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This conversation between Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and Austrian writer Elizabeth Markstein happened in Vienna during the summer of 1972, and it’s believed (by us, anyway) to be his first recorded interview after being expelled from the Soviet Union for no good reason. Privately held until Markstein’s death in Vienna on October 15, 2013, the recording, along with a transcript, was published two weeks later by the magazine Colta, one of the few independent outlets in Russia today. The interview appears, abridged, in English translation for the first time here.[*]

The conversation begins with Brodsky reading five poems, including “The Candlemas,” or “Nunc Dimittis,” dated February 16, 1972. The poem alights on the meeting of Simeon and Jesus at the Temple and is dedicated to Anna Akhmatova. Brodsky’s final stanzas seem to foreshadow his own torch-carrying exile (in translation here by George L. Kline):

He went forth to die. It was not the loud din

of streets that he faced when he flung the door wide,

but rather the deaf-and-dumb fields of death’s kingdom.

He strode through a space that was no longer solid.

The rustle of time ebbed away in his ears.

And Simeon’s soul held the form of the child—

its feathery crown now enveloped in glory—

aloft, like a torch, pressing back the black shadows,

to light up the path that leads into death’s realm,

where never before until this present hour

had any man managed to lighten his pathway.

The old man’s torch glowed and the pathway grew wider.

Elizabeth Markstein: Are there trends, schools, in contemporary poetry?

Joseph Brodsky: I don’t really keep up. There are directions, I suppose. And they all smack of something unpleasant. If the piece is about, say, national pride, then it’s full of chauvinism or just general idiocy. If it’s something romantic, there is an agenda.

EM:Socialist realism?

JB: Exactly. Or, if it’s a satirical piece, it’s just plain negative. There is no sense that a person is engaged in satire from some high viewpoint. He stays within the imposed frame of reference. There are a handful of poets who could have gotten somewhere, but now it may be too late. They were not silenced, or shot, or even prosecuted. They more or less choked on lack of air, lack of an outlet. In any art, but especially in writing, you have to be totally possessed by it if you are to keep going in spite of any circumstances. Because sooner or later you are visited by the thought, “What on earth am I playing at? It’s just a pleasant hobby, really, one needs to make a living.” So you begin to look around, maybe compose a little play, a little script, sell it on the side. Become a hack. After all, hackwork is literature too. And the distinction isn’t that important in the end. So you can’t get published, so what. Chewing on the same negative emotion is exhausting. A sense of relativity sets in, and that’s really dangerous.

EM: Do you have someone specific in mind?

JB: Vladimir Ufland, for one. This man is certainly very gifted. Then there is living in Leningrad one poet, Mikhail Eremin, who writes one or two poems a year maximum, in the manner of Ezra Pound, but very provincial. He started by composing wonderful, strong poetry reminiscent of Velimir Khlebnikov. But then he needed to find his own way, and at that stage, because he was his own judge and audience, because there was no atmosphere, no milieu, he began to thin. You know, became more and more sophisticated. Then he crossed the line into riddles. Crosswords, rebuses, with Chinese hieroglyphics, or Latin or Greek words. On the one hand, it’s all very clever, but silly too. In any case, the lyrical tone is muffled.

There are three others, of varying quality, but in my opinion good. If they had had an opportunity to work normally, they could have grown into something interesting. Now, I’m afraid it may be too late. I’ve learned a lot from them. They are two or three years older. I met them in 1960, for better and for worse. We became friends, and then it all fell apart. In each case, it ended badly. Anna Akhmatova called us “the magic choir.” But when she died, the dome collapsed. The choir ceased to exist, split into separate voices. They are Yevgeny Rein, Anatoly Naiman, and Dmitry Bobyshev. There were four of us.

Now, well, Rein makes a living churning out magazine articles and popular science scripts, and little by little he is becoming something of a monster. He is already pretty much broken, by his own personal circumstances. He doesn’t know which plane he occupies, whether he is a poet or a hack.

Naiman is a translator. He has never been an independent figure; still, he had some sharpness, some spiciness, some subtleness. But those translations of his, all that hackwork he’s done, they ruined him, really. Because he no longer knows which words are his own and which are not. Words are just like bricks for him, as they are for all translators. They contain nothing of innate value. I feel the same way, incidentally.

Bobyshev, I know him less well. He is pretty talented, has a very high sense of language, of its possibilities. This was his strength, and he exploited it to death. He didn’t seek new tools. I guess he would have, if he had had some collegial competition, some audience. It may sound funny, talking this way about poetry, but poets need that too, competition with peers. If it existed, something might have come out of him and out of the others. As it is, they are more or less going off the rails. Or maybe switching to new ones, I don’t know.

EM: Do you consider yourself a Soviet poet?

JB: I object rather strongly to all definitions except Russian, because I write in Russian. Still, Soviet would be correct. Whatever its accomplishments and crimes, it exists, and in it I existed for thirty-two years. And it did not destroy me.

EM: I’m glad you brought this up. There are émigrés, and Soviet citizens too, who try to deny its existence, pretend it’s not there. But how can you? The Soviet Union is a historical and cultural fact.

JB: A cultural fact. Exactly. So many Soviet artists drew their inspiration not from divine intervention but from the idea of resistance. That is something to consider, with gratitude even. True, I unexpectedly found myself in the position where one can feel grateful. While you actually live there . . . I’m not sure what it is, what is wrong with my nervous constitution, but when I lived there, I couldn’t quite raise myself to anger or to hatred. Anger, yes, but never hatred. I always remembered, you see, that the regime and its manifestations were individual, ordinary people. I couldn’t give it a single face. For a resistance fighter, for a questing dissident, such emotion is death. Therefore, I’m not a fighter. An observer, perhaps.

EM: In Czechoslovakia in 1968, in some cities during the first seven days of Soviet occupation, or maybe it was just one city, there was a slogan, “Remember that you are people of culture.”

JB: This is precisely what ruined their cause.

EM: How so? I believe they had won more ground than was expected.

If you really want to enforce principles, if you don’t want
them to remain just empty words, bubbles in the air,
then the only way to do it is by shedding blood.

JB: I really don’t think so. They behaved like schoolchildren. They decided that the principles they were defending, that somehow they had discovered a new way of defending those principles. But in fact, if you really want to enforce them, if you don’t want them to remain just empty words, bubbles in the air, then the only way to do it is by shedding blood. Otherwise, all you will get is a better or worse form of slavery. Once you start talking freedom, how you deserve it, how you want it, how it’s been denied you, how you refuse to remain a slave, you’ve got to take up arms. There is no other way to fight a slave-master. True, they did disgrace the Soviet Union, but pragmatically speaking . . .

EM: I used to think that death is preferable to life on one’s knees. But now I’m not so sure. I’m beginning to think that any life is better than death.

JB: True. But still, the question is, what should we remain alive for? Man is not a rock, he can’t exist just for his own sake. There’s always the “what for.” I understand that here, in the West, I won’t find the answer. Because when I look around, I don’t understand what people live for. My impression is that they live for the sake of shopping. That human life exists for the sake of shopping. The only solution is to stay on the margins, to not get too involved—in shopping, I mean. If I had grown up here, I don’t know what I would have become. This is a very disorienting feeling. I just don’t understand what it’s all for. It must be a very Russian, very totalitarian idea that something so good must come only as a reward, not as a given.

EM: Yes, this is a very Russian way of thinking.

JB: From my perspective, I see what is good in it, but I do not like it very much—it’s the illusory multitude of choices. No matter what you choose it will at best affect only your pocket. But psychologically, subjectively, as a person, you’ll be in the same condition you were in before. Unless you buy a car, which can move you forward. But in a spiritual sense, this gives nothing, absolutely nothing. Here, you would need to be an extremely sensitive, exceptionally gifted person, a person in whom the gift is strong enough to vibrate all the time, so that the gift is more real than anything else. It must be something unhealthy, you know? Only a very physiological artist can exist here. Not a calm, reasonable, normal person with some ideas about life. Poetry, however, is something else. I’m not sure what it requires: protest, indifference? But in all situations, whether good or bad, when I managed to put together something passable, I always told myself, “Joseph, you need to take a higher note.” Here, I’m not sure if a higher note alone would do it. Because here, life appears as if justice had triumphed. It’s a bewildering thought.

In Leningrad, I know this person, he is a son of an important university professor, a terrible scoundrel. So this Mikhail always moans and complains that he doesn’t know what to do, because his daddy has done this and that, and his hands are in blood to the elbow. Meilakh, I’m talking about the son of Boris Meilakh [Ed. note—a leading Soviet Pushkin scholar, beloved by the Party and government, whose books are a perfect example of conformist scholarship]. So he lives in his daddy’s summer place. I told him to leave it alone, to imagine that he lives on the family farm.

He quieted down, and then came back, still moaning, but this time he crawled. So I told him, “Mikhail, suppose you are right, you defend the good, and he defends the evil, and that makes you enemies. In that case, how do you imagine the triumph of justice?”

“How?” he asked.

The triumph of justice in the end, I told him, will come down to this very same summer place and all these same . . . Because in their material design, justice and injustice are identical, correct?

EM: In a sense, this happens to 95 percent of dissenting artists, who are immediately put in a golden cage.

JB: Exactly.

EM: I wanted to ask whether you agree with Dostoyevsky, his philosophy of suffering—that a person can realize himself fully only through suffering.

JB: No. Through happiness. But that’s very rare.

EM: But you said earlier that poetry is inspired by resistance.

JB: Right. Poetry is always a conquest—a conquest of someone’s attention. In the Soviet Union, for example, it happens instantly. You instantly grab someone’s attention, maybe two or five or ten people. How much attention is needed depends on one’s vanity. Five people read you, agree with you, and you are all right. Then there are others, like Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who require a full arena. Here in the West, it’s more extreme. Here, you need to be able to look calmly into a void, not expecting it to be inhabited by any applause and so on. And if a person can stand it . . . No, Dostoyevsky was absolutely right, yes, through suffering. But perhaps though happiness, too . . .

EM: That’s never happened.

JB: Yes, it has. I know some people, but they’re still in the midst of it. I don’t know yet how it will turn out.

EM: I still believe that the cornerstone of human development must be suffering. Happiness could be a turning point but not a cornerstone experience. In theory, I can’t imagine how a person can become fully human without having suffered.

JB: You know, I knew such people. They are a couple, they are very happy, they simply love each other very much. And they are people of a very high order.

EM: Maybe they suffered at some early point in their development?

JB: Maybe they did suffer in childhood. I don’t know. Who knows what happens in childhood and why we should make it a foundation for everything? They weren’t persecuted, they never lived with other spouses, they had never been jailed. I know from experience: most people don’t realize themselves through suffering. Most people break down and turn into something ugly—so I wouldn’t insist on the therapeutic role of suffering.

EM: But the artist suffers when he works.

JB: I wouldn’t quite agree with that. I understand how an artist can be happy when he discovers something new while he works. I believe that Georges Braque, my favorite painter, was not a sufferer. He didn’t become an artist through suffering. Enormous inner wealth and work itself—this is what fulfilled him. Even Marc Chagall is not a sufferer, I think.

EM: Are there differences between painter, writer, composer?

JB: Of course. The writer is especially like no one else.

EM: Are there differences in the process of creation?

JB: No. Only in the means of creation. Language is a very special instrument. Because one can’t use it freely, any way one wants. That’s why the writer comes to the process of writing already frustrated. In a sense, writers, poets, are condemned to suffering a priori. Painters less so. Composers less still.

EM: You are right. They are so much freer. In Mozart’s case, one can imagine the act of creation as complete liberation.

JB: The longer art exists, the more time passes, the harder it is to practice, because, among other things, art requires not only what the artist has to say, but new means, new tools and so on. And this is not simply an internal process, but is also in a kind of competition with the past, with what’s been already said. And in this regard the writer is, of course, in the most difficult situation.

EM: I think that a writer, a poet, speaks directly to the audience, the reader, whereas an artist or a composer addresses himself to nature, to harmony of the highest level.

JB: I agree that everyone has a different language. A writer certainly addresses himself to the society, but not only. In the long run, a writer doesn’t really address himself to the society; it is a matter of the inner life, he is writing for himself. He does it for himself and has to be more critical of himself than any other artist. Self-imposed quality control. Musical language allows more leeway. It doesn’t box you in on every side.

Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.


[*] Why the interview was not published (in any language) during the lifetimes of the two participants we don’t know. Brodsky’s literary executor, Ann Kjellberg, informs us that “he speaks critically of several writers and friends whom he held in high regard during the decades following; perhaps this was a constraint, and he did not in the end elect to make those views—necessarily of the moment—public.” Thanks to Ann Kjellberg for her kind permission to publish this interview, by the way.