Queer Performance as Life Creation in Contemporary Russian Poetry

Vitaly Chernetsky, Columbia University

In contrast to studies of prose, Western scholarship has had a tendency to lag behind in its attention to contemporary Slavic poetry. However, the first post-Soviet decade of Russian literature has been marked by an emergence of a new poetic generation, original yet still little-studied, whose outlook and aesthetic sensibilities often contrast sharply with their "fathers," now recognized as the maitres of Russian postmodernism. The investigative detachment and role-playing of the Conceptualists, the metaphysical density of the "metarealists" gave way to a poetry that both incorporated and rejected large aspects of their legacy. Invigorated in part by the reestablished tradition of public poetic performance (as represented in particular by the group readings during perestroika years by the members of the Moscow Poetry Club), the new poets combine the subversive practices of postmodernity with a revival of the zhiznetvorchestvo ("life-creation") tradition of the Silver Age--a tradition that is now defamiliarized, fragmented and filtered through the new experiences. One of the key aspects of this phenomenon is the prominence of manifestations of queer desires (on a scale unprecedented since the Silver Age) as part and parcel of this project, desires that are strongly autobiographically identified but culturally filtered. With the help of the conceptual framework of contemporary theories of identity, and queer theory in particular, I will discuss in this paper what I believe to be the key elements of the poetics of two prominent figures in this generation, Jaroslav Mogutin and Dmitrij Vodennikov.

In Russia, these two authors have attracted both critical acclaim and considerable controversy (the award in 2000 of the prestigious Andrej Belyj Prize in the poetry category to Mogutin sparked a prolific public debate, while Vodennikov's poetry likewise has been discussed at length on the pages of such journals as Znamja and Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie). Although their texts and public personae differ significantly (in both the texts and the performances, Mogutin favors in-your-face confrontation, »patage and spontaneity; Vodennikov projects a vulnerable and seemingly contorted "new sentimentalist" identity), they share much of the heritage they build upon (from "Brodjachaja Sobaka" to the "new gay writing" of Evgenij Xaritonov), as well as the keen attention to questions of sexuality and desire in their possible intersections with processes of identity-formation. I believe that the two poets incorporate queerness in the construction of their public personae and into their literary projects in two very different but equally productive and powerful ways, and through their work enact a very important paradigm shift in contemporary Russian writing--a shift that, as I hope to demonstrate, has endowed it with new vitality and cultural relevance.