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Serhiy Zhadan ó a man of letters and a colourful figure in todayís Ukrainian culture
Serhiy Zhadan, a poet, essayist
and translator, was born
on August 23 in Eastern Ukraine.
Among the collections of his poetry
Heneral Yuda (Kyiv, 1995);
Pepsi (Kharkiv, 1998);
The very very best poems,
psychedelic stories of fighting
and other bullshit (collected poems
Balady pro viynu i vidbudovu
(Lviv, 2001); Istroriya kultury
Big Mac (Kyiv, 2003).
His poetry and essays have
been translated into German,
In addition to writing poetry,
Serhiy Zhadan does translations from
Interviewing the poet Serhiy Zhadan is not an easy thing to do. He can hardly be called ironic or cynical, but during the interview I felt myself, from time to time, gripped in the steel vices of his arguments and counterarguments based on what I found to be a peculiar logic of a poet. Some of his sharp and controversial statements seemed to be somewhat unsettling, and his talk was peppered with strong pejoratives.
In recent years, Zhadan, 30, who originally hails from Kharkiv, has begun to spend a lot of time either in Kyiv or in Berlin. He is a significant figure of modern Ukrainian literature. However, it does not seem to affect him in any particular way.
What would be the most precise definition of Serhiy Zhadan?
He is a Ukrainian writer.
You do not want to describe him as a poet, do you?
You see, in addition to writing poetry, I write prose works, all kinds of essays and criticism, I do translations, so I think ďa writerĒ would be a more comprehensive definition. At the same time, I canít say Iím totally given to literature. Creative writing for me is not an occupation, not even a hobby. Itís just happened that Iím a writer ó there are things that I feel I must verbalize. And I verbalize them in a manner which, some people say, is all right. Thatís why I continue doing it.
And when did you start verbalizing things?
Oh, way back in childhood, probably. I canít tell for sure, really, but I do remember having that feeling in my very young years that being a writer was quite all right. I never thought it was some sort of abnormality. I never hid my pads with my first poems under the cistern in the toiletÖ In other words I never had that kind of spiritual, adolescent masturbatory state which is connected with psychic complexes and moral traumas. I had a fantastic childhood ó I grew up among nice and serious people who were building their communism, and who were later robbed of everything by those rascals. Incidentally I never had an ambition to become a writer ó in my teenage years, I wanted to be a soccer player.
You mean that you were not sure what you wanted to do with your life?
I knew and know one thing for sure ó I want to have all the time for myself and to do with it what I want to do with it. You see my point? Iíve lived all my life without dividing my time between working days and days-off, and when, once in a while, I faced such life situations in which I did have to distinguish between a working day and a day-off, I did my best to extricate myself from these situations and, if possible, I never get into them again. Iím totally an asocial character, I do not derive any particular pride or satisfaction out of it, neither am I ashamed of being one. Any social system kills the spirit in people, and you shouldnít pay much attention to it. You canít work for the system, you canít allow the system to press you into any relations with it. Anyway, itís what I believe. Climbing up the social ladder, making a career, or making money ó all of these things are not worth the time you spend on themÖ But, somehow I managed to write a dissertation about Ukrainian Futurism, and I even earned a degree.
What inspired you to write this dissertation? The city of Kharkiv? Does Kharkiv mean much in your life?
Kharkiv, for me, is primarily the city of the 1920s when it was the capital of Ukraine. Viewed like this, itís like an ancient city of the Incas, it belongs to a totally different time and culture. If you can imagine a city built like Malevichís pictures, then youíll have a more or less right image of a 1920s Kharkiv. It was the time when Futurism had won over, it was a city of everyday avant-garde. Nothing of the kind will ever happen again, considering the hole our civilization is rolling into. The experiment was carried out on an unprecedented scale. New architecture was created and buildings were erected virtually at an empty place, and there was a lot that went with it ó new style of life, new economy, and new culture. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats were not up to it and messed everything up. I think that if communism had won, the capital of the Universe would have been Kharkiv with a population of ninety million people. Out of whom, ten million would be black. Imagine that? Ten million blacks would make it a place with the biggest black urban population in the world. And there would be twenty million Chinese living in itÖ Thereís still something special in Kharkiv, some special charm, a thing Kyiv lacks. Anyway I feel it does.
Your latest book, Istoriya kultury pochatku stolittya (History of Culture at the Turn of this Century) has made quite a splash among the high-brow reading public.
I wrote it in 2001 and 2002 in Vienna, and it was released by the Krytyka Publishing House in Kyiv. Dima Kuzmin, a poet, publisher and Kulturtrager (a person with a civilizing mission ó tr.), offered to get the book translated and published in Russia. Igor Sid translated it and did it well and in a short time. Also, it is planned to be published in the USA. Anyway, it is being translated into English by two translators.
Is it a book about culture of the end of the nineteenth ó early twentieth centuries?
Itís neither about culture, nor does it deal with those distant times. Itís sort of stories from life, narratives of the end of the twentieth century. No syllabic or tonic tricks, no meddling with traditional Ukrainian poetics ó sort of poetry in prose. I wanted that book to be different from my other books.
But does modern Ukrainian culture make any appearance there?
Look, I donít quite know what modern Ukrainian culture is. If you mean by culture that behemoth of pop-culture which is being fed to the citizens of Ukraine together with the remains of Soviet culture, then the answer is no. In modern Ukrainian culture also is present what might be called counter-culture which develops along its own lines. Also, there is such a thing as Ukrainian FM radio stations which play the most vulgar and coarse songs imaginable, jailbird style, and as far as I am concerned, it is also a phenomenon of modern Ukrainian culture. But there is nothing of the kind in my book. But thereís a lot in it about jazz.
Youíre one of the few Ukrainian literati who is supported by, and works with foreign promoters and publishers, and who is in constant contact with foreign writers and cultural figures. Is it just money, or is it really interesting for you?
Itís fun to be getting things done thanks to somebody elseís money. Last year, for example, I compiled an anthology of contemporary Viennese poets ó translated into Ukrainian, and in a couple of months, I hope, it will be released. And among other things worth mentioning ó there was this performance we organized a couple of years ago in Vienna. We ó thatís a group of my friends and I ó rented an old five-story house right in the centre of Vienna, and unleashed our acts. The building was all ours because of the major revamping that was going on. In our group were artists, actors and writers. A friend from Serbia showed a ritual burial of her communist past; I played the role of Yury Gagarin, the first human being to go into space and orbit the earth. I was wearing a real cosmonautís space suit. I walked around the place and painted graffiti on the walls with the help of air spray containers ó I wrote the words Gagarin said in space. Others read their poems and prose, played music, showed videos, displayed their paintings, you name it. A great number of people came to see all this. Even at big exhibitions in Vienna you donít find that many people. It was real cool.
Did you feel yourself then a Ukrainian performer or just a performer?
I felt I was Yury GagarinÖ But as far as being a performer or an artist from Ukraine, or from any other country, or a cosmopolitan for that matter ó I think itís just a dead stereotype. In which respect, say, Ukrainian artists differ from Austrian ones? Do they not all of them use hands to paint their pictures? There are a lot fewer differences than it may seem at first glance between cultures, and itís a pity, in fact.
But still, thereís such a thing as Ukrainian culture, and if there is, is it known in any way in Europe?
Of course, there is such a thing as Ukrainian culture ó and no, Europe has absolutely no idea what modern Ukrainian culture is. There are what they call ďcultural relationsĒ but they are just part of some programmes which involve only very few people. Thereís very little knowledge about Ukraine in Europe and consequently thereís very little initiative to learn more. For most Europeans, the lands that begin east of Hungary and Poland are just Great Russia that stretches all the way to the Pacific. Thereís no such country as Ukraine for them, even for the Austrians who held western Ukrainian lands under their domination for almost two hundred years. It may sound offensive ó but itís a fact. I personally think thereís nothing in it to be much worried about. There are certain things which you canít change or canít help. I, for one, have never done anything ďto improve the image of Ukraine,Ē as they call it. Itís not for me. Besides, this phrase is meaningless, as far as I am concerned.
What about Russia? They do know about Ukraine and its culture, donít they? They publish so many books, translations from the Ukrainian as well. Your book, A HistoryÖ has been released in Russia.
So what? Like in any other country, thereís what they call ďcommercial literatureĒ which makes the bulk of all the books published, and thereís ďnon-commercial literatureĒ which targets a much narrower circle of readers. Those publishers who release such literature, know they can afford it without going bankrupt. The number of copies printed is limited, of course, and I donít think thereís much chance of any expansion, particularly in poetry editions. Poetry, by its very nature, is not meant these days for massive consumption. There are very many people who can rhyme, who even write verses ó in fact, I think there are very few people who have not written a single poem in their life, but they are not interested enough to follow the latest trends in poetry, they donít buy books of poetry ó and thatís the way it should be. The situation in poetry can be compared with chess ó people know the names of the champions but who would care to come to watch the contenders play at a local contest?
I wonder if itís too difficult to live with a poetÖ If itís too personal ó never mind answering it.
I donít think it depends much on a social stratum you are from or on your occupation. It all depends on the particular person ó with some itís easy to get along, with others ó itís almost impossible.
All right, on the personal level ó how difficult or easy is it to get along with you?
I think itís easy. I donít care for conflicts of any kind. Iím not an open person, but I donít have complexes that prevent me from being communicative.
What does a poet do when he gets sick and tired of everything around him?
A clever poet stops writing. All the rest write about how they are sick and tired of everything.
Do you ever get sick and tired of it all?
Once in a while I experience an occasional tiredness which is caused by my unhealthy life style ó but such fatigue passes fast. Life is such a fantastic, never-ending thing that does not give you much chance to get tired of it ó thatís what it makes it so intriguing and exciting. Youíve got to take things as they are without being too pompous about it, or without trying too hard.
And whatís most intriguing in the life of Zhadan the poet?
I write verses ó thatís a most intriguing and exacting thing to do.
Serhiy Zhadan was interviewed
by Natalya Rudnichenko
by Serhiy Zhadan, 2002
The green river water
slows in warm bends
scatter the plankton
and tired bird catchers
attempt to catch
Hold on to
the brightly colored rags
and scotch tape
that bind the slashed wrists
of these heroic times.
One day you will turn off this radio,
youíll get used to her,
to her breathing
and, dressed in your T-shirt,
sheíll bring you water in the middle of the night.
On the terrace the left-over cups
are filling up with rain water
and cigarette butts,
you and I share a cold
you and I share long conversations ó
you donít notice the morning rain
you go to sleep late
and you wake up late
I write poems about how I love
this woman and I invent
newer and newer words
Translated from the Ukrainian
by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps
HISTORY OF CULTURE AT THE TURN
OF THIS CENTURY
by Serhiy Zhadan, 2002
You will reply today, touching warm letters,
leafing through them in the dark, confusing vowels
like a typewriter in an old Warsaw office.
The heavy honeycombs
glisten with gold from which language is spun.
Donít stop, just write,
type over the empty white space, stamp through
the black silent trail.
No one will return from ramblings through the long night,
and forgotten snails will die on wet grass.
Central Europe lies under tissue-white snow.
I always believed in the lazy movements of Gypsies,
not everyone has inherited this worn coin.
If you look at their passports,
which smell of mustard and saffron,
if you hear their worn-out accordions,
which reek of leather and Arabic spices ó
youíd hear them say that when you leave ó
no matter where you go ó
you only create more distance and will never be any
closer than you are now;
when the songs of old gramophones die,
a residue seeps out
from damaged cans.
The overburdened heart of the epoch bursts every
but not behind these doors, not in cities burnt by the sun.
Time passes, but it passes so near that if you
look closely, you can see its heavy warp,
and you whisper overheard sentences
and want someone someday to recognize your voice
and say ó
this is how the era began,
this is how it turned ó awkward, heavy like
a munitions truck,
leaving behind dead planets and burnt out transmitters,
scattering wild ducks in the pond,
that fly off and call louder
than the truckers,
When choosing your course of studies you should find out
among other things ó
if the culture at the turn of this century
has already pressed itself into the veins of your slow arm,
rooted itself in the whorls of your thick hair,
carelessly blown by the wind,
and tousled by fingers
like streams of warm water in a basin,
like colored clay beads over cups and ashtrays,
like a vast autumn sky
over a cornfield.
Translated from the Ukrainian
by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps