German Lukomnikov

On Palindromes and Parajanov with German Lukomnikov


YEREVAN/MOSCOW — German Lukomnikov is a Russian poet who also writes prose, palindromes and songs, as well as performer, translator, actor, anthology compiler, a master of poetic minimalism and combinatorial poetry. He was born in 1962 in Baku, in a Jewish-Armenian family: his father was poet and artist Gennady Lukomnikov. German was 13 years old, when he moved to Moscow. He has written poetry since childhood.

Lukomnikov’s works have been published in leading Russian magazines, in the anthology Samizdat of the Century (1997), in the collections Very Short Texts (2000) and Time to Give Birth (2001, 2002). He is an author of 14 books of poetry; participated in poetry slams and authors’ reading contests, being the winner of the Russian-Ukrainian slam in Lviv (2007) and in the All-Russian slam in Voronezh (2014), vice-champion of the World slam in Paris (2015), as well as of the Chukovsky Prize for Innovation in Children’s Literature (2015). He is one of the compilers of the Anthology of the Russian Palindrome, Combinatorial and Handwritten Poetry (2002) and Russian Poems of 1950–2000 (2010). German Lukomnikov’s works have been translated into 12 languages.

Dear German, for several years I have been following your work. It is pleasant and funny to hear how you read your extraordinary poems — there is humor, positivity and surprises in them. I even tried to translate some couplets and quatrains into Armenian, although many of them are virtually untranslatable.

I am glad you are interested in my works and you are trying to translate them into Armenian. By the way, in the anthology of the poetry of Russian minimalism, published in translations into Armenian in Stepanakert several years ago, there is also selection from my works. It was compiled and translated by poet Hrant Aleksanyan. It is curious that the only Wikipedia article about my person, apart from Russian, is Armenian.

Not surprisingly, we are sensitive and attentive to our compatriots — no matter how many percent of Armenian blood and their links to Armenia. But you also spoke about your Armenian origin in the form of a palindrome — “Iz armyan ya, mrazi” (“I am from Armenians, scums”). It is especially interesting that, without knowing Armenian, you composed a palindrome in Armenian – “Ara, sus ara” (“Chap, shut up!”).

Gee, I forgot about “Ara, sus ara”! Thank you for reminding me! This is what my Armenian Metz-mama (grandmother), used to say. It was only after several decades I realized that it was a palindrome and decided to write it down and include it in the corpus of my texts as a kind of “ready-made” work. By the way, I recently composed another Armenian palindrome! It is, of course, conventionally Armenian. Roughly like “Armenian jokes.”

Pictures from a family album

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In my youth, I also wrote so-called experimental rhymes, for example, a rhyme without words, only with punctuation marks. But when I read the American poet Aram Saroyan, who already in the 1960s did such experiments, I refused to continue (although I published some in an alternative literary journal). And then I got acquainted with your works and immediately noticed that both you and Aram Saroyan have Armenian-Jewish roots.

I, too, once stumbled upon Aram Saroyan’s experiments (in particular, his famous one-word poem “lighght”) and was also very interested. I wrote a note about him in LiveJournal about 15 years ago. And even without knowing English, it seemed to me that this poet is very close to me, I partly do similar things.

By the way, my friend Armine Ghalachyan translated Aram Saroyan’s poem “lighght” into Armenian as “luyuys” (“luys” – light). Maybe it can be translated into Russian as “svevet”? (svet – light in Russian).

The word-poem by Aram Saroyan is difficult to translate, at least into Russian. It seems to me important that the repeating letter block consists of consonants, and that there are three of them in it, and that only one of them is pronounced, and the other two are not pronounced in the original word, although they separately have an independent sound. Unfortunately, there are no analogues in Russian. Although with some exaggeration, you can try to get out somehow.

It is a great pleasure to listen to your reading, you are very artistic.

Thanks! From the age of five I dreamt of becoming a clown, then an actor (and director), being shone in school drama circles. My artistry is partly from my mother, who knows and constantly hums a huge variety of songs in Armenian, Azerbaijani, Russian. And she tells a bunch of different funny tales and was always famous among her family and friends with her ability to portray amusingly, imitate anyone. My Armenian cousin Sasha Martirosov, is a musician and singer, performs with the ensemble at weddings and parties, sings Armenian and Russian songs. True, clients sometimes complain that his songs are mostly sad, but such is the peculiarity of his talent. My other Armenian cousin, Vova, in his youth was just such a merry fellow and a joker that his relatives thought to show him to the famous Armenian clown Leonid Yengibarov. But he grew up and suddenly became a terribly businesslike person.

A trivial but inevitable question: how familiar are you with Armenian literature?

Unfortunately, practically not familiar. In my defense, I can say that among my favorite Russian poets there are Armenians. For example, an almost namesake of yours, Artsvi, Vagrich Bakhchanyan (mostly known as an avant-garde artist and performance artist) and Andrei Tovmasian (more known as a jazz musician). Actually, I associate Armenian poetry only with Sergei Parajanov’s film “The Color of a Pomegranate” about Sayat-Nova, whose poems are used there in the text splash screens between the parts. I watched the Russian version several times, and the poems were there in Russian translations. However, the originals, as you know, the author wrote in several languages. By the way, in the summer of 1986 I was in Tbilisi and talked a little with Sergei Iosifovich. It is a funny story. In the same summer of 1986, I was in Yerevan, paying visit to some kind people, and for the last time in my life I visited Baku. Then everything was still peaceful, nothing foreshadowed a calamity.

Will you tell us about your meeting with Parajanov?

In the summer of 1986, when I was 24, I was visiting friends in Tbilisi. I lived there for a week and at some point I thought: but here, in this beautiful city, lives one of my favorite filmmakers, the great Sergei Parajanov, the director of one of my favorite films, “The Color of Pomegranate.” I found his address, went there and entered a small courtyard. I dangled there for a while in confusion, and finally knocked on some door. A woman came out, such a typical oriental woman, dressed sternly. I asked if I could see Sergei Parajanov. She offered to wait in the yard. A few minutes later Parajanov came out of the same door. I vaguely remember how he was dressed, an oversized shirt, almost sweatpants and slippers. Without any exoticism, minus a large and somehow unusual ring that attracts attention. His room was small, with a table in the middle. Various spectacular crafts, collages and photographs hung on the walls. Fortunately, Sergei Iosifovich did not even ask where I got his address from. Obviously, he understood that finding him in Tbilisi was not a problem. He opened a bottle of red wine. I have always been indifferent to alcohol, but, of course, I could not help drinking with an idol when he offered it. The Master asked me why I came, what I was doing, and so on. I explained I had just come to thank and express my admiration for the film “The Color of Pomegranate,” which is fantastically beautiful, unlike anything, and that it made a kind of aesthetic revolution in my soul. It seems that my answers did not suit the Master, and he began to find fault with me. And somehow not too polite. He asked me: “Have you seen my new film, ‘The Legend of the Suram Fortress?’.” “Yes, I did, it is also, of course, wonderful,” I mumbled, but completely without the enthusiasm with which I spoke about “The Color of the Pomegranate.” “I did not understand you,” Parajanov told me. “Well, twenty years ago a man made some bullshit, you are going to distant lands to say thank you to him for that? What’s the point? When you yourself write War and Peace, then come, bring it to me, I will read it.” I do not know why he said that. In those years I practically did not write anything and, of course, did not even utter to him about my rare and timid youthful literary attempts. Almost 35 years have passed. I wrote my War and Peace in the form of several thousand strange poems. I do not know if I would have dared to show them to Sergei Parajanov. Now I partly understand his reaction to my visit. I understand, and even on my own skin, that enthusiasm for early creativity, with indifference to the later, may not at all please and even hurt the creator. Moreover, after “The Color of Pomegranate” he was not allowed to work in films for 16 years. And he spent several years in prison in this interval. In addition, he was forced to completely remake this film. And in the end, the edited version was released, made by Sergei Yutkevich, who, perhaps, saved the film, otherwise it would not have been released on the screen at all. Now I know that the director was dissatisfied with this censored version. And I, not being aware of all these details, was delighted with it.

German Lukomnikov with his mother

You were born in Baku. Your mother, Irma Martirosova, is Armenian. Where are her ancestors from?

My mother’s parents, my Armenian grandfather (we called him harik) and grandmother (metz-mаma), Nikolai Gugasovich and Varvara Arutyunovna Martirosovs, like their parents (and probably more distant ancestors too), were from the village Tubikend. It was an Armenian village, inhabited almost exclusively by Armenians, in the Ismayli region, not far from the city of Ismayli in Azerbaijan. Grandfather and grandmother were from simple village peasant families. Since childhood, they and their parents were accustomed to growing wheat, thrashing and grinding it into flour, etc. At the same time, my grandfather’s mother, Shugi, was not only engaged in ordinary village work. She was a bright and well-known person in the village — a rural midwife and folk healer. She handled almost all childbirths in the village, and sometimes in neighboring villages. She healed everyone with herbs and other folk remedies. Her extraordinary knowledge and abilities were partly passed on to her son, my grandfather. He had many jobs in his life —  shepherd, peasant, miller, laborer, barber, phaeton driver and in recent decades, a greengrocer in the market, but he also had a talent as a chiropractor, and he treated many acquaintances in this way. In addition, he played the zurna well. The grandfather’s original surname was Martirosyan, it was in the 1920s that the Soviet government Russified almost all Armenian and Azerbaijani surnames there, in Baku, so the whole family became Martirosovs. By the way, if you look at the Jewish part of my family tree, then I am not the first person in it with Armenian blood. One of my grandfather’s sisters was married to an Armenian and they had sons. One of them, uncle Edik Osipov, in his youth moved from Baku to Yerevan, and my Moscow relatives and I a couple of times in the summer, during my school holidays, went there to visit him.

What about metz-mama?

Metz-mama, my Armenian grandmother, was a housewife. She had six children with harik. But in difficult years, in the 1930s-40s, already in Baku, she baked large quantities of bread in her yard which also helped the family a lot. Her maiden name was Melkumyan, and her birth name was Vartie, later in the documents they wrote down Varvara. Metz-mama said that she had many siblings, but almost all of them were massacred during the Armenian pogroms (if I understand correctly, in 1919-1920). Only she and her older sister Katya survived. This aunt Katya was the first to move from Tubikend to Baku, and then she called my future grandparents there (around 1927). Harik and metz-mama spoke Russian very poorly, although they lived most of their lives in Baku, where Russian at that time was the main language of interethnic communication. The family spoke some kind of a mixture of Armenian (obviously, the Artsakh dialect) and Russian, even with Azerbaijani interspersed, probably such a linguistic melange. I almost did not understand anything when I came to visit my Armenian relatives with my mother, so they spoke to me exclusively in Russian. They lived on the outskirts of Baku, in an area called the village of Montina. It was an international region (as, indeed, the whole of Baku at that time), but there were especially many Armenians living there. My Armenian relatives lived there in several neighboring small one-story houses with a common system of courtyards. My mother and I came to them, as a rule, on weekends. Harik died, I think, in 1989, in Baku. Although the interethnic situation was already very tense, he, old and seriously ill, he refused to leave and died there. The rest gradually left — some to Armenia, some to Russia, some to Ukraine. Metz-mama was transported to Pyatigorsk to her youngest son Ernik, where she died a few years later. Now of the six sons and daughters of harik and metz-mama, only my mother, Irma Nikolaevna, remains, God grant her health. All her siblings are long gone. Ernik was the youngest of them, the favorite of the whole family. By the way, his daughter, my younger cousin Nelya, is an artist; she exhibits her works under the name Neka Demarty.

For many people with Armenian blood, the connection with the roots is associated with national cuisine. What about you?

I have several favorite Armenian dishes since childhood, which were constantly prepared by my mother and metz-mamatolma, zhingyalov-hats, and especially, the magic soup tanov! True, few people know the last word. My culinary skills are not very extensive, but I make this soup quite often. I delight and surprise my friends and guests with it. It seems that in Armenia this soup is called spas. Google also suggests tanapur. In Baku, my Armenian relatives called it tanov (with tan – yogurt-based beverage). Even my Jewish grandmother loved it and cooked it. And I love it both hot and cold from the fridge. And when I get sick with the flu or a cold, I am always treated with a hot tanov – it always miraculously knocks my temperature down. Boiling it is such a meditative activity because it has to be stirred continuously until it boils. So that yogurt or kefir does not curdle. For some reason, Metz-mama threw a match into the pan (without a sulfur head, of course) — such a tradition — for some reason it was believed that then the likelihood of curdling is less. By the way, my cousin Karina is a genius of Caucasian cuisine, her zhingyalov-hats are breathtakingly delicious.

You, who were born in Baku, must have been shaken by the last war.

This is such a terrible and impossible fact that just does not fit in my head. My childhood was spent among Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Jews and Russians, and never in my environment did anyone particularly care about nationality. I had Armenian friends and Azeri friends, with some of them I still maintain relations. One of my childhood friends was half-Armenian, half-Azerbaijani. My Armenian cousin married an Azerbaijani and they have a wonderful family and wonderful children. Of course, they have not been living in Baku for a long time. And even my mother, after she divorced my dad, was in her second marriage married to an Azerbaijani (or rather, a half-Azerbaijani-half-Russian), Uncle Shamil. The Azerbaijanis stood up for me in the army. They interceded simply because I am from Baku. It did not matter to them that I was the son of an Armenian and that there was not a drop of Azerbaijani blood in me. It was in Tashkent in the early 1980s. We were not even friends with them (or rather, we were friends with only one of them), it was just that then there really was a Caucasian brotherhood. My Armenian relatives had many Azeri friends. One of them, one-armed Uncle Mahmed, once, already in the late 1980s, was sitting in our courtyard in the village of Montina, and, as usual, was playing backgammon with my Uncle Misha, my mother’s older brother. And suddenly nationalists burst into the courtyard and attacked him: they said, how dare you, as if nothing had happened, play with an Armenian. Later, the sons of Uncle Mahmed dealt with them. And Uncle Misha, a disabled war veteran, was teased by the boys on the street in his hometown, insulted. My mother is a refugee, she dragged it on to the last, hoping that it would somehow resolve, and fled from Baku in January 1990, during the days of the Armenian pogroms. Although I know that in those days, too, many Baku Azerbaijanis hid and protected Armenians, their old friends and neighbors. Since then, the conflict, alas, has only worsened. To tell the truth, I am depressed by the propaganda of both sides, which tries to portray opponents as non-humans. In general, it’s even hard for me to talk and think about all this. Although, probably, it is necessary. Here my mother walks around the Moscow market, and here everyone respects and welcomes her – both Armenians and Azerbaijanis. And she says that here, in Moscow, on neutral territory, many of them continue to be friends and cooperate. So there is hope. At the same time, I absolutely do not want to delve into the political side of the conflict. I only want one thing – that humanity becomes perfect as soon as possible and wars become a thing of the past, and that borders, and indeed states in general, be abolished as unnecessary. It is a pity that I will not live to see such times.

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