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The poetry of life

Magic City Books celebrates Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Yevgeny Yevtushenko

COURTESY University of Tulsa

In his brightly colored suits and cloth caps, the dissident Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was an unlikely and unmissable presence here, where he taught poetry and film studies at the University of Tulsa for 25 years. He died in 2017, leaving a massive body of work from which his son, Zhenya Yevtushenko, will read on July 18 at Magic City Books. 

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Alicia Chesser Atkin: What’s the occasion for the celebration? 

Zhenya Yevtushenko: July 18 is my father’s birthday. For as long as I can remember he had a big poetry reading in the heart of Moscow every year as a birthday celebration, inviting friends and colleagues to share the stage with him. I was seven years old when I first read poetry with my father on his birthday. I hope to be able to recreate something like that on a smaller scale this year in Tulsa.

Atkin: How are you choosing which poems to read? 

Yevtushenko: His best-known poetry will fill the evening, poems like “Babi Yar.” I’m also picking poems that trace my father’s literary journey through life. My aim is to bring a living biography to the stage. My dad started writing poetry when he was four, and he wrote for a modest 79 years after that, so there is plenty to choose from. Family members are also sending their recommendations from around the world. Some of the works will be read in both Russian and English, so the audience gets a sense of the musicality of the language.
Atkin: Your father had more than a nodding acquaintance with authoritarian regimes. What do you think his response would be to America’s political situation today? 

Yevtushenko: During his time in the U.S., my dad had always noticed what was similar in American and Russian politics. The two countries are quite different, but regardless of who is in power the abuse of that power is very clear to see, no matter which country one observes. My father was always quick to remind me that a country’s government and her people are two widely different things. He always held out hope that if the people spoke up and listened to each other, then even the most impossibly rigid system can better itself. He never lost his faith in hope.
Atkin: For those like me who were his students at TU, your dad was a legend, yes, but also a terrifically generous man who served us “Russian caviar” and dared us to stand up for what we believed and to be able to argue for it. He challenged us as human beings and as students, both. There’s a lot of “job-readiness” language coming out of the university these days. What do you think your father would have said about the importance of poetry in a community like ours? 

Yevtushenko: I hope he didn’t embarrass anyone in your class too much. He liked to put people out of their comfort zones. Like many art forms, poetry does just that. Poetry challenges us, it liberates us from ourselves. It is not just important in Tulsa or in an academic setting but in everyday life. My dad liked to say that everyone was a poet. It was the poetry of life—learning with calloused hands, open ears and eager-heartedness. 
If a boy from a small provincial Siberian train junction can empathize with a 19th century American woman, an 18th century French novelist, some obscure 17th century Englishman, then his world is already so bright and rich. As a man he would then be able to tell stories from his life, about his grandfather’s, write about his children, his failures in marriage, what outraged him, what saddened and what inspired him. All of these experiences were translated and shared in 72 languages across the world. New York City, Paris, Beijing, Tulsa, Zima Junction (my dad’s hometown), and every person in the world are all connected. Poetry is such a powerful way to discover these connections across time and space. It is not about being job-ready, but about being life-ready. 

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A Celebration of 
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Magic City Books, 221 E. Archer St.
July 18, 7–8:30 p.m., Free

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