ARS POETICA: An Interview With Mikhail Iossel

Curtis McRae

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Behind the palazzos, he went on to explain, is an interconnected series of corridors that lead to various courtyards where the real pulse of the city lives, where you find the sordid pith of St. Petersburg.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

“St. Petersburg is like Swiss cheese,” Mikhail Iossel said during our interview. Behind the palazzos, he went on to explain, is an interconnected series of corridors that lead to various courtyards where the real pulse of the city lives, where you find the sordid pith of St. Petersburg. If you want to find the fulcrum of Concordia University’s Creative Writing program, you’d be well informed to follow a similar path.

I rode the elevator up to the 6th floor of Concordia’s library building, where I was to meet with the USSR-born author, while holding two quintessential Canadian items in hand: Tim Hortons coffees. Down below, bodies were bustling, noise was plaguing the lobby. Above this clamor – when the reflective doors slid open and I stepped out of the elevator shaft – I was met with a silence that permeated the halls. I looked back down through the windowpanes at tops of heads circulating in constant motion. I heard only the clacking of heels on hallway floors.

I now find myself comparing the 6th floor of the university’s library to Swiss cheese. Beyond the main hallway is a series of offshoots where, upon entering, you are confronted with long, sterile corridors, each lined with doors that lead to the distinguished faculty members' offices. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in an infirmary hall at first, but beyond those corridors and behind each door is a world unto itself.

Mikhail is a looming literary figure. After googling his name, you will find an endless list of his literary contributions, from the North-American universities he’s taught at, to the stories he’s published in the New Yorker. Despite the lack of artificial or natural lighting in his office – the sole window leading to the building’s skylight is covered with various sketches, paintings, and prints – the room was imbued with a warm feeling. There were empty coffee mugs and reams of paper scattered on his desk, and the bookshelves were stuffed to capacity with weathered spines and textbooks. On the other side of the room, Mikhail’s face was lit by a laptop screen, from which a stream of pings sounded from a ceaseless influx of E-mails. This is where we spoke about what life was like as an underground writer in the USSR, about run-ins with derelict teenagers, Soviet submarines, corrupt cops, and about how his successful literary career was launched by a postcard.

Mikhail Iossel is the author of Notes From Cyberground: Trumpland And My Old Soviet Feeling (New Europe Books) and the story collection Every Hunter Wants to Know (W. W. Norton). He is a professor of Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal and the founding director of the Summer Literary Seminars international program. Back in the Soviet Union, he worked as an electromagnetic engineer, submarine demagnetizer, and as roller-coaster security guard, while also belonging to the organization of samizdat writers, Club-81. He came to the US in 1986, at the age of thirty, a whole and complete life behind him, and started writing in English in 1988. Among his awards are Guggenheim, NEA, and Stegner Fellowships. His stories and other prose, in English and in translation to several languages, have appeared in NewYorker.com, Guernica, Literarian, AGNI, North American Review, Threepenny Review, Interia, Boulevard, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere.

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“St. Petersburg is like Swiss cheese,” Mikhail Iossel said during our interview. Behind the palazzos, he went on to explain, is an interconnected series of corridors that lead to various courtyards where the real pulse of the city lives, where you find the sordid pith of St. Petersburg. If you want to find the fulcrum of Concordia University’s Creative Writing program, you’d be well informed to follow a similar path. I rode the elevator up to the 6th floor of Concordia’s library building, where I was to meet with the USSR-born author, while holding two quintessential Canadian items in hand: Tim Hortons coffees. Down below, bodies were bustling, noise plagued the lobby. Above this clamor – when the reflective doors slid open and I stepped out of the elevator shaft – I was met with a silence that permeated the halls. I looked back down through the windowpanes at tops of heads circulating in constant motion. I heard only the clacking of heels on hallway floors. I find myself comparing the 6th floor of the university’s library to Swiss cheese. Beyond the main hallway is a series of offshoots where, upon entering, you are confronted with long, sterile corridors, each lined with doors that lead to the distinguished faculty members' offices. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in an infirmary hall at first, but beyond those corridors and behind each door is a world unto itself. Mikhail Iossel is the author of Notes From Cyberground: Trumpland And My Old Soviet Feeling (New Europe Books) and the story collection Every Hunter Wants to Know (W. W. Norton). He is a professor of Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal and the founding director of the Summer Literary Seminars international program. Back in the Soviet Union, he worked as an electromagnetic engineer, submarine demagnetizer and as roller-coaster security guard, while also belonging to the organization of samizdat writers, Club-81. He came to the US in 1986, at the age of thirty, a whole and complete life behind him, and started writing in English in 1988. Among his awards are Guggenheim, NEA, and Stegner Fellowships. His stories and other prose, in English and in translation to several languages, have appeared in NewYorker.com, Guernica, Literarian, AGNI, North American Review, Threepenny Review, Interia, Boulevard, Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. Mikhail is a looming literary figure. After googling his name, you will find an endless list of his literary contributions, from the North-American universities he’s taught at, to the stories he’s published in the New Yorker. Despite the lack of artificial or natural lighting in his office – the sole window leading to the building’s skylight is covered with various sketches, paintings, and prints – the room was imbued with a warm feeling. There were empty coffee mugs and reams of paper scattered on his desk, and the bookshelves were stuffed to capacity with weathered spines and textbooks. On the other side of the room, Mikhail’s face was lit by a laptop screen, from which a stream of pings sounded from a ceaseless influx of E-mails. This is where we spoke about what life was like as an underground writer in the USSR, about run-ins with derelict teenagers, Soviet submarines, corrupt cops, and about how his successful literary career was launched by a postcard.