While Americans and Iraqis cheered when Saddam Hussein was dragged from his spider hole in December, there were, obviously, a few notable exceptions. While Saddam loyalists and anti-American Arabs pouted in gloom and doom, back in the U.S. an anti-American poetry hit parade, entitled “My America,” was held shortly after Saddam’s capture. It was the grand finale of San Francisco State University’s fall semester.
Even as TV screens showed the captured Hitler of the Middle East in all his pathetic, unkempt glory, the anti-war show on campus continued. As a part of the Creative Writing Department curriculum, more than a hundred and fifty SFSU students were forced to attend this collective primary delusion presented as a poetry reading. Unfortunately, the weakness of the poets’ political intellect was matched by the weakness of their writing. From the lighted stage of the huge auditorium they groaned about American ‘war atrocities’:
“‘Shock and Awe’ is to say: In forty-eight hours, several thousand dead, battered, incinerated, shattered…”
They also wailed about an American fighter plane downed only in their sick imaginations:
“Strewn across the desert: some boots, a medal, a map of Iraq…”
American soldiers were declared to be gleeful murderers and trigger pullers:
“This is your brain on trigger.
Happy, happy trigger
Thank you, Mr. Bush, for my new arms.
And exulted in a full-blown parade of anti-American delirium:
“When we know someone is suffering somewhere just so we can be relaxed and tranquil in America, Bully of Planet Earth, Superpower.”
In addition, environmental Green and anti-Globalization rhetoric was served behind the mask of poetry:
“Do you see a Statue of Liberty or do you see a toxic waste dump?”
Actually, some individual confessions were not so bad. Listening to this poetry, who would doubt that:
“My mom was a beatnik, therefore crazy.
My father was absent in the neck of a bottle.”
“I’m a little pissed at America right now…”
Clearly understanding that I was heading toward an F in this class, I took off on a suicide mission. I approached the lit stage where these “poets” sat warmed by applause and proudly waiting for more compliments.
“Don’t you think,” I asked, “it is pathetic to perform in this anti-war circus now that Saddam has been captured? How do you feel about his capture?”
“It’s great that they got him,” one of the guys on the stage answered.
“But how,” I asked, “could it have happened without a war?”
The instructor flew at me like a vulture, “Tatiana! Stop this immediately!”
He already knew my ways; I had had a few words with him regarding his anti-American attitude.
“Don’t try to shut me up! You guys are such conformists. No courage to be dissidents even for a change. Go and study accounting! Your poetry sucks!”
Later, registering for the spring semester, I realized that almost all the “poets” on the auditorium stage were the Creative Writing department’s poetry teachers. While nothing at SFSU surprises me anymore, I exploded, and I need to explain why. The “My [Hate For] America” poetry parade overcame my ability to restrain myself.
Throughout the fall semester the “Writers on Writing” class desecrated two things I hold dear: literature and America. It was a constant assault on my dedication to literature and my literary taste, and an insult to my love for this country. Not only were we forced to buy a bag of crappy books (except a few) with a price tag of around $200, but almost all these “writers” and “poets” presented on the lighted stage of the huge auditorium week after week used the opportunity to express their hate and contempt for America. Throughout the semester only a few talented exceptions abstained from expressing their political opinions.
If I have expertise in anything in this life, it is literature. I came from the Soviet Union, where literature, especially poetry, was a serious and deadly business. The second national prize for poetry in the USSR was five years in prison. The first prize was a death sentence, as seen by the fates of Nikolai Gumilev (execution by firing squad) and Osip Mandelshtam (a hungry death in the Gulag).
Night after night we typed for Samizdat (underground press) on primitive typewriters the smuggled poems of my friend Igor Guberman, who had been sentenced to five years in a prison camp. Kneeling on all fours (I was so pregnant at the time that I couldn’t sit), I read a book by Nadezhda Mandelshtam—the widow of the executed poet—that was brought into the country as contraband by some brave foreign visitors. The possession of this book was an offense punishable by law. The hostess begged me to leave, scared that I would go into labor right there in her apartment, but I finished that book understanding that this was my only chance to touch this dangerous copy.
My Leningrad neighbor Joseph Brodsky, a literary genius and one of the best Russian poets of the 20th century, was, like Solzhenitsyn, thrown out of the country. At the age of 33, Brodsky came to the US, struggling with every English sentence he attempted to write. But by 1987, after only fifteen years in the US, he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his essays in English. He also served as Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991 and 1992. When I asked him about the tragedy of the émigré writer who is deprived of his mother tongue, he answered acidly, “Who told you that you can write only in Cyrillic?”
Brodsky died a premature death a few years ago. His heart just gave up: while living in the US, he still was tortured by the KGB, who made him helpless to prevent the suffering of his elderly parents left behind in Russia. The Soviet government took away their meager pensions, earned by forty years of work. Then the officials sadistically announced that his parents would never see their only son again. The Soviets kept their word and Brodsky started to hate even the Russian language because it became the language in which his parents had been subjected to persecution.
Joseph Brodsky knew the value of freedom as only a former slave could. Brodsky’s Nobel-winning essays, “In a Room and a Half” and “On Tyranny,” included in the book dedicated to his mother and father, should be required reading in all university creative writing classes, so that future writers will see the price people paid for the luxury to write and read in other countries and will appreciate their creative freedom and America itself.
There were so many talented writers and poets imprisoned and murdered in the Soviet Union that it is easier to count those who by some miracle were able to remain alive and well. Through his own life and prison camp experience, as through the experiences of his friends, Brodsky learned a lot about evil.
In a commencement address given by Brodsky in 1984 at Williams College, he pronounced:
“No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil…For the most interesting thing about Evil is that it is wholly human. To put it mildly, nothing can be turned and worn inside out with greater ease than one’s notion of social justice, civic conscience, a better future, etc.”
This country gave him refuge and freedom, as it did for many less talented people, including me. For people like us, the name of America is sacred.
In those dark Soviet decades, cramped in the dusty communal apartments, surrounded by distorted mirrors of socialist propaganda, we knew that America existed. The smuggled pair of American jeans or the Simon and Garfunkel record was, for us, a symbol of civilization and freedom. We would go to suburban forests to listen to the “Voice of America” on short wave radios. The Soviets jammed it in the cities and spent more money on suppressing American radio than they spent on all their own broadcasting.
The mere existence of America gave us the courage to fight. Some people who just wanted to leave the Soviet Union paid with prison sentences just for declaring a desire to leave the paradise surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards shooting escapees in the back. The escapees didn’t want to take anything with them. They just dreamed of departing, even naked, with their children on their shoulders. They hijacked airplanes, invented air balloons which evaded radar, swam at night from the beaches of the Black Sea or jumped from the stage during concert tours as Baryshnikov and Makarova did. The Socialist empire didn’t want to lose its main property: its slaves. (Listen, you “poets,” dreaming about socialism!)
Finally, it was America that paid our way out. The Jackson-Vanik amendment forced the Soviets to allow some groups to emigrate in exchange for a cheap grain trade agreement. Jews were the bargaining chip when the USSR was on the edge of starvation.
Divided by the number of people they finally let go, how many kilos of grain were paid for me? Or my mother? What was the price in grain for the Moscow boy who became a student at Stanford and invented Google? Or another boy, who became the managing editor of this magazine? Or for the Russian taxi driver? Or for the elderly Jew, who worked all his life for the Soviets and was allowed, like everyone else, to take with him only $90 after paying five months’ salary for renouncing his Soviet citizenship?
America, this great and generous country not only gave all of us refuge; it even paid to buy us out of slavery.
When I see these Lilliputians attacking the noble and generous Gulliver called America, I lose my breath with fury. The attacks of these literary dwarfs on this country feel personal, against me and my safety. It was not without reason that the great American actress Bette Davis, upon being asked for major life advice, spat the answer, “Beware of Lilliputians!” She knew what they were capable of.
“If a poet has any obligation toward society, it is to write well” stated Joseph Brodsky. He started his Nobel Lecture with the words: “[I]t is better to be a total failure in a democracy than a martyr, or la crème de la crème in a tyranny.” Our university poetry teachers don’t understand how lucky they are to be failures in a democracy. They have failed in their main obligation to write well. In the Soviet Union they wouldn’t receive even one week in prison.
At least once a year every immigrant from the Soviet Union has the same nightmare: he or she is trapped back in the old country and can’t escape. Ironically enough, mine takes place at San Francisco State. I am walking down the empty hall of the Humanities building. The doors of the stuffy rooms are open, and from all the classes, the same words can be heard:
“Colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, exploitation of the working class.”
“Colonialism, imperialism, capitalism, exploitation of the working class.”
I see the trusting faces of the young students.
“What class is this?” I ask.
“Philosophy,” they answer.
Please, tell me I am not back in the Soviet Union again and this is just a nightmare!