Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Little interview

Our dear pal in Moscow, Tom Birchenough, asked us a few questions for a piece he was planning. Here's my responses, plus a Pushkin stanza on the Pushkin stanza:

- What on earth gave you the Moscow metro idea in the first place?
Well, the first time I was in Moscow was 98. I was being shown around by British Council staff -- Lena and Sasha -- and we basically walked everywhere. So I only remember a couple of trips down into the Metro, of which I mainly retain the speed of the escalators -- they were much faster then, it was like surfing your way underground. The baton-like lights down the middle of the escalators probably impressed me far more than the few stations I saw (presumably on the Sokolnicheskaya Line where it can feel a bit tiled and lavatorial.)
Then, when we came back from Novosibirsk five or six years ago -- when we first met you -- we were exhausted and perhaps a little traumatised: a lot had been packed into a short time, not always enjoyably. Novosibirsk had seemed caught between old presumptions and new mistakes. Somehow, travelling around by Metro was reassuring, a return to the womb of Soviet certainties. That deeply (how true the word) ambiguous moment was the start of the project for me.
I remember standing on the platform at Mendeleevskaya (the station nearest our hotel) staring at the lights, arranged like the model of an atom, thinking I should write about this. Little did I realise that our own Montmorency, Malchik, was either being fed milk, stabbed by a supermodel, or commemorated in bronze, at that very moment, in that very station.
I remember staring at Rabinovich’s roundels in Park Kultury and thinking how calm kitsch could look. I remember realising that the Metro was where the dead, whether practical, literary, heroic, or disgraced, were all welcomed back into the fold -- in my mind the misericordia of Mother Russia. Everyone could be ‘redeemed’, everything was always being rewritten.
Shyly, all three poets on that trip shuffled up to each other and confessed to having similar thoughts...
- What are the times and durations of your memberships of the UK Communist party?
Never. I was never a joiner-in. My father was in the Young Communist League till the invasion of Hungary-- his journeyman Duncan MacKenzie got him involved with the Party when he was an apprentice in Yorkshire Imperial Metals (the name says much). In Dundee in the 50s the Young Communists had a strong membership with lots of social activities – it was seen very much as part of the town’s radical heritage, and I grew up within that politicised sensibility.
The closest I got was going out with a daughter of the SPGB, the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a small passionate group who denounced the Revolution and just about everything else as not radical enough. They saw the Soviet Union and all its doings as a deliberate misreading of Marx in search of power. Fancy. This was in my twenties, when feeling radical-er than thou is de rigeur. 
- Tell me about the fascination with Pushkin stanzas - it is a fascinating form - but what about it draws you in especially?
When I came back from Moscow back in 98 I began writing in Pushkin stanzas because I was becoming more and more interested in historical form. I saw and see it as a means of dialogue with previous users and previous cultures. At the time I was also writing in a 14-line Scots stanza called 'The Cherrie and the Slae' after a sixteenth-century poem written in it.
So Pushkin, with his interest in things Scottish (I'd just seen his portrait-in-tartan in the Tretyakov), seemed a natural way to go. Most of the poems in that first sequence about Moscow, 'Instantinople' (from The Big Bumper Book of Troy, Bloodaxe, 2002), are written with Pushkin (or Pasternak: a visit to Peredelkino affected me strongly) in mind -- quatrains, septets, sonnets and the stanza itself keep recurring.
But for me the whole point of working in an older form is to do something new, to test and critique it, its users, and yourself. It's not a stanza that fits all that easily into English, with its combination of tetrameter and alternating masculine and feminine rhymes. So I began to think about how it related to our fondness for half-rhyme, I began to stretch across the units it's made up of -- quatrain, couplet, tercet -- both syntactically and metrically. 
In other words, as elsewhere in my work, I resisted the idea of ars celare artem, smoothness as a primary signifier of skill, in favour of a roughed-up texture. I wanted the container to feel as battered by the culture shock of engagement with Moscow as the sensibility was; I wanted the eloquence, if it ever arrived, not to seem pat. Because the stanza is so well-designed, so well-built, it can take it.
Compared to facing Astrakhanski,
the Pushkin stanza seems a cinch,
though, as Onegin found with Lensky,
the danger's that you shoot the finch.
While Astrakhanski's just a banya,
Yevgeny lost first friend then Tanya,
complying casually with rules:
this stanza's Purgatory for fools.
Composing poems, sweating buckets:
the parallel, though odd, is apt --
even fake fevers have you trapped.
The plunge pool's polar... ach well, fuck it!
The final couplet looms... so what?
In both you're bared from brain to butt.