Interview with Alex Cigale: Part I

"As is true for many of my current projects, for the first fifteen years of reading him, my feeling was: Untranslatable."

Asymptote editor-at-large and accomplished poet and translator Alex Cigale is hard at work on a forthcoming book of translations of neo-futurist Serge Segay’s poetry titled exoDICKERING: Compositions 1963-1985, and recently set up a Kickstarter campaign to help him finish his work. In part one of a conversation with Asymptote Blog, Cigale talks about the roots of Russian Futurism and its modern inheritors, politics at play in Russian poetry, and the unique challenge of translating a linguistic system that associates every letter of the alphabet with a feeling-sense (and a color!).

Eva Richter: Serge Segay, the Russian neo-futurist poet, and his wife, Rea Nikonova, have been honored for their “special services to literature” for their preservation of the history and poetry of Russian Futurism. When did you start reading Segay, and what was your first impression of his work?

Alex Cigale: I first became interested in Segay, neo-futurism, and more broadly, Russian Futurism in the mid-90s when I took part in a multi-year complex project resulting in my contribution to Crossing Centuries: the New Generation in Russian Poetry, an attempt to represent and make sense of the last quarter century of Russian “unofficial” or “non-conformist” poetry. Of the more than eighty poets in the anthology, I translated eight, and primarily worked with the foremost American scholar of Russian Futurism, Gerald Janecek, on the conceptual poetry section. Earlier in the 90s, l’d learned at the feet of the legendary Konstantin Kuzminsky, the force behind the nine-volume Blue Lagoon anthology of the unofficial Russian poetry of the 60s and 70s. This had been the absolute beginning of my broader education, extending my knowledge of the Silver Age avant-garde beyond just Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, leading me to appreciate a sort of continuity (partly by way of Kharms and the Absurdists), and that there are “living heirs.” But from meeting Segay’s work for the first time to engaging with it was still a long way. As is true for many of my current projects (Khlebnikov, Mandelstam, Eremin), for the first fifteen years of reading him, my gut feeling was: “Untranslatable.” Very intelligent, great verbal density, a lot of fun (but only in small doses).

ER: You’ve translated many works by earlier Russian Futurist poets as well. How do Segay’s poems depart from the Russian Futurist poems of the early 1900s? Which elements of the earlier movement are reflected in Segay’s work?

AC: The main difference I observe is one of tone. [Segay’s work] has absorbed the influences of the last Russian Futurist movement, the so-called Russian Absurdists (Kharms, Vvedensky), and reacts to the art and spirit of its own times (the stagnation of the Brezhnev years in the aftermath of the collapse of Khruschev’s “thaw,” and the development of Sots Art and other conceptual poetry in the 70s). Perhaps one of the clearest links to the earlier avant-garde poetics is the emphasis on multi-artistic engagement, and an insistence that poetry is not separate from the visual, plastic, musical, and theatrical arts. Both Segay and his wife, the poet Rea Nikonova (née Anna Tarshis) were absolutely seminal in Russia—in the tradition of Western developments such as pre-war Dada and Surrealism, and the post-war Concrete, Fluxus, and Mail Art movements, and of course the Beats and performance art—in expanding the realm of poetry as a medium.

One aspect of their work, impossible to communicate in words, is poetry as performance and theater (I know this will seem ridiculous to many, even most, and it is certainly Absurd). But it is a connection to the so-called “super sagas” of the leading Futurists Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh. Another relationship I would point to is that between the artist and the social milieu. The Russian Futurist manifesto of 1914, “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste,”  offers a grotesquely ironic treatment of bourgeois society and contains a program of social critique and improvement. For Segay and his generation, Alexei Khvostenko to name an example, any earnestness and social goals the modernists may have had was no longer possible. As has been often remarked, the guiding spirit of post-modernism is irony.

ER: To continue on the subject of Russian Futurism and politics, what is the “Budetlyanen” and what is his/her place, broadly speaking, in Russian Futurist political thought? How, if at all, is the concept reflected in Segay’s poetry?

AC: Hmm… You’re referring here to Khlebnikov’s utopian notion of “the man of the future.” In his “Government of Time,” he proposed an alternative to Plato’s guardians, neither a ruling elite nor quite artisans, but rather something he conceived of as a creative class of inventors-explorers. And the following generation of Russian Absurdists attempted, I think, to mimic such a creative elite in their ObeRIu (an acronym for Union of Real Art, parodying the official structures by calling themselves the Chinari, or literally: “rankers”). While it’s possible to view the creative Russian bohemia of the 60s and 70s as inheritors, within the official structure, this “position” was occupied by the Beat-influenced multi-artist poet Andrey Voznesensky, often to the accusations of careerism from the “real” (or unofficial) avant-garde. You must understand that, particularly in Russia, this is a loaded and touchy question: whether social and political engagement is appropriate or even possible for poetry. In general, in Russia, the answer to your question would be a sneer and a disgusted NO! In Segay’s case, the answer is definitely not. It is art for art’s sake, but you must take into account that he and Rea immigrated in 1997 and have lived in Kiel, Germany, since.

ER: You recently initiated a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds necessary for you to finish your translation of Segay’s poems. In your project description, you described the project as “immensely complicated” and “replete with neologisms.” What are some of the linguistic difficulties you’ve run into in translating Segay’s poems?

AC: Well, again, I’ll begin by placing his work in the context of similarities and differences with Khlebnikov’s, whose oeuvre totaled 6130 neologisms! Looking closer, you’ll see that by and large these consisted of coinages made by affixing prefixes and suffixes (something Russian is particularly well-suited for), archaisms, adaptations from other Slavic tongues, and another large category of Zaum, or transrational language (which he called “language of the future,” but is also of the past, a proto-language of sounds). Khlebnikov proposed an entire system that equated every letter of the alphabet with a feeling-sense (and a color!). Let me give just one example: “Kucheri tucheri / mucheri nocheri / tocheri tucheri / vecheri ocheri.” Now I could try to translate this but, if Khlebnikov was right, the sounds themselves are the best translation. It is not nonsense: the suffix markers indicate all as plural nouns and their syntactic placement the possessive “of,” and so literally: “piles of clouds / torturers of night / dots of clouds / evening’s eyes” (more about my translations of Khlebnikov in my essay in Elimae here).

If all this rings a bell, just think Talking Heads’ “I Zimbra” (and yes, their Speaking in Tongues and Stop Making Sense, and Byrne and Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts album!) Among the American Modernists, this Dadaistic influence is only in e. e. cummings and, on rare occasions, Carl Sandburg. While modernist, it also evokes the older layers of language—the folk, neo-pagan, animistic, ritualistic language of chants and meditations, of spells and spiritual possession, of incantations. Segay’s work is quite different in this regard; it is not Zaum per se (pronounced as two syllables, zA-Um), but seems to hark back to the “nonsense” of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear in relying almost entirely on portmanteau words laden with associations. Compared to the Futurists, it is much lighter in tone.

While a lot of fun, its linguistic density has been incredibly time consuming and demanding of total focus. In every line, the “mushing” together of two (and often three or four words) multiplies meaning by association, and so does the difficulty of making sense of it in English, almost infinitely. As for the Kickstarter, I want to emphasize the sense of urgency about completing this work of four years: I really need your support! If you can afford even $1, please help ($30 includes a signed copy of the book). Thank you!


 Now it’s time for part two of the interview, featuring poems by Serge Segay and Rea Nikonova!


And read Alex Cigale’s poems in Asymptote here.


Alex Cigale, Asymptote’s editor-at-large for Central Asia, was born in Chernovsty, Ukraine, and grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, before immigrating to the U.S. in 1975. From 2011 to 2013, he was Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (formerly, the Soviet city of Frunze). His translations from the Russian are in Cimarron Review, Cortland Review, Colorado Review, Eleven Eleven, Interlit Quarterly, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, Narrative Magazine, New England Review (The Russian Presence,) PEN America, Brooklyn Rail InTranslation, The Manhattan, St. Petersburg, and Washington Square Reviews, and his own English language poems in Asymptote, Drunken Boat, Gargoyle, Green Mountains, North American, Redactions, Tampa, Tar River, and The Literary Reviews. You can read selections of the latter in Fieralingue, Offcourse, and Qarrtsiluni.