Kirill Medvedev’s “It’s No Good: poems/ essays/ actions”

Reviewed by Christopher Tauchen

Image of Kirill Medvedev’s “It’s No Good: poems/ essays/ actions”

In 2004, the Russian poet Kirill Medvedev posted an unusual announcement on his Web site: “I have no copyright to my texts and cannot have any such right.” Those who wished to use his writings, he said, were allowed to do so but only “WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR.” One publisher took him at his word and brought out the appropriately titled Texts Published without the Permission of the Author, in 2006. The first pirated collection in English translation—It’s No Good: poems/essays/actions—has recently been published by n+1 and Ugly Duckling Presse.

After graduating from the prestigious Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, Medvedev wrote two well-received books of poetry—It’s No Good (2000) and Incursion (2002)—and seemed poised for a successful literary career. But he soon came to believe that certain social and political developments—in particular, the runaway growth of an oil-fueled consumerism and the near-complete consolidation of political power—had enabled corporate and governmental institutions to insinuate themselves into the core structures of the literary world, thus precluding any kind of meaningful, socially responsible art. Rather than negotiate the conflicting interests or practice “art for art’s sake,” Medvedev chose to give it all up:  “I don’t even want a tangential relationship with a system that has so devalued and cheapened the Word.” This meant no more publishing, public readings, or even—for periods of time—writing poetry. He turned instead to political activism.

This collection is a chronological arrangement of poems and prose taken from Medvedev’s two books of poetry and from the various online formats he moved to after rejecting the literary world; these include entries from his personal Web site, blog, and Facebook page. The prose comprises insightful essays on literature and culture, and short political pieces—manifestos, descriptions of political protests—that fall under the label “actions.”

Medvedev’s poetry is irreverent. He writes in unrhymed free verse with a conversational tone that feels much more at home in this very agile English translation than in the original, where the effect is more jarring (Russian poetry is, generally speaking, more conservative in these formal aspects). In terms of subject matter, he aims for either the shocking or the mundane: here, for example, are the opening lines to two poems from Incursion:

I saw it every day on the way to school.
I know that’s not the best way
to start a poem,
but there’s nothing I can do about my memories,
I can’t take the rubber cock out of my mind and replace it
with, say, a New Year’s tree.

 
 
in the Smolensky supermarket
at the corner of the Golden Ring
and Arbat
among the piles
of expensive
luxurious
foods
I found sprat pâté
for seven rubles

It’s this narrative of “everyday-ness,” according to Keith Gessen in his introduction, that initially set Medvedev apart and got under the skin of some critics.  Says Gessen: “It was bad enough for a poet not to rhyme, but to discuss at length how he found some cheap pâté at an expensive supermarket—and not as a metaphor for anything, really: he was mostly pleased to have found some cheap pâté—was a little too much, or too little.”

The essays in this collection make it clear that Medvedev did not surrender the role of “poet” when he gave up poetry.  Rather, he became a poet who was forced to employ alternative methods to communicate his message—namely, that art is inherently a social process, and that artists must actively ensure that the expression of art remains uninhibited by social, political, or other forces. They cannot go into hiding and create simply for themselves.

While I am inclined to take Medvedev’s positions at face value, there seems to be lot of ironic posturing as well. Take, for instance, this line from the announcement of his withdrawal from the literary world: “This is not a heroic pose, or ‘PR’ stunt, and it’s not an attempt to improve my own publishing prospects.” Perhaps I just have the benefit of hindsight, but it seems to me that this act has accomplished precisely those three things: it has made the author into a heroic figure, promoted him and his writing, and attracted enough attention to double the number of his published works without any other effort on his part. Surely he knew this might happen.

Whatever his intentions, this is an original and thought-provoking collection of writings that deserves to be read widely.