One thing you learn about Ph.D. Candidate Michael Lavery soon after meeting him is his love for the viola. Playing and mastering the instrument while growing up as a teenager in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, Michael soon began to see the correlation between fine-tuning his hearing for performing music, reciting poetry and the learning of languages.
Now, as an adult, and with an ear built for both language and music, Michael Lavery fondly recalls how he fell in love with another aspect of life, the Humanities, and how that led to pursing a graduate degree at UCLA’s Department of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Languages and Cultures after studying Russian at Georgetown University.
“During my senior year (at Georgetown) I took a course in Russian poetry with Olga Meerson, who inspired me to pursue a life studying the humanities,” Lavery recalls. “I came to UCLA to visit after my application was accepted, and I was lucky enough to meet almost every single member of the Slavic Department faculty. After that experience I knew this was a place I’d love to go, and UCLA offered me a fantastic funding package.”
Lavery has poured his love (and fluency) of Russian into not only his studies at UCLA but into the Russian language courses he has taught, including an intensive Russian language summer course.
“It is a very frustrating language at first, and as a teacher you remember what it felt like to first learn something like grammatical case. You have to learn to think in that language, and Russian, which has its own alphabet, makes you think in a way you don’t in English in regards to grammatical aspect.”
Poetry is the Key to the Door
Lavery has avoided his own pitfalls with the Russian language by keeping his focus on poetry, which he sees as the key to the door of almost all languages.
“Poetry is meant to be read aloud, and it (reading aloud) helps you think like a poet as you pay attention to the sounds. In my first two years here at UCLA I was schooled in the Russian literary tradition, and since then I have always tried to find a way to introduce Russian poetry to my students. To me, the highest expression of a language is its poetry.”
Shining a light on the neglected works of certain Russian poets is a direction Lavery is taking as he gears his mind for the writing of his Ph.D. dissertation. Asked if there is one Russian poet, or movement, that has brought him into the world of Russian culture since his time here at UCLA and Lavery is quick to answer with Osip Mandelstam – a poet who was part of Russia’s Acmeism movement during World War I.
“Mandelstam, and the Acmeists, were one of a few post-symbolist movements in Russian modernism, each of which had a unique way of grounding the poetic word. It’s fascinating, as I never knew poetry could do this, and through Mandelstam I came to realize I had an affinity for world cultures that can exist entirely within Russian poetry. You can hear echoes of other works of literature in a poem, and with Mandelstam each word is a self-contained bubble.”
Creating These Entire Worlds
While his dissertation topic is still pending (Lavery will take his Ph.D. exam in the spring of 2016), he has already began to delve into the works of Russian émigré writers, particularly the works of neglected poet Anna Prismanova. “She was disregarded because she was a loner and a woman, yet I recognize her talent and her ability to create entire worlds for herself within her poetry.”
These particular interests, combined with his love of reading and interacting with the Slavic faculty, has seen Michael work with the Slavic chair, Ronald Vroon, on multiple research projects – a collaboration that speaks well to the camaraderie of students and faculty within the department.
And one can’t speak of Russia without discussing food, and it is a Russian dumpling, pelmeni, that has Michael glad he relocated to Los Angeles, “though nothing compares to home-cooked Russian food.” The large Russian community in Los Angeles interested Michael even before he came to UCLA, particularly on the history front in regards to certain classical composers, such as Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, living here in the 1940s. “I love being able to walk around and know that Stravinsky spent a lot of time hanging out at the Farmers Market.”
Michael has even adopted a new instrument to play: classical guitar, which again is a reminder of his love for rhythm at all levels of life. “Russians have never quite done away with rhyme and meter in their poetry: poetry is still alive, still read, memorized and recited aloud. I’ve had my students memorize a poem or two, which they’ve gone on to perform at talent shows. Some have even come back and asked for more!”
At UCLA, we consider that a step in the right direction.