Polyphonic Transpositions: Pavel Arseniev’s “Reported Speech,” translated from Russian by Thomas Campbell, Cement Collective, Jason Cieply, Ian Dreiblatt, Ronald Meyer, Ainsley Morse, Ingrid Nordgaard, Anastasiya Osipova, Lia Na’ama Ten Brink


By Molly Thomasy Blasing


Reported-Speech-Cover-Spread-Final

From its very first pages, Pavel Arseniev’s Reported Speech shows itself to be true to its title; the opening poem’s epigraph comes to us, we are told, from an “Instruction in the platzkart train car” (15). This is only the beginning of a journey through a trail of words found, mixed and transmitted from various source texts. The Russian-English bilingual anthology is organized into six sections built around selections of Arseniev’s poetry published between 2008 and 2017.[1]  The poems represent “reported speech” in the sense that they are inspired by found texts, by language encountered on the streets, in police stations, rail cars, courtrooms, newspapers, books, personal correspondence, nationalist political screeds, and writing on social media and the internet. The poet himself is editor, curator, DJ; he appropriates, organizes, shuffles and shapes the material of the political world, which is everywhere, for everything is political.

Born in 1986, and a graduate of St. Petersburg State University, the poet, artist and literary critic Pavel Arseniev is part of a group of contemporary Leftist poets developing new modes of resistance and protest through literary production. Arseniev’s unabashedly political project rejects any view of art and art institutions as motivated by a search for the next singular voice of creative genius.  Rather, his creative practice seeks to dismantle the idea of poetry as narcissistic, individualistic self-expression and instead aims to capture and convey aspects of human social experience in the world through the multifaceted voices of the collective. In responding to a question about poetic influence and his artistic mission, Arseniev speaks of compatriots both historical and contemporary. His interlocutors come from the Leningrad underground poets of the late-Soviet period—Viktor Krivulin and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko—as well as their literary descendants, his own collaborators, Aleksandr Skidan and Dmitri Golynko.

When people talk about Pavel Arseniev, they speak of institutions. He was an organizer of the (New) Street University in 2008 to protest the closure of St. Petersburg’s European University.  Later, as founder of the literary and critical journal [Translit] he was awarded the prestigious Belyi Prize in 2012. His larger creative project is to facilitate the dissemination of socially engaged and marginalized speech and, in some ways, to continue the legacy of the Russian avant garde and factographic movements of the 1920s. Arseniev also sees his mission in part as working to fill a void left in the wake of the collapse of samizdat culture of the 1970s.

Readers of Reported Speech may be surprised to find that over a dozen individual translators, including the Cement Collective, have worked to render the poems of a single poet into English.  We often think of a skillful translator as one who can convey the singular, unified voice of a poet.  But a fuller understanding of the nature of Arseniev’s poetic project reveals that the choice of many translator voices is, in fact, an ideal arrangement for a collection of poems derived from a range of source texts. The poems of Reported Speech are based on found texts, which have been appropriated from other sources and processed or transmitted by the poet.  The narrative voices and text types are so widely varied that it’s easy to see why enlisting a team of translators representing different styles, registers and text types was a solid editorial decision by the collection’s main editor, Anastasiya Osipova.

Arseniev’s volume contains many voices, but the poems coalesce around a few key themes: the limits of education and its role in political resistance; media and the internet as social forces in contemporary life; literary forms and practices in post-Soviet society; and problems of power, surveillance and policing. Some of the most compelling texts are those on the nature of internet culture and negotiating writing practices online, for the endlessly archiving space of the internet is a key part of what is driving Arseniev’s sense that we live in “information overload,” as he explains in a 2018 interview at Hunter College. A powerful example of a poem that takes up the emotional dissonance of online communication is one entitled “Offline,” dedicated to Arseniev’s mentor, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. The poem, translated by Jason Cieply, describes the experience of encountering and processing the death of the poet online, and the callousness of grieving in virtual space.

Several images depicting real people,

several of whom are also considered poets,

start to flicker with messages conveying hurried

condolences.

Their words are strained, inappropriate, and in the end,

            false.

[…]

When all’s said and done, it’s just plain old-fashioned,

the most impudent of the perpetually logged-in poets will

            say,

death is old-fashioned, the poetry of the future will consist

            of ones and zeroes.

It already consists of them.

It’s old-fashioned to be present at the death bed, to be

            completely in one place,

After all, you could be doing so many interesting things

with the machine of language itself.

Unfortunately, these words,

transmitted by machines,

will no longer have any connection. (59, 61-63)

The selective inclusion of links to the original source text of some of the poems may leave readers eager to learn the origins of others that are not made explicit. In some cases, Arseniev or the volume’s editor has provided paratextual clues: epigraphs, a preliminary explanatory note, or a footnote. Where sources are indicated there emerge fascinating opportunities to explore the evolution of found text into legible poem. Links to the videos that accompany poems such as “Mayakovsky for Sale,” and “Translator’s Note” offer an enthralling look at the compositional and transpositional process for these texts. Readers would do well to open these links, for they lay bare aspects of the creative process that are both whimsical and profound (in the case of the collaged Wittgenstein text) or grounded in the deep ironies of late capitalist consumption and internet commerce (Mayakovsky for Sale). Such cues enrich the reader’s experience in offering a sense of the limits of the found texts and the poet’s own role in crafting the text of the finished poem. While one can understand the impulse to preserve the text as a work of poetry in its own right—certainly, too much information about the textual history of each piece could compromise the integrity of the poems—this uneven use of source signposting nonetheless makes it somewhat difficult for the book’s primary audience (non-Russian readers) to access the full import and resonance of these poems.

The translations read in ways that are—in formal terms—quite faithful to the originals. Stanzas and line breaks usually align, and decisions by the author to use only lowercase letters and omit punctuation in the Russian version are typically retained in translation. Russian poetry has long remained rooted in traditional versification, much more so than the English language tradition.  However, as Arseniev himself argues, his poetry belongs to a new wave of contemporary poetry in Russia that eschews classical rhyme and meter, preferring blank verse or the register of everyday speech. As a result, we don’t experience any strained attempts in the translations to echo the meter or grapple with patterns of end rhyme in these poems.

Worthy of special mention are Thomas Campbell and Anastasiia Osipova’s translations of “A Poem of Solidarity and Alienation” [TC] and “An Incident” [AO] in which they expertly render the bureaucratic style of the dominant voice of the poems. Osipova’s translation of “An Incident” is a well-crafted transposition of the unpunctuated column of dry, bureaucratic language of a police report of the arrest of a Novosibirsk activist named Artyom Loskutov, who was charged with marijuana possession. Campbell makes different, equally effective decisions about how to render the English punctuation in “A Poem of Solidarity and Alienation,” a text that Arseniev read at Street University in 2008. This poem is at its core an expression of fear that the reopening of the European University on March 21, 2008 would lead to the dissolution of the kind of energetic collective resistance that had formed between European University students and their local allies who had united to protest against its closing. Campbell’s choice of a more frequent use of the period in English, where there is often a comma in the Russian, evokes well the clipped, brusquely robotic rhythm of the original text.

Return to your classrooms.

They are fireproof.

No, a spark will not set them ablaze.

All measures have been taken,

More or less earnestly.

In case (of fire) we ought

To install alarms in your bodies as well.

For a fire in one head

Can always spread to another.

Then the whole town will go up in flames.

[…]

Return to your classrooms.

The splendid art deco façade

Proofs them against the confusion outside.

They are proof against stupidity and vexation.

The daily murders of ethnic minorities.

Fluctuations in the price of oil.

The grumbling of the homeless.

The regime’s truncheons.

“Centralized postmodernism.” (29, 31)

A most impressive aspect of this collection is the way the translators manage to retain the full range of registers, styles and text types in moving from Russian to English. From the folkloric musicality of “Villedeparis” [trans. Jason Cieply], to the Cement Collective’s rich, full-bodied personalities in “Words of my Friends,” to the grotesque and temporally condensed “On an Unusual Transformation into a Scoundrel” [trans. Anastasiya Osipova] that retains well its Kafkaesque pacing and defamiliarization, the diversity of text types and poetic styles make this a book readers will eagerly consume in a single sitting.

Another salient example of the dynamic polyphonic nature of the volume is Arseniev’s “Forensic Examination” [trans. Thomas Campbell], which transmits the voice of a literary critic hostile to precisely the form of “creative unwriting” in which Arseniev engages. [2]

To begin with, if the writer had

Toned down his arrogance a bit,

Read the classic works,

Studied in a comp lit department,

Where, of course, the love for such works is instilled,

He would have realized

Art and politics are incompatible,

And only then

Would have tried

To write something of his own,

Preferably in an imitative vein,

We might have been able

To speak of poetry in this case.

In this case, however, we cannot

Permit ourselves

To speak of poetry. (45-47)

The ironic subversiveness of turning an indictment of Arseniev’s manner of poetic craft into a poem in the same documentary style is indeed a powerful response to critics. As Kevin Platt astutely notes in his compelling introduction to the volume, “Arseniev’s main tool in overcoming the critical positions he refuses to accept […] is to write poetry about them, internalizing critique and incorporating it into a dialogic meditation on its own overcoming” (10). At the same time, these poems evince a biting irony that often betrays a not-so-quiet desperation about the shape of art and free expression in Russia today.

Arseniev’s poetry is a must-read for those interested in the contours of contemporary Russian poetry and its intersections with transnational shifts in the method and meaning of poetry today. Cicada Press’s Reported Speech is an engaging, accessible introduction to Arseniev’s poetry and poetics, both for those who read Russian and for those who will access this poet through the excellent English versions crafted by a dozen of today’s best Russian literary translators.

Arseniev, Pavel. Reported SpeechTranslated by Thomas Campbell, Cement Collective, Jason Cieply, Ian Dreiblatt, Ronald Meyer, Ainsley Morse, Ingrid Nordgaard, Anastasiya Osipova, Lia Na’ama Ten Brink. Cicada Press, 2018.



[1] I am grateful to Dr. Martha Kelly (University of Missouri-Columbia) for her notes on an early draft of this review.

[2] Those familiar with the work of American poet Kenneth Goldsmith may recognize this compositional process of repurposing existing text (“creative unwriting”) as a growing transnational model, one adapted from earlier surrealist and avant-garde writers and reasserted in the post-postmodern digital age.

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