Kirill Medvedev is a Russian poet and political activist who has forgone his copyright and denounced his position in the Moscow literary world. A selection of his poetry, essays, and manifestos from the past decade has recently been published by n+1, the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, in a collection titled It’s No Good. Keith Gessen is a Russian-born American author who is the co-editor of n+1. He writes about Russia for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and a host of other publications. The Eye sat down with the two literati over everything bagels and cream cheese to discuss poetry in translation, political activism, and what it feels like to be published. During the interview, Medvedev spoke in Russian and Gessen translated.
In the past week you’ve visited Penn, Yale, The New School, and now Columbia. You live in Russia now, so I was wondering how you’ve experienced your time in this bubble of the American university.
Kirill Medvedev: I’ve had a great time at the universities. One of the things that struck me was that even though I’ve been told the kind of pathos of my various ideas is incomprehensible in an American context, I’ve found that people comprehend it quite well. The questions they ask me are very interesting. In a way, they’ve allowed me to work out some things for myself that I would not have worked out otherwise. Especially in Russian, I don’t really have a chance to talk about literature that much, especially my own.
In one of your poems you juxtapose the extremism of identity and the turn to radicalism, as well as the extreme neutralization and suppression of identity. How does this apply to your life?
KM: I wrote that poem in a time when political radicalism, in the sense of a very serious search for an alternative political model, had not yet formed in Russia. At the time, I was also very interested in radical art or artistic radicalism of the ’90s. It was called Moscow Actionism, so it was a series of people who were artists, or quasi-artists, who did these radical art stunts. It seemed that this kind of art radicalism was replacing political radicalism. This was fine in the ’90s, but in the early 2000s when he wrote that poem the absence of political radicalism seemed like it was becoming a big problem. At the same time I was also very concerned about this idea that was popular in the ’90s under the conditions of which there was unbridled radicalism. You had to reject all your humanistic values, which were maybe quite natural. You had to reject solidarity, sympathy, and all your human feelings so you could get ahead in life. I continued to be interested in that challenge in the context of radicalism: rejecting one’s work or trying to suppress human feelings but at the same time to take a radical political position. Either a humanistic radicalism or a radical humanism is something that I’m very interested in.
Kirill, you write a lot about not caring about being published. But at the end of the day you were published, and people are buying your book, and you are speaking to audiences. I’m wondering if you are finding satisfaction out of that?
KM: If I really thought about my books, and whether they contradicted some of my declarations, for example my declaration that I wasn’t going to publish anymore, it would take up a lot of time. Luckily, I have all these other things to do. I have a rock group that I work with and my political activism and the question in this particular book. I haven’t really thought about it outside the context of this tour. Having said that, I do feel like there is a certain logic and process within which this book was published, which I am sympathetic to and which accords to my positions and my ambitions.
Keith Gessen: What do you mean by “logic”?
KM: Well, partly it’s the fact that I didn’t have to be part of the process of making the book, even though I did know it was coming out.
KG: Two other books have been published since he’s made his declaration—one in Russia and one in Estonia, where he did not know they were coming out. It’s a nice surprise.
KM: So, in that sense there is a kind of organic quality to it. I’ve written these declarations and poems and they kind of go out into the world and I don’t have to make any more beautiful gestures on their behalf.
KG: There was a proposal for us to sell foreign rights to this book for a British publisher, who would have sold the rights in Europe. So the book would have been sold in Europe and they would have paid us, which would not have been a bad thing. And Kirill said no.
KM: Just to clarify, it’s not like I wrote these things and then I forgot about them. I wrote them and they create a kind of logic of their own which the Estonian publisher followed and which n+1 followed to a certain extent.
You write a lot about translation. I understand that Keith Gessen, here, is your translator. One of your poems reads, “Translation is like / a sweet dream / whereas actually creating something / is torture / which is why / I will probably stop / working on / translations.” Why, then, do you often choose translation over writing?
KM: The truth is, that the creative process, despite its various tortures is immensely satisfying, if it’s successful and you are able to express a feeling or a thought. It becomes something like a narcotic. If, when you’re creating something you are ultimately satisfied with the result—with translation the actual process is more satisfying and more enjoyable. When you’re creating something, it’s less enjoyable in the process. In the end, both are a way of working with experience. When you’re writing your own poetry, you’re working with your own experience. When you’re translation, you’re working with someone else’s experience. For me, translating feels like there is someone else’s experience, which I find very interesting and very attractive . But it’s an experience that I know in the foreseeable future I will not have. So it’s a way of trying to translate that experience and in a way have the experience myself. It’s parasitical.
Keith, how was it working as a translator for someone who doesn’t care for translation?
KG: I actually have the opposite experience. I find writing my own stuff enjoyable, even if the result I’m never quite satisfied with, and the process may be torturous. But when it’s done, that means I’ve brought something into English that did not previously exist in English. Kirill is an ideal writer to work with because he himself is a translator and he has renounced his copyright so he doesn’t even want to be bothered or asked any questions. We have found numerous mistakes in the process of reading the poems aloud. I read them in English, he reads them in Russian, and afterwards he says “Why did it say that? That’s not what I wrote.” But he’s very understanding. Yesterday he said, “When there are mistakes in a translation there is room for progress. It means it is still a living text.”