A Grim Portrait

Russian poet Anzhelina Polonskaya rose to prominence after the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the end of the Soviet union. But being unable to publish anything anymore in Russia after her collaboration with Australian composer David Chisholm for Kursk: An Oratorio Requiem (2011), she escaped the political climate by working and publishing abroad. When talking about her past, the new book Schwärzer als Weiß and the literature scene in Moscow, she paints a grim portrait of contemporary Russia.

»Gloomy,« says Russian poet Anzhelina Polonskaya when asked about her childhood. »It was an unhappy Soviet childhood.« Polonskaya grew up with her grandparents in Yaroslavl, a major city northeast of Moscow, where she still lives today. She studied sports at Moscow State University and became a professional ice dancer, like her mother, and danced in the Moscow and Kiev ice ballet. This was also the time, around the age 17 or 18, when she started writing poetry. Even though she already wrote poems when she was 7 years old, it was only then when she started calling herself a writer.

Described as »a rising star in Russia,« Polonskaya rose to prominence as a writer after the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the end of the Soviet union. Traveling with a Russian troupe to Central and South America to work as a professional dancer in shows, she also released her first book of poems, My Heavenly Torch (1993). At the end of the ’90s she gave up dancing to concentrate on writing. To this day she has published seven books of poems, two of which have been translated into English. Many of her poems have been published in Russian and international magazines, although Polonskaya only writes in Russian. She has been working with her American translator, Andrew Wachtel, for 15 years. Both were finalists of two prestigious awards in the USA for poetry in translation with the book Paul Klee’s Boat published by Zephyr Publishing House. »An emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel…a vital addition to the contemporary poetry canon, a collection as interesting as it is touching that will inevitably be remembered for years to come,« as Will Evans writes in Three Percent (2013).

Now and then: a grim portrait

»All was destroyed after the USSR,« says Polonskaya, talking about the literature scene in Moscow in the ’90s, »nothing good happened, many writers became immigrants.« The grim portrait she paints stays the same when she talks about contemporary Russia: »I guess something is happening, but the writers in general and poets in particular have no future in Russia. We are in a very bad situation concerning human rights and freedom of speech. I try to escape from Russia because of the political climate. It became more and more dangerous for writers and journalists, who are against the totalitarian regime in Russia. Everyone could be killed because of his opinion. Many liberal people are in prison. And when Boris Nemtsov, the Russian oppositionist, was recently killed, it was my own tragedy.«

In 2011, David Chisholm, an Australian composer, discovered her tragic and melancholic verses Kursk: An Oratorio Requiem, a cycle of poems written over several years in remembrance of the 118 sailors killed in the sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine in August 2000. It is one of her most powerful, but also saddest works. To illuminate the background: Shortly after Vladimir Putin became president of Russia, the sinking of the Kursk became the first international incident affecting Putin. After an explosion on board the submarine sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea, an unknown number of the men still alive. But with the Russian government unwilling or unable to help, all of them died.

Writing abroad: the chance to be heard

Chisholm invited Polonskaya to write a libretto for an oratorio requiem for eight male voices, which premiered in Melbourne, Australia, in 2011 and was highly praised. Some parts were also published in the collection of Paul Klee’s boat. »It was the first attempt for me,« she says, »and very interesting. I didn’t write something new, but just decided to take some different poems from my different books and combine them.« Since working with Chisholm on this topic, Polonskaya has been a dissident for the powerful in the Kreml. Although she is a member of PEN and the Moscow Union of Writers and has gained numerous prizes, she has practically been unable to publish anything anymore in Russia since then.

Writing abroad and joining residency programs is not only the chance to write without disturbance, but also the chance to be heard. As she says: »I do many readings and I see the people’s reaction – some of them are crying. It mean my words are not empty…my heart is full of pain because of Russia’s struggles.« During her time at Solitude, she wrote poems and essays. Her new book Schwärzer als Weiß, translated by Erich Ahrndt, was published recently as a bilingual book at the Leipziger Literaturverlag and will be presented at Welttag der Poesie at the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin. The book contains selected poems from different periods of time, older and newer work, and is dedicated to her mother. She writes about the social coldness linking to the rich tradition of poets in Russia in an allusive and moving way.

Heavy stagnation and timeless sadness

Some critics would say her work carries echoes of great Russian female poets such as Anna Akhmatova, who lived during the Stalin era and was banned from writing. Other Russian writers Polonskaya reads are the contemporary Russian poets Olga Sedakova and Victor Sosnora and poets from Ekaterinburg, like Andrey Sannikov and Roman Fayzullin from the ’30s, as well as international authors such as Paul Celan, Eugenio Montale, and Ernest Hemingway, whom she loves and admires. »It’s only you and your writing. Always. And you have to fight against yourself every day you take up a pen,« she says in reference to her writing practice. She focuses on »images like a painter« whilst writing and has »a taste of words« on her tongue. »If both conditions coincide, the poem becomes alive,« she explains. Dreams, too, are important. Sometimes she would just list in the morning what she »saw at night.«

Polonskaya is not a decidedly political writer. Although referring to the political climate and certain topics, she never mentions names or practices criticism openly. But the deep sonorous melancholia, the desperation, and also discomfort of her verses, which leaves the readers in heavy stagnation and timeless sadness, are lasting impressions which cause a greater impact on feelings, thoughts, and maybe even actions.