Nina Yurevna Iskrenko
the daughter of a physician and an engineer.
Until her death on February 14, 1995, she lived in Moscow with her
husband and two sons.
She earned a degree in physics at Moscow State University, and worked
until 1989 as a translator of scientific literature from English into Russian.
After that time she concentrated on her writing, performances and art
She was a member of the unofficial Moscow
Poetry Club from its inception in 1986. Following the putsch in 1991, she became
a member of the Russian Writers' Union.
Three books of her poetry were published during her lifetime, all in
(OR); Referendum (in collaboration with Yury Arabov); and Neskolko
slov (A Few Words).
Her work was published in many newspapers and magazines, including Yunost',
Literaturnaya gazeta, and Moskovsky komsomolets, among others, and
her work has appeared in anthologies and miscellanies both in Russia and abroad
(in France, the United States, Israel, etc.). She was a contributing editor of
Five Fingers Review. In 1995 she received a presidential grant in
recognition of her work. Since her death, four books of verse have appeared: Interpretatsiya
momenta (Interpretation of the Moment), 1996; Neposredstvenno zhizn
(Nothing But Life), 1997; O Glavnom… / Iz dnevnika N.I. (About the
Essential / From the Diaries of N.I.), 1998; Rasskazy o lyubvi i smerti.
Zhitie Lysogo i Vermisheli (Stories of Love and Death. The Life of Baldy and
Iskrenko travelled widely in Russia giving
readings, and twice took part in readings in the United States.
English translations of her verse and prose texts have been published in
American magazines of new literature, including Talisman, Five Fingers
Review, Agni, and in two anthologies of new Russian poetry: Third
Wave (University of Michigan Press, 1992), and Crossing Centuries: The
New Wave in Russian Poetry (Talisman House, Publishers, 2000).
A volume of English translations, The Right to Err, came out in
1995. Her unpublished material, however, amounts to ten times as much.
She also translated contemporary American poetry into Russian; in 1993
her translation of selected works of John High, entitled along her thighs,
appeared in Moscow.
favorite activity was searching for a black cat in a dark room, especially when
it wasn't there.
About Nina Iskrenko
Patrick Henry Farewell, Nina Iskrenko
Mark Shatunovsky Comments on Nina Iskrenko
Andrew Wachtel, Prof. Northwestern University
Pioneer Lives On in Verse
Farewell, Nina Iskrenko
When Nina Iskrenko passed away last week after a long battle with cancer, Russian literature lost one of its brightest sparks. The “soul” of a remarkable group of poets that coalesced in the seminars of Kirill Kovaldzhi in the early 1980's, she lit up the long literary night of the Brezhnev years with her irreverent wit, poetic invention and emotional force.
“Her poetry agitated the life of stagnant Moscow at the finish of the Soviet era, particularly during the first years of perestroika, when Nina headed the legendary Poetry Club,” Konstantin Kedrov wrote in Izvestia last Friday. “The club’s first readings incited panic among the Komsomol bosses. And how! For the first time the most sarcastic poets of the Soviet underground burst from the basements and began to speak at the top of their voices: Dmitry Prigov, Igor Irtenev, Alexander Eremenko, Yury Arabov, Evgeny Bunimovich, Tatyana Shcherbina, Vladimir Druk. Audiences memorized Nina’s own poetry immediately, and began to recite it excitedly, though still in a half-whisper...”
Iskrenko, born in 1951, took a degree in physics from Moscow State University, and met her husband, Sergei Kuznetsov, in the process. For most of her professional life she translated scientific literature, a measured, conservative process. In her artistic life, however, she displayed a flamboyant genius in poetry that shouted its uniqueness
In a letter contributed to Literaturnaya Gazeta on Wednesday, a host of Iskrenko’s friends and colleagues too numerous to list here wrote that: “... Nina, like her many comrades, was not ‘a child of perestroika’. Gorbachev’s reforms simply facilitated the legalization of her work, that unique alloy of the grotesque, irony, word games and practical jokes, through which the fate of the Russian woman with all her misfortunes, squabbles, and disorder in this troubled life shone through in astonishing fashion. Iskrenko’s poetry was perceived as shocking and harsh, as formal and learned, even as social, but it was never dull.
“The most amazing thing was the feeling of love that burst like a sunbeam into the troubled, often disharmonious world of her poetry, love for homely heroes, crushed lives, the city’s dirt and commotion ... This love made her, in essence, a romantic poet. She died on February 14, St. Valentine’s Day, who in the Western Christian Church is the patron saint of lovers...”
That love held together the Poetry Club, a most disparate group, whose members, conceptualists, metametaphorists, and polystylists, would have otherwise dispersed simply from their centripetal creative energy. The club’s readings drew hundreds, sometimes thousands, to halls and cinemas in the late-1980's. At Nina’s instigation, they frequently staged happenings, such as the famous “underground in the underground” reading, held on a metro platform.
The poets who emerged in the Poetry Club considered themselves the first generation of free poets. They manned the barricades at the White House in 1991, not to defend the building, Iskrenko said recently, but to save themselves. “All our life was concentrated around the White House because it was like the last island in the sea when the water rises,” she said.
In the years that followed, however, they read together less and less frequently, and many fell silent in the cultural and social chaos that ensued. Iskrenko continued unabated in her writing, but much of the sarcasm and playfulness of the early work dropped away, replaced by an increasingly spiritual, often religious, poetry. These were also the years of her battle of attrition with cancer.
When I first met Nina, in March 1994, she was already quite weakened by her disease. My fondest memory of her is of a party, thrown for the departure of John High, a San Francisco poet who has done much to “discover” this generation of Russian writers for an English-speaking audience.
The Poetry Club had not gathered for some time, but they all came that night to the apartment of the poet Mark Shatunovsky. And Nina came, for the last time, to join them. She played the piano and got the most timid of the writers to sing the songs of their youth, even to dance. She enlivened everyone in the room with an energy, and a voluminous love, that was amazing to witness.
“Nina Iskrenko is no more. Russia has been diminished by yet another poet. For Nina’s readers — and they were not only here, but also in Europe, America, even distant Australia — there is much to come. Only a small part of her work has thus far been published,” wrote the poet and satirist Igor Irtenev in Moskovskie Novosti last Wednesday.
“An acquaintance with the remaining work makes clear the scale of the event we have encountered," Irtenev wrote. "There are poets, real poets besides, who exist as it were in one register. When they try to change this a false note is distinctly heard. Nina’s perfect poetic pitch allowed her — often within the boundaries of a single text — to move freely from a scarcely audible whisper to shocking brutality. She had a unique and natural self-awareness on the trampled glade of traditional verse and in the impassable reinforcement of the metametaphor. But this has to do with literature. As to life, she, as no one else, knew how to soar above the commonplace. All her friends sooner or later became actors in the Iskrenko theater.
“With Nina’s passing the lives of those close to her have become simpler and more predictable. And this means that our youth, prolonged thanks to her marvel, sad as it is, has passed away with her.”
Farewell, Nina Iskrenko.
Patrick Henry (The Moscow Tribune)
Copyright © 1995 by The Moscow Tribune. All rights reserved.
"Comments on Nina Iskrenko"
The phenomenon of Nina Iskrenko is broader than poetry or literature in particular. It is a synchronous cross-section of the word usages in our entire homeland from Kamchatka to Kaliningrad. It is, in fact, the already realized attempt to speak not only like everyone, but in place of and for them. And I would gladly make over to her the right to speak in my place, if Ninochka were also in the condition to seize with her limitless talent the diachronous prospect of our homeland. In any case, for my part, I am prepared at any moment to make over all my rights to her.
Translated by John High, Patrick Henry and Katya Olmsted
Copyright © by Nina Iskrenko, 1995. All rights reserved.
"Nina Iskrenko and the Russian Poetic Tradition"
In comparison to their Anglo-American counterparts, Russian women writers have historically been underrepresented in prose genres. While much work has been done in the past decade to republish and increase awareness of Russian women fiction writers, no Jane Austens, George Eliots, or Zora Neal Hurstons have been discovered. In the area of poetry, however, particularly in the 20th century, women poets have played and continue to play a central role in the Russian literary process. Since the appearance of the verse of Anna Akhmatova, Elena Guro, and Marina Tsvetaeva in the first decades of this century, each generation has seen the emergence of major women poets, including the émigrés Irina Odoevtseva, Lidiia Chervinskaia, and Anna Prismanova in the inter-war period, and Bella Akhmadulina in the 1950's and 60's.
Nina Iskrenko (1951-1995) belongs to a somewhat younger generation, one that came of age in the mid-60's and 70's, a period of political stagnation and cultural reaction. This generation includes, in addition to Iskrenko, the mercurial and extravagant Elena Shvarts, and the scholarly, restrained Olga Sedakova. What all the poets of Russia's "dull years" (as Iskrenko calls them in an essay in this collection), male and female, shared was a long period of apprenticeship in the so-called literary underground. From the late-60's through the mid-80's publication of serious new verse was out of the question, and, as a result, an entire generation of poets learned its trade and honed its talents without the benefit of public support; manuscripts were typed and circulated by hand; readings took place in apartments, by invitation only.
Two main poetic currents emerged from this hothouse atmosphere: conceptualism and metarealism. The conceptualists chose as their raw material the language of everyday Soviet life, a language that had, in the course of half a century of state-sponsored propaganda, become completely divorced from the world it claimed to describe. The conceptualists strove to turn this clichéd language back on itself, to reveal its emptiness by employing nothing but it to create a kind of Soviet mock epic. The following poem by Dmitri Prigov, for example, engages the by now banal topic of the writer's role in Russian society:
Here's me, an ordinary poet let's assume
But the thing is that by the whim of Russian fate
I have to be the conscience of the nation
But how to be that thing, if there's no conscience
Poems, maybe, there are, but a conscience--no
What to do1
On the other hand, the metarealists chose to renew Russian poetry by turning their back on the realia of Soviet life and language. The metarealists' goal was not to simplify, but rather to complexify language, and through this complexification to reveal the multidimensionality of reality, simultaneously exhibiting all its levels from the mundane to the arcane. Aleksei Parshchikov's poem "The Porcupine" illustrates these tendencies clearly:
Dark prophet porcupine in Saint Sebastian's suit
pulled from the skies above a square root.
Porcupine passed through a sieve to disconnect
His spine multitudinous.
Hiss at him--he'll deflate like a punctured balloon,
But away from your feet, just you wait, he'll come out of his swoon.
Porcupine's a locksmith's dream, a swivel-hipped old punkster
who wraps up all his fears in dissolving bathing trunks.
For women, his spines are quiet as pins in cushions
But they're stubble on sleepy masculine chins.
A disappearing porcupine makes a dry pop.
But when you're resurrected--shake! you're covered with needles.2
Nina Iskrenko's early poetry oscillates between the poles of metarealism and conceptualism. At times, as in "To Beat or Not to Beat," her work ranks with that of the best of the metarealists, taking on a metaphysical physicality that recalls the desire of the Acmeists (Mandelshtam in particular) to rename and thus recapture the entire physical world. In Iskrenko's simply, witty contemplation of an egg, she moves from careful observation of its external properties,
An egg so round on the outside
An egg so round on the inside
An egg so wintry outside
An egg so summery inside
to a consideration of its broader metaphysical possibilities:
An egg is like a sarcophagus
or a piggy bank
beautiful like an absolute army tank
Such an egg in a checkered pattern
like a squirrel
And such a cosmic instinct within it
Finally, in a solipsistic attempt to control the poetic subject, the poetic persona consumes the very object of her contemplation: "And I got so sick and tired of it / that I thought it over and ate it." But having achieved a kind of union with her subject, the poet finds that the egg (the eternal circle) may have enveloped her rather than the other way round:
And so now once again I don't understand whether
I'm on the outside or inside
in nature...or the firmament...or in a street light
or in the subway
at the Kursk railroad station
On the other hand, some of her poems are clearly closer to conceptualism. The section entitled "Special Troikas" consists of a loosely connected series of three-line monologues and dialogues. Both in title and form this poem wears its conceptualist-inspired Russianness on its sleeve: the troika, of course, is a time-honored but clichéd symbol of Russia (recall, for example, Gogol's description at the end of Dead Souls), while in their rhythmical patterns, these verses recall Russian folk ditties (particularly the "chastushka"). The words themselves are chosen for the most part from the most banal everyday parlance. It is, in fact, their naked purity that reveals all their emptiness:
We're not afraid of New Year's Day
Christmas Epiphany Easter
We don't even fear the Judgement Day
We only have fear itself to fear
& what a horrible fear
We're only fearful of it only
In some of her most recent work, however, Iskrenko has tried to escape the orbits both of metarealism and of conceptualism in favor of a more straightforward style, one that would allow her to embrace the reality of day-to-day life, and to take into account the changes that have occurred in Russia in the wake of the collapse of Communism. The need for a new idiom is dictated by the fact that, despite all their differences, metarealism and conceptualism share at least two things: a profound aversion to immediate reality, and an ahistoricism. For both schools (and in this they are reacting against the "realistic" exceeses of the poets of the 1960's, such as Evtushenko, Vysotsky and Akhmadulina), the stuff of reality is language, first and foremost. Realia can never enter the poetic text in a seemingly unmediated, transparent fashion, but must instead be deformed either through Sovietese, or through a highly personal idiom. Both schools are ahistorical because conceptualism must work in reaction to the stability of an ossified official language (although its practitioners have proved adept at discovering various such languages), while metarealism is concerned with the universal and timeless. What Iskrenko seems to have realized, perhaps because unlike the majority of the major poets of her generation she has remained in Russia, is that the tropes of the underground are no longer as effective now that poetry can and must reach a broader audience.
In poems like the one that begins, "Iron swans fly soundlessly from beneath / the brows of the drunk women," Iskrenko's desire to register the brutality of contemporary Russian life leads her to break with the manner of her generation:
Iron swans fly soundlessly from beneath
the brows of the drunk women
Sweetly peering into each other's eyes
pressing cautious careful gestures
on the other's lachrymal glands
Their knees pulled taut together
wild bees stiffen in the flight & the night its dampness the honey oozes
over the skirt hems
It has been a long time since Russian poetry has registered such prosaic objects as brows, knees, skirt hems, or lachrymal glands, let alone drunken women.
The same chiselled realism, minus the brutality, can be felt in the almost classical poem entitled "Still-Life":
Saturated with agile flames
the carafe's color
the table's curved plane
This poem can be viewed as programmatic in its attempt to purge poetry of all but its essence — to see the world clearly and anew.
Finally, in poems like "Bum a Smoke," her taut, more realistic idiom allows Iskrenko to register the loss of the old, stable world, adding to her poetry an historical dimension:
In Russia it was always possible to bum a smoke
get a hit of booze by a doorway covered with piss &
trashy graffiti then pick the handful of dahlia
from the flower bed nearby
This Russia, the Russia that Iskrenko grew up with, has been lost. And while there were an infinite number or horrors associated with that Russia, it provided a stable background against which people could live, think, and write poetry. What will replace it is anyone's guess, but the coming society, with its market relations and political semi-anarchy, may well demand new artistic methods for its description. Nina Iskrenko, for one, is trying to discover these methods, and it is this search (which grows out of the poetic experience of the "dull years") that is the most valuable contribution of Iskrenko's book.
1) Dmitry Prigov, "Untitled," in Contemporary Russian Poetry. A Bilingual Anthology. Selected, with an Introduction, Translations and Notes by Gerald S. Smith. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.
2) Aleksei Parshchikov, "The Porcupine," trans. Andrew Wachtel in Third Wave. The New Russian Poetry, eds. Kent Johnson and Stephen M. Ashby. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.
Copyright © 1995 by Nina Iskrenko. All rights reserved.
This essay served as the introduction to The Right to Err, selected work by Nina Iskrenko in English translation, published by Three Continents Press (Colorado Springs, Colorado) in 1995. ISBN 0-89410-807-7
Pioneer Lives On in Verse
her lifetime the poet Nina Iskrenko was the sun that set spinning a
constellation of remarkable avant-garde writers who would come to be known as
the Poetry Club. Her audacious talent, combined with the irrepressible force of
her personality, inspired and irked some of the finest poets of her generation,
from Ivan Zhdanov to Dmitry Prigov.
characterized her own brand of poetry in the poem, "Hymn to Polystylistics."
"Polystylistics is when a knight from the Middle Ages/ wearing shorts/
storms into the wine section of store #13/ located on Decembrists' Street/ &
cursing like one of the Court's nobles/ he drops his copy of Landau &
Lifshitz's 'Quantum Mechanics' on the marble floor."
insisted upon the "right to err" in an era when language was petrified
and devalued by the grayness of lies. It was through "mistakes" --
"crossed-out words and phrases, rhythmical incongruities, the intrusion of
'filthy prose' into 'unsullied poetry'" -- that she created unexpected and
poet Mark Shatunovsky observed, her poetry contained "a synchronous
cross-section of word usage from our entire homeland from Kamchatka to
died Feb. 14, 1995 at the age of 44 after a long battle with cancer. When her
friends and admirers gathered for a memorial reading at one of her favorite
haunts, the Mayakovsky Museum, shortly thereafter, the poet Igor Irtenev said
with regret that without Iskrenko, who was known as "the soul of the Poetry
Club," this would probably be their last group gathering.
wrong. One year later, Irtenev and the rest returned to the museum's small,
awkward stage to mark the first anniversary of Iskrenko's death, drawn by a
centripetal force exercised no longer through human contact, but through memory
and the vitality of her poetry.
Voznesensky praised Iskrenko on Thursday as "the leader of living Russian
classical poems, such as 'An egg so round on the outside/ An egg so round on the
inside,' can be included in any anthology of Russian poetry alongside Khlebnikov,
Mandelstam and Akhmatova. She lives on in these works: her masterpieces,"
Tkachenko, poet and director of the Moscow PEN-Center, remarked that her gift
was to "add to her own poetry what was lacking in the poetry of her
contemporaries. She threw light into the dark stylistic corners and raised
poetry to a spiritual level that still resounds."
was born in 1951 and took a degree in physics at Moscow State University where
she met her husband, Sergei Kuznetsov. They had two sons together and lived
until her death in the concrete obscurity of Moscow's Bibirevo suburb.
her lifetime she saw three collections of her poetry published in Russian.
"Ili" ("Or"), "Referendum" and "Neskolko Slov"
("A Few Words") were rushed into print in 1991, when many formerly
underground writers found their way, briefly, to the surface. A book of her
selected work in English translation, "The Right to Err," came out in
the United States in 1995 (and here I should confess that I was one of her
translators). Iskrenko won a Yeltsin Prize that year, whose meager stipend, she
joked, allowed her to replace her old Soviet refrigerator when it died.
unpublished material she left in notebooks and in typescript, however, amounted
to ten times as much. She continued writing until a few months before her death.
For her "to live was to write," the poet Yury Arabov observed. Her
husband and Shatunovsky have prepared a first volume of her newer work for
publication this year.
of desperation often pervades memorial evenings such as this. When people rise
to speak of the dead, their words sound briefly and then fade, ushering in a
permanent silence. But when speaker after speaker rose to read Iskrenko's verse,
her voice resounded more strongly with each line -- her permanent presence.
talk with you is like burning in the marsh/ like climbing head and all into a
roll-your-own smoke/ like looking at the sky through a black cat/ and peeing in
the meat grinder."
voice that goes quietly into that dark night.
© by The Moscow Times, 1996. All rights reserved.