her husband Philip Nikolaiev here
Katia Kapovich was born in Kishinev, Moldova. She emigrated from the Soviet Union where she had been a member of a literary dissident movement, in 1990. She lives and works in Cambridge, Mass. with her husband, the poet Philip Nikolaiev and their child Sophia. In 1993 and 1994 she taught Russian Literature at Boston College. She and her husband co-edit a new English-language poetry magazine, Fulcrum.
Her poems are tiny narratives, exquisitely crafted, rhymed and quite complex. Her first book День Ангела и Ночь (Day and Night of the Angel), was published in Israel in 1992, and the poems in this collection written in the 1990s come from that book. She also writes fluently in English which proves that Katia Kapovich is that rarest of poets: one who is bilingual.
Her interest in narrative poetry (she wrote a “non-Soviet” long poem at the age of eight) led to a book-length poem, Суфлер (The Prompter, 1998) and to the statement that if Mandelstam had survived he would have written a brilliant narrative poem. It is Mandelstam in particular who shines through her poetry and in another English poem
“Blacklisted Titles” she describes a clandestine visit to the banned books section of the USSR Academy of Science Local Branch:
Those were the days when Lolita,
Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks,
let alone a Solzhenistsyn, could earn you
a couple of years in jail…
It is always exciting to find a new living poet, totally original, but with echoes of past voices and with a strong resonance of survival. Katia once e-mailed me that if she doesn’t write for a long time she feels ill. Her second book, Прощание с Шестикрылыми (Farewell to the Six-Winged, 2001 – a reference to the six-winged seraph in Pushkin’s poem “The Prophet”). which is an equally rich collection, has been followed by Перекур (Smoke-Break, 2002). Since she now travels to Russia regularly and is published in the best Russian magazines, she will not completely live off “the bitter bread of exile” as Boris Poplavsky did, as Joseph Brodsky did. She writes in the concluding poem of this collection:
We did not fall – we did not go mad.
Restraining ourselves from words of comfort,
nonetheless let’s give thanks for the time
of the year, for these damp steps
which have counted our footsteps over and over.
From “Ten Russian Poets, Surviving the Twentieth Century”, edited by Richard McKane, Anvil Press Poetry, London, 2003,
ISBN 0 85646 328 0
Critiques and Biographies
more Russian poems
Personal pages and interviews
From the Russian book A Smoke Break with translations by the author:
Катя Капович. Перекур. Стихотворения. –
СПб.: Издательство «Пушкинского фонда», 2002 – 80 стр.
Published in September 1, 2004: , ISBN: 1844710467. , Gogol In Rome, Paperback: 112 pages, Salt Publishing, Cambridge, UK
REVIEWS ◙ ◙
DEJA VU, DEJA ENTENDU...
За ночь курс листвы упал,
кроны брошены на ветер.
Люди гибнут за металл,
что ржавеет на рассвете.
Словно ножницы ≈ стрижи
дождевые режут нити.
Ты ж на память завяжи
узелок в обгон событий.
Скоро, скоро ничего
не останется меж нами,
лишь цветастое шитье,
Впору в пальцы брать иглу,
и лишь только иней треснет,
приторачивать к стеклу
Осеняй, окно на юг,
блеском осени, которой, ≈
спохватившись завтра вдруг, ≈
не найдем за пыльной шторой.
Пролететь должны века
по параболам парабол,
когда чья-нибудь рука
выронит иголку на пол.
В мешковине туч блеснет
бледный луч, острее шила.
Сквозь дырявый небосвод
ты увидишь все, что было.
DEJA VU, DEJA ENTENDU
for my great-aunt
At the season's stock exchange
Swifts, like scissors flitting by,
Soon you'll travel over miles
Then it will be time again
But for now you focus on
Ages must float by on end
Brisk and sharp, a golden beam
translated by Philip Nikolayev
The Union of Moldavian Cinematographers
had a film archive
where they showed European and American movies,
but only to members of the Union itself.
Located in a large crimson villa
built by the Dutch architect Bernardadsey
in the New Tradition style,
the place was surrounded by a handsome
wrought iron grille
and guarded from within by a Soviet militia woman.
The villa faced the city prison on the other side of the plaza.
A square "park area," scantily planted with trees,
lay in between. In winter the park
became translucent, black and white.
Two distinct crowds would often gather there:
those coming to see a film,
and those coming to see a relative in the prison.
The former loudly debated Visconti and Bergman,
while latter stared at the snow and shared booze,
smoking self-rolled cigs and spitting.
Every member of the Union was entitled to invite
one adult guest. One evening, in late December 1980,
just a few days before New Year's Eve,
my friend Liuba, a young animation artist,
called to remind me to bring my passport
to "verify my age," so that she could take me to see
We met at an empty bus stop and walked
across the icy park. It was freezing cold,
the air was pregnant with snow.
The olive trees and mulberry shrubs
stood bare, waiting to be covered.
We entered the foyer;
a warm velvet dusk wrapped around us.
Liuba insisted on treating me to Champagne
in the buffet. "It's dirt-cheap here," she said,
"for the elite." We waited in a line;
nobody seemed to be in a hurry.
Soon we plumped down on purple seats
in the huge and almost empty auditorium,
and the lights went out. The film
was like open heart surgery.
Amore cordova - a deep bright wound
on the body of my life!
Three hours later
gray-suited gentlemen in the foyer
were receiving their coats.
Someone stepped on my foot; I raised my eyes
and recognized a celebrity of the season. He was drunk.
Many of them, as Liuba would explain later,
came here to drink, rather than watch a "restricted" movie.
We stepped out into the winter night.
It was even colder now, so cold
that the cigarette almost froze to my lip.
Random human shapes criss-crossed by street-lamp light
ran along humpbacked lanes as we walked
home across the town. The buses had stopped running
an hour ago. After ten minutes of walking it began to snow.
Liuba shook her blond head like a dog and yelled
"Amore cordova...". Two echoes returned
from limestone houses
drowning in the lucid darkness.
Snow fell on the river, even under the bridge,
on the equestrian
Monument to the Revolutionary Rider,
turning the horse into a winged sphinx and the man
into an angel. It fell on government buildings
and railroad workers" homes alike,
on wineshops, buses in the bus park, on asphalt
and the glazed surface of the pond.
Crossing Lenin Street I turned my head
and saw the ghost of a bus glowing white.
I raised my hand and it stopped and opened the front door.
The front seats were in those days
upholstered with imitation leather.
The driver's strong Moldavian accent
was mellifluous as he told us a joke:
"It's winter. Two street vendors are having an argument.
The first says the temperature is 5o Centigrade.
The other says no, it's 10! The first thinks for a second
and agrees: "OK, 7 and the temperature's yours!"
The USSR Academy of Science, local branch,
The smell of salt
As we stand in the bright wooden chapel
I look around and recognize
Iskra’s friends and relatives. There are a few babushkas
I have never seen before, who must have come
to Levine’s Funeral Home today
for a rehearsal of their own departures.
They never miss a chance to attend a freebee.
I say goodbye to my sixty-seven year old friend.
A short, plump Winnie-the-Pooh of a lady.
lies with lilies on her high forehead.
The rabbi spin out a complex speech
praising my friend’s great gift for relating to people
and her role in the Russian Jewish community.
His sharply inflected tones are detached,
a clever smile curves his mouth.
But I know that Iskra was a loner,
her only company being her daughter
and a handful of friends.
Her life’s story is simple. She was born in Leningrad,
where her mother worked in a kindergarten
when WWII broke out. There were six children in the group,
and when one cold day their parents
didn’t come to pick them up, her mother had no choice
but to take care of all of them.
They managed to flee from the dying city
one day before the onset of the long blockade
and wandered through a devastated land
all the way to the Urals.
They did not return to Leningrad till after the war.
Then Iskra worked as a proofreader
at the literary journal Zvezda (“Star”)
and met an aging Akhmatova a few times.
Once they even shared a cigarette on the marble stairs
of that famous editorial office on Pestel Street.
Iskra wrote poems from age fifteen,
but never published anything
and never even told her friends about it.
(“I didn’t look like a poet, I was obese.”)
A child of the war, she craved food
more than fame. She liked to eat
and to have a good laugh during a meal.
I loved the poem she once reluctantly recited for me
after an enormous dinner that she had cooked.
She read slowly from a blue notebook,
every letter of her schoolgirlish handwriting
contained a white square: I remember smells
better than anything else: the smell
of Neva water in the rusty canals,
the smell of yellowish galley pages
covered with fresh print,
and finally the smell
of the crude dirty salt I used to buy
during the war, when tears tasted
like melted snow…
from: Salt Publishing, Cambridge, UK, ISBN: 1844710467. , Gogol In Rome, Paperback: 112 pages,
February 17, 2002
Newcomers among us, with many things to say
By Ellen Steinbaum, Globe Correspondent
Her friends tell her no one could be more Russian. Indeed, Katia Kapovich-intense, chain-smoking, flame red hair against her black outfit – looks precisely like the Russian poet she is. Yet it is Cambridge, where she has lived for the past 10 years, that feels like home. And two summers ago, when she traveled back to Russia to teach a two-month literary seminar, it was Cambridge she was homesick for.
Across the river, Charlot Lucien, sipping Starbucks hot chocolate, trim in his olive shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, looks comfortably part of his surroundings. But Lucien, a writer who moved to Hyde Park from Haiti in 1990, lives balanced between his two worlds of here and there.
The classic Boston image is one of generations-old families, but the truth is we are a gathering-place of newcomers. We arrive from other states or, like Katia Kapovich and Charlot Lucien, from other countries, to take our place alongside Cabots and Lodges. We embrace the city wholeheartedly or feel the pull of places reluctantly left. But all of us, bit by bit, re-shape the city as we make it our home. And it, in turn, alters us.
''I'm at home here more than anywhere else,'' says Kapovich. ''In Russia, people touch you, they ask you for money, for cigarettes. It's a socialist universe. You are part of others - a finger, a nail - and you have to function in accordance with the other members of the body. When I came here, it felt calm, like a little space shuttle, just floating, with no obligation to go down to walk on two feet.''
Of her first American days, she wrote, ''I barely remember my own name.'' One memory, though: the sudden nostalgia she felt hearing a Russian melody from a Harvard Square violinist. While writers feel as much disorientation as anyone else when they move, the sense of displacement can bring a new dimension to their work.
Kapovich said, ''My soul speaks in Russian, but I can write about some things more easily in English. It gives me distance. It's important for a writer to have distance. You can't write about something and be in it at the same time. It's like being underwater. Reality has qualities of salt water. It pinches our pupils and makes our eyes red. We need a mask in order to see clearly.''
Lucien also strives to maintain a certain distance, even as he settles into his adopted city.
''Now I'm at peace with the idea that I have a life here. But, as a writer, I make a conscious choice not to fully embrace all the issues America has to offer so my mind can remain free to work on issues pertinent to the Haitian experience. That's my only chance to provide a more authentic testimony of the Haitian experience to others.'' Lucien's short stories are written in Creole and speak of the tension between Haitian life in America and in Haiti.
''I see our lives here as an extension of our reality there. I see myself as part of, but distinct. For me it's a safety issue, because once I become part of the Boston mindset, my independence as a writer is compromised.''
POETRY IN MOTION
Author: David Mehegan,
Globe Staff Date: March 29, 2003
Section: Living / Arts
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Force of nature. There must be a more original descriptor for Katia Kapovich, Russian poet, but no milder one will do. With her flaming hair, ever-present cigarette, and intense voice punctuated with darting or sweeping gestures, she resembles some universal physical force, such as gravity or magnetism. By turns ironic, pensive, droll, and passionate in telling her life story in a low and lilting voice, this force is fuelled by poetry.
Like other writers who came of age in the old Soviet Union, Kapovich battled crushing pressure to conform. In one 1980 melee in St.Petersburg, she slugged a cop while resisting arrest. She's been confined in a psychiatric hospital, harassed and ostracized, yet endured to become a known artist in her native country. Since she settled in Cambridge 11 years ago, life has been much quieter. Now 42, she is married to Russian poet and medievalist Philip Nikolayev, and they have a daughter, Sonia, 4 1/2. Kapovich and Nikolayev are editors of Fulcrum, a new literary review, and Kapovich works at Schoenhof's, the Cambridge foreign-language bookstore near Harvard Square. Yet Kapovich's artistic life now has a different kind of excitement. In recent years, she has begun a metamorphosis into an American poet.
She hasn't abandoned her native tongue - Kapovich has published four books of poetry in Russian. But English has given her a new voice.
The only child of Jewish parents in Kishinev, in southern Russia, Kapovich began writing poems when she was 7. Because of anti-Semitism- and because her father had antagonized Soviet authorities - Kapovich was barred from colleges in Kishinev, so in 1977 she enrolled in a college in Nizhnii Tagil, a gritty industrial town near the Ural Mountains surrounded by prison camps.
In her two years there, she studied literature, but the atmosphere was as grim as the surroundings: "I was beaten and ostracized. You had to subscribe to Izvestia and Pravda, but I objected - `I don't want these papers. I never read any Soviet paper.' " Sick and depressed, she "escaped" to Kishinev and found another sort of trouble brewing. Her father, organizer of an architects collaborative to bypass the government and build rural housing, was imprisoned for crimes against the state. Kapovich's mother insisted her only daughter continue her studies, and Kapovich got into a Kishinev institute, studying world and Russian literature. There, she found a circle of like-minded young poets - a connection that became a lifeline.
The poets became part of an underground network, trundling clunky typewriters to other cities to find and secretly copy forbidden books - writings of Joseph Brodsky, Alexei Tsvetkov, Vladimir Nabokov. "We met every day," Kapovich says. "We were on the phone, we would laugh, recite poems, and type them out." Though the 1980s were the waning years of the Soviet Union, "the KGB made us famous," Kapovich says. "They would come to the university and say, `Beware of certain people who try to entice young intellectuals into their so-called literary movement.' They would give out our names and make us visible. People would immediately become interested in us. We were like forbidden fruit."
In August 1980, Kapovich's fiance, poet Eugene Horvat, frantically buried borrowed manuscripts in a Leningrad flower bed as she distracted a suspicious police officer. Another time, her typewriter and poems she carried were confiscated. Police later jailed the couple and their friends for issuing leaflets at Leningrad universities, demanding intellectual freedom. Despite her slender build, Kapovich fought back, and her glasses were smashed.
Thinking back, she dismisses the idea she was a hero or martyr: "I am actually not very brave. I was just obstreperous and hard to control. I wasn't afraid, because I was in love, and we were poets, and that is what mattered."
Ultimately, the young poets were returned to their hometowns for KGB interrogations. "My father was in prison, and they strongly recommended I undergo treatment in a madhouse," Kapovich says. "They said, `We know how close you are to your father, and you don't want anything to happen to him.' "
Her confinement lasted a few weeks at first, then she was discharged on a kind of probation, required to get a job and check in with the hospital from time to time. She was given counseling and medicated. "They found me very inadequate and manic-depressive because I would cry and say `I want to go right now,' and they would stop me and say `Don't you realize you need help?' " This continued intermittently for years, even as she worked during the day and studied at night. But she lost each job when she was caught writing poems.
Horvat's hometown, a suburb of Leningrad, had an especially brutal KGB office. Kapovich says her fiance openly admitted his activities to the agents. "I did it. These are my papers," she recalls him saying. Agents beat him, threatened to rape his sister, and forced him into exile in 1981. Kapovich visited him in Berlin in 1989, but by then "he was mad," she says, sadly. Two years later, he killed himself. As she speaks, Kapovich takes a framed photograph of Horvat from the wall, gently placing it on the table. "You had to get out of that world in order to see what was really there," Kapovich says. The state control was so pervasive that "they didn't need to kill thousands of people. A poet makes the evil visible. The way you breathe, the way you look at people is different, and they sense it. They would say, `We don't like the look on your face. You look like a foreigner.' "
In 1983, Kapovich received a master's degree in literature, with honors. She stayed in Kishinev for the next seven years but struggled to find teaching work, getting and losing menial jobs. She once smuggled sheepskins to make ends meet. She married a member of her circle, and when the Soviet Union fell apart in 1990, she moved to Israel with her husband and mother.
When her marriage dissolved, Kapovich moved to Cambridge in 1992, to marry another poet from her Kishinev group who lived in Boston, but that marriage didn't last, either. Philip Nikolayev, whom she had known in Russia, was a student at Harvard, and they eventually wed. She then enrolled in Boston College, receiving a degree in Russian literature in 1995.
Though she had always loved poetry written in English - Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost - she wrote her first poem in English unexpectedly. "Paper Plane to Nowhere," written in 1997, was about the Kishinev psychiatric hospital, a subject that stymied her when writing in Russian.
"It was amazing," she says. "It was so simple, flowing through my mind, as if I were telling somebody, what [Osip] Mandelstam calls `the providential reader.' I was jumping up and down, like Pushkin jumped after finishing a poem, jumping for joy because I had tried to tell this story many times. But English made it possible."
Many of her English poems have appeared in literary journals and in a just-published anthology from Random House, though her manuscript of 55 poems, "Gogol in Rome," has yet to be published.
The importance of poetry in her life can't be exaggerated. "My [previous] husband was a nice guy," she says, "but I basically divorced him because of poetry. The last straw was when he said about my favorite poet, Timur Kibirov, `It's not even poetry.' I adore Kibirov. I said, `We cannot live together, you don't like Kibirov.' "
Last January, after a reading in Washington, the audience received copies of a poem, and a woman approached her - a poet from Kurdistan. "She said her husband was sick, and this poem could cure him," Kapovich recalls. "I looked in her eyes, because you can tell if a person is mad. It is a dream to write poetry in such a way that it can cure people."
Kapovich picked up the poem, signed her name, then added a Hebrew phrase from the Bible: "Talita ve kumi."
Get up and walk.