Ukraine’s national poet Serhiy Zhadan: “I believe in a people’s right to decide its future.”


Reading from “Lives of Maria” in Wrocław, Poland (Photo: Rafał Komorowski)

Just back from a busy day in Berkeley, but not too tired to share an article I just discoverd on Serhiy Zhadan in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Steadfast Book Haven readers will remember me writing about Ukraine’s leading writer (poet, novelist, essayist, translator), who visited Stanford a year or so ago, here and here and, in a piece titled “They told him to kneel and kiss the Russian flag, then he told them to…” here.

An excerpt from Amelia Glaser’s article, “Poems for an Uncertain World: On Serhiy Zhadan’s “What We Live For, What We Die For”:

…with the beginning of the war in Donbas in 2014, the present grew grimmer, and Zhadan’s verse grew more urgent. He has remained in close contact with many who still live in the region, and has written a series of poems in versions of their voices. “Headphones,” from 2015, describes a “quiet drunk” who has stopped watching the news. Instead,

He walks around the city with headphones on,
listening to golden oldies,
as he stumbles into burned-out cars,
blown-up bodies.

The poet in a café…

In addition to writing, Zhadan fronts a rock band, The Space Dogs (Sobaki v Kosmose), which has recently been renamed Zhadan and the Dogs (Zhadan i Sobaki), reflecting the poet’s new status as a household name. Phipps and Tkacz did not include his songs in this volume, but the fact that Zhadan is a public figure, immersed in the contemporary culture he writes about, is very much a part of his poetic persona. Rejecting the ivory tower, the 44-year-old Zhadan — whose boyish face is framed by a punky crew cut — articulates the voices of the crowd.

Much has been written about Zhadan’s street-level activism, about his involvement in the Kharkiv protests during the 2014 Euromaidan standoff. The poet made international news when he was badly beaten by a pro-Kremlin “Titushka,” or rabble-rouser, that spring. But what is striking about Zhadan — who read his work at my home institution, UCSD, two years ago — is his ability to connect with individuals on a personal level. He is direct, engaging, and remarkably patient. As a small group of us shared dinner after the event, a woman at the next table overheard our Russian-language conversation and, when we introduced Zhadan as a Ukrainian poet, asked whether he was a nationalist. Zhadan, who had recently been listed by the Russian government as a nationalist terrorist and arrested for attempting to attend a poetry festival in Belarus, shook his head, then added, “But I believe in a people’s right to decide its future.” He agreed to send the woman some of his writing electronically. I was stunned by his empathy and generosity. But Zhadan, a native speaker of both Ukrainian and Russian who has always written in Ukrainian, has a long relationship with Russian readers, and one that has not always been confrontational. In Russia, his books have been shortlisted for the Andrei Belyi Prize, the “National Bestseller” award, and the “Book of the Year”; he was nominated in 2010 for Russian GQ’s “Man of the Year” for literature, and his work remains important to the Russian literary counterculture.

Read the whole thing here.


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