Poetry News

1987 Interview with Joseph Brodsky Published at TinHouse

By Harriet Staff


In 1987 Marcia DeSanctis, then a producer for ABC, set out to interview leading Soviet writers exiled in the US "to get their take on the literary reforms coming out of Moscow." The transcripts from the interviews were filed away and seemingly forgotten. Now, TinHouse has been publishing transcripts of the interviews in a series called "Dispatches from Russia." Yesterday they published this conversation with Joseph Brodsky. As DeSanctis writes in her introduction:

Recently, almost three decades later, when I came home after a stay in Russia, I decided to unearth the transcripts of these conversations. At first, these interviews seemed like quaint souvenirs of the Cold War, relics like obsolete Soviet T-72 tanks. But today Russia is once again conjuring up its own definition of ‘democracy’ and even of ‘freedom’. Whatever the shifting political context or the relative expansion and contraction of personal expression in Russia, I found that these authors offered subtle insights about the act of writing itself and how it relates to the act of being heard.

When asked about his hopes for glasnost as it relates to literature, Brodsky says:

Glasnost derives from the word ‘goloc’ meaning voice – literally, announcement, herald or publicity. Something being made public. I don’t take any of it too seriously.

It’s possible that political changes can engender greater art. Whatever the changes, what it will come down to is publication of certain ‘forbidden’ writers. People from the 30’s – Platonov, Tsvetaeva, Ahkmatova, Mandelshtam, Zamyatin – and then what? Right now, there’s lots of excitement about their works, books like Dr Zhivago.

Then you look at the writers who are alive and operational. You have to ask, are they of any consequence? When we talk about suppressed literature, we tend to invest that literature with qualities it doesn’t have, we fashion it to the imagination. Because it’s suppressed, it has to be great. That’s my suspicion. But what if the literature is no good? People expect all Russian literature of the 20th century to be great because of the constrained circumstances it was written under. That may not be the case. Russian readers’ aesthetics are not such a great novelty. Russian readers are more experienced than Russian writers. If you’ve read Proust or Faulkner, you’re not so keen to read Nabokov.

The conversation covers many topics, and it's instructive to read Brodsky's thoughts on a range of issues concerning Russian literature. You should read the whole interview, but we'll leave you with these thoughts:

For me, literature was 20 or 30 names. When I was younger, those names stood for ‘literature’. Now literature has become an almost demographic phenomenon – there are as many writers as rock groups. I read the work of a contemporary author with reluctance. I’m not a reader. I’m a writer. I’m not curious who tackles the burning issues of the day more successfully. I’m interested in literature, and not the reflection of current problems. As Stendhal said, “The novel is the mirror you carry along the big road.”

Originally Published: January 24th, 2013