I interviewed Alex Cigale, guest editor for the Russia issue of the Atlanta Review, to pick his brain about the editing process, the special issue, and the state of Russian poetry at-large.
Alex Cigale (former Central Asia editor-at-large for Asymptote!) has collaborated with the editors of the anthologyCrossing Centuries: the New Generation in Russian Poetry (2000), and more recently, the online Twenty First Century Russian Poetry (Big Bridge 16, 2014). Independently, he has presented a score of contemporary Russian poets to Anglophone readers. This year, Cigale was the recipient of an NEA in Literary Translation for his work with poet of the St. Petersburg philological school, Mikhail Eremin.
The Atlanta Review is known for its long-established and respected annual contest, offering publication in each of its fall issues, with a $1,000 top prize and 20 publication awards for finalists (including 30 merit awards for semi-finalists). In its 20-year history, it has published a long list of established poets, including Seamus Heaney, Rachel Hadas, Maxine Kumin, Stephen Dunn, Charles Wright, Billy Collins, Derek Walcott, Paul Muldoon, and so on.
PN: What did the Atlanta Review ask from you for its Russia Issue? How did you approach the editorship and solicit contributions?
AC: My directions were quite open: curate an 80-page section of contemporary Russian poetry. In every Spring issue, the Atlanta Review includes an international feature. In recent years, it had shone a spotlight on international hotspots (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, etc.) as well as on Anglophone or partly-Anglophone nations in the news (India, Ireland, and Scotland, the latter forthcoming in 2016).
While each is planned two years in advance, the editorial phase itself is quite brief: in my case, I only had this past late fall/early winter to work on the curation, so its contents were largely determined by what unpublished work in translation was available at the moment. As I noted in my introduction, above all else, the issue is a “slice of life”—what (primarily American) translators of Russian poetry are working on right now. The world of Russian poetry translation is a fairly small community, so I was able to put out early word of the issue on social media and correspond with nearly each translator personally to discuss their projects.
What sorts of considerations do you make when curating an issue such as this? Are you more concerned with educating the readership or with satisfying their English-language poetic sensibilities?
That is an excellent question. As an editor, I feel responsible to attempt to be representative —geographically, generationally, by gender, aesthetics, and so forth—as well as that the work be as concisely as possible representative of each participating poet.
I don’t feel the two are at odds. By the opposition your question suggests, I take it to mean that, generally speaking, an editor at least in part challenges the readers with “difficult” work, and either meets the readers’ expectations, in this case, of “Russianness,” or upsets those expectations. Though I felt responsible for “representing” Russia, I think readers’ preconceived notions will not be disappointed,: readers will be pleasantly surprised, I think, and the work’s variety represents poetry quite well on the whole.
If anything, I don’t think I am entirely wrong to believe that the qualities of this issue put the narrow-going concerns of much of American poetry to shame.
What sorts of movements/tendencies are happening in Russian poetry that you find exciting or important for an English-language readership?
It is difficult to limit myself here, so I will begin by highlighting work closest to my own heart. Partly as a result of my own inclination for geographic periphery, having just spent two years teaching at the American University of Central Asia, I was able to offer work by Central Asian poets working in Russian.
In light of the events in Ukraine, I thought it particularly important to present work by top Russian-language poets living in the Ukraine. I also tried to represent work by international Russian poets who had been or are currently living in Israel, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and so on. This is to highlight the fact that Russian has become an international language and culture force. Given our location, the issue is particularly strong on Russian-American poets, and our editor-in-chief, Dan Veach, made a late decision to include English-language poems by a number of bilingual poets, a fairly recent and not-yet-fully-recognized phenomenon.
I also aimed to pay tribute to at least some of the members of the community, poets and translators, who had recently passed away, as well as offering at least some historical context (with the poems of Roald Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky, and Arseny Tarkovsky, for example), and a “recovery” project—work by three “unknown” Russian Absurdist poets of the Siege of Leningrad.
I’d like to note that many (even most) of our translators are themselves accomplished poets. I would particularly like to bring to our readers’ attention to how Russian poets, as I think all poetry does in one way or another, respond to the historical moment.
Where might a reader start with this issue? Do you have any particular favorite poets/sections?
Other than the concluding “historical” section I mention above, the work is presented alphabetically, which might seem random, but my intention had been that this organic whole might represent the present moment in Russian Poetry in toto.
Granted that my selection, as I’ve already noted, was motivated by choosing “the best available work,” Still, “best” is loosely defined, and though it might reveal my own biases, I found that a certain “aesthetic turn” on the part of the poets emerges when the issue is looked at as a whole.
What I observed to be a predominant strain is a certain relationship on the part of many of the poets to historicity. I take this to suggest that poets have tended to retreat from direct comment on events they are powerless to influence by taking refuge in the past, underscoring the cyclical nature of history generally and of Russian history specifically. If I may, the following fragment (beginning and end) from a poem in the issue by Vladimir Gandelsman (translated by Ross Ufberg and Yasha Klots), responding to the events of 9/11, seems emblematic of this tendency:
I bear witness: a clear gaze is granted
not to man, alas, but only to the sky.
And only in the morning. But now – just haze.
The doomed, unfathomable city’s been blown up.
It lies, extinct, in ruins and in ashes.
The doors to History have opened in its place.
(Those doors of which there is no trace, just hinges.)
What are you tempesting about, ever hungry?
The ninth month of the year two thousand one.
I testify: I have accepted, Clio,
your matchless gift, – a loyal chronicler,
a sleepless sentinel tormented by his gout.
Is there anything you would like to tell our readers in closing?
Yes, that my own selections (in my attempt to be representative for each of the poets, I’d presented our editor-in-chief with selections of 2-3 pages by each), were edited and selected from more narrowly, and an “expanded” edition of this, what is already essentially a “mini-anthology”, is available and is in the future possible as a book.
And, I guess I would like to close on the same note that I began my introduction to the issue with: Above all else, what I would like our readers uninitiated into the current state of poetry affairs in Russia to know is that it is every bit as lively and diverse as the situation in America. Lastly, for those interested in exploring further, I’d like to offer the following list of links to existing anthologies and Russian poetry in English translation resources available online:
The Blue Lagoon Anthology of Modern Russian Poetry (in Russian only, Konstatin Kuzminsky, Grigorii Kovalev, Eds. Oriental Research Partners, 1980-)
Third Wave (Kent Johnson, Stephen M. Ashby, Eds. University of Michigan Press, 1992)
Contemporary Russian Poetry (Gerald S. Smith, Ed. Indiana University Press, 1993)
In the Grip of Strange Thoughts (J. Kates, Ed. Zephyr Press, 2000)
Crossing Centuries: the New Generation in Russian Poetry (John High et al. Eds. Talisman House, 2000)
An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets in Modern Poetry in Translation (Series 2, No. 20, Daniel Weissbort, Valentina Polukhina, Eds. 2002)
“The Young Post-Soviet Poets” in Jacket Magazine 36 (Peter Golub, Ed. 2008)
Twenty First Century Russian Poetry, in Big Bridge 17 (Larissa Shmailo, Ed. 2014).
Four Centuries (Journal of multi-lingual translation, Ilya Perelmuter, Ed.)
Cardinal Points (Annual Compass Translation Award, regular Art of Translation column, Irina Mashinski, Ed.)
Alex Cigale‘s own English-language poems have appeared in Colorado, Green Mountains, and The Literary Review, and online in Asymptote, Drunken Boat and McSweeney’s. His translations from the Russian can be found in Cimarron Review, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, PEN America, TriQuarterly, Two Lines, and World Literature Today. He is on the editorial boards of Mad Hatters’ Review, Plume, St. Petersburg Review, and Verse Junkies. From 2011 until 2013, he was an Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He is a 2014-2015 NEA Translation Fellow for his work on the poet Mikhail Eremin and is the editor of the Spring 2015 Russia Issue of the Atlanta Review, selections from which he is curating at the journal’s Facebook page (the Russia Issue is currently available for free with a $10 2-issue subscription). He had previously contributed an interview to Asymptote blog on the Russian neo-Futurist poet Serge Segay. You can find links to more of his work here.