Recently the Pushkin House inaugurated the opening of the 101st km – Further and Everywhere pavilion conceived by the Russian artist and architect Alexander Brodsky. This project was meant to mark the centenary of the Russian revolution and honour the memory of the Russian poets in exile. Hung inside with poetry by 20 Russian poets, such as Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelshtam and Joseph Brodsky, the pavilion brings history and poetry together. Our correspondent, Borimir Totev, approached the director of the Pushkin House, Clementine Cecil who was the inspiration behind the project, and Markus Lähteenmäki, Curator of 101st km Further Everywhere Pavilion & Exhibition.
Clementine Cecil, Director of Pushkin House
How does Pushkin House stand out from the rest of the Russian Revolution-related heavily populated cultural calendar in London with this pavilion & exhibition?
In the case of this pavilion, it became clear that Alexander Brodsky has given a home to those made homeless by the revolution, by housing their poems. For them, the Russian language itself became a refuge during this times of oppression and great upheaval: from the revolution to Stalin’s terror to the continuing suppression of human rights in the 1960s. This has become important again today, as many people leave Russia either to live and work entirely elsewhere, or partially. In the 1950s there were probably only several hundred Russians in the UK, today there are several hundred thousand. Pushkin House is physically expanding to embrace the ever-growing Russian-speaking population of London. And by making the pavilion about poetry and exile, Brodsky has brought Pushkin House back to its roots – this is where we celebrate and explore Russian culture and language, and keep the language and culture alive through this exploration.
What highlights can visitors of Pushkin House expect to see in relation to this headline season?
In his wizard-like way, Brodsky has started a chain of events. We have simultaneously launched a new season called Poetry on the Move, supported by the CASE Foundation – a series of talks and recitals from contemporary Russian writers who will be travelling to London especially, that will ensure poetry remains central to our programme. In addition, we are holding several evenings with leading translators of Russian poetry, many of whom are also poets in their own right. These include Sasha Dugdale and Moniza Alvi, with whom we hosted a discussion about translating Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva. Poetry on the Move will continue beyond the period during which the pavilion is in Bloomsbury Square.
In collaboration with Modern Poetry in Translation, a British charity whose next edition is dedicated to Ukrainian and Russian poetry, we are welcoming Maria Stepanova. Stepanova, one of Russia’s most important living poets, will give a short talk in English about suppressed and persecuted poets in Soviet Russia and their influence on her own poetry today. She will then read from her most recent work, an ambitious and brilliant long poem ’The War of the Beasts and the Animals’ which deals with the current atmosphere in Russia and the conflict in Donbass. This has recently been translated into English by Sasha Dugdale.
Later in November, Russian poet Evgeniya Lavut, who helped us select poems for the pavilion, will trace the development of irony in poetry from the late Soviet period to the new generation. She will also read some of her own poetry. Later on this year or next year we are also looking forward to welcoming Dmitry Vedenyapin, a wonderful translator and performer of his own work, who will give a talk about Khodasevich and read from his own poems.
Markus Lähteenmäki, Curator of 101st km Further Everywhere Pavilion & Exhibition
In view of the pavilion & exhibition’s main theme, how powerful do you consider language and words to be in today’s overly visual and sensationalist world?
I guess, and already partially post-rationalising the process, which was rather intuitive and organic from all sides, this project is an attempt to focus on the text but to really see text, and in the case of poetry in particular, in the simplest possible way at the same time as somehow taking it to the extreme. Poems don’t exist only in books. In this case, the poetry is in one or the other way in exile, somewhere where it didn’t choose to be. It is on the move, running away, looking for a refuge – let it be the pavilion, or the Samizdat and Tamizdat editions displayed inside the house. It is really a question of home. Where can the poetry be at home? And how can this poetry so homeless ever be at home somewhere? I think Brodsky has built a nice home for them. The essence is in the power of simple gestures.
Without giving too much away, could you share what some of the subtleties behind some of your curatorial choices were?
In terms of selecting the poems, there is a lot of personal preference involved, and not only mine, but also my partner’s, Brodsky’s and his wife’s. We read them together and separately. The selection also changed through the process many times and could have been very different. Some were definitely given more attention than others. Availability of good translations was also a big question and set many limits. For my part, rhythm of the poems was something I thought a lot about. I also drew the line rather conservatively and wanted to focus on more traditional poetry, not lyrics of songs, or, what in Russia are often called ‘bards’.
For me a lot of the thinking behind the curatorial choices in view of the wider process slowly developed while constantly commuting, first between three, and then between two countries, primarily on a train. There was a constant feel of some sort of homelessness and longing present in my life. Undoubtedly for my part this was a factor, which affected the development of the idea. I also left London at the time and the earliest working title of this project for me was “Citizens of Nowhere”, but it was very early on and before the concept got to where it can be now seen