Me


Художники существуют только потому, что мир несовершенен.

An artist never works under ideal conditions. If they existed, his work wouldn’t exist, for the artist doesn’t live in a vacuum. Some sort of pressure must exist. Artists exist only because the world is imperfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.

– Andrei Tarkovsky


EmbassadorsAndrei Tarkovsky is widely considered one of the greatest directors of all time. He made most of his films under the constraints of Soviet censorship, films that were considered “ideologically dangerous because of their free-thinking approach to the mysteries of human existence,” writes one reviewer.

His second film, “Andrei Rublev,” “was banned by the Soviet authorities until 1971. It was shown at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival at four o’clock in the morning on the last day, in order to prevent it from winning a prize – but it won one nonetheless, and was eventually distributed abroad partly to enable the authorities to save face.”

Less commonly known is that Tarkovsky also worked in theater. Spring of 2017 will be the 40th anniversary of his production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which ran in Moscow in 1977. My mother, Katya Kompaneyets, designed all 120 costumes for that play in collaboration with another artist.

She writes*:

In the winter of 1975, I got a grant from the Moscow Artists Union, which owned property outside Moscow where artists were provided with living quarters, a studio, printing presses and models for figure drawing. In Senezh, a village near the town of Solnechnogorsk, I shared a studio with Tengiz Mirzashvili, a celebrated artist from Tbilisi, Georgia. […] At that time, he was obsessed with the idea of organizing and designing a production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

During our time together in Senezh, Mirzashvili went to Moscow […] and met Andrei Tarkovsky there. As was usual in those days, Mirzashvili was talking about “Macbeth” and Tarkovsky asked if he would like to work on a production of “Hamlet” with him instead. […] Mirzashvili asked me to collaborate with him on the costume design for the production—I had a background in textile and costume design. He couldn’t handle it alone since he lived in Tbilisi during the year. Excited by the project, I agreed even though I had two young children and knew it would put a lot of pressure on me.

But I couldn’t pass up working with Tarkovsky. Visually, his movies were stunning. I had seen his fascinating film “The Mirror” at a private screening and knew of his reputation as an independent-minded person and great director. Tarkovsky had his own views on the Soviet Union and on Russian history during a period when these ideas were strictly regulated and proscribed by the Soviet propaganda machine.

The strict regulation found its way to the production. My mother recalls that the year of rehearsals and preparation was “difficult and toxic due to Tarkovsky’s reputation as a dissident […] The theater administration was very opposed to our production and may have even gotten instructions from the Communist Party and the KGB to sabotage it.” In an email to me, my mother recalled that there were lines for blocks to get tickets to the premiere, but in the end, Tarkovsky’s “Hamlet” was only performed a few times. The official reason was that the lead actress fell ill, but it was never shown again. My mother added: “It wasn’t banned officially, just de facto. That’s how it often was in Soviet times.” She suspects that Party officials at the premiere didn’t like what they saw.

Among the few things remaining from the production are costume sketches painted in gouache by my mother. Instead of seeking historic accuracy to Shakespeare’s time, her drawings were inspired by Renaissance and early Renaissance paintings from Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Holbein the Younger, some of my mother’s favorite artists. It turned out that Mirzashvili and Tarkovsvky had similar tastes, so my mother’s sketches were approved instantly.
Laertes

She writes:

We always made intentional choices about the color scheme, thinking about how the costumes would look together onstage. We wanted the stage to look like a painting. Tarkovsky was very happy with our ideas and signed the sketches after approval (his signature is visible on the sketches). The costumes were then accurately produced from these sketches by seamstresses under my supervision.

In an interview about “Hamlet,” Tarkovsky wrote:

Hamlet hesitates because he cannot triumph. How should he be? What can he do? He can’t do anything. This will always be the way. But he must still say his word… And the result is a pile of corpses. And four captains carry him out. This is the meaning of Hamlet, not ‘to be or not to be,’ ‘to live or die.’ Nonsense! It has nothing to do with life and death. It has to do with the life of the human spirit, about the ability or inability to become acclimatized, about the responsibility of a great man and intellect before society.

Through working with him, my mother came to understand why Tarkovsky was so drawn to this play:

Tarkovsky viewed the story of Hamlet as autobiographical since it paralleled his life story: a creative personality and member of the intelligentsia fights for truth and justice in the context of twisted times. Hamlet’s effort to speak the truth proved fatal. Working on the production with constant sabotage by the theater’s administration—they would refuse to give us a stage for rehearsals, a storage room that held our costumes burned down, etc.—proved to be suicidal, too. We were constantly stressed and strained, which we found an apt metaphor for the play we were working on.

The sketches are now on display at the Santa Monica College Emeritus Art Gallery in Santa Monica, CA alongside fifteen paintings my mother made during approximately the same time period. Many of these paintings I had never seen before — they had been stored in closets or under beds for the last thirty five+ years.

Getting these works out of the Soviet Union was a feat in itself. My mother writes:

I applied for an exit visa in 1979 and was faced with the problem of getting permission to take the works out of the country and the inevitable need to pay to do so (as was Soviet regulation). […] The Soviet government felt they owned my works created within their borders and made me pay for each piece. I could only afford to pay for some since I also had to buy the plane tickets for myself and my two kids to leave the Soviet Union. In order to take these sketches and my own paintings out of the country, I had to go through two state-run committees. […] I had to bribe them with some pricey paintings from my collection, which I knew I couldn’t get out of the country anyway.

After they gave me the list of prices for my own works, I had to approve this with Ministry of Culture. These people were bureaucrats and very vicious. They were not happy with the prices and wanted me to pay more. I had to fight them, but they finally put the stamps of approval and visas on the backs of each piece. You can still see them on the backs of the sketches.

The show will be up until November 4 (details here). For more on my mother, visit her website or Houzz page. And if you read Russian, here’s her short essay reflecting on the collaboration with Tarkovsky.

* quotes from my mother come from the exhibition text, edited by me

all paintings are copyright Katya Kompaneyets and may not be reproduced without permission

MeganRapinoeThis video is making the internet rounds. It’s been described as triumphant. (It’s of U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe being asked to describe herself in one word, and she responds with “GAAAAY.”)

I’ve certainly felt triumphant about being queer before. In fact, being queer is possibly my favorite thing about my life.

The queer community and queer love are so important to me. Queer people are my closest friends. I tend to be attracted (intellectually, romantically, and friend-wise) to people who play with gender, who are attracted to multiple genders, who don’t shy away from nuance and gray areas, who mess with binaries, who feel some kind of identification (even if complicated) with the words “queer” and “genderqueer.”

I love who and how I love. I love that my form of love plays with gender and sexuality norms. I love queer bodies, mine and those of the people I love. I love people who play with color, who bind, who shop in the side of the store not traditionally “designated” for them, who shave shapes into their hair, who take feminine accessorizing and inject it with a hearty sense of play, self-awareness, and edginess.

My love makes some people uncomfortable, makes some people stare. It might be because they are trying to read the gender of my partners, the most recent of whom have identified as trans* or genderqueer. But there might also be some young people who see themselves reflected in my love and know that soon they too will have real queer love. Maybe I’m being presumptuous or self-absorbed. Or maybe just hopeful. Or maybe I’m just remembering how I looked upon queer couples before I knew myself to be queer.

I’m sure straight people have communities or groups where they feel most at home, most affiliated. And I know that as a white person, it’s a privilege to be able to choose which identity is most important to me. People of color in the U.S. are often told who they are in a way that erases their intersections. But I can relate to Megan Rapinoe. I love celebrating my queerness.

More to say on this in the future, but for now, these are just some initial (read: jumbled) thoughts. Thanks for reading. Love you.

I was humored and humbled when Columbia University asked me to be on this panel:LATMFA

Very much looking forward to reading, to hearing the work of my fellow alums, and to seeing anyone in NYC who is able to come!

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Columbia Selects: MFA Alumni Readings
Thursday, March 5 @ 7 pm
KGB Bar 85 E. 4th St
F Train to 2nd Ave

What is Columbia Selects?  The first Thursday of each month, the Columbia MFA program hosts a reading series featuring Writing Program alumni. These fresh talents are finished with or near to finished with their first books, but do not yet have a book contract and/or an agent. In recent years, many of our featured writers have achieved critical and commercial success. This is your chance to glimpse who you’ll be reading in 2016!

Join us Thursday, March 5th, at 7 pm, for our stellar March lineup! Selected by the Columbia Writing Program, our readers are sure to dazzle and delight.

Our lineup this month:

Tanya Paperny is an essayist, translator, and editor based (mostly) out of Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, VICE, Washington City Paper, The Washington Post, The Literary Review, and in many other fine journals and magazines. Her collection entitled “Short-Shorts” was a semifinalist in the Gazing Grain Press 2014 Poetry Chapbook Contest. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and OMI International Arts Center, and she is at work on a collection of essays about violence, trauma, and resilience.

Elysha Chang is a writer from Virginia who lives in Brooklyn. Her short fiction has appeared in Bodega Magazine, The Literarian, and Park Slope Reader. She is an Emerging Writer Fellow at The Center for Fiction where she is at work on her first novel.

Andrew Eisenman is a writer and editor in New York. He’s a former assistant fiction editor of The American Reader and, before that, an editor at NOON. A 2012 teaching fellow at Columbia, he’s currently a senior editor of Kindle Singles. Andrew is working on a novel about the unraveling of a wealthy Ohio family.

Columbia Selects is curated by Bryan VanDyke and Emily Austin.

On August 31, 1999, a handmade bomb exploded in a popular Moscow shopping mall. I was there, and watched rubble, dust, and screaming erupt around me.

Read more about the event and my changing understanding of this experience in an essay over at Pacific Standard.

Two important things I’ve learned since the piece was published:

  • Leaflets from a radical anti-consumerist organization were discovered near the site of the explosion. They read: “A hamburger not eaten to the end by the dead consumer is a revolutionary hamburger. Consumers: We don’t like your life style. And it is not safe for you.” (Any links to that organization have since been refuted.)
  • The video arcade where the bomb went off was called дунамитor “Dynamite.” Oof.

A few exciting updates:

  • My collection of poems entitled “Short-Shorts” was named a semi-finalist in the Gazing Grain Press Feminist Poetry Chapbook contest. I’d been feeling insecure about the work–it’s the most unusual thing I’ve ever written–but now that the collection of prose poems/flash nonfiction (or whatever you want to call it) has been honored in this way, I’m excited to keep sending it out. More information on the winners and the Press here.
  • I’ve become a contributor to the Washington City Paper. You can read my latest book review, about a former Washington Post reporter who covered D.C.’s crack epidemic while himself addicted to crack. This review is probably the first and last time I’ll ever get paid for a piece containing the words “blow job” (you’ll have to read the whole thing to find that), but an excerpt is below:

A new memoir by former WashingtonPost reporter Ruben Castaneda replays some of the lowest points in D.C.’s recent history: a time in the 1990s when cops couldn’t seem to do anything about gun violence, when drug-related turf wars led to scores of innocent victims and intimidation killings of witnesses, when my neighborhood of Edgewood was known as “Little Beirut,” and when some children in particularly stricken neighborhoods avoided gunfire by sleeping on mattresses on the floor.

Expect more from me in the City Paper over the next couple of months, and hopefully I’ll have more good news to share on the essay/poem front.

xo,

TP

A Facebook friend who’d moved to the U.S. from St. Petersburg in his thirties recently posted a frustrated status update in which he complained about a younger writer. This writer had immigrated from Russia as a child, and now wrote an overwrought (in my friend’s opinion) essay about her conflicted identity. His basic point was that since she’d grown up in America, she was essentially American. Her memories of the old country were childish and vague or, perhaps, even second-hand, based on photographs and stories. Not only did she speak English without an accent, she was more comfortable expressing herself in English than in her first language. The only experience of adulthood she’d had was an American experience. Most importantly, Americans didn’t perceive her as “other.” Because of this, my friend said, her identity issues, if not entirely made up for the sake of her readers, were greatly exaggerated. She didn’t face the daily oppression of being treated like a foreigner, of having to distinguish herself from a stereotype that rose like a wall in people’s minds whenever they heard accented speech. She didn’t experience the difficulty of navigating around cultural knowledge gaps that persisted in older immigrants long after they mastered the vernacular of everyday life. So why, my friend wondered, why was she being such drama queen about the difficulty of her bifurcated identity? My friend found it unseemly. Nabokov, he argued, had never made a peep about his identity troubles.

Above quote from Anya Ulinich, in her introduction to Karolina Waclawiak’s novel How to Get Into the Twin Palms (bolding my own).

If her friend is right, I guess I should just stop writing. All my stuff is about complicated identities, but as an American-born daughter of Soviet immigrants, I suppose I have no real reasons to feel such complications. LOL.

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