Independent Existence: Davra Collective Poetry Evening

Almaty is vibrant even if you don’t know where to look for cultural events, but it’s even more impressive if you do know where to look. Last weekend, the Central Asian research group Davra Collective hosted a contemporary poetry reading at Dom 36, a social-cultural space in the city. The poetry evening was specifically dedicated to Kazakh and Uzbek young poets, and it got me thinking about the very nature of poetry outside of the existing power structures in local literature.

Poetry evenings in Almaty are not a rare occurrence on their own, but most of them are handled by OLSHA (Open Literary School of Almaty). This results in more or less the same performers (or lecturers, depending on the format) being represented. Most of these people are writers in their forties, with strong and explicit ties to Russia. This often alienates individuals like myself and many more – Asian (and otherwise non-white), queer authors. Having evenings like the one hosted by Davra shows what the alternative might look like.

Tillaniso Nuryog’di was the performer of the night who read poetry in Uzbek. Her poetry is an examination of the way the personal relates to the political in the contemporary Uzbek society. Nuryog’di’s poetry features a lot of action verbs, an invitation to participate directly in the life of the country. In many ways, it reflects the modern attitudes in the country. “Those who say hope // Those who say moral // Make me laugh. // Every kind of weakness // Every kind of violence // […] Looks like going to the toilet.” she writes. Her other works were a personal commentary about womanhood in a culture that has strong ideas about shame and appropriate behavior for a woman. “[…] my manners were not suitable for them. // I learn and am tired a lot. // I am a perfect woman. // I changed the way I walk // But anyway, I am the second one” she writes, “A woman throughout all her life searched for the true and false. // World is divided into hierarchy, // And those who knew became dominant // Over those who did not. // But those who knew knew what?”

The Kazakh poets, including myself, were represented by the Jalanash poetry collective. This group of talented individuals has been covered by Alma Review before and it is as strong as ever after its rebranding. Jalanash poetry now focuses not only on LGBTQ+ representation but also on decolonizing contemporary Kazakhstani poetry, in all the ways that are relevant to its participants. One of the poets of the night, for example, presented a poem that talked about Russia’s predatory political practices while using the metaphor of the Rubik’s Cube. Other poets talked about love, including queer love, and the complexity of navigating it in my big city, especially while being so young. One of the performers was MEREY, a poetess and a singer-songwriter who recently saw major mainstream success with her song Betperde. I was second to last to read my poem, and my work was a homage to one of Bianca Phipps’ poems.

The Q&A session after the readings was arguably as engaging as the performances themselves. One guest in the audience has lived in Uzbekistan for some time and she took great interest in Nuryog’di’s work. The exchange was later translated into Kazakh; the same thing followed all the questions asked in English and the discussion about the nature of modernism that bloomed as a result. Nobody in the audience asked for an interpretation into Russian. Moments like these really bring forth the understanding that Central Asian culture exists independently from contemporary Russian culture, and therefore its forceful interference is not necessary. While the whole event lasted slightly under an hour and a half, it is nights like these that bring us as a community forward.

In the Eye of the Storm: What Poems Written in January are Silent about

A review by Selina Taisengirova

Translated by Alyona Timofeyeva

Qantar and The Limits of Silence are two collections of poems by Kazakhstani authors who were at the heart of the tragic January events that claimed numerous lives of ordinary people. The Limits of Silence came out on the Dox platform almost in the wake of what happened, and Qantar in the February issue of the magazine “LiTTERAtura”.

In many ways, these collections are similar. The authors are the most notable Kazakh poets who write and publish in Russian and Kazakh. Many of them are represented in both publications. But there is also an important difference: the texts in the “LiTTERAtura” were written during the days of Bloody January, when residents of Kazakhstan were were compelled to shelter at home without communication and Internet, while people were being killed on the streets. The selection on the Dox for the most part includes works by the same authors written much earlier, when it was difficult to imagine that something like that could happen in our country. 

At the same time, an unintended, and therefore even more reliable connection arises between the events of the past and the present, between both publications. There is a thread that stretches from the present back in time, and each author has touched it in his or her own way. For example, Ksenia Rogozhnikova:

they say
loving kindness
has flooded our entire country
go ahead now
to wish yourself
to ask for forgiveness
from your enemy
--"The Limits of Silence"

light-and-sound grenades
traffic lights off
the crowd that walks
down the middle of the street
in the streets of the city
  -- "Qantar", also in full here.

Or, from Irina Gumyrkina:

Only where it's thin--there the fragile ice cracks,
the thread falls apart, and all sound is silenced:
life comes to a stop just like a broken clock.

- "The Limits of Silence"

And it's scary, Lord, it's so scary: 
there's no way to escape this left. 
The tower stands black on the square, 
snow falls to the ground dead. 

- "Qantar"

In my opinion, this connection is especially evident in the two texts that become each collection’s respective centers of gravity. The first is the poem by Yedilbek Duysen “1782 KM” translated by Anuar Duysenbinov, which gave the name to the whole collection “The Limits of Silence”:

an ancient
tentative hope
turned into patience
and perished
somewhere in the limits
of silence... see your nightmare's shadow in daylight when you look over your shoulder and think: 

look, we are all riding one dandelion head
through the heart of the storm
clasping at seed stems

The second is Zair Asim’s poem “We are Silence” in Qantar:

we want to have wishes but it's as if we're not there
we are as out of reach as the dead
it is unbearable this silence...
...we are an empty space
we are the silence

Are there limits to silence, are we there when there is no hope, can we shout over the storm when silence is unbearable? On a physical, emotional and mental level, these texts create probably the most accurate sense of what is happening to people in a situation of global cataclysm in which Kazakhstan finds itself.

At the same time, we see in these collections living notes from shelter or hideaway, reminiscent of  Anne Frank’s diary entries or Sartre’s “No exit”, where “hell turns out to be an ordinary room in which three sinners are locked up forever.” And if the family of Anne Frank was locked up and cut off from the whole world because of the persecution of the Nazis, can we consider the similar predicament of Almaty’s residents truly coincidental? Or are the coincidences not accidental, and life itself throws us secret clues?

Interestingly, there are more than twenty authors in these two collections, and they are all completely different – by age, by self-identification and national affiliation, by the language they think in, and the environment in which they exist. But if you look at the poems written before the January events, then they are all united by the understanding that something has gone seriously wrong at the global level in our country and our life, and the sense of foreboding is overwhelming. of what is coming is insurmountable.

So Aurelia Akmullayeva deconstructs Kazakhstan’s national anthem to compares the hackneyed messages about the eternal Kazakh land and independence with a tranquilizer injection. Its frequent use leads to an overdose and early death, like happened with many stars who are in the sad circle of the “Club 27”. Oral Arukenova paints Kazakhstan’s “end of the world” as cyclical and endlessly repetitive: “here in the middle world without changes, akyr zaman becomes permanent.” And Victoria Rusakova sees her homeland as a mother who has had no milk in her breasts for a thousand years and whose children are fed the same mixture Aurelia calls a tranquilizer injection.

Returning to the “Diary of Anne Frank”: just as in the notes of this ordinary girl, in many texts of the Qantar collection, written directly during the rampant war outside the windows, we see a lot of everyday, completely ordinary and such human details:

my eight-year-old
writes in her journal: 
"We have a war here now
and must stay at home,
but the neighborhood store
is already restocked
with bread 
and potatoes"
- Ksenia Rogozhnikova

The DVD player 
and disks we got down from the shelf
but couldn't find the right
cables -
those movies still rock
- Aleksei Shvabauer

I will hold your hand,
so that you can sleep, 
and you, please, hold my hand, 
so that I can sleep
- Vadim Dergachev

Probably, it is this simple, patient and unpretentious humanity that allows us to hold on in terrible circumstances, that gives us the very hope for which we search in vain in political figures, social movements, and promising reforms. We are constantly losing in the information and political war, becoming victims or tools in someone’s hands. But for now, while remaining completely different, we look at unshakable things in the same way – we will not be the losers in this war.

Selina Taisengirova was born in Almaty, graduated from KazNPU named after Abay. Majored in Russian language and literature. Graduate of Pavel Bannikov Poetry Seminar in the Open Literary School of Almaty (2017-2018). Editor of the criticism and journalism section in the literary magazine “Dactyl”. The author of poetic collections published on “Polutona” and in “Dactyl” magazine. Finalist of the Metajournal literary award in the nomination “Poem of the Year” (2021). Entered the prize list of the Russian literary prize “Poetry” (2021).

‘Get out of the closet, poet!’ or what it’s like to speak one’s mind in one’s native land

Despite being a solitary activity, literature thrives in numbers, especially when numbers in question can coalesce into an institution of any kind. The collectivity and unimity of literary individuals across history helped shape main movements and themes within literature. If every creator existed on his or her own, there wouldn’t be any way to understand or compare works in any meaningful way. So this cooperation, a symbiosis of sorts, between not just specific writers and poets but entire artistic movements is what keeps literature fresh, relevant and accessible. This is why it is a great joy to know that communities such as Closet Poet exist in Kazakhstan. Founded by incredible female poets, Closet Poet is a space that is meaningful in two distinct and equally important ways for the Kazakhstani community and the world as a whole: they help inspire and spread incredible poetry and they are a crucial space for a community.

Literature as an intercultural creative space

Closet Poet markets itself as a bilingual community, welcoming poets who write in English and/or Russian, though poems in Kazakh are welcomed and read quite frequently, as well as partial excerpts that feature words in phrases in other languages. Despite Kazakhstan being a multilingual country, it’s still relatively rare to find a community as welcoming as Closet Poet. English-speaking communities tend to include foreigners  who don’t have immediate means of understanding Russian or Kazakh, while   Russian-speaking communities, unfortunately, tend to fight for the purity of Russian language, rarely allowing additions into it. The diversity of languages (and even dialects) within Closet Poet adds a fresh thematic wave to the participants’ works, allowing the influence of international writing to spread organically from within.

This community also greatly emphasizes the importance of not just what the poem is like but also why and how it was written. After each reading, the poet is encouraged to tell what the background for a particular piece was, and listeners encourage authors to share the details with non-invasive questions and comments. This creates an opportunity to almost live through experiences as a collective, destigmatizing everything the participants go through.

Lack of censorship is another side of the community that makes Closet Poet stand out. It is important for the organizers to make sure every topic that concerns its members can and is spoken about when it arises. This introduces and destigmatizes whole societal levers of concern, not discussed in mainstream Kazakhstani literature. These include, but aren’t limited to homosexuality, (internalized and external) racism and xenophobia, sex, economic class, religion (the Bible being a recurring theme in some poets’ works, challenging the dogma in various ways), war, and much more. This aspect of the Closet Poet intertwines with the wider importance of the community.

Sociopolitical importance of Closet Poet

With Open Literary School of Almaty (OLSHA) being the biggest literary institution in Kazakhstan (it has collaborated with the funding of Russia-based Fund of Socioeconomic and Intellectual Program (Фонд социально-экономических и интеллектуальных программ) and accepts various resources from a few other Russian organizations) at various points in its history, it is important to note that, much like a lot of other institutions run by post-USSR people, OLSHA is not necessarily impartial, especially now during the time of the informational war when every institution must be aware of its public stance on the war; since not being public about it implicitly agrees with the military status quo of the aggressor-country, it feels like. In order to be able to counterbalance the influence OLSHA has on Kazakhstani literary society, it is important to support institutions that allow representation of a different perspective.

Closet Poet does not shy away from LGBT+ authors. In fact, every meeting begins with poets introducing themselves and their preferred set of pronouns, and requesting not to be referred to or not using pronouns is also an option. Authors often write about their romantic and sexual interest in people of the same gender, and some of these poems are featured on Closet Poet’s instagram page.

Similarly, Closet Poet welcomes conversations about the current war in Ukraine and the January revolution in Kazakhstan . There was space for both personal and societal interpretation of events for all members.

Trauma and the experience of growing up are major themes in a lot of the works. There is a very special level of sensitivity surrounding the various ways individuals grow up, which again goes against the morose post-Soviet structures of shame and negligence.

Most meetings of Closet Poet have specific topics that poets are asked to consider when preparing for the poetry evening (though it isn’t a requirement). These themes are often political, like the war in Ukraine, though many others are a lot lighter, for example asking poets to think about colors or alliteration and reflect it in their work. This created a good environment for driving a conversation into a direction without forcing it to go a specific way or even obligating anyone to participate to any degree. IAttending a Closet Poet meeting in no way obliges one to read their poetry —  not just on specific meetings, but ever. Everyone is allowed to take their time before sharing their pieces and only share the work they’re comfortable reading out loud.

Personally, I still cherish the first time I attended a Closet Poet meeting. It was the first time I was in a literary community where, while not being forced to speak, I could have the space to read poetry and to be able to engage with others’ work, explore new voices and ruminate on my own, and – though that sounds incel-y and ruthlessly discrediting – hold a girl’s hand in public. It is thrilling whenever the artistic intertwines with the personal – thus, in a way, coming back to its roots, as all literature stems from human love for storytelling.

Closet Poet can be contacted via their instagram, and meeting times and locations are discussed via their Telegram chat (new users must request to be added). Another way to reach out to them is through their email:

A Poet Being Tamed by Fire: Ksenia Rogozhnikova’s “Swoosh”

Ксения Рогожникова. Чирк /сборник стихотворений/. Алматы: ОЛША, 2021. 64 pages. ISBN 978-601-09-1509-1.

Review by Oksana Trutneva translated by Nina Murray.

What is fire? Light, heat, passion, sacrifice, a symbol, or irreconcilability—fire accommodates so many meanings. In the hands of Ksenia Rogozhnikova, delicately woven into her poetic texts, the metaphor of the fire contains magnitudes of meanings and interpretations. Swoosh, published this year (2021) is a double-sided performance: we see the poet attempting to domesticate, tame the fire that bursts out of her flow of consciousness, and at the same time we see the fire become line, propel the poet and in the process tame her.

This fire is also life—a life that burns brightly and demands attention. Life that is impartial and shows us the outside world in the uneven light of its flickering flame.

It is no accident that the opening poem of the book whispers about the inability to be aligned with the available version of the world, the poet’s inability to conceal her flame, make it smaller:

you could do half-way
turn the flame down

but not at a run
a stranger—you risk 
burning everything down
the town waits for the snow
rain comes

This playing with fire (pun intended) is not something that only happens inside the poet’s mind—it is brought to bear on it by life itself. In the poem “Winter Walks” swoosh (the onomatopoeic word that in Russian conveys not only the sound of rustling, but also bird-noise and the sound made by a match being struck), the sound of intimacy is also an invitation to feel, to sense things:

sleeve against
another passer-by's sleeve
a blank fired
in winter
I am again
at my post
in the streets

the outmost layer
of clothing
might just spark
oh light me
ignite me ignite me
I mean to stand
close to catch fire

And here again the poet is at odds with the world, and just as she is about to accept the rules of the game, to engage the possibility of doing so is foreclosed:

but he frowns
looks down
my passer-by
he goes by
I won't turn
my matches
are broken

There are no rules. The reader, like the speaker, is at a loss as to how to play this game of life, how to tame this fire.

Perhaps this is the reason Rogozhnikova turns to meditation: to imbue the erratic arrhythmia of life with a measure of contemplative peace.

so goes my meditation
it is both light and deep
i wonder if i might escape 
this nirvana somehow
flee the satori
this lemony prickling of tongue
this inability
to become 
the lip of a volcano 

The poet’s meditation here is a contemplation of self from inside the self. Every sensation of the outside world is returned to the inner realm where the poet, as she observes herself, reaches for something more than the ordinary interpretation of meaning:

the washing machine
in the bathroom
twists the bedding
as if 
someone in there
were having a tryst <...>

in the other room
i sit 
on my meditation pillow
breath in—the man
is decisive strong
breath out—the woman
is wide and soft

they come together
a thousand times 
in an hour
the floor
begins to vibrate

The space of the body and the space outside the body constitute another dyad of meaning in Rogozhnikova’s poetry. We often see the body as it transforms itself, as it might be expected to do, in order to reconcile itself to reality:

do not be alarmed
to see me so flattened
to find i move sideways
you have seen the fish
that live
at monstrous depths

Or here: 

out of a girl
with a firm handshake
i turn into a woman
with a soft one

This body-mediated experience of the self contains a temporal aspect as well: one cannot remain unchanged after one lives so acutely and through so much. The speaker remembers being a child and already feeling

as my tightly wrapped throat
a turtleneck
that was too small

or regret, as in “somewhere—my sea goes on living without me.”

Eventually, the larger space takes in the individual body and

holds me by the hand

i stand
on a steep mountainside
at a long blade of grass
and feel 
hold it firmly
my hand


cold comes in 
as if an iceberg
hung zeppelin-like
over the city

Until this immersion in the larger space becomes almost meditative: 

and a line of light
on the wall
like an icon

Ksenia Rogozhnikova’s poetry is a mandala, a sacral geometry of meanings wherein the outmost circle is life, external and internal; the square inside that circle is the inhabited space that shapes the individual body and absorbs it; and the circle inside the square is time whose flow transforms both the body and the space it inhabits. At the center of this cosmos is the fire that powers it.

This colorful, varied pattern drawn as if in colored sand is delicate and can disappear at any moment, blown away by a single breath of a new meaning. If so, Ksenia Rogozhnikova is not afraid to begin painting anew. The poet keeps in mind Karl Jung’s interpretation of the mandala as a symbol of human perfectibility and seeks to better understand her own self. To comprehend the essence of the fire at the heart of it all that both tames everything around—and becomes tamed.

Ksenia Rogozhnikova (Zemskova) is a poet and a children’s writer. She is a graduate of the Maksim Gorky Higher Literary School in Moscow (class of 2009). Her work has been published in literary journals in Russia and Kazakhstan. She is the winner of the Altyn Kalam 2020 award for the best Children’s Book in Russian. Ksenia is the author of two collections of poetry, as well as a middle-grade novel Let’s Salsa! (Almaty Literary Press, 2018).

Oksana Trutneva, Nina Troks

Oksana Trutneva is a poet, fiction writer, and literary critic. She writes under the name Nina Troks. In 2002, she graduated from the master-class sponsored by Musaget; in 2008 she studied with Tobias Hill and Pascale Petit. Oksana teaches fiction workshops at Almaty’s Open Literary School (OLSHA).

A Poet in Conversation with the Unseen: Iryna Gumyrkina’s “Through Darkness and Light”

Ирина Гумыркина. Сквозь тьму и свет. Алматы, 2020. 60 pages. ISBN 978-601-06-6382-4. The book is available at no cost here.

Through Darkness and Light brings together poems Iryna Gumyrkina wrote over a span of five years. As Yuriy Serebriansky aptly puts it in his introduction,

this is a debut collection, but one that is distinguished from many other debut by a very important characteristic: patience.

Black-and-white cover of the poetry collection Through Darkness and Light by Iryna Gumyrkina. The cover features the image of a light-bulb with small moths flying toward it.

Gumyrkina’s command of the Russian lyrical mode is outstanding. Stripped of affectation, but powered by assertive trochees, eminently physical and syllabically limber, Gumyrkina’s language is honed into an instrument fit for the hand of the mature, worldly poet.

Through Darkness and Light can be interpreted as a chronicle of this poet’s journey. Poems in the opening section of the book convey the experience of grief and loss. The speaker’s displacement from reality is familiar to anyone who has gone through a life-changing calamity: one is stunned by the fact that the everyday, things-as-they-had-been, continue unaltered despite one’s world having come undone. Words, very often, fail:

We will take this silence and jar it;
it'll keep through the winter
for us to be fed upon

The speaker is not concerned with a search for meaning (meaning is not a phenomenon of her world)—but she would, the reader senses, welcome a chance to build a narrative, to find a few footholds in the smooth walls of grief. Hence, a conversation with her mother, in which the speaker becomes, again, a child (“Mama used to say as she braided my hair:/Listen to no one, be afraid of nothing”) or an elegy for a black cat.

Continue reading “A Poet in Conversation with the Unseen: Iryna Gumyrkina’s “Through Darkness and Light””

A Poet in Motion: Aman Rakhmetov, “Not Quite”/”Почти”

Амангельды Рахметов. Почти. Воронеж: Издательство “Цифровая Полиграфия”, 2019. 40 pages. ISBN 978-5-906384-71-3.

Aman Rakhmetovs inaugural collection “Not Quite”/”Почти” comes with an introduction by Vyacheslav Lyutuy, who writes: “Aman Rakhmetov’s lyrical hero posses strong will, a tender heart, and the ability to act or make a significant decision.”

Continue reading “A Poet in Motion: Aman Rakhmetov, “Not Quite”/”Почти””