Katia Kapovich: Award Winning Poet


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Katia Kapovich: Award Winning Poet

The Cambridge Center for Adult Education is fortunate to have bilingual poet Katia Kapovich among our roster of amazingly talented instructors. We were honored to have such as distinguished poet, such as Katia, give the keynote address during our Annual Fall Writer’s Life Conference on October 23, 2016. This year, the Fall Writer's Life Conference at CCAE featured day-long workshops lead by Cambridge area writers Mopsy Strange Kennedy, Peter Littlefield, Andrew Osbourne, Peter Littlefield, Jeanne Martin, Daniel Gewertz, and Julia Shanks. As a poet, Katia Kapovich has won two Russian National Literary Awards including one awarded this year. In 2001, Katia was a recipient of the US Library of Congress Witter Bynner Fellowship. At CCAE, Katia teaches numerous classes on poetry and Russian literature.  As an instructor, Katia has a following of dedicated students who become active poets such as CCAE Student Services Coordinator Antonio Morales. Get to know Katia Kapovich before her keynote address with this interview conducted by her student Antonio Morales.

AM: First, I want to thank you for taking the time to let us interview you. So let's jump straight into it. How did you first get into writing?

KK: It’s my pleasure, Antonio, to be interviewed by you. I started writing for my school’s theater when I was eight years old. It so happened that a friend asked me to compose something elaborate, with an interesting story, and in rhyme and meter because my schoolmates would need to memorize it. In Russia, it was standard for children to recite poetry from memory in the literature class. So I plunged into the task. It took me about a week to produce a long narrative poem about two friends who escaped from the USSR and went to the USA to save the Native Americans. The title was “Escape.”  Not unpredictably, the poem was banned by the school principal, to the disappointment of both the author and the actors. Instead of “Escape,” they were told to stage a play titled “Lenin in October.”

Who are some of your favorite writers and why?

This is quite obvious because you know what classes I teach at CCAE. There’s Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev. And in the 20th century, Bulgakov, Platonov, Shalamov, Nabokov, as well as such more recent fiction authors as Venedict Erofeev, Sergey Dovlatov, and Denis Dragunsky. Among non-Russian writers, my absolute favorite is James Joyce, followed by Proust, Kafka, Camus, and the Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch.

As to poets, the Russian list might be very long. My favorite contemporaries are Sergey Gandlevsky, Timur Kibirov, Vitaly Pukhanov, and Oleg Dozmorov. Among contemporary English-language poets, I am an admirer of Glyn Maxwell, Simon Armitage, Ben Mazer, Philip Nikolayev, Steven Sturgen, just to mention a few. I love all the above-mentioned writers for their daring, aesthetic novelty, and freshness of language.

Being both a poet and fiction writer, do you find there are thoughts or feelings better expressed with a specific form?

I will quote Pushkin who answered that question in the most elegant way: “Fiction demands thoughts.” With all due respect for poetry, it sometimes manages without them.

Knowing you and having taken your Poetry Workshop Class, your poem "Cossacks and Bandits" is one of my favorites because I hear your voice in it. There is a certain grit and charm to it, a collision of childhood fantasy and the awakening to stark realities. Is this something you still explore in your work?

Thank you for your kind words. I strongly favor the Dantean leap of the imagination when it’s combined with a fall into realism. I also, perhaps naively, surmise that we, poets and writers, must give a sort of Hippocratic oath to heal – and never let our readers down. There is too much posturing and petty complaints and self-expressionism in current literature. My motto: “Back to Beauty.”

Are there any advantages or disadvantages you encounter being a bilingual writer?

Certain life events require a certain distance to be viewed correctly. That effect can be achieved by the sheer passing of time. Or it can be achieved by another language. Being a bilingual writer enables me to speak about the darkest things without being sentimental.

What would you like to see in the future of literature and poetry?

What a great question, Antonio! I would love to know the answer myself… Perhaps my wish is that other poetries were a little more like Russian poetry: mellifluous, dark, beautiful, and memorable. And as an admirer of contemporary English-language fiction in various genres, e.g. by Raymond Carver, David Sedaris, Jonathan Ames, and the Boston author Peter Brown, I wish that Russian fiction learned from them how to narrate a story in such a way that heart stops, but then beats again with new strength. 

Cover image by Meghan Zaremba
​Photo courtesy of Katia Kapovich