The following interview between Galina Rymbu and her translator, Jonathan Brooks Platt, was conducted over email in the fall of 2015. For an introduction to Rymbu's work by Eugene Ostashevksy alongside three recent poems, see our recent feature.
Jonathan Platt: Today it's become popular among scholars of Russia in both America and Europe to speak of a “boom” in politically engaged cultural production. I’d like to hear your opinion on this—whether this is merely a western construct or something real. Do you feel a strong sense of solidarity with other leftist poets and artists? In 2011-12 the protests in Moscow created the impression of a cultural subject that could openly address society, but now it seems like that was only an illusion. At the same time, this unfortunate reality might be promoting greater internal solidarity in the artistic and literary communities. Whether this is true or not, it often seems to me that cultural workers in Russia feel completely marginalized and isolated, and this really isn’t a good time for culture . . .
Galina Rymbu: There are two types of solidarity in my view. First, there is “underground” solidarity, which is always sitting and waiting for its moment. Artists and poets gather together, and they really are united by the awareness of their marginality and irrelevance, by a sense of cultural conflict. This brings them strength, and they feel better in the company of friends. They can discuss the political situation and even make political art, but it always takes on a rather narrow character, in my view (as it did in Soviet times). The underground perspective on the political catastrophe usually invokes a shrill, private kind of politics, or it takes a purely aesthetic perspective. The second type of solidarity is institutional. This arises when active cultural subjects create visible institutions that struggle openly in the cultural arena (or, at least, they struggle for the possibility of creating such institutions), as long as they have the strength to do so. Institutions (journals, seminars, associations, etc.) aren’t ways of establishing a hierarchy of production; they are a means of cultural-political representation in the public and social sphere. This second path seems more correct to me. This way we can convey to society that ours is the reasonable, truly contemporary culture, the real culture, while it’s the ideological apparatuses that are trying, on a mass scale, to impose a marginal culture, a culture based on archaic and absurd values that do not correspond to contemporary reality. This is also the path that brings together activist communities with artistic and intellectual ones, promoting their mutual transformation. Or maybe it’s better to say that today in Russia an intellectual or an artist simply must become an activist, if only for the rights of culture, while the activist is not obliged to become an artist or an intellectual, aestheticizing his or her struggle.
JP: I’m interested in your personal history, your generation, and whether you have a clear sense of class consciousness. You were born in 1990 in the middle of the Soviet collapse. For me this moment—the disintegration of what used be to known as the Second World—is the central event of the neoliberal revolution (or counter-revolution, a “revolution against revolution”). The worst part of this moment was the fact that this was ultimately an “outsourced” revolution—opening new horizons primarily for western capital: new markets, less regulation, destruction of the welfare state as part of the discrediting of socialism, and so on. Meanwhile in Russia all you got was suffering, a new form of economic terror (the infamous “shock therapy”), and a leap directly into the oligarchic capitalism (which is now becoming the global norm). Your generation grew up and became politically conscious in the ruins left by this historical rupture.
GR: I think my experience is quite characteristic for most people my age. When I was a child I didn’t feel like I was living in a world that was principally different from the late Soviet period, which my parents were always talking about, which survived in books, in a lot of institutions, and in general in all the material artifacts of daily life. In a sense it became worse—there was something like an “inversion” of the post-revolutionary devastation after 1917. Really, you can’t compare the 1990s with the late Soviet period. I’m sure no workers’ children went hungry in the 1970s and 1980s. I grew up in a factory settlement in Omsk, in Siberia, and when I went to school, I often saw workers’ children faint from hunger during class. I myself am the daughter of a worker and a schoolteacher, and they went years without receiving their salary. Often there was nothing for me to eat when I came home from school.
But, really, the people who experienced this most directly were our parents, and in a sense they are the ones we must show solidarity with today. The generation of young people like my parents who had a proper “Soviet mentality” were never able to adapt to the processes of “criminal capitalization.” Most of them were simply cast aside. They continued to work in factories that now belonged to western companies, they bought bread in shops that the more agile people were able to open, and a certain part simply went into crime, joining various criminal structures and groups—prostitution, drug dealing, petty theft, speculation, black marketeering, robbing those same Soviet factories . . . Overall, you can say that the everyday life of simple post-Soviet people was criminalized, the social situation didn’t change, it even got worse, while the mentality completely transformed over the course of a decade—a new type of “criminalized worker” appeared, who would spend his days in the factory at a machine, and in the evening he would sell small bags of marijuana or go with some friends to break into people’s dachas. And things haven’t changed much in the provinces since then. Poor people today live in a condition of permanent social catastrophe. They’ve lost their place in time and history, but the most important thing is what this has led to—the total loss of class consciousness. A poor person in Russia will never admit he’s poor, it’s too shameful.
JP: And how can the language of poetry work with this reality? Can one communicate to oppressed, lumpenized workers through complicated poems?
GR: Poetry must work for a utopian exclusion of the languages of violence, but it can only do this with the help of a certain violence of its own, fiercely struggling with those languages for a future of peace. You can’t simply ignore them and write as if they don’t exist. There’s also an illusory kind of thinking here that we have to avoid. It can seem like the oppressed have a simple language, that we should employ a series of reductions to work with this language in order to be comprehensible as poets and artists. But there is no such thing as a simple language, just as there are no simple emotions. Here everything is even more complex—a real rat’s nest of complexity made up of the languages of violence, ideological pressures, propaganda, biopolitical manipulations, survivals of the past, fantasies, hopes, and even certain seeds of “emancipation”—meaning, partially violent concepts that provide an intuition of what might lead the “simple people” to freedom. In this sense, the idea of “simple language” is really just a total syntactic, lexical, and discursive collapse, and it’s very hard to work with it, almost impossible. At the same time, the discursive subject here is split just like everyone else: he experiences a constant conflict between the productive relations in which he participates (including the production of language) and the systems that sell back to him the fruits of his own labor. He sees that the world in which these products are bought and sold is not the world in which he produces them. They are two different worlds, two languages, both of which subjugate him. Today he knows this even better than workers did in the beginning of the twentieth century, but the collapse of socialism, which was never realized, and the shame that this carries with it—the shame of being simple, the shame of being a worker, the shame of being poor—this is what makes him silent. He doesn’t recognize that he is a force because he believes in some mythic majority for whom everything is fine, and he just isn’t good enough to be with them. The task of political poetry is to subvert this false consciousness and expose its real foundations in language, to struggle with these simplistic neoconservative, bourgeois narratives and values that block any sense of class belonging, that power continues to impose on people in its effort to suppress class consciousness and block the possibility of a second great socialist revolution. But this is the only way out for all those poor people, and for artists and intellectuals, too. Today the discourse of power is increasingly involved in the kind of linguistic and ideological violence that recalls pre-revolutionary times, returning to the Russia of Nicholas II. This corpse has almost returned to life, it’s being actively legitimized, most of all as a site of “true culture.” Leftist, engaged political poetry must practice its own reevaluation of the revolutionary past and the socialist experiment in order to find a way to produce a genuinely alternative revolutionary culture, one that corresponds to the class identity of the future revolutionary subject, liberating the majority’s political vision, its sensuous perception of things.
JP: Let’s talk a bit about the formal qualities of your poetry, which are quite idiosyncratic. You write in free verse, but it’s full of syntactic parallelisms, repeated constructions, at times even forming “lists” of one kind or another. What are you trying to capture with these repetitions? Or is it a specific rhythmic quality? It’s clearly not the traditional type of poetic repetition, like rhyme or meter, but something more rhetorical, related to the structures of speech.
GR: The poetry that appeals to me most isn’t the kind that presents a history of personal development as experienced in language. Poetry should be a form of public speech and thought, written as if there is someone else present, someone concrete, not just an abstract reader. When I write, I’m not alone. There is a community around me, classes of people, even my friends, their speech, and it’s as if I’m answering them, speaking “here and now.” But poetry is the kind of place where you are constantly disappointed in your presence and in the presence of the other, and this forces you to reestablish your conviction in this presence again and again on new foundations. And, in this sense, my poetry does have much in common with rhetoric and oratory, based on devices like repetition, clear performative constructions, the desire to convince. Here there is also something (either a single subject or a community) that insists on its presence in speech.
JP: Sex and eroticism appear in different ways in your poetry, and they are often connected to violence. There’s the metaphor of political violence as rape, for example. But at other times you depict the meeting of lovers as a meeting of revolutionaries (even leading to an uprising). And then you also have very intimate moments, full of love and a desire for real passion . . . What is the connection between love and violence for you?
GR: Rape is indeed a metaphor for power for me, especially its influence on sexuality. Because of power lovemaking is impossible, but it’s also impossible without it. This is the biopolitical violence, directed at the regulation of individual sexual life, which everyone is subjected to today—not only women, but even patriarchal men. They’re also victims of violence. Even if they think they’re the ones fucking and dominating women, someone else has already had their way with them and tossed them over the side of desire, leaving them spitting blood in the dirt. For me violence is also connected to the crisis in the nuclear family, which is as much a field of hostility as it is love. Hostility at the level of domestic labor, the division of labor according to modern stereotypes, and just everyday hostility—these endless negotiations . . . But love is also powerlessness, a principled powerlessness, which somehow (perhaps through speech?) liberates us from the distribution of this internal power. You need to take up the position of love in order to talk about the violence that takes root in the relations between lovers, but in life getting this distance is almost impossible. But it is possible in poetic practice. Kathy Acker, for example, is constantly describing this feminine (and sometimes queer) subject, who enters into sexual relations that are suffused with violence. Moreover this subject seeks them out again and again—it’s like the circles of hell. Only by giving herself up to them completely can she critique them. We can’t live in a world without violence, we are born as subjects into a world of violence, we are formed by violence, and so is our desire. It’s important to understand the nature of these different manifestation of violence in order to struggle with them in ourselves, in order to explode the system of sexual relations not only at the level of institutions but at the level of our personal sensuous perception. This is what I want to write about.
Galina Rymbu was born in 1990 in the city of Omsk (Siberia, Russia) and currently lives in St. Petersburg. She has published poems in the Russian journals The New Literary Observer, Air, Sho, and in the Translit series. Her essays on cinema, literature, and sexuality have appeared on the internet portals Séance, Colta, and Milk and Honey. She is the author of the recently published collection Moving Space of the Revolution.
Jonathan Brooks Platt is Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Pittsburgh. His monograph, Greetings, Pushkin!: Stalinist Cultural Politics and the Russian National Bard, is forthcoming from Pittsburgh University Press. Platt has translated poems by Kirill Medvedev, Roman Osminkin, Pavel Arsenev, and Elena Kostyleva; artistic texts by Chto Delat, Natalia Pershina (Gluklya), Nikolay Oleynikov, and Anastasia Vepreva; and philosophical texts by Oxana Timofeeva, Aleksandr Pogrebnyak, and Andrey Platonov (with Robert Chandler).