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Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings, part of the Northwestern World Classics series, is officially published today! While today's publication of the book, all by itself, represents the most meaningful validation of my work begun ten years ago as a labor of love, and thus is a reward onto itself, I would of course like to appeal to you to purchase a copy, to recommend it to your friends and on Goodreads, and to like/join the Russian Absurd Facebook page to receive updates as the book goes forth into the world. I want to make it perfectly clear that I am painfully aware of the bitter irony inherent in the fact that, should you choose to support my own work in bringing Russian poetry into English, I stand to benefit from the work of an author written without even a shred of hope of publication in his own lifetime, a writer who had been literally starving to death for the final five years of his life, and who finally did so, during the Siege of Leningrad, in 1942. While I do take this awesome responsibility before the court of your judgment very seriously, I have every intention of pursuing my own work, with or without financial remuneration or even the prospect of the publication of another book; among my next book projects is a Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, perhaps the most important Russian poet of the 20th Century, one who has been most consequential to me personally, and yet another poet repressed by the Soviet regime. With this in mind, this, my last post dedicated to this book, is on DANIIL KHARMS and the STATE. ∞ AN OBSTACLE Pronin said, “You have very pretty stockings.” Irina Mazer said, “So you like my stockings?” Pronin said, “Oh, yes. Very much.” And he ran his hand down her leg. Irina said, “But what do you like about my stockings?” Pronin said, “They are very smooth.” Irina lifted her skirt and said, “Do you see how high they go?” Pronin said, “Oh, yes. Yes.” Irina said, “They end all the way up here. And there, I am nude.” “Oh,” said Pronin. “I have very thick legs,” said Irina. “And I’m very broad in the thighs.” “Show me,” said Pronin. “I can’t,” said Irina. “I’m not wearing any underwear.” Pronin knelt on his knees before her. Irina said, “Why did you get down to your knees?” Pronin kissed her leg just above the stocking and said, “Here’s why.” Irina said, “Why are you lifting my skirt? Didn’t I tell you that I’m not wearing any underwear?” But Pronin lifted her skirt anyway and said, “That’s alright.” “What do you mean by that, alright?” Irina said. At that moment someone knocked on the door of Irina’s room. Irina quickly righted her skirt. Pronin got up off the floor and went to stand by the window. “Who is it?” Irina asked at the door. “Open the door,” a voice commanded. Irina opened the door, and... Continue reading
Posted Feb 17, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
DANIIL KHARMS on SPIRIT; Selections from Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings (NWUP, 2017) From Daniil Kharms's magnum opus, “Starukha” (1939) “You see,” I say, “it seems to me that there are no believers or disbelievers. There are only those who wish to believe and those who wish not to believe.” “So you mean that those who wish not to believe already believe in something?” says Sakerdon Mikhailovich. “And those who wish to believe already, a priori, do not believe in anything?” “It may be so,” say I. “I do not know.” “But believe or disbelieve in what? In God?” asks Sakerdon Mikhailovich. “No,” I say. “In immortality.” “Then why did you ask me if I believe in God or not?” “Well, simply because asking ‘Do you or do you not believe in immortality?’ sounds somehow foolish,” I say to Sakerdon Mikhailovich and get up from the table.... From "A Treatise More or Less in he Spirit of Emerson" IV. On approaching immortality It is characteristic of every person to strive toward enjoyment, which is always a kind of sexual fulfillment, either satisfaction or acquisition. But only that which does not lie on the path of enjoyment leads to immortality. All the systems leading toward immortality, in the final analysis, are reducible to a single rule: at all times do that which you do not want to do, because every person always wants to either eat, or to satisfy their sexual urges, or to acquire something, or all of the above, more or less, at the same time. Interestingly, immortality is always connected with death, and is represented by the various religious systems either as eternal enjoyment, or eternal suffering, or an eternal absence of both pleasure and suffering. V. Of immortality Righteous is he on whom God had bestowed life as a perfect gift. February 14, 1939 From “The Conversationalists” (1940) On the tram sat two men engaged in the following conversation. One was saying: “I do not believe in life after death. No substantial evidence exists that life after death exists. No such authoritative testimony is known to us. And in religions also, it is mentioned either not particularly convincingly, as in Islam, or quite nebulously, as, for example, in Christianity, or it is not mentioned at all, as in the Bible, or it is directly said not to exist, as in Buddhism. The instances of visions, prophecies, various miracles, and even accounts which relate direct experiences of life beyond the grave neither possess nor may serve as definitive proof of its existence. I am not interested one jot in such tales, like the one about a man who saw a lion in his dream and the next day was killed by a lion escaped from the zoological exhibit. I am only interested in one question: does life after death exist or does it not? Tell me, what are your thoughts on the subject?” The second Conversationalist said: “This is my answer to you: you will never get... Continue reading
Posted Feb 16, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Beaverson was walking down the road pondering: why is it that when you pour sand in the soup, its taste becomes spoiled? All of a sudden, he saw a tiny little girl sitting in the road, holding in her hands a worm and crying loudly. What are you crying about? Beaverson asked the little girl. I’m not crying, said the little girl, I am singing. Then why are you singing like that? asked Beaverson. To make the worm happy, the girl said, and they call me Natasha. So that’s how it is? Beaverson said, taken aback. Yes, that’s how it is, said the girl. Good-bye. And the girl hopped up, climbed on a bicycle, and pedaled away. So small and already riding bicycles, Beaverson thought to himself. [1930] Previously published in The Literary Review, Vol. 56, Issue 03 , "Cry Baby" I was born among the cattails. Like a mouse. My mother gave birth to me and placed me in the water. And I swam off. Some kind of fish with four whiskers on its nose circled around me. I started to cry. And the fish started to cry also. All of a sudden we saw, swimming on the surface, a porridge. We ate the porridge and started to laugh. We were very happy and we swam along with the current and met a lobster. This was an ancient, giant lobster and he was holding in his claws an ax. Swimming behind the lobster was a naked frog. Why are you always naked? the lobster asked her. How come you aren’t ashamed? There is nothing shameful in this, the frog said. Why should we be ashamed of our beautiful bodies, given to us by nature, when we aren’t ashamed of our despicable deeds, that we ourselves create? You speak the truth, said the lobster. And I don’t know how to give you an answer to this. I propose that we ask a human being, because a human being is smarter than we are. Because we are wise only in fables, which human beings compose about us, so that it again appears here that the human being is wise and not we. So that’s when the lobster saw me and said: And we don’t even have to swim anywhere because here’s one— a human. The lobster swam up alongside me and asked: Should one be ashamed of one’s own naked body? You are a human so tell us. I am a human being and I will answer your question: we should not be ashamed of our naked bodies. [1934?] And now I will tell you about how I was born, how I was raised, and how the first signs of my genius were recognized. I was born twice. It happened in just this way: My father married my mother in the year 1902, but my parents brought me into this world only at the end of the year 1905 because my father had wished that his child be born precisely on... Continue reading
Posted Feb 15, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
"I can’t imagine why, but everyone thinks I’m a genius; but if you ask me, I’m no genius. Just yesterday I was telling them: Please hear me! What sort of a genius am I? And they tell me: What a genius! And I tell them: Well, what kind? But they don’t tell me what kind, they only repeat, genius this and genius that. But if you ask me, I’m no genius at all. Wherever I go, immediately, they all start whispering and pointing their fingers at me. What’s going on here?! I say. But they don’t let me utter a word, and any minute now they will lift me up in the air and carry me off on their shoulders." [Daniil Kharms, 1934– 36] ∞ Just a little over a year and a half ago, I had the great pleasure to blog in these pages for my first time, on the occasion of having edited the Contemporary Russian Poetry issue of the Atlanta Review (Spring 2015). When I wrote David Lehman, almost exactly a year ago now, to tell him that my first full book, Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings, was forthcoming early this year from Northwestern University Press, I could not have remotely expected his response, an offer to blog about Kharms and my book, today and for the remainder of this week. And so ... here we are, the book's official release is this Friday, February 17, and I am just back in New York City from yet another overwhelming AWP, this time in Washington, DC that is largely unchanged (other than the construction boom in its Midtown and all the newly gentrified neighborhoods) from that summer of 1984 when, as a budding Sovietologist, I walked every day from my GWU dorm room in Foggy Bottom to my internship at the Georgetown Center for Strategic Studies on 17th and K Street. I had every intention then to pursue a career in the diplomatic service and my special interest was arms control, and though the town is little changed, the world and each one of us in it have been utterly transformed in the space of only several months. 1984: what an exciting year that was for all of us, but especially for those with a keen interest in Russian and East European Studies. In May, the USSR had boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics as payback for the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, all of it, the consequence of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. That war, which would become known as "the Soviet Union's Vietnam," was later thought to have been a major factor in the collapse of the USSR. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev would inherit the helm as the General Secretary of the CPSU, after the deaths of three septuagenerian leaders within the space of three years (Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko) and the rest, as they say, is history. It seemed, then that the collapse of the Russian Empire was imminent, and that... Continue reading
Posted Feb 13, 2017 at The Best American Poetry
Continuing, and closing out my week today, with news from my corner of the publishing world. What I'd like to tell you is a very personal story, that owes its existence to the late poet, prose writer, editor, and fixture of the New York City downtown literary scene, Carol Novack. In 2004, Carol had founded one of longer existing online journals, the wacky, experimentalish, media rich Mad Hatters' Review. In 2010-2011, shortly before she retired to Asheville, North Carolina, we had worked closely on what would become Back to the USSR, a feature on 24 Contemporary Russian and Ukranian poets. That year, I left to teach at the American University of Central Asia, in Bishkek, Kyrgyztsan, just as Carol was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. I never got to say good bye. She died within three months, and left a substantial part of her estate to continue her legacy. Since my return, I have worked with Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Marc Vincenz to fulfill this, her last wish as it were. In my first year as Acquisitions Editor of MadHat Press, my focus has been on forming partnerships with primarily online journals to co-publish their print issues, annuals, and anthologies. And the editor of the first that came to mind, Plume, happened to be looking for exactly the same thing. Plume. Out of the gate, editor Daniel Lawless, has been publishing twelve annual, star-studded monthly issues, each with twelve contributors, a veritable Who's Who of American poetry. I am almost speechless to pay tribute to the work he has collected and published over his first few years, as it speak for itself, not to mention the scores of gushing testimonials from the poets themselves, a rare thing indeed. Danny is one of those rare editors who is genuinely beloved by "his" writers, and I do not use that word lightly. From the get go, I was attracted to the journal's aesthetic foundations in the French prose poem, and have been fortunate over the past several years to have Daniel accept and publish my translations of poets in the Atlanta Review Russia Issue, Shamshad Abdullaev, Vadim Mesyats, Alexander Ulanov (one of a very few Russian prose poets), Amarsana Ulzytuev, as well as the late Russian Chuvash poet Gennady Aygi. I particularly appreciated his rejection note to my own poems, always a delicate thing when dealing with a past contributor (I am speaking here as an editor.) I paraphrase: "I am a poet who has nothing in particular to say, and you are a poet who has much to say but who is yet to find a way to say it." I am preparing an interview with Daniel for publication in the Asymptote blog, in celebration of the journal's 50th issue (due mid-August; last month's issue 48 was Plume's 4th anniversary!) and then there will be more to say about its focus on translation, a fixture of every monthly issue. For now a brief roster will have to do. This was Daniel's... Continue reading
Posted Jul 17, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
Since its inception three years ago, annually, I have been a regular contributor to the National Translation Month initiative. I’ve used this as a platform to bring to readers’ attention the recent centennials of the Silver Age Russian Futurist (Burlyuk, Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, Maykovsky, in order of age) and Acmeist (Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Narbut, Zenkevich) “schools” of poetry. By the way, Acmeism, having emerged out of Nikolay Gumilev’s Guild of Poets, (along with a few “workshops,” “circles” and “groups” since,) is as close as Russia has got to an MFA program. The so-called Futurians, or the budyatlyane, as they called themselves, were famous for their barnstorming performance tours, a foretaste of the rock arena, slam and glam stardom of the "60s generation" (Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, and Akhmadulina) to come 50 years later on. When Claudia Serea asked me for a response, here is the testimonial I wrote on NTM: "In just two short years, is quickly becoming an essential resource, for literary translators and lovers of World Literature alike, of new translations of international writing, poetry and prose, contemporary and old. Along with such by now online stalwarts as Words Without Borders and newer luminaries such as Asymptote, NTM promises to be a leader in bringing to Anglophone readers everywhere the incredible wealth available to us from other cultures. NTM’s initiative could not have come at a more decisive time. A veritable tide of international writing in English is now a decade in building. I am personally indebted to founders Loren Kleinman and Claudia Serea for the honor of sharing the community they have created, with such esteemed colleagues as Sean Cotter, Roger Sedarat, Adam J. Sorkin, and the many yet to come.” My message to you today, dear reader, is a simple one: please, have in mind to seek out and read online poetry in translation; better still, go out and buy (or order in) poetry in translation. *** I want to mention here by name a few of the similar on-going projects. The editor of EM-review, Daniele Panatano, himself a translator from the German, invited me to edit for the premier issue [pdf] of the journal, a 50-page, 15-poet feature, with an extensive introduction, for what is essentially a mini-anthology of Russian Futurism. In the not too distant future, I hope to have a chance to make this the core of a print anthology. The St. Petersburg Review (Elizabeth L. Hodges editor) grew out of the editors' participation in the Summer Literary Seminars, before it migrated from Petersburg to Lithuania.(Apropos here is poet-translator Rimas Uzgiris's anthology of the work of 26 younger Lithuanian poets, How the Earth Carries Us [pdf].) The just released SPR 7 contains a Ukranian feature, which includes my translation (from the Russian) of Igor Lapinsky's poem "I am a Separatist" that had been censored from I also help edit SPR's sister online journal, Spinghouse, whose editorial mission is to be, like SPR, global, but also more current. Its premier issue had my translation of feature... Continue reading
Posted Jul 16, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
For the past 30 quarterly issues, with alarming regularity, right on time, every three months or so, I, along with a rotating crew of intrepid volunteer editors, including, at one time or another, Philip Dacey, Jahann Dawkins, Karla Huston, Josie Kearns, have read a few hundred submissions to assemble a literary magazine, in the old Small Press mold, Third Wednesday. Every submission is read anonymously; Larry strips off all the identifying remarks and sends them on to us with initials only. Among our regular contributors have been Marge Piercy, Susan Deer Cloud, Terry Blackhawk, X. J. Kennedy, Charles Harper Webb, Simon Perchik -- I could go on and on. What I used to call the old "small press stalwarts", a lot of "Michigan poets" Midwest poets. M.L. Liebler, Jack Ridl, Larry Levy, Therese Becker, Dawn McDuffie, Caroline Maun, Pat Barnes, Keith Taylor, Clayton Eschleman, Susan Morales, Jeff Vande Zande, Ken Meisel, Wanda Coleman, Lyn Lifshin, Richard Kostelanetz, John Grey, Richard Luftig, David Chorlton, A.D. Winans, Alex Cigale. Third Wednesday, because the print journal emerged out of a weekly poetry meet-up, held on every third Wednesday of the month, at Sweetwaters Cafe, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I'd spent most of the 80s. In the back of every issue we print the best poems by students from all grades, in the Inside/Out Literary Arts Project, Detroit's "Poets in the Schools" program that Terry Blackhawk founded 20 years ago. She just retired, June 30th; you can read her blog about the project on Huffington Post, and read the To Light a Fire anthology of the students' work. "Our students" had been featured in the Detroit Free Press, Michigan Daily, in Poets & Writers, Jacket2, PBS News Hour, and, yes, invited to the White House! To make a long story shorter.... I've known and loved Third Wednesday's venerable editor, Laurence W. Thomas, for two decades. We first met in the 90s, when for five years I edited my own small press lit mag based on the aesthetics of found art, Synaesthetic; we immediately bonded over our shared Michigan alumni past, being grateful members (past winners) of the Hopwood Awards community, our mutual love of travel, the world of poetry, and of world poetry, of teaching, and of the Objectivists poets. He still lives "down the road", in Ypsi where, by the way, at Eastern Michigan, Clayton Eshelman founded his now historic Sulfur (in 1981) and ran it for 20 years. When Larry (already in his 80s!) decided to start his own literary mag I could not resist his request for me to come on board as editor (or, more recently, even ask him for a sabbatical after seven years of service). Poetry communities are VERY relevant here, and the old small press journals that still thrive (I will be naming a few more here) are America's poetry bedrock. I flash back to a different age, the many virtual communities of the old "zines", in the pre-internet and, in many cases, even the "pre-publishing"... Continue reading
Posted Jul 15, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
OK, so how many of you go straight for the bios at the back of the mag? I know, as an editor, I do. (More generally, I also read the footnotes first, to familiarize myself with the territory.) We are fortunate to have among the translators of the Russia Issue of the Atlanta Review many who are accomplished younger English language poets in their own right. A partial list only: Ilya Kaminsky, Phil Metres, Derek Mong, Valzhina Mort, Philip Nikolayev.Today, it is their turn to shine, and my, to rally the troops. I invite the translators themselves to post in comments paragraph-long proposals for their books-in-progress and, of course, for prospective publishers to contact them. I invite readers to return to this page to explore the links as more of the features, and brief reviews of books, are added. Today's post concludes with "a review of the literature"; recent Russian poetry books in English translation. The number of presses that publish poetry in translation being countable on one's toes and fingers, each of these is, indeed, a major achievement. The Chicago Translation Workshop is Daniil Cherkassky, an accordionist and author of a socialist realist blog,; Anton Tenser, poet and linguist specializing in Romani languages/ ethnography; and Sasha Spektor, writer and professor of Russian language and literature at the University of Georgia-Athens. Alex Cigale​’s poems and translations appear in Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, PEN America, Two Lines, and World Literature Today. He is a 2015 NEA Translation Fellow, for Mikhail Eremin, and also edits at MadHat Press, Plume, St. Petersburg Review, Third Wednesday, and Verse Junkies. Boris Dralyuk translated several volumes from Russian and Polish and is co-editor of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). He received First Prize in the 2011 Compass Translation Award and the 2012 Brodsky/Spender competition. He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Katie Farris​ is the author of BOYSGIRLS (Marick Press) and co-translator of several books, including Guy Jean’s Selected Poems and Polina Barskova’s This Lamentable City (Tupelo Press). She teaches at San Diego State University. Benjamin Felker-Quin studied Russian and literary translation at Hampshire College, where he worked on the poetry of Osip Mandelshtam, Alexander Vvedensky, and Joseph Brodsky. He lives in Pennsylvania. He is one of the translators of the forthcoming Writing in the Dark: Five Siege Poets (UDP, 2016). Anne O. Fisher​ has translated the classic Soviet satires The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. She and her husband, Derek Mong, received an NEA Fellowship for their translations of Maxim Amelin. Sibelan Forrester​ is Professor at Swarthmore College. Her translations of Stepanova have appeared in Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets (Zephyr Press 2013), shortlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Awards. Alyssa Gillespie​ is Associate Professor at Notre Dame. Her books include A Russian Psyche: The Poetic Mind of Marina Tsvetaeva (2001) and Taboo Pushkin: Topics, Texts, Interpretations (2012). She won the 2012 Compass Translation... Continue reading
Posted Jul 14, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
I owe the pleasure of this week to the evening spent at Cornelia Street Café at the back table with David Lehman and Lawrence Joseph (his friend of 50 years!) Jump cut: When I recently asked David might he feature the Russia Issue of the Atlanta Review I'd just edited on the BAP blog, he offered me this residency to guest blog on the subject. It seems only fitting then that, in my first post, I do exactly that. Without further adieu.... AC Welcome! Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Yevtushenko, Brodsky. I have probably just summed up what most of us know of modern Russian poetry. And yet there could hardly be a nation more important for us to understand—or one with a greater enthusiasm for poetry. Yevtushenko’s readings used to fill football stadiums. Brodsky might have, had he not been exiled from his country as a “social parasite.” (On their worst days, poets sometimes wonder if what they do is useless. Imagine having your country tell you so officially! But what these poets do is far from useless, and it was out of fear, not scorn, that Brodsky was expelled from the Soviet Union. As Osip Mandelstam, who died in Stalin’s prison camps, once said: “Only in Russia is poetry respected; it gets people killed. Is there another place where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” Independent thinking, a broad and humane perspective, imagination, fearless criticism, creativity itself—these are the things that repressive regimes fear most, and for which we turn to poetry and poets. Here indeed are some chilling poems in which the personal and the political intersect, like Andrey Gritsman’s “Sarin, Soman, Tobun.” But also remarkable is the extent to which these Russian poets have refused to let political struggles dictate their agenda, finding space for free and imaginative exploration in the ample country of their own art. At Brodsky’s trial his Soviet judge sneered, “Who enrolled you in the ranks of the poets?” “No one,” replied Brodsky. “Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?” Brodsky would go on to win the Nobel Prize and become Poet Laureate of the United States. But the young and unrecognized poet’s answer still stands: what makes an artist is not the approval of society, but the expression of one’s own humanity. Nobel Prize or not, all poets still face the vast, snowy tundra of the blank page, with which this issue fittingly begins. And yet, from prison cells to castle keeps, Arctic to desert to Amazon jungle, they come bearing gifts of the human spirit, for which we will always be grateful. Dan Veach, Editor & Publisher of the Atlanta Review. TABLE OF CONTENTS Shamshad Abdullaev translated by Valzhyna Mort Anastasia Afanasyeva translated by Ilya Kaminsky and Kathie Farris Mikhail Aizenberg translated by J. Kates Maxim Amelin translated by Derek Mong and Anne O. Fisher Nikolai Baitov translated by J. Kates Polina Barskova translated by Alyssa Gillespie Gregory Dashevsky translated by the Chicago Translation Workshop and Margo Shohl... Continue reading
Posted Jul 13, 2015 at The Best American Poetry
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