Yevtushenko wows UB audiences
Many people who attended a book signing after the reading said they’ve loved Yevtushenko’s work since the 1960s. Some brought aging copies of his books for signing. Click on the image to see a larger version. Photo: NANCY J. PARISI
UB buzzed with excitement surrounding the visit of famed Russian poet, film director, actor and photographer Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the 79-year-old artist did not disappoint over the course of several public events Oct. 31 through Nov. 3.
Widely known for his criticism of Soviet bureaucracy, Yevtushenko was the first Russian poet to recite his work in the West, doing so in 1960. His most famous work, the provocative poem “Babi Yar,” published in 1961, helped expose Soviet and international anti-Semitism. The Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is believed to be the site of the largest massacre of the Holocaust—nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered over two days.
Yevtushenko arrived in Buffalo on Wednesday and attended a screening in the Center for the Arts of his 1990 film “Stalin’s Funeral,” for which he gave an introduction and participated in a post-screening Q&A.
Yevtushenko held an open discussion with students in Baird Hall on Thursday afternoon. “I thought it was very enlightening,” Katherine Rusch, a junior English major, said afterward. “He provided a message of hope for young writers. It’s an incredible honor to have him here.”
On Thursday evening, approximately 500 people attended a poetry reading by Yevtushenko in Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall. Noting the significance of Yevtushenko’s visit to campus, Cristanne Miller, chair of UB’s English Department, introduced him as “among the world’s most celebrated and influential poets,” adding that Yevtushenko is “well-known for his criticism of Soviet bureaucracy and the lingering legacy of Stalin, and, more generally, for the political and cultural activism of his poems.”
In addition, Miller said, Yevtushenko is one of the most important writers of the mid-20th century movement known as “the thaw,” which focused on freedom of personal liberty and critical expression. “We really do not have in the United States any poet who has combined political advocacy and engagement with a high level of literary productivity in the way Mr. Yevtushenko has. He writes passionate poems of concern about human liberties, Russian and global politics, and faith in the common person,” Miller said.
With that, Yevtushenko took the stage, seated at the end of a table with three UB English students to his left: Daniel J. Schweitzer, a PhD candidate in American literature; Paige Melin, a senior English and French dual major; and Jennifer Johnson, a senior English and theatre and dance major.
While the event was billed as a poetry reading, it was more of a performance. Animated and energetic, intense and dramatic, Yevtushenko gestured as he read from a selection of poems, his strong Russian accent at times booming through the concert hall, while at others hovering just above a whisper.
Yevtushenko interacted enthusiastically with the students, who recited stanzas in English, followed by Yevtushenko’s Russian.
“I thought the student readers did a superb job, both as readers and as visibly appreciative listeners to the tones, rhythms and drama of Mr. Yevtushenko’s reading in Russian,” Miller said. “Mr. Yevtushenko spent close to two hours with the student readers before the performance coaching them in this style so that there would be an appropriate synchrony between his reading of a stanza or section of a poem and theirs.”
Schweitzer, a native of South Dakota, said he was thrilled to have had the opportunity to sit beside such a significant literary figure.
“It’s overwhelming. Including in rehearsal, he almost rewrites the poetry as he reads it, and it’s just one of the most amazing effects I’ve ever heard,” Schweitzer said at a reception in the Center for the Arts atrium following the reading.
“The performance of it was what really blew me away. Some of those poems we’ve gone through three or four times, and when he would hit those notes, that exhilaration or the sorrow or the passion of it was like a physical shock.”
Melin called the experience “a whirlwind.”
“It was definitely exhilarating and nerve-racking. I hope that one day I can read my poetry as incredibly as he can,” she said. “There were several moments where I was sitting there and I thought, ‘This is something I’m going to be able to tell my kids about someday.’ It’s definitely something I’ll remember for a long time.”
Near the conclusion of the reading, Yevtushenko engaged in a touching rendition of “Lara’s Theme”—from the film “Doctor Zhivago,” once banned in the Soviet Union—with Abigail Unger, director of the Expressive Therapies Department at Hospice Buffalo and a cantorial soloist, while Dimitar Pentchev, a UB PhD student in music composition, played piano.
Yevtushenko wrapped up his Buffalo visit Friday and Saturday with appearances with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in Kleinhans Music Hall, where he read “Babi Yar,” the poem that inspired Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 13.”
Yevtushenko’s visit was presented by UB’s Office of the Vice President for University Life and Services, and sponsored by UB’s College of Arts & Sciences, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Just Buffalo Literary Center.
Miller called Yevtushenko’s visit “a grand success,” noting the delight expressed by members of the audience. “Yevtushenko received a standing ovation both at the beginning and the conclusion of the reading, and people seemed particularly to enjoy the Russian style of highly dramatic reading or declamation, of which he is a master.”