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Visits with IWP Writers in Moscow, Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius: A UI Libraries’ Collection Development Trip

A guest post from Ericka Raber, Research & Instruction Librarian, University of Iowa

(Click to Enlarge) Russian IWP alumnus Andrei Bychkov with UI librarian Ericka Raber.
(Click to Enlarge) Russian IWP alumnus Andrei Bychkov with UI librarian Ericka Raber.
In May 2013, I traveled to Russia and the Baltics on behalf of The University of Iowa Libraries. The trip—similar to those my colleagues Tim Shipe and Lisa Gardinier took to their specialty areas in the past few years—was funded by UI International Programs and the UI Libraries’ administration. Its primary purpose was to acquire materials written by past participants in the International Writing Program. My itinerary took me to Moscow, then to the Baltic capital cities Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius.

UI Libraries began to actively collect works of IWP writers in 2008, 40+ years after the program’s founding; the Libraries’ collection project is thus both retrospective and ongoing, which makes it both extensive and challenging.

Moscow

 

(Click to Enlarge) Stalin and Lenin impersonators posing for photos on the street in Moscow. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
(Click to Enlarge) Stalin and Lenin impersonators posing for photos on the street in Moscow. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

I arrived at the Sheremetevo airport on May 3, my first time back in Moscow since 1996. The taxi ride to my hotel gave me a great above-ground view of how the city has changed, with its shiny, tall business centers in almost every direction. I also had a chance to practice my Russian, and was reassured that it would be more than serviceable for the trip.

More than thirty writers from Russia have participated in the IWP, and of those who live in Moscow, I was able to connect with eight before my departure.

(Click to Enlarge) Shrinking St. Basil's Cathedral down in size in Moscow. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
(Click to Enlarge) Shrinking St. Basil's Cathedral down in size in Moscow. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

I started the week slowly, with just one meeting with Mark Shatunovskii (IWP ’93) at a nearby café.  This was my first official meeting with an IWP writer in Moscow, and Mark was the first to ask about the intentions and value of the retrospective collection project. He seemed unsure that his works would retain their meaning and significance over the years. I’ve seen a similar look when writers shrug as they hand over their books for our collections, saying something to the effect that the books no longer represent who they are as writers. Mark, like many of the authors on this trip, nonetheless kindly donated a couple of books to the UI Libraries. You can catch up with him on LiveJournal, a popular blog platform for Russian writers.

On my way back to the hotel, I stopped in a neighborhood church to mark Orthodox Easter. That evening, playwright Sergei Task (IWP ’94) arranged tickets to an amazing production of Alice Through the Looking-Glass at the new Fomenko Theater.

(Click to Enlarge) IWP alumnus Mikhail Butov (Russia). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
(Click to Enlarge) IWP alumnus Mikhail Butov (Russia). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

My next meeting was with Mikhail Butov (IWP ’06), deputy editor at the venerable literary journal Novyj Mir, at his office near Pushkin Square. Mikhail was anxiously awaiting the publication of his book Po tu storonu kozhi [On the Other Side of the Skin], a collection of novellas and short stories. He too writes about literature, life, and music on LiveJournal. This meeting yielded contacts with additional authors, and during that week, I met with ten more writers in coffee shops, the hotel lobby, and occasionally, following Russian traditions of hospitality, in their kitchens.

One of my most memorable visits was at the home of Maiia Kucherskaya (IWP ‘08), where we had a gourmet meal prepared by Maiia’s husband Sasha, and talked at length about religion and politics. Although modest about her success, Maiia is receiving accolades, including the long list for the Russian Booker Prize for her recent novel Tetia Motia [Auntie Motya or Auntie Mina].

Thursday (Victory Day, May 9) was another day for cultural programming. One of the few things you can do on this major national holiday is to watch the massive demonstration of military might. After the parade, I went out to Kolomenskoe estate, an historical and architectural museum and reserve southeast from downtown.

IWP alumnus Dmitrii Kuzmin (Russia). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
IWP alumnus Dmitrii Kuzmin (Russia). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

I met with Dmitrii Kuzmin (IWP ’04) at his apartment, which also serves as a warehouse for his publishing house ARGO-RISK. Over tea and sweets in the kitchen, we discussed the humanities crisis within the universities, the monopoly of big publishers, and Putin’s decency laws. The floors were covered with stacks of publishing stock, and I purchased over 100 titles for the UI Libraries, selecting works of other IWP authors and complete series when possible. Dmitrii too can be found on LiveJournal.

Other IWP alumni I visited with were Kseniia Dragunskaia (’04), Ol’ga Mukhina (’98), Gleb Shul’piakov (’99), Sergei Task (’94), Aleksei Varlamov (’97), Andrei Bychkov (’01), Kseniia Golubovich (’06), and Alisa Ganieva (’13). Each visit was delightful in its own way. The writers were so generous with their time, and I was grateful to learn about their current projects:   

In addition to republishing some of her children’s books, writing short stories for adults, and scripts for plays, Kseniia Dragunskaia is busy with activities to commemorate the 100-year celebration of the birthday of her father, the well-known and much-loved children’s author Victor Dragunskii.

IWP alumna Ol'ga Mukhina (Russia). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
IWP alumna Ol'ga Mukhina (Russia). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

Oľga Mukhina was furiously working against a deadline for a commissioned play about sports for the Fomenko Theater. Ikona sezona [Icon Season], a film based on her play “Flying,” was released early in 2013. Olga’s plans include studying to become a choir regent in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Gleb Shul’piakov enjoys working from his Moscow Zamoskvorech'e studio apartment, but for writing, he prefers his country home. His recent novel Muzei imeni Dante [The Dante Museum] was reviewed by Maiia Kucherskaia for Vedomosti.ru. In addition to writing poetry and prose, Gleb is a translator and media personality, regularly presenting book talks on Radio Kultura.

IWP alumna Kseniia Golubovich (Russia). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
IWP alumna Kseniia Golubovich (Russia). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

Sergei Task continues to write plays and translations. One recently commissioned  work was Richard Yates’ Cold Spring Harbor; this spring, his translation of Neil Simon’s Fools was playing at the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater.

Aleksei Varlamov teaches Silver Age literature at Moscow State University and the Gorky Literature Institute. He donated his new volume Rozhdenie [Birth], which includes an essay on his IWP experience in 1997.

Andrei Bychkov works as a psychotherapist. His recent writing projects have included feature films and screenplays. He’s also working with the Open World organization, teaching classes on psychotherapeutic  writing.

Kseniia Golubovich is working more on prose than poetry at the moment. She has been a recent partner in conversation with poet and prose writer Olga Sedakova.

(Click to Enlarge) Alisa Ganieva. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
(Click to Enlarge) Alisa Ganieva. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

Alisa Ganieva has received much praise, including the 2013 long list for the Russian Booker Prize, for her 2012 novel Prazdnichnaia gora [Holiday Mountain]. In addition to writing, and being interviewed about life and culture in Dagestan, Alisa continues to work as an editor with Nezavisimaya gazeta.

I managed to visit just a few bookstores during my Moscow stay: Biblioglobus, Falanster, and a couple of big chain stores on or near Tverskaia Street. Unfortunately, time did not allow a visit to the highly recommended bookstores Bilingua Café or Tsiolkovsky.

Estonia

 

(Click to Enlarge) Indrek Tart. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
(Click to Enlarge) Indrek Tart. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

I took a Soviet-style overnight train to Tallinn, and stayed at a hostel on a cobblestone street within the Old Town walls.

I was able to meet with all three IWP alumni from Estonia, Indrek Tart (’92), Karl Martin Sinijärv (‘95), and Doris Kareva (’06). Indrek has left literary pursuits to continue his work in the social sciences, but donated his Basic Human Values in Estonia and Baltic Sea Countries to the Libraries.

IWP alumna Doris Kareva (Estonia). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
IWP alumna Doris Kareva (Estonia). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

Doris Kareva has received many awards and honors for her writing, including the distinguished State Cultural Prize.  Her recent works include translations of Rumi, Emily Dickinson and Anna Akhmatova, and a collection of fairy tales for adults called Sa pole üski [You are not alone].

 

(Click to Enlarge) Kiek in de Kök (Peep into the Kitchen) tower in Tallinn. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
(Click to Enlarge) Kiek in de Kök (Peep into the Kitchen) tower in Tallinn. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

Karl Martin is Chair of the Estonian Writers’ Union, and we met in his office in the middle of Old Town.  He had unique items to offer to the collection, including some books in the form of playing cards and the volume Eesti haiku [Estonian Haiku], written in 4-6-4 syllabic pattern. Later, I was also able to locate his Poissmehe kokaraamat [The Bachelor’s Cookbook].

A fun activity in Tallinn was touring the Kiek in de Kök (Peep into the Kitchen) tower and the bastion tunnels below, which were used as bomb shelters during World War II. I also biked out to the Baltic Sea, which proved to be more challenging than my directions indicated.

Latvia

 

(Click to Enlarge) A view of Riga. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
(Click to Enlarge) A view of Riga. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

Sickness caused me to miss meeting with Gundega Repše (IWP ’96) in Riga, forcing me to settle for what I could find in local stores, and fortunately found several volumes we did not have.

Anna Auziņa (IWP ’96)  offered an update on her life, with plans to finish her MA in literary theory and  work on her fourth book of poems, then guided me to a couple of bookstores and the Latvijas Nacionālajā bibliotēkā, where I was able to take a look at her second poetry volume, now out of print.

Lithuania

 

IWP alumnus Liutauras Degesys (Lithuania). Photo credit Ericka Raber
IWP alumnus Liutauras Degesys (Lithuania). Photo credit Ericka Raber

A bus ride took me to my final destination, Vilnius, the home of most of the seven Lithuanian IWP alumni. Liutauras Degėsys (IWP ’96), Head of the Department of Philosophy at the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences, was an attentive guide and considerate host. Liutauras arranged a meeting with Marius Burokas (IWP ’01) and Donatas Petrošius, Coordinator of International Programs for the Lithuanian Writers’ Union. We met in the Union’s stately building, and I was able to find a couple of books in its bookstore, tucked away in a corner.

IWP alumnus Marius Burokas (Lithuania). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
IWP alumnus Marius Burokas (Lithuania). Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

My visit to Vilnius coincided with the international ‘Spring of Poetry’ festival. This annual event features literary activities throughout the city, and I attended a reading that included a beautiful violin performance requiring no translation.

Marius Ivaškevičius (IWP ’09) was out of the country promoting his upcoming film Santa, but his wife Gražina Michnevičiūtė kindly donated a few titles to the library.

(Click to Enlarge) Bumba Dumba by IWP alumnus Tomas Butkas (Lithuania) acquired for UI Libraries. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
(Click to Enlarge) Bumba Dumba by IWP alumnus Tomas Butkas (Lithuania) acquired for UI Libraries. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

The most productive meeting in Vilnius in terms of adding works to the collection was with Tomas Butkus (IWP ’02). We met at the bell tower in Cathedral Square and walked to the Knygynas eureka! bookstore. Tomas had traveled from Klaipeda, bringing a couple of boxes of items, mostly books, for me to consider for purchase. An architect by training, Tomas is on faculty for a new program in urban design and architecture at Klaipeda University, as well as a book designer,  publisher and editor-in-chief for the press Vario Burnos, and a musician with the group Concrete Bunnies, known for creating soundscapes for poetry. I bought a dozen books and CDs, including some artist books, and a Tomas-designed volume of the poems of Tomaž Šalamun (IWP ’71) from Slovenia.

(Click to Enlarge) Lithuanian titles by IWP alumni acquired to be added to UI Libraries collection. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.
(Click to Enlarge) Lithuanian titles by IWP alumni acquired to be added to UI Libraries collection. Photo credit: Ericka Raber.

Several IWP writers expressed an interest in submitting works to Iowa Research Online (IRO), The University of Iowa’s institutional repository, an open-access archive. Resulting from trip contacts and follow-up research, our staff have already posted more than a dozen titles of IWP writers and their English translators in IRO.  Although I was not able to connect with Russian writer Maksim Kurochkin (IWP ’04) during my trip, I later located his U.S. translator John J. Hanlon, who submitted some of his translations to IRO, including Kurochkin’s play Vodka, Fucking, and Television.

Overall, this trip was very productive for the UI Libraries, adding well over 100 books and other items to our IWP collection. Many of the items would have been difficult, if not impossible, to identify and locate without direct contact with the authors and publishers themselves. This was also an ambassador trip of sorts, outreach to the writers on behalf of The University of Iowa and the UI Libraries to remind them that we care about their works, and that we want to preserve their writing for future generations.

Photos of IWP writers and selected materials

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