Philip Nikolayev was born in Moscow and spent his childhood in Russia and Moldavia. He grew up bilingual, speaking both English and Russian. In 1990, he immigrated to the United States where he currently lives, in Cambridge, Mass. He has published the collections Dusk Raga (1998), Monkey Time (2001) and Letters from Aldenderry (2006). He is married to poet Katia Kapovich. Together they set up the magazine Fulcrum, a publication on poetry and aesthetics. In 2001, he was awarded the Verse Prize for his collection Monkey Time.
Nikolayev uses diverse forms in his poetry. He is practised not only in free verse but also writes rhyming poetry, including sonnets. He even created a new form: the ‘walled-in sonnet’ in which an accompanying commentary in free-form verse is constructed around the sonnet, like in the poem Diotima’s Lesson. But most characteristic of his poetry remains the free, meandering poem which seems to have arisen spontaneously and which discusses big human issues in a light-hearted and sometimes witty way.
In the poem ‘The Art of Forgetting’ taken from Letters from Aldenderry, the theme of human memory is raised in a playful, associative manner. The poet begins with an offhand reference to his own carelessness: ‘Last night I cooked my socks in the microwave by mistake’. But gradually more abstract artillery is employed: ‘We’ll fight for our memories, the truth as it appeared once. / But to remember something we need to forget / something, a different truth’. And suddenly we find ourselves transported to the Soviet Union when Nikolayev introduces memories of his grandmother who had tried to forget the terror of dialectic materialism by reading the Bible.
Nikolayev often talks about his childhood, for example in the poem, ‘Tendency toward Vagrancy’, in which he describes how, as a four-year-old, he wandered through the city of Chisinau with a friend in the context of ‘that greatest paradox of all— / a happy Soviet childhood’. Often it seems that he is trying to capture the coarse-grained messiness of life itself. This constantly gives rise to surprising philosophical twists, like in the poem ‘Eagles,’ in which the observation of two unique birds suddenly gives way to suspicion. Could they be disguised drones? It is typical of this poet that he poses the horrifying question in a light, comical tone. ‘[I] wondered if they carried / tiny surveillance cameras on board’, we read, ‘that could scan / “Shakespeare and the Pathos of Rambling” that I was reading’.
Letters from Aldenderry, Salt Publishing, Londen, 2006
Monkey Time, Wave Books, Seattle, 2004
Dusk Raga, The Writers Workshop, Calcutta, 1998
Artery Lumen, Barbara Matteau Editions, Cambridge, 1996