Hayden's Ferry Review


Contributor Spotlight: Alex Cigale

Having translated part of Amarsana Ulzytuev’s “anaphora manifesto” for my introduction in the print issue of the magazine, I have already addressed his point about the dominance of end-rhyme so characteristic of Russian verse having been a detriment to the development of anaphora. I would only add that anaphora, being so primal to English verse – in the syntactic sense due to the influence of the King James Bible, and in the broader sense, of alliteration (or “front-rhyme” as Amarsana has it,) characteristic of its earliest strata of Old English alliterative verse – in my process of translating Amarsana’s poems, I did not sense a need to consciously find words that alliterate (after all, an accident of composition) so that the “Englishing” proceeded, as I’m sure did the writing of the originals, in a natural way.

What I would like to speak to today is the broader issue of the contribution to contemporary Russian poetry of the “periphery,” and more recently of the Russian diaspora – testimony to Russian being an international language and Russian society, at least in part, a multi-ethnic culture. But first of all, because the necessity of having to justify the very legitimacy of verse libre is likely to seem hopelessly antiquated to American readers (T.S. Eliot had explained in 1917 that “there ain’t no such thing as free verse,”) for contextualization, I need to highlight that it didn’t make significant inroads into Russian poetry until the 1970s, in the work of such Beat-influenced poets as Andrei Voznesensky. Most readers of Russian poetry in English translation are not aware, for example, that much of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poetry, past his earliest Futurist days – including the long poems utilizing the “triadic” or broken line that W.C. Williams later characterized as “the variable foot” – in the original Russian rely on rhyme quite heavily! Only with the underground re-emergence of the Russian avant-garde during the 50s and 60s, and its initial post-Perestroika publications during the 1990s, did free verse manage to barely enter the consciousness of Russian poetry readers, and at least to the broader readership it remains suspect as poetry to this very day.

On a personal note: Having spent time teaching at the American University of Central Asia, I can add that the Russian provinces have remained almost entirely untouched by even the influence of Modernism, where the forms and content of local traditional song, and the influence of classic Russian (read “rhymed”) poetry, are still predominant even to a greater extent than within the Russian main itself. At the other extreme, the main contribution of the Russian diasporic poetry, at least in America, has been the incorporation of the well-trod themes of Confessional poetry; as a whole, Russian poetry “abroad” if anything remains more, not less, frozen in time in its traditional orientation. (In terms of these being a “part of the main” of Russian poetry, there has always been an understanding in Russia of “the periphery,” referred to as “the near abroad,” as its own category of “foreign” influence.)

Central to my decision to go live and work in “the stans” of the former Soviet Union was a desire to bring to the attention of American readers the contribution to Russian poetry of what we in the West refer to as Indigenous Writing, particularly in the earlier work (in addition to Ulzytuev’s) of such poets as Gennady Aygi (Chuvash) and Shamshad Abdullaev (Uzbek). Beginning in the 1960s, Aygi (influenced by Mayakovsky and with the support of Boris Pasternak) had worked to synthesize traditional Chuvash folk lyric with the work of such European poets as Paul Celan and the French free verse poets he translated into Chuvash, a Turkic language. Shamshad Abdullaev and the poetry of the Fergana School reflects a post-modernist synthesis of the themes of the “oriental” landscape with the influence, primarily, of Italian Neo-realist cinema. (For those interested, I include a list of links to my other translations of the work of these poets below.) It is not surprising then that the greatest reception of these poets in Russia has come from the American “Language School” influenced stream of St. Petersburg poetry, Moscow being generally more conservative and resistant to foreign influence and having its own base of “conceptual poetics” going back to the 1960s.

Within this specifically Russian context, I see Ulzytuev’s work, like that of the Fergana School, as expanding the thematics of its identifiably Russian near-abroad setting while, to once again echo Amarsana’s own words, restoring free verse to its pre-classical position as song lyric, and injecting into Russian a flavor of just one of its numerous indigenous traditions, in this case Mongolian. All theoretical considerations aside, please go back to and enjoy the verse itself and, most importantly, listen to the link to Amarsana reading his Russian originals at the 2013 Baykal Poetry Festival; the proof is in the eating!

Two poems in Plume.

Four poems in Asymptote.
Two poems in Beloit Poetry Journal with month-long blog tribute.
Three poems in Drunken Boat.
Interview with Aygi’s primary translator and friend Peter France at New Directions.
Four poems in Plume.

Four poems in The Manhattan Review.
Poem and Fergana School manifesto in Modern Literature in Translation.
Two poems in Plume.