him with “the people.” They are, on the one hand, the flesh of his flesh; and, on the other, entirely foreign, threatening, strange. However, there is an important detail: if, according to gay mythology, their depravity, vitality, and criminality usually give boys from this social stratum a special charm (recall Genet and Pasolini), then Kuzmin, I think, finds the opposite—that homosexuality is a kind of element in the culture, the cosmos, a harmonious element in the chaotic plebeian consciousness. Therefore, unquestionably, Kuzmin subconsciously associates promoting tolerance for gays with the taming of the Russian chaos. That is, he considers it a missionary’s task. It’s no revelation to say that Kuzmin, in his own view, is a missionary, a cultural colonizer, which goes along with . . .
But more on that later.
It’s worth saying a little more about his technique. Kuzmin’s best poems are aimed toward the most valuable and most elusive feature of “objectivist” free verse: transparency—as though there were no text at all, but instead, reality itself shining through the text, as through a pane of glass. In his poems there are almost no standard features of Russian verse: no acceleration, bursts of irrational language, or charged material launching the poet into the future. Kuzmin doesn’t need this kind of propulsion; his task is to capture the instant, to find the exact words for its sense, to remain in the present.
My first lover
is sitting across from me in the metro.
He doesn’t see me.
Or doesn’t recognize me.
No, no, he doesn’t see me—
How many years have passed?
In the opening of his T-shirt
the hairs on his chest.
Sometimes Kuzmin misfires; he is too direct, or he is too demotic. At these points his very serious struggle becomes visible. What is the field of this struggle? On the one hand, it is the depiction of homosexuality as one of the many human possible overtones, one of many threads connecting people and events, and therefore something that can be isolated and regarded as a specifically cultural phenomenon. On the other hand, it is the depiction of homosexuality as an association, whether random or deliberate, that eventually becomes a necessary emotional attachment to a concrete minority, an identification that especially in a hostile environment can’t help but come before anything else. Antiquated linguistic turns and a sometimes overt literariness weigh down Kuzmin’s writing, tug it into the past and expose the “traditionalist,” the bookish boy underneath; at the same time the impulse to accelerate, to move forward, pulls him away from the “objectivity” he seeks. The author does everything to balance the past and the future, and finds himself as a result on a kind of lonely border. I really like his poems. They seem harmless enough, but you can see a very serious struggle taking place inside them.
Some people think Kuzmin is a kind of snob, someone who enjoys clever verbiage for its own sake and deliberately publishes texts that the average reader cannot understand. But that’s just not true. Now, Kuzmin will sometimes say something so very, very clever, but at the same time so unbelievably stupid—or recite some sententious nonsense—that you want to tell him “Dima, you’re an idiot,” as, I recall, one woman at a reading did indeed once tell him. But overall, although he can be too smart for his own good, his emotions and his intellect complement each other. He has a healthy disdain for philosophical or poetic abstraction, and has mostly avoided the baffling and often self-parodying sophistry of modern French philosophy. He holds these things at a distance because in the end he is an educator and colonizer, and needs to speak in a language comprehensible to people. Not in a simplified language, but in an accessible one. The point isn’t that he doesn’t occasionally use words or intonations that might irritate or annoy a person with an anti-intellectual bent, because he does; the point is that what he actually produces are still comprehensible words and sentiments.
Kuzmin has many critics. They are both individual critics and representatives of other institutions. His main competitor within the poetic field is the influential, “establishment” poetry magazine Arion. Who are these people? Professionally, the editors are college professors (one teaches Shakespeare), with a sideline in literary criticism; ideologically, they are political liberals with a strongly conservative aesthetic bias. Underlying all their beliefs is the concept of “normal” poetry. This poetry can be good or bad, entirely talentless or full of genius: what’s important is that it’s created by people with a normal idea of what poetry is. Normal, to Arion’seditors, corresponds approximately to the early 20th century—that is, Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, Khodasevich. All further developments, beginning with the Futurists in poetry, Duchamp in the visual arts, and so on, are incomprehensible to the editors. Even when Arion tries to be objective and give things their due (and this is rare enough), the extent to which the situation is hopeless and will never change is clear; in fact it’s clearest then. All that interests them is their sort of poetry, whether from the Soviet era or today. Almost everything else is lumped in with “the avant-garde.” To them, avant-garde poetry is created by people who are either psychologically imbalanced or, more likely, frauds. There will always be people who publish this stuff and convince others that it’s the latest thing. Sometimes the influence of this type of people is so great, alas, that the voice of truth is drowned out. In our time, Dmitry Kuzmin is such a type. Not an altogether untalented person, by the way; he could write literary criticism and pretty normal poetry, if he wanted to. And so on.
We should give the Arion editors their due—they sense the threat embodied by Kuzmin. In fact they consider it their task continuously to expose him and his project, devoting an article to Vavilon in almost every issue. But in the end, for all their relentless polemicizing, the editors are also profoundly complacent, convinced that time is on their side: “Everything will fall into place eventually, and the young Akhmatovas, Mandelshtams, and Khodaseviches our journal promotes will assume their rightful positions in the history of poetry, having pushed aside the contemporary charlatans who make more noise.”
But even if you put the question this way (which you can’t—that’s the fatal flaw of the Arion people, they still think it’s 1913), then, alas, 90 percent of the contemporary “Akhmatovas,” “Mandelshtams,” and “Khodaseviches” would come out of Vavilon. That is, the playing field is totally uneven, in fact the Arion editors don’t even seem to know where the game is being held. There are no Acmeists anymore, there are no Futurists. The ignorance of the Arion editors, it should be said, is closely related to a total lack of understanding of the structure of modern society. Arion has managed to inherit the worst characteristics of the old Soviet bureaucracy—its reluctance to modernize on the one hand, and its desire to completely dominate the cultural field on the other. As a result, Arion has failed in recent years to find or adopt a single original position, and in the near future it will likely degrade into total worthlessness. In truth, I wouldn’t have bothered to devote so much space to Arion if his confrontation with them hadn’t taken up so much space in Dmitry’s life.
Another system in competition with Kuzmin’s is that of the web poets, who are typically united by one or another online institution, with its own hierarchy, authorities, and ideologues. By “web poets” I don’t just mean anyone who publishes poems online (Vavilon, after all, is itself in large part a web project), but rather a particular type—someone whose entire métier is the web, who uses it to host his poems, arguments, declarations, et cetera. Your average web poet is very conservative. He omits practically the entire Bronze era (except maybe Brodsky), while the later movements—conceptualism and the like—provoke outright malice. There is a Gold and a Silver era (that is, the early 19th and early 20th centuries, respectively), and, with them, Soviet poetry in its “better” manifestations. The situation resembles Arion a bit, though the cheerful amateur graphomania at, say, www.poems.ru is on the whole more attractive than the professional tedium produced by the tenured liberals. The one well-known writer who concentrates within his person all the ideas of the web poets, and who, as a result, apparently has the greatest authority among them, is Dmitry Bykov. A traditionalist, historian of both Russian literature and Soviet culture (author of biographies of Maxim Gorky and Pasternak and Okudzhava), tireless polemicist (sometimes for Putin and the state, other times against), humorist, and film reviewer, Bykov as a poet is fleet of foot, playful, and utterly, unabashedly sentimental. He may be the only contemporary poet who is willing to sound just like Brodsky, which at this point is a form of pastiche:
I remember a large movie theater
Where they brought us together,
All pale and tired.
Oh, how often, later in life,
I would come to such “screenings”
To relate their contents and ideological underpinnings!
The professor appeared like a stain
At the front, and in a matter-of-fact intonation,
Introduced the day’s program
The way they’d introduce Amarcord
Or The Phantom of Liberty,
At the Museum of Cinema
During the Brezhnev Stagnation.
Bykov is a poet who as it were validates the entire web poetry project with his existence, and gives it hope: so it turns out it is possible to be a post-Soviet reactionary and an excellent contemporary poet and writer! Bykov really is a striking figure, but it is precisely his uniqueness that proves this to be a dead end. What was good for him (Soviet prose and verse) may well be poison for others.
Since web poetry is a kind of concentrated portrait of the Russian unconscious, a collection of its most painful neuroses, it sometimes manifests itself as an inert, conservative, and very aggressive mass. Naturally, the characteristic philistine hatred toward Kuzmin finds full expression here. Kuzmin is accused of just about everything, including being a Jew, a fag, and also selling out for Western grants. It should be said that there exists an idea in Russia that our young poets write free verse exclusively so they can be studied by Western Slavists and invited by them to Western institutions. Meanwhile, as far as I know, Kuzmin has received exactly one grant in his entire life—for writing a pamphlet about gay life in Russia. Really, the irony is that NO ONE can boast of having created a project of this scope (in addition to everything else, Kuzmin has by this point probably overseen the publication of several hundred books) totally independently, with his own money, or, more accurately, that of his lover, who earned it as a computer programmer and web administrator—for which many people, including myself, are profoundly grateful to him.
There does exist one much more attractive position, within the poetic field, that is distinct from Kuzmin’s. It is represented by people who are on the whole sympathetic to Kuzmin’s project, though they happen to diverge from him on some things. This is the poetry series OGI, which has existed for a few years now and which was supported by, among others, Mikhail Aizenberg and Nikolai Okhotin. These are very erudite people with a strong intuitive feel for poetry. The books chosen for OGI prove their intelligence and showcase their ideas about what mainstream contemporary poetry ought to be. This mainstream can be pretty diverse, but it has its limits—simply because the range of any individual person’s sense or tastes is not infinite, even if we’re talking about a very erudite, very sensitive person. Whereas Kuzmin is doing something different; he is, in a sense, not expressing his personal preferences at all in his project, or only enough so that the project can exist: the total ecological approach is in part a rejection of individual taste.
To sum up: any attempt to pit another system of thought from within the poetic field against Kuzmin’s radical inclusiveness is ill-conceived. With the exception of out-and-out mass culture, every rival system is already to some extent included in the Kuzmin paradigm. No less important is the fact that every single one of Kuzmin’s rivals holds to a halfhearted, compromised—in short, historically doomed—worldview. Kuzmin offers a wholehearted project that combines aesthetic, ideological, political, and ethical principles. Principles, their irrefutable presence—that is, as I’ve said, Dmitry Kuzmin’s most important quality. He and I quarreled once over one of my poems. He was preparing to publish the poem on his site, but there were two things about it he didn’t like: first, the word cocksucker; second, the use of unreliable, essentially false information about Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. We settled on a compromise: Kuzmin let me have my cocksucker and added an editor’s footnote about Lukashenko. Of course, you could argue that if you’re going to accept an author, then you should give him the opportunity to say what he wants in the way that he wants to say it. But in this case, although I argued with him, I completely understood and even approved of Kuzmin, especially against the background of the complete ideological bankruptcy I saw all around me.
Principles are a powerful instrument in a world that is slowly transforming people into spineless rats. But the presence of principles creates serious problems for the person who has them. For example, the Kuzmin principle of maximal liberalism and tolerance toward different poetics, which in its social manifestation assumes individuals’ and minorities’ tolerance of one another, creates difficulties for Kuzmin as a political thinker, because—
Because no liberalism can extend itself to the point of self-annihilation. The courts, the police, the United Nations, that’s all well and good, but let’s not put the cart before the horse: first, axiology. Then ethics. And then justice. Not the other way around. I happen to have a lot of experience in this respect, particularly in the realm of throwing drunk jerks out of public spaces, be it from a subway car or a literary reading—because, unfortunately, there is no alternative. And because there aren’t enough police officers for every metro car, and because often the same scum are working for the police (and are often just as drunk). What do you propose? Asking the UN, where Libya and North Korea have the same right to vote as everyone else, for permission to depose Saddam Hussein? It’s a jury trial in which half the jury arrived in court straight from a maximum security prison. And, yes, probably even such a jury could be handled: you promise to lower one criminal’s sentence, wave a bunch of banknotes in front of another, and in the end Libya votes for the use of force in Iraq. From a political point of view, that’s probably the ideal outcome. But I am not a politician, and I am not obliged to judge from a political point of view. Ethics and axiology concern me. I am convinced that social order does not originate with the irreproachable work of the courts and the police, but rather with a civilian’s sense of justice. And this sense of justice relies on nothing but one’s moral principles.
This is Kuzmin in 2003, arguing with the writer Oleg Dark about the invasion of Iraq. On the one hand, what we have here is the declaration of an anarchist. On the other, Kuzmin has always had an enormous will to power—power here in the sense of supplying order on many different levels, from the most abstract to the most everyday. There are stories about him going from room to room in the Moscow State University dormitory throwing drunk people out. And there are probably witnesses to the times when Kuzmin personally dealt with “drunk jerks” at literary events. I witnessed an incident of this kind just once. It involved the fairly well-known poet Eremenko. On the evening in question he arrived at a festival of youth poetry in the capacity of a drunk jerk. I watched him. He was excited, he kept shifting around—clearly something was going on in the respected poet’s head. For example, when Kuzmin began to say that the poet Anashevich hadn’t yet shown up, Eremenko shouted something along the lines of “Anashevich’ll be here soon! He’s just catching a cab!” At one point between readings, Eremenko approached the stage and yelled, “Your country’s at war!” In the sense of, “And you’re doing fuck-knows-what here in the meantime.”
After this had been going on for some time, Kuzmin finally said from the stage: “Guards, remove this hooligan from the room.” No one reacted, and Kuzmin repeated his command several times. Eremenko was taken out. Afterward a few of the readers refused to go onstage in protest. Later, Kuzmin would call Eremenko a has-been, a “former poet,” and so on. Was there something else behind this conflict? I don’t know. I remember Kuzmin saying somewhere that in the late Soviet period there used to be an annual contest called “King of the Poets,” and he made the finals two years in a row. The first time, Eremenko was his opponent, and the jury said: “Well, Dmitry is still a young poet; we’ll hear more from him, no doubt,” and gave the prize to Eremenko. Then the next year, Kuzmin made the finals alongside, apparently, some unknown poet, and the jury said, “Well, Dmitry Kuzmin, that’s someone we’ve all heard of already,” and gave the prize to the unknown. Did that old slight play a role here? I don’t know. On the evening of the Eremenko incident, I was basically on Kuzmin’s side, although it was an ambiguous situation. It would have been significantly less ambiguous had Kuzmin simply thrown Eremenko out himself, as he’d thrown others out. And in my opinion, there is a fundamental, I mean a truly archetypal difference, between doing it yourself, and calling for the guards.
At what point did i begin to lose interest—not so much in Kuzmin personally as in Vavilon as a whole, and the literary world in general? I had sensed differences between myself and the majority of Vavilonians from the start, but I never took them seriously. The turning point probably came with the Iraq war. After the American invasion, Kuzmin organized an event called “We Love America.” Like much in his life, this was a response: some time before, a small group of writers in Moscow had held a protest against the United States. It should be said that such a protest was perfectly natural, seeing as at the time MILLIONS of people across Europe were taking to the streets to protest the war. But Kuzmin and his friends still had nightmares about the Russian people’s “deep-seated anti-Americanism,” and these fears wiped out any considerations they would otherwise have had as intellectuals, or even just as sensate beings.
I was already familiar with Kuzmin’s thoughts on American foreign policy. “Crush without mercy,” he said to me after September 11, meaning crush the terrorists. And in his correspondence with Oleg Dark from 2003, he was perfectly explicit. He believes it was a mistake to grant independence to third-world countries in the 20th century, that it led to massive fatalities, and he therefore has nothing in particular against colonialism, or the use of force to maintain order in “backward” countries.
That was one of my reasons for splitting with Kuzmin. Of course, political views should not become the reason for splitting with someone. Actually, no. It is precisely political views that should be the reason, because politics is not football; your affiliation is not something you wear on Saturdays and then put away the rest of the week. And there is a sense in which some of the things we value about football, or culture more generally—consensus, coexistence, “peace”—are impossible in politics, not because only one side can win, but because, as a result of its winning, everything will change. Because real politics is participation, it’s involvement and transformation, and if individual poetics can only coexist in the form of texts, in an anthology, a.k.a. in a dead form, in “eternity,” then in life they inevitably come into conflict.
The social order known as postmodernism or late capitalism, which came into full flower in Russia at about the same time as it did other places, in the 1990s, was geared in many ways toward the prevention of such conflict and thus the conservation of a certain status quo. What was this status quo? For a long time, I followed readers’ reactions to my and my colleagues’ poetry with great interest. If those reactions could speak in a common voice, they would say approximately this: “We like you, we enjoy you, you’re unusual, talented, we value and respect you. But you will never have anything to do with our lives. You won’t push us one centimeter from the path we’re on, even if we ourselves don’t know what that path is or where it’s going. We will read your texts and go back to doing what we were doing before. Thank you.” That is, a person sincerely, intelligently, and emotionally experiences a text. But this text exerts no influence on him whatsoever. This is, of course, an unconscious attitude, but it is total and it is produced by the common condition. This is the paradox of the postmodern era—all art is permitted; none of it matters. And, of course, for the artist it raises the question—how else would I have wanted it? To have my poetry be celebrated by “the people”? To be carried through the streets on their shoulders? Well, no. I don’t know. Let’s put that question aside for the moment.
The main strategy developed in the poetic field to break down the comfortable tolerance of postmodern society is the so-called “direct narrative.” This is a movement that tries firmly to establish the connection between the author and the text, often by calling attention to the author and resurrecting him after his murder by the postmodernists; it thereby tries to escape the limits of that text and lay claim to a truth outside of it. Kuzmin has called this movement “postconceptualist”—that is, it senses acutely the postmodern death of the author and the necessity for his resurrection and rehabilitation.
Postconceptualism comes after the radical and indeed revolutionary wordplay and author assassination of writers like Dmitri Prigov and Vladimir Sorokin (in his early work)—that is, after the Russian representatives of early postmodernism had become canonical. It can come in several forms, which in my view can be usefully divided into the ultraconservative, the theatrical, and the leftist. The ultraconservative tendency rejects the entire rhetoric of contemporary humanism—its texts, discourses, civil societies, human rights, as well as its engaged art and innovative poetics—in favor of a poetics that claims a different ontological basis, whether it is God or Mother Russia or (often) both. The theatrical tendency subsumes all meaning beneath that of performance, presence, and event—that is, beneath the immediate experience of the text. All else is vanity and (especially) tedium. The final, leftist version of direct narrative attacks the liberal concept of the private individual (and reader), whose existence masks the true nature of bourgeois society. There are no individuals for a leftist art: there is simply a single human space in which people exist. And between these people are the most varied connections, be they hidden or obvious. Bourgeois politics and culture attempt not to rectify this situation, but to regulate and preserve it by different means—in our era, under the guise of morality, equal rights, multiculturalism, and “free and diverse expression.” But no work of art is a thing in itself, as bourgeois thought claims, nor is it a divine reflection, as religious thought claims, but evidence of all of society’s defects, including the relations of the dominant and dominated. (For a certain kind of artist, Christ is manifested in all true art; for a leftist artist or critic, inequality is the subject that always manifests itself.) The task of innovative art is to insist on the uniqueness of the individual while revealing the genuine relations between people, the true connections in society, and, as a result, to forge a new reality.
And what does Kuzmin say to all this? Approximately the following: This is all well and good, but I’m a simple man. I care about the text. And I know that works created from rigidly defined ideological positions are often of very low quality. Of course, I am more than happy to publish any exceptions to that rule. In other words, while my existence may be an obstacle to your truth, your existence is in no way an obstacle to mine. I can tolerate any one of you. As long as it’s of a high enough quality, and not overtly fascistic or Stalinoid (that is, antihuman), then I’m happy to include your work in my poetic system.
In late 2003, I decided to leave the literary world. I felt I had reached a dead end; I wanted to practice political activism; I wanted to reach the layer of human experience underneath the layer addressed by poetry, or anyway the layer or the context that conditions people’s reactions to poetry, including my poetry. I declared that for the foreseeable future I would no longer publish my poems or participate in literary life in any way.
Not long after deciding this for myself, I happened to run into Kuzmin. I told him what I planned to do. “Well, then, a new era is coming,” he said thoughtfully. And on that note we parted. For some time he didn’t seem to understand what was happening, and whether he ought to interpret my gesture as hostile or neutral. Eventually he settled on hostile. From then on he would occasionally write that Medvedev had lost his mind, what a sad fate, he has been forgotten, et cetera. Of course, a person who’s fallen out of Kuzmin’s network must inevitably fade away and be lost forever—that’s a given. And no doubt there have been poets who broke with Kuzmin and then stopped writing, started drinking, became “former poets,” and so on, just as he says. But it doesn’t hurt to gently help that process along, remind the public from time to time that there once was this guy, and then he lost his mind, and everyone forgot him. He’s not the first, nor will he be the last. As Dmitry Vodennikov, another very interesting and very important person to me, once wrote: I know you want it this one way—but it’s not going to happen. I was naturally very upset to read these revelations on Kuzmin’s blog. Not for myself, so much (though I won’t claim that my feelings weren’t hurt), but for Kuzmin, too, because, for example, “Medvedev has lost his mind,” written about a person whose behavior you obviously do not understand but suspect may be a threat to you, echoes again not so much the traditions of the underground as those of the Tsarist censor Pavel Famusov, and the Soviet Union of Writers, and the KGB.
It turned out that in addition to everything else my “escape” became a kind of test, of Dmitry Kuzmin personally, but also of the limits of his project. Here was a man who considered himself my primary—my sole—benefactor, and what would he think of me—alive but no longer connected to his project, even, in a sense, criticizing it? Kuzmin’s desire to direct, structure, and name the currents of contemporary poetry helped many poets who without him would never have been noticed or brought to light. But any ambitious, large-scale project reaches a point when it enters into conflict with the private ambitions of its creator—it’s a sign that the project has outgrown him—and for it to advance, for the project to develop, the creator has to humble himself, has to ease up a little. At the point when Kuzmin should have restrained his ambitions and his grudge, he lacked the strength, and he lost, because only a project that adopts the most radical forms of its own critique can keep going.
But what did I want? A pat on the head? No, not exactly. I wanted Kuzmin to admit (if not publicly, then at least to himself) that even after leaving Vavilon I remained an ally, because we were fighting the same fight—pursuing new possibilities of existence in poetry and in life. Only now, I would need to be judged according to my criteria, not his, and, what’s more, if he valued me for myself, and not merely as a part of his project, then he would try to understand those new criteria. And yet, no liberalism can extend itself to the point of self-annihilation.
A little more about postmodernism and the will to power, and the ways in which the conflict between me and Kuzmin, which at some level is merely personal, did, I think, reveal important things about our respective projects. In the wake of my “escape,” some of my poems, for various reasons (including, presumably, just plain inertia), continued to appear in various places, and in early 2006 the publishing house NLO printed a collection of my poems and essays without asking my permission. (That was the collection’s title: Texts Published Without the Permission of the Author.) I had conflicting feelings about all this (for one thing, I wondered why a publishing house devoted to liberal ideas would so cavalierly violate a cardinal liberal idea—intellectual property), but Kuzmin would occasionally comment to the effect that, essentially, Medvedev says he won’t publish anymore, but he continues to publish anyway. And that’s all right, Kuzmin continued, quoting Foucault, because “the author is but a means of organizing texts.” By which he meant to say: Medvedev may have written the texts, but what we publishers do with them is not his concern, and anyway the sense in which he can be said to have written them is very limited indeed.
I found it really sad to see the words of a person who spent his whole life battling against and exposing power in its various forms used as a pure, absolute, and rather crude instrument of power. It highlighted, for me, the gap between the time when the ideas of the postmodern fathers held a revolutionary charge, and our time, when you can use them precisely as Kuzmin does. Foucault meant, approximately, that the text speaks in ways that the author sometimes did not intend; that a text, in order to exist, must pass through an author, who structures and arranges it, but this does not mean he can completely control a text or answer for all its meanings. In the battle against logo- and phallocentrism, this was, unquestionably, a progressive idea. But when Kuzmin uses it in response to my questions about liberal concepts of intellectual property (and their violation), he is either being obtuse or unscrupulous, or a bit of both. In any case, it proves once again that Kuzmin’s thought was and remains hemmed in by the postmodernist framework, proves that he, despite himself being a fully living author, doesn’t need any kind of “rebirth of the author” at all. Because a living author is a constant unpredictability and inconvenience, a constant threat to a structured space, and even to his own texts within that space. A living and developing author inevitably changes and recodes his past work, which may likewise compel his public to reevaluate it.
In short: Kuzmin’s system, not in itself but in the general literary context, reproduces the structure of a repressively tolerant society. Yes, Vavilon accepts all “innovative” poetics, but the general course is set by people with a specific socioprofessional status, with specific values and a specific worldview, who, accordingly, are expressing their specific group or class interests. I have written elsewhere of what I call the “new sincerity”1—writing that makes an appeal to personal experience (childhood; romantic and sexual encounters; family life) to the exclusion of social and political experience, justifying this by appealing to its authenticity (personal, emotional, et cetera). What I want to say now, thinking of Kuzmin, is that it makes sense that it was amid the class of designers, copywriters, and glossy-magazine journalists—in a word, traders in appearances (I, too, belong to this class to a certain extent, although I really wish I didn’t)—that this “new sincerity” developed. A direct and very personable form of writing, it helped authors continue in their lucrative professional lives by offering them the possibility of genuine creativity in place of office “creativity,” all the while leaving the gap between the lyric hero and the social status of the author intact. (My childhood experiences are my childhood experiences, says the sincere poet; what does it matter to my childhood me that I now work for Russian Esquire, drive an Audi, and own an apartment in the center of Moscow?) The gap is left intact because crossing it could lead to unpleasant self-interrogation, and doubt, and even a rejection of the social order that allows all this to go on.
This is not some grand conspiracy on Kuzmin’s part, but the result of perfectly objective processes—the most progressive and creative people find themselves in demand for the leading creative positions while simultaneously creating the most progressive art. But that does not mean we should acquiesce to this state of affairs—it ought to be resisted. Because it seems to me that no matter how the world looked in 1989 or 1991—and I know it looked different from how it looks today—we can all now admit that the notion of postindustrial capitalism as the best of all possible worlds is hardly, these days, the most progressive notion available.
Which all merely demonstrates, once again, that the way to overcome the postmodern is to reevaluate the relationship between author and work, text and reality, politics and art.
Kuzmin writes: “There’s a war going on here on earth, and there have been victims on both sides—but one of those sides is mine.” I think these are monstrous words. Rereading them, I see that everything that happened between us was not an accident. Why? The entire progressive intellectual tradition of the 20th century has tried to oppose large-scale government-engineered projects and geopolitical divisions. And yet today’s intellectual—who values these traditions—will sometimes conveniently forget that, for example, his ability to realize his wonderful particularity, uniqueness, and inimitability (in his creative endeavors and rich and varied personal life) is available to him and other Europeans thanks to the fact that his government buys natural gas at a reduced price from the tyrant of Turkmenistan. The tyrant is happy to keep prices low because, being a tyrant, he can keep some of the profits for himself while closing village libraries and hospitals. Should the tyrant cut off the natural gas—if, for example, he is deposed by an angry mob of his countrymen—then our hypothetical European intellectual will have less time, strength, and money for being creative, and pursuing his fascinating personal life, and developing his inimitable, beautiful, God-given individuality. The same is true of our European’s oil, and coal, and so on. And, well, what of it? Should we stop writing poems? Go crazy from guilt? No. No. We just need to transform our picture of the world a little, and we can begin by ceasing to talk nonsense about the clash of civilizations.
Because otherwise you become an appendage of the system that allows you to take up whatever art you want, develop whatever styles, discourses, and poetics you want, on the condition that you do not interfere with politics, with real life. And your “grown-up” credo (and, clearly, a reasonable and obedient member of the contemporary neoliberal system is first and foremost a GROWN-UP, as opposed to all those idealists, pseudo-rebels, and dreamers, who aren’t) will go like this: I am a humble man, my business is putting together words. As for everyone else, I think they should do what they want. And my ability to think this way is based in part on a gigantic military, and low electricity prices, and plenty of oil.
And this does not strike me as an idea befitting the glory of liberalism, which was once a progressive and salvational force in human history; and it does not strike me as an argument for individuation. This is society as armed camp, as colonizer, as exploiter. It is an indication that liberal concepts have entered a period of exhaustion, when their proponents often find themselves trampling their own norms in the most cynical and vicious ways possible.
Because there are no private people, and there are no two (or three, or four) clashing civilizations. There is a united space in which people exist. And between those people, as between poetics, are the most varied connections, be they hidden or obvious. Disentangling these connections, overcoming old connections and creating new ones, the spontaneous invention and formation of radically new groups—work that casts doubt on the prevailing national, religious, civilizational, sexual, and—yes—economic differences—that is the path to solidarity, that is the path to a new world. It is impossible to restrain, cancel out, or quash the passion, obstinacy, vanity, and pride of the Zapatistas, the idealist poets, and Islamic extremists, because one cannot quash or cancel out the voices of the cultures that stand behind them—all one can do is redirect or transform, but only on the individual level and only as oneself; and to do this, one must put one’s private life, and vanity, and the messianism characteristic of minorities (gays, Jews, and the intelligentsia in particular) into the service of this new task. This is the course of progressive culture in its relation to the new politics, which should replace the corpse of politics that is decaying right now across the whole world, but especially in Russia. Only that will be the movement forward. Maybe it won’t be successful, maybe it will fail, but it will be A GENUINE DEVELOPMENT OF THE GLOBAL HUMANISTIC TRADITION.
I wouldn’t want to end on such a pathetic note. Beyond the question of whether I am right or wrong, Kuzmin remains an extremely important and symptomatic figure, possessing within himself a grand duality—his colossal service, his progressive, even revolutionary, and distinct position within Russian culture of the last twenty years, and his rather unattractive, reactionary position in the context of global culture as a whole. I think his project, as of now, is a complete success; its future fate, however, whether it will stagnate (in the conceptual sense) and become entirely conventional, legitimizing the pseudotolerance of neoliberal authority (and it is specifically in such a role that Kuzmin’s project could be useful to the authorities), or progress and become an alternative source, offering a real democratic and potentially traumatic diversity (that is constantly calling its own system into question), depends on Kuzmin’s future conduct, and the future of Russian and global politics.
—Translated by Keith Gessen and Cory Merrill
“The Writer in Russia,” Dissent, Fall 2008. ↩