If I remember correctly, it was in the spring of 1983, Georg Witte and I got to know Vsevolod Nekrasov through Andrei Monastyrski. We had gone for a walk to Sokol'niki, and Vera Miturich-Khlebnikova had come along with us too. In Sokol'niki we dropped in on Vsevolod Nekrasov, in the apartment where he lived with his wife, the literary scholar Anna Zhuravleva. Anna Zhuravleva always managed to create a special atmosphere that encouraged interaction and dialogue. Every time we visited them, through all the years of our friendship, she would feed us dinner. That's how I remember the domestic culture of the Moscow avant-garde in the 1980s, with its inspiring conversations about art and poetry – very concrete conversations, about the works of art that hung on the walls, and about new poems. And Vsevolod Nekrasov would always read us something he had just written.
At that time I was in Moscow on an academic exchange program, preparing my dissertation on cinema of the post-Stalin period. Vsevolod Nekrasov, by the way, actively supported my interest in Soviet cinema, discussing various films with me, first and foremost those from the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time I was also interested in unofficial culture. When I was young I was, in addition to cinema, particularly fond of poetry.
In Western Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the phenomenon of concrete and visual poetry was very much in the cultural forefront. The city of Bielefeld, for example, hosted an annual Colloquium of New Poetry (Bielefelder Colloquium Neue Poesie), at which poets from a variety of countries performed. Unfortunately no poets from the USSR participated in the event, as they were not allowed to travel to West Germany.
I was also always interested in the sound of this poetry and, for example, I regularly listened to radio plays by Ernst Jandl, Friederike Mayröcker, Helmut Heißenbüttel, et al., which were produced and broadcast by the acoustic art studio of WDR (the West German radio station in Cologne).
But it was not only this that prepared me for meeting Vsevolod Nekrasov. Before my trip to Moscow I had already become familiar with published versions of unofficial Russian poetry, in particular works translated and published by Liesl Ujvari and Felix Philipp Ingold. And I had read Vsevolod Nekrasov in Russian not just through Liesl Ujvari, but also in émigré publications (tamizdat), such as the journal Kovcheg, which was in our Slavic library.
Before meeting Nekrasov in person I knew his poetry only from books and journals, – that is, in standard print form. Then I was reintroduced to it in a different, non-Gutenberg typescript form. Entire new horizons opened up for me beyond the boundaries of what was familiar in contemporary German poetry. These new impressions arose from the existence and specific appearance of hand-typed samizdat versions of Nekrasov's poetry. The quarter page format gave Nekrasov the opportunity to create special visual configurations, at times highly enigmatic ones, on the page.
But above all I was enchanted by the sound of his poetry, which, because it was ephemeral in nature, could be conveyed only approximately through the medium of audio recordings. Spoken aloud, it felt utterly unique. This was the skill he possessed – to transform everyday speech, the barely noticeable elements of this speech, into poetry. Yet his performance had nothing whatsoever in common with theatrical art, with performing for the public – something I had occasionally observed in the case of German-speaking concretists. It was as though Nekrasov's reading of his own poems flowed naturally out of the conversation we were having at the table. And yet, the readings simultaneously transcended the setting of our conversation, spilling out in cascades of sound repetitions. And the silence that arose in the intervals, in the "Nekrasov pauses", gave us, the listeners, the opportunity to reflect on what we were doing and what we were capable of doing with our speech.
Up until then I had not come across this sort of poetic performance in my encounters with German poetry – I had never before experienced such intimacy while listening to poetry.
From the outset I was very attracted to Nekrasov's poetic minimalism. It struck me as being close to what I would like to have done myself. And the sound of his poetry, its minute variations, the delicate rhythmic structure reminded me of "the sound of minimal music" – that is, something extremely contemporary.
From its beginnings in 1983, my friendship with Vsevolod Nekrasov lasted for more than 20 years. Towards the 2000s our relationship became more complicated – one can read about this in Doiche Bukh. Nekrasov apparently felt we had begun to compromise, to become mainstream. We, nevertheless, continue even now to have great respect for Nekrasov – for his uncompromising stance, his behavior and attitude.
But to return to the 1980s: during the time we were preparing our multi-media publications Kulturpalast and Lianozovo, we made some special recordings with Nekrasov, at first on ordinary cassette tape, then a second time using the more modern Sony Walkman. Nekrasov very much enjoyed both the making of these recordings, and the details of the technology involved. Afterwards, he in turn began to record us – reading our poems and singing German songs.
He was also interested in video-tape recordings. In this case, it was possible to document not just the poetry readings themselves, but also the specific situation of dialogue within the Moscow conceptualist circle. There is, for example, a tape titled "Trio", which was recorded together with Erik Bulatov and Oleg Vasil'ev. Also documented is a lecture that Nekrasov gave at Ruhr-University Bochum, as well as a curious recording, in which one can observe his first experiences of working with a computer: Nekrasov reads aloud poems from the screen of his new computer. It is clear from the recordings just how fascinated he is with this new technological medium.
In 1989, in cooperation with the journal Schreibheft (published by Norbert Wehr), we had the opportunity to organize the festival "tut i tam/hier und dort" (here and there) in the city of Essen and to personally invite Vsevolod Nekrasov and Anna Zhuravleva to visit Germany. With Nekrasov, there were four other participants from Russia: Dmitri Prigov, Lev Rubinstein, Igor Kholin and Elena Shvartz; from West Germany, Thomas Kling; from East Germany, Sascha Anderson and Bert Papenfuss-Gorek; from Austria Anselm Glück and Bodo Hell; and from Switzerland, Felix Philipp Ingold.
Vsevolod Nekrasov and Anna Zhuravleva's second trip to Germany in 1992 took the form of a grand tour (Bochum, Cologne, Frankfurt, Bremen, Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden), timed to coincide with the publication of Lianozovo and a display of Nekrasov's graphics collection in Bochum and Bremen. A private meeting was arranged with Franz Mon and Gerhard Rühm in connection with a joint poetry reading held under the auspices of the tour. The two-week trip around West and East Germany so comparatively soon after their reunification proved to be an extremely intense experience. The performances in Leipzig and Dresden exposed East German audiences to a form of unofficial Russian poetry with which they had been completely unfamiliar up to that time.
Nekrasov's impressions of his travels in Germany are recounted in his Doiche Bukh. What particularly struck me was that Nekrasov was able to find a multilingual poetic form of reaction to the experiences he had with the German language, with his travel experience as a whole.
Vsevolod Nekrasov stood out not only because of his unusually uncompromising stance, but also for his openness to the creative strivings of the people with whom he connected. For him, the important thing was the atmosphere of the conversation itself, the creative exchange between equals. He supported our poetic efforts under the pseudonym SAGE, asking about our texts each time we met – and he did not just read them, he also responded to them in his Russian-German poems. Nekrasov saw us not only as translators – he understood that recreating the sound of his poetic speech in a different language was almost impossible. He also very much wanted to see us as authors, so that we could participate together in this special German-Russian word play.
And so, to conclude, here is one of the poems written during the period of our interaction with Vsevolod Nekrasov:
: Mitmiren mitdenen
: Irmiren zumiren
: Sja peremir
: Sja sja parier
: Sja sja gehen wir
hier ist sja sja primitiv
: Sja sja so einfach
nach drüben sja sja peremir
: Sja sja der reine
der mire der sja sja
der die Millionen
: Sja sja die eine
die wäre die
die sja sja vereine
sja sja peremir
: Sja das ist sja sja
Translated from Russian by Kathryn Moore
Ich lebe ich sehe / Живу и вижу
Russisch und Deutsch
Ausgewählt, aus dem Russischen übertragen und mit einem Nachwort versehen von Günter Hirt und Sascha Wonders
Vorwort von Eugen Gomringer
Münster: Helmut Lang Verlag
2017 · 356 Seiten
Dojtsche Buch / Дойче бух
Russisch und Deutsch
Übersetzung aus dem Russischen: Wolfram Eggeling
Umschlaggestaltung: Erik Bulatow
Herausgegeben von Günter Hirt und Sascha Wonders
Bochum: Aspei 2002