A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 19 April 2010

The Day I Met Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I had to pinch myself, but there I was, sitting opposite one of the most famous public poets in the world, debating what drink we were going to order from the bar. It was decided for us when Marion Boyars, publisher, and her second husband Arthur, poet and translator, appeared with four whiskies. I felt decidedly starstruck. Here was a poet who used to have everyone queueing down the street to hear him speak. Here was a poet who'd stared Nikita Krushchev, Mikhail Gorbachev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Boris Pasternak, Robert Frost and John Steinbeck in the face. And now here he was, giggling right in front of me, inquiring how his books were selling in Coventry and Kidderminster. It was unreal.

We were in the Warwick Arts Centre at the University of Warwick, where the Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, was giving a reading before a crowd of adoring, mostly female admirers. I'd brought along a stack of his poetry books for him to sign. Hopefully there'd be plenty of eager fans wanting to buy them during the interval and after the performance. And this really was a performance rather than the usual staid, polite poetry event. On stage was the quiet and restrained Arthur Boyars, Yevtushenko's friend and translator, and beside him Yevtushenko himself, fizzing and exploding like a human firework. What a piece of theatre! He was a whirlwind of energy. He danced around the stage like a gazelle, addressing many poems directly to girls he'd singled out in the audience, going down on one knee before them, even (I'm sure my memory's not playing tricks) sitting on their laps. The old charmer. His charisma, humour, boyish innocence and unashamed romantic ardour went down a treat (Simon Armitage and Carl Ann Duffy please take note!)

Yevtushenko's led a controversial life. Never out of the public gaze, he's been criticized for trying to placate various Soviet regimes, for not coming out as a fully fledged dissident like Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov. But I suspect Yevtushenko would argue that it can be more beneficial to fight the system from within rather than from without. Certainly his record on speaking out against the crimes of Stalin and the persecution of the Jews (by both the Nazis and the Russians) is unimpeachable. His famous poem Babi Yar, which appeared in samizdat form in 1961, strongly denounced Soviet distortions of Jewish history. It was not officially published in Russia until 1984.

Yevtushenko has travelled widely, and now spends half the year in the US, where he gives readings, and teaches poetry and European cinema. Known for his many romantic liaisons, he's been married four times. At the end of the evening Yevtushenko signed my own copy of his book The Face Behind The Face with the words 'To Robert ... with my gratitude for your help.'

1 comment:

George McHenry said...

What a great experience, SW, meeting and dealing with Yevtushenko. A nice post, and a great example of the kind of variety I find on your site.