Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry



by Larissa Shmailo, editor


Isaiah Berlin was wont to divide Russian writers into foxes and hedgehogs, those that could do many things and those who did but one, but did it very well. I present to you an anthology of contemporary Russian poets, a diverse assemblage of versatile wordsmiths displaying vulpine verbal pyrotechnics worthy of the 21st century, and who are, indeed, quite foxy.

However, our writers are Russian. And what Russians do exceptionally well, when they are not weaving glittering webs of words, is what Russians from Rurik to post-post perestroika have always done, and that is wrestle with the prokliatye voprosy, the "accursed questions" about the meaning of life, love, suffering, God and the devil. So, these poets are hedgehogs, too.

We are Russian and we have extra genes for compassion and asking unanswerable questions. There is experimental, lyric, and language poetry in this anthology, both flash and formalist, but Stalin is not forgotten, and the lager is still close, even as the poets text and rap and Facebook their poetry to us.

This anthology celebrates the Russian translator along with the Russian poet. All the work herein is translated from the Russian originals, with a few exceptions for "English-as-a-Second-Language" poems from noted bilinguals Philip Nikolayev (who provided many of the translations in this volume), Katia Kapovich, Irina Mashinski, and Andrey Gritsman (who also provided translations); there is also one English-language poem from Alexandr Skidan. Except where noted, all of this work is seen in English for the first time.

In the interests of accuracy and inclusion of as many poets as possible, I have decided not to provide the Russian text of the poems. This omission will be rectified in a future and expanded print version of this anthology. I have included the Russian for the "hostile" translation of Igor Belov by Eugene Ostashevsky, since the original is needed to "get it." (Ask a friendly Russian-we are most of us quite friendly- to let you in on the inside joke.)

I am grateful to acknowledge the kind and inspired assistance of Boris Dralyuk, Alexander Cigale, Katia Kapovich, Irina Mashinski, and Philip Nikolayev in compilation of this anthology. A special thanks must go to J. Kates, translator and publisher, for bringing Russian voices to the English-language reader here and through his Zephyr Press.

I would like to thank Ugly Ducking Presse for permission to use poems from Elena Fanailova's The Russian Version and Moscow's Vremia press for the excerpt from Maria Rybakova's Gnedich. I would also like to thank the estates of Denis Novikov and Boris Ryzhy for permission to use the poets' work, and Philip Nikolayev for sharing his translations done by the exclusive permission of the Novikov estate.

Matvei Yankelevich's translations were commissioned by CEC ArtsLink. Tatiana Shcherbina's poems, "An Offshoot of Sense" and "Pensioners," are from An Offshoot of Sense (Cold Hub Press, 2011). Alexey Porvin's poems are from Live By Fire (Cold Hub Press, 2011). Mikhail Aizenberg poems are from Say Thank You (Zephyr Press, 2007). Alex Cigale's translations of Alexander Ulanov first appeared in the Manhattan Review.

-Larissa Shmailo, editor