Nothing seemed to augur that Vera Pavlova would become a leading light of 21st century Russian poetry. The daughter of engineers, she became a serious student of music at the age of eight, graduated from the prestigious Gnesin Musical Academy (receiving praise from Aram Khachaturian, no less), sang in a church choir, and worked as a guide in Moscow’s Shalyapin Museum.
Yet, for nearly two decades, Pavlova has been composing poetry largely in private, publishing her first book only in 1997. Sergei Kostyrko, editor of Novy Mir online called Pavlova’s “take-off” impressive, noting that now, just half a decade later, “she is one the most famous poets of Russia ... Six books published in those five years and each book is very strong ... In fact, her latest book Sovershennoletie (“Coming of Age”) presents verses written over a span of 18 years, meaning that for 13 years she has been writing in silence and solitude—just for a small inner circle.”
Indeed, Vera Pavlova is today one of Russia’s best known and most talked about poets. The critic Dmitry Kuzmin called Pavlova “one of the brightest names in the ‘lost’ generation of present day thirty-somethings.” Writer Mikhail Roschin exclaimed with admiration on the pages of Literaturnaya Gazeta: “What a woman! She is absolutely free—this is her main feeling and sense of the word.”
In 2001, Pavlova was awarded the Appollon Grigoriev Prize for her book The Fourth Dream. The prize is known in Russia as the “Experts’ Prize” as it is awarded by professional critics (and carries a lucrative purse of $25,000). It is awarded for the “Best Text of the Year,” but Kostyrko proposed a reformulation, that Pavlova be awarded the prize for being “the poet who brought us back to poetry.” According to Kostyrko, for too long “modern Russian poetry had a hard time separating itself from the poetry of the 1960s-1980s ... from the whole Soviet poetic heritage. But new times have arrived ... and something new had to be created. And all of a sudden we see a new poet—Vera Pavlova—who doesn’t depend on the old forms, on the old heritage. She absorbed it all, reworked it and moved on … She is the first in a line of new poets of such power, such breath, such internal aesthetic independence ... Yet for all her independence from our heritage, she has a very high culture of poetry—you feel it in her poetic gesture, her words, her intonation; her emotions are on a very high cultural level … She was brought up by Russian poetry but went farther. She has Pasternak and Akhmatova in her, but she doesn’t depend on them.”
“A [Russian] woman who writes verse is doomed to be compared to Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva,” Pavlova said, “they are the Scylla and Charybdis between which each female poet must navigate.”
Pavlova said her more immediate poetic precursors were Timur Kibirov and Dmitry Prigov, who “cleaned off of the language the rust with which it became covered during the era of socialist realism.
“There was a time when it seemed that a straight, direct language was no longer possible,” Pavlova said, “when words had lost so much of their meaning that you could not take anything in the direct sense. Now that time is gone. Now you can again speak directly—there is no need to be putting on airs or to be hiding behind irony.”
After Pavlova received the Appollon Grigoriev Prize, her work began to be recognized internationally. This March she traveled to a poetry festival in Paris, and she will be in London this fall. And her “American saga began,” she recalled, when “a white limousine showed up in front of my pitiful, five-story building in Izmailovo with a courier delivering an invitation to Spaso House” [residence of the US Ambassador in Moscow]. It turned out that an attaché at the embassy was a long-time admirer of her poetry.
The American connection led to an introduction to Nobel Prize winner Derek Walcott (who Iosif Brodsky considered the world’s best poet writing in English). Walcott and Pavlova met on St. Lucia in the Caribbean (where Walcott was born) and spent three days discussing poetry. Walcott even translated one of Pavlova’s poems. “For me, it was such a lesson in generosity and poetic thoughtfulness,” Pavlova said. “It took him three hours to translate seven lines which I probably wrote in ten minutes ... It was such a lesson in poetic accuracy.”
In the final lines of that poem, Pavlova poignantly expressed what Russia means to her.
This is the way I beg: spare me from living in Russia
And yet I know: thank God, my wish will not be granted.
When asked to make a similar judgement verbally, Pavlova pauses as if analyzing her 38 years of life, then responds modestly, “... you know, I am not a very interesting subject for biographical essays. Virtually nothing happened in my life ... I was born and still live in the same place in Moscow ... Only now am I discovering the world ... Therefore, I will respond with the line of [the poet Osip] Mandelstam, “I love this poor land because I haven’t seen any other.”
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