The Cheburashka Collective New poetry of the post-Soviet diaspora
The Cheburashka Collective is a group of women and non-binary writers whose identity has been shaped by immigration from the Soviet Union to the United States. On April 27, 2019, six members of the group, which is named for a beloved Soviet cartoon character, gathered in Philadelphia’s Penn Book Center for a poetry reading. Meduza in English news editor Hilah Kohen sat down with five of those poets before the event. They discussed what shared immigrant experiences can do for collectives, what collectivity can do for poetry, and what poetry can do for our world today. The “Cheburashki” also shared seven of their recent poems, which are reprinted below this interview with the kind permission of their publishers.
Update: After this interview was recorded, the poets, who are all Jewish, learned that their reading had coincided with another white supremacist attack at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue. They expressed devastation and are grateful for the community they have created. Their thoughts are with the victims of the attack and their loved ones.
A conversation with the Cheburashka Collective
How was this collective created and why?
Alina Pleskova: Uh, one of us spends a lot of time on Twitter.
AP: So I think I just expressed a wish for women of the Soviet diaspora to come together. I’d been introduced to another member who’s not here right now, Gala Mukomolova, through another Soviet poet, Sonya Vatomsky, and I was like, “There have to be more of us.” And then I met Julia [Kolchinsky Dasbach], and I was like, “There have to be more of us!” I think I just made a tweet about it, and then Ruth was tagged in it, and people kept bringing each other in.
AP: And now we are.
JKD: And now we are!
AP: Our first reading was in New York at Berl’s Books in December, and it went really well, so we said, “Let’s do it again!”
And where did that urge come from for you? Where did the impulse come from to tweet out that you wanted this collective?
AP: I guess ever since I met Gala and Karina [Vahitova] too, I’ve been thinking about how this was sorely lacking all through my adolescence and my coming-of-age as a writer. I just never had that community of people with a shared cultural lineage who I could speak to about writing, let alone anything else. All of my friends, everyone I’ve dated, has not been of the same cultural background as me.
What is it that you can do with this group or thanks to this group that you can’t do on your own or with other people? Your experiences are quite disparate, and you’ve all found collectives based on other commonalities, so what is it about this one?
Luisa Muradyan: My family immigrated to Kansas, which has almost no Ukrainian-Russian-Jewish type of community whatsoever. The one that does exist is very small. And so even finding other people with that same background was incredibly validating and comforting for me in a way that I needed but didn’t realize I needed until I met the group. You know, there’s something about constantly feeling like an exotic unicorn walking around — and then finding other people who grew up eating similar foods or with similar cultural things that they both loved and felt pressured by and resisted. Having others to speak to about those experiences was good for me both as a person and as a writer.
Ruth Madievsky: I think for me, growing up in and around West Hollywood, I grew up around other people from the Soviet Union my whole life, but I’d never known another woman or non-binary writer from the Soviet Union before. So to me, what’s very new is having a writing community within that experience, and like Luisa said, just feeling seen and seeing these interesting permutations of what it can look like to be part of that first generation to be a writer and, in a lot of cases, to be writing about things that probably [whispers] your ancestors might not want you to be writing about!
RM: And kind of working through those complexities together.
Olga Livshin: I have definitely noticed the word “Cheburashka” popping up all over Russian, ex-Soviet, American women’s writing, and I think it has such interesting connotations. Having been a child over there, I had a favorite Cheburashka [doll] that I feminized — it’s technically masculine in Russian, but mine was definitely a woman, and it was my favorite toy by far. Part of what makes it great — not just the plaintive eyes, but the huge ears, the whole thing — is it’s such an outsider toy.
It is very much this broken toy with huge ears that is placed in a box of oranges, and it finds itself in a new, wonderful land where it finds a best friend. It’s a little utopia for children who feel different.
Another thing I’m wondering about is — why poetry? That is, for these specific experiences. You have all found poetry to be a medium that helps you deal with post-Sovietness, often queerness, Jewishness, so what is it about that form?
AP: Nu, we come from a people who revere poetry.
AP: Some of the first things I learned to say were excerpts from poems. I mean, I don’t know how it is for anyone else, but it’s part of my cultural lineage, becoming a poet.
And yet, you were mentioning that the communities that you saw around you here weren’t necessarily communities where poetry was central, right? And then this tradition that you’re talking about is largely instilled in schools, which doesn’t always produce the kind of positive relationship that one might hope for. You all have taken on poetry in a unique way and also in a new language.
JKD: I think it’s not, at least in my community, that poetry wasn’t central. It was, for all of the people that I grew up with. But not the kind of poetry that we’re writing. So just because we grew up on Chukovsky — you know, I’m raising my son on it — and Pushkin, and reciting all of that from memory (which, unfortunately, I can) — it’s very different from the kind of poetry that we write.
I think for me, the lyric impulse is something that is very conducive to the immigrant experience. The expansion of a singular moment into multiple temporalities, fluid temporalities, blended temporalities that allow us to blend our present-day experience with intergenerational trauma, with the stories that have been passed down. So these elements of narrative that kind of erupt in our poetry still come, at least in my case, from this lyric impulse.
LM: I’ve tried writing prose, especially about experiences growing up different in the Midwest, and I always felt like there was too much that needed to be put down on the paper when you’re writing, that you have too much you need to account for and explain. Poetry always felt very freeing because there’s room for revelation of yourself, but there’s also room for silence, and sometimes I need that silence. To me, there’s something very freeing about the form that works for me.
Yes. A lot of the poems that accompany this interview have this progression that is very tight but very associative. They often start in a context that is located in the United States, and then you see these post-Soviet elements creeping in.
OL: Yeah, I think that’s really true, and it’s almost like this little krasnaya nit, this little red thread — read thread, oh no — that’s running through a lot of our work. What really pushed me into an immigrant orientation was Trump’s election and not having the right language for what was happening. The language of news is important and direct but can be pretty reductive in my opinion. There wasn’t enough language of nuanced and strange emotion. Poetry can be messy and inclusive in a way that other discourses can’t.
Julia and I started a reading series in Philadelphia, and we are very much hoping to also do it in other cities — “From Across the Waters,” and that includes immigrants and refugees and those poets for whom their identity as a descendant of immigrants is important. To me, even more so than the word “Soviet,” I primarily identify as an immigrant, and to me, this Cheburashka-ness is one kind of antidote to the image of the melting pot. It’s a very violent image: we’re expected to assimilate, which means to melt, to burn, to be dispelled into myriad molecules, and I’m not comfortable with that. There’s something to be passed on to our children, if we decide to have them, and to others that is precious and solid and unmeltable.
I want to come back to tweets. Let’s talk about a tweet by Trevor Ketner that’s been floating around the poetry-sphere, which reads as follows:
And then, Alina, you responded:
As I’ve been reading your poetry, it’s really struck me how all of you write on topics that can be potentially very traumatic, very much about bodily displacement and destruction — and yet, the physiological reaction I’ve had from a lot of your poetry is like — I feel kind of glued to the spot for a second, like when you wake up from a dream and you can’t move. It’s not like I’ve been torn apart or turned into a bunch of molecules and been reintegrated, as Olya said earlier. So tell me what your thoughts are on that discussion. It’s likely the case that you don’t always opt for that kind of style. How do you deal with the question of how to handle these potentially physically destructive themes?
AP: There’s an anti-authoritarian streak in me, and I’m an Aquarius, so I can be contrarian. But if you grow up reading lofty, really dramatic poems with this very heavy language — like, I love Akhmatova, she’s our patron saint —
AP: — but you read stuff like that, and it’s very, very heavy, and rightly so, you’re living in constant crisis. But my language in my poems is as far away from that as you can get. It’s the language of dailiness, it’s the language of having a conversation with a friend, where we have plenty to be concerned about here ourselves. We’re living in a time of great political turmoil, and whatever stage of capitalism we’re in, and everything feels precarious, et cetera, but I think there are equally effective ways of rendering that that don’t use that kind of exalted language.
RM: I don’t want to preach what good poetry is or isn’t, but I question the impulse to write a poem where you want to make someone feel a very specific way. I think it’s totally fine if a poem devastates you, but I would never seek to write a poem with the hope that someone feels devastated. I think if I want people to feel any way, it’s to be held. And you can be held because you’re really sad. It’s not like being held is necessarily a comforting experience — it can be comforting because you feel terrible.
I think it’s just that there’s a certain social capital in making people feel something really strongly, so how do you make people feel something really strongly? Say something really devastating that makes them feel implicated somehow. Or makes them feel better about themselves because they’re having a strong feeling about someone else’s problem. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with poems that make people feel that way — those are some of my favorites — but I think I would personally never write a poem with the hope of making someone feel any very specific emotion, especially sadness. I don’t want to force people to metabolize my sadness.
RM: If anything, just look at it, man, and we’ll see what happens after that.
JKD: And I feel like I’m constantly apologizing for the sadness in my poems.
JKD: All the time, just apologizing that my poems are so depressing. Being that I write a lot about Holocaust ancestry and Holocaust trauma, I’m constantly aware of this heaviness that, Alina, you talked about with Akhmatova’s poetry. I’ll admit, my poems can tend to go in that direction, but I’m always weary of the ethical dilemma of mimetically re-doing the trauma that I’m talking about in the space of the poem and trying to avoid that, trying to avoid once again dismantling the body that’s already been dismantled and traumatized.
RM: I went to her book launch in Los Angeles, and somebody asked her whether the poems that she has, which are letters from Guantanamo Bay, whether she wrote them as erasures where she wrote the full letter and then redacted parts of it, or whether she wrote them with the blank space embedded in. And she said she wrote them with the blanks. That she doesn’t know what they say, because — I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but she said something along the lines of how she didn’t want to reenact the trauma of erasing somebody’s voice.
JKD: Exactly, and I feel that way so much, especially with the way the Holocaust is inscribed in American consciousness and in museums. We are constantly put face-to-face with the atrocity rather than being asked to remember quietly, to recollect quietly, to ask not what happened but what do we do now, where do we go from here. And I think that’s more powerful than kind of retelling, even though I fall into the trap of retelling all the time.
OL: I do too. I think that’s our process.
But I think it doesn’t do the reader justice in terms of reader response being more than being punched in the gut and left to lie there. Human beings don’t function that way. I trust the reader, and not only to put themselves together. What I offer in my poems is often some semblance of hard-earned hope.
One last question. Which Soviet cartoon character do you most identify with apart from Cheburashka?
OL: The girl from Varezhka who wants a dog, so she walks her mitten around and imagines it’s a dog instead. That’s me.
RM: I’ll go with Zayats [the hare] from Nu, pogodi!, not because I’m a troublemaker but because I’m always feeling anxious, as though I have Volk [the wolf] behind me.
LM: See, I was thinking Volk from Nu, pogodi! because he sounds like my grandfather, who was always a heavy smoker too.
AP: For me, it’s Vinni-Pukh [Winnie the Pooh] because I’m always bumbling, and my friends help me keep my shit together.
JKD: And he’s a poet! So he works for me too, plus my son is kind of like Petachok [Piglet].
Poems from the Cheburashka Collective
How The Russians Ruined Their Glasses
on scratchy wool sweaters
layered before the bitter chill
on inappropriate cloths of various texture
used to keep kettles warm
when speeding down Sparrow Hills
and losing a sled to the icy Moscow River
the neighbor’s jumpy mutt
Babushka Lera’s black tasseled shawl
boys throwing rocks
and pushing little Marchok into the mud
nostalgia for a country that no longer exists
these lenses — my inheritance
The Pool Filter Is Sorry
the crop circle in Nebraska is sorry
the stale crackers on the sale rack are so sorry
the praying mantis eating its husband is sorry
the laundry machine that shrunk your underwear is sorry
the lightning which usually regrets nothing is sorry
the bee never meant to die in your finger
the couch leg you stubbed your toe on tried to jump out of the way
and the dolls that know they’re creepy are sorry
and the doorknobs hiding electricity in them are sorry
and the Coca Cola that took a wrong turn down your windpipe is sorry
the hole in the soccer ball
the fever in the baby
the catheter in the old woman
the ladder with the man on it that’s about to tip
the cell growing something bad inside it is sorry
and the bad thing spreading to the brain and bones is sorry
and the liver pushing its own off button is truly very sorry
when I was six my friend and I rode each other like horses
and when I collapsed under his weight and wept
he said sorry sorry sorry
I didn’t want to forgive him
at six I was already tired of forgiving things
but when he started to cry
I was sorry
and we exchanged apologies like amulets
against the hurt to come
Originally published in The American Poetry Review
There is an old can of tuna in my refrigerator
and I don’t have the heart to throw it away
so, I give it a name. I call it Boris. And sometimes
I think about Boris when I eat a ham sandwich
or when I frost a cake in lily white or when I wash
the dishes. When I have guests over I worry that they
will smell Boris, and how can I explain
why I won’t throw him away. But he’s in there
next to the eggs, and I imagine the refrigerator
alive in the twilight, and Boris pulling back his mouth
and singing to the fresh tuna, and how the young
don’t believe in the old.
I am standing naked before a mirror
and in the market, there is a man standing
naked before a cow he has just butchered.
One of us is wearing an apron, one of us
a necklace with the hand of God
and one of us lies on a table,
her breasts torn open in the sun.
Both poems previously published in American Radiance (University of Nebraska Press, 2018)
In Everything, He Finds the Moon
Yuuuuooona, he calls, pointing up and drawing
out the ooo, the Russian “L,” still
too hard to form “Luna.”
We understand, make meaning
out of what its left us: Yuuuuooona,
on the shoulder of my shirt
where his sleeping mouth’s wet outline
left imperfect waning, Yuuuuooona,
in the fabric covering my belly, where
his finger found a hole through which
skin shone like moonlight, Yuuuuooona,
on the wings of every moth or butterfly,
Yuuuuooona, more Yuuuuooona, our cats’ eyes
twinkling in darkness, spinning spheres
he is still too slow to catch, My Yuuuuooona,
in the daylight’s glare, he names the sun
as his, asks it to come closer, and opens wide
to hug, to swallow, to hold
its unfathomable glow, and in the water too,
in any water, Yuuuuooona, Yuuuuooona,
bath, puddle, lake, sea, ocean, rain,
our faces and the light, a river, and
in the window, any window, especially
a stranger’s, Yuuuuooona, this December,
morning, through smoking sky
and a cobweb of trees, he finds it there,
even as it fades, and in my pocket,
I find it too, Yuuuuooona, an envelope
of his first-trimmed crescent hairs,
so many fallen moons.
Previously published in 32 Poems. Forthcoming in The Many Names for Mother (Kent State University Press, 2019).
When the universe winks,
I wink back reflexively
As now, "Part-Time Lover"
on the taxi radio & my head
half out the window
grinning at bleached sky
on waterway, this life caught
in a protracted moment of buffering
The song's talk of illicitness
& discretion rings quaint:
an affair, in its exactitude, marks
the lover as wrong, full stop
A useless gauge if the stakes
aren't so linear, as here
In Durak, the player left holding
cards is deemed the fool
There's no option to fold
if you foresee it–
wait for defeat or play like
you don't know it's coming
I haven't decided to leave you
yet, but I can envision it today
in this pocket of bliss, my body
hazed with yr brackish stink
Last week, I tried to lose a man
at the gallery, but he kept
appearing, palm on my back,
to ask what I thought. I thought
only of a lost capacity to ignore
discord for carnality's sake
Dura, dura sang Vadim
when I lost. The table laughed
& so did I. That's how it goes:
I don't know I'm a dura until
the universe winks & I squint
to determine whether
it's an illusion. As if knowing
alters the outcome.
Translating a Life
— for O.M. and M.R.
Someone spread a blanket of wild buckwheat
over a meadow. Someone tucked puffball pillows
in each corner of the purple-green sheet.
It is summer everywhere, except war.
War, where it used to be home,
and now, war by government, here.
And what does it matter that the meadow
seduces the bees in pollen, or me in lines
of a poem, or that I hear perfectly good
Russian names for plans and translate them
into You-and-Me-ish? Take the tea mushroom,
the little fox mushrooms and piggies,
the early field-dweller, the mysterious
cheese-eater. These words are undocumented,
and the country that sent them erases
every syllable with its crimes.
Take an under-birch-mushroom
anyway — it’s a choice edible,
birch bolete in your tongue, on
the tongue. The language for falling in love
with mushrooms, stories, or friends
does not care who’s killing whom.
Unfortunately, I care. And, sitting here
by a huge flowering bush, I see no refuge.
What languaged fantasy could stop us
from being murderous strangers? Would you
take a Russian mushroom name,
tuck it in your lapel for the brief banquet of life?
Does that translate anything else for you? Is this
how it works?
Originally published in Rise Up Review and From Everywhere a Little: An Anthology of Migration (eds. Lisa Vihos, Dawn Hogue). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.