Dead Poets Society, Russian Style

Before the semester started, I was told that I could teach one course on anything I wanted to. Although the possibility to teach “anything” seems nice at first glance, the vagueness really wasn’t helpful in narrowing down ideas, and I was glad to get advice from other teachers during our Moscow conference on what topic might be a winner. My fellow Fulbrighter Stephen gave me the great idea of modeling my class after The Dead Poets Society, a thought-provoking film in which a teacher played by Robin Williams inspires his students to push past rigid analysis to find the heartbeat of literature while encouraging them to question convention and think for themselves. The film gets its name from an old school tradition that the students resurrect in which they sneak off to a cave in the woods to read poetry.

The class has been both exciting and challenging for me as a teacher. Each week, we read either a short story or poem that is connected to a broad theme, such as “Suffering” with W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” then discuss the piece of literature, its themes, and its implications for our lives. I have really been impressed by this group of students’ desire to discuss these big issues and their ability to express complex thought in a second, or for many who speak Tatar, a third language. My fifth year students are about my age and for the most part have read more American literature than I have, which was intimidating at first, but I have to remind myself that a good teacher should have the attitude of a learner, and I really have learned so much from my students 🙂

The second Americano cameo in this post goes to my beloved neighbor in Naberezhniye Chelny, Hanna, who gave me the idea of hosting a poetry reading at my dorm, which totally fits into this Dead Poets Society frame. I haven’t had students over before, because I don’t have a kitchen or really very many chairs, but, excuses, excuses…how could I not do this? It was the best idea ever.

So, I invited my students over for banana-chocolate chip pancakes fried on my hot plate (which were devoured in minutes) and asked them to each bring a poem, in Russian, English, or Tatar, that they would like to share with the group.

First, a few girls shared some spoken word poetry by Neil Hilborn from the Button Poetry Project, which I had never heard of. It made me want to try my hand at some spoken word.

Most people drank tea out of glasses or used jam jars because I only own 3 mugs.

Next, students shared their favorite Russian poetry, both classic and modern. Some were familiar to me, like Pasternak, Yesenin and Brodsky, but I learned of some new poets such as Severyanin and Poloskova. Although my conversational Russian is pretty good, it was really hard to catch the meaning of most of the Russian poems that were read. One of my students shared some poetry that she had written, and I also shared a few of my poems.

My favorite one of the night was a piece by Boris Pasternak called “February,” which makes an appearance in a few lines of one of my favorite Regina Spektor songs “Apres Moi.” The first verse of the poem has been the perfect soundtrack to the slushy, wet introduction to the Russian spring.

Here is the first verse with a translation:

Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать! 
Писать о феврале навзрыд, 
Пока грохочащая слякоть 
Весною черною горит. 

February. Get ink, shed tears. 
Write of it, sob your heart out, sing, 
While torrential slush that roars 
Burns in the blackness of the spring. (http://www.kulichki.com/poems/Poets/bp/Rus/bp_3.html)

Sveta and her jam-jar mug.

Прекрасный вечер с прекрасными людьми 🙂

 

 

A Few Things Off My Bucket List

Before I left for Russia in September, I created a short Fulbright Bucket List, in which I brainstormed things I wanted to do before I left Russia. These past two weeks, I have been able to check quite a few items off my list. Here’s a short chronicle of items on my bucket list I’ve conquered so far:

Item #4: Ice-skating without landing myself in a hospital, or worse, finding myself at the hands of a dramatic Russian dentist named Konstantine. Those of you who have followed my blog for more than a year know that last summer while studying in Vladimir, Russia, I was introduced to the Russian medical system after splitting my chin while ice skating. Ever since my fall, I have been nervous about skating again, so I determined to face my fear and make it through at least one round of skating unharmed.  When my friend Elmira and I first set foot on the ice, I was wobbly and stiff, memories of my chin slamming into the ice closer than they had been in over a year. But after about 10 minutes of holding onto the bar, I gingerly started to make my way around the circle, and after about 10 minutes of this, I felt confident enough to have a conversation while skating. Unfortunately, the site won’t let me upload the video Elmira took of me skating, but here is a picture of us after the fact:

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Item #10: Write a poem in Russian

I love poetry, and I have found it fun to play around with it in Russian, even though I probably don’t have a strong enough grasp on word nuances and connotations to be confident that I am saying what I want to say. The first time I attempted poetry in Russian was at the age of 14 in my beginner’s Russian class, where I wrote a sad poem about not getting noticed by the boy I liked (Увидеть меня ещё нельзя). Since then, I haven’t really worked at anything serious, and the last one I wrote was a parody of an Anna Akhmatova poem for one of my friends, which chronicles our memories in Vladimir. Right now, I am teaching a creative writing course at the university, and I had my students write a poem in English. Since writing poetry is especially intimidating in another language, I promised them that if they did the assignment, then I would write a poem in Russian. I decided to write a few lighthearted verses on the torture that is Russian pronunciation, since I needed some catharsis for the frustration that comes with each Russian lesson. As the Russians would say, the poem is “ещё сырое,” or still a draft, but if you read Russian, feel free to read my work in progress:

Русское Произношение

Вы знаете, мои друзья

Какой у вас язык богат

Но знайте, также, ваш язык

Причиняет мне страдать

Русское произношение-

Жестокое мучение

Мягкий ль язык не любит,

Мягкий ть он ненавидеть.

Особенно по магазинам

Когда продавцам я обращаюсь

Язык тормозит, чувствую страх

И, вот, опять, я заикаюсь.

Поэтому, я каждый день,

Когда по улице хожу

Скороговорки глупые

Я повторяю, повторяю.

Однажды я надеюсь говорить без трудностей

без проблем произносить и ни, и ти, и ли,

Но сегодня надо ждать вопрос:

“Девушка, откуда вы!?”

Item #13: Travel to a city I’ve never been to before.

This past weekend, I was so excited to be able to visit my fellow Fulbrighter Hanna, who lives in the neighboring city of Naberezhniye Chelny (try to say that five times fast). Although geographically Elabuga and N. Chelny are close (45 minutes on the bus 🙂 ), each city has a very different culture, due to the fact that whereas Elabuga is pretty much ancient, N. Chelny was built around 60 years ago when the Kamaz car plant was built. N. Chelny has less aesthetic charm than Elabuga due to both its short history and the reasons for which it was built, but despite the lack of apparent beauty, it felt great to be in a larger city again.

The best part about the weekend though, of course had nothing to do with the city, and everything to do with who I spent it with. Can I just say that it was a breath of fresh air to be able to interact with another American, to have deep conversations about anything and everything without having to modify our speech, to share stories and find commonalities in our experiences, and perhaps most importantly of all, to be able to share the moment when we saw this Halloween costume of one of Hanna’s students:

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I definitely decided to come on a good weekend, since Hanna was hosting a Halloween party for her students. They spoke excellent English, and we had a wonderful evening eating, toasting each other, playing mafia, and watching a “horror” movie that was hard not to laugh through.

Hanna created an elaborate slug costume, which we learned (and will never forget) is called слизняк in Russian. I didn't have a costume so a student lent me a spare pair of devil's horns.
Hanna created an elaborate slug costume, which we learned (and will never forget) is called слизняк in Russian. I didn’t have a costume so a student lent me a spare pair of devil’s horns.

Here is a picture of the spread of cakes, pies, and salads that the students treated us to:

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…which brings me to the next thing on my list.

Item# 6: try one of the foods I have avoided thus far while in Russia

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This, my friends, is known as “Herring Under Fur Coat.” This dish is a mouth-boggling layered salad of herring and onion, potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise and beets. I have nothing against beets, or eggs, or potatoes, but I feel that just about anything is ruined if you add salty fish with crunchy onions. I also don’t hate mayonnaise, but everything in moderation, right? And by the pink glow of the salad, you can tell that moderation was the last thing from this salad maker’s mind. I came, I ate, and I will do my best to never do such a thing again.

I also forced myself to try one of these, but I couldn’t finish it:

Bread, butter with what I think was horseradish, pickles and fish.
Bread, butter with what I think was horseradish, pickles and fish.

Note: my goal is not to bash Russian food, since as a whole, I actually prefer Russian food to American. I love the dairy products here, the breads, the cakes and most of the salads, but I still have yet to understand the Russian obsession with both fish and mayonnaise. And of course, one of my favorite aspects of Russian meals is the absolute necessity of tea. Here is a picture of a beautiful pot of tea Hanna and I ordered while we snagged internet at a local cafe.

"Огородны чай," tea with mint, apple, cinnamon and strawberry.
“Огородны чай,” tea with mint, apple, cinnamon and strawberry.

Now that I’m back in Elabuga, I already miss Hanna, but there will be certainly more visits to come, since the bus only takes 45 minutes from her stop to my stop! Let the adventures continue.

The Irony of Fate

When I found out I was being placed in Elabuga for my teaching assistantship in the fall, the name was nothing more to me than than a humorous string of syllables (think boogie-man, the Ooga-Booga man from Crash Bandicoot). But upon doing some research into the city, I discovered that one of its claims to fame is that it was the death place of the renowned poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

List of Russian language poets
List of Russian language poets (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Happening upon this information was one of those satisfying full-circle moments for me, since the first poem I ever read in Russian (and attempted to translate), was by Marina Tsvetaeva. Age 13 was the year that my passion for the Russian language was ignited, and  I still remember vividly the lessons I took, held inside the home of a tall Muscovite named Natasha. For homework one night, Natasha gave me to translate what is perhaps Tsvetaeva’s most famous poem. It was far beyond my level at the time, but that didn’t stop me from eagerly flipping through my massive Russo-English dictionary in search of the keys that would unlock the meaning of the mysterious text. Below is the poem in both Russian and English translation:

Мне нравится, что вы больны не мной,
Мне нравится, что я больна не вами,
Что никогда тяжелый шар земной
Не уплывет под нашими ногами.
Мне нравится, что можно быть смешной –
Распущенной – и не играть словами,
И не краснеть удушливой волной,
Слегка соприкоснувшись рукавами.

Мне нравится еще, что вы при мне
Спокойно обнимаете другую,
Не прочите мне в адовом огне
Гореть за то, что я вас не целую.
Что имя нежное мое, мой нежный, не
Упоминаете ни днем, ни ночью – всуе…
Что никогда в церковной тишине
Не пропоют над нами: аллилуйя!

Спасибо вам и сердцем и рукой
За то, что вы меня – не зная сами! –
Так любите: за мой ночной покой,
За редкость встреч закатными часами,
За наши не-гулянья под луной,
За солнце, не у нас над головами, –
За то, что вы больны – увы! – не мной,
За то, что я больна – увы! – не вами!

3 Мая 1915

I like it that you’re burning not for me,
I like it that it’s not for you I’m burning
And that the heavy sphere of Planet Earth
Will underneath our feet no more be turning
I like it that I can be unabashed
And humorous and not to play with words
And not to redden with a smothering wave
When with my sleeves I’m lightly touching yours.

I like it, that before my very eyes
You calmly hug another; it is well
That for me also kissing someone else
You will not threaten me with flames of hell.
That this my tender name, not day nor night,
You will recall again, my tender love;
That never in the silence of the church
They will sing “halleluiah” us above.

With this my heart and this my hand I thank
You that – although you don’t know it –
You love me thus; and for my peaceful nights
And for rare meetings in the hour of sunset,
That we aren’t walking underneath the moon,
That sun is not above our heads this morning,
That you – alas – are burning not for me
And that – alas – it’s not for you I’m burning.

Translated by Ilya Shambat

One of the reasons that this poem is so well known is that it makes a musical cameo in the classic Russian New Year’s movie, Ироны Судьбы (The Irony of Fate). The film begins with  a group of Russian men enjoying an New Year’s Eve at a Moscow баня (bath house) and getting drunk. This would hardly be noteworthy, except for that the men get so drunk that the conscious ones can’t remember which one of their passed-out friends was supposed to board a plane to Leningrad. And being good friends, they do their best, but they still put the wrong friend on the plane.

When the hungover Zhenya arrives in Leningrad, he is still not sober enough to realize that he’s not in Moscow. So he flags down a taxi and gives him his “home address.” The driver brings him to his “home,” and Zhenya passes out on a bed as soon as he arrives. (Note: such a mistake was possible because Soviet-era city planning was big on uniformity; i.e., Moscow and Leningrad had many of the same street names and identical housing complexes). Zhenya is surprised to awake to a beautiful woman screaming at him to get out of her apartment…and so it begins. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but here is the clip in which Nadia (the woman who lives in the apartment), sings lines from Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem. Hint: it’s a happy ending.

This movie is near and dear to my heart because of the ironic role it once played in my travels, what I like to call “The Irony of Gate.” At the end of my study abroad in 2010, I sat sick with strep throat in my hotel room while the rest of the group went to stare at Vladimir Lenin’s waxy corpse. To keep myself occupied, I watched The Irony of Fate, unaware that I would soon become Zhenya. On the way back to America, I managed to get on the wrong plane, giving my parents and group mates the fright of their lives. While on a layover in Frankfurt, I got separated from my group and approached what I thought was the correct gate. Esteeming German efficiency and attention to detail as infallible, when the gate attendant let me on, I boarded with complete confidence. And then I waited. And waited. And no one in my group came. The loudspeaker confirmed my growing doubts, “Service to Newark, New Jersey.” I was supposed to be going to JFK. I’ll never forget the flight attendant’s reaction when I told her my plight; she looked over her shoulder and said to a male attendant in a grave tone, “we have a situation.” A situation indeed, but thankfully one that I can now laugh about. Eight hours later, I arrived in America fatigued, but unscathed, and feeling a little guilty for giving everyone close to me such a scare.

I can laugh at it now, but I definitely hope my travels to Elabuga go much more smoothly than my little misadventure three years ago…

I Am (Not) My Writing

I am my writing. I have been told this is a lie, yet every tap on the keyboard feels like a needle invading my finger veins, draining drops of blood. I am my writing.It is not hard to understand why this statement seems so much more like truth than a lie. Since childhood, I have felt closest to God with a pen in my hand, outpouring my reflections and prayers in a cozy journal that never made me feel unsafe or misunderstood. When I pray out loud, my sloppy words waddle around in distracted circles, but when I write to God, it feels like he takes over my pen and guides my hand to record the truth that gets lost in the wind when I try to speak. For a glorious stretch of time between my first journal entry and the end of high school, I was not my writing. Writing was a joy, an escape to exotic locales and vivid characters. Writing was a gift, a bowl into which I could pour all my messy emotions and observe them to get a proper perspective. But when college began, something changed.

          As I was thrust into the world of discussion-based classes alongside students who seemed to know what they wanted to say and how to say it, I began to feel painfully incompetent. When I tried to contribute in class, my sentences seemed awkward and broken, filled with stops and starts and misused verbs. I would chastise myself for answering a question with “yeah, it’s pretty cool,” when the guy sitting across from me threw around words like “Aristotelian” with a yawn. I had thoughts, I had ideas, but when I opened my mouth, I was as articulate as a caveman, and as I compared myself to my classmates I wondered if I was somehow mentally deficient. Outside the classroom, I felt caricatured by those around me, carelessly squished into a box labeled “quiet, responsible, and a little boring.”  In this new school where I desperately wanted to find friends, I didn’t feel perceived as who I really was, the goofy girl who loved people and adventures and traveling to foreign countries.
          It was with a pen that I found the power to fight back against the one-dimensional identity that I thought was being forced upon me. When my TGC class was assigned a “This I Believe Essay,” I lit up when I realized that the assignment offered me the opportunity to share about my experiences in Russia, which were adventurous and daring and anything but quiet and responsible. I felt immense satisfaction as I passed in the finished product, knowing that whoever read it, even if it was only my professor, would see who I really was.
          But to my delight, it wasn’t only my professor who saw it; I was assigned to have a conference on the paper with my TGC fellow. It was an understatement to say that I had a crush on this senior T.A. I was convinced that he was everything I wanted in a man; with his intense gaze and depth of insights into suffering, love, and the good life*, it wasn’t just three flights of stairs that made my heart race on my way to class. But alas, I was cursed with the freshman-ness and inarticulateness that made me invisible to this intellectual demigod. I trembled in nervousness as I hiked my way up to the third floor of the chapel to meet him, and four years later, his words to me still resonate: “it was one of the most polished essays. It had an enthralling tone! And I know I shouldn’t say this…. But, it was my favorite.” I’m sure my eighteen year old face was glowing as if he had just asked for my hand in marriage.  I am my writing, I thought.
            My sophomore year, I stood before my creative writing class and read a poem that was my masterpiece: it perfectly articulated all that God had been teaching me, and the form and structure reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. I will never forget the bewildered, confused look on my professor’s face after I finished reading. His wide eyes and open mouth seemed to betray that he absolutely hated it but was trying not to let it show. An awkward silence lingered for a few seconds and I took my seat, defeated. I am my writing. This summer, a friend read the same poem and he loved it, expressing amazement and appreciation for my thoughts and the way I had worded them. He “got” my writing, therefore, he “got” me.
My experiences in college have shown me that the belief that I equal my writing is a dangerous equation, a mode of measurement as capricious as New England weather.  Sometimes the words flow effortlessly, but most of the time, I feel like I can’t string together sentences worthy of a third grader. Nonetheless, writing has become a defense weapon, a shield against my fears that I do not measure up. It has become an advertisement for myself, trying to convince others that I am worth their time. And after four years of striving to prove myself through two dimensional black and white pages, I have begun to realize that my idolization of writing has squished me into a smaller box than the one I was trying to escape.
            Ephesians 2:10 says that we are God’s workmanship, a word that comes from the Greek “poiema,” where we get the term “poem.” We are God’s poems, masterfully sculpted works of art whose stories cannot be constrained to something as paltry as a page. To try to wrest the pen from my Creator in a small-minded attempt to make a name for myself blinds me to the breathtaking story he wants to write my life into. So as I graduate, I want to transform this pen, to use it not as a weapon, not as a billboard promoting Hope Johnson, but as a gift, remembering that though writing is a tool God has given me to process this life, it is not life itself. Taking my eyes off myself and fixing them on the author of a much greater story than could fit on a page frees me with truth that I am not my writing. No, I am His writing. 

*love, suffering and the good life are three things Gordon College’s first year seminar really likes to talk about. Alot.