For almost 15 years, the Orbita group of Riga-based Russian-speaking poets have been redefining Russian-language poetry in Latvia. The members of the group – Sergej Timofejev, Artur Punte, Semyon Khanin and Vladimir Svetlov – combine Russian and Latvian influences to create cutting-edge and experimental poems that reflect life in a cosmopolitan European capital that seems farther and farther away from Moscow. Deep Baltic presents eight poems from their new collection Hit Parade here, along with Kevin M.F. Platt’s introduction to the book, which puts the group in context.
Kevin M.F. Platt’s introduction to the collection Hit Parade: the Orbita Group
This book presents English translations of poems by Sergej Timofejev, Artur Punte, Semyon Khanin, and Vladimir Svetlov—four members of the creative collective known as Orbita (“Orbit” in both Russian and Latvian), based in Riga, Latvia.
These poems were written in Russian, yet they are not simply Russian poems. For one thing, they are written in free verse, and Russians are a bit particular about rhyme and meter. More on that below. For another thing, the primary context in which this poetry should be seen is that of Latvia. The poets of Orbita participate actively in a bilingual cultural scene drawing from the multiple literary traditions of an intimately multinational society. Which is to say, these poems constitute a part of Latvian literature.
Which is not to say that this is not Russian literature, too. Orbita has made a name for itself in Russia over the past decade or so with its sui generis texts that, produced in a European capital that seems farther and farther away from Moscow, push the boundaries of “mainland” Russian poetic traditions and expectations, charting out new possibilities for Russian literature in the context of twenty-first-century “transnational Russian Culture.” This is Russian poetry out of bounds.
Or perhaps it is Russian poetry within quite specific limits—the city limits of Riga. Space and time feel different in Riga than they do a night-train away in St. Petersburg, or a short flight away in Berlin. For centuries, Russian writers have had an on-again-off-again love affair with Europe. In Riga, they are, quite simply, Europeans. This is a city where languages and cultures have met and traded secrets: Latvian and Russian, to be sure, but also German and Yiddish, Lithuanian and Estonian, Swedish long ago, and lately more and more English. With their swing, their lightness, and their recognizable settings, these poems capture the atmosphere and northern light of a city with a compact medieval old town, a nineteenth-century center, and an extended suburban seashore of forest paths, wooden houses, and white sand beaches.
Riga is a city where a “City Center Resident” can well spend days in “strolls between nine streets / and seven cafes” (“City Center Resident”, p. 11) where elegantly dressed old ladies sit with elegantly formed little pastries, passing from one side of the city center to the next via a chain of carefully maintained parks filled with flower stands. Or he might walk out to pause on the Stone Bridge in order to listen to the hum of the Cable Bridge (“From the Cycle ‘Colleagues'”). On a bright, late summer night one intense conversation might take place “at the number ten trolley stop / by the wall of the botanical gardens” (“it was either this Sunday or last…” p. 197), while others wander “through nighttime jūrmala / in hopes that in at least one café / the bartender is awake / but in vain” (“empty airport planes sleeping…” p. 219). The sensibility of these poems has been shaped by the lived experience of spaces in Riga, from Amatu St. (“6 Amatu Street”, p. 17) to Tallinas St. (“I know–the only thing that cheers up the gang from Tallinas St…” p. 89).
But this precisely defined location provides access to a range of other histories and geographies. For better or worse, Riga’s cultural and physical environment, its very people, bears the traces of the many empires, most recently the Soviet and European Unions, that have passed over and through the civilizational intertidal zone of the Baltic region. Riga has time and again produced cultural figures who speak across these geographies—from Isaiah Berlin to Mikhail Baryshnikov, and from Gustav Klucis to Sergei Eisenstein.
The Orbita poets, like their predecessors, draw on a cosmopolitan catalogue of sources and traditions. Russian poetry is frequently fixated on the canon of past Russian writing. There is some of this going on here— for instance, on the level of intertextual particularity, Khanin’s poem about a passport (p. 137) harks back to Mayakovsky’s “Poem about the Soviet Passport,” while on the more general level of stylistic inheritances, the formal and conceptual élan of these poems resonates with the experimental and unofficial poetry of the last decade of the Soviet Union (much of which was published in the uncommonly freewheeling literary journals of late Soviet Riga).
Yet beyond these characteristic Russian legacies, and perhaps more centrally, these poems enter into dialogues with Latvian poetic greats such as Aleksandrs Čaks, contemporary Latvian poets and artists, Swedish jazz, French film, contemporary vampire novels and cartoon network fantasies, or the work culture of copywriters and fashion photographers. In short, the geographical and historical atmosphere of these poems—the atmosphere of Riga—is at once intimate and startlingly intrepid. This poetry is Russian, Latvian, European, and much else besides.
Orbita is a loosely bounded organization. Founded in 1999, it includes not only the four ringleaders who are published here, but also a large number of affiliates active in literature, visual art, music, and so forth. The group is prolifically active: a web portal, exhibitions, happenings, group appearances at festivals across Europe and Russia, and publications poetic, artistic, and critical.
The creative biographies of its members are stories of multiple bordercrossings: born in the Soviet Union, the poets presented here now dwell in a European Union member state. Writing primarily in Russian, they are all fluent speakers of Latvian and engaged members of Latvian society. These poets work across the borders of distinct media, often presenting their writing as video-poetry, multi-media museum installations, or collaborative performances involving music and projected video art with subtitles in Latvian and at times in English. Many of their collaborators are Latvian-speaking artists, musicians or poets, and the collective has pursued various projects to translate Latvian poets into Russian. The group’s publications—including the poetic almanac, Orbita, multimedia DVDs, and a variety of other projects—are bilingual Russian–Latvian editions, produced in exquisitely designed and inventively laid-out books. Bilingualism is a distinctive feature of Orbita, and it reflects the group’s highly self-conscious location on the border between Russia and Latvia, between Eurasia and Europe.
It also must be said that Orbita counters the general trend for cultural life among Russians
in Latvia. I will refrain entirely from entering into the details here of what “Russian” means in this context, given the notorious complexity of Russian ethnicity. For our purposes, anyone in Latvia who speaks Russian with no foreign accent can be considered Russian. If you ask a Russian-speaking resident of Riga what distinguishes Baltic Russians from “mainland” Russians (as I have done many times), he or she will likely tell you that the former are “more cultured” than the latter. This, it seems, is a distant historical echo of the Russian association of high culture with Europe—palpably inscribed into geography in Peter the Great’s western and high-cultural capital, St. Petersburg. With St. Petersburg, Russians entered into European culture. In Riga, Russians are in Europe itself. The idea of Baltic Russians as marked by culture is not a new one. In the late Soviet era, this conception of culture’s location in the landscape helped to make the Baltic more generally a space of progressive experimentation in literature, the arts, music and political life among all of the ethnic groups and languages of the region.
Yet that was more than two decades ago. Since the collapse of the USSR, Russian cultural life in the Baltic has, on the whole, become somewhat attenuated and rather conservative—if not provincial. Being in Europe, as it turns out, is sometimes rather challenging for Latvia’s sizable Russian-speaking minority in the twenty-first century. On the whole, the majority of Russians in Latvia feel cut off from the cultural homeland of the Russian Federation (although they consume a fair amount of its television and press) and marginalized in Latvia. This situation, along with the “nationalization” of cultural life wrought by the end of the Soviet internationalist era, has contributed to make mainstream Russian cultural life in Latvia a matter of nostalgic gestures to historical roots, religious holidays, ethnic foods, and dances. In this light, the oft-repeated conception of the especially “cultured” status of Latvian Russians seems to be an anxious mantra, evocative of times past rather than reflective of the present.
Against this backdrop, Orbita stands out in sharp relief. Paradoxically, while they eschew nostalgia for the Soviet past, the poets of Orbita are the actual heirs to the legacy of cutting edge and experimental culture characteristic of Latvia in the last Soviet decades. Orbita is an intentionally trans-ethnic and trans-linguistic phenomenon. And this is one of the keys to its success: theirs is an avant-garde of cosmopolitan hybridity. In distinction from the majority of Russian cultural production of the Baltic region, these poets transcend marginality and provincialism by forming a literary bridge between ethnic enclaves, languages, and cultures.
Their poetic work, as in Punte’s “Gastarbeiters” (p. 115) or Khanin’s “glue’s not quite right…” (p. 137), often presents subtle meditations on this border position and on the complexities of contemporary identities articulated in the interstices between distinct geographies. In the poems just mentioned, Khanin and Punte are concerned with identities and documents forged (in Khanin’s case: literally) at the level of individuals in motion across multiple borders. Timofejev presents a parallel sequence of “Truths” (p. 47), concerning the durability of extraordinarily simple human truths despite the fragility of seemingly monumental political and historical realities.
English subtitles from 6:51
In terms of language itself, the fundamental idiom of the Orbita poets is the standard literary Russian of all those who came of age and were educated in the Soviet era in Riga. Yet their work also reflects the separate development Russian has undergone in post-Soviet Latvia in terms of slang and professional lexicon—as is evident, for instance, in Punte’s “Copywriter” (p. 101). Additionally, these poems frequently play with local toponyms and at times involve nearly untranslatable multilingual puns. Consider, for example, Timofejev’s line “The world as I know it begins on Miera Street” (p. 41), which puns on the Latvian world “miers” (here in an inflected form) and the Russian word “мир” (world). The two words, which share an ancient Balto-Slavic root, are near homonyms and have similar, but not identical meanings: the Russian word can mean either “world” or “peace,” while the Latvian word means simply “peace.” Through this pun, Timofejev is musing on the particularity of his “world” which is located between these related, but quite dissimilar languages.
Each of the Orbita poets is possessed of an individual and irreducible poetic voice. Yet we may make certain general observations about their work, illustrating its distinctive features—and the features that distinguish it in contemporary poetry written in Russian as a whole. As noted above, these poets write primarily in free verse—although it should also be said that the rhythmic qualities of some of these poems approach something like metrical regularity. Timofejev and Khanin, in particular, often produce highly regular lines of three or four strong stresses. Yet the structure of these metrical patterns is loose and none of these poets use much end-rhyme.
Free verse has for long been a marginal and contentious form in Russian poetic production, which in distinction from most European traditions retained a remarkable devotion to strict poetic forms up until the late twentieth century. This is not to say that there is no free verse in Russia, but simply that it is to this day far from dominant—while one is always somewhat surprised to hear an Anglophone poet reciting rhymed couplets, it’s just the reverse in Russia, where despite more and more frequent formal experiments among younger generations of poets, free verse is still an unexpected twist for mainstream audiences. In this feature of the poetry of Orbita we encounter a more profound reflection of the Latvian cultural heritage. Latvian poetry, since the early twentieth century, has been far more given to open forms and free verse—we might mention once again in this regard Aleksandrs Čaks’ formally innovative poetry of the 1920s and 1930s, or any number of later Latvian examples.
Punte recounts how, as a graduate student at the prestigious Gorky Institute in Moscow, he wound up in a course titled “Is poetry poetry without rhyme and meter?” Timofejev once told me about a experience he had at a festival in Kiev, where a local poet characterized free verse as a sort of “formal betrayal” of Russian poetry—a formal choice motivated by a desire to produce easily translatable texts. Free verse is one of the features that mark the Orbita poets as both experimental and as “extraterritorial”—as part of a progressive and avant-garde poetic camp in Russian literary circles. But snarky poets aside, this is one of the keys to Orbita’s success in Russia, where they are published by the most cutting-edge journals and publishing houses. For these poets, pushing the formal boundaries is part of an overall practice of creative challenge to the geographic and temporal bounds of tradition.
There is more to Orbita poetry than free verse, of course. This is verse so free that at times it turns into other media. Orbita has been a pioneer of video poetry and poetry performed and recorded with musical accompaniment and ambient noise. Group appearances are often happenings or performances, rather than recitals—as in the “Slow Show” that was presented a number of times in 2013 and 2014, involving readings over ambient noise produced with “vintage” transistor radios. The members of Orbita have authored dozens of interactive art installations involving, for instance, bicycle-powered projection of poetry, hundreds of wall-mounted (again) transistor radios broadcasting multilingual poetry readings, etc. In rising above landscape, above poetic tradition, above distinct and fixed media, and at times above the fixity of national languages, Orbita achieves a lightness and inventiveness, coupled with intensity and introspection, that can only be compared with free jazz.
The poems of the Orbita poets range across a variety of modes. Each at times dwells on everyday, urban or interpersonal scenes in poems of maximal conceptual and figural simplicity—in, for example, Khanin’s “who can you rent out…” (p. 139), Punte’s “She prepared well:…” (p. 121), Timofejev’s “Chronicle” (p. 35), and Svetlov’s “empty airport…” (p. 219). Khanin once explained to me that his own writing is an attempt to produce a poetic language identical with everyday language, which nevertheless remains “poetic.” Yet they also offer various forms of conceptual poetry. On one hand, there is Khanin’s and Svetlov’s laconic play with signifying scenes—a bar dredged up from the ocean depths by archeologists in the former’s “monument to a palm tree…” (p. 131), or a seduction scene run backwards in the latter’s “lets depart for where they caught us…” (p. 209). The other two poets often take their conceptual play to greater narrative lengths—as in Punte’s “Final Remarks: Several Reasons For My Loss of Hearing” (p. 97) or, at the extreme, in Timofejev’s epic, fantastical poems, such as “The Doll Incident” (p. 53).
Starting with the name Orbita—an image of motion around a distant center—a focus on motion, thresholds, and geography emerges as a master trope for this poetry. Khanin’s poem about the forged passport is a case in point, as are his many other poems devoted to trips to determined and undetermined locations; Timofejev’s poetry offers the story of provincial “Thieves” (p. 49) who aspire to move to the “capital” and the fairy-tale story of the romance of “Man with woman, Riga boy and Moscow girl.” We may mention once again in this regard Punte’s “Gastarbeiters,” as well as the large-scale project “A Poetic Map of Riga” during 2014 that involved a series of exhibitions and events dedicated to the artistic and poetic research of urban space and experience. All of which takes us back to the initial gesture of this essay, to note once again that Orbita constitutes a form of Russian poetry that is perpetually on the move across borders, across international lines of demarcation, among languages, and in and through media. It is thoroughly Latvian— but this is Latvian cosmopolitanism that is at home in the world.
In the book you are holding, the poetry of Orbita has crossed yet another border—into English. Publication of this work in a bilingual edition is just right, given that this is generally the way this poetry has been presented. It is also justified by the difficulty of access to the original editions of this work in the US. The translations included in this volume represent the work of many hands. Each poem is followed by the initials of the translator(s)—a list of their names and brief biographies is located at the end of the book. Primarily, the translators have sought to render the Russian poems in English with as much fidelity to the lexicon and formal choices of the originals as possible. A few translations, however, slightly depart from this practice—those of Khanin’s “some virgins concealing…” (p. 181), for instance, or his “there they go crawling over goosebumps…” (p. 135). These take moderate liberties with the original texts. They were the result of conversations between Khanin and his American poet-translators at the symposium “Your Language—My Ear,” held at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011. I have chosen to include them here without editing them into conformity with the book’s overall approach. Some of these translations have previously appeared in a number of print and web journals, including World Literature Today, Loaded Bicycle, Common Knowledge, 1913: A Journal of Form, and Fence. Thanks go to the University of Pennsylvania and to these publications for their support. Gratitude is also due to the Latvian State Culture Capital Foundation, which supported work on translations, as well as to the Latvian Literature Center, which provided financial support for publication. Thanks as well to Matvei Yankelevich, Bela Shayevich, Rebekah Smith, and the rest of the staff of Ugly Duckling Presse for their support of this project. Finally and most importantly, thanks go to the many translators for their work.
Poems from Hit Parade: the Orbita Group
6 Amatu St.
Alone, like a pilot guiding a dream
where there are only naked elms and you, resembling
the indefinite feeling before leaving a house
in which there’s nothing left to explain but grief,
I cross the street, not stopping for
A car, braking furiously; I blindly experience
fate and mood; experience anxiety; don’t understand
how I could—life is precious, after all, like nicotine.
You jump out a window, grab me by the neck, tumble
to the ground and pull me down with you; I control
the situation intuitively, slide my hands into your
leather jacket, under your sweater; I love when nipples get hard.
Then up comes a pack of crew-cut young
individuals, get out brass knuckles; one cracks my
skull, payback for some old brawl, silently, with impeccable
precision, striking my temple; wipes hands on baggy trousers;
gets up. They leave; you are still kissing me, spattered
with my blood. Then you pull away and look at my
face. You’ve got anxious eyes. At last you’re
in love with me. For real. The rain starts. We remain alone
on the street. You rock me, you think you’re
rocking me. You ask: How old are you, I’m
eighteen. Night, pointless night, as always. At 6 Amatu St.
Translated by Kevin M.F. Platt
Hello. We are thieves in a small-town hotel.
We wait for someone to get wasted
Or maybe we slip ’em a Mickey.
Then we’ll rummage through his pockets,
Take his watch and wallet.
We just like money a lot.
Everyone has life goals.
I want a big house with enormous posters
Of Metallica on the walls, and he wants a Hummer
So he can cruise down Main Street,
Periodically rolling the windows down
To scream, “Fuck you and fuck this whole town!”
Our take, however, is pretty lousy.
Who comes all the way out here? Nobody but lovebirds
And sales reps for Swedish makeup firms.
We clean out their pockets with no regrets.
But can you really live on this kind of money?
We live simply: rent a guesthouse;
Recently bought a Toshiba entertainment system.
But there isn’t enough for a car.
And in the evenings, along snowy streets,
Beneath the sparse streetlamps, two bundled-up figures
Are moving. That’s us on the way to work
In the hotel bar. The owner gets a cut.
By mutual agreement, we do a neat job.
We don’t smash faces or break ribs. We leave
The unconscious on porches, not in the snow.
Theoretically, we’re going to move to the capital soon.
We know some people there; anyway, sometimes you want to live large,
You know? Otherwise, we’ll be stuck slipping each other
Mickeys and robbing each other, just to stay in practice.
Then the “victim” wakes up with a hellish headache,
And the “robber” is ready with a cold compress and strong
Tea. We’re getting by. Of course,
We cannot reveal the name of the hotel or the town.
We probably won’t stay long.
Just don’t say it’ll be forever.
Translated by Kevin M.F. Platt and Julia Bloch
Sergej Timofejev (Riga, 1970) has published seven books of poems, most recently STEREO. One of the founding members of Orbita, Timofejev’s work has been translated into many languages and he has participated in poetry festivals across Europe. He loves summer, apples, and yesterday’s papers.
Let’s suppose that was our first appearance in this city,
that no one accepts us here, that even doors
with photosensors don’t always open when we come near.
If we recall how, just a while back, dressed like little sailors,
battered like goddamned (forgotten at home) notebooks,
we stepped out on the welcoming gangway, so that, in spite of
sideways glances (and sighs of relief) from fellow travelers, we could
deplane for the first time, but then searched forever for the right addresses…
If we recall how no one met us here, and even the dispatcher (or whoever it is
who makes announcements to the whole airport), read out our flight with barely
restrained laughter, as though she were being tickled (just then) by all the window washers…
And if we recount how we found our way into the center by guesswork,
trying not to attract attention, concealing in our bags stencils
(the kind every decent person has, we thought),
and having certain plans in relation to your city…
How we moved along walls, concealing those same stencils in our bags,
passing relay-baton spray cans… losing along the way (countless)
tiny parts from our favorite childhood erector set…
How in the afternoon we jumped up and down behind posing tourists,
so that we’d show up in their snapshots (show up in photographs) that we
would never see—there are already quite a few photos like that around.
If we recall how sincerely we were convinced we could make a living becoming
enormous bunnies a few hours a day at kids’ parties
or (similarly enormous) foam-rubber hot dogs in squares by train stations.
And, they say, one of our people has been giving orthodox aerobics classes here…
And though (at the term’s end) we couldn’t distinguish
Between your zero and letter “o,” and doors with photosensors continued
in general (as stated before), to open unwillingly, all the same we hoped somehow
to get some kind of foothold here, and even so we lost no self-respect…
It’s enough to recall how we would get together with people
who might be some help and could set everything up, but it was so loud
that we could only exchange greetings over and over,
clinking long-necked bottles of pale beer (smiling and smiling again),
and somehow without saying anything it was clear they had no real proposals
for us (at least for now). But all the same, everyone hopes
we’ll have a pleasant stay… And you know, I remember how you
“No problem! We don’t rush—that’s not our style. Find us later
on the city beach (with stewardesses and letters from home)
Where we’re going to fly a farewell kite…
Find us by the landmark—orange cat in blue sky. And if anyone needs it more
than we do, we can probably scrape together a couple hundred—you’ll return it later,
when you can. All the same, local coins (once we return)
won’t be good for much apart from screwing in small bolts.”
Translated by Kevin M.F. Platt
Artur Punte (Riga, 1977) is a poet and media-artist and one of the founding members of Orbita. A graduate of the Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow, he is the author of three collections of poetry. Punte has translated poetry from Latvian and occasionally writes in Latvian. He has co-edited the majority of books published by Orbita, including theAnthology of Contemporary Russian Poetry of Latvia
monument to a palm tree
full scale, made of plastic
and the bust of a cactus
behind the remains of a bar
sculpture of bartender with shaker
on a pedestal, a stool’s skeleton
the establishment emerged from the depths
of course it’s no pompeii
no thera, no baiae
no palace or even electric factory culture palace
all the same the ruins
of a mysterious waitress civilization
so this is where those diorama dolls are from
those mummies with pierced navels
five or six blue-skinned archeologists
carry out excavations
sherds of highballs and shot glasses in their hands
with salty marine deposits
ashtray with traces of an ancient cult
bill on papyrus and menu
is considering a proposal
to preserve the entire complex
as a memorial
to victims of coffee and alcohol
a monument to injection
a stele to the shakes
Translated by Kevin M.F. Platt
why did I keep yelling I’m an electrician
I’m no electrician
what came over me
I gestured at outlets
cozied up to the circuit box, held the meter close
no one is buying it
here’s my license, look, my certificate
wires sticking out of all my pockets
they just look at me in silence
give me five minutes and I’ll close any circuit
I’ll get soldering you won’t be able to stop me
what kind of people are you
they shake their heads doubtfully
we can’t use you, they say
we need an electrician
Translated by Kevin M.F. Platt, Julia Bloch and Karina Sotnik
Semyon Khanin (Riga, 1974) is the author of the books Afloat,Suppressed Details, and Just Now. His books and chapbooks have been translated into English, Latvian, and Czech. Khanin frequently collaborates with musicians in readings and performances. A founding member of Orbita, Khanin also works in three-dimensional poetry and performance.
a pastor picks up white doves at customs
the holy spirit here for a show in the park
excited poodles hobnob on the way to the taxi
a circus show
to catch trusting souls
you take some instant photos
the bar is closed at night
the church is open
in the airport
concrete and wood
can’t recall the architect
a prize last year
we drive on
to the sea
trees still have leaves
lit by street lamps from below
with black light reflected from the asphalt
sea thick like oil
becomes motionless before us
flirtations of man with sea are so naive
all these fishing boats
and bathing at the shore in summer
what is it?
in this black
mass that repulses us
a desire to get as far away as possible
we walk through nighttime jūrmala
in hopes that in at least one cafe
the bartender is awake
but in vain
Translated by Natalia Federova and Kevin M.F. Platt
on aveņu avenue
after the end of the world
above the accidental survivors
in the concrete cell
they lay on the floor
in the window embrasure
a cold wind
but the cold
is no barrier
to addressees lacking bodies
the cold as easy as pie
we’re warmed up
by sparks of contact
our lives superseded
by a signal
an accumulated charge
the string yes-yes-no
Translated by Kevin M.F. Platt
Vladimir Svetlov is a photographer, poet, and performer. A member of Orbita since 2000, Svetlov participated on the group’s spoken word CDs02 and 04 and has appeared in its performances throughout eastern Europe and Russia. His poetry has been translated into Latvian, English, German, and Italian. His first book of poetry and photographs, used, was published in 2014.
Header image – Orbita at Kyiv Poetry Week [Image: Orbita]
With thanks to Kevin M.F. Platt and Sergej Timofejev for permission to reprint text and images.