AG: What did we have? What is the next thing we were going to do? Because I have an idea.
Ann Charters; Well, I was going to talk (next) about his (Mayakovsky‘s) work for the Party. I mean, what does a poet do who’s taken up by the Communist Party?
Ann Charters: Yeah?
AG: That’d be interesting, yeah.
Ann Charters: Interesting? No kidding! Very interesting! – I mean, before he kills himself, right?. In 1926.. okay, I’m skipping over the part where Mayakovsky has his trip to America, because we’re going to have a talk about that..
AG: At the library
Ann Charters: On Wednesday night at the library
AG: “Mayakovsky in America”
Ann Charters: Yeah
AG: What he did here..
Ann Charters: And that comes in..
AG: Meeting William Carlos Williams, no less!
Ann Charters: But I skip over that and go on to 1926 (Remember, he commits suicide in 1930). The only way that Mayakovsky could survive, given his temperament and his genius was obviously to travel a lot. You know you just can’t sit still in Moscow and work in an office turning out these poems. So he became a correspondent, after he’d done the work for ROSTA during the civil war
AG: ROSTA is?
Ann Charters: The Russian telegraph agency, making the posters. And then he takes a job during the time of the New Economic Policy, Lenin’s time of having a little bit more capitalism enter the country as it’s slowly been starving to death – he had a period called the New Economic Policy, which means you could travel…you could operate private businesses for a brief time – three years – And during this time, Mayakovsky takes a job as a publicist for the State Communist Store, the department store, because they have now competition for a few brief years after the Revolution… [tape ends here and continues] – There was a whole wall of advertisements that he did and the packaging (he was into packaging). This was before the generic brand, you know, things. He, for example, would package state bubble-gum, and he would say, “Chew our bubble-gum, the bubbles last longer and they..”, you know,”give a greater high”, something like that. And this is all printed as verse, it’s all rhymed. I remember the one..what is it?..well, there used to be dirty lyrics too, but we won’t do that right now (because, needless to say, the Futurists who had to do this kind of work were having fun with it privately as well, and there’s some funny things).
AG: We read some of those slogans yesterday…
Ann Charters: Yes, but these are…
AG: ..as poetry.
Ann Charters: ..and these are not for slogans to exhort people to work harder and to accept fair increases, but these are, at this point, slogans to buy stuff, you know, for merchandise. Like you see big ad(vertisement)s all over. Okay.
He couldn’t take that after a while, needless to say. It’s a difficult job. And he then became a correspondent for various magazines, (which got him out of the country on travels). And when he was back in the country, he made his living as a reader, as I told you, giving these readings all over the Soviet Union – a grueling, grueling task. I mean, he was, like, traveling and giving readings, maybe a hundred, a hundred-and-fifty readings a year, and then traveling maybe on these primitive trains. You know, like.. and poor Mayakovsky was a bug on sanitation, so he had to boil his water everywhere. He was afraid he’d get typhoid fever. He was in very, very very primitive conditions.
So he really worked very hard and he loved his trips out of the country – to Germany, to Berlin or to Paris, and then finally, to South America, Mexico and America. He loved his trips – his ways to get.. well, some relief from the strain.
AG: The same thing’s going on now  with (Andrei) Voznesensky, …Voznesensky and (Yevgeny) Yevtushenko
Ann Charters: So
AG: To get out and take a vacation.
Ann Charters: Yes
AG: Take a breather, get laid
Ann Charters: But…
AG: Smoke some grass,then go back and go to work again
Ann Charters: But there was also, of course, hassle when he came back, Because he’d come back in beautiful European suits. Once he came back with a Renault car, you know, a very beautiful old 1927 car, which in its day was new, of course. And he had a chauffeur. He had lots of money from his readings and his.. he had a lot of attack
[Aleksandr Rodchenko – cover design for Vladimir Mayakovsky’s”Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry]
And one of his most funny poems, which illustrates what it’s like to work for the government as a poet, is a poem called “Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry” – “Conversation with a Tax Collector” – and this is in Patricia Blake’s book – “Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry”. In other words, he had been asked to pay his taxes, like every Soviet citizen, and there isn’t any money. He spent it, or it’s gone already, alright? – And he says ((in) “Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry”) – “Citizen tax collector,/ forgive my bothering you./Thank you, /don’t worry,/ I’ll stand.” [“Гражданин фининспектор!/Простите за беспокойство./Спасибо…/не тревожтесь…/я постою..”] – (He pretends that he’s visiting the office. He’s been called in by the IRS.) – “My business/ is of a delicate nature/ about the place/ of the poet/ in the workers’ ranks” [ “У меня к вам/ дело деликатного свойства:/о месте/поэта/в рабочем строю”] – (Okay? – Not an intellectual, as we think of a poet, or a Bohemian poet – but a working poet, a worker poet. There’s an attempt, of course, to make it a proletariat situation, because this is the proleteriat revolution, so how does a poet become a worker?) – “Along with/ owners of stores and property,/ I am made subject to/ taxes and penalties./ You demand I pay/ five hundred for the half year/ and twenty-five late-payment/ for failing to send in/ my returns./ Now my work/ is like any other work./ Look here, how much I’ve lost,/ what/ expenses/ I have in my production/ and how much I spend/ on materials./ You/ know of course/ about rhyme. /Suppose a line ends with the word “day”/and then, repeating/ the syllables/ in the third line/ we insert/ something like “ta-ra-boom-di-ay!”/. In your idiom,/ rhyme is/ a bill/ of exchange to be honored/ in the third line/ – that’s the rule./ And so you hunt/ for the small change of suffixes and flexations/ in the depleted cashbox/ of conjugations and declensions./ You start/ shoving/ a word into the line/ but it’s a tight fit” [В ряду/имеющих/лабазы и угодья/и я обложен/и должен караться./Вы требуете/ с меня/пятьсот в полугодие/и двадцать пять/за неподачу деклараций./Труд мой/любому/труду/родствен./Взгляните —/сколько я потерял,/какие/издержки/в моем производстве/и сколько тратится/на материал./Вам,/конечно,/известно/явление «рифмы»./Скажем,/строчка/окончилась словом/«отца»,/и тогда/через строчку,/слога повторив, мы/ставим/какое-нибудь:/ламцадрица-ца́./Говоря по-вашему,/рифма —/вексель. Учесть через строчку! —/ вот распоряжение./И ищешь/мелочишку суффиксов и флексий в пустующей кассе/склонений/и спряжений./Начнешь это/слово/в строчку всовывать,/а оно не лезет”] — “You press and it breaks. Citizen tax collector,/ honestly,/ the poet spends a fortune on words./ In our idiom,/ rhyme is a keg -/ a keg of dynamite./ The line is a fuse,/ the light burns to the end/ and explodes/ and the town/ is blown sky-high/ in a strophe.” – [“Гражданин фининспектор,/честное слово,/поэту/в копеечку влетают слова./Говоря по-нашему,/рифма —/бочка.”] – (You don’t get the flavor of the rhyme because this is not a rhymed translation – oops! – That’s one of the incongruities of reading Mayakovsky in English – every line was “ta-ra-boom-dee-ay” and “they” – in Mayakovsky, it was rhymed, you know. And he’s saying (that) it’s hard to do it – “Where can you find, and at what price, rhymes that take aim and kill on the spot?” [ Где найдешь,/на какой тариф,/рифмы,/чтоб враз убивали, нацелясь?- “] (In other words, rhyme and meaning and sense and sound) – “Suppose/ only a half-dozen/ unheard-of rhymes/ were left/, in, say, Venezuela./ So I’m/ drawn/ to the north and the south./ I rush around/ entangled in advances and loans” [“Может,/пяток/небывалых рифм/только и остался/что в Венецуэле./И тянет/меня/в холода и в зной./Бросаюсь,/опутан в авансы и в займы я.”]
AG: “I’m plunged in advances/ and loans./ So look at my transport expenses/ I must meet”
[опутан в авансы и в займы я./Гражданин,/учтите билет проездной!/— Поэзия/— вся! —”]
Ann Charters; Right
AG: He goes searching for a rhyme.
Ann Charters: He says, “Consider my travelling expenses. Poetry, all of it,/is a journey to the unknown” [“учтите билет проездной!/— Поэзия/— вся! —/езда в незнаемое..”] – So he says, “Don’t..don’t tax me the rates you tax everybody else, because my travel expenses are not only to get to Paris, but also in my mind to travel out to the unknown.” – (It’s supposed to be a funny poem. You understand? He’s trying to talk to a tax collector and teach him what poets go through in order to write poetry)- “Poetry/ is like mining radium/ – for every gram/ you work a year./ For the sake of a single word/ you waste/ a thousand tons/of verbal ore.” [ Поэзия —/та же добыча радия./В грамм добыча,/в год труды./Изводишь/единого слова ради/тысячи тонн/ словесной руды. It’s hard work..” (he says), “..But how incendiary the burning of these words compared with the smoldering of the raw material” – (In other words, (a) poet’s work is just as valuable, if not more valuable, than people who.. iron, you know, mine for iron ore) – “These words will move millions of hearts for thousands of years” – (whereas you’ll use something that’s made out of iron and it will get old and have to be replaced).
So then he puts down the other poets who do not do any work for the State, and then he says, “You’ve got to remember that my overhead expenses are real high, so I’d like you to knock off some of this tax”. He says “Strike out a wheeling zero from the balance. Instead of one hundred cigarettes or rubles ninety, your form has a mass of questions – “Have you travelled on business or not?” [ Скиньте/ с обложенья/нуля колесо!/Рубль девяносто/сотня папирос,/рубль шестьдесят/столовая соль./В вашей анкете/вопросов масса:/— Были выезды?/Или выездов нет? —”] – (In other words, they have the same problems with the IRS over there that we have over here, with tax-deductions, itemized expenses, and so forth. And he’s saying a question is “Have you travelled on business or not?”) – Mayakovsky – “But suppose/ I’ve ridden to death/ a hundred Pegusae/[horses]/ in the last fifteen years?/ What if I am simultaneously a leader and a servant of the people./ The working-class speaks through my mouth/ and we proletarians are drivers of the pen. [“А что, если я/ десяток пегасов/ загнал/за последние лет?!У вас —/в мое положение войдите —/ про слуг/и имущество/с этого угла.”]
“As the years go by/ you wear out/ the machinery of the soul./ People say/ a back-number/ – he’s written-out,/ he’s through. /What do you do about/ poets who are fashionable,/ and people say,/ “Ah, I’ve heard Mayakovsky read that poem/ a hundred times,/ I’m not going to/ pay money to/ hear him read it again”? – (Yeah, so he says you get old, and people say he’s “a back number”, “he’s written-out, he’s through”. Besides, there’s a personal risk, he says, in getting old. “There’s less and less love and less and less daring.” – “Time is a battering-ram against my head” – (Mayakovsky did not want to grow old) – “And when the sun/ like a fattened hog/ rises on a future/ without beggars and cripples,/ I will be/ a petrified corpse/ under a fence/ together with a dozen/ of my colleagues,” – (he says) – “I’m always in debt./ I’m not telling you a lie./ Our duty is/ to blare/ like brass-throated horns/ in the fogs/ of bourgeois vulgarity./ A poet/ is always indebted/ to the unniverse,. paying, alas, interest and fines./ I am indebted to /the lights of Broadway/ and to the skies of Baghdadi [Mayakovsky’s birth-place],/ to the Red Army,/ to the Cherry Trees of Japan” – (he says) – [ в долгу/перед Бродвейской лампионией,/перед вами,/багдадские небеса,/перед Красной Армией,/перед вишнями Японии —/перед всем,/про что/не успел написать.”] – “You think I owe you money?,/ well, how do I owe?/, I owe my travels/ for the visions/ I’ve seen of Broadway,/ I owe for where I open my eyes/ in my native village of Baghdadi. Ah!.. – (he says) – who needs all this stuff, who needs poetry anyway? “A poet’s word/ is your resurrection and your immortality,/ Citizen official.” – [Слово поэта —/ваше воскресение,/ваше бессмертие,/гражданин канцелярист./Через столетья] – (And here are the famous lines) – “Citizen sense, take a verse from its paper frame and bring back time. And this day with its tax collectors and aura of miracles and stench of ink will dawn again.” [ гражданин канцелярист./Через столетья/260 в бумажной раме/возьми строку/и время верни!/И встанет/день этот/с фининспекторами,] – (he says) – in other words, (that) you have to remember that our words will last longer than your day-to-day Politburo thing.
AG: The (Herbert) Marshall translation.
Ann Charters: Hmm
AG: “The word of a poet/ is your resurrection, your immortality,/ Citizen clerk./ From its paper frame/ in a hundred years/ pick out a stanza/ and bring back time extinct./ And this day,/ with the tax inspector,/ it will reappear/ with a lustre of wonder/ and the stink of ink.”
Ann Charters: Yeah. You’re going to get this much better said, actually in “At The Top of My Voice”
Ann Charters: You have it in your book
Ann Charters: Later on, the last poem..
I’ll just finish the last lines to this poem to the tax collector, which is, of course, the ultimate challenge that any poet can lay down to anybody who questions what he does and the worth of what he does. And that is, “if”, tax collector, “if/ you think/ that all I have to do/ is to profit/ by people’s words,/ then Comrade,/ here’s my pen, /take a crack at it yourselves.”
[“А если/вам кажется,/ что всего дело́в —/это пользоваться/чужими словесами,/то вот вам,/товарищи,/мое стило́,/и можете/писать/сами!”]
(Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-four-and-three-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately fifty-seven-and-a-half minutes)