Alex Cigale: East Meets West And The Russian Absurd

In 2015, Alex Cigale was an NEA Fellow in Literary Translation, and edited the Russian poetry issue of the Atlanta Review. He was a guest blogger on contemporary Russian poetry for Best American Poetry. His Russian Absurd: Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms is forthcoming in 2016 from Northwestern University Press. Along with the Collected Poems of Mikhail Eremin, his NEA project, he is currently working on the Selected Poems of another Joseph Brodsky Foundation fellow, the Fergana School poet Shamshad Abdulalev.

Loren Kleinman (LK): Why should we continue to translate Russian poetry? What made you want to translate Russian poetry?

Alex Cigale (AC): I suppose Russia has always stood at a crossroads of civilizations; it's where Whitman's "Never the twain shall meet" meet: the East and the West. Its future, being determined now (along with those of the Confucian areal of China and the Muslim one of the Middle East, and the double crises of globalization and environmental degradation) is also shaping our future. The human story within its maelstrom of history is the triumph of the human spirit amidst the crisis of modernity.

And then there is the incredible richness, the emotional and active expressiveness of the Russian language that's nearly unmatchable in the more precise but cold English. The canon of Russian poetry is so much richer than the Big Four (Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak Tsvetaeva) the West already knows that it represents several lifetimes of work. As a poet and translator, I've been incredibly fortunate to be able to act as a cultural ambassador, a bridge of sorts, between our two civilizations; that should be sufficient motivation to dedicate the one lifetime I've got.

LK: What type of feedback have you gotten regarding your translations? Is there one translation you've done that's been challenging? Why? What did you learn from that challenge?

Receiving the 2015 NEA Literary Translation Fellowship, for my work on the poet of the St. Petersburg philological school, Mikhail Eremin, was the best confirmation for decades of work. And the quality of the periodical publications of my translations of Russian Silver Age and Contemporary poets speaks for itself, but to name just a few: Colorado Review, Kenyon Review Online, Modern Poetry in Translation, Narrative Magazine, New England Review, TriQuarterly, World Literature Today.

Most challenging? I've recently added translating prose to my repertoire. I've been particularly attracted to the lyrical prose written by Russia's poets, alongside the hallucinatory work of the Russian Absurdist/proto-existentialist Daniil Kharms, that of a number of contemporary writers. The balanced elegance of the phrasing, the chiseled precision and colorfulness of the colloquialism, the often over-the-top lyricism has proven to be quite challenging to reproduce in lilting English. I've really enjoyed that challenge! What did I learn? Good prose is hard work. To invert Frost's defense of narrative in poetry, prose "ought at least be as good as the poetry it might have been."

LK: Is there one writer you've wanted to translate?

Just one!? The Russian Symbolist poet, Fyodor Sologub, was also a magnificent writer of children's fables. There was discussion of my re-translating his The Petty Demon for READ RUSSIA Columbia University Press project. I dream this might come true.

LK: If you could have dinner with one Russian poet, who would it be and why? What do you talk about?

AC: Just one? OK, I'd like a man-date with the watercolorist and Russian Symbolist poet Maximilian Voloshin, whose place of self-exile on the Crimea became a place of refuge after the revolution for Russian poets of all stripes (red, white, and green), from Velimir Khlebnikov to Marina Tsvetaeva to Osip Mandelstam. That sort of inclusiveness, appreciation of diversity, building of community, the deep immersion of his poetry in the Greek classical past, his contribution to bringing French Symbolist poetry into Russian via his brilliant translations, the unbound capacity for work his late-in-life "second act" of becoming a world-class artist implies, all these have great appeal to me.

We would talk about the best plein air places to go skinny dipping off Crimea's rocky coastline. The locus of a clash of civilizations for centuries, this beautiful land is once again a hot-spot on the global map; it seems to me that Voloshin's Live and Let Live engaged detachment is still the best prescription for an artist today, Yeats's "Cast a cold eye on life, on death", the long-term perspective. We'd talk about the heated passions of all the poets he had known, and this landscape that made his calmness-in-the-middle-of-a-storm productive solitude possible - our glimpses of eternity.

LK: What's next for Alex Cigale?

AC: My Russian Absurd: Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms is coming out from Northwestern University Press. I'm now completing the magnum opus, Political Systems, Cultures, and Processes of Asia, by the Dean of Russia's prestigious MGIMO School of International Affairs, Alexei Voskressensky, and am beginning a novel by the prize-winning journalist Sergei Loiko, based on his coverage for the L.A. Times of the siege of the Donetsk AIRPORT in Crimea. I'll be teaching Dostoevsky and History of Russian Drama at Queens College in the Spring. Working on book and grant proposals for a dozen projects I could realize, almost immediately should an Angel materialize:

The Collected Poems of Mikhail Eremin who turned 80 this year, anthologies of Russian Futurism, Acmeism, Russian Poetic Miniatures, and the Russian Epigram; Selected Poems of the Russophone poets of Central Asia - Gennady Aygi (Chuvash), Shamshad Abdullaev (Uzbek), Amarsana Ulzytuev (Buryat), Kubatbek Djusubaliev (Kyrgyz) - the magical prose poetry of Alexander Ulanov (Between We), Neo-Futurist Serge Segay's exoDICKERING: Selected Poems, Gennady's Kasov's Selected Ekphrastic Poems, the sci-fi poetry of Fedor Svarovsky; the Selected Short Stories of the Russian-American Russian-language writers Pavel Lembersky (Devochki), Margarita Meklina's wistful pathos (Procession of the Dead), the bi-lingual poet Katya Kapovich's hard-nosed realism (Soup Gazpacho); Igor Sakhnovsky's madcap, Russian exotic, heart-felt short stories (Bakhchysarai Rose), Kakot's Numbers, a multi-generational saga by the late Soviet Chukchi writer Yuri Rythkeu, Valery Votrin's young adult novel The Last Magog, his Middle-Earth-like take on the clash of civilizations that is Central Asia's old Silk Route.

I'd like to get back there on a Fulbright soon (I'd taught in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan from 2011-2013 at the American University of Central Asia). After the Soviets left, support for culture suffered a collapse and the real tragedy, even more than the state-imposed censorship, is the near total absence of places for local writers to publish. I want to build capacity to revive the old regional journal as the Novaya Zvezda Vostoka (I wrote about contemporary Russian poetry, including The New Star of the East, for the Best American Poetry blog,) with possible support from AUCA, PEN, SOROS, US AID. They say: "Build it, and they will come". Well, I've been building here....

Happy National Translation Month! And don't forget to read, write, and share translations during the month of September.