Interview with Arkadii Dragomoschenko

Context N°20

by Shushan Avagyan

Shushan Avagyan: Dust is a collection of essays, quite different from your previous works. How would you describe it?

Arkadii Dragomoschenko: To a certain degree, yes, it is kind of different from my former writings, i.e., poetry, and perhaps, prose works, too (I’m referring to Phosphor, Chinese Sun, and probably forgetting something). As we speak, I’m tempted to put the words “genre” and “type” in quote marks, because genuinely speaking I don’t have the sufficient grounds to articulate their differences—well, with the exception of “poetry,” the definition of which is so grossly oversimplified. I think that the categorization of the latter has acquired such a habitual factor that it’s too late to change anything.

So then, what is Dust? Perhaps, for a start, I will say that it represents “structure.” It consists of a certain conditional unity of fractions, which are dispersed and networked through either magnetic fields, movements in the air, or the voracity of our eyes. Interestingly, before even starting “Indifference” (the last essay in Dust), I had no intention of having cut-out fragments juxtaposed to finished pieces, which then would determine their relationship to the last part. Looking back, now I have all the grounds to claim that their . . . let’s say their architecture (associations, relativity, construction of intonations) began to shape only in the process of writing “Indifference.”

SA: As I understand, some of the pieces were written in train stations, hotels, during writer’s symposiums in Berlin, New York, Helsinki and other cities. How much did these transitional circumstances in which you wrote influence the plot of the book?

AD: Before the conception of “Indifference” each essay represented a sort of self-contained fragment, written in connection to various singular circumstances (I didn’t bother in structuring any of the writings or confining them to a certain finished plot). At different occasions I wrote some of the essays for literary journals, or they appeared in other publications, like the essay “Sand to Sand” was originally written as a preface to a book. At other occasions I would start writing a letter to someone and then I would quickly lose interest in finishing it—instead I’d send a short note to the person I was writing the letter . . . as an excuse. Sometimes I wrote out of sheer pleasure—I’m talking about the simple physical pleasure I get out of typing or feeling my fingertips on the keyboard. At those instances I imagine seeing the body of a concrete reader, hovering in a slant of the obfuscated horizon; by which I mean the anticipation of his reaction to what he’d just read and tried to change the expanse and proportions with my “forthcoming sentence.” Well, and at other times all of these would happen simultaneously. Then I would put everything aside for the big thick vision of a book, which would encompass all.

SA: Cultural differences often pose as a difficulty in perceiving a certain author or literature in general. How do American readers react to your work?

AD: The question is rather complicated. I guess it makes sense to talk a little bit about certain sources of writing—sort of supplemental writing. Universal mores have lost their excitement. Perpetuality and everlasting values have unfortunately become the subjects of academic analysis. To a certain extent, I suppose human experience replicates fundamental narratives typical of this or that era. And sometimes, only the extent and vastness of such an experience vouch for the fact that comprehension, in general, is possible. But speaking of dialoguing, it’s important to remember that a dialogue is not a system of “exchange,” but rather a discontinuous liaison based on anticipation in the form of questions/answers.

It sounds ridiculous, but really, will any reader understand anything about the present-day, or even the old Petersburg, or about Russia in general, by reading my book? Of course the reader has various motivations for reading, and that’s what keeps me writing.

SA: In one of your essays from Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States you write about New York: “As soon as you get used to hearing several languages spoken at once, the surroundings suddenly lose their fifth dimension and the world returns to the realm of normal things, such as the heel of my shoe, ground down from too much walking, the reflection of the setting sun cast with seeming indifference by a passing subway train on the Manhattan Bridge, the ring of a telephone, a receipt from a liquor store, or a tearful meeting with Avital Ronell in a labyrinth of offices at NYU.” At first estranged, America becomes very familiar . . . Could you talk a little bit about your visit?

AD: I have a very complex, subtle and rather amenable relationship with this country. In a few words—I love America, because in my sub-consciousness, memory and even imagination it’s never self-contained or concluded. “America, to me” is an ever-pulsating, multi-faceted construction of high dynamic voltage—in cultural, ethnographical, geographical, anthropological, political and finally personal aspects.

I wrote the first part of my book Chinese Sun in Encinitas, where I lived and taught at the University of California, San Diego, as a visiting professor. My seminar was called “Different Logics for Writing,” which I was planning to use as the title for my book, but then something else occurred to me one evening, when I was standing at the shore, completely entránced by the sunset—I realized that China had dislocated itself to the West . . . But then, of course, I forgot all about it until months later, in Petersburg, I came across one of Konstantin Vaginov’s lines: “Look how shimmers the dead Chinese sun . . .”

Of course, you’ll point out my use of “foreign” (to the Russian reader) names of local streets, downtown areas, cities—all that is a simple device for estranging one from the textual material. This is an old device, by the way, something that has been around long before Shklovsky and the Russian Formalists pointed it out. Remember the riddles from your childhood. Instead of saying “scissors,” for example, we ask what is it that has “two ends, two rings, and a screw in the middle.” When taken out from its “normal” (habitual) context, and inserted into a complex rhetorical structure or syntactic construction, the expression gains a different semantic horizon as a phenomenon free from its experiment (or experience), meaning, it’s not so much a “rewriting” but a shifting of one’s optic angle. It’s not an investment with an additive significance, but a radical shift of the actual conscience. These were some of the ingredients that we experimented with at the seminar in La-Jola.

SA: Can you talk a little bit about your correspondence with Lyn Hejinian. How did it end up in Jacki Ochs’s Letters Not About Love?

AD: My collaboration with Lyn and Jacki began long time ago—I think it was at the end of the 1980s. Jacki has one remarkable quality; she always finds an intellectual intrigue in all her projects (perhaps I’m wrong and it’s the other way around—an actual “intrigue” becomes material for her films). In any case, the plot of the documentary that was based on my correspondence with Lyn didn’t sound very convincing. But then Jacki, rather unexpectedly, turned our attention to the Bakhtinian notion that one can “understand” his own culture only through “another” culture. Of course, this idea wasn’t anything new or exceptional, but the time and place when it was brought to our attention, from the point of social, let’s say, “meditation” or inquiry, it seemed quite reasonable. And then, this was adequately touching upon the problems of the Other and intersubjectivity. Jacki sent me and Lyn a list of ordinary words (like “home,” “poverty,” violence,” etc) that were supposed to drive the dialog of that particular letter. As far as I can remember, the correspondence lasted over a year (have in mind that we didn’t have e-mail back then, and the strategy of a paper letter in an envelope is drastically different from the instantaneous gratification that we get today with electronic mail. And since each letter traveled for 17-20 days, with approximately the same duration of time for a reply, the paper as if contained in itself a sense of preserved time).

There were twenty words in all, multiply that with the number of days of mail delivery, and you can truly understand the physicality of this correspondence. But the times have changed, we don’t see each other as often. The film was developing slowly. I remember we had to make some changes, add certain things. As a result, Jacki came to Leningrad with her filming crew and after a month’s sleepless work she had all of her material . . . Those were funny days, funny and terrifying at the same time. The people’s consciousness of the already crumbling Soviet Union was slowly heaving up, as if from a slumbering state . . . But the film was finished eventually and if I’m not mistaken it even got some critical attention.

SA: How has Petersburg changed in the past fifteen years?

AD: Petersburg has been and is still undergoing a massive transformation, although you can hardly tell when you’re living inside the parameters of the city. Some changes are good, some simply frustrate me, yet others generate the feeling of complete helplessness. To say that Petersburg has developed a definite orientation toward the West more than any other part of Russia would be a bit far stretched. I am saying this because there are too many nuances, which don’t allow for such a statement to be true.

SA: Which authors have most influenced you as a writer? And also, from foreign authors, whose works would you translate for the Russian reader?

AD: Well, there are so many that I don’t even know where to begin from . . . Perhaps I should reflect on which authors still compel me to open their books. I am thankful for the existence of Paul Valery, Gaito Gazdanov, Ivan Bunin and especially his The Life of Arsenyev, I am also fond of Nabokov’s certain works, Herman Melville, the prose works by Osip Mandelstam, Maurice Blanchot, Faulkner, and others. Without a doubt each one of them has had some kind of influence on my writing at one time or another. From the poets I would mention Tutchev, Aleksandr Vvedensky, Celan, Rilke, Georg Trakl . . . I am also extremely grateful to such important contemporary poets as Lyn Hejinian, Robert Creeley, John Ashbery, and from the slightly older generation—Michael Davidson and Michael Palmer, from whose works I have tried to translate. It’s impossible to go over all the influences that I’ve had throughout the course of my life, but I should mention this: I begin understanding my own poetics much better and appreciating it more when I’m outside of my native country, when I’m over there—in America.

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