Sasha Zaitseva in Armenia

Sasha Zaitseva: Armenia in My Heart

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YEREVAN/NOVOSIBIRSK — Sasha Zaitseva is a modern Russian poet, art activist and editor. She is the author of the collection of poems titled The Snow That Was Not, published in Germany, laureate of several international literary competitions, a participant in art projects in Siberia, St. Petersburg and Moscow, and a senior lecturer at Novosibirsk State University.

Sasha was born near Krasnodar, raised in Kazakhstan, now lives between two cities, Novosibirsk and St. Petersburg. She has traveled to 20 countries, and two years ago she spent almost six months in Armenia in a spiritual and creative retreat. After that, she released the album of melodies, “Calluna,” dedicated to Armenia, and participated in the first ArmArtFest-2021 at the Armenian Embassy in Moscow.

Migration and the path as a lifestyle and creativity define Sasha Zaitseva. My conversation with her is focused on how Ariadne’s thread led her to the Ararat valley.

Sasha, it is written about you that you, as a poet, mix poetry with other types of art. Such an experiment is not new: someone painted on sculptures, someone exhibited texts in frames, etc. How justified are such experiments?

Yes, indeed, the intersection of various arts is my passion. I have done projects that combine word and music, word and modern exhibition facilities, word and performance, etc. For example, once I launched a campaign where I pasted my poems on message boards in different cities where I was, among “garage sale” and “manicure at home.” Recently I have created a series of abstract paintings, where my lines “flourish” through the coloristic substance. As mountains appear at the junction of lithospheric plates, so for me the most powerful creative energy is born at the junction of the arts. Yes, this is not new; “there is nothing new under the sun,” and “I stand on the shoulders of giants.” How it is justified? I don’t know, it’s not for me to judge. I just follow my Muse — almost by touch, because I can’t imagine any other way to live my life.

In the life of a 21st-century person, what place does poetry have?

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I suppose a huge place. Maybe poetry and poetic thought — in the broad sense of the word, where you can include music, painting, and theater — are generally the only thing that can somehow comprehend, explain our life, reconcile us with our own existence.

Brodsky said: Mankind, probably, can no longer be saved, but for the individual man there always remains a chance. Poetry is the most intimate of the arts, what teaches us to think, feel, speak and hear  first of all, ourselves. Once I happened to hold in my hands an amazing handwritten collection of poems that belonged to Elena Vyalova, the widow of the Russian poet Pavel Vasiliev, who was tortured and shot in 1937. Elena, as an “enemy of the people,” was sent to a Kazakh camp for 19 years. The entire “active phase” of her life — from 26 to 45 years old — took place in the camps. She had no children, she never married again. But she saved herself with poetry; in her notebook there are lines from Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, her husband. “For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they have comforted me” — these are the words from the 22nd Psalm of David, also a kind of verse. From my point of view, now all of humanity is passing through the valley of the shadow of death — a pandemic, military conflicts, environmental tension, social inequality, totalitarianism, violence, hunger. We have produced so many weapons that we can easily destroy ourselves and all living things. And even those who live well today, who have a home, food, health — at some point (and this is a completely natural growth factor) — feel spiritual devastation. Poetry probably won’t save us, but it will help a person to find a human in himself.

 

Today on the Internet you can find various programs for writing poems, some online tools to help you choose a rhyme, etc. How do you feel about such programs?

I treat them like any tool; if you use it consciously and understand why you are using it. I have been writing poetry since I was 12, and at least until I was 20, I basically just practiced versification. I trained to weave a wreath of sonnets, I calculated syllables in iambic and amphibrachial, and refined in rhymes. Then there were no such programs; you had to find words just … by reading dictionaries! And only having learned to write quite well “as Pushkin and the classics,” I began to “break” my poems in order to find my own handwriting, my voice, my style.

If today someone wants to practice versification, it will be more convenient for him to do it. However, this does not mean that a poem written by machine will immediately become great – and at the same time it does not mean that it will not become great. The tool is just a tool.

Topics: Books, poetry

You can learn to draw from paper manuals, or you can learn from videos on YouTube. The question is what happens at the end, what exactly is the person who has embarked on the path of the creator “gives out” to us.

What is the main thing in poetry? So that it is in tune with the human soul. When I am in despair, I read to myself Alexander Blok and Pavel Vasiliev. When I doubt myself, I read Arseny Tarkovsky and Bulat Okudzhava. When I am happy, Vysotsky. If a new poet, using an online rhyme maker, was able to find the right words to express his thrill towards life, I am sure that these lines will be memorized by people to repeat them to themselves at an important moment in their lives. But if the author does not make a spiritual labor for himself to live, to feel the painfully beautiful aroma of life but only connects one word with another, there will be no poetry in his poems. Even if the rhymes and rhythm are followed.

Sasha Zaitseva

One poet I know said that she writes poetry every day. This is not graphomania, but a way of life, something necessary, without which it is impossible. What does writing poetry mean to you?

This is a kind of result of life. My best poems have been written for more than one or two years – there is a poem, the image of which first came to me twenty years ago. Sometimes I carry a line for years, repeat to myself, roll it with my tongue in my mouth like candy, taste it. So sometimes two or three words in my poems are behind two or three years of my life.

You wrote:

 

to love

is to walk

on water

 

What fates and how long do you walk on “Armenian water”?

I first flew to Yerevan for four days at the end of October 2017 – and almost by accident: that year turned out to be very difficult for me, I had to go through quite a lot, rethink a lot, and I wanted to make myself a birthday present – to find something new that will fill me. I chose Yerevan on the recommendation of my friend, poet and director Pavel Kruzenshtern from St. Petersburg. He loves Sergei Paradjanov very much and literally “sent” me to his museum. My seat was by the window, and when the plane flew up to Yerevan on the evening of Friday October 20, 2017, I saw the bulk of Ararat above the setting clouds – and felt as if my heart had been taken out and reinserted. Mandelstam wrote: “they come to life in Armenia”. So it was with me.

I could no longer forget either Yerevan or Armenia. In the spring of 2018, I returned to Yerevan for two weeks. The first day I was happy, on the second – I sobbed without stopping from melancholy, that in 12 days is my return plane. On the third day I went and rented an apartment for six months. Just to live in Yerevan, read books in parks, buy bundles of roses for myself, choose greens and vegetables, swim in outdoor pools, drink wine in the In Vino bar on Saryan Street, sit for hours in ascetic Armenian churches, listening to the silence of a stone, wander through exhibitions and streets – it was the greatest happiness in my life. During these six months, I met many wonderful people who inspired me and taught me something new. But the most important thing is that it was in Yerevan that I met my real myself – I realized who I am, I heard my breath, I realized what I live for and how I should live this life. Sometimes I didn’t talk to a single person in person for weeks, except for “Barev Dzez” (hello) and “Shat Merci” (Many thanks) in supermarkets. I just watched Armenia and myself. This is how one of my dear poems was born – “The Season of Peonies.” And yes, there, in Yerevan, I was born for the second time.

Sasha Zaitseva

You call Armenia your spiritual homeland. Can a creative person have several spiritual homelands?

In my case, yes. This is, of course, Russia and specifically Siberia and the Far East, because I feel a very strong connection with this land. This is Europe, and for the most part — France, Italy, Holland, Germany and Switzerland — I understand that my “cultural code” would be incomplete without these countries. This is Kazakhstan, because my first spiritual point of support was literature and it was taught to me by Yulia Mikhailovna Osinskaya in an ordinary secondary school in the city of Pavlodar. And finally, this is Armenia. Anticipating the question of the origin, I can say: I have no Armenian blood for seven generations in any direction, but one of my main muses was definitely born somewhere in the Ararat valley. At the same time, it does not mean that, calling this or that country my spiritual homeland, in every poem I will write something like “I love you, my Siberia” or “Yerevan, I am nowhere without you.” Many things in my art sprout allegorically. In general, I have always loved abstraction more than figurativeness — in music, in painting, in theater, and in literature. Therefore, I do not have many poems where Armenian toponyms or concepts are directly mentioned. But there are metaphors and images that refer to Armenia very clearly. For example, “the pink bowl of empty mountains.” In general, I joke that everything that has been written after Armenia is written about Armenia. This culture is so powerful that the echo of its influence will spread in one way or another throughout my life.

 

It would be interesting to know if you, as an artist and poet, have any favorite names in Armenian painting and literature?

I won’t be original. In childhood, it was Aivazovsky and the cartoons of “Armenfilm.” In adolescence, Charles Aznavour. Later, Paruyr Sevak and Sergey Paradjanov, his films, collages and letters.

 

In one poem you mentioned the ancient Armenian temple Dadivank, which, alas, is “held captive” after a 44-day war.

In general, I feel the strongest connection with Armenian churches. Once I spent the whole night under the starry sky near the Amberd fortress and met the dawn in its temple. These spiritual experiences can hardly be compared with anything.

The golden October road to the Haghartsin monastery still stands before our eyes.

And every time I come to Armenia, I go to the walls of Haghpat to just sit with my back against them.

Dadivank “penetrated” my heart too. I was lucky to be there once with an excursion. When I entered the temple and felt that I was standing on something soft, I was stunned: the carpet that lay there was blossoming under my feet, like life itself and the Universe itself. It was the most beautiful carpet in my life – and the phrase “Let’s go, I’ll show you the carpet in Dadivank Monastery” first became part of my installation “Personal Place,” which I did for a “48 hours Novosibirsk” major art event in 2019 (this festival is held Goethe Institute as in tune with the Berlin Festival “48 hours Neukölln”). Then a poem was born from this line and, finally, it became the basis of one of my abstract paintings. The carpet from Dadivank for me is a symbol of tradition, spirituality, aesthetics, sensuality.

By the way, one jazz singer from Germany, Valeria Maurer, made a song in English to my poems about Haghpat and Dadivank. There is already a concert recording on YouTube and the album is due to be released soon. You can listen this song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSWADKxZReU&feature=youtu.be

 

Sasha, you recently took part in the Armenian festival in Moscow. It would be interesting to know in detail about this event and about your participation.

The ArmArtFest festival was held by the cultural center at the Armenian Embassy in Russia, under the leadership of the Honored Art Worker of the Russian Federation Vladimir Gabbe. My participation in the festival was rather modest: together with the pianist and improviser Artur Filimonyuk, we held a concert of melodeclamations — that is, poems to music. I made the program in such a way as to show how strong the intergrowth of Russian and Armenian poetry is. I read my poems and poems by Paruyr Sevak, Osip Mandelstam, Valery Bryusov, Eduard Asadov and others. I have also prepared an exhibition of my abstract paintings, in which, literally and figuratively, quotations from my Armenian cycle “shine through.” We got a lot of kind, sincere feedback from the audience, so I guess Arthur and I worked well.

 

There are Armenian communities in the two cities in which you live. Are you in touch with them?

No, I’m a rather closed person, somewhat of an introvert. One can say that my inner creative “computer” works as follows: I walk, notice something, it amazes me and I “go into myself for processing,” “hang around” with this thought for a long time. For two years I thought about a single carpet in the monastery – can you imagine what will happen to me if I actively “absorb” the events of entire cultural centers?

But if I talk seriously, the usual “adult life” is pretty commonplace: I need to pay a mortgage, earn money for food, buy some things, support my family, do my home. A lot of energy is spent on the elementary “reproduction” of my life. I quote Brodsky again: “Not only do you have to live, you also have to pay for it.” But in any case, if one day I am invited to the Armenian cultural center and I can be useful in the dialogue between the cultures of Russia and Armenia, I will consider the proposal with interest.

 

Now in Russia there are very few translators from Armenian into Russian. Do you intend to be engaged in the translation of Armenian poetry in the future?

Time will tell. In any case, the Armenian poetic tradition is one of the strongest in the world. I am sure that tens, hundreds of creative people around the world will fall into the net of its captivating beauty and sonority, as long as Mankind is alive. And talented translators will appear.

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