LITO: A Lift to Parnassus

Polina KOPYLOVA (journalist, science-fiction writer, poet, translator; b. 1976, USSR) graduated from Saint-Petersburg State University of Cinema and Television, and now works as a freelance journalist and translator in Helsinki. Her poems appear in the collection Struktura sna [The Structure of a Dream] (St Petersburg, 2008); she is also the editor of Novaya steza otkrylas’ [A new path has opened], a 2008 volume of Russian writers in Finland.

Why does a poet need to be heard and accepted, or on the other hand, rejected by other poets? What makes it necessary to search for poetry circles, to join them, to gain—or, more aptly, to win --recognition from colleagues? Isn’t it a reader who determines popularity? Isn’t it a critic who tells the reader about the hidden meanings of the literal words? Isn’t it an academic, an expert in literature, who at last places the poet and his poetry into a national and global hierarchy?

Why should one care about another poet’s opinion and even desire it to be expressed publicly?

Once I heard Victor Krivulin, the renowned Russian poet who, along with Brodsky and Naiman and Rein, belonged to the circle of “Akhmatova’s orphans,” say in an interview that a poet needs a special “acoustic space” for developing his talent. In other words, he needs his texts to be understood and echoed by people with a similar conception of language as the poet’s own.

The poets are united by a common feeling of a certain weirdness, eccentricity, which is essential to the art of poetry. This often leads to the feeling of exclusion, or inclusion, in a special community, leading to the larger literary community being split and segmented by differences in style and artistic aim.

In Russia, literature has always been socially important, though the onslaught of mass media is bringing about a loss in its social standing and relevance. In Soviet times poetry was a substitute of sorts for religion—the last resort of the intelligentsia, as well as, paradoxically, a powerful instrument of propaganda. Often beginning to write in the early school age of 8 or 9, a young poetry author always knew he would be making his first step toward Parnassus, where the deceased classics reside alongside the living—even if he didn’t show his opus to anyone. But rarely could one resist the desire to be heard.

So the next step for the new-born poet would often be a literary club, a studio or a seminar, which most often takes the name LITO, an acronym derived from the Russian phrase литературное объединеие ( ‘literaturnoye ob’yedinenie’ --literary gathering). A LITO’s main function is, in fact, tutoring—or giving the opportunity to improve and develop poetical skills within a group. Here I have to underscore that what is awarded for this study is not a diploma, but rather, sometimes, a reputation. The first such gathering of young poets for shared study was, I believe, begun by Nikolai Gumilev in 1910s, and is remembered by the name of “Sounding Shell.” LITOs should, however, be distinguished from the various voluntary artistic unions and also movements such as the Futurists, the Dadaists, based on a common artistic ideology or goal. LITOs gathered clearly different styles, and maintain different trends of poetry. In that sense they were more like schools, dealing with young people writing in a spectrum of styles.

It wouldn’t be hard to here pile up heaps of names and of characteristic poetry, but I am going to limit the story to the general features. LITOs differ by their ideology, modes of initiation, style, choices of trends, as well as in atmosphere. It’s also worth mentioning the age of the participants, because some LITOs, though formed decades ago, continue to exist, almost like closed clubs; their members are adults, and membership is gained by years of patient presence and participation.

The most usual form of a LITO is a permanently working seminar, led on a volunteer basis by a respected poet who takes on a group of 10-20 youngsters. They share their latest verse and rely on the Teacher-poet to help them with promotion and publication, possible because of his extensive networks in the literary community. They are often known by the leader’s name: thus Alexander Kushner’s, Alexei Mashevsky’s, or Vyacheslav Leikin’s seminars. Their work mostly consists of reading and discussing one another’s verses, helping the individual with the development of his talent. To enter, or rather, to be invited to join a LITO, you’re expected to give a representative sample of your verse to the leader who then decides whether your ability level corresponds to the LITO’s criteria.

The leader’s poetry is usually not to be discussed by the younger members. He is in charge of the final judgment and announces the verdict. To make the procedure of discussion more serious, a “critic” and a “defender” are chosen from among the participants for a thorough and detailed analysis of the poems presented for the discussion. Their task is to stress the poem’s strong as well as weak points, ideally thus clarifying for the author his limits and potentials. The other participants may add their own impressions and observations.

This method can seem quite organized, but the reality often turns out to be different. The poet leading the LITO feeds more or less openly his personal tastes and preferences to the others. For example, in A. Kushner’s LITO, which has now existed for over two decades, the dominant tradition is classical and melancholic, with no taboo vocabulary or formal experiments allowed. The young poet bringing expressive texts may encounter a suggestion to write on some other subject, or to read more classics, or even be asked why he’s mentioning God’s name in his poems, or be told he is too abstract while real poetry should deal with the visible and the concrete, rendering it poetic for the reader. Real poetry should be clear, preferably a bit sad, minimalist—and rhymed. This is what I call “subjective authoritarianism”—the full confidence in one’s own experience, taste and importance transferred to another’s creative evolution.

Other LITOs, left over from the Soviet times in former Young Pioneer Palaces (now renamed Children’s Creative Centers) are led by minor verse-makers for a pitiful wage, and are hardly ever noticed—but still bearing the poet’s name. Here, teenagers, while not being taught to actually analyze and criticize, end up by discussing not the text but rather the author, often throwing into the air assorted psychiatric diagnoses, and causing considerable pain to the author whose work is being discussed. One gets angry, another scared, some suffer, thinking this to be the only way to join the herd. Yet it is often thought that this sort of traumatic initiation is useful for a mature poet, for it sweeps away pointless pride.

Both types of LITOs described here are characterized by being damn serious about what they do. From inside they see their activities as exercising a certain cultural mission.

The second type of LITO is represented, for example, by Vyacheslav Leikin’s group, which has developed from a literary club at a weekly youth magazine. There teaching and studying are done through endless games, aimed at developing formal skills and abilities to play with the word and sense. There seemed to be no clear preference for a particular style; neither were discussions organized. The usual practice is to make positive remarks so that the only kind of criticism is the silence of being ignored. This seems psychologically much milder than the method mentioned above; but the negative aspect of this practice is that it makes the young writer dependent on a friendly audience, where no negative opinions are pronounced. Clearly this leads to a sort of literary isolation in which one loses the ability to coexist with others.

All three kinds of LITO have a certain internal hierarchy. Besides the leaders’ favorites, the most promising poets, there is always a “manager,” often less a talented member, in charge of the work flow and the preparations for the readings, which gives him a special relationship with the leader.

Recently, however, a new trend has appeared: a cluster of young poets, looking for a spiritual leader of sorts, will choose and invite a Teacher-poet, sometimes even paying for his time in the session. I know at least one such case. When a leader left the position for private reasons, this group of poets stayed together as part of a LITO, and looked for someone able to advise them on their creative practice. They visited several different LITOs before “hiring” a leader, trying to find a match. And when the first leader “hired” didn’t satisfy them, they located a second one who finally turned to be the right match.

This seminar, led by Valery Shubinsky, working now fruitfully for more than four years and gaining more and more participants, is based on a different set of principles and attitudes. When verses are discussed, the first elements to be looked at in the author’s poetics are the specific features that distinguish his poems from those of the others—in other words, what makes the poet original. Secondly, the students aim to assist the author in identifying himself with one or several existing traditions in order to let him know that he’s not alone but shares in the classical heritage and contemporary achievements of others—while still being himself.

As a steady institution of literary life, the LITO becomes an important part of one’s identity, as much for the teacher-poet as for the apprentices; it is also a helpful instrument for promoting oneself early in one’s career. This explains why many still exist on a completely voluntary basis: they fulfill a need for the romantic and ambitious idea of having one’s own “school” in almost a medieval sense--and the feeling of belonging to a “school” warms the heart. It is honorable and flattering to have pupils following you— no one can deny that. And the phenomenon of volunteering without any official warranties or benefits says something of poetry’s role in Russian society, where it still seems still to be a matter of worship more than of self-expression, more for the others than for yourself.

The name of a LITO works as a brand and a clear reference to a certain tradition; it places one on the literary system of coordinates, and says something more about the poet that he himself might imagine himself to be.

Iowa City, Fall 2006