Contemporary Russian Poetry in Diaspora (North America, Israel)

Andrei Gritsman, Independent poet

North America and Israel are the two main sources of light of Russian culture in diaspora. About two million Russian-speaking people live in these major areas of Russian subculture. In the spirit of T.S.Eliot's definition of culture ("On Definition of Culture") these may be calleddaughtercultures with their own generic destinies, rather than satellite or dependent cultures. This notion has a direct relevance to a place taken by poetry in diaspora. This phenomenon has its historical parallels: Russian Paris, Berlin, Harbin community in Manchuria in the era between two World Wars. Nowadays it is Russian New York (V. Gande&softlsman, I. Mashinskaya, V. Druk, V. Mesyac and others) and in addition several notable Russian poets in North America scattered throughout campuses of universities (D. Bobyshev, L. Loseff, B. Kenzheev, K. Kapovich). Outside of the North America notable literary communities are present in Israel, mainly Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv (A. Barash, M. Gendelev, S. Grinberg and others), Germany , Berlin, Frankfurt; Prague (A. Cvetkov, I. Pomerancev). These are the hot spots of creative energy that is generated by several talented authors in one cultural communicative area.

A poetic practice in a Russian metropolis is currently dependent on the newly emerged hierarchy and plays by the rules of post-conceptualist, postmodernist period. An author in Russia is often wary of direct poetic expression and tries not to be too overtly lyrical in order to avoid being ridiculed, not to appear esthetically retrograde and to be "in vogue." This situation is somewhat aggravated by the fact that, paradoxically, even in the new post-Soviet Russia there is a new powerful literary establishment: several popular poetic cult figures of the post-Brodsky era and the influential, opinionated, mainstream "thick" literary magazines, relics of the Soviet era. The alternative literary cultures or schools, so typical for contemporary American literary practice, are not yet well developed in Russia.

The important feature of Russian poetry in diaspora is its partially isolated nature, despite widespread internet communication. Practice of poetry requires a direct interaction with surrounding life, poetry being of course an endogenous process. Poet's speech in diaspora is usually more direct, more personal. It is rather a personal communication (and that what a poem really is, or should be!), than a group manifesto, that is typically the case in literary practice in Russia. Language of an outsider at times is slightly outdated, suspended in the period of artist's earlier creative years. An outstanding historical example of maintaining such a unique individual poetic language is Nabokov's language, particularly of his prose.

One of the important signs of Russian poetry in America is somewhat different position of the author's self (Ja), more similar to one in American poetry. An author's self is closer to the subject of his writing. He (or she) is more descriptive and more prone to call things by their own real name. A poet is willing to "name" objects and phenomena in a new "foreign" life in his/her native tongue. That approach is more similar to an American tradition of Robert Frost, that is when a poet speaking about the subject means that very subject and not its symbol or some cultural reference (favorite contemporary Russian postmodernist device).

One has to remember that majority of Russian poets in North America and in Israel have Jewish urban roots. Therefore in general they are more open to a traditional Acmeist idea of "longing for the world's culture", rather than being close to folk or historical Russian roots. Generally their nostalgia is mostly for a childhood, for the "lost world of culture," , "city of one's youth" etc.

Some Russian poets in Israel express a sentiment for being a part of ancient Mediterranean, "Levantine" civilization. Many Russian-Israeli poets for understandable reasons show significant affinity for the land and its history, often in a very immediate, concrete sense: experiences of war, serving in the Army, living close to the ancient cultural and religious sites etc. On the other hand, for some reason, Russian-Israeli poets, even those who are relatively fluent in everyday Hebrew, do not expand into Hebrew literary culture, rarely even know Hebrew poetry and almost never function as bilingual poets. At the same time Russian poets who have incorporated themselves into the North-American culture often translate American poetry. A few authors have become bilingual poets, publishing both in Russian and American periodicals.

The main requirement for the development of creative poetic process in some geographic and historical locale is the formation of a "critical mass" of several talented authors who share similar artistic experiences. They usually share their creative work and literary process: readings, poetry clubs, personal friendships etc.

The key question for the further discussion is what is going to happen to Russian poetry in diaspora and whether it has any future of its own. Could it be predestined to live only as long as current Russian emigre poets live and create their original art, that in time is becoming more different from the mainland poetry?