In the summer of 1990, Lyn Hejinian called to ask if I would be interested in going with her, three other American and five Russian poets, on a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of Stockholm, Helsinki, and Leningrad. I was working as communications manager at a computer distribution company, and my forty-plus-hour workweek left little time for poetry; the idea of travel with fellow poets was immediately appealing.
The plan was to match the five Americans — Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, Jean Day, Lyn, and myself — with five Russians: Ivan Zhdanov, Alexei Parshchikov, Nadezhda Kondakova, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, and Ilya Kutik. We would spend a week in Stockholm and Helsinki, followed by a week in Leningrad. At each stop there would be readings, press conferences, and social events.
What follows are knitted-together and lightly edited excerpts from my daily trip notes, compiled in a nine-by-seven notebook for hotel use and a five-by-three pocket notebook for jotting on the run. The telegraphic prose style reflects the rapid pace of life on the road. Some of our Russian friends are often referenced by their familiar names in Russian, Vanya for Ivan, Alyosha for Alexei, Nadia for Nadezhda, and Zina for Arkadii’s wife, Zinaida Dragomoshchenko.
Another aspect of the project was to involve translation. Each pair of poets would translate a selection of one another’s work for a “5 + 5” anthology to be brought out by the Russian publishing house Kniga. This edition was permanently postponed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Some of the translations did appear in books in English, however, including Lyn’s translations of Arkadii,1 Jean’s of Nadezhda,2 Michael’s of Alexei,3 and mine of Ilya.4
We arrived in Leningrad during the last year of the Soviet reform movements glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction). The city government was already under a liberal administration, and there was tremendous excitement about the possibility of new economic and social freedoms. At the same time, there was widespread apprehension about what might replace the existing regime. These fears centered on two potential scenarios, the resurgence of hardline Communists and a takeover by the Russian mafia. As we now know, both fears were justified.
San Francisco > New York > Stockholm
Leave house 6:10 a.m., Jean’s husband John Rapko behind the wheel. Fly to New York, knees wedged, drowsy from short night’s sleep. Meet Clark in NY. Better seat (leg room) on transatlantic flight. Talk, drink. Movie. Doze.
Meet our host, poet Gunnar Harding, at Stockholm airport. Coffee with Lyn & Gunnar. Gunnar drives us to his home in Bromma. Stop to pick up Michael, Clark & Jean at “the Americans’ apartment.” Gunnar is jazzed up, all aflutter. His wife Lotta makes big dinner for the group of us, their friends Bengt Jangfeldt, poet and publisher of Artes (the journal of literature and culture), Hans & Ingrid, Anna Karina, and Maria. Ilya Kutik and his wife Natalia have arrived from London, where Ilya works as a correspondent for the BBC. This will be the only time we are to see these two, as Ilya must return to London on Sunday. Toasts, photos, Gunnar’s “creole punch,” animated conversation, jet lag. I slip off before midnight, sleep until 3:30 a.m., read, take Valium, sleep again until 11 a.m.
Gunnar says Bengt was a radical leftist when younger, now has become quite conservative, whereas Gunnar has stayed consistently liberal. According to Gunnar, in Sweden authors of all types share equally in proceeds calculated from all library books taken out. When someone takes out a popular mystery book, Gunnar gets a credit, and he receives a monthly check for his share based on the number of his books on file.
We walk the streets of Stockholm. I visit a chiropractor wearing a white jacket in a storefront office, get my right sacroiliac fixed, learn leg exercises. Rain. To the Americans’ apartment at Wallingatan 9. Clark is interviewed by a Swedish journalist. Walk with Clark to Modern Museum. Meet Jean, her sister Barbara & Danish friend, Lyn & Gunnar. Check out the Duchamp room. View paintings by Arvid Fougstedt. Dinner in restaurant. Cab to Bromma. Red wine with Lyn, Lotta & Gunnar. Music by their young children, trumpeter David & guitarist Clara. To bed at midnight, up at 5 a.m. Head full of multilingual gab.
Gunnar rehearsing in his study. The Russians have arrived by ship from Leningrad after a night of drinking. Hysterical call from Ingrid — the Russian apartment has only one bed. Bengt to the rescue — three couches fold out. I fool around on Gunnar & Lotta’s piano. To Academy of Music to set up for big reading. The Royal Box is reserved for the Royal Family. Meet Arkadii, Nadia, Vanya, and Alyosha. Arkadii is feeling no pain. We read for a house of about one hundred and twenty-five, with Swedish translations preceding each reader. I read my poem, “In the American Tree.” Arkadii extemporizes; Hans translates.
Alyosha says of Arkadii, “His mind is spreading in all directions.” Later, “In USSR we have no things, only words. In the West, you have so many things, word & thing are so close, words become things.” We talk of writing & silence. “When there are no more poets, there will be only noise,” he says.
After the reading, we hit the streets, leaving a backstage mess of empty bottles. Arkadii stops at a storefront to recite improvised poetry to the street, a large red stain down his shirt. We convene in an apartment (whose?) high above the streets. Everyone smokes, my first cigarette in ten years.
Stockholm > Helsinki
[How did we get from Stockholm to Helsinki? I don’t remember. Lyn tells me we took a ferry. Clark’s notebook says we flew.] We meet our Finnish host, Jukka Mallinen. Jukka says, “Now we will walk for one hour.” We walk past a building where Bush and Gorbachev are meeting [in what will be known as the Helsinki Summit]. The street is blocked off by guards. At Saint Nicholas Church we see silver and gold saints with painted faces. Then, a view of the harbor. We lunch on whitefish at the train station restaurant. To enter we must surrender our coats to two surly male attendants. Michael balks at this, mutters an expletive under his breath. I’m later told by Anselm Hollo that at the station restaurant “they own your coats!”
I learn the Russian for “Jewish Republic of Siberia.”
Jukka says, quoting Sibelius, “With businesspeople you can speak of music, with musicians only of money.”
At the University of Helsinki, the audience is young, clean, hip, responsive. Clark reads an extended work. The sound system is good, but the sound of the rain outside clashes with the rhythm of Vanya’s verses, and this pisses him off. Our readings in English and Russian are presented in Finnish by two young actresses in black. Then dinner back at the train station. We meet young poet Jyrki Kiiskinen, whose work has been published by poet Paavo Haavikko. (Anselm Hollo has translated Haavikko into English.) Alyosha is accompanied by a beautiful young Finnish friend.
Arkadii and I are roommates at the Best Western Metro City Hotel (pronounced by Clark as “Mediocrity Hotel,” but no, it’s fine, clean and well lit). We lie on our beds giggling over Russian and American English.
I learn the Russian for “thriller.” I learn the Russian for “no problem.”
K: "I'll be interested to hear what you make of it."
Jean writes, “A deep tonic of sleep rearranges our direction.” I think, “Would that it would!”
Clark says, “Is this the Bladder Hall?”
Thinking of Clark, I write this:
I got one of your moons today.
The space behind it whitened and went out
These words occurred to me
somewhere in Helsinki.
They seemed to come from you.
I showed them to you
and you said you might take them back,
to which I agreed, absentmindedly.
Breakfast at hotel. We check out a big domed synagogue. Press conference at Russian Friendship house is billed as a “poetry summit.” Alyosha holds forth on the advantages of alcohol for poetic practice. We cut up for photos next to a portrait of Lenin. Arkadii, Lyn, and Michael speak to the Finnish press (six dailies). My brain is fried trying to hear, seated far away from Lyn, who summarizes, as Jukka translates only into Finnish. We split. I’m nearly weeping with exhaustion. Go by big sauna recommended by Jukka’s publishing friend, but it’s women’s day, so take a sauna at the hotel. Sleep for an hour.
Dinner in the restaurant of an artists’ club. Stiff, dour, suspicious-looking middle-aged Finns. They lighten up after a few bottles of red. We read, Clark first. I left my books in a bag on the coat rack, so write simultaneous phonetic translation of readings in Russian and Finnish. I read my new poem “Finnetic Translation,” and bring down house. Meet novelist, translator, and “secret agent” from Hamburg, Angela Praesent. Conversation with drunken Finn playwright. He says, “I see you have ordered the beef. We in Finland are especially proud of our fish!” He then tells me a prolonged and gruesome war story set in the Arctic, concluding with a flourish: “That’s the real osso bucco!” Walk to Jukka’s for late vodka & ’30’s calypso. Lyn & Vanya dance. Take whole Valium, get first full night’s sleep.
Helsinki > Leningrad
Wake hungover. Aspirin, rest, codeine. Out to pharmacy for more aspirin & vitamin C. (Arkadii has chest cold, from Alyosha.) Buy socks from China. Buffet lunch at the harbor. Postcards to Anselm Hollo, Tom Raworth, Ahni, Mom & Dad.
On the train to Leningrad, crossing the border from Finland. A break in the forest. Two fences, about thirty feet apart, each topped with coils of barbed wire. Cozy compartment with poet friends. Standing in corridor between cars with Michael as we approach the city, through woods and marshes, leaning back against the wall and bending forward to peer out the windows, first Russian stations, people.
Graffito: DON’T CRY FOR LOUIE CHICAGO
I learn the Russian for “good luck.” “I learn the Russian for “joke.” “I learn the Russian for “mistake.”
When I see box cars
I think of birches
Box cars full of birch logs. To the Finland Station. Night. Arkadii and Zina pack us into two cabs. Ride past Neva lighthouses to Sovetskaya Hotel. Georgian wine in bar with Vanya, Nadia, et al. Dinner in Jean’s room. Sleep till 7 a.m.
Our rooms at the Sovetskaya
Dial 7 for outside line.
Breakfast at a beriozka, a place that takes hard currency (dollars, not rubles). Walk with Lyn, Jean, Clark, and Michael to St. Nikolas Cathedral. Crowds, incense, candles crackling, haunting voices of an unseen choir, many old people, some young, the sacrament being given by a young priest, two corpses laid out in coffins to one side, mourners huddled behind them. A third is brought in — the coffins are covered with cloth in rich, subdued colors, maroon or pink — this one is a young woman, her forehead discolored, much weeping among her mourners. My eyes fill. I move with hands folded over belly in Zen kinhin posture, an approximation of reverential comportment, abashed to be permitted to drift through this deep spectacle. Relieved to be back outside, the light blue walls and gold domes of the big church.
Walk up Mayorova Prospect to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, then cut over to Dzerzhinskogo, and stop to shop (buy tie and soccer scarf for Michael). Through mud intersection & outside market, past concrete kiosks with posted scraps. To Technical College Metro to meet Arkadii. Rain. Meet scholar Viktor Mazin & Vasily, a poet. To Writer’s Union for lunch. Then, a panel discussion: “Culture/Market/Censorship.” Michael leads off. Jean covers small press scene. Clark cites ‘60s psychedelic multiplicity. I talk about corporate control of American publishing (Andre Agassi: “Image is everything”) and add an optimistic appraisal of current small press activity. Chairman says, “Thanks for the warning.” He says, “We have seventy years’ experience what not to do.”
Next to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a “FAST FOODSKII” place, a shack with a hand-painted sign, where Ron Silliman had a hamburger on a previous trip, Lyn tells me, and Ron tells me later he wasn’t sure it was beef.
On the street, we see an older man holding a young road worker by the belt in back as he leans into a ditch with a steam drill. In the Metro, huge stained-glass mural of workers’ struggle; to one side, backlit plastic panel of pornographic white nude, black boots, hair & nipples. A Metro car full of troops, eighteen-year-old Asians in olive uniforms with red trim. They look as disoriented as us.
I learn the Russian for “exactly.” I learn the Russian for “whale.” I learn the Russian for “goose.” I learn the Russian for “see you soon.” I learn the Russian for “deep.”
A visit to the studio of Valierii, a painter. We learn of his partner Ludmilla’s sailing trip. We look at Valierii’s paintings and listen to Monk on cassette tapes. Vodka is served.
Our interpreter Masha says, “Dostoevsky’s Possessed is his most popular book, because it shows the futility of revolution.”
Rain. Lunch at the Writers Union, then a reading. Vanya says, “My work is impossible to translate, and Clark’s work is impossible to translate, so I’ll read one of my poems in Russian, and he’ll read one of his in English.” After-party in our honor, where brandy and caviar are served courtesy of two young entrepreneurs, Nikolai & Sasha, who have started a messenger service business. They guarantee mail delivery within the city limits in seven days. Nikolai shows me an amortization table and asks me what it is. The American figure they most admire is Thomas Edison.
Conversation with a young Russian poet:
R: So, Kit, how do you know about the USSR? Through television, the media?
K: Yes, but also through books, the writings of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mayakovsky, Shklovsky…
R: Mayakovsky and Shklovsky were Communists. They deformed reality.
K: How old are you?
K: You were born in 1960?
R: No, 1957.
K: When did Mayakovsky die?
K: Then you were not alive to see reality in Mayakovsky’s lifetime. How do you know he distorted it?
R: Through other writers…
K: What other writers?
[Period of misunderstanding… ]
K: All art deforms reality. What art does not deform reality?
K: No, no, photography is no different. But we were talking about writing. Words deform reality. All words deform reality. But also, all words form reality!
R: All works form reality.
R: Thank you.
Walk to the studio of Ostap Dragomoshchenko, Arkadii & Zina’s son, in an abandoned concrete housing project. The studio is an empty apartment without windows, doors, or furnishings. Many large paintings are propped against the walls of a bare room. Ostap pulls out one painting after another for us to see. Some are expressionistic urban landscapes in greens and reds with an eerie sense of foreboding. Others are cartoon caricatures of ominous urban types in red, black, and white. To accompany our perusal, Ostap plays a tape of 2 Live Crew on a boombox. We buy several paintings.
Arkadii gives me his hat.
Hotel Sovetskaya: the same Matisse in every room. The same wallpaper. Plastic phones in different colors. When it rings it’s no one. Raw wood cracked and splintered in the busted lock. The first time my key won’t turn it is 11 p.m. The floor concierge summons two jovial workers. This happens all the time, they seem to inform me. The second time I am moved to another room two doors down.
Walking in the cold rain with Masha.
K: Where are your gloves?
M: I left them at home.
K: I left mine at home, too.
M: We are companions in the disaster.
Man on bus with huge backpack & basket full of fresh mushrooms from the forest on the outskirts.
Sergei Khrenov says, “I don’t think you will come back here.”
Walk to the Hermitage. Talk with Michael. Sing bop tunes with Clark. Jean is resolute, circumspect, “a young recruit.” Lyn is indefatigable, charged up, on. In Russian her speech is more direct, less intellectually elaborate. Walk to the Finland Station. The engine that brought Lenin back to Petrograd in 1917 is enshrined behind glass. Russians stand with their backs to it.
Nadia says, “Things will not be right in the Soviet Union until Lenin is buried like a normal person.”
Bus to Arkadii & Zina’s apartment. (All bus windows are completely covered with grime, as if never washed since WWII.) Arkadii & Zina live with Ostap, up several flights of stairs in a large apartment complex. We enjoy a big mushroom dinner. Arkadii tells a joke:
Prostitute to customer: “Are you finished?”
Customer: “No, German.”
Walk with Masha, Michael, & Clark in the rain (I’m coming down with a head cold) to the Dostoevsky and Akhmatova apartments. At the home of the great poet Anna Akhmatova, we learn that, honoring the request of her common-law husband, the art scholar and writer Nikolay Punin, who died in a gulag, she kept his daughter with her all her life.
Arkadii says, “When you speak of reality… it’s like love. What is love? A man loves and loves but can never get enough. Like drinking wine… you want to bite the glass!”
Back at the hotel, I take a bath. We have an amusing supper at the hotel restaurant, $20 for all of us, to the sounds of a rock band warming up. Bad sore throat & fever in the night.
Skip breakfast and sleep till 1:15 p.m. Sunny. Check in at the bar — Lyn is with Vasily and the young Latvian poet Sergei Timofeyev, who has taken a night train from Riga to be with us. Neither the journalist Olga Khrustaleva nor Arkadii are there yet for a newspaper interview, so I go out, walk down to the Fontanka, then along Sadovaya to a park with soccer, families, kids. First time alone in Leningrad — a nice feeling. A woman stops me to ask for change. I fish coins out of my pocket and hold them out in my hand for her to choose. Back to the hotel bar at 3 p.m. to find all huddled around a microphone, Michael again holding forth.
Michael says, “Why so pale and wan, Kit?” (A quotation from Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling, I later learn.)
An hour goes by, I drink Coke, feel spirits drop. Clark is quiet. Dinner with Arkadii, Zina, Ostap, and others at a restaurant run privately by a collective. I bang my head on a light fixture while standing up, on impact think to do a controlled pratfall, then, no doubt weak from my fever and flushed with wine, lose my footing, and fall theatrically into Arkadii’s arms, nearly knocking him down and crashing into a wall. The curiosity of the entire restaurant is aroused.
A drunk on the 308 bus grabs Nadia’s book away from us. He reads the dedication in her hand (to me). He is large, grey, in suit, raincoat, tie, scarf, hat, & glasses. He tries to speak to us. I get the book back. When he rises to descend from the bus, he offers me his hand. We shake, then do a funny, slapstick pantomime, me faking him out w/a Spike Lee fingertips move, part of the ironic theater of frustration I seem to have developed in response to the incompatibility of language/culture.
Meeting at Writers Union with First Secretary Vladimir Constantine Arro. Topics: artists in politics (he is a playwright, now also a deputy in parliament), the economy (hording by party and mafia), “cliques,” “Cosmopolitanism,” anti-Semitism, the press, etc. Clark is on the nod — wrong pill. I gave him two kinds of decongestant, red for daytime and white for sleep. Clark got them mixed up and has taken the sedative during the day. Lunch at the Writers Union. Walk along the Neva and through the Summer Gardens with Michael & Clark. The 308 bus, packed. Back at the hotel, supper in Lyn’s room. (Plate glass smashed in upstairs bar, blood on floor, businessmen in gray suits, one on a bar stool holding a rag to his chin.) Back downstairs for wine in my room. Jean & Michael join us. Take Actifed & Benadryl to sleep. Wake at 3:30 with anxiety about purchase of Ostap’s painting, the money ($400). Kill mosquito with Children of Light by Robert Stone.
After breakfast return to room, write in diary, nap, meditate, postcards to Lasker & Benson. Sapped. Bus to publishing house to meet Arkadii. Meeting canceled, he’s too tired. Lunch at Writers House. Lyn helps a member who is translating Raymond Chandler and wants to know the meaning of the term “floozy.” The man also asks about the allegorical meaning of “Johnny Walker.”
Tech School Metro to Finland Station, then bus to Arkadii’s (Lyn calls the stop), factory workers getting off. Walk thru weedy post-utopian high-rise lots with rusty play structures & graffitied sheds. Stairs up to Arkadii & Zina’s eighth floor apartment. Meet Jamal, Nadia’s lover, a Georgian-Armenian former bass player (“Glenn Miller”) & Formula 1 racecar driver, who has brought a leg of lamb and twenty bottles of Georgian wine. Meet a young man called Alexei, who will attend Yale Business School. Vodka. Ostap asks us Americans to each draw a self-portrait. Clark’s is a Gustonesque cartoon, a pair of spectacles trailing a series of vertical lines for legs. Jean’s wins the prize, an enormous ear. Wonderful dinner. Loosening of fatigue-locked psyche, sitting on the floor with Jean & Arkadii. Emotional farewells. Ostap, with tears in his eyes, at parting with his paintings (rolled up for us in newspaper), he says, “As you say in English, they’ll be ‘in good hands.’” Jamal & Arkadii accompany us to the bus. Quick kisses goodbye. Lyn in tears on bus. Walking from the bus stop, Michael & I discuss the siege of Leningrad during WWII.
Up at 5:15 a.m. Meet in lobby at six. Young service desk clerk slumped over in chair. Young woman on phone to cab. Desk clerk is awakened and walks out into chill pre-dawn to other building lobby to check for cab. He returns with no information. I say, “cab company,” realize there is no cab “company,” wonder how the system works. Finally cabs show up, the first one for me & Jean, then another for Michael, Clark & Lyn. Taciturn driver takes us past unknowable urban scenes to the outskirts and on to the Leningrad airport. He has a stack of what look like trading cards clipped to the dash, the top card a color photo of an Asian-looking woman in a white silk suit. Signage on the way to the airport: primitive, painted signs on rickety wooden stands with stylized emblematic art, one color per sign plus white, one an array of arms, ships, and planes, another simply the numerals “1917,” white on a band of red. At the airport, a large group of Italian tourists, most voluble & chatty compared to Russian urban transit crowds. The silence of the Russian people, on buses and on the street, is brought home by the sudden flurry of verbal animation we witness from the Italian tour group on our flight from Leningrad to Moscow.
Deplane at Moscow airport #1 and wait for our bags for about an hour, looking thru glass at the baggage claim area, the worn, cracked, black rubber slats of the luggage conveyor belt, the plane parked just outside. Lyn, Michael, & Clark all quite anxious about making our connection. Finally, we get our bags. Cab to Moscow airport #2. Driver is taciturn, handsome, in leather jacket & jeans, with nude trading card on dash. I pay him ten rubles per Lyn’s instruction, because that’s my smallest bill, probably four times the true price of the ride, but so what, it’s only about two bucks, and he accepts it with total lack of interest. Moscow airport #2, international wing. Line up for customs. Young American athletes or musicians bouncing up & down like yoyos. Families of Hasidic Jews emigrating. Get toward front of line, then find out we need to fill out new declaration forms. Lyn gets us the forms; we drop back to end of line & fill them out. A young inspector insists we open our rolled canvases, grunts, “landscape,” looking at a corner of Ostap’s painting, and tests with a knife to see if there is another painting underneath. Looks at both rolls but doesn’t open our bags. We barely make our flight, Pan Am, 1:40 p.m. Double feature on plane, Clark rents the phones. I read Children of Light. Headache. We unroll & reassemble Ostap’s paintings in midflight. Sit with Lyn. New York. USA customs. Clark disappears without saying goodbye, eager to make his connection to Albany. I buy What Am I Doing Here by Bruce Chatwin. Call Ahni at work. Sleep. Queasy before landing at SFO. John Rapko & Lyn’s husband Larry Ochs are there to meet us. Home to Ahni. So glad to be home. To sleep at 12:30 a.m., about twenty-nine hours since rising.
1 Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Description, translated by Lyn Hejinian and Elena Balashova (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1990); Xenia, translated by Hejinian and Balashova (Sun & Moon Press, 1993); Endarkenment: Selected Poems, edited by Eugene Ostashevsky, translated by Hejinian, Genya Turovskaya, Ostashevsky, Bela Shayevich, Jacob Edmond, and Balashova, with a foreword by Hejinian (Middleton, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2014).
2 Fourteen poems by Nadezhda Kondakova, translated by Jean Day and Elena Balashova, in Kent Johnson and Stephen M. Ashby, Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992)
3 Alexei Parshchikov, Blue Vitriol, translated by John High, Michael Molnar, and Michael Palmer and with an introduction by Marjorie Perloff (Avec Books, 1994)
4 Ilya Kutik, Ode on Visiting the Belosaraisk Spit on the Sea of Azov, bilingual edition, translated with an introduction by Kit Robinson (New York: Alef Books, 1995)