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The SLS Interviews: Eugene Ostashevsky

The SLS Interviews: Eugene Ostashevsky

The poet and translator on humour, Spinoza and why children’s literature is sublime.

Eugene Ostashevsky is a Russian-born poet and translator residing in New York City. His books of poetry include Iterature and The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza, both published by Ugly Duckling Presse, and he has often been a featured author at Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg. Cara Benson is author of (made) (BookThug) and editor of the interdisciplinary book Predictions (Chain Links). 

Cara Benson: I'm thinking about the role of humour in your work. I'm wondering generally why it is traditionally positioned as the other mask in relation to tragedy, rather than, say, joy and tragedy. That may be an aside, yet it might productively influence the conversation. Judith Butler in Antigone's Claim talks about tragedy in a way that makes me think of it as a cause or means of tearing through a veil of societally imposed normativity—of a lived fiction of sorts. Do you think comedy does something similar? And, more specifically, why do you think you are drawn to be (also) funny while puzzling through some significant questions on the nature of being? 

Eugene Ostashevsky: My first reaction to your question is that I don't think it's possible to write anything serious nowadays that is not funny. Such is my opinion, although I am not sure I agree with it. 

Traditionally, comedy was the opposite of tragedy because it started badly and ended well, whereas tragedy started well and ended badly. This is why Dante called his poem the "Commedia"—it starts in hell and ends in paradise. But today both are modes of reacting to human stupidity or, if you want to be charitable, finitude. So the real opposite of comedy today is not tragedy but stupidity/finitude, by which I mean believing that you're doing the right thing. (And of course also believing it's the right thing to disbelieve you are doing the right thing, and so on.)

All of this is to say that, yes, you and Judith Butler are right. But I should explain a) how this applies to me and b) why I don't think tragedy is possible now. To me it applies like this. Comedy is a kind of outsidership. You notice the artificiality of things—in my case, the material aspects of language. I live in a language I wasn't born into, and so it always seems a bit strange to me, while the language I was born into has, by now, become even stranger. But, I mean, you don't have to be Jewish to like Levy's Jewish Rye. You don't have to be an immigrant to be able to look at the world from the outside.

Why don't I think tragedy is possible now? (Just as by "comedy" I mean laughing at human finitude, by "tragedy" I mean weeping for it.) I don't know. I just don't see how it can be done. And certainly no one is doing it. Perhaps because laughter at human finitude is, in the end, tragic laughter. This is why Democritus, the Laughing Philosopher, in the end turns out to be a melancholic. But what would it be like to weep publicly? I guess you would have to commit yourself to some form of values first, whereas we are a civilization that has no values, only superstitions.

Maybe what I really mean to say is that comedy is a form of moral cowardice.

CB: When I am able to laugh at human frailty or ridiculousness, it seems like I have the opportunity to experience an embrace of, or feelings of, compassion. Even empathy ("a little human warmth" as you say). Is that folly? There is some science now that indicates the existence of mirror neurons—what they are calling empathy neurons—and that these biological capacities, combined with the imbrication of ourselves within global technological networks, might support a civilization that is or could be less, er, tragic.

But, as it stands, are you saying that you think tragedy is not possible in cultural production because we are actually living it? Not that we know the end, though of course there are those who claim they do.

Do you mean also a personal moral cowardice? I think of the moment in the poem "Epithalamion" when just after "Love!" is posited, a joke enters. The joke of the simile of simile. Does that protect the vulnerability of mentioning so easy a target? (No one wants to be a sentimental sap.) What do you think writing with moral courage might look like?

EO: Do you feel weird having a serious conversation? Because I do. I meant to write you back after answering the first question to say, well, I write funny poems because I think poetry should give pleasure. English-language poetry generally does not. It generally just goes on performing what is permitted as "poetic." Poetry used to give pleasure through rhythm and rhyme, but now that we forbade ourselves that, we need to find some other way of causing pleasure. Because I want to give pleasure to the reader, but I also want to give pleasure to me, the writer, while I write it. This is how you know when some line is finished: by the pleasure it gives you. There's a great story about Pushkin that, as he was writing Boris Godunov, he would jump up and run around the room shouting "Yeay! Go Pushkin! What a son of a bitch!"  (Admittedly, Boris Godunov is a tragedy.) Anyway, so I wanted to add this as an alternate justification for humour. It does not substitute for what I said before, it just supplements it—as another point of view.

But to get back to the previous point of view. Is empathy folly? I am sure there is a point of view where empathy is folly. But it's not one of my points of view. The folly that really bothers me in poetry (and in interaction) is that of deep self-interest. I show empathy and people buy my book. I write poetry of witness and that gives me tenure. Or, which is in some way a parallel situation, I write a poem about my suffering, and that gets people to like me and give me readings and ask me to do interviews. Doesn't that somehow make my emotions meretricious? It's like talking about unhappy loves of the past to get laid in the present.

I knew a guy on the Bay Area slam circuit years ago. Of course his slam pieces were about discrimination, because that's the most effective slam theme. But to top that off, he would end his pieces in tears that would keep flowing until the scores went up. I don't want to be like him.    

I also don't want to be one of these undergraduates who denounce "greed" in classes paid for by their parents. But I do think that the id of our poetry—as the result of Creative Writing programs, but not only that—is capitalism. Everything we do has a vendible aspect, and it, in the end, is the aspect that counts. Our reward system corrupts us. There were always rewards for poetry—Sappho got her girls, Horace got his villa, Li Po's friends bought him drinks—but now the rewards seem more insidious, impersonal, corporate. And as omnipresent as they are petty. Maybe this is just paranoia on my part. But I am sure I subconsciously censor myself because—what will my students think when they see me say that on YouTube?   

In any case, to write real tragedy now one would have to free oneself of the reward system. Humour doesn't really require you to do that, but tragedy does. I believe this despite the fact that Greek tragedy took place in competitions, and despite the fact that Shakespeare was a businessman, etc. I believe that, because the rewards are more insidious now (I am sorry that this is a vague claim, unverifiable in the given form), real tragedy can no longer appear within the reward system.

CB: Another one of the insidious ways capitalism can invade poetry, for me anyway, is through a leftist insistence that all work be in service of dismantling or at least confronting that superstructure and that to desire pleasure through poetry is a privileged position, which of course it is. (Is this atheist guilt?) In demanding or reading writing, writing writing, always in terms of this argument is as wed to that reward system as a barnacle stuck to its host. I use barnacle rather than parasite because I don't see how these accusations are fundamentally affecting the corporate boat. But maybe they are, the results aren't in yet! And of course many leftists are often in or seeking to be in the employ of institutions of higher education—trying to climb on deck, or at least be paddlers.

So I want to say that in the pleasure you reference, I experience a radical and generous and also gentle proposition. The best kind!

And then I think and have said that we need to be doing more than subverting societal syntax and considering ourselves political. Is individual pleasure political (enough)? Argh, I am being serious! And also möbius-like.

I will get to the point, then, that you make about forbidding rhyme and rhythm—which is, of course, not at all true of performance poetry and the work of hip hop—but certainly in the lion's share of "literary" poetry we seem to be something like counter-formalists at this time, which codifies into its own form. We try to find other ways to linger in language and covertly find its pleasures (another symptom of guilt?). Initially it was a response to experiencing the well-wrought tightly bound scheme as oppressive—how to open that up? I think that is something you do so, eh, pleasurably! in your poems. Rhymes accrete and disappear then reappear. Not a load of predetermined forms for the most part, though teasing them. Sneaking language back in! (That is riddled with cheese-holes.) But referents and rhythm and awareness of artifice and unhinged signs and syllogisms simultaneously. Plus couplets.

So, did you pick Spinoza as much because of the sound?

EO: [F]irst of all I totally agree with you that the "leftist" insistence that all writing be political and take on the system, is a deeply capitalist demand. It is utilitarian; it recognizes only work that brings profit. It is rationalist in Max Weber's sense, in that it posits a final cause and organizes your enterprise to optimally fulfill that cause. I personally think that this is a misguided way for dealing with poetry, but I can see how it would make sense in a capitalist, Protestant culture. However, what I don't see is why somebody really political would want to go into poetry rather than politics. Why not just go into politics? On the other hand, I do find it incredibly admirable that poets so often engage in political volunteer work, whether teaching in prisons or organizing voting campaigns—I just think it has nothing to do with the act of writing. Okay, I really should hop off the soapbox.

Spinoza. I did not pick Spinoza because of the sound, but I did make him a DJ because DJs spin. The origin of the Spinoza character goes like this. I took Spinoza's Ethics with me on a train ride from Ankara to Istanbul in the winter of 2001. It's a pretty slow overnight, but back then you could get a private compartment for cheap, and I like trains. So when I started reading the Ethics in that compartment, it hit me how sad and funny it was. Like, I was actually giggling. First of all, Spinoza's axioms. In the seventeenth century, axioms were thought of as something universal because self-evident, but Spinoza's axioms are the perfect demonstration that what's self-evident for one person is not necessarily self-evident for anyone else in the whole wide world.

Second, the rationalist project: Spinoza thinks that if you find these axioms and then build theorems from them—he calls it operating more geometrico because it's the application of Euclid's method to philosophy—you can know everything that can be known, including all the truths about God and freedom and love. What's wrong with that? Well: a) we now have non-Euclidean geometries, which means that Euclid is no longer the true science of real space, but one construct among many, with his axioms being demoted to postulates; b) we also have Gödel's incompleteness theorems, which demonstrate that no axiomatic system, no matter how perfect, will allow you to prove or disprove all statements possible in that system—basically, no system is capable of demonstrating all truths. Finally, c) the very idea of doing mathematics in natural language with all its fuzziness and liability to puns also seems like a gross misjudgment. But the whole project is so beautiful and admirable—and tragic because of the built-in failures. So it's rationalism, but it's lyrical and lonely.

And that's what The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza is about. The impossibility of rationalism. The impossibility of communication, or at least of communication of the kind that one would like to have, with words that are actually meaningful. Of course then, it is about loneliness. In a fairly sudden way for me, it is also about being Jewish. (It is ironically fitting that Spinoza, who managed to get himself thrown out from the Amsterdam Jewish community, has become the main index of Jewishness for secular Jews, in part because of the double-exile structure, which still resonates.)  Anyway, this is why it has all those jokes about math and language.

And another major ingredient of Spinoza is, of course, children's literature. Children take pleasure in literature that later, when they grow up to be professors, they lose. I go through periods when I wax nostalgic for rhyme, and now that I have a two-year-old daughter it's one of those times. Why the hell did we get rid of the stuff that makes her so happy? Why? That was cultural stupidity of the highest order. We read Fox in Socks with her—it's amazing. I should be so lucky as to compose something one-eighth as good as that! Why is "Fox in Socks" not in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry but—I pop it open at random—Michael Ondaatje is? In what way is it less poetry than Michael Ondaatje? Or compare it with Language Poetry—they might talk about the free play of signifier, but it's Dr. Seuss that delivers.

The other advantage to children's literature is that it allows for emotional honesty; just think of the analysis of friendship in The Little Prince! Neither Cicero's De Amicitia nor anything in Plato even comes close. Why? Because you aren't allowed to say those things in work for adults. Or take "The Owl and the Pussycat"—is there a more beautiful love poem in English? Maybe Donne's "Valediction Forbidding Morning" gives it a run for its money for beauty, but the fact that you need an MA to figure out what it says is actually a fault. 


Montreal’s Summer Literary Seminars take place from June 12 to June 25, 2011. For a schedule of events, or to buy a pass, visit

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