Meet Ilya Kutik: NU Professor, Famous Poet, and Pal of Allen Ginsberg

Photo by Megan Spengler.

Ilya Kutik, Professor of Russian Literature and Language, was taking the quarter off to work on two books of essays or “something serious like that” until something else suddenly came up.

“Poetry is like a very strong dictation, that you cannot miss. It’s more powerful than you are. It comes to you and goes, and then it disappears. You shouldn’t try to fill in these gaps when it disappears, and these gaps can be months or can be years.”

It’s a lucky coincidence that Kutik’s inspiration hit while he was not teaching. Poetry now takes up most of his time. “The dictation is strong, and you cannot resist it. I mean you shouldn’t resist it. So when I am writing poetry, I cannot write anything else.”

Kutik admits that he is behind on his other projects because of this. It’s not good for his publishers, but he has already contributed his new poetry to Russian literary magazines, and it will be soon published in a book.

“It’s funny because I sent [my poetry] to the two most famous Russian literary magazines, and the answer came, from one in 7 seconds, and from another in 11 seconds.”

This gives one an idea of Kutik’s legacy in the Russian literary world. Kutik started writing when he was 15 years old, but he was originally trained in the visual arts.

“It was either visual arts or writing. In visual arts, I thought, ‘I don’t have any obstacles.’ It was developing too well. And in writing I had lots of obstacles. If an artist does not have obstacles, or if we do not put obstacles before ourselves, we cannot develop.”

From there, Kutik attended a literary college in Moscow. He published his first book in 1988, the year he was finally allowed to
leave the Soviet Union.

A few years before, in 1985, Kutik actually became friends with the legendary Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg.

“I met him actually in Georgia, not American Georgia but then Soviet Georgia. Allen came when it was… bad, bad times. It was the end of Brezhnev’s era in the Soviet Union. And when Allen came to the Soviet Union, [the government] actually did everything in order to send him as far as possible from Moscow, St. Petersburg, the important cities.”

Ginsberg was somewhat “exiled” to Georgia, where Kutik happened to be for the anniversary of Titian Tabidze, a modernist Georgian poet who was killed during Stalin’s purges.

Kutik and Ginsberg immediately became close friends, and Kutik even held a reading for Ginsberg in his tiny apartment when they returned to Moscow.

“I organized his reading in my apartment, which was a little studio in central Moscow. It was really a very tiny place, and there
were like 50 people in this tiny place.”

Everyone who originally offered to help Ginsberg organize a reading in Moscow was suddenly “on vacation,” or pretended they didn’t exist out of fear that Ginsberg would say something that was inappropriate for the Soviet Union.

“And what was funny was that around 2 a.m., there was a knock on my door… there was his official interpreter from the government. If it is an official interpreter, then he works for KGB. He was saying immediately stop and submit whatever you recorded.”

“But I told him I had nothing to lose. I said ‘go and […] yourself.”

Kutik came to the United States for the first time in 1989 by the invitation of Ginsberg, who organized his first American reading tour. A few years later, Kutik began teaching a summer creative writing course at Naropa University, where Ginsburg ran a poetry department with Jack Kerouac.

Northwestern University hired Kutik in the mid-90s to help build the unique poetic program that exists today.

“In American universities, there is no special program dedicated just to Russian poetry, so that you can get everything from the 17th century up to today. They hired me for this program… and I built it. So now it’s the only place in the universe where you can learn everything about Russian poetry from the beginning.”

Kutik teaches courses on Russian poetry from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, as well as contemporary poetry, but his favorite
courses to teach are those on Russian cinema.

“To my mind, out of the visual arts, film is the closet to poetry from all types of art.” Professor Kutik will resume teaching in the fall, so make sure to keep an eye out for his course on Russian Film from WWII to present.

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