Poetry Play by Susie DeFord

Matvei Yankelevich’s playful writing makes for an enjoyable read, combining absurd theater, avant-garde poetry, and children’s fable into Boris by the Sea’s slim 62 pages.

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Matvei1 Body

Matvei Yankelevich’s first full-length book, Boris by the Sea, was published in November 2009 by Octopus Books. Yankelevich’s playful writing makes for an enjoyable read, combining absurd theater, avant-garde poetry, and children’s fable into Boris ’s slim 62 pages. His language is simple yet packs a punch with lines like, “The world was reflected inside him, somewhere inside his skull. And it hurt.” Boris is a reflection of the eternal struggle of the artist within his own head and with the world outside.

Susie DeFord Your new book Boris by the Sea reads like part poetry, part play, part children’s story. How did you conceive the idea for Boris?

Matvei Yankelevich It was an accident. I started writing a kind of abstract theater piece. There were English parts and Russian parts, and they approximately translated each other. It wasn’t always clear which was coming first, which was the translation and which the original. Somehow they were saying the same things, redundant in a way, but somehow different from each other. It seemed to me at the time (long, long ago—in the ’90s) that the tension between the two languages was dramatic, theatrical. The name “Boris” fit this work because it would be pronounced one way in English and another in Russian—the stress would fall on the first syllable when it was in English and on the second syllable when it was in Russian—though it was the “same” name.

It’s actually not an “idea.” I mean, there’s no idea to Boris. It’s just a certain way of writing that I was trying out and got accustomed to. It may seem like there’s a narrative, or a bunch of narratives. They are only facades. I like the form of the beginning of a narrative, of a story or novel. I also like the ending as a form, and even sometimes the middle. But I don’t like trying to go from one to the next and, frankly, I’m not good at it, or it doesn’t sit well with me. There’s no forward motion, yet I kept coming back to Boris for a long time, about 10 years, here and there. Then it seemed I wasn’t coming back to it, or it felt strained if I tried. So, I looked at all the pieces, picked them up, and tried to put them together in a way that wouldn’t harm their fragmentary quality. I’m not trying to build up the fragments to create a whole. In fact, I want the holes to be visible. They’re part of this awkward fabric—the “o” in Boris, I guess, or the holes in a sweater that are there so you can put your head and arms through and wear it, without looking at it. The “Borises” (as I have come to call them because they don’t seem to belong to any particular genre but do seem to belong together) might be a bunch of theatrical gestures—or writing gestures—taken out of the context of a play, even happening on different stages at different times. They are little writing events that took place, or take place, when I read them again.

Some of the pieces were written first in Russian (which I don’t usually write in, nor feel I can seriously write in) and then translated fairly literally into English—I was trying to keep some dramatic tension in the language by placing it somewhere in between my two (fairly native, but not quite) tongues. In the end, I took out any parts that were actually in Russian: they didn’t feel necessary any more—they had become part of the gestural tone.

The children’s side of it might come from that too, because it’s like learning a language. Or it might feel like Boris is learning the language of the world around him, but it’s not natural to him. I wanted to keep it simple, since I was looking for a more abstract or, rather, to use Malevich’s word, “non-objective” (similar to “non-representational”) kind of writing: the way you just paint a square and see what that is.

SD Your acknowledgments page says that parts of Boris by the Sea served as the basis of a theater piece of the same title, directed by Daniel Kleinfeld in 1999. Ugly Duckling Presse has started publishing plays, and Rachel Levitsky’s recent book Neighbor (Ugly Duckling Presse 2009) consisted of some poetry plays. Can you speak about your interest in the intersection of theater and poetry?

MY (Theater and Poetry: instantly Mac Wellman comes to mind, as well as Artaud, and Bernhard, and Beckett…)

One of the very first wide-spread projects of Ugly Duckling Presse was the Emergency Gazette, a free bi-weekly broadsheet “of theater matters” that I edited and produced with my close friend Yelena Gluzman, a theater director, now living in Tokyo. I met her because of Boris, in fact: she was supposed to be the dramaturg on the 1999 production you mentioned, which was based on many of the Boris texts. I remember trying to explain my vision of what Boris might be on the stage to Yelena: It was probably our very first meeting (it was in that little triangular park near HERE where the play was later performed) and now that I think of it, I think I closed her eyes with my hands and gently touched her arm and her head while reading one of the Boris texts. (We’d barely just met!) I imagine I was trying to suggest ways in which the pieces could be staged abstractly, without necessarily having actors play the roles, but something more opaque, abstract. Anyhow, I think she dug it enough so that we’ve been close friends and collaborators ever since. Now we’re co-running a new series of Emergency Playscripts for UDP—the first of which just came out, Hello Failure by Kristen Kosmas—and other performance-related publications are forthcoming. She’s also heading up UDP’s revival of our “Paperless Books Department.” (You’ll have to ask her to explain.)

Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater at St. Mark’s Church, right above the Poetry Project reading space. Two or three of the founding editors of UDP were poets who were also writing plays and performing at our Emergency Gazette events. The Gazette was a venue for interesting writing (not your typical consumer review)—often by poets (like Filip Marinovich)— about downtown theater and performance (at that time much of it really was downtown). And through Yelena and Emergency Gazette I met most of the gang that was the original group of Ugly Ducklings.

The fact that the “Borises,” which were basically prose poems for the most part, were going to be staged wasn’t odd to me, since they came out of what I perceived as a theatrical experiment. And the movement of Boris from page to stage was also a kind of translation that I was interested in. A similar translation effect occurred during my friend Ellie Ga’s production of various small-edition artist books that made use of the Boris texts. Ellie and I also stole “Go Cards” from the cafes, pasted, typed, and xeroxed and visually altered “Borises” on the cards, and put them back in those postcard dispensers—a fairly performative public art thing. We did a bunch of little projects together with those texts as a basis or background for Ellie’s visual work. So there was also this dramatic circumstance of collaboration. In effect, I think this kind of collaboration between different arts was the basis of UDP. We wanted to keep the extra of the German “presse” to indicate the “extra” stuff we’d do. We’re trying now—through the Emergency series, more artist books, the Dossier Series, and “paperless books”—to expand again to other fields.

SD Boris is dedicated to Efrem and Boris Yankelevich. Will you tell us a bit about them?

MY Boris Yankelevich was my uncle. Efrem Yankelevich was my father. They were twins, born in 1950 in “Kharkov,” in what was then “the Ukraine” in the Soviet Union. My father was a few hours older, I guess. As I said before, the name (I hesitate to say “character”) of Boris came about because of the difference in English and Russian pronunciation, and because it was iconic in some way, like “Boris and Natasha.” There’s no Natasha in the book, but there is an Ivan, who is the anti-Boris, a rival or nemesis. His name is also typically Russian (in a banal way), and is also pronounced with a stress on the first syllable in English and a stress on the second syllable in Russian. I could have chosen my father’s name, Efrem, which has the same difference in emphasis, but that was too close to home. Though Boris was my uncle’s name, I never thought about the relationship since I rarely saw my Uncle Boris and since the “Boris” in this book is not really, not totally, a human, but more like a place-holder for something, some state of mind, or angle of vision.

In 2002, when I had written most of what is included in Boris by the Sea, Uncle Boris died from complications of brain cancer. He had a serious tumor, and for a while my dad took care of him, took him in and cared for him for about a year before Boris died. It was the closest they’d been since their youths, I imagine; definitely the most time they’d spent together since they left Russia. Uncle Boris (Dyadya Borya, as I called him) was a cancer researcher actually. He had studied and worked in Tel Aviv after our families emigrated (or were kicked out) in the 1970s, and later in the US. He was working at a university lab in Miami at the time the brain tumor was discovered.

I could—post factum—draw some comparisons between the Boris of the book and what I imagine was my Uncle Boris’s state of mind in the last years of his life. One of the pieces goes, “Boris lay in bed and thought: is it my skull that is hurting, or the world around me that has fallen ill.” And perhaps some of the odd logic and disassociation in the Boris book: “Boris looked at his hand and could not recognize whose hand it was.” But it wasn’t written in response to my uncle’s illness (it’s more about the disassociation implicit at times in our language); in fact most of the pieces that were to become this book were written prior to my uncle’s illness. Coincidentally, he died around the time that I started to lose access to the Boris-way of writing.

I had already re-edited the book several times. Octopus Books had accepted it, and I had just recently submitted the final version of the manuscript when my father died. That’s why I dedicated the book to their memory.

SD You’re one of the founding editors of Ugly Duckling Presse. Did you ever think it would become what it is today? What have been some of the Presse’s biggest struggles and successes?

MY The biggest struggle is sticking around, going on. The biggest success is that we’re still struggling, that we’ve stuck around, and gone on.

There have been many times that we didn’t know if we’d be able to pay the rent, and only recently have the editors stopped pitching in to pay the electric bill. The editors still sometimes have to donate money to do the books we want to do if we can’t find other funding or grants to cover the production costs. Though the Presse has grown—it started with zines, Xerox-art, and one-of-a-kind books; and our output has grown to about 12 full-length titles a year, and as many chapbooks, with editions ranging from 500 to 2,000—the editors are still volunteering their time. That’s part of our ethos, and it’s also simply a reality that we can’t pay ourselves. Well, the bright side is it never feels like a job.

We now have one part-time employee, and that is a real success for us, as long as we can raise the money through individual donations to keep paying his salary. At this point, our book sales and subscriptions add up to most of our operating costs, but to raise the money to actually produce new books—that’s our biggest challenge. Our mission is to publish non-commercial works, so there’s no big breakthrough in our future, only small change.

SD What do you see for the future of the Presse?

MY More of the same, really. It sounds dull, but it’s what we like doing, I guess, or else we would give up or get bored. We want to keep doing stuff we like doing, nothing more. For that to happen, and to make our books mean something to others, we have to work hard at staying afloat, i.e. solvent, and sane; we also have to find effective and nifty ways of getting the stuff we like into the world. We publish all kinds of writing and art, domestic or foreign, old or new, provided that it’s something we’re equipped to produce, promote, and distribute well, and that it isn’t a commercial project that doesn’t need a volunteer effort to get it out there. And we have to keep it interesting for ourselves—so far, so good.

SD Ugly Duckling is a very DIY operation. How do you balance editing and translating at the Presse with teaching, while still finding time for your own writing?

MY I’ve always seen the Presse as my major art project. I don’t know if I’d ever make any other artwork that is as open-ended. It demands a kind of sustained attention that I doubt I would ever have for any of my writing. I should say that it actually probably helps me write, though of course I don’t have time to write those really long novels I think of writing; but maybe that’s for the better, as I’m not convinced that putting even more words together would make my writing better. I’d probably procrastinate somehow anyway. (I prefer hanging out to most things.) I don’t mind not having much time to write, but I would like to have more time to read more widely outside of what I need to read for work (teaching), school, and UDP.

I should clarify that I don’t translate at UDP. It’d be a terribly distracting place, and I’d feel anti-social. Also, I rarely translate for the Presse, as I’m usually dealing with other people’s translation manuscripts, which I often try to edit, especially if they are translations from Russian. But it is true that I don’t find very much time to translate, and I regret that, because there’s still a lot more of Daniil Kharms I’d like to translate, and many other authors, too. Sometimes I ask other translators if they’d consider working on a writer that I know I won’t have time for; and maybe I’ll get to be the editor and publisher of those translations some day. And I’d like other presses to edit and publish my translations. I find that dialogue between author and editor really exciting, when you really create a shared vision of what the book is to be—it’s one of my favorite parts of being an editor at Ugly Duckling.

Back to your original question: I do a lot of stuff that takes up time—making a living teaching Russian Lit.; giving talks on, or readings of, Daniil Kharms; attending conferences; being a graduate student (in limbo before the dissertation); freelancing as a designer and translator; and so on and so forth. But all of it goes into my writing, or I should say, potentially. I don’t feel a conflict between living and writing.

SD You and Ugly Duckling Presse have published and translated a lot of Eastern European literature. Will you elaborate on your background and why you and the press are so interested in Eastern European literature?

MY Actually, I’m the one that’s interested in it most at UDP, partly because that’s my background, and mostly because our (American) view of Eastern Europe is pretty narrow and largely defined by old Cold War spectacles. What’s new, what got passed over, what is the other side of the story we know—that’s what interests me. So little, really, is available. It also helped me—when UDP was just getting going, and none of us had worked in publishing previously—to narrow down my focus. Otherwise—where to start, whom to publish?

I also take on and edit books of new American poetry, and sometimes other projects (recently an accordion book project translated from Spanish for our Lost Literature series), but the Eastern European Poets Series, which I started around 2003, is sort of where I feel I can make the most of my particular knowledge, my instincts, and my connection to the part of the world that was behind the iron curtain. I do it because I feel that I am lucky to be in the position to do it and to be fairly well-suited for it. I always find that a compelling reason. And I’m learning a lot about poetries I never suspected were there. I get to share that with others through the books in the series.

SD You took a trip to Slovenia this year. Will you tell us a bit about it?

MY As you’ve probably heard, Slovenia’s a small country, so I’ll try to keep it short. (For a population of only two million, they sure have a lot of great poets.) Really I just saw a little of Ljubljana, the capital, a few smaller towns, and Medana, a village in the wine-growing region in western Slovenia, a few minutes’ walk from Italy, where the annual Days of Poetry and Wine Festival took place this August. It was, of course, beautiful. (And I wish there were more places in NYC importing those wines, especially the white Rebula that I liked so much!) I wish we had festivals like this, but the US doesn’t import this kind of culture. There were about 30 poets from all over Western and Eastern and Northern Europe, and North Africa. (The two “Americans” on the trip were Ilya Kaminsky and I.) We hung out drinking wine for five days and had readings every night. The festival organizers put out a book of selections from each poet’s work in the original language with Slovene translations (and English ones, too). Translations were also projected on a big screen next to the microphone in the outdoor courtyard where we read. There were people camping out nearby. They had come from other places in the country to hear the poetry. There were bands and dancing after the readings. There were wine tastings. The grapes were ripe on the vines. And I met more non-American poets in those 5 days than I have in most of my life. I can’t complain.

SD What are you currently working on that you’re really excited about?

MY I’m going to Ljubljana, Slovenia, the day after I finish answering these questions. I hope to work on editing a book-length poem I wrote, Composition Book, and on some translations I’ve been planning to do for a while. Also, I hope to look into the history of the Slovenian avant-garde of the 1920s—we’re just now going to print with a book of Srecko Kosovel, one of the most celebrated Slovenian poets of that time. From there, to Belgrade, Serbia, my favorite melancholy place in winter, and a conference on the Russian avant-garde there. I’m looking forward to teaching a seminar on Russian Poetry for the MFA Writing program at Columbia in the spring. Also, we just hauled in a hulking clam-shell letterpress (a treadle-operated 1900 Thorp) and tons of beautiful lead type from Galilee, Pennsylvania, into the Ugly Duckling workshop at the Can Factory—can’t wait to set it up and print a tiny chapbook of mine called The Nature Poetry of Matvei Yankelevich.

Matvei Yankelevich is a founding editor of Ugly Duckling Presse. He is the author of the long-poem chapbook The Present Work (Palm Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Boston Review, Damn the Caesars, Fence, Open City, Tantalum, Typo, and Zen Monster. His translations from Russian have appeared in Calque, Circumference, Harpers, New American Writing, Poetry, The New Yorker, and some anthologies, including OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism (Northwestern, 2006) and Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky (FSG, 2008). His translations of Daniil Kharms were collected in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Ardis/Overlook, 2009). He recently edited a portfolio of Contemporary Russian Poetry and Poetics for the magazine Aufgabe (No. 8, Fall 2009). He teaches at Hunter College and Columbia University. Boris by the Sea is now available from Octopus Books.

Lydia Davis by Francine Prose
​Lydia Davis