An Interview with Konstantin Kulakov by Aubrey King

pink and blue abstract painting

Konstantin and I first met in Boulder, Colorado during our MFA program at the Jack Kerouac School. Our friendship, however, blossomed during the pandemic, after Konstantin had moved back east and I stayed mountainside. We would have hours-long phone calls about our lives and current events, but Konstantin isn’t much interested in small talk—he dives headlong into politics, poetics, ethics. For this interview, I knew he was working on poetry that confronted whiteness, and in a similar fashion, I wanted to cut to the chase.

The journal you co-founded publishes underrepresented post-Soviet writing, art, and diaspora—how does whiteness operate in the post-Soviet space?

First, it’s important to emphasize whiteness is an extremely complex phenomena because like most hegemonic forces—including heteronormativity, classism, sexism—it hides itself. In the Soviet Union, racism and whiteness never took the form it did in the United States (and here I begin with Soviet Russia because the region must always reckon with the enduring impact of the Soviet project). Russia, stretching eleven time zones, always struggled to define itself in relation to Europe. More specifically, unlike the US, there was no slave trade, no scientific racism, three-fifths clause, Jim Crow segregation, or lynching campaigns. The Soviet Union actually saw itself as an anti-imperial, multicultural project. Many Black Americans fled the US to find a better life in Russia and some praised the hospitality. Still, there was also hypocrisy—at different periods, Soviet attitudes and politics concealed ruthless exoticization, discrimination, deportation, or even physical violence towards Jews, Romanis, and Black people. You can find a brief look at Soviet race politics in Pocket Samovar’s review of The Wayland Rudd Collection edited by Yevgeniy Fiks

The post-Soviet space, owing to globalization and capitalism, is far more complex in regards to whiteness. After the collapse, those from the former republics were relegated to inhuman working-class conditions. Skinhead violence burgeoned. Still, as in the Soviet era, identity politics do not hold the same kind of force they do in the states. And this is one of the reasons I felt compelled to found Pocket Samovar: the desire to continue the conversation about racism and underrepresentation in the post-Soviet literary community, including gender, class, sexual, and of course, formal representation. The other way whiteness operates in the post-Soviet space is through migration, adoption, and diaspora. Pan-European whiteness is imposed upon post-Soviet immigrants and expresses itself through white-American assimilation pressures, individualism, and consumer monoculture. As a Russian-American, I struggle to understand myself as Russian or a white American. In many ways, this hyphenation, this dislocation and diasporic longing formed the most personal motivation for founding Pocket Samovar

The poems you’ve been working on lately seem to suggest that the formation of your racial identity was wrapped up in religion and US nationalism. How do whiteness, religion, and assimilation feed into one another?

Many of the poems in my manuscript Neon Hymn seek to reckon with the relationship between religion and society because, in my experience, they are inseparable. Although I was born in the Soviet Union, I was raised in a fourth-generation Seventh-day Adventist home, an American protestant religion. My experience of Christ was shaped by a white-American visual culture created by white-Americans and their churches. In my experience, the architecture of salvation was bound-up with Eurocentric images of purity, individualism, and colonial missionary activity. My Jesus was a smiley white-American man and the delusory symbols of the American dream were inextricable from my understanding of salvation. In other words, the Christian mission can mean “here is Christianity” as much as it means “here is the white-American way of life.” 

It was not until seminary in New York City and my work with my mentor, the late Black liberation theologian James Hal Cone, that I was able to trace how—in my personal history—the racial and spiritual were linked. Further, Cone helped me see the Roman crucifixion, a cruel practice reserved for the enslaved, as a first-century lynching. Still, in my experience, religion proved to be complex: in some aspects it was oppressive, and in others, it was liberatory. My grandfather, a dissident pastor and gulag survivor, worked with Soviet religious leaders, intellectuals, and politicians to advance human rights. At Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, my activist poetics were sourced in the Hebrew prophetic imagination and Christ’s privileging people over property, persons over profits. 

Confronting whiteness is a foundational part of antiracist praxis for white people. What did you uncover through writing poetry through this process?

In seminary, I was intrigued by Baldwin’s call to “know whence you came;” however, I struggled to understand what this meant for my poetics. While working on my MFA at the Jack Kerouac School, the works of Toni Morrison and Claudia Rankine challenged me to make antiracist praxis central in my writing. This is very difficult work. It leaves you feeling exposed, vulnerable, uncomfortable. It also heals you. I think this is because art is different from politics. Brodsky points out, “aesthetics is the mother of ethics.” Art demands a kind of openness to sensory experience, an honesty, an ability to honor both complexity and simplicity—or better, find simplicity in complexity. Similar to the unitive capacities of spiritual experience, it allows us to trace what separates and binds humans together. Unlike political language and even the language of activism—which risks narrowing or bifurcating experience—art humanizes, expands experience. 

For example, if my work is seen as lyric interrogation of whiteness, it succeeds because it is able to expose the way whiteness both advantaged and disadvantaged me, how it ultimately disfigured what was most real about my experience. But it also allows me to re-imagine my hyphenated identity on my own terms. Throughout Neon Hymn, on a formal level, I often employ no capitalization or periods, blocks of justified text, and forward slashes. I also work with non-sequitur, broken grammar, and disparate sensory detail. As a bilingual speaker who struggled with Russian and English, I experienced and expressed reality this way. I think, ultimately, this is why I became a poet and why I am motivated by antiracist praxis: activist poetics allows me to bridge separations to find what is more real, more human in myself and others. I also see this as a prophetic task: to expose our dystopian city as a wounded city, a city separated from its whole, from its real self. 

Do white writers have a responsibility to write about whiteness? How can white writers write about it in a way that doesn’t center themselves in conversations about race?

    This is a very good question. I think white writers definitely have a responsibility to write about whiteness because whiteness invariably shapes and colors everything we do. However, responsibility is complicated, and I must mention Fred Moten in The Undercommons who cautions against paternalism, “The coalition emerges out of your recognition that it’s fucked up for you, in the same way that we’ve already recognized that it’s fucked up for us. I don’t need your help. I just need you to recognize that this shit is killing you, too, however much more softly, you stupid motherfucker, you know?”

    I must also emphasize that antiracist praxis must be a daily thing carried into our homes, classrooms, workplaces, streets, and communities: it must listen, disrupt anti-Blackness in all its iterations and be ready to get into the trenches. In the context of activist poetics, I believe a collective sensibility is critical. Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda in Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary write: “This is not to say that the only solution would be to extend the imagination into other identities, that the white writer to be antiracist must write from the point of view of characters of color. It’s to say that a white writer’s work could also think about, expose, that racial dynamic. That what white artists might do is not imaginatively inhabit the other because that is their right as artists, but instead embody and examine the interior landscape that wishes to speak of rights, that wishes to move freely and unbounded across time, space, and lines of power, that wishes to inhabit whomever it chooses.”

    For me, this means white writers must honor both the individual and collective. I think part of the advantage of immigrant experience is the ability to work out my relationship to the collective and individual in a multi-dimensional way. This dual, Janus-like perspective affords me the startling chance to look towards Russia and America at the same time. For example, growing up in a Russian home, we experienced reality through the collective. Everything felt shared, negotiable. What was at stake for us was at stake for others. At the age of ten, we immigrated to the United States, and I was forced to learn the ways of individualism: privacy, boundaries, and individual responsibility. This was illustrated for me by the language of the playground: there is a bubble around me; you here, me there; don’t burst my bubble.

    Russians die every day from an inability to respect and respond to the individual, to the infinite diversity of individual experience. Americans die every day because of the inability to see and respond to their shared humanity, to the collective. My experience and poetics show that the individual and the collective are both possible, necessary. They call for each other. They are critical to our survival as a species.

    Konstantin Kulakov (he/they) is a poet and translator born in Zaoksky, former Soviet Union. His poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Witness, Spillway, Harvard Journal of African American Policy, and Loch Raven Review, among others. They hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and are co-founding editor of Pocket Samovar magazine. He lives in Washington, D.C., on occupied Piscataway and Anacostan land. 

    Aubrey King (they/she) is a poet living in San Francisco. They received an MFA from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics where she was the Allen Ginsberg Graduate Fellow. Recent poems appear in Poetry, Warm Milk, Gramma Press, and others.

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