Speaking Russian with a New Zealand Accent: Gala Uzryutova interviews David Howard

By Gala Uzryutova interviews David Howard - CAGIBI | Posted: Tuesday January 14, 2020

Conducted in late 2019 after David Howard held a UNESCO City of Literature residency in Ulyanovsk, Russia, this conversation bridges North and South, 16000 kilometres, and generations. David Howard is a New Zealand poet and editor, born in 1959, and a former Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. Gala Uzryutova is a Russian poet, playwright and prose writer, born in 1983 in Ulyanovsk, Russia, and a graduate of Ulyanovsk State Universitys Faculty of Culture and Art.

Gala Uzryutova’s books include Turned around, and there was the forest (Russian Gulliver, Moscow, 2015), Sasha Country (KompasGuide Publishing house, Moscow, 2019), The snow I missed (Bookscriptor, Moscow, 2018). Her work has been translated into German, English, Slovenian, Latvian, Italian, and Lithuanian. She is the coordinator (with Elena Titova) of the “Ulyanovsk UNESCO City of Literature” programme.

David Howard’s books include The Ones Who Keep Quiet (University of Otago Press, Dunedin, 2017), The Incomplete Poems (Cold Hub Press, Lyttelton, 2011), and (as editor) A Place To Go On From: The Collected Poems of Iain Lonie. He represented “Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature” in Prague (2016) and Ulyanovsk (2019).

Howard’s Ulyanovsk residency project, the church that is not there, is organically divided into a triptych. In the left ‘panel’, resurgent trees, lyric fragments were inspired by the 1905 and 1947 clockwork figurines made by the Morozovs and now displayed at the Ulyanovsk Regional Puppet Theatre. The central ‘panel’, roll of honour, references Russian poets. The right ‘panel’, Sakharov meets Oblomov (1943), imagines that the (future) creator of the bomb, who was working at an Ulyanovsk cartridge factory, visits Oblomov in the (former) house of the author Ivan Goncharov.

Gala Uzryutova: A part of your poetic triptych, written in Ulyanovsk, is devoted to an imaginary dialogue between the physicist Andre Sakharov and the fictional character Ilya Oblomov; you called Sakharov a man of action, and Oblomov a man of inaction. While translating this text, I thought a lot about these two conditions; sometimes it seems to me that this is not a dialogue between Sakharov and Oblomov, but a dialogue between the Western and Eastern world views. What do you think about this?

David Howard: If we assess the two protagonists, then Sakharov is more representative of the West in that he is anthropocentric, rational, and language-based. However, as a Marxist-Leninist (in 1943), he is not a dualist, although he understands how the self can appear split because, as an empiricist, he does not discount direct experience.

Oblomov adopts some Eastern attributes, but as a cartoon: he values intuition and silence, however this is because he is not able to focus for sustained periods; he evades rather than pursues, so it is not as if a spiritual journey is in progress. Sakharov the scientist and moralist, who will develop into a dissident, is the one who travels to greater awareness of what either advances or retards the self-in-world:

…We are like trees
splitting in a storm, our debris
everywhere except where
we belong. Plastov’s landscape
too balanced, we have lost our shape
by comparison, there
being no hope of an escape

from the elements that make us
we must fall, we’re superfluous
to this harsh Paradise…

Uzryutova: What problems do New Zealand writers face? Is there any kind of author support system in the country?

Howard: Simply, we are new—this is both a weakness and a (potential) strength. The indigenous Māori arrived about a thousand years ago, and substantial European settlement began two hundred years ago. So the earth feels fresh to us, without many footprints showing the way ahead.

But our population of 4.8 million people largely regards art as part of the entertainment industry rather than as a catalyst for personal and social growth. It does not occur to us that, in every recorded society, art arrived shortly after mankind discovered fire, that it predates agriculture let alone capitalism, that art must therefore be more central to becoming and to being human than many more ‘practical’ activities. For me, language is nothing less than the history of being human, and art is generative: it helps the consumer to be more than a consumer, to become more fully themselves.

Notwithstanding, there are several sources of support for authors; these come either directly (via Creative New Zealand) or indirectly (via university residencies) from the State. There is almost no tradition of private sponsorship, and only in my lifetime has a model of public-private partnership for the arts been developed on a modest level.

In Ulyanovsk I felt privileged to be part of a society that understood the arts were catalysing, they made things happen, they were not just static products for consumption.

Uzryutova: What are the trends in the development of literature in New Zealand? It would be interesting to hear about the predominance of female authors in your national literature.

Howard: Over my lifetime the ascendancy of male writers has ended. The majority of books published in New Zealand today are by women; older women are coming late (after their children have grown up) to publication, while younger women are breaking into journal and book publication while still at university. Māori (and Pasifika) literature has undergone an even more dramatic change, with dedicated publishing houses ensuring formerly marginalised writers find a wider audience.

So far so good. What is less encouraging is the dominance of contemporary American literature as a model for many of our bright young things. A prosy irony that might belong in the mid-west, an urbane chatter that might work on New York’s sidewalks, a rap patter sourced from Detroit—they’re ubiquitous in our capital Wellington, but they sound out of place to me. I hear them as evidence of immaturity rather than a trumpeted coming-of-age for our culture. But mine is an unpopular view.

Uzryutova: You talked at the “Lipki” International Forum of Young Writers about two choices in the writer’s path: to be visible and invisible. Tell us more about this concept, on which side are you now—visible or invisible?

Howard: These are not either/or choices. The writer has to move from one to the other and back again. Furthermore, there are inner and outer aspects of invisibility: how not to be seen in the work and how not to be seen in the world. Ego-driven ambition is essential to public success, yet it must be overcome while making the work because it obstructs perception, and a compelling work leaps from perception to perception—that is why and how it appears new. While it sounds (and often feels) tenuous, a writer needs to attend to the work before it is made, by listening to silence, summoning the work into being. Inspiration is the name for a privileged kind of listening.

There is also the value, while gathering material, of not being seen by others. I learnt this early; in a 2013 interview Nothing Ever Was, Anyway I noted: ‘When I was eleven I took up a paper run. I would cycle around the eastern suburbs of Christchurch—already one of the poorest areas in New Zealand—and found I was invisible. People carried on conversations with me in ear-shot; they’d be in the garden arguing while I paused at the mailbox. I got to hear a lot of home truths.’

But once the work is made, the writer has to be seen and heard so (in turn) the work can be. I chose not to do this for nearly thirty years, becoming known as ‘fiercely independent’. My prolonged invisibility let me shape a distinctive body of work without external pressure. Yet I lost a lot of opportunities because of it. For most young writers it is better to set off on that long walk through the minefield of networking, during which many false steps threaten.

A few cautionary words: the most prominent author is also the most dangerous for you. They may praise your work but they will never let you threaten their supremacy; they rarely acknowledge (living) equals only followers, so you will be expected to act as a cheerleader rather than as an independent thinker. In my view, you should move with and towards those you respect regardless of their (lack of) status. Trust is the most wonderful catalyst for growth. If you do this you will never act in bad faith.

Uzryutova: Before becoming a writer you worked as a pyrotechnician at rock concerts. But writing is also to some extent a game with fire. Perhaps an even more uncontrollable game. How important is text control to you, or can you let texts control you?

Howard: You may be aware that you have something to say (or you may not) but you need to find a way of saying to be a writer rather than just an evangelist. To make a poem is to have, however fleetingly, a conversation with the dead. Every word has been invested with meaning by the millions who are no longer with us. This is true even if the writer is determinedly contemporary in vocabulary and technique. So the act of writing is a ritual, and a ritual is an attempt to control the unknown.

Language is revelatory; if you listen, then it will tell you more than you thought possible. In poetry the silence, scored by lineation and stanzaic breaks, is active; it is where meaning is released. It’s not enough to break up text with a ragged right margin; this can produce the simulacrum of a poem while failing to enact the imaginal that animates silence. When lineation only establishes rhythm, which pivots upon silence as much as it does upon a stressed syllable, the text lacks the integrity of either fine prose or realized poetry. Lineation is the syntax of active silence. Some poets overvalue tone, which combinations of words own, to the detriment of the silence that in-spires.

Uzryutova: You sold a house in New Zealand to travel the world. How long have you been living like this, and how has it affected you? What is it like living without a return point?

Howard: I became, by design, a wanderer early in 2016. As I did so I stepped to the side of consumer society. Travelling, there is no temptation to buy objects: how could they be carried in a backpack, and for what? I am no longer in thrall to possessions; I realise all things have emotional as well as physical weight. They may help some people to see but it is more likely that they will obscure the view.

Now I do not live for money, which has no inherent value; I live for experience, and it returns more interest than savings ever could. I’ve already noted, echoing Charles Olson, that a poem moves from perception to perception—so does a life fully lived. By having no fixed point to return to I am forced to move forward, whatever my doubts about this or that course of action. And I believe that keeps my writing vital, too.

Uzryutova: You also work as an editor. Do you have any way to distinguish real literature from fake? What is important to you in the text? What is affecting you?

Howard: Editing is a useful way of remembering that, as a writer, you belong to a community that includes both the living and the dead. I only work with writers I respect; their texts are authentic, which is to say the works are made in the service of discovery rather than self-regarding display. But even good writers work below their best, so I try to isolate weaknesses and to (help the author) find solutions. If an editor is the poet’s probation officer, to whom s/he reports with awkward justifications for failures of judgement, the process goes both ways—editors are rarely infallible either.

But I have been lucky. Early in my career I edited Curtainless Windows: Contemporary Russian Writing (Takahe 5, Spring 1990), presenting poems from Mikhail Aizenberg, Tatiana Shcherbina, Alexandra Sozonova, Ludmila Stokowska, and Sergey Stratanovsky, all translated by J. Kates. It was there and then that I learnt the Cyrillic alphabet abbreviates ‘emergency ration’ to ‘N.Z.’, but for Shcherbina:

N.Z. is now only New Zealand.
Once it made me think of emergency rations,
I mean, a touch of the commie state—not its ill-wishers
but its orphans (that obscene look never wears thin)
a touch ever more unfeeling, without strands of wool
on its pelt, nor birthmarks.
You can love a hag’s eyes and touch eyelids
where the eyelashes have fallen out, white and iris—
shot off into space at an enemy.
Only a single husk left over, a foil
with the superficial depth of a hologram.
You can scrutinize it, and wait until it revives,
skewer it on a Finnish knife—
the way spectators got into silent movies,
now that N.Z. is an antique canvas.
(trans. J. Kates)

However my most sustained editorial role was an attempt to resurrect the reputation of a dead poet by making, for the first time, most of his poetry available: A Place To Go On From: the Collected Poems of Iain Lonie (Otago University Press, 2015) took eleven years to complete. I was often lost and found at the Hocken Collections in Dunedin, checking the worrisome undated drafts of over 100 unpublished poems—mysteries within mysteries hidden in 32 file boxes. I supplemented this resource with personal papers from family and friends.

I only met Lonie twice and argued with him both times, but what attracted me to his poetry at the beginning of the project sustained me until the end: Lonie had a forensic integrity of perception that meant each poem echoed in both the brain and the heart, even if the best words were not always in the best order.

When the work finally went out to meet its public Poet Laureate Vincent O’Sullivan wrote: ‘…I, for one, cannot sidestep a certain shame at not realising until now how fine and important a writer Lonie was. He brought to his poetry the precision and clarity and intellectual force of a gifted classical scholar. He was patiently indifferent to passing fashions, with his own more enduring touchstones. And in a remarkable fidelity to the tides of his productive but troubled life, he wrote a body of poems on love and grief and the searing currents of remembrance that, in New Zealand writing, stands alone.’ A representative piece featured in Best New Zealand Poems (IIML, 2015), with editor John Newton commenting: ‘…Iain Lonie (1932-1988) is among the best of his generation… Lonie’s posthumous Collected, A Place to Go on From, easily passes the informal test of historical work that still feels like news in 2015. In fact, of everything that’s come through the mail-slot this year, this is the book I’ve spent the most time with.’ To revisit an earlier part of this interview, an editor should become invisible so that the writer can be seen more clearly.

Uzryutova: You were in Russia for the first time, and it started for you from Ulyanovsk, not counting a few hours at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow. Have you made any discoveries about the country for yourself during this month of your stay in Russia? Maybe something was unexpected for you?

Howard: Warmth is what stays with me: the warmth of Ulyanovsk’s citizens, their public commitment to the city and its guests. Outside Goncharov’s house I was approached by an elegant woman who addressed me in Russian; when I explained, apologetically, that I only spoke English she observed with perfect enunciation: ‘How very unfortunate for you.’ So the warmth of humour, too.

Professionally, I was surprised and heartened by the attention my work generated. However I realise this was not about me. What this meant is that the Ulyanovsk City of Literature team was doing its job in a country that takes literature seriously. There are almost as many statues and brass memorials to Pushkin (who is almost a god) as there are to Lenin. In New Zealand the authorities struggle to put a writer on a stamp.

Uzryutova: You have said at your Ulyanovsk presentations that classical Russian literature is well known in New Zealand, that you can buy the Oblomov novel at a good bookstore there. Does contemporary Russian literature get to New Zealand?

Howard: Lyttelton’s Cold Hub Press recently published J. Kates’s translations of chapbooks by Mikhail Aizenberg (Level With Us), Nikolai Baitov (39 Poems), Aleksey Porvin (Live By Fire), and Tatiana Shcherbina (An Offshoot of Sense). But, sadly, this is my only local source for your contemporary poets. Even more sadly, the most recent Russian novel to be widely available is Mikhail Bulgakov’s incandescent The Master & Margarita, which was published posthumously in 1966. Svetlana Alexievich’s expansive non-fiction became available in many libraries after she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2015. These are only slivers from the great tree of Russian literature.

Uzryutova: In Russia we know almost nothing about New Zealand literature. What do New Zealand authors write about? Do these topics differ from what is happening in the rest of the world? Are there any special New Zealand topics of concern to the authors of the country?

Howard: New Zealand authors value the local, the daily, the domestic. I have no sustainable argument with that, however an unfortunate (and unnecessary) consequence is that they often lapse into trivial subject matter and populist appeals to sentiment. Then, if and when they attempt to address the political that is part of the personal, the poets lapse into bathos.

Happily, there are many New Zealand poets who do not fit the reductionist cartoon I have drawn. I am impressed by my Dunedin neighbours Emer Lyons, Emma Neale, Robyn Maree Pickens, and Sue Wootton. They all understand, but each uniquely, Bertolt Brecht’s impatience when he stated: ‘The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupt and a flunky of the national and multinational companies.’

If I think of New Zealand poetry then I think of a schoolchild in the front row, arms tightly folded, seeing no one but the registered teacher and the consumer playground where artists are only valued as entertainers. If I think of Russian poetry then I think of a schoolchild in the back row, arms wide open, looking over dozens of others, perhaps adopting this one’s posture but that one’s gesture then abandoning both. And I believe that Russian poetry is greater for engaging with the perennial question of how to be (a better) human rather than merely pirouetting on the pinhead of irony, which is the indulgence of the privileged who pretend to risk everything because they believe in nothing but the ephemeral, which is material.

Uzryutova: I’d like to know more about the physiology of your writing. I think this is important for understanding the text. You know, some authors say that writing is a pleasure for them, others say it often hurts. For me, for example, it’s just a way of living. What is it for you to write in the physical sense? What do you feel at this moment?

Howard: To make a poem is to try to make cosmos from chaos. So there is violence but also wonder; they belong together as the eternal is shaped by time (and vice versa). As a poet I know every thing that has happened to me is still going on – and many ‘things’ that never happened are also going on, which is why I’m neither a journalist nor a diarist. Clearly interior time does not follow Greenwich. Francesco Clemente observed that there are many times in a work. I try to synchronise the inner with the outer by writing. This is possible because language is (literally) the non-linear history of ‘the human’; if it is informed by silence, which is the history of the eternal, then it is authentic and engenders ‘person.’

But how can I choreograph language in a poem so that it lifts off the page without leaving its meaning behind? I weigh words as if they were the gestures of a dancer on stage, and the reader was compelled to follow without feeling directed. Of course the first reader is also the only reader when a work is becoming, the author: one ‘me’ who needs to become someone and something else. I try to feel outside myself.


Original article in CAGIBI online literary journal Issue 9: January 2020



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