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Joseph Brodsky Interview 

(Originally published in The Argotist magazine in 1996)

Joseph Brodsky was a Russian-American poet who began writing poetry in 1955. He was first denounced by the Soviet government (for “decadence and modernism,” among other charges) in 1963 and was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972. Brodsky emigrated to the United States, where he became a citizen, taught at several colleges, and continued to build a reputation as a distinguished literary figure. He became a master of the English language and wrote in it as well as Russian.

His poetry, which often treats themes of loss and exile, is highly regarded for its formal technique, depth, intensity, irony, and wit. Among his best known works are A Part of Speech (tr. 1980), a volume of poetry; Less than One (tr. 1986) and the posthumously published On Grief and Reason (1996), essays; and the English-language poems of To Urania (1988) and So Forth (1996). Later works include a play, Marbles (1989), and a book of prose, Watermark (1992). His Collected Poems in English was published in 2000.

The recipient of a MacArthur Award (1981), a National Book Award (1986), and many other honors, he won the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature and was poet laureate of the United States (1991–92). A believer in the redemptive power of literature, he worked to make poetry accessible to a wider public. He died aged 55 on January 28, 1996.

Nick Watson is a graduate of Liverpool University and was the editor of The Argotist magazine from 1996 to 2000. 


NW: You comment on the value of "estrangement" to developing first an individual perspective and second a writer's perspective. Is the one a necessary prerequisite of the other and how much are you using Shklovsky's concept of "estrangement", if at all?

JB: The former is surely necessary for the latter, and the other way round I am afraid is also. Hence the answer to your Shklovsky question.

NW: "Appearances are all there is" (Less Than One). David Hockney has said "all art is surface" and that surface is "the first reality". Are you talking about the same thing and what depths are negated by privileging surface?

JB: There are no depths. Appearance is the summary of phenomena.

NW: In Less Than One you deny the hegemony of the "linear process", yet immediately follow this with a (linear) paradigm -- "A school is a factory is a poem is a prison is academia is boredom, with flashes of panic." Again, shortly after arguing that narrative, like memory, should be non-linear (i.e. digressive), you assert that history is cyclic (a linear image). Would you comment firstly on the nature of these contradictions and secondly on the problematic of linearity in your writing?

JB: Cyclic is not linear! See your laundry machine or dishwasher. I don't believe I have "the problematic of linearity" in my writing. But having said that I must admit that stanzaic composition indeed possesses the kind of morphology similar to that of crystals growing.

NW: "Selected Essays" is, it seems to me, self-consciously aphoristic: self-conscious in poetic rather than prosaic decision making (e.g. "The more indebted the artist, the richer he is."). Can you expand?

JB: 1) Do you expect a writer to be unaware of what he is doing? 2) One gets aphoristic for reasons of economy.

NW: How completely do oppressive political regimes destroy individualism? I am thinking that individualism may find alternative modes of expression, that it is not something which can be cultured or suppressed but is an innate predisposition. Similarly, in a "free" society, expressions of "individualism" are often no more than a reclothed lumpen consciousness.

JB: Innate disposition is subject to the outward mental diet. The latter can be reduced, thus conditioning the former. So you may find yourself disliking, say, Mao instead of Wittgenstein. In a free society you can do both; in a free society you have a better chance to define your true enemy, which is the vulgarity of the human heart.

NW: You glibly put Sholokov's Nobel Prize (65) down to "a huge shipbuilding order placed in Sweden" (Less Than One). How credible do you find the "All Literature Is Politics" argument?

JB: It's bullshit.

NW: Post-war poetry in the USSR and the USA has vast stylistic/ thematic differences. First, are you now looking to become part of the American tradition and second, how (critically) constrained do you feel in relation to American culture?

JB: I have no such inspiration. Nor do I aspire to the contrary. As for the American culture, some of it I find revolting, some awe-inspiring. Its diversity rules out a possibility of total approach.

NW: In the Preface to "A Part of Speech" you mention reworking translations of your work to bring them closer to the original in terms of content rather than form. Has this forced choice, emphasising content over form, caused you to rethink your attitude to language in any way?

JB: No it hasn't. You can sacrifice this or that aspect of a poem while translating but not in the process of composition.

NW: How is poetry best read -- aloud to an audience or silently to oneself?

JB: Both, but not one without the other.

NW: Although memory fails to adequately reconstruct the past (In "A Room and A Half") has poetry allowed any successful reconstruction?

JB: No. Nothing can do this. That's what time's passage is all about.

NW: When Publius says, "Home!...where you won't be back ever." (Marbles), is this Joseph Brodsky speaking to us directly or is it facile to draw comparisons between an author and his characters?

JB: No, it's not facile, and yes, it's my own attitude.

NW: Your work draws on many other literary sources making for more or less esoteric writing. What is your attitude towards the accessibility of your work?

JB: I couldn't care less about this sort of thing, although I am finding your remark highly surprising. If my stuff strikes you as being esoteric then something is really off with the City of Liverpool.


copyright © Joseph Brodsky & Nick Watson