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"On the Road in Russia"
Trip through Russia with the legendary Yevgeny Yevtushenko

On the Road to Jack's House
Reflections while staying at the Kerouac House in FL. 

 

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Photo:  Moscow University rises in the backgroundMcNiece and Yevtushenko Tour

On the Road in Russia

“In Russia a poet is more than a poet.”
from a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Photo:  Moscow University rises in the background
behind Ray and Yevgeny.

     As an American poet accustomed to meager readership and small audiences for public readings, I traveled to Russia with Yevgeny Yevtushenko in July of 2001 anticipating, if not the legendary soccer-stadium size crowds of the “thaw,” at least a deeper and more widespread appreciation for poetry by everyday people.  Though the flame of poetry has been somewhat dampened by the advent of consumer/pop culture, the average Russian still has a connection to poetry that can only be called soulful.  The tour proved to be an arduous – the Russian infrastructure is slowly crumbling – but wondrous journey that revealed how pervasively poetry imbues the national character.  After all, for nearly a century the poets were, in the face of the official social realist truth, speaking the simple human truths – the truth between the lines.  For the people that truth was as sustaining as good brown bread.  One can live by it. They have not forgotten that.  Continued below

Ray and the legendary Yevtushenko at Bratsk Station.
    
Ray and the legendary Yevtushenko at Bratsk Station.

     The occasion of our tour was Yevtushenko’s annual birthday performance at the Moscow Polytech and the opening of the Poet’s House, a museum in his childhood home at the Siberian crossroads of Zima Junction.  Our cast included a international line-up of poets, critics, and yevtushenkologists representing Poland, France, Nicaragua, the United States and the whole of Russia from St. Petersburg to Kamchatka.  Over the course of two weeks I participated in a dozen readings, four tv/radio interviews and a panel discussion, “Poetry in the 21st Century.”  The one constant on the trip can be summed up by Gogol’s quote from the last century, ‘the two problems with Russia are the roads and the food.”  That being said, the hospitality and poetic intelligence of the people more than made up for any inconvenience. Continued below

Yevtushenko with Ray on guitar, "The Workers' Song"
Siberia:  Yevtushenko with his hard hat, Ray on guitar, both performing "The Workers' Song" ("I ain't got no work.."), a protest song on the LTV steel plant closing. 

Ray at the Irkutsk Siberia Opera House
Ray at the Irkutsk Siberia Opera House

      After a grueling travail through the guts of the custom’s bureaucracy upon my entry that lasted 3 hours and proved the petty consulate’s adage that, as I signed off 6 times on a hefty fine, ‘we are all equal in the eyes of the instructions,’ we made our way out to Yevtushenko’s dacha in the writer’s village of Peredelkino. These summer homes 25 kilometres from Moscow are a holdover from the Soviet era when they were bestowed as perks by the writer’s union for those who toed the party line.  These simple 2 story rustic wood structures built are right into the famous white birch and pine woods of the ‘ur’ Rus. There are no wide lawns and tamed gardens as in Anglo-American country estates. Forest thrives alongside domicile.  One’s thoughts could grow tall writing here. Inside Zhenya’s dacha are gifts from the 91 countries he’s visited as well as autographed paintings given to him by Chagall, Picasso, and Braque.  One of only 5 plaster death masks of Pushkin hangs in a glass case over the couch. For all the meetings with remarkable people, Yevtushenko is one of the most unpretentious people I have met in the world of poetry. We drank Georgian wine together while I strummed and sang "Summertime".

     That evening we attended the closing performance of the longest running musical in Moscow theatre history near Pushkin Square – the Times Square of the Capital.   Written by Vozensensky, the other big poet of their generation, the rock opera tells the true story of a Russian Explorer’s love affair with the Spanish Governor of California’s daughter. 

    It was here that I first glimpsed what a poet of Yevtushenko’s stature means for the Russian people.  As soon as we entered the lobby, he was surrounded by autograph seekers.  The paparazzi got wind of his arrival and soon the shutters were clicking. Two weeks later we saw these pictures in a color tabloid alongside cheesecake and soap opera celebrities.  When we finally entered the theatre, the audience gave him a standing ovation.  Would the current U.S. Poet Laureate even be recognized let alone receive that kind of respect?  Maybe a poet is less than a poet in the United States.  

     The next morning we did the first of three TV interviews to publicize the reading at the Polytech from the living room of his dacha.  With only two run-throughs before taping, we performed what was to become the finale of my segment of the readings “I Ain’t Got No Work,” a rewriting of a Woody Guthrie song I performed for Ensemble Theatre’s spring production of Steelbound.  I wrote the song in honor of my brother-in-law, a 25-year man at LTV.  Yevtushenko had called me the week before I left to remind me to bring ‘your bandura’ as he called my guitar so we could do ‘the workers’ song.’  He liked the spare and simple lyrics  and translated them into salty Siberian slang.  As he recited the Russian, I vamped on the E chord. He then rhythmically beat his ‘cascada’ (hard-hat) in the manner of striking Russian workers, goading my tempo, as I sang the verses.  The next evening we again performed the song for a taping of Good Morning Russia -- broadcast across 11 time zones from the Bering Straights to the Baltic Sea --  and performed again it yet from the same Moscow radio station where Yeltsin addressed the nation during the 1991 coup attempt to assure them the elected government would not succumb to reactionary tanks.  In a scene reminiscent of  the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou” the song’s popularity preceded our arrival in Soyansk a week later where I was presented with my own ‘cascada’ by an audience member who dubbed me, ‘the American Mayokovsky.’

     The saying goes, “There’s Moscow, then there’s the rest of Russia.” It is NY, LA, and DC all rolled into one.  As the literary capital, the Muscovites deep love of poets is evidenced by the dozens of sculptures of them along the concentric ring roads that emanate from the Kremlin.  On my walking tours I counted four of Pushkin, two of Gogal, one of Mayakovsky and one of Yesenin.  One of my guides ended up in heated debate with Yevtushenko about which statue of Gogol best represented his spirit.  In the States we have the Walt Whitman truck stop off the Jersey Pike.  Pushkin’s ghost is the presiding spirit of Russian Poetry.  As Yevtushenko claims, ‘he restored living speech to the language,’ much in the way Whitman invigorated the American idiom ‘with original energy’ – the title I used for my segment of the panel discussion in Irkutsk on the direction of contemporary poetry.  Pushkin was invoked repeatedly by other panelists there, whether it be to deny or praise his influence.  He can be quoted by most people on the street and has even entered into proverbial slang as in ‘who’s going to pay the rent, Pushkin?’ Who is the American poet that so pervades our consciousness?

      The Moscow Polytech is a science school.  Nonetheless, it was the focal point for readings during the heady post-Stalin days of the thaw in the late 50’s and early 60’s. All the major poets of that era of freedom read there – Vozensensky, Ahkmadulina, the bardic guitar poets Vysotsky and Bulat Okudzhava and, of course, Yevtushenko.  It’s kind of the Poet’s Hall of Fame, and posters announce upcoming gigs by the current generation. Ironically, KGB headquarters is located right across the street.  Although Moscow was suffering through a 100-degree heat wave, nearly every one of the 1,500 seats was filled with enthusiasts from teens to babushkas.  The show featured a host of long-time friends and luminaries of the literary scene before I performed.  Since Yevtushenko was my principal translator, I opened for him throughout the tour, a favor he returned me from the Arkansas Celebration for the Arts where he asked me to read the English of his long poem Stenka Razin.  In my segment, he would read his translations of my poems first so the audience would get a sense of what I was performing.  Though suffering from Stalin’s revenge (I was reminded to drink only bottled water) I was able to keep it together through my set of 2 poems and the cascada workers’ song before collapsing into a heap of sweat and nausea.  The show must go on.  It was only after the reading that Yevtushenko informed me that the first poem I performed was different than the one he read! 

     If you have never seen Yevtushenko perform, words can hardly approximate the dynamism and sincerity he brings to each reading.  He is not so much a poet as a force of nature.  He can tower from the stage like thunderhead over the Siberian tundra or whisper like a dusting of snow on Arabat Street after midnight.  I never saw him do the same poem the same way twice.  Having no formal theatre training, he doesn’t fall back on habits of veteran performers.  He’s an exceptional mimic, and his meetings with Castro, Picasso, Chagall, etc are replete with impersonations and antics that bring the stories alive.  As in even his daily speech, there’s a spontaneous improvisational delight in words and textures expressed with every fiber of his body. He has more moves in one line than most ‘slam’ poets have in their entire repertoire of rants and the poetry to back it up to boot.  Experiencing one of his performances is truly mesmerizing.  I never tired of witnessing them throughout the tour.  After the Birthday reading at the Polytech we flew to Siberia for the opening of the Poet’s House in Zima Junction.  But those stories wait for the silence and space of another time.  END. 
Photos below, scroll down.

by Ray McNiece, copyright, 2001, published first in Ohio Writer Magazine in edited form, 2001.[ back to top ]

Yevgeny and Ray with a famous

Party time, Yevgeny and Ray with a famous
Russian actor.

at Pasternak's grave

The two poets at Pasternak's grave, 
a matter of respect.

Ray listens as Yevgeny performs
Ray listens as Yevgeny performs flawlessly...

[ back to top ] or scroll down for next article.

On the Road to Jack's House

Preface:  Poet, performer, and teacher Ray McNiece was awarded a 6-week residency by the Kerouac Project, at the house where Jack Kerouac lived in Orlando, Fla. While in residence, McNiece wrote of his own experiences as a wandering poet. Here are excerpts from his reflections at Kerouac House.

Ray standing on the porch of the Kerouac House

Ray standing on the porch of the Kerouac House

I.

     In January of 2002, I set out on yet another poetry performance tour, this one down to the house where Jack Kerouac was living in Orlando when On The Road became a national sensation in 1957 and where he wrote The Dharma Bums in a two-week riff fueled by Benzedrine and wine. The Kerouac Project Committee had recognized years of my own road wanderings and subsequent scribblings, and I was awarded a residency at the house they had recently refurbished. A fellow road-warrior writer, I was coming full circle. I'd have six weeks to write from one very famous still point of the turning world, to relax and breathe into the bones of words some meaning of verbal being where it all turned for Kerouac for better and worse. . .

      I've looked East into the dawn from a dune at the end of a trail through the wind swept hummocks that lead to Eugene O'Neil's beach shack outside Provincetown, and, crossing the Golden Gate, looked West from the Headlands' cliffs as seals barked into the big, cold, cobalt surf crash Pacific sunset. I've heard the crunch and spit of gravel on Ohio back roads, the honk and blare of Chicago intersections, and the clattering tunnels of cornrows in Iowa. I've sucked oysters in New Orleans, chewed rare steak in Omaha, munched sushi in L.A., and sampled biscuits and gravy in restaurants off I-40 from North Carolina to Arizona...

II.

     I arrived at Jack's House on Valentine's evening.  My host, Maureen Morrell, who was opening the house for me, told me to call when I got to the Beeline expressway and she'd give me the final directions.  It wasn't my plan to drive in around rush hour.  I've been on the road long enough to know better and I've been through Orlando's rush hour before and never was there a truer oxymoron. Stall-hour more like… 

      There is no sign, plaque or empty wine jug to designate Kerouac's House.  I sized up the possibilities on the four corners of the sleepy College Park neighborhood and chose the most nondescript house, a tin-roof, blue-gray painted single story shack beneath a spreading live-oak dangling Spanish moss.  I guessed right.  1814 1/2 Clausen.  My host opened the house and presented me with a Jack Kerouac key chain for the front door key.  I waved goodbye, stretched out the last legs of the 3,000 miles I've driven in the past three weeks to finally get here and walked back inside.

      Well, Jack, whaddya think I oughta do, I said from the dining room to the empty house, write a novel? Look what happened to you.  How 'bout a toast? I walked my ghost into the bottle-green counter, matching green and white linoleum-tiled period refurbished kitchen and open the fridge--not an icebox.  The Kerouac Committee has provided a bottle of cheap French white. It's not the vintage 1957 Tokay rotgut he preferred, though that is the date of these time-capsule decorations.

      In a sacramental gesture I pour a glass for him and put it on the writing desk in the back porch bedroom beneath the only known picture of him in this house, a grainy black and white photo of him hunt-and-peck typing on an Underwood manual, wearing his classic plaid Canuck lumberjack shirt.  I place also there a wooden beaded rosary I had blessed in Assisi that I intended to give to my alcoholic older sister homeless in Tampa--if I found her somewhere in one of the cloverleaf hobo jungles off an I-75 exit ramp.  I ask a blessing for both their souls and walk from room to room talking to Jack all the while, telling him about the road that carried me here, soaking in the silence after the echo. 

     Back at the dining room table I open up his Buddhist notebooks, Some of the Dharma, at random to divine a response to my earlier question. Page 185, my finger falls on a paragraph that is frighteningly appropriate and portentous of the success that finally found him while living in this house and his ultimate undoing:

     The Bodhisattva must first walk calmly through his danger, practicing charity and sympathy for the sake of all.  He must retain his non-entity state and avoid fame.  He must walk straight to his goal not caring what happens on the way...he must cast off all attachments...If he retains fame he will become valuable and no longer resemble the useless Tao tree no carpenter can covet.  Being famous he will be hounded to his death.

     He wrote that in 1954 in the notebooks that became the basis for the Dharma Bums that he completed while living here.  This is the house where he got the call that On the Road was going to be published.  This is where he was living when he was crowned, almost overnight, the King of the Beats--a title he never wanted and disavowed the rest of his life. This is the house where it all turned for him for better and for worse.

     Before, he was an obscure, heavy-drinking writer. After, he was a famous drunk. I thought of him groggy, on Buckley's "Firing Line."  Buckley, the New England Catholic Brahmin wanna-be, sneered down his nose at this dumb Canuck hack writer. Jack in his stupor couldn't set this square on end.  Kerouac was painfully shy and the only way he could stand the limelight was soused to the gills. Be careful what you want, Emerson advised, you will surely get it. But really all Jack wanted was to be a respected writer, not an early media celebrity.  A mere three years later, in the fits of alcoholic DTs, he composed Big Sur, his last great work with its comic-horrific descent into hallucinations culminating in a redemptive vision of the cross. Ten years after he broke big-time he'd be dead.

     I reread the passage.  He couldn't have given better advice if he was standing right next to me. And in the Buddhist sense of the continuous present, he was.  In the catholic belief of divine presence he was there, too.  I realize I'd been standing up for an hour, stunned, in my boots. I pull them off my bones and drain the last of my wine and look at the empty glass.  Here I am.  And here I will lay me down. I'm beat, Jack.  I'm freaking beat.  I hang up my black denim jacket on a hook in the closet.  I hang up my aspirations with sigh and shed a tear for Kerouac, a tear full of Avalokiteshvara's compassion and recite a haiku:

 Kerouac, we knock
Yr pickled bones together,
Tibetan be-bop.

_______________________
Note:  see the poem by Ray, "Letter Left on the Porch of the Kerouac House," in poems. Click
HERE

by Ray McNiece, 
Copyright, 2002

Reprinted from The Ohio Writer, The Writing Life, July-August 2002

[ back to top ]

 
 

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