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From Russia with love: Renowned poet brings her passion for literature to Hampshire College

By Kristin Palpini
Staff Writer

Published on April 10, 2009

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Russian poet Polina Barskova, who had her first volume of poetry published at age 15, divides her time now between writing and imparting her love for literature to her students at Hampshire College.


Hampshire College professor Polina Barskova discovered poetry at age 8 while waiting for her mother in a grocery store parking lot in Russia's Leningrad.
The words poured from her - a poem about fairy tales that came to the child from the "magic voices of the night itself," Barskova recalls.
 [ ... ]
Her classes on her favorite Russian writers - Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Pushkin - are popular with students not shy about singing her praises.
"She has a wonderful way of experiencing all of the texts," said first-year student Ellen M. Van Benschoten. "All the things she gets out of [a book], all the little details, it's just more in depth and better than anyone else has ever read it."
Students say they enjoy the nuanced analysis Barskova brings to literature, studying the underlying meanings of minute details others might pass over, like the significance of professor Timofey Pnin's emigre status in Nabokov's novel "Pnin," a novel she is teaching this semester. Pnin, like Nabokov, emigrated from Russia to the United States. Or the implications of the hapless character's baldness - a link back to infantile naivete.
On a Thursday afternoon late last month,Barskova stood at the front of a room packed with students gathered for her class "Through the Twisted Mirror: Gogol and Nabokov, and Other Eccentrics." The course delves into lesser-known works, interviews and letters exploring the writers' use of language, gender roles and provocative styles.
On this day, the discussion was centered around "Pnin." The narrator, who some say is Nabokov, tells the story of Professor Pnin, who is ousted from the fictional Waindell College. As classical music seeped in from the room next door, Barskova asked the class to describe the main character. Students raised their hands and gave lengthy descriptions of Pnin's garters, bald spot and overall naivete. Barskova told one student who was commenting on his emigre status that the point was dense enough to be the topic of an "important" master's level thesis.
"Good, that is good," said Barskova, scribbling student observations onto a white board. "Your answer is not what I hoped you would give me, but it is brilliant."
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Barskova's work has been translated by poet Ilya Kaminsky, who told Boxcar Poetry Review, a San Fransisco-based poetry magazine, that he brings Barskova's work to an English speaking audience because "there are some brilliant Russian poets in my generation in that country, and I want to share their work with my American friends."
But on that day at Hampshire College in March, as her students filed out at the end of class, Barskova said what she really wanted to discuss in an interview with a reporter was those students. "What I see in a room of 20 young people is a conversation, is a potential for a moment toward each other," she said. "An intellectual moment is my pleasure. They are very important," Barskova said of her students. "It's why I'm here. You have to be grateful to your students. It's very important that they receive your effort, that you put effort into education. Love equals effort."
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