Dmitry Kuzmin: the well-known publisher, editor of anthologies, and engineer of literary life is also well known, though less distinguished, as a poet, critic, and translator. I want to write about him because I think he is one of the most important and interesting figures in contemporary Russian culture, and because over the course of a decade I have observed his work—both from the outside and from within, as his colleague.
We were introduced by the poet Danila Davydov at the beginning of 1998. Davydov and I were studying at the Gorky Literary Institute; Davydov had been working for a while on one of Kuzmin’s many projects, the paper Moscow Literary Life, which on a monthly basis published firsthand reports about practically every literary event in Moscow. After reading one of my essays in Russian Journal, Kuzmin invited Davydov and me to a reading at Avtornik, on Maly Kiselny Alley. Afterward the three of us left “to drink kefir,” as Kuzmin put it, at a bar above the arch that leads to the Kuznetsky Bridge metro. Kuzmin actually did drink kefir, which he then had to share with Danila and me, since we didn’t have any money. Over kefir Kuzmin explained to me his vision of the paper and his work in general.
So I began to go to literary readings (mostly poetry) and write them up. I adopted the thinking of the paper pretty quickly; in truth I was close to it already. The idea was to evaluate poets not according to one’s vague and subjective emotions, but to the context from which they’d emerged; to insist on the author’s right to innovate; and to criticize everything traditional and passé. Innovation was the key. If Kuzmin saw even the slightest inkling of it in a poet, he drew him in, either by publishing him in his annual literary anthology, Vavilon, or by encouraging him in some other way—basically, one way or another, he kept an eye on him. He proceeded according to what he called a general “ecological” approach—the creation of a large metaspace (an ecology of poetry), which was to include the most varied but at the same time interdependent poetics, consisting of all the authors working in some new vein, regardless of the scale or even quality of that work. The idea was that over time, with the success of liberal reforms and the general emancipation of the population, this poetic space would become a major cultural phenomenon and play an important and positive role in Russian culture. In the meantime, Kuzmin would reinvent the Russian poetic sphere. He published papers, magazines, and dozens of small books; he hosted events, engaged in polemics, organized conferences. Not long after we started working together, he made one of his savviest moves: he decided to make the Vavilon poetry anthology a web-based publication, dramatically expanding its reach, its frequency of publication, and its archival potential. In this, as in so much else, he was so far ahead of the rest of the literary field as to be playing some different game entirely.
And so I went to readings and wrote my reports. I can’t say that Kuzmin and I became friends—we had strictly professional, or rather collegial, relations. I shared his central preoccupations and believed that we were doing something important and progressive. When I began to write my own poems, Kuzmin took to them with great interest—sincerely, as far as I can tell—and really saw something in me, I think, with all his heart. He began to publish and promote me. I in turn followed him with great interest and, in general, sympathy, as a man, a poet, and an activist. Kuzmin was, quite clearly, a very powerful irritant to the average Russian cultural (un)consciousness. He possessed and possesses qualities that in discrete doses are more or less tolerable, but at his level of concentration produce a phenomenal effect.