Eugene Ostashevsky

Portrait Eugene Ostashevsky
© Hartwig Klappert

Eugene Ostashevsky was born in Leningrad, in the former USSR, in 1968 and emigrated with his parents at the age of eleven to the USA. He studied Comparative Literature at Stanford University, has also studied or worked at universities in Italy, Turkey, and France and today teaches literature at New York University.

Having grown up bilingual, Ostashevsky developed a feeling for the main differences between different languages at a very early age. To him, language as such appears to be an artificial structure which, in each individual case, has its very own relationship to reality. What happens when two languages meet one another is something that he has evolved into his very own word game, which has become the foundation for his poems. His first volume of poems, »Iterature«, was published in 2005. In it, he plays skilfully with the semantics of different language systems and mixes elements of the Russian Oberiu [Associations of Real Art], an avant-garde group of artists from the twenties, with contemporary American English. Inspired by the avant-garde poets, his poems are at the same time rhythmical and reminiscent of Dadaism. Behind his play with vowels there is always reflection about our affiliation to a culture through the medium of language. In 2006, he published an anthology titled »Oberiu. An Anthology of Russian Absurdism«, in which he translated works by Oberiu poets like Aleksandr Vvedenskij and Daniil Charms, thus once again expressing his admiration for late avant-garde poetics and language philosophy.

In his poetry volume »The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza« from 2008, Ostashevsky blends old with new – bringing together elements of rap music, medieval and twentieth-century logic, and American children’ television. Communication between people is presented here as an impossibility: there are no »real« universally valid concepts, as concepts are words, and words have different meanings in different languages. The same year saw the release of »Enter Morris Imposternak, Pursued by Ironies«. In it, the author deals with the question of how one can develop real feelings in a world that is shaped by language and its very different possible interpretations. In its playful style, the work reflects children’s literature and the poet himself ironically refers to this as the »new infantilism«. Children’s literature has always inspired him in his work, as it – unlike adult literature – provides narrative structures with a great deal of room for manoeuvre. In »The Pirat Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi« [2017], Ostashevsky also plays with language, with surreal dialogues between a pirate and a parrot reflecting on the fragility of language and the resulting difficulties of communication.

Eugene Ostashevsky has been awarded, among others, the City of Münster Prize for International Poetry 2019. He lives in New York City.

Date: August 2022