menu close-menu

We conclude this month’s series of articles about literature and poetry with the latest interview with Alexander Delfinov. Meet Alexander Delfinov (if you haven’t already done so): you are the eternally young romantic punk-shaman-poet and transnational humanist of the whole Earth. The exclusive inspirational material “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” tells you about the texts in columns and not so much, about the thick boundary between pseudo- and meta absurd, about the native, cherished, cosmic and forgotten.

– Tell me about your path. Why did you choose poetry over prose? What do you write about?

– I have never separated “text written in a column” and prose. Poetry in English is about artistic text in general. I didn’t rely on the form of writing at first. 

As a child, the fact that I had a Jewish grandfather who was a poet-translator and a repressed Russian great-grandfather who was a poet-publisher-translator was hidden from me. But then perestroika began, and repressed ancestors and relatives in Israel ceased to be a problem. At the same time, I got into rock music.

So, I’m 16, I’m an alternative and punk rock lover (and interesting/absurd lyrics are more important to me than good music) – and here the first songs and poems are already being composed. And then one punk-hippie informal asks: “Do you know who Kharms is?” – “Nope…” That’s how I got a rare collection of Kharms (in the USSR in 1987 there were only some works in magazines) – and with it I grew as a poet.

From ’89 until today I have been writing. From 2012 to 2022 – every day (if I missed, I made up for it with five texts per day) – this was a practice within the framework of the semi-self-published-semiDIY “Open Poetry Lab” on FB. So about four and more thousand poetic texts, about 15 books and and at least one music album were born, there is also a recorded poetry “Concert in Sokolniki”, released in 2019 in Moscow, there is also an album by Leonid Fedorov and Igor Krutogolov “BLAKE” with my translations of poems. By the way, it was “Lab” that made me the person you’re talking to – before that, Delfinov kind of didn’t exist in the public field. 

In 2013 I switched to texts of a new type for me (I think it’s the German space, participation in local poetry slams, interest in the English-language performance and slam scene) – and now I’m one of the first Russian-speaking poets in the genre of spoken word poetry. It’s stage, narrative, speech, performance poetry… At the same time, I’m no stranger to other genres: I recently published my book in German, and it’s prose in general.

Alexander Delfinov, photo from the hero’s personal archive

– Let’s talk more about the “Open Poetry Lab”.

– This project is a legacy of the alternative tradition of samizdat, punk zines, DIY-culture. But “Lab” is not a case of some Soviet censorship cancelling ‘uncensored’ poets for their sharp tongues.

It was more like, “What’s that column of dust on the prairie? Oh, that’s Elusive Joe: no one can catch him because no one wants him”. That’s why nobody ever published me.

So I started posting on FB myself. And here its algorithms were to my advantage: Facebook showed me to everyone. It all started with funny, silly poems – they suddenly led to 100 people friending me per day. I was gaining visibility – even among poets of the older generation, I was getting to know interesting characters through social networks. But now the “Open Poetry Lab” project is over, and I don’t do that anymore. 

About DIY. Now we are self-publishing – in Berlin, two of my books #TriggerWarningPoetry and “Panic” have been published under the auspices of the multiformat cultural space PANDA platforma – all on a non-commercial basis. I mean I don’t sell them, but distribute them under a free licence, and I donate them to Ukrainians. Recently, by the way, they released the third book “44. Texts and photos”. The author of the photos is Alexey Budovsky, a cartoonist of international renown (he recently won a Cannes prize for his music video), and I am the author of the texts to the photos. 

– What bands inspired you to write lyrics/poems?

– First of all, BG with “Aquarium” and everything else around this project (for example, the lyrics of George Gunitsky, one of the founders of the band). Then, strangely enough, thieves and camp songs. Especially “Songs of Siberian prisoners” by Dina Verni (in particular, “Cigarette butt with red lipstick”) and, of course, Arkady Severny. The latter, by the way, I particularly single out: an extremely interesting human and creative story. 

Then there were Egor Letov and Yanka Dyagileva. I loved and still love the Lviv band “Braty Hadiukiny” with Sergey Kuzminsky’s funny lyrics. We can’t fail to mention Sergey “Oldy Belousov from “Komitet Okhrany Tepla” – as well as other reggae movement, which influenced me a lot and of which I was a member (“Jah DiviZion”). I remember the Belarusian band “Ne Palivo” (we met once in the early 1990s), the Odessians “Club of Sad Faces” and Stas Podlipsky, and, of course, “Pekin Row Row” from Rostov-on-Don.

– One of your poems on FB mentioned Vvedensky and Kharms. Do you think absurdism is about the internal or more about an external stance, a projection onto the world?

– The poetry of the absurd and nonsense has a long and interesting tradition (especially English and German-language poetry). Absurdity is often fused with satire – I, for example, was strongly influenced by the German satirist-absurdist and spoken word poet Joachim Ringelnatz, who was popular in the 20s. He was a regular in Berlin’s pubs and hangouts – no recordings have survived, and only thanks to those who heard him, saw him and wrote about him in their diaries do we know that he performed on stage, and performed coolly. 

Alexander Delfinov, photo from the hero’s personal archive

Absurdity can be used as an allegorical weapon when the author is threatened by external danger. At the same time, there are powerful absurdist texts – canonical, meta-absurdist, existing beyond even mere absurdism, with their own language and cosmos.

…Like, for example, James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake”: a completely separate story, not connected to any political conjuncture. There is also the Russian-language post-dadaist absurdist tradition, which, by the way, manifests itself very differently in the post-Soviet space. For example, in Georgia in the 20s there was a powerful avant-garde, dadaist scene – and the post-sound of this movement, in my opinion, was the poet, performer, my friend Zurab Rtveliashvili, who passed away a few years ago. The king of dada in the 90s, he is the continuator of the most powerful avant-garde scene in Georgia in the 20s, with its magnificent journals, visual poetry, and stunning design (it looks modern even now, by the way). 

But there is a weakness in absurdist writing: it’s as if it provokes the author or the authoress to do something special. And a lot of pseudo-absurdist texts appear, where a person actually has nothing to say. In general, there is always a semantic field behind a strong absurdist. The mentioned Vvedensky, one of the main poets of absurdism in the Russian poetic language, postulates, among other things, a kind of destruction. His destruction of linguistic structures reflects the destruction of the world, which is associated with the powerful transit of the Soviet Union into the Stalinist dictatorship. Vvedensky’s poetic texts through a political prism are a description of the triumph of violence over language and man, a description of failure. They are terrifying texts, though they appear outwardly simple, even comedic in places, but behind them are “time, death, and God”.  

I myself use absurdist techniques – but as auxiliary techniques in “normative” poetry.

– Marginalised characters, subcultural motifs, taboo topics – is this a deliberate removal of stigmas or something that’s just around you?

– I don’t set out with the goal of “let’s go ahead and remove the stigma”. That would be too easy – and in a literary text, logic is often indirect. I mean, sometimes you don’t understand why you’re going in this direction. 

Sometimes a text that people perceive as acutely social is born simply because you have a word buzzing in your head. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m writing about, the text is born independently of me. And then I look at it and say – “Oh, that’s how it is”. 

Yes, there are recurring themes, one of them being the comprehension of institutional violence in Soviet and Russian society (and maybe in the human being in general). Man in his nature combines predator and scavenger, so this theme is inexhaustible. 

And, of course, I write about those I’ve met. I myself am a “marginal”, I myself am a “drug addict”, “faggot”, “traitor to the motherland”. So I am close to such people and stories. I am also close to punks, beatniks, avant-gardists of all stripes – it all blends together somehow. And this mixture is interesting to me. So my characters are often nonconformists.

Regarding the removal of stigmas. I think poetry, literature, art can improve human life, they give people new strength, some kind of enlightenment – and in this sense it is enlightenment. I am close to the humanistic pathos, and I hope that something will improve in society.

At the same time, I don’t write lyrics to directly improve something: I think only indirect improvements are possible. Poetry doesn’t change people so easily, and in general, art doesn’t work that way. As a rule, a certain type of art is perceived by people who have already changed. A person who thinks that you can just go and punch someone is likely to see me as a clown and be aggressive. 

Alexander Delfinov, photo from the hero’s personal archive

Here, of course, romantic punk-shaman writers and transnational humanists undermine the position of such people – people who stand on the position of using violence as a method of control and socialisation. And the latter feel threatened because we ridicule them and sort of strip them of that “halo of malevolent mystery”. 

P.S. You can read the continuation of the interview in second part.