Eugene Ostashevsky
November 2009


Eugene OstashevskyEugene Ostashevsky was born in 1968 in Leningrad, USSR. In 1979 his family emigrated to the US, settling in Brooklyn, NY, where he has sometimes lived ever since.

In the 1990s he often appeared around the San Francisco Bay Area as a member of 9X9 Industries, a writers’ collective noted for its brash readings, and of the performance organization Vainglorious.

He has since published two full-length books of poetry with Ugly Duckling Presse. One of them, Iterature (2005), contains several cycles united by attention to the semantics of sound structures. For Publisher’s Weekly, it features the author’s “signature blend of comedy, pathos and sharp intellect” among “rhymes both great… and small,” with the result that “few recent books of verse are as consistently funny and surprising.”

His second, more unitary volume, The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza (2008), represents a meditation on classical rationalism in light of Gödelian incompleteness and other calamities that befell the concept of axiomatic system. In a Poetry Foundation blog, Cathy Park Hong describes this “brilliant collection” as “made up of absurdly hilarious narrative poems starring the battle-happy philosopher hero DJ Spinoza who engages in lethal food fights with Andrew Marvell… vanquishes Che Bourashka… and feuds with his ultimate nemesis… the Begriffon.” According to Peter Golub in Rain Taxi,The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza breathes a good bit of life into the idiom of contemporary poetry” despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that “the literary traditions at the heart of Ostashevsky’s poetry” are “Russian Futurism and Absurdism.”

Ostashevsky is, in fact, also a translator of Russian avant-garde literature, often collaborating on projects with Matvei Yankelevich of Ugly Duckling Presse. His main achievement in this field is OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism (Northwestern UP, 2006), a selection of 1930s underground writings by Alexander Vvedensky, Daniil Kharms and others in their circle. He has also recently turned out As It Turned Out, a volume of poems by the contemporary St Petersburg poet Dmitry Golynko (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008).

Ostashevsky’s day-job involves fighting the forces of night while teaching humanities courses in the Liberal Studies Program at NYU.

Poetics Statement

My work is growing increasingly closer to children’s poetry. I hope one day to become a bona fide children’s writer, but am as yet unable to avoid material judged objectionable by children’s publishers, like jokes about sex or irrational numbers. I once had an epiphany that “The Owl and the Pussycat” was the only serious piece in Helen Gardner’s New Oxford Book of English Verse. My friend, the sorely missed Russian poet Alexei Parshchikov, suggested I call my style “new infantilism.”

I’ve been studying English since the age of five, but I’ve always had trouble distinguishing between “thank you” and “hello”, and “yesterday” and “tomorrow.” When we came to America we were very poor, so we found two TVs in the street, one that had picture and one that had sound; we put the picture on top of the sound, and that’s how I learned English some more.

I am writing this in Berlin, after accidentally addressing the Turkish guy at the Internet café in Italian. There are lots of languages in my work but they are all garbled. This goes not just for natural but also for ideal languages, such as those of logic and math. I am especially drawn to the paradoxes that exploded the attempt to equate math with logic, perhaps because I perceive them a little autobiographically: bilingualism renders one rather aware of the irreducible gaps in how different languages model the world. I also am skilled in language incomprehension and miscomprehension, as well as that early stage of foreign language learning when expressions appear strange, arbitrary and mannered. Thus, in my Spinoza book I tried to convey how comic the beginning of Ethics seemed to me when I read it (in February of 2001, on a night train from Ankara to Istanbul), especially because I could not help seeing Spinoza’s self-confidence other than in light of later relativity of his mathematical tools.

I want to know how one might go about making a true statement. Although I cannot fully explain what I mean by that expression, it seems that true propositions must be local and ephemeral rather than universal and logically defensible; however, such relativization of truth opens itself to a great deal of paradoxes. In any case, my desire to say something true is in part responsible for the more emotional tenor of poems such as the Morris Imposternak series.

Children’s literature inspires me because it encourages play as adult literature does not. What I mean by ‘play’ includes liberating sound and narrative structures to allow them to do much of the writing (i.e., thinking) for you. Another cognitive tool active in children’s literature is Adamic propositions, the far-reaching type of defamiliarization one finds in children’s speech. As a result, children’s literature often articulates the fundamental things whereof adult literature—choked by stress and vanity—stays silent: consider, for example, the analysis of friendship in The Little Prince or Winnie-the-Pooh. I suppose that by integrating adult and children’s poetry I do continue the literary traditions of the Russian avant-garde, many of whose practitioners made a living as children’s poets, or studied children’s language, or even co-authored books with children. Except that I write in what passes for English.

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