Inside Neptune Court with Anton Yakovlev

07/13/2016 09:42 pm ET

Born in Moscow, Russia, Anton Yakovlev studied filmmaking and poetry at Harvard University. He is the author of chapbooks Neptune Court (The Operating System, 2015), The Ghost of Grant Wood (Finishing Line Press, 2015), and Ordinary Impalers (Aldrich Press, early 2017). His poems are published or forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Hopkins Review, Fulcrum, Prelude, American Arts Quarterly, Measure, and elsewhere. His book of translations of poetry by Sergei Esenin is forthcoming from Sensitive Skin Books in late 2016. He has also directed several short films.

Loren Kleinman (LK): Talk about the inspiration behind your collection Neptune Court. What’s in the name?


Anton Yakovlev (AY): When I was an infant in Moscow, Russia, my father sometimes whispered poems to me in place of lullabies. When 33 years later I translated one of those poems, “Dreams” by Arseny Tarkovsky, into English, his response was: “Nice! Yet some of the metaphors sound a bit surreal in English while they are not so in the original.” Some imagery that could sound natural to the Russian ear (in the case of this particular poem, phrases like “shadows judge your alien mind” or “chew the gum of time”) does acquire a surreal flavor when translated word-for-word into English. Although none of my English-language poems are translations from Russian, I think I often gravitate toward the type of imagery that wouldn’t sound surreal in Russian but might do so in English. To counterbalance this effect, I have tended to emphasize the sense of place in many of my poems in an attempt to ground them in reality. Neptune Court is a small street in Boston, unremarkable except for its name. The poems in the collection were selected based on having a defined place—almost every poem is set somewhere specific: Moscow, the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, the La Brea Tar Pits, La Dent de Ruth, Manhattan, Jim Thorpe, the Venice of New Jersey, Malaysia, Norway. At the same time, it made sense to title the book with a place name that’s somewhat fanciful, in line with the imagery and, in the words of one colleague, with the technique of “overextended metaphor” some of my poems resort to.


LK: What is the relationship between the planets and myth in Neptune Court? How are you inviting the reader to listen, to face their solitude and magic?


AY: I like to subvert mythology and culturally recognizable stories in cheeky ways, or use deliberately provocative allegory to peak the reader’s interest. In the title poem, a macabre and blatantly false tall tale about William Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet leads into an all-too-real story about the tensions between a romantic relationship and family ties. My hope is to startle the readers into awareness by drawing them in with an outrageous, far-out anecdote that suddenly becomes neither fun nor fanciful.


LK: Your poem “The Exorcism” was recently published in The New Yorker. I love the stanza: “A carillon rings in your head,/and you resent its sound/but enjoy the slow-boil resentment./Even your mellow dog digs a good bone to pick.” Tell us where the sound comes from. And is part of the exorcism digging out resentment?


AY: The poem (also part of my second chapbook, The Ghost of Grant Wood) owes its title to an episode in Iris Murdoch’s novel “The Black Prince,” in which one of the main characters, a young girl named Julian, is introduced to the reader “strewing [fragments of paper] in the path of the oncoming motor cars.” When asked what she is doing, Julian explains, “It’s an exorcism. These are love letters . . . [f]rom my ex-boyfriend. . . . When I’ve got rid of them all I’ll be free.” In Julian’s case, the exorcism seems to work: we never hear about her ex-boyfriend again. However, in my poem things are thornier: “A distracted Charon, / retired from Lethe, / always picks up the ashes of your diary.” The hero of the poem would like to forget parts of their past; however, they are tailed by Charon who, now that he is retired, is collecting the ashes instead letting them scatter and sink into oblivion. The carillon is an internal buzzing of negative thoughts the protagonist can’t let go of, perversely enjoying their unpleasantness. The poem attempts to cheer up an imaginary addressee by walking them through the steps of recognizing their own negativity then encouraging them to reach out to people, find common ground, step outside of themselves, engage in small talk or visit a neighborhood diner.

LK: Tell us who some of your favorite poets are and why? What can novice poets learn from them?


AY: My favorite poets include Boris Pasternak, whose timeless, universal sensibility inspired me to start writing; Joseph Brodsky with his complex, rich language that is gorgeous to the ear and endlessly rewarding as repeat readings reveal more and more depth; Anthony Hecht, whose objectivity and gravitas convey an almost superhuman wisdom; and James Tate with his brand of playful surrealism that hovers just above terror. I am currently working on a book of translations of Sergei Esenin, a Russian poet known for the lyricism and musicality of his voice. The experience of translating his words into English uncovers some fascinating aspects of his imagery, which is actually much fresher and more off-kilter than a Russian reader might feel at first glance, with the smooth flow of the poems masking their peculiar undertows.


LK: What’s the first line of a poem you’re working on now?


AY: I am currently working on a prose poem called “Coffins of the Living,” which takes its inspiration from a poem written by the Romanian-American poet Claudia Serea. The first sentence of my poem is, “You see them everywhere once you’ve trained your eye: in the photos of birch buds interrupted by bird heart attacks, in the Starvation Army’s medusa gaze, in the executioners’ staycations, in the overheating grandfather pendulums.”


LK: Why do poets do it (storytelling) the best?


AY: Surprises and nonlinear thinking are more expected in a poem, and new meaning can arise out of juxtapositions of words placed next to each other because of associative connections or sonic similarities, leading the mind in unexpected directions. This is of course not appropriate for all stories everywhere—many complex plots would get bogged down in a poem—but poetry can take you into the territory in between the conscious and the subconscious in a way few other media can.


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