Guest Bloggers Olga Livshin and Kathleen Tarr – Anna Akhmatova: Disaster Did Not Wither Her

Photo courtesy of Igor B. Runov

View of Moscow street taken in January 2016 where Anna Akhmatova admirers have spray-painted her image and fragments from some of her earliest poems across a wall.

Translation of above poem:
“I was brazen,
angry and funny
I didn’t know at all
this was — happiness.”

—from By the Edge of the Sea (1914)

In the last two years of Anna Akhmatova’s life (she died in 1966 at age 77), the dignified, sometimes vain, poet traveled from the USSR to Italy, France and England to accept prestigious, foreign literary prizes and honors. She was feted by admirers and hailed as a poet of vast courage, fortitude, and stoicism—an authentic voice of Russia.

Twenty years earlier, Stalin’s commissar had publicly condemned and humiliated her as a writer, though she had gained renown and had been publishing poetry collections since her first book, Evening, had appeared in 1912.

Akhmatova was expelled from the Union of Writers by Zhdanov’s 1946 decree which accused her of being a relic of the past, a poet who was stuck in bourgeois, useless, personal lyrics—a frivolous thing who dashed between boudoir and chapel, as “harlot and as nun.”

Translation: To the high-level authorities, the workings of this woman’s mind lacked any ideological backbone. She would not be a puppet nor a tool for any pre-approved, Communist vision of social “progress.”

On two Saturdays in March (12 & 19), we are offering a short seminar to explore the life and writings of Akhmatova, now considered one of Russia’s greatest poets. Her fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, said “Great poetry is often a response to total disaster.” Akhmatova’s life embodied this notion.

Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova had lived under the horrific acts and cruel policies that followed the Russian Revolution and the newly-established Soviet government in the years before the outbreak of World War II. She fearfully watched as many prominent members of the cultural intelligentsia were silenced either through repression, exile or murder.

Through the terror of Stalin’s Purges, the harsh economic conditions, and her materially poor life, she also suffered deep, personal loss. Her first husband, Nickolai Gumilyov, was executed. Her only child, the son she bore with Gumilyov, was imprisoned in remote northern regions for approximately 15 years.

Akhmatova chose to remain in Russia. She continued to fill blank pages as a witness to her history—the bloodshed of both world wars and other tumultuous events.

“When I write,” she said, “I live with the very pulse of Russian life.”

What was the secret to Akhmatova’s persistence? She often wrote under far less than ideal circumstances and within unorthodox personal arrangements (no MFA programs or writers’ retreats!). Housing was extremely difficult to come by in Leningrad and this created untold challenges. For a long time, the poet occupied a barren room in an apartment she shared with her ex-lover and his doctor wife—an arrangement that was emotionally complicated for everyone involved.

We have to picture Akhmatova writing in hospital rooms where she spent much time because of her heart problems and recurring tuberculosis symptoms. When a bevy of younger authors visited her in a hospital in the 1960s, they found Akhmatova in a room she shared with six other patients, wearing a tattered hospital robe. In her lap were her poetry drafts. When a poet asked in disbelief, “Have you been working here, Anna Andreyevna?”, she responded, “Little one, you can work anywhere.”

Akhmatova also stands as a poet who made her life, as well as her art, an unconventional creation of her own. In the 1910s, she had to break through the image of the chatty poetess; women were not taken seriously as erudite poetry masters. She undertook a series of efforts to be seen as resembling a queen or a priestess – an otherworldly beauty. People who heard her recite poetry in St. Petersburg at the Stray Dog café reported that she read as if in a dream, mesmerizing the audience.

Akhmatova also created a highly original life for herself in the realm of love relationships. She often ignored the heterosexual, marital norms of her background. She had many sexual partners throughout her life, some simultaneously, and drew different creative energies from the poets, scholars and actors she loved.

In our 49Writers seminar, we will look at the imprint of Akhmatova’s writing style. In contrast to the massive trauma of her era, she maintained a minimalist style. We will talk about how, although her poems are generally quite small, they are like miniature jewels: you can read and reread them with all the pleasure and mystery of looking at a brooch made of cloudy Baltic amber.

Akhmatova speaks to us in a subtle, suggestive way. The dissident literary scholar Andrei Sinyavsky said in Novy Mir, “Silence in her verse is not a sign of solitude, but of a presence of ineffable majesty.”

Admirable, addictive, that voice.

The profound minimalism found in her work is an antidote to our age when words are over-shared, and private spaces are intruded upon by social media. Akhmatova gives readers a space in which to be quiet and to reflect.

We invite all writers of any genre to participate. As for the seminar outline, we’ll begin by doing a close reading of individual poems and some of Akhmatova’s memoir prose, with the idea that we’ll also engage in some free-form writing ourselves and hold a mini-workshop. For example, we’ll try and figure how this famously restrained (at least with words) writer was to convey intense emotional power in a single quatrain.

We will reflect on how Akhmatova infused her work with historical and classical references, which gives her poetry archaeological strata, and which bring mythical narratives to life. This is, perhaps, less common in contemporary American poetry.

As writers, both of us (Olga having been born in Russia, and Kathleen, the self-professed “Russophile”) have spent much time being Akhmatovized. We discovered Akhmatova in completely different ways, but we both came under her spell – and for both of us, it endures wonderfully for decades.

As we have continued to immerse ourselves in her life and poems, we have been discussing the reasons why she inspires us as poets, and also as nonfiction writers.

We believe we can take the example of this great Russian poet’s legacy and hold the mirror up to our own ideas about perseverance and endurance.

We believe there’s a lot we can learn from how silence is transformed into words.

By the last few years of her life, Akhmatova had survived the emotional and political wreckage. She was enjoying the reversal of her public reputation in Russia.

But in reality, her poetic reputation wasn’t officially restored by the government until 1988.

By that time, the Soviet Union was undergoing another chaotic transition, this time to the promising era of glasnost and Perestroika. The truths about the severity of Stalin’s time were brought widely out in the open, at least for a few years.

Poets and writers who are living in Russia today are dealing with a different set of economic and political pressures. But creatively, they now have Akhmatova’s rich legacy to draw upon—and so do we.

Olga Livshin holds a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature and taught Russian at the University of Alaska, Anchorage from 2008 to 2012. Her poetry in English and Russian is published in journals such as The Mad Hatters’ Review, Jacket and Eleven Eleven, and included in the Anthology of Chicago and the Persian World Anthology of Poetry (in Persian translation). In 2014, Olga was selected nationally to be one of ten participants in the first round of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ mentoring program “Writer to Writer.” Currently, she lives in Woodstock, Connecticut, and works on two books: a poetry collection and a translated volume of poetry by the contemporary Russian author Vladimir Gandelsman. She is thrilled to come back to Alaska, one of her spiritual homes, and to co-teach this seminar with the inimitable Kathleen Witkowska Tarr.

Kathleen Witkowska Tarr has a strong interest in Russian history and culture. Since 1990, she has been a frequent traveler to Russia, having made over a dozen trips to the country, most recently in 2015. Kathleen served as the former Program Coordinator of UAA’s low-residency MFA Program, and has taught creative writing at UAA and for the Alaskan Writing Center/49 Writers. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of anthologies, magazines, newspapers, blogs and literary journals including: Sewanee Review, Creative Nonfiction, Cirque, and TriQuarterly, Alaska Airlines Magazine, and America Magazine (published in Moscow). She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh. Kathleen is a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and was named a “Mullin Scholar” at USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies in Los Angeles. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir, We Are All Poets Here (VP&D House).

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