Chimera Song Mosaic
Tuesday, July 06, 2004
Whatever it is, every task feels like such a drastic undertaking. So I avoid them. I never did get around to writing about my travels last summer, which feels like such a failure. And I think if I don’t do this now—write about St. Petersburg—I never will. If I wait for the moment when I am in the right frame of mind to do the trip justice, I’ll never do it. So I’ll just do it now—the unjustified, unofficial account:
Overall, I highly recommend travel and study in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Okay, maybe that’s too brief. Here are the reasons:
1. I have never been anywhere else like St. Petersburg. I think I have traveled quite a bit, people say, but only two times to Asia. And even so, St. Petersburg and Istanbul (and some places on the Aegean coast) are hardly Eastern cities, are in fact considered to be the most Western Eastern cities, and gateways to the East (and West), and all that. So St. Petersburg reminded me of Istanbul that very little bit. More, it reminded me of:
a. Vienna (the look of it: long stretches of Imperial buildings, as far as the eye can see pastels of yellow, pink, pale aquamarine)
b. Mexico City (the huge, mostly bare squares and plazas and the general rambunctious and energetic feel)
c. Prague (the behavior of most Russians we met, especially in the shops, the I’m-so-not-going-to-bother-to-help-you attitude in the service industry, which was welcome and fun to negotiate, and the food, the small portions of tasty, starchy, home-cooked food, which seemed to me like Czech or Hungarian of even German food)
d. Paris (the main drag, Nevsky Prospekt, is very like the Champs-Elysees, in that it is the place to be seen for the young, hot, and affluent people. It seemed as though Russians fitting this criteria would get dressed up and parade up and down the street at all hours, the later in the night/earlier in the morning, the younger and hotter and edgier the people got, the more the middle-aged and older people faded away, so much so that, for the first few days, several people commented (you couldn’t avoid noticing) how young and hot and hip and busy and feisty Russians seemed to be, but if you even stepped a little bit away from the boulevard, a block or so away, what you would encounter are more or less normal people, Russians that look like everyone else—well, everyone else who is descended from Northern Europeans (as most of the participants of the program were), because even the Russians couldn’t tell most of “us” apart from them, and they were asking us directions and fully expecting us to speak Russian, which most, but not all, of us did not. Also, Nevsky is very wide and strollable and filled with shops and restaurants in the beautiful Imperial buildings mentioned above.)
e. Maracaibo, Venezuela, and South Texas (in the hotness of the Russians, as mentioned previously. You hear people say that Russian women are some of the world’s most beautiful women; you also hear this about Venezuelan women. I don’t see how there can be much truth to such a ridiculous claim. But just the same, if you go to these places, you will find yourself seduced by the same generalization. However, Venezuela has a more empirical explanation for this, as the world’s highest per captia consumer of cosmetic products—men as well as women—and with a serious beauty pageant industry (where all the contestants get some kind of plastic surgery) that had produced a few Miss Worlds and launched the careers of more than a few female politicians. But my explanation for this, which makes sense too and is supported by a few other people, is that Russian and Venezuelan women and women of the Rio Grande Valley dress very formally and sexily. And most men do, too. Although Russian men seem especially hot and to be especially sexy dressers, my bias.)
f. Amsterdam (duh? the canals!)
Of course, none of these comparisons are valid, really, or useful in any way other than entertainment. The most truthful statement that I can make is that I have never been anywhere else like it. Really.
And I was, of course, expecting something totally different before I got there, I just can’t imagine what. It’s part of Arkadii Dragomoschenko’s discussion that day in the Mikhailovsky Garden behind the Mikhailovsky Palace and the Russian Museum (the talk I blogged about earlier as being the first most important thing that happened while I was there). Dragomoschenko said that before you came to St. Petersburg, you had an idea in your head of what it would be like. Now that you are experiencing it, you are finding that it does not fit with your earlier expectation, and you are having conflict as you try to reconcile the two. While you are here, you will keep modeling your concept of the city into something that represents more of the “real” thing that you are experiencing, but the implication is that neither will ever be discrete again, and that you have to get over the initial shock of not finding what you expected to find. This is true with all cities and all experiences. Also, he said that tourism is in essence an exercise in locating what you already know exists and confirming that existence. For example, before you visit the Eiffel Tower (this might have been the example he used), you have an image in your head of it, and while traveling you seek to replicate that image but in person. In this sense, what tourists are looking for is not for new experiences, but for experiences that reinforce their preconceived beliefs.
I might not be paraphrasing his ideas correctly. But then again, that’s what happens when you learn, sort of like the tourism model, you take what you can comprehend at the time and what fits with beliefs and ideas you already hold and then build off them. So for me, I really remembered this about his talk because it exactly fit with my ideas (and reservations) about tourism. I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty when I was in 7th grade and being profoundly and unexpectedly disappointed—so disappointed, in fact, that I didn’t bother to climb the steps to the top of the statue but instead sat in the grass in the park outside and contemplated the skyline of the city across the way—because it looked like every other picture I had ever seen before of the Statue of Liberty. I had expected something life changing, I guess. But later I came to relish the reorganization of the familiar, like every other adult does, perhaps. The first time I saw the Marienplatz in Munich after ascending from the subway in front of the Neues Rathaus when the full moon hung low in the creepy gargoyles, I was breathlessly, greedily satisfied by the image—no doubt because I had been playing a visual computer game only a few months before called The Beast Within, a werewolf fantasy game that features the Marienplatz and various Munich locales. I was immediately bonded with Munich, this was in 1997, and the affection lasts to this day. The Marienplatz is imprinted on me!
Also, my professor for the two weeks in “Untranslatable Russian,” Mikhail Iampolski said something about the inferiority of second hand experiences and information gathering, like you can’t or shouldn’t trust (or even value?) information not gathered firsthand. He mentioned the Western affection for second-, third-, etc.- hand information gathering and distrust for firsthand experiences (witnesses are not to be trusted because of bias), the idea that the only valuable or trustable knowledge comes from an indifferent party that has weighed all the information but is very far from the actual event. I initially rebelled against what he was saying, although I understood it immediately. I am more likely to trust these “objective” sources, too, and take personal testimonies as fascinating, emotionally stirring potential falsehoods. But then again, I am Western. Also, the whole reason I was in the class that I had not signed up for initially was because of recommendations from others, who went to the first class and said it was unmissable and helped them gain a better understanding of St. Petersburg right away. Three different people, who later became my friends, which, of course, increased their credibility, told me this, and told me various things he had mentioned in the class, including an explanation of the buildings beautiful facades that hid crumbling interiors. It’s not unknown, the economic crisis (and this word is used in its true sense) that Russian has experienced lately, but last year (2003) was the 300 year Anniversary of St. Petersburg, so the exterior of the buildings got a fresh coat of paint, but the insides, the apartments surrounding the courtyard common area, are in disrepair. But this fact you can get from a guidebook—what was it they said he said on that day? It’s hard for me now to discriminate between what I learned and when and from whom. But what was interesting to me at that moment in class when he mentioned the idea of distrusting those second-hand sources of knowledge is that if I had followed such and extreme credo, I wouldn’t have been in the class at that time! And I greatly valued what my new friends had told me.
Throughout my stay there, it was common practice for everyone to consult with each other on things they had missed: the circus, the opera, the ballet (Swan Lake!), lectures, workshop, readings, cathedrals, markets—there was simply too much to do and not enough time. So for us, this condensation and watered down dissemination was intellectual survival. And I am thinking of a possible argument that such is imperative in our “information age.” People, educated people, writers, every person of voting age is expected to keep up with global events, and the world isn’t getting bigger, it’s getting smaller as the educated elites of this world are ever expanding areas of interest as they apply egalitarian principles to the entire world’s surface and its peoples. It’s no longer okay to concern yourself with the French and the British, exclusively (I’m not picking on anybody; these are just examples). This is combined with the necessity of keeping up with local issues, too. So then, is it possible for us to function in another, less-abbreviated, less-shorthand way?
This is a really interesting question to me. And for a person who is so interested in the minutest details of things, obviously I am more comfortable exploring and learning at a snail’s pace. Much of the traveling I have done has not been so leisurely. The longest stint of what I would consider travel (and not a living situation) is three months I spent in Europe in 1997, where Lance and I traveled from Istanbul to Morocco and saw much of the major cities and a few small towns in between. It was at a fast pace, no doubt, but one we could adapt too, typically staying 3-6 nights in one place at a time. This results in knowing of the most variety in the most superrich way, but is far beyond tour-group kind of knowing. That taught me most of what I know about independent travel and much of my tolerance for other languages, cultures, whatever, so that I am almost never, or haven’t been in a long time, in a situation that I cannot deal with. I feel like I am completely adaptable person; I could live anywhere, and pretty much want to live everywhere I travel. My way of dealing with languages since I don’t know much (other than a lot of English, quite a bit of Spanish, emergency German) is to pick up on the courtesy words as soon as possible (the bare minimum is: good, hello, good bye, thank you, please, yes, no) and use them liberally. Everything else, commerce and comfort-wise, can be pantomimed. So I do know a lot, I guess, because I know those words in every country I have traveled through, and lots of English-language slang and dialect and even some Spanish ones.
I’m digressing completely! But again, how do I know if this is relevant? But the interesting part between these two theories is where they connect or how they do: if there is such a human urge to experience things first hand, but in an unauthentic way, then is it better or worse to experience things second-hand in a socially relevant way? Or, perhaps experiencing things first-hand and experiencing things second-hand can be unauthentic, so what is the answer? Is it better to stay in one place and never leave it but to know its bumps and slides in the most intimate and authoritative detail?
I learned many other things in Iampolski’s class. I won’t give all of them right now because I am getting very tired. But I hope to soon examine my notes and offer something of them. Also, Iampolski teaches at NYU, so some readers may have already had access to him (first-hand), or if not, everybody can get his books and learn that way (second-hand). I highly recommend him. He’s also very nice and was especially interested in our impressions of St. Petersburg. He also wanted to show us Russian Ark, but he couldn’t find it with English subtitles, which is funny to me because I saw it in Houston at the Angelika and that gave me some impressions of St. Petersburg and especially the Hermitage to recognize later as I went through it and had a Marienplatz experience when I saw the stairwell and immediately recognized it and misrecognized it as a still reflecting pool flanked by white marble statues (I’ll try to find an image of it. Hold on! I did find something! This is a modern image, but not from above, so sadly you won’t get the reflecting pool effect as I saw it, and clearly although I want everyone to see things the way I see them, that won’t be possible in this instance. See Russian Ark for approximation. Anyway, this website is great! Virtual tours and historical comparisons, etc.).
The other amazing thing about Dragomoschenko’s talk (as I jump back and forth) is that he switched over into Russian once he had us stopped in a pretty place in the garden. Mariya Gusev, a program assistant who is currently an M.F.A. candidate living in the United States, translated, so anything I remember and have written about from Dragomoschenko I actually learned from her, and she did the most amazing job translating and employed the most delicious choice of words. It was like listening to poetry because Dragomoschenko would say several words in units that seemed like lines in Russian, then Gusev would say it in English and again it seemed like she was reading very long lines of poetic units. Sometimes he would say a few sentences and sometimes it was much longer, but she would always counter in the same breaths, it seemed, and so it appeared perfectly choreographed and somehow symmetrical. Later, Mariya told me that it was very challenging to translate from Dragomoschenko because of his intricate and precise and highly literary vocabulary. I told her that it came out that way on her end, too. It was amazing and fascinating, and we were standing there under the filtered light from the leaves of trees that looked like maple and ash. And it began to get a little cold. Then we moved on.
In Brenda Hillman’s workshop, on the first day she showed us some incredible poems by Michael Palmer and Srikanth Reddy and Osip Mandelstam and even a new poem by Robert Hass. We had heavy and heated discussions and that got the class off to a terrific start. She mentioned that we shouldn’t discuss the language in the translated Mandelstam poems, just the images and meaning, because they had been translated, which I thought was an amazing idea. But then, when you consider some of the better translations, perhaps, why not? I’m thinking of Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear’s translation of Anna Karenina, which I’m currently reading (yes, still—I didn’t get any reading done in Russia!), which is said to be an excellent translation because Volokhonsky, who is a native Russian speaker translates it first and roughly, and then Pevear, a native English speaker, rewrites it then and several times, and then Volokhonsky checks Pevear’s work and they are a wife and husband team and that might count for something, right? Even though Oprah has picked this title up and put it on her list (without reading it first) and even though it is not really a St. Petersburg text (for St. Petersburg, go for Dostoevsky; for Moscow, go Tolstoy), don’t be discouraged from reading it! Only being a 3rd of the way through when I left for St. Petersburg, it still helped me tremendously with Russian names, historical and social things, etc. Plus it’s a fast read and well footnoted.
Which brings me to yet another question: how good can a translation get, now close to the original? I thought Gusev’s translation was wonderful. So can a poem be translated to the extent that we can, through second-hand learning, experience the whole?
Which brings me to the second thing I loved about going to St. Petersburg:
2. The learning; see above. Also,
a. One intriguing lecture by Eugene Ostashevsky (I looked around a little for a link, but he’s pretty cagey bio-wise, nothing but his poetry everywhere. Which is how it should be, right? Coming full circle, I like what Kasey had to say about him here) on “Russian Absurdism” that was very fresh and enticing. Okay, disturbing, too, the history of the Absurdists; he discussed: Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vredensky, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Nikolai Oleinikov. Ostashevsky alternated between telling bits of their histories, writing their names on a chalkboard in English and Cyrillic, and reading their work in a highly engaged, energetic voice. There was one (I wrote down fragments, but in most cases my notes aren’t sufficient to include titles) where two characters, Natasha and Cuprionoff (?), strip off their clothes agonizingly self-consciously in preparation for a copulation that never manifests. It was very funny but also very sad; the penis was a “moribund worm,” and overall the other sex is revealed to be alien, unknown, can’t be known. (This is interesting to me because of its implications for heterosexuality.) The long poem was also very familiar to me, and perhaps that’s why I’m mentioning it in particular—because I was looking for the familiar all along. I’m sure Josh has mentioned him before on his blog (yes, right here! I can thank Josh for the fact that I was not going to miss the lecture, though I was really sleepy at the time) —perhaps he mentioned this very poem at another time? The unraveling of it, the undressing and funny tragedy of it was very familiar. Also, there will be book of these translations by Ostashevsky coming out from Ugly Duckling Press soon.
Ostashevsky said that one thing that gets in the way of translations from Russian to English is that Russian has much longer words and many more rhyming words. I have head the same thing about Spanish, at least the rhyming part, and have heard it as well as imagined it in that language. Actually, this is hard for me to get my head around because there seems to be an abundance of rhyme in English, almost too many rhyming words. What if there were more? What would that be like? It’s interesting to think of English as rhyme-deficient, especially because there seems to be so much poetry written in English. Of course, there seems to be so much of it! So much English all over the place; it’s compulsory. It was nice to not be compelled to read signs while in Russia. But still, many of us found ourselves trying to read; Cyrillic looks familiar, anyway. Also refreshing the lack of tourists from other places. Most of the tourists we encountered were Russian tourists. I was expecting more: Canadians, Germans, French, Australians, New Zealanders. I met some of each (expect, shockingly, no Australians!), and the flight from St. Petersburg to Munich was filled with elderly German tourists. What we ate on that flight is another story.
b. Readings by: Jeffrey Renard Allen; Mary Gaitskill; Binyavanga Wainaina; Elizabeth Kendall; Robert Hass; Brenda Hillman; Kenneth Calhoun; Laura Sims; Padgett Powell; Robert Olmstead. (These were wonderful, but this is a lot to write about now! Maybe more later?)
c. Participant open mic readings on two nights, which were extremely enjoyable not only because of the high quality and diverse work of the participants but also because the format of 5 minutes or less was strictly adhered to, and so if you lost interest in something you were listening to, something new would come soon. I read (The Queen of Chain Series posted here previously) and really enjoyed myself ; Marisa read her short story, Mrs. Gomez, and it was jinglingly brief and shocking to be heard out loud.
d. Various walking tours, including the one mentioned above, and lots of midnight canal cruises, which were delicious, as the night air was delicious and the weird sunlight.
e. Marisa and I also went to Peterhof, Peter the Great’s Imperial Palace, a palace to rival other palaces in its imperialness! We went with a group of other participant and our new friends:
3. New Friends! The melodiously “moody” Ruti Sanabria of Argentina and New Jersey and NYC, who wears a black wool shawl to perfection; Elizabyth and Douglas, the couple from Chico, CA, now M.F.A. candidates in poetry at University of Arizona, who also have a fire act that may be performed in certain bars with Sambuca; Laura Sims and Corey Mead of Madison, Wisconsin, who are scandalously fun and full of mischief, gossip, and lots of “downtime.” It was fun to come home and find lots of Laura and Corey's poems in issues of my favorite journals lying around the house (Fence 5.2, American Letters & Commentary # 14). Also, Laura won the Summer Literary Seminars 2004 Poetry Contest--yea, Laura!
4. Thanks to the Summer Literary Seminars! I could have gone to St. Petersburg independently, and so can you. But I wouldn’t have hustled and done it this summer if not for SLS, and I am so grateful for that. They brought everything together in one place: the lectures, the readings, the literary St. Petersburg connections (I’m talking physical ones here, not people) that I wouldn’t find in a guidebook or on my own. Yes, I would have seen much more of the city in two weeks on my own and probably known a lot more about “Russians.” However, I wouldn’t have felt an immediate literary community, and, as you know if you read this blog, I am forever lamenting the absence of one here in the Valley. Also, having been out of my M.F.A. program for five years, I think I (and Marisa) weren’t a typical participant; most people were currently in programs or were writers going at in on their own. Since I hadn’t been in a “proper” workshop for a long time, I was hungry for it, and this one defiantly satisfied. I was perhaps even hungrier for a classroom—at least one that I wasn’t on the business end of! I meant a couple of guys, Brad and Darin, in the creative writing PhD program at the University of Houston, and that is sounding very attractive to me right now.
But actually now nothing sounds better than the summer, and I am in the thick of it right now! No classes to think of until mid-August, so I am free! Or at least, I will be free when I get back from Mexico. I will make every effort to blog about that when I get back. I promise.