Sunday, March 16, 2008

Big Ilya Makes It Big

Or at least he’s made it to the front cover and main story of the San Diego Weekly Reader, with a caption reading “Tie This Guy Up: Make Sure He Stays at SDSU.” I’ve linked to the story here, and I hope you’ll read it.

For those of you who don’t know the San Diego Reader (which I’m assuming is most of you), it’s the main alternative weekly paper of the city, equivalent to the City Paper in Washington, DC and other similar versions elsewhere. The Reader is hardly as good as the City Paper, which is faint praise, I know, but there it is. They don’t even run Savage Love, for one, although a recent occasional series, Dumped, allows people to write in their stories about just how badly they let their romantic partners treat them before being left behind entirely. It’s a voyeuristic treat for those like me who enjoy that “how bad can it get” sort of thing.

The City Paper sometimes runs articles on local writers. They once did one on me, and on Buck Downs, and recently on Rod Smith. But they were small articles (and perhaps, uh, reveal a bit of gender bias?). This on the other hand is a cover story, and the picture, as you can see, is a big picture, with Ilya’s eyes looking down over his glasses skeptically and intensely at us all. This is some serious Local Press Cool Points.

Some of my friends in DC probably remember Big Ilya from when he lived there and was taking classes at Georgetown University. He became Big Ilya not simply because he was big (about six foot three) but because we also met another Russian emigré poet about the same time, Little Ilya, who was much smaller. In order to avoid people asking “Which Ilya?” dividing them into Big and Little made sense. Little Ilya has not so far made it as big, although I continue to wish him success for the future.

Being in theory the political center of the U.S. (although much of its power has long since been farmed out to various multinational corporations, in case you didn’t know), DC has a large international population. In fact there’s something of a history of Russian poets and Russian emigré poets in DC, although I myself don’t know it in detail. I remember, probably some time in 1996 or 97, my friend Joe Ross arranging to give a reading with a Russian emigré poet at the series I ran at the Ruthless Grip Art Project. I have pictures of the event, but I only met her that one evening and never saw or heard of her again, and I can’t remember her name. So Joe, if you’re reading this, can you fill me in? But in any case our audience that night featured a very sizeable Russian component, and the event was enjoyed by all. My impression is that the Russian presence in DC poetry has remained somewhat low profile but is also consistent. Recently my former colleague at George Washington University, Daniel Gutstein, was working with a young Russian-American poet, Olga Tsyganova, who has now gone to graduate school at Georgetown.

I’m hardly on expert on modern and contemporary Russian poetry or on Russian poetry in translation. For the most part I like the Russian poets that you might expect me to, given that I’m one of those people who still thinks the word avant garde means something worthwhile. Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Mayakovsky. Of living Russian poets I think Arkadii Dragomoschenko is really great, although I’ve heard it said that some Russian poets believe his work is too Americanized. There was a book called Blue Vitriol by Alexei Parshchikov published by Avec back in 1994 that I thought was very enjoyable. Much of the rest is a mishmash to me. Other Russian poetry I’ve read in translation can seem more than a little lugubrious, which is indeed just the word I want: long, image laden lines in a grim monotone. I don’t know enough to know whether that’s a function of what Russian poetry is like, or what it sounds like when translated into English, or whether it’s just my own lack of information. I’d love to be further informed, so let me know what you know.

In any case, on those occasions when I talked to him, usually when sitting in on a poetry seminar at Georgetown, where I taught a class now and then, Ilya seemed like a nice guy, and I wish him well. He published his first book, Dancing in Odessa, when he was 28, and it won something called The Dorset Prize. Now at 31 he’s an assistant professor at SDSU, so he and I are in the same business and just down the road from each other too. For his theories on poetry I’ll leave you to the article itself, although his basic theory, as quoted in the article, is “All young men’s poetry begins with a broken heart.” I suppose on some level I wouldn’t disagree, at least not entirely, although I imagine some of us might get, at times, a little tired of young men and their broken hearts.


mark wallace said...

Joe Ross tells me backchannel that the woman's name was Yana Djin, and that she came to some of the early DCAC readings. He once owned a book of her poems but doesn't seem to have it anymore. She was a close friend of Joseph Brodsky and at one point Joe met some of her visual artist friends. The last contact he had with her was in 1997.

Thus ends, for now, this portion of the DC poetry history lesson.

DUSIE said...

wow! go Ilya. I am going over to the link soon. We had a workshop together with Carolyn. I think it was Brodsky who Carolyn had correspondence with as a teen...sending him poetry, he sending her poetry postcards! Alas, all the DC peeps should come to Europe for a reunion!

rodney k said...

Ilya was "big" in San Francisco, too. The remarkable thing about the phenom to me was how appealing it seemed to persons not otherwise interested in contemporary poetry. The cultural markers of "poet"--markers I'd thought had lost their force post-Beat (if not post-Pound)-- were all in place, rehearsed in every article I'd read. Russia (& Europe!), home of "real" poets; "life-affirming" & "universal"; assuringly in love with accepted greats; exilic; oppressed in the Old Country but refreshingly above politics here among the free; absent-minded (variations on Lux's "three buttons perpetually undone"); long-viewed, gleefully "dancing with the dead," but without much news about his contemporaries; excelling, tho' hearing impaired, in an art that lives by the ear, etc.

None of it's Ilya's fault, just journalistic shorthand that could happen to any of us if the klieg lights came. But I didn't see him going out of his way to revise it, either. Cool jacket.

(It occurs to me writing this that the "Ilya story" may reflect a big sadness about the usual cookie-cutter "nice suburb-nice college-nice MFA" bios that get so much air space when poetry wins mainstream attention.)

DUSIE said...

perhaps I misunderstood your last comment R, but Ilya does not have an MFA. He is a lawyer as well right? so, in many many ways is outside the 'cookie' so to speak. he sat in on C.'s grad workshop class for free...she adored him.

mark wallace said...

My guess is that Rodney isn't talking about having an MFA as such as much as he is about the larger mechanisms of publicity in the poetry world, and even beyond it, and is expressing some level of astonishment at how powerfully they can operate sometimes. The person and the work seemed to fit a profile that many people had been eager for, and the result was a vast lightning of approval, of which one example might even be the fact of being allowed to sit in on a Carolyn Forche graduate workshop for free. We need to be careful of confusing the man and the poet with this lightning, since I'm quite certain that the poet in question doesn't control these mechanisms. Nor do I think it's right to say that the chorus of praise is somehow phony (though people probably have different feelings about the values expressed in that praise)--I think Rodney is suggesting astonishment at how many people seemed to have been looking for a poet just like this poet.

rodney k said...

Hi Mark,

That's exactly right, though I can see where my comment was sort of unclear before. I guess I was trying to see something positive in the way people have responded to the publicity. Maybe the genuine enthusiasm for the Ilya story is a symptom of how desperate readers are to shake off the MFA business-as-usual poetry machine. Kaminsky's sort of "outside" (except I guess for the prizes, and the mainstream endorsements, and now the teaching gig I suppose) in a system hungry for outsiders. Maybe Lux is kind of like one of those characters with the pharaonic headpieces in Zardoz stuck in their ageless bubble, desperate for Sean Connery in a loincloth to expose them to air? It's hard for me at least to account for the fervor from the poetry alone. Though I'm sure the fans are genuinely excited by that, too.

mark wallace said...

Certainly The San Diego Reader article highlights at almost every moment the exotic otherness of the poet in question, a genius from a land far far away who cannot dress himself in Contemporary America.

The poet as impractical genius dunce mythos, which never ceases, seems all the more amazing to me in light of the fact that many poets I know, rather than being incompetent, seem to me hypercompetent, since they have to work hard jobs as well as write and do all the other things that adults in America have to do. And just for the record: I have met countless impractical dunces who can't write poems.

Brent Cunningham said...

M & R,

I must say I think you're both being quite generous about this article and Kaminsky generally, given both your commitments to a very different poetic history and spirit, one which finds plenty of echo in a Russian tradition Kaminsky is unlikely to ever reference much: Khlebnikov, Bely, Mayakovsky, Kruchenykh and the like. It's funny to me that the so-called avant garde gets accussed of aggression so often when the generosity and restraint you two exhibit here seem really more common in my experience. But I guess I don't feel as kind today, especially after wasting so much time with that article. I can't remember reading anything that tried so hard to mythologize somebody with less material evidence for doing so. It's ridiculously fawning, actually almost sycophantic, which is bizarre since Kaminsky is so much younger and less established than Lux. And what the hell is this stuff about Lux attracting male poets to his class by describing poetry's effect on women? Here's a general rule: if you find yourself using the phrase "Although I realize this is a somewhat sexist thing to say..." just stop, take a walk around the block, hit delete a few times, and start again.

Anyways, sorry in advance for the rudeness. Musta had some bad eggs this morning.


mark wallace said...

I appreciate these comments a lot, Brent, so no need to worry about any kind of rudeness, as I'm sure you weren't.

I'm glad you use the word "mythologize" because that word is so crucial to life here in San Diego County. I've never lived in a place where the immediate need to mythologize is so intense. For instance, to speak only of the most obvious cliches, one doesn't hear people say "Men are rational and women irrational." Instead they tend to say, "Men are hunters and women gatherers" and then to associate those images with the stars. The immediate leap to such mythologies is a startling part of popular culture here, and it's amazing how much it comes up in that Reader article.

Brent Cunningham said...

Welcome to California, Wallace. Remind me to tell you tales of my years living on the central coast of CA, as the trait you're noticing in San Diego occurs there at about x10 magnitude.