Confession: my knowledge of Russian poets isn’t all it should be. I know a smattering by the greats of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Pasternak. The Russian poet I know best is Lermontov, who I recorded a podcast about some years back to tie in with a new volume of Lermontov translations made by contemporary Scottish poets. Lermontov has Scottish ancestry, claiming a link to the thirteenth century poet Thomas the Rhymer, who was a Learmonth from Earlston. I won’t even begin to unfold my ignorance of contemporary Russian poetry.
Last year, a group of three Scottish poets—Jen Hadfield, Christine De Luca and Stewart Sanderson—travelled to Russian, under British Council auspices, to collaborate with three Russian poets: Grigory Kruzhkov, Lev Oborin and Marina Boroditskaya. The plan originally was to work on translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, but once the poets met the original scheme migrated organically into a one to translate each other’s work.
This week, the Russians made the return leg of the exchange, arriving in Edinburgh yesterday to read at the University of Edinburgh, where I’m glad to report the turnout was respectable, not least because when the Scots read in Moscow last year, the venue was packed. Tonight the Russian and Scots read at the Dundee Literary Festival, and tomorrow, Aye Write in Glasgow.
My own involvement in the exchange was limited to recording the poets reading their translations for a coming-soon SPL podcast. Once I got over the customary sensations of shame that attend speaking to non-Brits frighteningly fluent in your own language, it was a pleasure to spend a few moments talking to the Russians. With all the Putin-generated headlines of late, it’s easy to forget Russia isn’t merely a hack-and-attack election meddler. It is and always has been a cultural superpower.
Marina has hosted the Poetry Pharmacy radio show, Russia’s equivalent of Poetry Please, for two decades. With good humour, she said while she’s been tempted to quit a few times, largely because of the station’s habit of scheduling the show later and later, she receives such positive feedback from listeners – it’s not unusual for strangers to throw their arms around her and tell how a poem on her show saved their life – she intends to keep going. Grigory turned out to be a passionate advocate of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, while Lev spoke about his love of Burns and Stevenson. The podcast featuring the poets will appear on the SPL website soon.
So, once again, chagrined, I return to the SPL shelves to educate myself. At least I’m in the right place to do something about my embarrassment.