Weave Me a Wreath of White Roses: 30 Years of Publishing

Anna Akhmatova in English

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By Leora Zeitlin

 

 

Towards the end of her life, Anna Akhmatova wrote:

What is lurking in the mirror? Grief.

What is stirring beyond the wall? Calamity.

Having lived through the violent upheavals of the Russian Revolution, two World Wars, and the Stalinist terror, she had chronicled both her personal grief and calamities, and those of Russia, in more than 800 poems. Her early poems, often expressing anguished love, inspired a generation of Russians in the years before World War I. Later, refusing to leave the Soviet Union, she gave voice to the suffering of all of Russia.

 

Seventeen years after her death in 1966, a proposal to publish her complete poems arrived at the fledgling Zephyr Press in Somerville, Massachusetts. Poet Judith Hemschemeyer had already spent a decade translating Akhmatova’s poems before her friend and colleague Susan Gubernat — one of five editors then at Zephyr — presented them to us. We were young and audacious enough to think we could undertake this massive task: publish what would become a 1,600-page, two-volume, bilingual edition that would be the first of its kind in either Russian or English.

 

No one imagined that preparing the first edition would take seven years. Zephyr founding editor Ed Hogan spearheaded the project, coordinating myriad details to create, finance, design, and produce the encyclopedic edition. We enlisted Dr. Roberta Reeder, a scholar at Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Center, who became the book’s overall editor, wrote a 160-page introduction, and compiled notes to the poems. British philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin gave us permission to reprint his famous essay about his few but fateful conversations with Akhmatova between 1945 and 1965. Two of Akhmatova’s protégés, the poets Dmitry Bobyshev and Anatoly Naiman, provided invaluable feedback on the manuscript and information about the poet. Numerous others were involved.

 

This was all during the 1980s, before email was widely used and before the internet. Ed corresponded with staff from the Akhmatova Museum in St. Petersburg (at that time it was still Leningrad) and the National Library of Russia to secure and identify the people in more than 100 photographs. Communication to anyone inside the Soviet Union was challenging and slow.

 

During the last days before the book went to press, Ed and I worked around the clock. And how did it go to press? We’re talking about 1,600 pages that had been laid out and pasted up by hand, using light tables, X-acto knives and rubber cement (desktop publishing was still in its infancy). We stayed up the entire last night as I wrote the copy for the back covers and inside flaps, Ed typeset and pasted them up, and both of us made tiny last-minute corrections to the “mechanicals” on Ed’s trusty light table. At dawn, we headed down to the train station, where Ed boarded Amtrak with two cartons of camera-ready pages to deliver by hand to the printer in Michigan.

 

In March 1990, The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova was published to immediate acclaim. The first review appeared on publication day, written by LA Times Book Review editor Richard Eder. I had met Eder through a literary-minded postal worker on Charles Street in Boston (Eder lived in Boston at the time, though he wrote for the LA Times), and I had told him about the project. Some 75 reviews subsequently appeared internationally, and the book was named one of the 14 “Best Books of 1990” by the New York Times. Two years later, we published an English-only, single-volume edition.

 

Eight months after the book was published, the Berlin Wall fell, and soon after that, the USSR collapsed. Ed was invited to Russia as part of a US State Department trip to advise publishers how to operate in a market economy. When he visited the Akhmatova Museum for the first time, the director came out with her copy of our book. Ed took out a pen and paper. In 1,600 pages, she had found but seven mistakes, which we duly corrected for the paperback edition.

 

Just as tragedies permeated Akhmatova’s life, so did they visit us during and after publication. We were stunned when we received word that the British scholar Amanda Haight, who published the first biography of Akhmatova in 1976 and provided a great deal of guidance to our project, died just before our edition went to press. (Both the hardbound and paperback editions are dedicated to her memory.) A young reporter from a Boston area radio station was working on an in-depth story about the publication of the book, and died in a car accident before she could complete it. And then, seven years after the first edition, Ed drowned in a canoeing accident with his then-assistant at Zephyr, Yelena Lisovich, and her nine-year-old son, just as the third reprint was about the be published. It was a devastating tragedy.

 

How we continued the press after such a loss will have to be written in a subsequent history. But Zephyr stayed in intact, the book remained in print, and Akhmatova’s fame as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets has continued to grow.

 

In October 2020, to honor our book’s 30th anniversary, Zephyr organized two events. As part of the Boston Book Festival, Zephyr co-editors Jim Kates and Leora Zeitlin, and former editor Susan Gubernat, presented an online reading of Akhmatova’s poems — chosen by translator Judith Hemschemeyer — along with a discussion about the history of The Complete Poems: Weave Me a Wreath of White Roses: 30 Years of Publishing Anna Akhmatova in English.

 

We also presented an online dramatic reading of The Akhmatova Journals, a play by Ginger Lazarus based on the journals kept by Akhmatova’s associate, Lydia Chukovskaya. Through conversations between the two women and poems — notably from Akhmatova’s monumental “Requiem” — the play dramatizes the terror, anguish, poverty, and losses they experienced under Stalin. Actresses Lisa Bostnar and Gillian Mackay-Smith performed.

 

Since the publication of the first paperback edition in 1992, Zephyr has partnered with Canongate Books as our UK co-publisher. In the spring of 2021, Zephyr and Canongate reprinted the book for the seventh time, ensuring that a new generation of readers will be able to read all of Akhamtova’s poems in English.