The thing is I was trapped in the house all day one Friday by a big February snow storm, and I get stir crazy pretty easy. So I figure, as I'm having to give a presentation on Mayakovsky, Burliuk and the Russian Futurists on Sunday in the Hamptons, why not give Yevgeny Yevtushenko a call in Oklahoma - he's due back at Queens College next week for the semester, but too late for my show, and I could use the company.
"We've got some Siberian
weather waiting for you when you get back to New York," I told Yevtushenko.
He chuckled just audibly, only just - what would a New Yorker know
about Siberian weather.. "Anyhow, I'm interested in what you can
tell me about Mayakovsky as a performance poet, Yevgeny."
Here's what he told
don't like poets who are not interested in their performance. Some
people pretend they're indifferent to the public's impression of
them. Sometimes it can be just shyness. Some people don't know how
to express themselves in front of others. They're not indifferent.
They're probably waiting for the audience to respond to them. But
the audience doesn't come to the author. I think you have to work
for their attention. You have to conquor some hearts. Not in a cheap
way, like some pop stars are doing.
had a useful expression: you musn't be an imposter. But you have
to attract, as a magnet might, the audience, sometimes subconsciously,
to the love of poetry.
who is gifted as a writer has to be a little colorful at public
readings. But at the same time, you have to, somehow, not lose yourself.
The footlights can erase the face of the poet. Allen Ginsberg for
example, it was natural for him to recite poetry. Sometimes the
Beats were doing too much to attract the public's attention. One
time in Madison Square Garden James Dickey didn't want to be on
stage with Allen, because of his scandals. But for me, it was a
great pleasure to perform with Allen on stage. Allen was a wonderful
poet, the poem about Walt Whitman in the supermarket, for example,
or the Sunflower Sutra, an unbelievable poem.
there was Vladimir Mayakovsky. Sometimes he was arrogant, sometimes
he was scandalous, in his poetry readings. I think it was because
he was very shy. He was a very powerful man but very shy, a shy
giant, a defensive man at the same time. Mayakovsky was a great
genius. People like David Burliuk, and the Russian Futurists, recognized
that. I met Burliuk, by the way, when he returned to Moscow with
his American wife. As a Futurist, Burliuk's main role in the art
of Mayakovsky was, well he was a proud man, but he recognized that
Mayakovsky was a genius. He was a good painter, he was not a good
poet. He became a part of Mayakovsky's entourage.
Mayakovsky, as I say, was a genius, not only as a poet but as a
performer. He conquored people. Not everbody could recite poetry
well. Pasternak was good, but he was not a performer like Mayakovsky
- he was a charmer, much better for small audiences.
is wonderful when someone combines the two like Mayakovsky did.
Still, in my opinion the life of Mayakovsky was a great defeat and
victory at the same time. He performed too often, he didn't have
time to be alone with himself, to read books. The majority of books
he read, he read when he was young.
life of professional traveling is an exhausting life. I know from
my own experience. Sometimes I have performed too much. In the
sixties, for example, sometimes I appeared more than 350 days in
one year. You have to combine solitude with performance, solitude
on stage. You have to combine public performance with some kind
was one of Mayakovsky's mistakes. He was a great poet of love and
a great poet of protest for example, before the Revolution. But
his politics stepped on the throat of love. He stopped writing the
poetry of love. He tried to replace love with Communist ideology.
One time he wrote a very stupid poem dedicated to an emigre, a beautiful
woman, where he tried to combine the color red of the Revolution
with the red of her lips.
was childishly silly. Anyway it didn't work. They never found happiness
at the same time, the state began to use him - he was making posters
for the Revolution! What's more, the Revolution didn't think that
Mayakovsky deserved to be a recognized author, a symbol of the dignity
and future of the Soviet society. If he had lived longer he would
have been arrested, at the very least. And in fact at the end of
his life he was surrounded not by crowds, but by the Vacuum.
is a bitter lesson for all of us. You must not be connected to much
to any ideology. A poet has to be an idealist, but not ideological.
know, now there are some attempts in Russia to discredit Mayakovsky.
Solzhenitzyn says his poetry inspired Stalin's purges. Dictators
often use poets. Nietzsche, for example, one of the great writers
of the century, was used by Hitler. it doesn't mean that Nietzche
was guilty. I don't blame Marinetti for Mussolini, or Pound for
that matter. These were mistakes. You know Marinetti, the Italian
Futurist, came to Russia, he thought he could get the support of
the Russian Futurists for World War I, he was wrong, they were against
war. Mayakovsky couldn't have predicted what would have happened
after the Revolution - the Revolution devoured its own children,
he was one of them who was devoured.
what I want say is that poets have to write great poetry first.
If they can recite beautifully too, wonderful. But that's not the
main thing. We have again to conquor hearts. Our main rival is the
computer. Game Boys. Teaching in the United States I understand
how lonely young people are, young girls even, very beautiful young
girls. They need something else they can find in poetry.
we need to have great poets. You can't make a lion from a thousand
cats. I think that some slam poets are good, very capable. But in
my opinion they perform too much. They don't write as much as they
recite the same poetry. And they don't develop their education.
besides, there's the fame that comes with performance, it is very
dangerous. You can survive being famous, but you have to educate
yourself, inside yourself, if you're a performer. You have to love
your own poetry, but you have to continue to have plenty of self
as I say, we have to fight for human hearts again. Otherwise we'll
lose many more readers. I'm absolutely sure there's not one single
man on this planet who couldn't love poetry. But we have to help
them to love poetry. We have to help them. If poets recite poetry
well, it will invite people to love poetry.
May 29 (2002) I had a giant poetry reading in Kremlin Theater, 6500
seats, it was overcrowded, I can tell you that after they did the
statistics, the average age was below 25, seventy percent of the
audience. I think thats a very good sign. It means that people are
deadly bored with the stupid words of pop songs, they're really
longing for a breath of fresh air, for really great words.
young people feel lost in the world. We have no great leaders in
today's political world, in terms of language. So this is a good
moment for great poets. If we have them, then young people will
believe in the power of the word.