“It matters to hear speech on the streetcar”: a new interview with Joseph Brodsky

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No principles, just nerves.

A few days ago, all the social media were atwitter with a newly published 1987 interview with Joseph Brodsky.  The piece opened with a comment on his leaving the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1972, to protest of the organization’s induction of the Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko as an honorary member.  Hmmmm???

Nyet!  A Soviet poet who had already endured KGB interrogations and arrests, a famous trial, and a long stretch to cool his heels in the far North was not  going to be joining elite American literary organizations – not in 1972.  His departure from the organization was in 1987.  I wrote a comment.  I got an emailed reply from the beleaguered blogger and journalist, Marcia DeSanctis.  She’s a very experienced and knowledgeable reporter of all things Russian, and suffered a mortifying slip of the pen in the course of tweeking a phrase.  Well, who among us bloggers could not confess to one or two of those?  In fact, I consoled her with the story of a monstrous gaffe of my own that happened the same way, which I’ll save for another time. Unless Richard Kaluzynski outs me first.

A poet, too?

But I gave a closer look to Marcia’s online oeuvre as a result – and I was impressed.

Over the days since, the former ABC news journalist has shared her transcripts and letters from Vladimir Voinovich and Yuz Aleshkovsky from the summer of 1987 over at Tin House.  All three interviews were incorporated in an article she wrote for the The Christian Science Monitor.

Here’s the one with J.B., and it’s got some pretty good stuff:

MD: Then who do you consider the most significant writers in the Russian language?

JB:  The Possessed by Dostoevsky is still the best and most accurate example of the Russian psyche in literature. Platonov is one of the greatest Russian poet, absolutely singular. And Tsvetaeva. These are huge and significant writers. For Russians, Tsvetaeva might be the most important of all. In general, the tenor of Russian literature is consolation – the justification of the existential order on the highest plane of regard. Justification for the Russian nation. Tsvetaeva is a departure from that – her voice doesn’t offer that. She was a writer who regarded reality as unjustifiable – controlled, in a sense, by arbitrary force – the philosophy of discomfort in negative human potential. Her spirit and the spirit of her writing is totally non-orthodox, Calvinist, provides you with discomfort. What distinguishes a writer is the spiritual information the writer offers. Nabokov doesn’t offer that. For all his elegance and precision, he’s a soothing author but Tsvetaeva is of more consequence.

Who knew the author of The Foundation Pit was a poet, too, let alone a great one?  I didn’t.  Either Brodsky misspoke and meant to say prose, or else somebody better get busy with translations.

MD: How important is it to you whether or not you are published in the USSR?

Reality is unjustifiable.

JB: I have no principles, I have only nerves. I’ve never cared very much about what’s happening with my work. I was lucky to have people in Russia interested in me, without having been published. I don’t give a damn whether I am or am not published there. I know that one day, I’ll die and will be published.

I write little poems when I feel like it. Over the years it became my profession. What started out as a deviation became my occupation, and from there came discipline and routine. I trust inertia more than the creative impulse. Stravinsky said, “I do it for myself and my probable alter ego.” I think that every writing career starts as a personal quest for personal betterment. To achieve some kind of sainthood, to make yourself better than you are. You quickly notice that the pen operates more efficiently than the soul. More success as a writer means the loss, somewhat, of the soul. You get on a collision course, and away from your original goal. This results in a terrific personal crisis. Take Gogol, who threw the manuscript of Dead Souls into the fireplace. To bring the work together with the soul as much as possible takes extraordinary effort. It’s no different today than when I was 24.

MD:  You speak English quite well but you write in Russian. Is it problematic as a writer to be exiled from your mother tongue?

JB:   The only problem with writing in Russian is that it matters to hear speech on the streetcar. Those things set you up to find the words in your gut. Elsewhere, you’re bound to become idiosyncratic, hermetic, self-sufficient. You derive pride from being self-reliant. You become an autonomous system, a spacecraft, and it depends on how strong your batteries are. But in the long run, you’re an autonomous entity anyway, one way or another. The less you deceive yourself, the better. Otherwise, the result is a tragic worldview.


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21 Responses to ““It matters to hear speech on the streetcar”: a new interview with Joseph Brodsky”

  1. Andrei Ustinov Says:

    The name of the Russian writer is Vladimir Voinovich.
    Andrei Platonov did not write poetry.
    “No” in transliteration spells “Net” without a “y”.
    And tes, it was a disgrace for the American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters even to mention Evtushenko’s name, moreover to choose him as an honorart member.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Platonov published a volume of poetry in 1922, and apparently published individual poems before then. I can’t attest to their quality. The comment is Joseph Brodsky’s, not mine.

    I’ve corrected the typo in Voinovich’s name. Thanks.

  3. Andrei Ustinov Says:

    My comment somehow got cut, sorry. It was Platonov did not write poetry worth mentioning.
    Obviously, this is a mistake on DeSanctis’ part. Brodsky was talking about Platonov the writer. Therefore, the awkward phrase “Platonov is one of the greatest Russian poet” is a mistake on the part of the transcriber (or scribe?). Brodsky never considered him outside of the scope of his prose, as he was “one of the greatest Russian writers, absolutely singular.”
    As for Tsvetaeva, JB discussed her as a figure of literature, always embracing both her poetry and her prose.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for the clarification.

  5. Andrei Ustinov Says:

    I posted interview on FB, so now you may expect reaction from the Russian side of social media.
    I would be grateful if you could send me via email (abooks@gmail.com) the links to those tweets and postings that you mention:
    “A few days ago, all the social media were atwitter with a newly published 1987 interview with Joseph Brodsky.”

    I tried to search for them but I found none.
    Thank you in advance!

  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I didn’t keep a list, Andrei. Certainly you won’t find any pickup by my friends on Facebook, unless they are also friends of yours. Some of my 761 friends posted, and the posts received a number of comments. The post was picked up by Books Matter, the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere on blogs and websites (on Twitter, too). Enough to make me feel like I was behind the curve in posting so late.

  7. Andrei Ustinov Says:

    Actually, I found about the interview only from your blog. So, thank you!

  8. Chronome Says:

    Platonov published a volume of poetry in 1922, and apparently published individual poems before then. I can’t attest to their quality. The comment is Joseph Brodsky’s, not mine.

    I’ve corrected the typo in Voinovich’s name. Thanks.

  9. Sbobet Says:

    Yevgeni Yevtushenko is soviet?

  10. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Not any more.

  11. google apps indonesia Says:

    The post was picked up by Books Matter, the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere on blogs and websites (on Twitter, too). Enough to make me feel like I was behind the curve in posting so late.

  12. Richard Kaluzynski Says:

    Just noticed your article – Bodsky’s Waterfall is one of my all time favourite books. I just went by his house in Venice recently on the way to the Bienniale. Ps – no plans to make any other comments!

  13. Richard Kaluzynski Says:

    Correction – sorry for mistakes and typos the comment should have read: “”Just noticed your article – Brodsky’s Watermark is one of my all time favourite books. I just went by his house in Venice recently on the way to the Bienniale. Ps – no plans to make any other comments!…. perhaps you can delete the earlier posting”"!

    http://www.amazon.com/Watermark-Joseph-Brodsky/dp/0374523827/ref=la_B000AQ4Y3I_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1384510409&sr=1-1

  14. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Richard, so good to hear from you! And please don’t make this the last comment! (And pardon the delay in posting – you got lost in a spam folder.)

  15. 7LIVEASIA Says:

    the Poetry Foundation and elsewhere on blogs and websites (on Twitter, too). Enough to make me feel like I was behind the curve in posting so late.

  16. cindy Says:

    Platonov the greatest poet of course he studied hard.I like workharder man like him.It a vary good nes for me,thanks so much.

  17. id-sbobet Says:

    Platonov become Legend poet because hard work, not easy. Platonov is amazing!

  18. Akses Riau Says:

    These are some nice point, A few days ago, all the social media were atwitter with a newly published 1987 interview with Joseph Brodsky. The piece opened with a comment on his leaving the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1972, to protest of the organization’s induction of the Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko as an honorary member.

  19. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Pardon the delay in posting, Akses. Formidable amount of spam to sort through lately.

  20. karimunjawa Says:

    Platonov is amazing!

  21. Outbound Says:

    Joseph Brodsky is a fairly influential figure in his time. Although I personally do not know him deeper and because I was born to him, of course. Interview attractive. Many lessons can be learned here.

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