Interview with Poet Anastassia Afanasyeva

Interviewed by Alla Vilnyansky

Anastasia Afanasyeva is generally known as the most interesting poet of her generation writing in Russian language outside the borders of Russia in our time. Born in 1982 in Kharkov (Ukraine) where she still lives, Afanasyeva graduated from Kharkov Medical University and subsequently worked as a psychiatric expert in forensic medicine. Currently, she works as a psychiatrist. In 2003 her collection of poetry To Those Who Live There was shortlisted for the Debut Prize. Winner of the “Russian Prize” (2006) and the “LiteratureRoentgen” Prize (2007). Her work has been published in some of Russia’s most prestigious literary journals, including Novyi Mir. She is also a prolific literary translator of various works form Ukrainian and English; she also writers literary criticism and has published a collection of beautiful literary prose.


PI: What is it like to be a writer in Ukraine today?

Afanasyeva: Writing poetry in Ukraine – and Russia – means to engage with something, which is understood by a small number of people. Verses in modern Russia and Ukraine have a take out of admirers, most of them are writers themselves. Russian and Ukrainian poets often work in other fields: they work as copywriters, doctors, managers, etc. Books come in small print runs, royalties are very small, or not paid. Poetry here is totally non-commercial. That’s from what I hear much like in the U.S.

One may speak freely in poems, speak about anything, there are no borders. Poetry is the place where freedom of speech realizes itself – in the narrow and broad sense. Censure ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. A poet here is rarely a social figure, “more than a poet” – although there are rare exceptions.

Ukraine, in fact, is a bilingual country: one part of the population are Russian-speakers, other part speaks Ukrainian. Ukrainian writers form Ukrainian literature, and those, who write in Russian, mostly become part of Russian literary process, their text integrate in Russian literature (which is, I believe, a literature of Russian language). That is my situation: living in Ukraine, I publish my poems in Russian publishing-houses and magazines. I think my physical place of residence is not very important, I could live in any Western country or in Russia, and write in the same way.

Great disadvantage is that poetry is very less integrated into the academic process – contemporary poets are not involved in the process of education, perform before the students rarely, so students of philological faculties sometimes know nothing about contemporary poetry, if they are not interested in it by themselves. It seems to me, that the situation with universities is better in contemporary Ukrainian poetry, than in Russian poetry.

Curiously enough, unlike Western Europe and U.S.A., they still do study poetry fairly extensively in schools and in universities in Ukraine and Russia. But they mostly do not study contemporary poetry. So they memorize poems of Pushkin, Tsvetaeva and other great poets of golden and silver ages of Russian poetry. It seems like contemporary poetry does not exist for our education system. I believe, that things go like that because of the situation we had in our Soviet past: when most of the poets were forbidden, they did not publish poems in official magazines, so they did not exist in official field – and the education is a part of this official field. So educators mostly still can not see, still do not know, what they have missed. It may take a lot of time and efforts to solve this problem. But it is really necessary to do it – contemporary poetry must be involved in education process.

As for me, I was born in Kharkov and lived here all my life, visiting other cities as a tourist or (mostly) when they invited me to read poems somewhere. I have a beautiful country house in Kharkov region, beside it there is the pond and the forest – I used to spend my summer vacations there since I was a kid, going fishing, playing around. I still love fishing, by the way.

PI: What is your process when you sit down to write?

Afanasyeva: At first, I feel the rhythm. This sense of rhythm and music is the beginning of the poem. It also dominates in the process of writing by directing it. The text itself, I think, is written before I write it down. Something is being stored inside: the ideas, images, feelings, the words. It is when the poem is actually being composed. Maybe, that is why, faster or slower,  I usually write down a poem as a clean copy: I do not correct much. I can know for advance about  what will be the central image of the poem – for example, when I want to write about my father’s death, or a dedication to someone, or  a cycle with a certain composition. Sometimes I hear my own text’s form and content during the process of writing it.

And prose is always pre-planned and written by other principles.

PI: What are some personal beliefs that make themselves evident in your writing?

Afanasyeva: I really believe in the world’s metaphysics. I believe that there is no randomness. In fact, there is an indivisible basis of things, which is playing shapes. In the presence of a common plan, in destiny in the broadest sense. I believe in God, but I’m not sure that my faith refers to any religious denomination. I accept metaphysical philosophy, especially Heidegger. I believe that Celan’s poem are not a metaphor. I believe that poetry exists before the poem appears, and is embodied in different forms, depending on the centuries and the writer’s person. I believe in the freedom of choice and will.

PI: You are a doctor. Does your work feed into your writing–if so how? To what extent does daily work, ethics—plays into your poetics?

Afanasyeva: I graduated Kharkov Medical University in 2004, and I work as a doctor, psychiatrist, in Kharkov psychiatric hospital since then. For three years, from 2007 to 2010, I practiced as a forensic psychiatrist, for last two years I work in the department for mentally ill women (in our hospital the departments are separated by gender). I work with people, who have schizophrenia, dementia, affective disorders, etc. My job does not often penetrate into my writing. Probably, it has an indirect influence on it by influencing me as a human being, who sees difficult destinies and conditions of mentally ill people. Long time ago I wrote some poems using transformed characters I met at work; some of my patients have made their way into my writing as metaphors.

I’ve written prose about the hospital I work in, it is called “Saburova dacha”. I wrote it, when I was an intern and yet had that surprised, non-doctor look. This text describes quite-difficult-everyday-life of psychiatric department in post-Soviet country, and speaks about the importance of attentive attitude and acceptance of alterity in other people.  Saburova dacha – that’s the name of Kharkov psychiatric hospital. It is called by the name of the merchant Saburov, who lived in the 19th century. He had a daughter, who was mentally ill, and he rebuilt his dacha into a hospital for her and patients like her. This hospital has a long history. Famous figures of Russian literature – Velimir Khlebnikov and Vsevolod Garshin – were treated there. They say, that Khlebnikov was staging performances just in the building, where I work now. This building used to be a theatre in the old days.

 PI: If your daily job influences your writing indirectly, what about your literary influences? How do they enter your work?

Afanasyeva: I started to write more or less seriously quite late by Russian standards – at age 21. My first book of poetry was published in 2005 in Moscow. It mainly consisted of hard, almost confessional, but at the same time, metaphorical lyrics, long vers libres telling certain stories. That’s when I felt the strongest influence coming from two sides: one side was Brodsky, the other side – Russian contemporary poetry, mainly writers of so-called generation of “Babylon.” In general, they are avant-garde and experimental poets, who are exploring the new ways of writing in Russian. They do not associate by aesthetic or formal preferences, but by speaking of something new, the increment of meanings.

At the same time authors of the beat generation were actual for me – that was the time, when I needed to stagger my own language, so I could learn to speak freely, without being limited with existing notions about what are poems and poetry, what poems must look like.

After these, the earliest influences, I met many authors who influenced me more or less. Actually, probably all the things that one reads affect your writing in some way. But sometimes the effect can be very strong, a turning point. The poets who I felt were turning points for me were Gennady Aigi, Olga Sedakova, Ellena Schwartz, T.S. Eliot, Paul Celan.

I read Mandelshtam during my school years, but  I felt his influence much later. There are dozens or maybe hundreds of names of the poets, whose poems I’ve read, and when I read them, something happened inside me: slight movement, small changes. It is Russian “uncensored” poetry of the second half of the 20th century, English and American 20th century poetry. German poetry – though I do not know much about it, and I read it in translations, has left a sensible trace inside me.

As for contemporary authors: I love the work Paul Celan, Theodor Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Thomas Eliot, Olga Sedakova, Helen Schwartz, Gennadiy Aigi, Osip Mandelshtam. Speaking about younger Russian poets – I love poems of Stanislav Lvovsky, Maria Stepanova, Mikhail Gronas.  Younger, then them – Alla Gorbunova, Aleksei Porvin, Vassily Borodin.  In fact, there are dozens of poets whom I could call loved ones – at different times.

PI: Russian-language poets are known as great readers of poetry. What does reading poetry aloud mean to you?

Afanasyeva: For a long time I felt a strong fear about public readings. I failed my first solo reading in Moscow, because my voice and hands were shaking. Then this fear became less, but I  tried to read as quickly as it is possible and run away, run away somewhere.

Later, because I had to perform often, that fear has passed – but I still do not feel reading aloud is a process of interaction with the audience. This process is internal, which can occur in front of witnesses, and without them – it does not change depending on someone’s presence. Reading aloud for me is like performing music: it is playing with voice the music of the poem, its melodies and rhythm. First of all, rhythm, accents. Something happens through the sound of music  – something unfolds in time, something sounds, then disappears. This thing in music, the music itself – alters me, influences me: I feel a little unusual after the readings.

So, I feel reading poems like a music concert – not rock-concert, but jazz or contemporary classical music concert. During this concert not only melody is sounding, but something bigger, than it, happens:  with the performer, those who hear it, with the space: something gets here through the music.

PI: To what extent do you think your writing is political?

Afanasyeva: I don’t write about politics, if it does not affect a human being; and if it does, it is not really politics, it is human condition. I try to speak about essential, basic things – in human being and in what she faces in our contemporary world.

It is a search on the border of silence. I try to stay away from conjuncture texts, which are written reckoning to some effect. I do not write such poems and do not like to read such poems: it seems to me, they are a manifesto of dishonesty. Poetry exists for whatever, but not for attracting people with artificial glaze causing their admiration, or disgust, etc. Playing with people is not interesting. The process of writing poems – not one poem, but the association of one person’s texts – the process of going his own way – is like describing/speaking out the world: it must be done without misrepresentation.

PI: What are your goals for yourself as a writer?

Afanasyeva: It is difficult to set particular goals, when we talk about the poems, because they disappear and reappear without warning. I have a common goal: not to deviate from my own way, to develop in full force, to respond to all challenges presented to me as to the author, with full responsibility and full-length. Lyric is the search for identity and authenticity – in the world and in self. It is about being real and true, about standing in the inner silence, moving towards something, which entails a real response inside you – with attentive listening to it, careful and complete, so accurate and collected, that all of it can fit the “tip of the spear.” (a line from Olga Sedakova’s poem)

Not speaking about myself, but in general – I believe, that writing poetry is an attempt to penetrate into the essence of things – to name it and to speak it out. It seems to me quite obvious that the goal of poetic speech is only to name things – that is, to name them as they are, simply because no one except a poet is able to do this. Only he can reveal the essential sound. That is what Celan did in his poetry, what Mandelshtam did.

from Hedgehog

by Anastassia Afanasyeva, translated by Alla Vilnyansky

1.

Look what’s happening on earth

there is no space, only a sieve
anything smaller than its holes
falls away.

And everything bigger lies in emptiness
shining as if under a bright bush at night
a lost phone.

And no one answers.

5.

See what is happening
for him who was hopelessly drowning
the earth opens its black earth,

About the dead, we cannot speak
for they are completed.

Behind them goes the praise.

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