I quizzed Matvei Yankelevich (Yank-e-LAY-vich), star and Tsar of Ugly Duckling Presse, early into UDP’s month-long March NYC onslaught, which featured an exhibition of past publications, projects, film, and historical ephemera at PS1, the Octopus Books release of his own Boris by the Sea, and over a dozen performances and poetry readings spanning citywide venues from the Invisible Dog to St. Mark’s Bookshop. In the midst of this all-fronts-at-once fray I found him, unassuming and amusing, breathing easy at their HQ in Brooklyn’s old American Can Company. Evidently, what might well break any other poetry cabal does not make UDP even break a sweat.
Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle (RAIL): Do you think they murdered Mayakovsky?
Matvei Yankelevich: Is his suicide suspect? I tried to write a scene for a movie about that day—in a way that might show it was difficult to know whether it was a suicide or possibly an assassination.
Rail: Mick Jagger bought the movie rights to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The film was never made, but that’s where he got the lyrics for “Sympathy for the Devil.” You translate Mayakovsky in Night Wraps the Sky.
Yankelevich: Some of the hardest translation work I’ve ever done. I’d like to do some of his other long poems.
Rail: You translated “A Cloud in Pants”. That’s a long one. Why so hard?
Yankelevich: The density of the sound and consonant stuff that’s going on; it’s tough to find a sound or oral equivalent in English.
Rail: It’s unusual in Russian, too?
Yankelevich: Yes. And it’s hard to foreground how unusual, and still stick to the gist of what he’s saying. I felt a necessary fidelity to what he’s talking about, to be precise in the translation, and at the same time I was very much concerned with its sound.
Rail: When the Futurist group toured Russia, Mayakovsky wore his notorious yellow blouse, Burliuk had birds painted on his face; in the provinces people saw them and said, “They must be Americans.” What differences did you encounter translating Daniil Kharms compared to Mayakovsky?
Yankelevich: There’s a very different vocabulary in Mayakovsky, trying to expand the language by smooshing words together through hyperbolic metaphor, where Kharms is stylistically a minimalist. He uses simple words and plays around, like, in “The Old Woman” there are the same verbs repeated. So I find myself having to be very specific to those, say, 10 key verbs, 10 key adjectives, 10 nouns that he uses and figuring out which one to go with.
Rail: Because you must find one English word that wears different hats?
Yankelevich: Yes. Also, making the language feel poor, unembellished. That’s a very different thing from Mayakovsky.
Rail: That turns my head around. That it’s a kind of job, work, or creation making language poor. Instead of being unable to perform well, its poverty is an art, a choice, a performance too. Kharms wrote children’s books often because he could get them past the censors. Then he ran into trouble even with those. Was his language devised to bypass or deceive the censors?
Yankelevich: No. With the children’s poetry the more benign work was published. There were a few that got him into trouble. In ’31 he was arrested with Vedensky and a few others who were writing children’s literature. They were accused of, you know, of just not…they were writing nonsense verse for children.
Rail: So it did not overtly support the State?
Yankelevich: It had no moral value, didn’t elevate, educate, or build Socialist morale, so they were reprimanded. He was in exile in a small town for nine months, he got off pretty easy, came back. Basically at that point OBERIU was no longer permitted to do public performances, which is mostly the way they got their work out because they weren’t finding avenues for publication. Soviet culture had decided their work would be sidelined.
Rail: Too revolutionary for the revolution. I mean, he was censored for saying nothing, and again because they thought he must be saying something.
Yankelevich: He stopped trying to publish so he wouldn’t have to worry about censorship. He opted out. They still gathered privately, shared and discussed their work, and he wrote in notebooks. With the stuff I translated, his final forms are unclear because they are in manuscript. Also, his texts retain the kinds of things you can do in manuscript forms that you can’t do in text that’s created as a final version for print. Doodles. Visual language. Drawings. He made little title pages and so forth, somewhere between text and artifact: verbicovisual poems. In ’41 everybody who had a previous arrest record, which he did, was swept up. He died in prison of starvation during the blockade of Leningrad.
Rail: Times were tough. Let’s devote ourselves now to your Boris by the Sea. At first I pictured Boris at a resort in Eastern Europe. He refers to a “fellow vacationer”. It’s pretty sparse. But then it struck me Boris could be an expatriate in Far Rockaway. He also keeps dying. I wondered if instead of being here on this side, so to speak, he hadn’t passed over some phantasmagorical sea to the beyond. Where is Boris? Do we know?
Yankelevich: I don’t know. It’s good to think of him as being in an Eastern European resort town or sanitarium. And on Brighton Beach or Rockaway, because there are diners, yet it does seem very removed. So that would parallel his name, which is kind of an American version of a Russian name.
Rail: He dies several times. Maybe dies…
Yankelevich: Seven or so. I had been writing it as various beginnings and endings without necessarily putting these fragments into a narrative. A play of fragments and narratives that stop and start and never really progress—there’s no middle section. So dying seems like, well, it’s not a real death; it’s the narrative version of an ending.
Rail: It is narrative. I don’t know what our current preferred take on narrative in poetry is, but you might be bringing it back. Which is brave. There are a couple theater pieces in it. It could be staged. It’s even epic.
Yankelevich: If a 60-page book could be epic.
Rail: In the way that Joyce’s Ulysses is named after an epic, and a mythic hero, except—aside from its style and compassion—it’s just one day in the life of a banal cuckold.
Yankelevich: I imagine Boris not so much as a character but as a state of mind, somewhere on the brink of language, or maybe acquiring language. It started with experiments mixing Russian and English, which I don’t write in very well, then translating into English, or finding alternative versions in English, ways that Russian syntax affects English syntax, little dramas where the conflict was between the two languages rather than two characters.
Rail: The filmmaker Wim Wenders once said that in Europe they used to listen to American rock and roll. They couldn’t understand the words, but that’s what it was supposed to sound like. I remembered him when I read Boris. It’s like English to English translation. Most of the first poetry I read was in translation. You can stand me up against the wall and shoot me, but I don’t love a lot of American poetry, before I guess the first New York School, though not really the third…I read English translations of European poetry. It had this flat character I liked much more than mastery and groovy maneuvers.
Yankelevich: What emerged for me was this kind of text, texture, and tone, for many years just consistently associated with Boris. Starting a sentence with “Boris said this, Boris did that “ generated for me this particular tone, this kind of English, distant from normal English. At some point I stopped being able to access that tone or zone of writing associated with Boris, in such a way that it started to feel false to me if I wrote “another” Boris. So I was stuck facing the fact that this was the amount of text I had when my mind was really involved with Boris. I only had so much material to use, and whatever kind of book could come of that would be it. This epic, as a project, seemed huge, but in the end I only had enough for maybe one small book. [Both laugh]
Rail: But he’s a major character. Without him saying much or doing anything he takes on grandeur. Cosmogony. “Boris had no parents—he appeared.” He also sees he could devour himself. What is up with that? I remembered taking acid, blowing my mind to the point of total annihilation, then having to reassemble myself: I can hear birds sing, so there must be an ear. If someone’s listening, “I” must be there—Descartes, in retrograde. Does Boris go through this?
Yankelevich: That’s a fair description.
Rail: “He simply had no faith in the past.” Does he wonder if anything ever existed before he was born?
Yankelevich: That’s the gist of it. Infantile.
Rail: Spicer talked down just “moving the furniture” in poetry instead of directly channeling the ghosts who spoke through him. In Boris there isn’t even any furniture to move. Narrative, yes, but there’s no Time, or it’s eternal, not chronological. Nietzsche’s revolving door. Boris washed the sea.
Yankelevich: I don’t see it as being a visualizable landscape, though it’s reminiscent. It’s skewed, or erased enough that you can’t tell where its contours are. I had no interest in picturing Boris. I don’t think he ever had a face. His anonymity, it’s not frightening. I think that’s why the sea seemed fitting to me: this place that has movement but doesn’t change.
Rail: You can blame it on Boris, but I feel I would be remiss if I neglect this one vexing question. Boris “gets into trouble with women,” or worries about it, anyway. “She was fake as wooden sheep, false as snow flakes, fraudulent as a kitten’s sneezes.” Is this the kind of remark that gets him in trouble with women?
Yankelevich: Well, yeah, uh…There’s Woman with a capital W. A really strange signal, which suggests something about the kind of character Boris is. That it’s an archetype, or—in the same way that there’s “nothing particular about Boris”—it’s abstract. She’s sort of this Other that he’s afraid of. He’s dealing with an aloneness and yet doesn’t want to let anyone in.
Rail: At some point a woman climbs into him. He engorges or encaves her?
Yankelevich: She becomes a part of him. It’s puzzling to me. It may be a dream. It’s something like a place of comfort, to be inside another person. She climbs into his mouth and falls asleep there.
Before Boris got published I kinda worried what my feminist friends would think. Vanessa Place wrote about the book in Constant Critic. I thought she would find the whole thing offensively reductive, or something, but she saw it as a trope, examining an archetype, rather than a comment. It’s simply that Boris doesn’t have any other way to access or understand who this other being is. He doesn’t know much more than the presence or absence of someone else. The problem of communication, he can’t communicate with Ivan.
Rail: In her Awe, Dorothea Lasky enjoins a man to take her inside his stomach, then she sleeps in the mouth of a wolf. Honesty counts. Guys get called wolves, but come on! Women like sex too. Sometimes when we’re naïve we’re able to do things because we don’t know how hard they are. Boris might arrive at complete communication because he can’t find a more acceptable approach. No pick-up line.
It’s a tricky issue. I’ll submit my poetry and sometimes wonder how its gonna go over. Maybe, politically correct male editors balk: “We can’t do this, we’re going to get in hot water.” But often women—female editors—have the nerve or humor for it and the sense is like “God I’m glad someone finally said that! That’s a lot closer than what gets repeated everyday.”
In his mission statement your character, the Author, says, “The imperfect must be guarded. Take imperfect thoughts to their limits, to complete imperfection, to exhaust imperfection.”
Yankelevich: A lot of room left for the reader: mistakes and little errors in reading and interpretation, which become part of this overarching limbo between languages.
Rail: My take on Boris is that there’s this tremendous restraint, and your reserve, holding back, creates tension. Unheard music starts to hover in the background. It’s near lyric. And he does hear music. He’s like a skeleton that we hang ourselves on.
What’s next here at the duck pond [Ugly Duckling Presse]?
Yankelevich: Soon Anna’s Dossier Series will release a book by Christian Hawkey called Ventrakl, from Georg Trakl, modeled on Spicer’s After Lorca. UDP’s publishing Karen Weiser’s first book, To Light Out.
Rail: She floors me. That [pointing at Flowers of Bad, by David Cameron] is one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life.
Yankelevich: Next week we’ll bring out 5 Meters of Poems by Carlos Oquendo de Amat, translated by Joshua Beckman. It’s an accordion book; folds open like a fan. Long out of print, it’s a Latin American classic of the 1920’s avant-garde. There’s interesting stuff happening on the conceptual side of things, on the anti-conceptual side. That’s the main divide currently, given the poetry scene. Kinda more Romantic …
Rail: Wow! Pour it on. I miss them.
Yankelevich: We are putting out a book called Poetry is Not a Project by Dottie Lasky. It has that pamphleteering spirit, definitely an anti-conceptual stance. The idea of a project is what people talk about when they get up and have to talk about their work. “In this project, I…” There’s an art world savvy to that word: “We’re working on a project, we’re not working on poems.” But she’s talking about the poet as someone who writes poems, not projects.
Rail: I write poems one at a time. I really don’t know what I might do next, or where this one’s going. When I was a kid I read poetry anthologies. They’d have, like, six poems by Shelley. I thought that’s all he wrote. Fall in love, sit under a tree; write it on a napkin.
Yankelevich: I think there are valid grievances in her essay. It’s a way of talking about poems I can see other people disparage…as too “I.” A High Romantic’s way of understanding the poet and inspiration: intuition. Rapture. Emotionally moving. And I am also interested in the conceptual critique of that. The Language School critiqued it in one way, but ended up being very much…Let’s face it: each of those poets has a style, a voice.
Rail: The edge becomes the center. Big signatures.
Yankelevich: So, I am of two minds. Part of my interest as a publisher is that I like all this different stuff.
Rail: That’s why I’m talking to you. Props, filler, and hooey…yuck. If they gotta tell me why their work is good…Schools and cliques make me very wary. What, are we on Paxil? “That’s cool. You’re beautiful. That’s cool too.”
Yankelevich: I like poems and I like projects.
Rail: That’s okay. You can walk and chew gum at the same time…
Yankelevich: There’re lots of readings where I don’t feel as much investment from the writer as I would like. Because, I’m there in the audience, I made the effort, and I would like the author to make an effort too. [Both laugh]
Rail: Show: don’t tell. They wanna be poets more than they want to write poems. Plus, too many poets take the word “reading” literally. They just get up there and read. Now, are you authorized to talk about Anna [Moschovakis]?
Yankelevich: I don’t know if I can talk authoritatively because I’m not its author, but she has a book coming out from Coffee House Press this fall, which I’m very excited about. It’s a book of four long poems based on the titles of books she found in used-book stores, with short preface and epilogue-poems. They really deal with social problems—political—more external problems than in her previous book, I Have Not Been Able to Get Through to Everyone. This book is called You and Three Others are Approaching a Lake, in which she has a wonderful way of using found material, but its poems are very much about ethics, different aspects. One is about wealth; one is called “Death as a Way of Life”—that has a lot of stuff about violence. One of them is about artificial intelligence, the Turing machine: all very different from each other. A great survival narrative: what do you do? You are on this boat, what do you do first? Somewhat philosophical, in the way that her first book is, but it’s much more invested in this problem of You. What are you doing? Why? How are you doing it? In the end it’s all addressed to herself, posing questions that are difficult for her to answer. Some of it is more disjointed than her earlier work, a very hybrid style, paragraphs of lush description, then, suddenly, made-up Internet posts, blogs, statistics from old books, what was happening on the home-front in World War I, how many people were working etc. It’s silly for me to try to describe it.
Rail: Well, it’s like talking about a painting only one of us has seen. Hot tip. Can’t wait.
Last question: I had a dream before I came over here. You and I were sitting at a table pretty much like this one and we were counting stacks of black paper money. Can you interpret my dream?
Yankelevich: All black?
Rail: Yeah. Not burned, or ink. I don’t think there is any black money.
Yankelevich: In the Boris world if you had money it would be this opaque thing. You couldn’t even tell what was written on it. It’s shreds of Malevich’s Black Square! We’re moving into an undifferentiated world that we’re trying to negotiate by talking about it, sorting it out, counting it.
Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle is an American poet and art critic. He lives in Paris and New York City.