The summer of 2008 saw the release of a typographically and artistically magnificent volume, Russian Poetry from Latvia(Russkaya poeziya Latvii), containing verse in three languages, Russian, Latvian and English. It was put together by two poets, Artūrs Punte and Sergejs Timofejevs, and published by the lone star promoters of Latvia’s Russian diaspora’s culture, the energetic and resourceful Orbīta group of authors and artists.Below you’ll find an interview with Punte and Timofejevs, the latter being also the author of the anthology’s ample foreword.
The article is reprinted courtesy of its original publisher, the Latvian daily Diena.
Let’s start perhaps with discussing the differences, if there are any, between the Russian poetry in Latvia and the one created in Russia.
Sergejs Timofejevs (ST): Here, the local Russian poetry first appeared as a distinct phenomenon in the second half of the 1980s, which coincided with democratisation and the struggle for [the country’s] independence. It was unrelated to the Soviet literary system and to the central powers in Moscow. It was a rather beautiful beginning.In actual fact, the generation that came just before us, i.e., Orbīta, had become writers and poets already during the Soviet rule, however most of them seriously set to work in the latter half of the 80s and only some of the earliest among them did so in the first half. My own first publication, appearing in the Rodnik magazine, is dated with the late 80s, which consigns me to the subsequent generation. In principle, that poetry embodied, in a manner of speaking, a feel of freedom, a kind of Europeanness, an orientation toward Europe’s values of arts.Also perhaps not so much showing a focus on the Russian literary tradition but in a way capturing a local feel and manifestations of modernism and postmodernism.
What about Russia in the late 80s, did anything similar take place there?
Artūrs Punte (AP): Paradoxically, no. However, there were parallels between Latvia’s Russian poetry and Russia’s underground poetry. Here, that kind of poetry was accepted in the regular periodicals earlier than in Russia. If you look at the recent periods of Russian literature, the samizdat literature, not known to readers before that, then broke free. It changed the literary landscape drastically; in Latvia it had already happened.And, in Russia it was different also because here the Russian language literature was influenced by Latvian literature. People [from both groups] met in the same Writers’ Union, knew the local arts people but for them the setting in Russia was somewhat less relevant.
What had been the situation before that? Did the Russians living in Latvia write any poetry?
ST: Say, in the 60s or 70s?… It wouldn’t be appropriate to seek any lineage or any serious artistic milieu. Little has been left, not even books or witness accounts.
AP: For example, Andrey Levkin, then editor of the Latvia-based Russian magazine Rodnik, wrote that his generation would be happy to identify with a tradition, if there only was one.
On the other hand, there’s Roald Dobrovenskiy.
AP: Yes, but he’s a prose author. The difference ought to have been—as we have hypothesised—that in the 1970s it didn’t matter where you were, in Rīga or St. Petersburg. Finally, in mid-80s the decisive moment ripened, determining that the specific type of poetry could be written here and nowhere else.
Still, is there any chance to find a lineage connecting to the interwar Latvia’s Russian literature?
ST: No, but there existed here a Russian cultural hub, or at least a few periodicals. The examples were Dlya Vas, a magazine, and Segodnya, a newspaper.
AP: This was quite closely related to the refugees fleeing from Russia to the West.
ST: Dlya Vas was an interesting one. My parents happen to have preserved one year’s volume, I think it’s 1937.Strange as it seems, it was a Russian language magazine writing about Paris fashion, millionaires and their lifestyles, also interspersed with news from abroad, including photos of Hitler and Stalin. It seems completely unbelievable in comparison to the events of that same period in the Soviet Union.
Why does the anthology emphasise the poetic styles of Rīga and Fergana?
ST: It’s only in Rīga and in Fergana, where you can speak about emergence of poetic milieus and generations whose literary styles differed from what was going on in Russia. In Fergana’s case, there was a grouping uniting Russian poets and Uzbek poets. They wrote in Russian, but the Uzbek poets didn’t feel that because of this they would have become part of Russian poetry. They just used Russian as a global language, while also seeking their poetic stepping-stones in Italian, French, Greek and Mediterranean poetry and widely using free verse.
AP: When studying at the Moscow Institute of Literature in late 1990s, I had already grown used to the processes then taking place in Rīga, so I was deeply shocked about the discussions, sometimes seriously extending over several seminars, on whether free verse had a right to exist… I dared to object mentioning that there were already excellent poets using it, but I met with reproaches saying that I wasn’t the one to judge the state of things. At the literature department of the University of Latvia, such premise would never have been used in a seminar. In Russia, even in the underground milieu with its interest in alternative strains of literature, the hero of the day was Brodskiy, who used classical devices, the stylistics typical of modernism while obviously expanding it a great deal and taking his inspiration from the literature of the West. And still he belonged to the tradition of classical modernism. He may have just about five free verse poems. Concurrently, in the 1980s, we have here Oļegs Zolotovs writing lines that are long enough to require the publisher to print them in the landscape orientation on a book’s pages; and you cannot make out what metre those have been written in. For him [Latvian] authors such as Uldis Bērziņš and Jānis Rokpelnis were the reality, while no poet based in Moscow or St. Petersburg would be able to know them.