George Wallace

ON PERFORMANCE AND POETRY: An Interview With Yevgeny Yevtushenko

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 me.

I 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.

Pasternak 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.

Anyone 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.

Then 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.

Because 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.

It 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.

The 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 of invisibility.

That 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.

It was childishly silly. Anyway it didn't work. They never found happiness together.

And 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.

This 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.

You 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.

So 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.

Only 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.

And 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 criticism.

But 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.

On 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.

Many 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.



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