Joseph Brodsky, The Art of Poetry No. 28
(Interviewed by Sven Birkerts)
Joseph Brodsky was interviewed in his Greenwich Village apartment in December, 1979. He was unshaven and looked harried. He was in the midst of correcting the galley proofs for his book – A Part of Speech – and he said that he had already missed every conceivable deadline. The floor of his living room was cluttered with papers. It was offered to do the interview at a more convenient time, but Brodsky would not hear of it.
The walls and free surfaces of his apartment were almost entirely obscured by books, postcards, and photographs. There were a number of pictures of a younger Brodsky, with Auden and Spender, with Octavio Paz, with various friends. Over the fireplace were two framed photographs, one of Anna Akhmatova, another of Brodsky with his son, who remains in Russia.
Brodsky made two cups of strong instant coffee. He sat in a chair stationed beside the fireplace and kept the same basic pose for three hours – head tilted, legs crossed, the fingers of his right hand either holding a cigarette or resting on his chest. The fireplace was littered with cigarette butts. Whenever he was tired of smoking he would fling his cigarette in that direction.
His answer to the first question did not please him. Several times he said: “Let’s start again.” But about five minutes into the interview he seemed to have forgotten that there was a tape recorder, or for that matter, an interviewer. He picked up speed and enthusiasm.
Brodsky’s voice, which Nadezhda Mandelstam once described as a “remarkable instrument,” is nasal and very resonant.
During a break Brodsky asked what kind of beer the interviewer would like and set out for the corner store. As he was returning through the back courtyard one of his neighbors called out: “How are you, Joseph? You look like you’re losing weight.” “I
don’t know,” answered Brodsky’s voice. “Certainly I’m losing my hair.” A moment later he added: “And my mind.”
When the interview was finished Brodsky looked relaxed, not at all the same man who had opened the door four hours before. He seemed reluctant to stop talking. But then the papers on the floor began to claim his attention. “I’m awfully glad we did this,” he said. He saw the interviewer out the door with his favorite exclamation: “Kisses!”
I wanted to start with a quotation from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s book, Hope Abandoned. She says of you, “He is. . . a remarkable young man who will come to a bad end, I fear.”
In a way I have come to a bad end. In terms of Russian literature – in terms of being published in Russia. However, I think she had in mind something of a worse denomination – namely, physical harm. Still, for a writer not to be published in his mother tongue is as bad as a bad end.
Did Akhmatova have any predictions?
Perhaps she did, but they were nicer, I presume, and therefore I don’t remember them. Because you only remember bad things – you pay attention to them because they have more to do with you than your work. On the other hand, good things are originated by a kind of divine intervention. And there’s no point in worrying about divine intervention, because it’s either going to happen or it’s not. Those things are out of your control. What’s under your control is the possibility of the bad.
To what extent are you using divine intervention as a kind of psychic metaphor?