Monday, February 26, 2001

Journal entry, 2/26/2001 UC Berkeley, Dmitri Prigov

2/26/2001 UC Berkeley, Dmitri Prigov talks of a conceptualist underground, or living the largest possible life.

Dmitri Prigov’s English has improved vastly since I last saw him, so has his ego. In fact, it’s grown in leaps and bounds. It knows no limit. He is enamored of his own poetry, after art, postmodernism, he speaks of the little culinary desires, politics, the domestication of spiritualism. He spews out so many ideas, he sounds like a thesaurus of poetic concepts. He talks of the White Square group but says little about its performative poetics. We know little more than before. Which is nothing.

He said he once sculpted large sculptures for kids on playgrounds. It paid well. Then refers back to his first novel, Live in Moscow. He invokes Pushkin, he sings arias. He brags how he’s written 24,000 poems for the new millennium on the Internet, he says that’s a poem a month for 4000 years. A 4000-year project, comparable to building the Egyptian pyramids. However, his five-year plan is to write two poems a day which he says has accomplished. Nothing like post-Soviet sound bytes. The language remains the same. I hope he’s not going to exercise them all today.

He has a publisher. He substituted a plan of his own, and wrote 4000 more plans. It’s called the people, as planned. And he was able to extend the deadline. We all have elements to publish, poet and reader, but to read all 24,000 poems. At once? One lacuna near the critic. There will be an appeal for the critic as artifact. What are the future audiences? If they’ll even exist? Will it survive to the year 4000?

All this strategy packaging is akin to an armored tactical piece, is called images. Unknown behavior within a situation. I’m thinking he’s either trying too hard to impress us, or he’s off his lithium. My mother goes off like that. It’s a real whirlwind, holding onto a through-line. Any through-line.

He says, I have written images in the poets’ voices. Hyper Soviet poems, the critic poet. A woman poet, Soviet, gay, Chinese, patriotic, liberal, democratic poet…

There is not enough time today to read them all, he says, so I’ll begin with the oral text. Any tone with a number of meetings, call them arias. An aria is to shout/scream/plow. A poem is not severed from ritual. And now it is a rock. My task is to produce poetry that doesn’t coincide with a rock. Here is an alphabet text, phonetic images. The Russian alphabet from a Latin translation. I’ve written 150 books. I try to follow the rules of genre, rhyming lines, then letters becoming positions, funereal. With each letter lists of books Greek if only I remained alive. He talks of Anna Akhmatova, and says women women women. Clearly he does not understand them.

We still haven’t a clue as to what he is talking about. And then he says, now for some regular rhymed poetry. Hyper Sovietski. Ultimately everything is main hero, he is a policeman, he is militia. The rest sounds like Latinate gibberish fired at random. I have to unpack his English. I don’t gather much from his ramblings and frankly wonder why he’s considered such a great poet. Maybe in Russian.

He talks of Soviet text, the literature, the genre, the idea of conceptualism. The unconventional appeal. He summons obituaries, weather forecasts, he’s like a newspaper on crack. He speaks of the death of Pushkin by cultural committee, Dostoyevsky, and another hour on an alphabet poem. I recognize words from the Russian and he goes back and forth, back and forth between languages. I’m probably one of the few that does understand. Gospodi, he says again. God help us, indeed, I think. Then he talks about the smart culinary life. What? Celestial speaking in winter, Red Square, prikrasnaya, take an old story, speak of it to me. To life, to know, to love. Winter, toilet paper, today’s utopian market, the conversational exchange rate, the dollar situation, how the dollar changes from day to day.

He says, I try to realize the possibilities of exchanges, but he returns to gibberish in multiple languages. I’m sure it has a meaning for him. I perk up for the Jubilee birth anniversary of Pushkin. Dmitri said that he performed with musicians and every country, he absorbs the mantra of high culture. Mantra, not the semantic level coming together, body with rhythm. The Russian mantra is the first line of Eugene Onengin. He recites the first paragraph like a Buddhist mantra. People don’t even know whose uncle died, but they know of Uncle Vanya within the culture. Everyone knows Orpheus and Eurydice. He substitutes adjectives for verbs. And strange unearthly leviathan behavior emerges victorious.

On translation. He says he divided a text into five parts and gave it to five scholars to restore by memory. He says the first chapter returned similar, but each chapter was completely different. He also gave the text to Western scholars and it was even more lamentable. And then I thought of the invisible lunatic translation syndrome. Out of sight, out of mind, translated into Russian and back to English again becomes invisible lunatics. In this case, everything was lost in translation. We are witnessing it in action.

A woman’s upset with the role of women in the poems but he says it’s part of the culture, it’s a male world, his rhythm is an amalgam of the classical culture, and the material culture—a syndrome of the dramatic. At the end, we don’t clap in unison, being from the west, we clap individually— it rises and falls unevenly in organic crescendos. He completely misses the boat. In Russia where everyone claps in unison. Together. The ludí. The people. We clap apart. I don’t bother to meet him afterwards.