Three Contemporary Female Russian Poets You Need to Read Right Now
One thing’s for certain: Russians love their poets. Ask any Russian to recite some poetry and they can draw from an impressively hefty arsenal. If you’re a student of Russian, you, too, have likely been forced to memorize several Russian poems, and are familiar with names such as Akhmatova, Pushkin, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Pasternak, among others. But what about contemporary poets? As a lover of poetry, I’ve struggled to find contemporary Russian poets in translation in the US, where we by and large only know the aforementioned classic poets. I decided to do a bit of digging and found three contemporary female poets that are highly-regarded in Russia, and are slowly making their way onto the English language literary scene. Below is a brief spotlight of each poet, followed by an excerpt from one of their poems in English and in Russian. Enjoy!
1. Vera Polozkova
If there’s one contemporary poet that most Russians know, it’s Vera Polozkova, who, in a recent interview on zebro.ru, claimed, “I’d write poems even on a deserted island.” Born in Moscow in 1986, Polozkova is at once a poet, singer, and actress. She’s well known for her YouTube videos in which she recites her poetry to music, including the famous “Снова не мы”, or “Again Not Us,” a poem that discusses class difference in modern Russia and the cultural gap between rich and poor. Check out the poem here. Her poetry is incendiary and emotional and current, the latter likely due to her training as a journalist. All in all, she is a certified badass. Arguably her most famous poem in Russia is “Надо жить у моря, мама…” or “You must live by the sea, mama,” and, since an English translation doesn’t seem to exist, I’ve attempted to translate the following excerpt for you below. Enjoy!
Что еще тебе рассказать? Надо жить у моря, мама, надо делать, что нравится, и по возможности ничего не усложнять; это ведь только вопрос выбора, мама: месяцами пожирать себя за то, что не сделано, упущено и потрачено впустую – или решить, что оставшейся жизни как раз хватит на то, чтобы все успеть, и приняться за дело; век пилить ближнего своего за то, какое он тупое неповоротливое ничтожество – или начать хвалить за маленькие достиженьица и победки, чтобы он расцвел и почувствовал собственную нужность – раз ты все равно с ним, и любишь его, зачем портить кровь ему и себе?
What more can I say? You must live by the sea, mama, and do what you love, and try not to complicate things; it’s only a question of choice, mama, you can agonize over all the things you haven’t done, missed and wasted opportunities, or you can decide that you still have the rest of your life ahead of you and get to work; you can nag your beloved about all of his inconsequential shortcomings, or you can lift him up, celebrate his smallest accomplishments and victories, so that he might blossom and take pride in himself – you’re still with him, after all, and you love him, so why sabotage the relationship?
2. Anzhelina Polonskaya
Born in Malakhova, a small town near Moscow, Polonskaya is hailed as a “rising star” in Russia. A former professional ice dancer, Polonskaya has no formal training in poetry, but is incredibly well read and was heavily influenced by Akhmatova. Her lack of formal training gives her poetry a style that is entirely her own. Thanks to the publisher Zephyr Press (a smell press specializing in world literature/poetry, check out their work here), English speakers now have access to Polonskaya’s collection Paul Klee’s Boat, comprised of unrhymed free verse poems. I’ve included below the last stanza of the poem “Философия пустыни” or “Philosophy of the Desert,” translated by Andrew Watchel.
Когда бы ты не был настолько труслив,
я бы поведала тебе, что каждый
должен молиться о том, чтобы стать камнем.
Но не каждому дано вымолить вот так лежать
столетьями посреди коричневой мглы
без ненависти, без страдания, без любви.
А что до возвращение – то когда-нибудь
и эта пустыня покажется тебе желанной.
В ней ты останешься навеки молод.
If you weren’t such a coward
I’d tell you that everyone
should pray to become a stone.
But not everyone wins the right to lie like that
For centuries in the brown fog
Without hate, suffering, or love.
And as for returning – someday you’ll
Even find this desert desirable.
Here you will always be young.
3. Maria Stepanova
A Moscow native, Maria Stepanova is one of the most prominent figures of Russia’s post-soviet literary scene. Not only is Stepanova a poet, she’s also an essayist, journalist, publisher, and champion of press freedom. She’s the founder of Colta, Russia’s only independent crowd-funded source of information. Stepanova has published ten books of poetry and two books of essays, is the recipient of numerous awards such as the Andre Bely Prize and the Joseph Brodsky Fellowship, and has had her work translated into multiple languages. These days, her newest collection of poetry, “Против лирики” or, “Against the Lyric,” can be found at most bookstores around Petersburg. The collection is made up of poems written from 1995-2015, and is concerned with the state of the lyric poem in contemporary culture. Here’s the first stanza of the poem “Рыба” or “Fish,” translated by Sasha Dundale. You can read the full poem here.
В тазу жестяном, в тазу жестяном сидела,
Налили туда воды и соль размешали,
Один захмелел, второй – чинить передатчик,
Четвертый бродил по берегу, причитая,
Что внукам рассказывать будет, а я продолжу:
Английского не понимает, есть не просила,
Но как-то придется – варить, предложить сырое,
Быть не может, просто не может быть.
In a tin bath, a tin bath she lay
We poured water in, and mixed in some salt
One man got drunk, another repaired the transmitter,
A fourth man wandered the shore in lament:
What would he tell his grandchildren, but I digress:
Speaks no English, has not expressed hunger,
Still one should do something—cook, or offer something raw.
This cannot be, it simply cannot be.
There you have it. Three must-read female Russian poets who are worth celebrating. Here’s hoping you’re all inspired to go out and explore more of their work.
Emily, studying Russian at Liden & Denz St. Petersburg