Interview with Vlanes
An interview with Vlanes (Vladislav Nekliaev)
by Louise Waller
Another Babylon, your first poetry collection, has received the 2010 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, congratulations! It is due for publication by University of Queensland Press in 2011. I am interested in the fact that you have written this collection in English and wonder whether you may be planning, at a later date, to produce a Russian language version? I imagine it must be quite difficult to write your own poetry in a language which is not your ‘mother tongue’. Could you talk about this process and how it does or doesn‘t differ from writing in Russian?
Thank you. I began to write poetry in English in 1997, when I left Russia and settled in Athens. At first, it was simply a desire to be understood by Europeans, but then it became a conscious choice. I realised that it is actually a good thing – to write poetry in a foreign language, since one is no longer conditioned by one's upbringing to combine words in a certain way. One doesn't register fruitful faults in the acquired language. I recall reading Rilke's poems written in Russian. His Russian was not very good, with numerous grammatical mistakes, but there were also many strange and beautiful things. Rilke, for instance, describes a peasant who has "a spacious face." Now a native Russian is not likely to come up with such a striking word combination.
Russian poetry, despite a number of formal innovations, still retains a penchant for strict meter and rhymes. Many Russians still view free verse as cover for lack of technique. I wanted to get away from the conditioning I had received. English allowed me to start looking for my own form. I realised that I could not continue to employ full rhymes in English, as I did in Russian. On the other hand, I was, and am, like my compatriots, quite suspicious of free verse. More often than not, a free-verse poem seems to me a chunk of prose split into short lines. Rewritten as prose passages, such texts are often impossible to identify as poems. A poem ought to be held together by something, tighter and tighter, to the brink of imploding, be it rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, meter, strict sequences of thought and imagery, etc. I can't help feeling that much modern poetry is just that – passages of dry prose posing as something they are not. The state of near imploding is rarely achieved, but nevertheless it is my ideal.
I had to find a just mean between rhyming and not rhyming, to learn to use meter freely without becoming wayward. English gives me this opportunity. Russian, being a much stricter language, does not. It is no longer difficult for me to write in English as it has become almost my native language. My mind and soul have accepted it completely, like Russian.
As for the Russian version of Another Babylon, I may well decide to write it, although I would have to make Russian variants of these poems, rather than translations because these poems are nearly impossible to translate into Russian. In the originals, full rhymes are used sparingly, some lines are left entirely unrhymed. I mostly use what we may call "rhymoids," that is, words that echo each other, without developing into proper rhymes. The aim is to achieve a highly sophisticated text, complex in form, but the reader should not be aware of this. There should be no sign of exertion. The most intricate piece should be simple and effortless in appearance. One could remember in this connection some of the great sonnets written by Petrarch, Camões or Rossetti.
Your translation into Russian of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘The House of Life’ was published in 2009 and your new project translating Euripides from Ancient Greek into Russian is a work in progress. Perhaps you can explain the rationale for development of these projects and why the work of Rossetti and Euripides is important to you.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti is my mentor, much admired and loved. I have been working on the Russian version of The House of Life for about 19 years. My own technique was developed in the process. Translating a sonnet from English into Russian is a gruelling task that requires total control and concentration. Interestingly, Rossetti went through a similarly excruciating training, having translated, as a young man, the early Italian poets. However, he was in an easier position, English being a softer, more permissible, target language.
Although Rossetti was never officially banned in the Soviet Union, he was considered a decadent who could contribute little to the progressive culture. With a few rare exceptions, his poetry was neither translated into Russian, nor published. I felt a need to bridge this gap and create a Russian version of Rossetti's masterpiece. I am proud to have contributed to the recognition that Rossetti enjoys now in Russia. I still occasionally return to Rossetti's work, translating a ballad or a sonnet.
With Euripides it is a different story. Every more or less educated Russian knows at least who he is, that he wrote "Medea," etc. He is studied at universities. When my Greek became good enough to read Euripides in the original, I compared it with the Russian translations, and the experience was depressing. Euripides' tragedies were translated only once (with a few exceptions), more than a hundred years ago, and these translations have become distressingly obsolete. They contain lots of mistakes, they invent a lot, use incorrect meter, employ rhyme, burden the original with many irrelevant remarks and descriptions, and do not preserve the order and number of lines. Their Euripides sounds like a pompous dramatist at the end of the 19th century.
In fact, Euripides is a very sober poet. He describes people, usually women, pushed to the limit by unfortunate circumstances, but he does it with a great deal of self-restraint. Mistakes aside, this is what is mostly wrong with the 19th-century translations: they bring out what should stay within.
After researching the field, I realised that nobody was going to produce a new Russian version of Euripides in the foreseeable future, so I decided to do it myself. It is a very extensive project, which, if all goes well, will take another 8-9 years. I have already completed "Alcestis," "Medea," "Iphigenia at Aulis" and half of the "Bacchae." As I work, my admiration for Euripides continues to grow.
I have also prepared, for the first time in the Russian language, a translation and complete reconstruction of partially preserved "Phaethon," a superb tragedy of Euripides, admired by Aristotle and Ovid. It was an odd experience: to write and translate the same piece. I am planning to produce the English version of my reconstruction in the near future.
When I was a young girl, I lived in a family that had few books of poetry, save for Shakespeare, the Bible, and some children’s nursery rhymes and fables. I found myself gravitating to libraries and developed my interest in poetry through chance and haphazard circumstances. My understanding of Australian poetry came through pretty boring school instruction, even so, I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in poetry. Can you detail your own circumstances and recollection, growing up in Kazakhstan? Were you always interested in poetry or did you discover it later, in adulthood, as so many do? Can you mention the poets who most influenced you?
Well, my childhood was distinctly different. At school, we were rigorously taught Russian and foreign literature. We were taught English and American literature in English. Avid reading was strongly encouraged and rewarded. I was fortunate to have had experienced and dedicated teachers. My education at that level was quite thorough, for which I will always be grateful to the Russian system.
I began to write at the age of 16 – who doesn't? The first influences were, of course, the Romantics, particularly the Russian school. This influence was very hard to shake off later. When I began to read English and American poetry, I naturally gravitated towards the 19th century, particularly Poe and Wilde. Then came Rilke and Lermontov. I was gradually getting tired of the Romantic dichotomy – I versus the World – as well as of the vagueness of form and lack of emotional control. Learning Ancient Greek and Latin, I discovered true greatness as I perceive it: Homer, Vergil, Horace, Propertius. As you see, my tastes are quite conservative. Romantics and I have parted ways. Among modern poets, I still search for the same qualities which are present in the classics. I translated the complete erotic poetry of Cavafy for this reason.
I’d like to look at a couple of your poems, ‘Crab’ and ‘Loaf of bread’ published in foam:e 7. When I first read them, they seemed to come from a distinctly European tradition. Would you agree? I also found them to be reminiscent of fable and myth, slightly dreamlike, with a dark, slightly menacing luminosity underpinning the narrative strand. From another of your poems, titled ‘Another Babylon’ the following; “by my fantasies I permeate my Babylon / with mythologies and syncretic beasts”. There seems an historical interest and tradition resident within the language and constructs of the poems. Could you expand on your process in this regard, or perhaps discuss the ideas which imbue your poetry and poetics?
My texts indeed come from a very different tradition. How could it be otherwise? Moreover, the modern mind, with its neuroses, self-contradictions and lack of direction does become tiring. One feels the need to return to the roots. I particularly wanted to try to understand how the mind of an ancient man works, the mind which does not distinguish between the real and the supernatural, the dream and the myth. The wholesome, direct mind, which does not easily fall apart. The Babylon which I describe is not, of course, the historical Babylon. However, there is a large degree of historical and mythological accuracy in this book.
My general outlook is strongly influenced by Gnosticism. For me, poetry is the means of awakening. At first, for brief moments, while writing. Then, for longer and longer, until the state of writing and living merges completely. I don't know if this is possible, but I am willing to do my best trying. I believe that there is the ancient mind, dormant within us, the mind of our ancestors who could have been anyone: Greeks, Romans, Copts, Babylonians. I believe that these civilisations were more evolved than we are, despite our technological advances. There was a much greater degree of alertness in an ancient person than there is in us. Alertness towards one's own body, the earth, the sky, beasts, demons and gods. There were always many ways to interpret and, therefore, create oneself directly, without intellectualising, based on the abundance of external material unrestricted by science or monotheistic religion with its corresponding morality. I am trying to get in touch and, possibly, merge, with this ancient mind. It may seem strange to combine Babylonian mythology with Gnosticism, but, firstly, Gnosticism is much more ancient than is usually thought, and, secondly, this is my imagination.
After leaving Russia, then living and working in Greece, you arrived in Australia in 2001 and you are currently continuing with academic studies at University of Queensland. Do you have plans to stay in Australia, after completion of your studies? Could you talk about the cultural nuances you may experience being so far from your homeland? Do you write a lot of poetry based on your Russian experiences? Is it easier or harder for you to develop your work, living and working as an expatriate?
I have already completed my academic studies. I defended my PhD Thesis in 2007 at The University of Queensland. Its subject is Rossetti's sonnets and how to translate them. In 2010, I received a BA in Ancient Greek and Latin at the same university. I am also an Australian citizen, so Australia is my country now. I live here and regard it as my home. Yes, it did take a few years to adjust to the new, Australian, culture. Russians are more expressive, they don't smile so much, some of them may seem even rude compared to Australians. Of course, most of them are not. You don't ask "How are you?" in Russia, unless you are prepared to hear an hour-long unbosoming. You don't say that everything is fantastic when your house is about to fall on your head. Well, the differences between the two cultures can be quite striking, and I had to suppress quite a few things within me (not entirely successfully) and to acquire some (not always happily). As for my Russian experiences, I don't write any poetry based on them, or on any of my experiences, for that matter. If they do seep into my work, this happens unconsciously. I make no deliberate attempt to describe or narrate anything that "really" happened, or to moralise. These are simply not my goals. It is neither easier, nor harder to me for write in Australia, or in Greece, or in Russia. I don't look outside for impressions or inspirations.
I’m also interested in your relationship with contemporary Russian poets and poetry. Do you read any of these poets? Do you have any favorites? If so, could you talk about what they do that you like? If you feel that it’s possible for you to address, I’d be interested in your views of Australian contemporary poets also, what you like and dislike, or who you read.
Modern Russian poetry is in a state of paradox. On the one hand, the rise of the Internet made the work of everybody, who has a computer, available worldwide. We have poetry websites (I participate in two of them myself), where one can upload one's poems and within a short time be read in various parts of the world. When I was a student in Russia, it was all science fiction, of course. Lots of verse-makers, who would have been previously confined to their local poetry clubs and long-suffering relatives, are now read by thousands. The Russians are absolutely voracious, tempestuous and explosive as far as poetry is concerned. It is all extremely personal with them. They have always been such. It is like the Greeks and theatre. Reams of poetry are being written and devoured every day. It can be rather depressing. So, we have a sky-high surge of quantity and, naturally, a sharp drop in quality. From time to time I try to find a modern Russian poet whom I could read and admire, perhaps, even contact, but so far it has not happened. Maybe, masters are hard to find in this huge crowd, or they no longer exist. I don't know.
Moreover, a lot of modern Russian poetry is dominated by Brodsky who introduced certain ways of handling the Russian language that are not always to its advantage. Brodsky's ceaseless irony, sarcasm, even vulgarities are ad nauseam varied and repeated by crowds of his epigones.
As for Australian poetry, it is still terra incognita to me. It is based on principles entirely different from Russian poetry and, to a certain extent, European poetry, not only regarding its formal aspects. Moreover, modern Australian poetry is a multilayered phenomenon, to which so many cultures are contributing that it is nearly impossible, at least, for me, to find any solid points of reference. I am in the process of adjustment. I do read and sometimes translate the work of Jena Woodhouse. Being proficient in Russian language and literature, she reflects certain things in her rich and intensely lyrical poetry that are familiar to me and, as a result, easier to assimilate.
Before we finish, a final word or two now, for you to discuss anything I may have omitted to address or something which you might like to comment on.
Regarding modern poetry, it is always worth repeating that it is a simple matter to be complex. Any word combination will seem to make sense if one bothers to think about it long enough. However, this sense will belong to the reader who will communicate with himself, thinking that he communicates with the poet. As one grows older, verbal pyrotechnics and convoluted imagery become less and less satisfying. One longs for simplicity and clarity. The mind becomes tired of playing games with words and wants to nourish itself, to touch another mind. Our most profound writers – Homer, Plato, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Goethe – use very simple language, which is the most difficult thing to do. The less one has to say, the more complex language one uses. This is a commonplace, but I am beginning to comprehend it only now.
Vlanes, thank you for your time and interest. Good luck with your ongoing projects and best of luck with the launch in 2011 of Another Babylon.
Thank you very much, Louise. Best of luck to you, too!