The Body Of The Word: An Interview With Eugene Ostashevsky

Speaking to the Leningrad-born poet at his home in Berlin, Eve Richens asks Eugene Ostashevsky about his current project - The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi - his vast array of influences, from Shakespeare to Soviet linguistic propaganda, and the communicative abilities of animals

Born in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in 1968, The American poet Eugene Ostashevsky – currently on a year-long DAAD scholarship, living and writing in Berlin – emigrated to New York as a child in 1979. His first three books of poetry – Iterature, The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza and Enter Morris Imposternak Pursued by Ironies – are published by Ugly Duckling Presse in New York. Ostashevsky edited the first English-Language translation of the works of Daniil Kharms and his circle of 1930’s poets and philosophers for OBRIEU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism and is currently working on the third part of a thematic trilogy The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi.

Ostashevsky’s poetry operates between Russian and American poetic traditions, but the themes of his work are universal: language, translation, mathematics and philosophy. The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi, deals with the fundamental inability of language as means of expression, utilising a lively and irreverent sense of humour in making the most complex of subjects accessible and familiar with a clarity and irony which warms and disconcerts simultaneously. There is a lyric and musical quality to his poetry informed by the traditions of Jazz, early New York Music Hall comedy and the pirating life: I first saw him read his work at The White Review 9th Issue launch at Motto Publications in Berlin where he had the room laughing almost immediately, while exploring less-than-traditionally-comedic themes such as language in diaspora, reported language and the difficulty of bilingual expression.

The conversation between Pirate and Parrot deconstructs the idea of human/animal communication, undermining societal notions of interaction. At its heart The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi is a work concerned with the misunderstandings that we have (and created) and how they affect the language we use on a daily basis.

Could you tell me a bit about how The Pirate Who Does Not Know The Value of Pi is different from your previous work?

The pieces are actually related in the sense that they form three wings of a thematic trilogy – theres a third piece which is in the middle called Enter Morris Imposternak Pursued by Ironies. He first appeared in DJ Spinoza in a cameo role. What unites all three series thematically is that they are about Language, about non-translatability – the inability of language to describe things. The Pirate and The Parrot has psychological characterisation which is much more pronounced than in DJ Spinoza.

Do you think that The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi is more about immersion in character and less about philosophy?

No, I wouldn’t say that – I think it’s more focused. With Spinoza I used to say, I still say, that my chief idea – chief metaphor – is the inability of mathematics to describe the real. If you listen to the title of The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi, it’s basically same idea. The value of Pi is infinite – there’s always something new which is coming up – theres no repetition: in a sense it’s the Human Condition not to know the value of Pi. In the book there are two characters who are speaking to each other, but not always listening to one another, and not always understanding what the other person says. I use much more Russian; the multilingual puns are more thorough and philosophical. I’ve been writing it for a long time, so I’ve been reading a lot about Pirates and Parrots: I’ve been reading 16th and 17th century exploration narratives; philosophers talked about parrots as if they’re machines, as if parrots didn’t understand what they were saying and a parrot is a figure of somebody who repeats words without understanding what he or she is saying. What’s funny about that is that if you actually look at animal intelligence experiments with parrots (there’s a very famous case of a parrot named Alex who died in 2007, who’s working with a biologist named Irene M. Pepperberg) you’ll see they’re intelligent. They are thinking creatively. Anyone who has animals, if you have pets – dogs and cats – you’ll know they have emotional reactions to things. This traditional idea of the parrot as a machine, it’s a cartesian idea, that there is a complete difference between animals and humans – you look at animal experiments over the last twenty-or-so years it just doesn’t work out. If you teach gorillas or chimpanzees sign language then they’re going to talk with it.

I’ve also been thinking about the parrot as a poet more and more; as somebody who repeats, who continues the tradition. And the pirate, it’s a little hard not to think about the pirate in terms of copyright now, in terms of a violation of tradition.

I wanted to make it really accessible. but there are some corners of it that are more difficult. I wrote them recently and haven’t figured out how to read them yet.

Your work has a strong connection to Russia and America: do you feel more one than the other?

I was born in Leningrad. I don’t say I was born in Petersburg; I wasn’t born in Russia, I was born in the USSR which is a fairly different place and a different country. I was born in 68, 23 years after the war. A month after the invasion of Czechoslovakia. I immigrated with my parents in 1979 when I was ten, so I actually get asked often whether I feel more Russian or American and it’s very hard to make up ones mind here. Maybe I feel myself more a New Yorker, as that kind of code-switching identity is very easy to carry off in New York, in Brooklyn where I grew up. Theres a lot of people like me in Berlin too.

Your influences come from 1920/30’s-era Russia, your work is full of the humour of that era, the absurdism?

When I was a teenager I spoke almost-entirely English and then recovered my Russian around 19 or 20. I was still reading Russian, but I didn’t have people to speak it with. When the Soviet Union fell you had a very very clear linguistic expression of its decline and fall: people, especially younger people, in the 80’s and 90’s were talking in quotations that they would sabotage – a show of erudition, a linguistic nihilism, the quotations would be from classical poetry. In the 80’s they would be from all the kinds of stuff you learnt at school, Party stuff, stuff that they drummed into you. You would build your speech out of things like this but you would be undermining them.

So speech was quite irreverent?

Yeah. In Pushkin there is one line ‘my friend let us devote to our fatherland the beautiful impulses of our souls’ The use, nominative and plural ‘of our souls’ is exactly the same as the genitive and singular of ‘to strangle’. So you use the phrase in the context where the meaning of ‘strange and beautiful impulses’ is the one that makes sense. This is the kind of play people would do. Dmitry Golynko, a friend of mine who I translated, if you look a the work he was doing in the 90’s its all really really screwed up quotes. If you look at his work now he is using the vocabulary of the internet.

This quotationality that I’m talking about really ended in the 90’s. If you look at the way people speak Russian nowadays it’s a very earnest and – if I may say so – stupid Russian. The point is not the multiplication of meanings but the opposite. I was talking about this to a friend who is a DJ and we were talking about differences in song lyrics by generation. The bands in my generation were highly-ironic, now they try to sing fairly straightforward music and preferably in English; it’s the political developments that are going on in Russia. I don’t know if we can talk about the restoration of the Communist regime because its different. Its the more Chinese notion of capitalism plus the same people in power.

When I saw you read you had a really lively comic performance style, what influences the way you perform?

1920’s theatre songs in New York, on Second Avenue, would have a text in Yiddish which would segue into English which could segue into Russian. Uljana Wolf who lives between Berlin and New York, for her last book found this German-American writing in Chicago in this comic mix of German and English in the 1920’s. There’s a precedent for multilingualism in poetry. In American Literature it was done as pure comedy, whereas I’m interested in using it for its poetic and philosophical value. One thing is that I can’t sing – I have no training whatsoever – there’s a certain comic effect of someone doing something they absolutely cannot do, publicly. There’s a certain vulnerability. If you think of what it is that makes us happy, well, what makes us happy is acting like children. There’s a kind of nostalgia within happiness – when you do things that you’re not trained to do, like my ‘singing’ – I did this when I was 5.

One of the things I was thinking of when writing The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi was all these songs – this 1960’s pirate folklore written by regular Soviets (well they weren’t regular Soviets they were Russian Intelligentsia, Russian-Jewish Intelligentsia) – it has this kind of exotic theme. In the 60’s there were all these pirate movies. In the Soviet context there’s something different about pirate movies: they are non-ideological. ‘The Girl From Nagasaki,’ these are all things I heard when I was little. ‘In the Port of Capetown’ is a song my father use to sing to me when I was tiny and as a 5 year-old or 6 year-old I was in a park in Leningrad – they have a little stage and they were having a children’s singing contest, you know one of these cutesy things – and you were meant to sing young pioneer songs. And I had no clue that there were things you could do privately as a Soviet and things you could do publicly as a Soviet. I sung ‘In the Port of Capetown’… my father had to carry me off. Every public thing had to be ideological.

And the Jazz influences?

In Peepeesauras I guess I’m thinking of Armstrong. Although there’s a quote in it from The Velvet Underground. The music that I like to listen to is like 1920’s Russian and American Jazz, Russian and American-Jewish Jazz; things from the Second Avenue in New York. It’s music that is very multilingual. The Italians in New York were doing really very much the same thing – a Guy named Lou Monte, singing C’è ‘na Luna Mezz’u Mare, mostly in Neopolitan but would do some of it in English, ‘and now for all you nice ladies and gentlemen who don’t understand the Italian language’. [Ostashevsky sings a verse or two]

You have a background in the study of English Literature, how does this influence your work? Do you see any Britishness in your poems.

Well, as far as Shakespeare is concerned, he always has this completely vertiginous punning which is often multilingual. If you think of Henry the Fifth, the scene where Catherine is learning English – France has been conquered by the English and She (Catherine) is the prize, with Henry acquiring legitimacy by marrying her: it’s a language lesson that is completely political. It’s sexual because it’s about parts of the body. Those language issues appear in all parts of the play, particularly parts to do with national identity; the issue of what makes something British, even though in 1599 it’s not a big term – it’s invented, but it’s not in use. In that sense the themes that I work with are traditional for English Literature. As for maths, in DJ Spinoza, I spent a lot of time working on Donne and Metaphysicals, who used maths metaphorically, as do Shakespeare and John Webster.

Can you reflect on what makes your poetry funny, how it deals with issues like second languages without becoming bitter like some poets. Paul Celan, for example, has a real bitterness but your work is quite warm?

It’s a little hard to reflect on the nature of one’s humour, but I did hear a funny thing about Celan recently. Somebody showed me a photo of Celan’s house – in Chernivtsi, where he was born, now the Ukraine as the Russians conquered it in 1940 – with a very nice memorial plaque. It’s a beautiful house, but a friend of mine who went to Chernivtsi recently told me that the plaque is hanging on the house next to Celan’s. They hung it on the house next door because it’s a very beautiful art nouveau house and his is not such a nice place. This is both really sad and really funny. There is something of the Holocaust displacement there.

You are from a Jewish background. Do you feel like you’re influenced by Jewish culture?

I used to know hundreds of jokes when I was younger. Most Jewish jokes are about… I want to say displacement, but I’m not even sure if I can. Displacement, false identity. I guess what most jokes involve is gesturing, but the punch line is usually verbal gesturing. Humour, its a way of pulling something off its pedestal. It’s a way of deconstructing. In a way it’s like physical humour – you’re taking the body of the word and pulling it in a different direction.

The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi, Part 1 is out now, published by Obnazhenie Priema

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