Two Poets — Wendy Trevino & Pavel Arseniev



Wendy Trevino

Wendy Trevino’s Cruel Fiction (Commune Editions) tells the truth about life as we know and endure it, restlessly picking at the hangnails of both history and heartbreak. Trevino posits race as a “cruel fiction,” nationality as its attendant mythology. Trevino asks: How do we resist these fictions without reproducing their murderous, hierarchical logics? For Trevino, “poetry is not enough” as long as we are not enough. Trevino’s insurgent colloquialism is a sleight of hand. Cruel Fiction speaks plainly but never simply. Trevino reflects on the lies with which we arm ourselves to refute the lies used against us.

Against the near-orgasmic collective delusions of Obamamania, Trevino recounts solidarities fostered during the Occupy movement. Exhilarating sonnet sequences titled “Popular Culture & Cruel Work,” and “Brazilian Is Not a Race” interrogate the inter-sections of pop and protest. “It takes / Time, lots of people’s time, to organize / The world this way,” Trevino writes. “It takes more / Violence. Violence no one can confuse for / Anything but violence.” The coffee-colored utopian discourses of multiracialism, mestizo-ness, and mixed race studies are critiqued in a sweeping tour of the theoretical and geographical borderland(s) informing Trevino’s own life. Trevino reminds us that shit is complicated, except when it’s not. The line between those immiserated by racial capitalism and its profiteers is absolute. Cruel Fiction is a rarity, an irresistible clarion call to better understand ourselves if we are to understand what needs to be done, and to be undone.
Momtaza Mehri


Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
There are things I’m obsessed with—like anti-racism & the possibility of revolution. The social phenomena & social dynamics I notice & that lead to me write are always related to one or both of these things. Sometimes I am trying to answer a question or questions I have about this or that social phenomenon &/or social dynamic, but more often I’m just trying to think through a social phenomenon &/or social dynamic that stands out to me / trying to figure out why it stands out to me / what the questions are that I want to ask about it.

What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
Abolish the police. Abolish prisons. Abolish the carceral state. Abolish borders.
Rob McLennan Asks Wendy Trevino


A recurring concern of leftist contemporary poetry is how to express the affective and historical experience of collective formations. How to capture those flashes of togetherness with strangers which ground political struggle: the crowdedness of a march, the tediousness of a meeting, the frenzy of being dispersed by the police, the solidarity of singing along to a pop song. The focus on interpersonal connectedness in post-Occupy, post-crisis poetry – and at the centre of Wendy Trevino’s new collection of poems, Cruel Fiction, which was published this month by Commune Editions – is not a sentimental celebration of abstract unity, nor a daydream about an undefined different world lurking within our own. Rather, it’s the expression of hope for concrete social movements through which the specifics of a different world could be imagined.

But, as we know, such struggles are thwarted and repressed. Trevino’s poems begin here, at the point at which any possible collectivism is divided by the ‘cruel fiction’ of the title: the construction of race and the enforcement of borders. The first poem, ‘From Santa Rita 128-131’, records the sights and sounds of 54 hours of incarceration during Occupy: ‘I saw 5 slices of bologna stick to a white wall. / I heard harmonizing coming from a tank 2 times. / I heard 1 person recite 1 poem to 2 pigs. / I heard I had 1 welt on my back. /  I saw at least 5 bruises on each wrist. / I heard 1 woman suggest not admitting injury unless it was severe.’

The poem is made entirely of such sensory observations, locating the narrator in a specific place and in a specific body, and connecting her to those sharing the cells. The declarative, documentary style of the lines helps Trevino avoid the kind of overly poeticized hubris that finds a transcendently human commonality between all the incarcerated; instead, the relations – though full of potential for future comradeship –
are for now situational, tactile and borne of shared captivity.

After an opening section of discrete poems, the rest of Cruel Fiction consists of two sequences of modified sonnets, written in a tone both strident and conversational. The first of these sequences, ‘Popular Culture & Cruel Work’, interlaces anecdotes and commentary about the slow process of experientially learning how race and gender are weaponized, the fleeting euphoria of being interpolated by popular music, and the emotional distance between the alienated workday and the disalienated protest:

Heartbreak is a march gone terribly wrong.
You don’t want to have to go into work
The next day. You don’t want to be inside
At a computer where no one can help
You. Where you can’t even help yourself.
‘It’s a career,’ my boss says. She hates that
I call it ‘a job’. I write about work
Since there’s no escaping it. Like heartbreak.
Work structures so much life. According
To Human Resources, I’m white. I have
Been confused for other women with dark
Hair. Maybe I am them sometimes. In the
Elevator, taking the stairs, walking
Back from lunch, insisting ‘this isn’t me.’

It might seem like Trevino is pulling together these strands to make a sweeping critique of life under capitalism, and to some extent she is, but the anecdotes are so unreservedly autobiographic, the diction is so colloquial and the arguments with other thinkers are so particular that the poems remain grounded; even at their most polemical, they are not generalizing. Trevino is not launching another critique of ideology, nor an analysis of structures of feeling: she’s attempting to write through what those structures of feeling actually feel like. Attending to those feelings involves self-reflection and theorization, but it is not metaphysical.

Further grounding the poems in social reality, the history of place runs through the entire book. In the terrific final sequence, ‘Brazilian is Not a Race’, Trevino writes about how her time in the Rio Grande Valley – ‘where I learned / I’m not white & what that means & how what / That means changes & doesn’t & to who’ – framed her understanding of the ostensibly fictional but nonetheless operational intersection between race and nationality. Her youthful experience in the Valley informs her critiques of figures such as the theorist Gloria Anzaldúa and the revolutionary José Vasconcelos, both of whom she sees as conflating race with nationality and perpetuating an anti-black politics; and while she’s critical of those who struggle for partial liberation while upholding racial and sexual hierarchies, she’s equally critical of celebrations of multiracialism and ‘impurity’: ‘“Impurity’s” a given. Race is not.’

Against these ‘cruel fictions’, Trevino posits a ‘we of a position’ – a phrase she borrows from the insurrectionist theorists and activists in Tiqqun – which suggests a collectivity grounded in positionality and egalitarian wilfulness. Her fast-moving poems, voiced in springy, colloquial lines, evoke the barest outline of such a ‘we’: a ‘we’ that might be capable of sustaining principled movements while simultaneously sustaining the criticality necessary to keep movements alive. The urgency of such a project, in the face of state violence, is why Trevino adamantly insists that culture – and perhaps especially poetry – is not enough, even though it is a way to represent our latent potential to ourselves:

A border, like race, is a cruel fiction
Maintained by constant policing, violence
Always threatening a new map. It takes
Time, lots of people’s time, to organize
The world this way. & violence. It takes more
Violence. Violence no one can confuse for
Anything but violence. So much violence
Changes relationships, births a people
They can reason with. These people are not
Us. They underestimate the violence.
It’s been a while. We are who we are
To them, even when we don’t know who we
Are to each other & culture is a
Record of us figuring that out.
Steven Zultanski



Santander Bank was smashed into!
I was getting nowhere with the novel & suddenly the
reader became the book & the book was burning
& you said it was reading
but reading hits you on the head
so it was really burning & the reader was
dead & I was happy for you & I had been
standing there awhile when I got your text
Santander Bank was smashed into!
there were barricades in London
there were riot girls drinking riot rosé
the party melted into the riot melted into the party
like fluid road blocks & gangs & temporary
autonomous zones & everyone & I
& we all stopped reading



Dude, You’re an Asshole

Everybody knows the centres of neutralisation, where it is required that no emotion
stands out, where each one has to contain himself & everybody experiences them
as such: enterprises (the family included), parties, sports centres, art galleries, etc.
— Call, Tiqqun

You’re a bumper, shock  absorbers, brake pads
You’re a scab, an officer in plain clothes, a plant with a sewing machine
You’re the Christian indie rock band on the Kill Rock Stars label
You’re the ambient mumbling of Interpol & attenuation
You know who you are
I am Keyser Söze, one of those women
Who hits back, I’m not interested in your metaphysics or discretion
Your inability to drive on the interstate or let your inner hyena out
I don’t care if you can sympathize with the sentiment
With your perfect playlist & spotless dance floor
With your simultaneous offerings of whisky, drinking etiquette & coffee
I refuse to dance at your lock-in or be ambushed
By your youth group, I refuse to call a dozen people wearing red
Awkwardly nursing their margaritas in a kitchen
A red party                              I promise you will be negated
Fuck the Burning Man you read about





I want to write an Alma who goes into the street.
With the sound of breaking glass all around you
She is close enough you hear the dead women
Out of nowhere say, “Take everything.“

You are. A history of revolt resulting in new forms of oppression. You are concentrated
in close proximity to the dilapidated plantations and ranches. You’re at all the punk
& hip hop shows. Something happened. The pigs went off. The jury came back with
a verdict. Negotiations failed. The fascists were coming together. Comrades starving
themselves in jail. You might have been skating less, which is how it is when what you
do could at any point involve you in zip ties. Like leaving the house. If you have one.
Whether you put it to yourself that way made no difference. You were done. Negative.

You think it’d be more interesting to write of being in it. To describe the dance, which
is to say the steps. A barrage of arrivals & moving on. A constant refashioning of the
on-hand. Almost midnight & you’re saying Oakland, OK, I understand, comparing
choices to all the protection you’re supposed to have, “making them anyway“ — to
quote a friend.



5 Out of 13 Ways of Looking at Poetry
Not Being Enough

If you were to wear a shirt that said LEAVE ME ALONE
People might not talk to you or harass you or assault you.
You might put them off. You might manage
To trick them, this time. That you weren’t even trying
Is a terrible sign — like an intersection with signs

It’s the difference between ALL ROADS LEAD
YOURSELF OUT. I’m talking about the promises
Of art & promises of civil war. I’m saying the coldness
Of that adjective is no match for the heat in parts of the south
Or for being without water or running out of food.

People make things that reflect how they live, where.
These things are not to be confused with the shadows
They cast. When I write a poem I write about things
Like shadows, execute certain tricks. I can see why
People have compared it to dance, but have you ever
Danced in the streets? It’s better not to do it by yourself.

Terrorist attacks are a consequence of wars
You’re not supposed to know about. Planes
Flying into towers don’t start wars more than you
Not shopping. It’s no wonder you believe magicians are men
With magic hats that double as wormholes for rabbits
From galaxies far far away & magical women for so long.

At most, I can see a painting being like a bluff, a view
Of the back of your opponent’s cards when you’re playing
For money & you’ve already lost more than you planned.
But your relationship with it isn’t the most important
Or interesting one. Your love won’t change what a painting
I, which is someone’s time spent working for someone else.



Phalanstery for Imaginary Friends


In fact, young children are very dialectical; they see everything in motion, in
contradictions and transformations                                                                                                                                                                            — A Companion to Marx’s Capital,
David Harvey


Bloo was like a hippy telling a Buddhist to shut up
Because he wouldn’t stop telling people to shut up
Because throughout the war they’d been so

Quiet Eduardo was like César Chávez & Che shaking their heads
Like Pinky mirrors Firefly in Duck Soup like who wore it better
Frames dresses & action figures the last that nobody

Comes in Wilt lost like most of his arm was imagined tall
Father stay at home like a Coca Cola-iced tea taste test
Grandma sister’s husband’s brother &

Still alive Coco could do slapstick but only at podium like Harpo
Like that was curse contingent with credit the university’s call
For jihad against the Cotillion PTA the criminalizing of

Slapping Mr. Herriman fought in one of the wars worried he enjoyed
Shopping for his girls too much sent them all to college
But was mostly tired always between meetings a

Communist Cheeese was post-Dr. Strangelove pre-something id-shaped smudge
Spread around the eyes of Jackie Kennedy in the commonest
Of dreams the passports & degrees counterfeit



Revolutionary Letter

one thing i’ve learned / come to a provisional conclusion about:
when it comes to fighting, there are people who will help you
fight & there are people who will not & there are people
who will stand in the way. find the people who will help / be loud
& clear so they know where you are — focus on them, be encouraged
by them, encourage them, work with them. don’t worry
about the people who won’t help. they will be of no help even
if they are on your side. waste as little energy as possible
fighting people who stand in the way, which is to say don’t talk
don’t argue, just get them out of the way of the fight you came for.

tl;dr: you don’t need or want
the people who you know
aren’t “with you“ to be
with you. really, you don’t





“No matter how much you feel it, you want
To feel it even more.” That’s the feeling
Tony Bennett says he sees in Amy
Winehouse when they meet to record “Body
& Soul” in March 2011
For Bennett’s album Duets II. All this
For an “honest recording.” She’ll be gone
By August. The album will debut at
No. 1 in September. Her parents
Will accept a Grammy on her behalf
In February 2012. “What
Can I say,” her father will say, “Long live
Whitney Houston! Long live Amy Winehouse!
Long live Etta James!” But they’ll all be dead.



When JonBenét Ramsey’s father starts
Dating Natalie Halloway’s mother
You can’t tell if it’s art or life being
Imitated or by what. The truth is
Burying a middle-class white girl is
A lot cheaper than paying someone to
Explain her body. Anyway, you’d be
Surprised what can stimulate tourism.
Like Anna Nicole Smith in a graveyard
In the Bahamas buried next to her
Son. You go to bed thinking about this
All the time — about the girls whose deaths bring
People together. You made them famous.



When John Singleton is interviewed in
The middle of the LA Riots, he
Says Mike Tyson wasn’t convicted by
A jury of his peers. He says a Black
Man can go to jail for kicking a dog
While Soon Ja Du is given probation
For killing Latasha Harlins. Rodney
King is who most people associate
With this time, but the riots are about
More. Tupac autographed looted copies
Of his CD & a week later said
“I told you so.” Latino men between
18 & 24 accounted for
30% of people arrested.



Capitalism is bad for woman —
Be they cis or trans. Whoever we are
We start there. Not all women will agree.
Let’s be honest: the brutality
Of capitalism’s not a s brutal
To some women. For instance, in Juárez
Not every woman’s body is seen as
“Disponable.” The women whose bodies
Rosa-Linda Fregoso refers to
Are racialized, as well as gendered &
Poor. Can we admit what it means to be
A woman — what it requires you do
Daily depends on other things you are?
& you have to hate capitalism.




The largest prison strike in the history
Of the US is still going. “We want
[You] to understand the economics
Of the prison system . . . It’s not about
Crime & punishment. It’s about money,”
Inmate & organizer Melvin Brooks-
Ray says: Whoever we are we’re also
Against the state, prisons & cops. Against
The enforcement of gender. Confinement.
We know the war has to be total. It’s
Just like that. We’re against borders & choose
Who we want around us. I think it will
Get harder. We can’t forget Diana
La Vengadora. It might come to that.





& I’m not sure how important that is
When you’re from Ukraine. I don’t give a fuck
What Elizabeth Bishop said. Never
Did. You can like her I’m just saying I
Don’t care what she had to say about race.
I will not center some racist settler
Woman’s mistaken ideas about
The world in order to make love & hate
Less complicated. Why destroying what
Destroys you is more difficult than you
Expect every time: that complication.
Which is to say I’m not sorry: Clarice
Lispector was white, that passage sounded
Anti-black & that’s not “fucked up” to say.



A border, like race, is a cruel fiction
Maintained by constant policing, violence
Always threatening a new map. It takes
Time, lots of people’s time, to organize
The world this way. & violence. It takes more
Violence. Violence no one can confuse for
Anything but violence. So much violence
Changes relationships, births a people
They can reason with. These people are not
Us. They underestimate the violence.
It’s been a while. We are who we are
To them, even when we don’t know who we
Are to each other & culture is a
Record of us figuring that out.


(from Wendy Trevino | Cruel Fiction  Commune Editions 2018



Pavel Arseniev

(born 1986 in Leningrad) is an artist, poet and theorist.

As an artist, he works with the graphic aspects and materialisation of (poetic) text. Participant of several international venues including Manifesta10, Matadero (Madrid), «Disobedient objects» (Victoria and Albert Museum), Büro für kulturelle Übersetzungen (Leipzig), Kunstraum Dreiviertel (Bern), Nova Synagoga (Zilina), III Moscow Biennale of Young Artists, Subvision kunst festival (Hamburg).

Articles have been published in the New Literary Observer, the Moscow Art Magazine, Logos, Political critique, and the newspaper of the Chto Delat collective. Editor-in-chief of the literary-critical magazine [Translit]

He is also known for editing and galvanizing intellectual forces around the St. Petersburg-based journal of poetics and theory, Translit – an activity for which he received an Andrei Bely prize, Russia’s most prestigious literary award – and for inventing the slogan that became a rallying cry of the 2012 anti-Putin protests.


Arseniev came of age during the early 2000s, when experimental writing was still overshadowed by the winking ironies of post-Soviet and postmodern disengagement from the political, and when Russian society as a whole was mired in apathy toward its cancerous, corrupt concentrations of power and money. He is a key member of constellation of writers who have rebelled against that literary and political scene, including Keti Chukhrov, Aleksandre Skidan, Dmitry Golynko, Kirill Medvedev, Dina Gatina, Roman Osminkin, and Galina Rymbu.

Turning from the institutional to the poetic and compositional, here too Arseniev has been consistently oriented toward the imbrication of the poetic with the political. His main tools include the collection and collation of found speech, the study of art and language in their social conditions, and the use of situationist experiment. Arseniev’s own innovations frequently engage with and build on past traditions of politically committed poetry. In the Russian context, these include avant-gardists like the Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Productivist “factographic” author Sergei Tretyakov, and late Soviet nonconformist authors like Vladimir Nekrasov and Andrey Monastyrsky. Arseniev’s broader, global genealogy leads back to the situationists and direct-action collectives of the 1960s.
Kevin M. F. Platt


One hundred years after October revolution, LEF (Left Front of the Arts), and Russian Formalism, Pavel Arseniev brings into Russian poetry the militant excitement of subversive materialist exploration and canny activist protest. The unique results of this poetic event will, without a doubt, be exceptionally interesting and useful to an American reader.
Kirill Medvedev

Pavel Arseniev charts the “emergence of unexpected forms of collective life,” as one poem has it. He tells the stories of how poems are created and performed, and he assembles poems out of found bits of language so that an inevitable political charge races through familiar words. These vivid translations show contemporary Russian poetry at one of its high points, where language laughs at its own seriousness but opens the way for astute cultural insights and a bracing evocation of life lived out loud.
Stefanie Sandler

The truths of Russian administered reality were long ago stripped bare, so that now the poet’s work is to invent a new line of camouflage. Warning: Pavel Arseniev is a defector with only his disguises to divulge. Perhaps this as close as we can come, in this moment, to alchemy. Or is it allegory? Warning: this is poetry that makes Russia great again. Arseniev is taking a bullet for poetry but, at the same time, he is asking – will poetry take a bullet for you? Warning: any complete picture – lies. Then one day dyr bul schylReported Speech turns the stink of the real into a stinging aesthetic coup de grace. I’m defecting to that.
Charles Bernstein

Full book: PDF



Mayakovsky for Sale

A used Mayakovsky is for sale
on a new site on the Russian web.

Advertising links.
Add to cart .
E-mail this link to a friend.
Everything’s searchable.
Unlimited traffic.
What to do in your free time.

A video-poem of this text is available at

Translation by  Ainsley Morse




to A. T.D.

The machines are transmitting
The poet is dying

Time is passing


Several images depicting real people,
several of whom are also considered poets,
start to flicker with messages conveying hurried                                                                                                                                       condolences
Their words are strained, inappropriate, and, in the end,                                                                                                                       false.

Their words
Transmitted by machines
After the death of the poet.

Suddenly this torrent of zeroes and their corresponding                                                                                                                       ones,
reverses course
and it turns out that it’s not yet the end
that between poetry and oblivion
there remain unsettled scores and unpaid debts,
on account of which, perhaps, such a return was made.

It turns out that the machines will be left to smoke ner-                                                                                                                         vously in anticipation,
that they don’t at all know how to behave “in such a                                                                                                                                  situation,”
that they can only drown their words in the torrent,
until the words congeal into the state of poetry, that is,                                                                                                                            into the death
of communication,
that it won’t be possible to turn on
the background mode,
to mark it as read,
to turn off this option,
to configure the interface to be more convenient.

For this alone it was worth pulling such a stunt
in farewell.

When all’s said and done, it’s just plain old-fashioned,
th most impudent of the perpetually logged-in poets will                                                                                                                    say,
death is old-fashioned, the poetry of the future will consist                                                                                                                 of ones and zeroes.
It already consists of them.
It’s old-fashioned to be present at the death bed, to be                                                                                                                            completely in one place,
After all, you could be doing so many interesting things
with the machine of language itself.

Unfortunately, these words,
transmitted by machines,
will no longer have any connection.

Translated by Jason Cieply



Russia Day

“on the territory of the Field of Mars, in the presence of
other citizens,

he read a poem with vulgar, immoderate expressions,
which expressed a clear disrespect for society and public
he violated the public order. He did not heed the police
officer’s warnings.”
(From the record of the administrative infraction of law
No. 016170, dated 12 June 2013)

that day i decided to drop in on the protest after all,
even though i hadn’t managed to fix my bike,
it was the usual political gathering on the field of mars:
a few freaks fighting for the separation of leningrad prov-                                                                                                                ince from russia,
and some psychedelic flags—
it was clear that the protest was getting a bit flat:
people had grown weary and at the same time
become afraid to attend protests.
they asked me to read a poem
in support of the prisoners of the six of may,
i decided to read a poem
by edik lukoyanov, which we had recently published in                                                                                                                     kraft,
about how heroic subjects
transform into reactionary symbols,
and a few other poems
(i hate reading my own poems in public).
later, when vanya ovsyannikov
took the megaphone from me,
he managed to whisper that the “authorities were dis-                                                                                                                         pleased with what had been read
(and, one must suppose, with what had been written),
and they might lock you up”
i burst out laughing at this old-fashioned threat,
i mused on the phrase
“third department” and other
nostalgic fantasies on the theme of “the poet and the                                                                                                                           regime,”
when indeed i was approached
by two presentable men in uniform,
who, it goes without saying, did not bother to present                                                                                                                         themselves to me,
suggested that i accompany them.
the fact that they spoke in muffled tones
made it clear that they were uneasy
taking part in this drama.
As i was led to the car,
the slogans being chanted
about the sovereignty of thought and all that
made me uneasy as well.
on the way the officers and i chatted amiably
about whether a work of poetry can contain vulgar                                                                                                                              expressions
and at what age children should be allowed to hear them                                                                                                                   (“there were children present!),
whether only the protest was public or this situation
in which I was being taken to the precinct as well
while the officers generously cursed away.
they also asked who the hell was printing this stuff
and about the print runs of these publications.
they asked me to let them read the book,
and after leafing through to the poem in question, they                                                                                                                      smiled,
and were clearly disappointed: they understood that
here were ten civil servants riding along in the heat in a                                                                                                                     dusty bus
for some incomprehensible reason, mightier than they,
and they couldn’t do a thing about it.
and i don’t mean the power of language.

after arriving at the precinct i learned even more
about my country on its independence day.
the rank-and-file overwhelming consisted
of bored men and women,
the majority of whom
had a “lyube” song as their ringtone.
the staff was indeed international,
like the people of the country, whose peace they were                                                                                                                       guarding:
uzbeks, slavs, tuvans, armenians,
uniformly lethargic, strolling back and forth in their gray                                                                                                               uniforms
holding some papers,
and you could see that nobody wanted to do anything,
a carefree fatigue and preholiday atmosphere reigned over                                                                                                            all.
in the corner a man with his hands
chained to the door, alternated
threats to hang the duty officer from an aspen tree
(“scum, you’ve evidently forgotten some years of our                                                                                                                        history”)
with entreaties to bring him some water.
they released from his cell a fashionable young man,
who had been making trouble on his scooter yesterday,                                                                                                                  and it seemed
he was mostly annoyed by his iphone getting smashed
(i loaned him my cell,
when he wanted to inform somebody
that everything was all right).
soon afterwards several strapping men brought in
a short woman with a wary smile
for selling grapes,
they carried in the grapes too and placed them on the                                                                                                                                      floor.
(“misha, you think I’m blind, you bastard, the word                                                                                                                          ‘grapes’ isn’t in the booking statement.”)
and they brought in some teenagers for drinking
beer on a children’s playground
(the arresting officer flirted with them).
the chained man continued to shower everyone with                                                                                                                      curses
and begging to be taken to a cell
(at first, not knowing that he was in handcuffs, i thought
that this was a rather peculiar desire).
the officers continued to yell at one another
and busy themselves with anything they felt like,
as long as they weren’t writing up the charges.
at a certain point the bored inspector for juvenile
affairs complained to his colleague
that he’d been sitting here since 9:00 a.m. but they still
hadn’t brought in a juvenile offender.
the latter advised him to get a tallboy to cheer himself up,
after all, they wouldn’t run a check before 8:00 p.m.
they brought some more in for drinking,
and later some musicians for playing on the street,
and in general, the picture of criminal life today was being                                                                                                            drawn quite clearly.

and there was a child constantly getting in the way in the                                                                                                                precinct,
some officer or major decided to bring her son to work
so she wouldn’t have to hire a babysitter,
he was constantly fawning over the duty officer,
while mommy was taking fingerprints.
(“maybe article 24, point 5—your favorite!”
“what, are you out of mind? he’s a tajik!”
“what of it?” “i mean, well undocumented”).
while we were waiting in the courtroom,
the female officer and the young cop
attending to me
swapped stories about their vacations.
he said that he had flown to thailand in january
and had made the rounds of the night clubs (“why the                                                                                                                        fuck not?”)
she felt obliged to respond that she preferred sharm el                                                                                                                       sheikh,
because it was the same sun and water, but not such a long                                                                                                               plane ride.
when they had exhausted the topic of vacations, she sud-                                                                                                                   denly turned to me
and, addressing me formally, asked why i had
chosen precisely that poem. but this was likely more
out of some rudimentary courtesy for the myths of                                                                                                                             literature
gleaned in school, where girls always do better than boys.
the judge was clearly in a hurry to go home,
although some literary discussion
nevertheless did take place, all the more so as the lawyer i                                                                                                                  wound up with
was a man of serious civic ambition.
as a result, literature once again risked
becoming the subject of moral censure (and exoneration),
something that hadn’t happened for quite some time.
the judge, however, quickly tired of this—
she was much more modern than we.
finally, after exiting the building of the dzerzhinsky court,
at 38 insurrection street,
i was greeted by my grinning comrades,
who had hoped their anxious phone conferences would                                                                                                                   soon end
and who simply wanted to celebrate
this day of russia.

Translation by Ronald Meyer



Moscow Circle Line Composition

One day anti-Situationist posters
appeared in Moscow Metro:
the municipal authorities had cared enough to say
that you should no longer take that turn
off the road home from work,
no longer fritter away your time on nothing,
no longer prolong your own life,
that the citizenry should not loiter,
should not clog up the tunnels,
should not get in the way.
As you can see from the Line One map,
travel to the center is cut off:
at long last, we are free of regret.

Five years after the marches
to protest the stolen votes,
silent people are wandering through the Moscow Metro,
hawking the artifacts of patriotism,
counting for their livelihoods on
what lingers of a shared feeling,
But they have nothing to express,
nothing with which to express,
no desire to express,
together with the obligations to express.

Translation by Ian Dreiblatt



*** (from the series “Beria as Oberiu”)

let it be stated for the record
that yet another offensive has been carried out
by yet another group of literary troublemakers

with the goal of establishing
a zaum dictatorship in poetry
(just as in the wild nineties)

in defiance of requests from
the youth—students and workers, presumably vigilant—

all the time keeping their distance from politics
(as one poet has said)—that truly boring element,

striving to lose themselves in
the self-embracing joy of
their wild poetic folly

and at times finding themselves
in total creative prostration—
but doing it ardently, honestly,

mistaking parody for innovation
and condemning themselves to infertility,
to ongoing creative paralysis

their last words:
our zaum acrobatics
our meaningless poetry
our departure from life

this is the art of the hostile element
the poetry of the class enemy

so I say to you
lidia lesnaya
in this blessed year 1927

Translation by Ingrid Nordgaard



Everything Involving The Days Of The Week

This year, no kisses,
this year, only language courses,
new credit cards, and the assumption of awkward positions.

We can happily ascertain:
today, the notion of freedom prevails.

Inundate with information
as with money.
It seems that in the past
so little was needed
to believe in something

The act bears such a name
that it’s better to refuse it.

Everything that concerns the days of the week,
seasons of the year, languages and trees – all masculine.
But this does not concern you.
For here there’s always fog,
in any case, the mountains and the lake
betrayed by the window,
must be imagined
more than observed

The books tower like ruins
in front of the wayward angel of reading
as he’s carried forward,
with his back to the reader.

Sometimes it helps to imagine
what became of
your former classmates,
as one Russian artist put it.
But even that doesn’t last long.

Another world is possible—
the activists assure us
as do analytical philosophers—
in the substitution of the corresponding implicatures
and abolition of the bourgeois class respectively.
Activists, who don’t understand anything in philosophy,
and analytical philosophers
who are completing their treatises,
let’s say, in 1945.

you will get to inhabit a cultural space
and create your own language,
but first you must step over bodies
treading lightly, in a white wreath.
case in point: translating the stories of refugees
for the police into a language they understand,
i.e. to deliver their language,
and, as is in the case with any
translation—to betray it.
Then later form this you could
construct an entire artistic world,
though that too could be profitable.

Translation by Ingrid Nordgaard

From Pavel Arseniev | Reported Speech
New York, Cicada Press 2018



The Pragmatic Paradox as a Means of Innovation in Contemporary Poetic Speech

Is the evolution of poetic forms at all legible to prosody, when the new forms are in no way based on rhythm, but borrow their effects from the domain of speech? A feeling of guilt on the part of the traditional poetry scholar forces him “to open up to the contemporary,” to misspeak about rock poetry and internet poems as the exceptions that prove the rule (which boils down to the corpus of M.L. Gasparov). But of course, in these domains, versification is actually preserved in its most inertial forms. What is to be done with those specific (and hence harboring the very possibility of specification) cases in which poetry openly and deliberately refuses to collaborate with rhyme and other traditional formal indicators of verse, and intrudes into an area fundamentally outside of the grasp of traditional prosody? If even Gasparov admitted that it would be better to translate the numerous traditions in different epochs of European poetry into free verse, that means that he acknowledged the existence of some poetic substance that can’t be apprehended by quantitative poetry studies; which, incidentally, it is entirely possible to conceptualize. The point is not novelty alone. As is well known, many experimental forms, like combinatorial poetry for example, are perfectly amenable to “digitization,” soothing the ego of the expert in quantitative methods of prosody. But if we are able to recognize that the loosening of meter towards freer verse reflects significant trends, and that certain fundamental changes are taking place in the very nature of the poetic, isn’t it time to finally stop tallying, and to start worring about  how verse theory will survive once everything is not only completely shattered (as in free verse), but based more generally on some other grounds?

And what if this transformation will take place, not according to the soothing scenario of elite detachment, justified by the need to invent a future language in laboratory-like conditions, where all others will also be invited (although, unlike the number invited, that of the select will remain small, as we know from Dmitry Kuzmin’s anti-democratic argument about the identical print runs of poetry books across time), but through the dissolution or the mixing of poetic with everyday speech, whereby the former becomes more and more comprehensible to non-specialist consumers of verbal productions. For the interesting cases are less those in which it is not clear “who speaks,” how the “subject is constructed,” or how the proverbial aphasic speech is syntactically arranged, etc., but those where we face something that can be evaluated simultaneously as verse and as everyday speech.

Since the time of the Formalists, a central literary task has been to find a way of differentiating “poetic” language from everyday speech, which confronts it remotely, resists it in every utterance, or even threatens to overwhelm it in certain extreme experiments. There have been several kinds of solutions to this task—ranging from the absorption of marginal thematic and stylistic zones into a thereby galvanized high literature, to attempts to grant linguistic competence to the “tongueless street” itself,[1] to delegate to it the right of expression. What remained inviolable was the very division into material that needed to be made literary, in one way or another, and the method used to do so; and therefore the carriers of poetic and everyday language always remained divided.

Contemporary Russian poetry in its normal aggregate state produces a consistent defense of its institutional boundaries, accompanied by a regular violation of formal boundaries. Newly grasped domains of social speech and modes of expression (street language, internal or egocentric speech, the paratactical language of numerous special states of consciousness, etc.) are co-opted in the process. At best, this practice is described as “implicitly political”: liberating the text itself; multiplying ways of reading and means of understanding; disavowing the repressive construction of the addressee; dissipating its intentionality as—once again—repressive; and in the end, as soon as it becomes completely literary, directed at nobody.

Today, common sense casts poetry as a wager, still primarily constituted through maximum distancing from the profane speech of everyday life—a scenario of privileged language that has been proven across the centuries, having lost in the last century some stability of reference and subjectivity of speech, but not priestly ambitions and their related social habits. Consumers of such language behavior can always be found—at the very least among those who were oriented towards the same thing, but have been less successful in establishing their right to produce privileged language. An opposing practice demotes poetic utterance to the very bottom of the verbal and medial mainstream; performs lyrical work with linguistic and intellectual cliches, hoping to move right through them into the present or even future of language. Within these coordinates there exist two tendencies that have most clearly declared their resistance to the status quo: for convenience, let’s call them the analytic and the synthetic.

The analytical tendency focuses on dismantling “obvious meanings” by breaking up conventional syntax. The synthetic tendency, by contrast, consists of overturning “the Other’s” “finished” words, or free indirect discourse, turning to social heteroglossia as productive material. These two tendencies, respectively, aspire to develop the “zaum” (trans-sense) or conceptualist lines of the Russian-language poetic tradition (which seem to harmonize with OBERIU poetics in between avant-gardes), and constitute the coordinate axes within which contemporary Russian-language poetry already exists (although this is not yet universally acknowledged).

The analytical tendency appears more reflexive, thanks to its distance from the immediacy of political struggle and social heteroglossia (N. Safonov); the synthetic requires advocacy in the form of substantial cognitive enterprise—on the part of the author, or from critical authorities (R. Osminkin). But whether in the division into enigmatic and meta-language, or in holy foolery, instrumentally legitimized by means of theoretical commentary, we again see a kind of division of linguistic labor into the properly poetic and the critical, which at any rate resembles a pastiche of the first and second avant-gardes.

Thus, in my view, the poetic texts that have the largest stock of novelty today are built on what can be called the pragmatic paradox, which gives a poem the properties of a speech event, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or an archive that unpacks itself. It is not enough for such a poem to be an herbarium of words, marking the author as the adept of prestigious discursive usage, nor to simply “delegate the word to the Other/oppressed.” This situation requires (self-)critique of the utterance’s ability, included in its very production; we need sessions of verbal action and their subsequent exposure; today there isn’t enough (self-)referentiality about the utterance’s own means of production. These are the experimental problems that are to be resolved by pragmatic poetics and texts that rebel, as it were, against being read in traditional institutional circumstances. Only texts that invent anew each time a pragmatic frame for their realization, that are estranged precisely from this level of speech’s function, have the right to be called experimentally poetic. We can cite as an example—among those we’ve already analyzed as examples of pragmatic artistic expression—The Debut Book of a Young Poet by Nikita Sungatov, which at the level of title already manifests a new, provocative, direct, and tautological means of action. Characteristically, not only the name (i.e. the very first speech act that confronts the reader), but also the book’s last text has the character of pragmatic paradox.  It is a single-line poem that for obvious reasons can only work as the last in a book or a poetry reading:

And then one more poem.

A leaflet read at a poetry reading instead of verse, and causing a scandal namely in that context (but noticed by no-one at a rally—see the Osminkin case study); a poem reporting on the circumstances of its reading and criticizing either the speaker or the listeners (see the Nugatov case study); a poetic text, disguised in a utilitarian context, but displacing and rendering it schizophrenic with the help of an indivisible poetic remainder. The repertoire of subversive speech acts is fundamentally open.

We’ll add a few reflections, dangerously close to the genre of self-case. The common recourse to political material, which cannot go ignored, rejected, is balanced by the pragmatic tendency to subject itself to a specific method of verbal distancing and rhetorical processing, thereby preserving a critique of ideology as derivative of the combination of signs. The difference between pragmatic poetics and conceptualism consists then of the first’s materialized address to a measure of political passion, reconstructed from the rubble of text bricolage; i.e., an attempt to preserve a measure of the political, so too a measure of rhetorical sophistication (which may have been lacking on the level of dispatch in the poetics of direct speech). If you will, these are speech paradoxes and ambiguities in the service of revolution. Unfortunately or not, neither the “final truth,” nor nominalist skepticism alone are capable today of firing up the mechanism of estrangement.

When taking such a manifesto-like tone, it is always necessary to question one’s own poetic practice—how does it fare in relation to the dialectic of method and material? Or, in other words, exactly how documentary and how fabricated are ready-writtens? As much as is necessary in order to preserve the material’s flagrant quality, having demonstrated the presence of a methodological shift, the reworking of the text. Sometimes it’s enough to simply break a certain text into lines, so that in a given pragmatic situation it becomes poetic; sometimes it requires more laborious work or speculative effort.

However, there still remains here a fundamentally unavoidable element of chance, born of a reckless passion for the material, as well as resistance to it, and consequently with the same hopes as in the avant-garde’s rejection of instrumental reason. And although, as Valery put it (and as Debord would have been ready to agree), “an accident can be arranged” or accompanied by heightened attention, which is also a form of its production (in surrealism), in general it “renounces the constructive principle in favor of passive-expectant susceptibility, and thus cannot be accepted by avant-garde theory.” It also cannot be entirely rejected, however, as it contains a huge potential for flagrantness in the material. For this reason, we need a materialist theory of accident.

The illusion of hazard objectif, spontaneously existing in the world and only perceived by the artist, is opposed to the concept of the produced accident—as in the case of its immediate discovery in Tachisme or Action Painting (in which the  arbitrariness of empty subjectivity appears in the place of the dialectics [of freedom] of vision and [the resistance of] material); so too in the case of the indirectly produced accident. The latter is based on a most precise calculation; however concerning only the means (method), but keeping the result of the material processing unforeseen. This allows us to see that serial music or concrete poetry in Adorno’s description are thereby heirs to the Literature of Fact as described by Tretyakov and Vertov’s Kino-Truth, catching “life unawares,” but applying “dialectical montage” to it. This “dialectical montage,” inherited by the neo-avant-garde as well, differs from the composition techniques of the past in that it introduces accidental material into the work, like pierced holes in a representational system based on the “realistic reflection” of reality, thereby giving the entire prouction a different status—no longer references to reality, but pieces of it.

By this means, the establishment of an inorganic production (Bürger) suggests a technique of working with the material that allows for the manipulation of meanings, arising in concrete life situations, as empty signs, acquiring (anti-)artistic value only through use, in a gesture of assigning. The decontextualization and re-combination of isolated elements, parallel with granting them meaning that isn’t derived from their original context (what is usually called montage), does not mask the fact of the production’s constructedness, its status as an artificial formation, but nonetheless insists on the facticity of the used material.

Thus, in the case of the ready-written, the pragmatic paradox arises at the moment that the “weed” Internet text begins working, aesthetically framed by its use, but at the same time—at the level of speech content-—it continues to bear utilitarian signs, creating a double map of discursive distribution. The communicative intention of first authorship sloughs off and what emerges is an unsolicited artistic effect at the level of the speech act (or, we might say, located in the eye of the beholder). Or conversely, it forces the communicative value of fragments of poetic texts onto banners at a demonstration, while preserving the smell of art. As a regulatory ideal, we might admit the creation—-by dint of that very rattling—of an infrastructure for opening up the aesthetic; absorbing into the world of cultural values ​​potentially any speech product or media language, instead of producing attractive or mysterious, but one way or another exceptional (and for that reason alone preserving the auratic effect) objects of linguistic design. Such a statement is not, strictly speaking, utilitarian; it retains all the attributes of the artistic, to be sure: closed in on itself, or more precisely, on the pragmatic situation of its reading, it includes the recipient’s reaction, but for all that sooner exposes itself to dismissal than allow narcissism.

The subjective, the safety of which it is common to worry about when claims are made to the innovative use of language, solidifies in the given case into the very gesture of assignment (poetic subjectivity has always existed in very specific forms—whether “cursed poets” or authors of the Language School tradition). The flip side of such a transformation of poetic subjectivity, however, is the growing attractiveness of meta-reflection about the language of poetry or the creation of poetic objects (as a practice opposed to the writing of yet another cycle of lyrical poems). A wager on the production of the methods of speech production themselves inevitably leads to less inclination towards normative creativity, which is limited by the parameters of publication.

The intuition of pragmatic poetics is fueled by the fact that, today, such a large number of poetic texts are produced as will never be read (regardless of their so-called quality). This renders expedient the refusal to participate in the quantitative competition in favor of arriving at a qualitative method that will let us break out of this “waste-paper Auschwitz,” pushing to the surface some new method of speech production, which at the same time will pull the voices of many people into the future, and not only the usual person of the artist.

Translation by the Cement Collective


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