Maria Stepanova and Sasha Dugdale

Maria Stepanova is a Russian poet, novelist, essayist, and journalist. She is the author of ten poetry collections as well as three books of essays. Holy Winter 20/21 (New Directions, 2024) and War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe Books, 2021), both translated by Dugdale, were Poetry Book Society Translation Choices and winners of PEN Translates awards. Stepanova founded and was editor-in-chief of the online, independent, crowdsourced journal until the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced all dissenting media in Russia to shut down. As a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin’s regime, she had to leave Russia and is now living in exile.

Sasha Dugdale is a poet, playwright, and translator. Her sixth book of poetry, The Strongbox, was published by Carcanet Press in 2024. Dugdale has translated two of Stepanova’s poetry collections and work by a number of Russian-language women poets, such as Elena Shvarts and Marina Tsvetaeva. Mythology and folklore emerge formally as influences early in Holy Winter 20/21: “No, we can’t take the sleigh and ride out / To the pine woods for tea with Mr Bear. // Ovid in Tomis dreams / Of white geese over Rome. // Auntie Toma dreams / Of how the model life begins.” Can you describe your thinking about narrative movement and myth for this book? 

Maria Stepanova: In a sense, this book is a little like a sacred forest, where the myth of eternal winter and frozen words plays hide-and-seek with itself. Here, chronological and historical time yield to anachronism, which becomes the principle of the book’s construction: a closed circle. Within this space poets, travelers, mythical heroes and their shades move and are reflected in each other. They blunder about in their search for an exit, but there is no prospect of escape: they are locked in the present tense, forced to endure their own glaciation. The endless receding corridor of the mirror reflections of myth, turns any fairy tale into a horror story, but just as it was for us (for me) during the isolation of the pandemic, there is a certain strange comfort in boundless despair—a person can settle in that state, and even feel at home. This much is clear from the letters Ovid wrote from exile: the place of his punishment (a non-place, a land, which he perceives from the very first as being outside the natural world and laws of nature; where the people walk on water and wine freezes, so you must break it into pieces and suck it like a boiled sweet) becomes familiar, and only in the letters to his friends, who are thinking of him in the imperial capital city, does he recall the strangeness of what is happening, its unnatural nature.

Something like this circular conversation, between countries, epochs, languages (the languages of translation as well—this is a very important part of the book for me), happens in Holy Winter 20/21. The book’s structure is very free, the voices surge and then fade like songs from an old jukebox; you can choose to follow a direction of travel, to focus on one of the lines of narrative (Ovid and his exile, the pandemic in 2020, Ovid’s Heroines, Catherine II and Potemkin, the frozen letters) or you can choose to let them all sound at once. In a sense, the reading, the figure of the reader, her living body, is an essential condition for the book’s existence. As the frozen texts are read out, they warm up, they resonate at last, as they always wanted to do. At one point in the book, a speaker says, “I’ve lost the art myself: poems are the toys of the fortunate / Who like to play at misfortune.” There is an implication in this section that poetry is a bourgeois pastime. Can you say more about what inspired this scene? 

MS: Not entirely bourgeois—rather what might be termed “overly human.” The complaint, the chance to make one’s suffering visible to another, to share it with others, is literature’s ancient right, and Ovid, who might be considered to have invented the genre of “letters from exile,” makes use of this right unstintingly. He writes very fully: eloquent, rhetorically perfect letters like speeches in court. His complaint is dictated in the faith that if his friends can say a word in his favor, he will be saved and return home to resurrect the life he once thought normal, his life. But as we know, this never happened. And here of course we allow ourselves to share with him a sense of irony—irony toward ourselves of course; the naïve belief of writers that to be read is to be understood, and maybe to be saved—a belief that cannot survive the encounter with real life. On the other hand, poetic form with its ritual dance of repeats, allusions, and hidden meanings is a way to create some distance, a hygiene barrier, between oneself and one’s pain. The artificial gridlines of poetic form appear exactly at the point where it would be more natural to scream or bellow or beat one’s head against the wall. Does this mean the poet is not unhappy enough, that pain has not yet overtaken him entirely? Or are poems a sort of resistance: the art of resisting pain? Sugar and salt are sensory images that occasionally appear amid the descriptions of winter, particularly toward the end of the book, with the lines “[f]oreign words melt in the cheek / Like sugar cubes.” The afterword even takes on the shape of a sugar cone. What inspired this contrasting sensorial imagery, and how might taste relate to our grasp of language? 

MS: Salt and sugar: white, sifting piles, almost indistinguishable from each other until they touch the tongue—these are another form of snow in the landscape of eternal winter, the language of silence. For their distinct and intrinsic qualities to be felt, those relating to taste, the possibility of distinguishing (between good and evil, light and dark, heat and cold, bitter and sweet), they must be placed in the human mouth, in its warm, living atmosphere where the as-yet-unspoken and indistinct words are held—those that are yet to resonate. A chorus of voices speaks throughout this book, particularly the echo of other translators, including Kenneth Rexroth, whose translations of classical Chinese poets were translated into Russian then back into new English translations. Did this desire to include a multitude of voices make it necessary to form a book-length project? If so, could you talk about the processes of both composing and translating a long-form poem?
MS: It felt important for this book (actually it felt utterly and vitally essential) to retreat to the margins, to background everything connected with me and with my personal fate, to place it at the edge of wordlessness, and give the space to the voices of others, not least the voices of translators, those who make their “I,” their language and fate, a bridge of sorts, across which the words of another language hurry (flee? trying to reach a different new world?). I believe that translation is a form of flight; a text locked in its own language and in the context of its own culture gains an opportunity to save itself from determination and unambiguity, to experience its own sea change; a little chain of transformations, which can alter it to unrecognizability and give it a number of new lives.     

Sasha Dugdale: Translating a long-form poem requires a different pace of work and a different approach. To translate Holy Winter 20/21 I spent a long time reading Maria’s core texts and making notes on works such as Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto, the correspondence of Catherine II of Russia, and an enormous biography of Catherine (my family often jokes to me that I am a method translator!). I didn’t begin translating until I felt I had all those independent voices in my head so I could work on Maria’s words with my own network of overheard associations. This is not because I “version” a text; on the contrary, I depart unwillingly from the Russian. However I like to feel that I am in control of my own soundspace—it benefits the final text.

Maria’s translations of Kenneth Rexroth’s classical Chinese translations differ slightly from his original English, and this gave me leave to add another layer (Rexroth says in his introduction that he is sure translating Tu Fu has made him “a better man,” and I didn’t want to miss out on the possibility of moral improvement!). Although translation and original composition involve different processes, I come to both with the same level of scrupulousness in tracing patterns of thought and sound. What are you currently reading?
SD: The Life of Tu Fu by Eliot Weinberger and Raving Language: Selected Poems 1946–2006 by Friederike Mayröcker, translated by Richard Dove. What are your favorite poems on
MS: “Elegy for the Disappeared” by Forrest Gander and “In the Woods of Language, She Collects Beautiful Sticks” by Valzhyna Mort.

SD: “Poem without Angel Food” by C. D. Wright, From “Hardly Opera” by Don Mee Choi, and “The Mud Sermon” by Ishion Hutchinson.