Back in the 1970s I was for a time the manager (read general dogsbody) of the black box theatre space in the local arts centre. Early one morning we got asked if we could put on a poetry reading by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko on the same evening, the performance would be advertised during the day on the local BBC radio and by word of mouth on the culture grapevine. The theatre was free so I had no objections, they would have been overruled if I had had any. So it was agreed that we would go ahead with this almost spontaneous event.
My preparations were not arduous, light the stage with some general background lighting and set up a couple of microphones. Come the afternoon and the great man appeared for a quick technical run through. As we met Yevgeny greeted me extremely warmly proclaiming, “You look just like my good friend Gary Snyder!” For those who don’t know, Gary Snyder is a Zen Buddhist Beat Poet and environmentalist who featured heavily in some of Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novels. I was a big Kerouac and Gary Snyder fan and felt very chuffed by this warm greeting.
Come the evening the theatre was sold out and the poetry reading went without a hitch. Yevgeny would read, or better said perform one of his poems in Russian, he was a very expressive reader, and his lady translator, and bed partner, would then read her English translation. This was done with one exception; Yevgeny performed his own English translation of the poem The City of Yes and The City of No. An incredibly powerful performance.
Following the poetry reading the self appointed cultural elite of the city had organised a party to celebrate Yevgeny’s visit. I was grudgingly invited (you don’t invite the servants!), I suspect at Yevgeny’s insistence, and we all trooped off to the house of one of the literati. Now Yevgeny was not interested in being buttonholed by any of the literary groupies eager to have a conversation with the great poet, so he grabbed a glass of wine and proceeded to start an animated conversation with me about god and the world. And so the night continued, Yevgeny and I got wonderfully drunk and chewed the cud like long lost friends, whilst the literary groupies hovered, hoping to get at least a couple of words with the great man. When Yevgeny had drunk enough he made his excuses and left and I wended my way home, happily drunk, followed I suspect by the curses of the city’s self appointed cultural elite. That should have been the end of the story, one of many happy memories in a chaotic life full of weird turns and unexpected diversions, but…
Fast-forward forty years. In the small village where I live in Southern Germany one of my neighbours is a Russian lady (a nuclear submarine engineer, I kid you not!) who I got to know because we travelled into town on the same bus everyday. We became good friends and one day I discovered that she went to university with one of Yevgeny’s granddaughters and had often been in his apartment and knew him well. It is truly a small world as the cliché has it.
All of this means that I was saddened to learn this morning that Yevgeny Yevtushenko had died yesterday; another small element of my youth has gone.