Call for Papers: The Bad, the Bad, and the Ugly | Russophone "B-Verse" Throughout the Ages — Columbia University

The Bad, the Bad, and the Ugly:

Russophone "B-Verse" Throughout the Ages

21-22 October, 2022

(Hybrid Format)


Organizers: Zachary J. Deming ( and Venya Gushchin (, Columbia University

Keynote Speaker: Ilya Vinitsky, Professor and Chair, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University

Co-sponsored by the Harriman Institute and the Columbia University Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

Application Details

Proposals Due: 1 August, 2022

Decisions by 15 August, 2022

Submit to:

Topic Description

In his canny examination of the life and oeuvre of Count Khvostov, Ilya Vinitsky suggests that “if good poetry hides an author’s complexes, then bad poetry unveils them.” This observation draws our attention to a typically unexamined assumption of literary scholarship: that our objects of study must, necessarily, be “good.” Verse scholarship in the 20th and 21st centuries has made great strides in deconstructing cumbersome notions of universal artistic quality and heroic genius. It has made room in the field of poetics for literary verse that challenges long-held notions of “the good,” “the true,” and “the beautiful”—and, at long last, has given even the unabashedly ugly its due consideration. We applaud this work, and invite scholars to push this endeavor even further as we seek to do away with the notion that academic study ought to reify the opposition between the intellectual generative and the formally atrocious. Our conference embraces the notion that abject artistic failure, too, can be fertile ground for intellectual inquiry. Indeed, works of poor quality play an integral role in the formation of the canon of Russophone verse. Bad poetry defines the limits of literariness at a given historical moment, heightens the contradictions inherent in the process by which literary form coheres and “is made,” and lays the foundation for future verbal experimentation and development. In so doing, it offers us a particularly effective means of investigating relations between individual actors and literary institutions. Svetlana Boym suggests as much in her study of “commonplace writing,” positing that it becomes “a public threat,” dramatizing “the tension between writing and publishing, between writing and the presentation of the self.”

Thus, we call for scholarly work that applies itself to the exploration of so-called “B-verse”: poetry that is hackneyed, poorly crafted, transparently self-indulgent, or otherwise artistically ineffective. We will investigate “bad” verse production in all its manifestations: from graphomanic scribblings, to epistolary doggerel and private marginalia, to “bad” verse consciously deployed as a device within works traditionally considered “good.” We invite papers that expound on the situation of “badness” as a formal feature of text, examine the place of low-quality poetry within the historical system of Russophone verse, or offer new insight onto oeuvres, poets, and particular works typically considered crucially manqué.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

The Creative

  • Light verse from “serious” poets
  • Relationships between B-verse texts and “good” poetics
  • Juvenilia and its relation to mature style
  • “Badness” as mode of aesthetic resistance

The Critical

  • Critical lampoon as creative practice
  • Texts athwart canonicity, and bad Russophone verse from outside of the metropole
  • Moments of harsh aesthetic judgment in publication and private correspondence
  • Revision of received wisdom in literary appraisal; reading good poets as bad poets, and vice versa

The Formal

  • “Badness” as form, structure, or genre
  • Over-writing and under-writing
  • Bad poems and the people who inhabit them
  • “Badness” and play, “badness” and constraint

The Unintentional

  • Bad poets, fictional and otherwise
  • Failed experiments and their consequences
  • Self-indulgence and the lyric subject
  • Camp, irony, and oblique modes of “enjoyability” from century to century

In addition to the more traditional scholarly component, this conference will also include a workshop dedicated to translating “B-verse,” in the effort to locate “badness” in tangible literary form, and to answer broader questions about the heuristics of stylistic quality and appraisal in and out of Russian-language poetry. We will concentrate on translating a single “bad” poem, engaging with various traditions of Russophone verse translation into English in order to communicate “badness” to the Anglophone reader. As literary translation is connected to academic scholarship and shares many of its foundational assumptions, this “hands-on” experience will fit into our conference’s broader goal of re-examining critical reflection, itself, and the aesthetic judgments that underpin it.

We enthusiastically invite scholars to celebrate those moments in literary production at which human frailty bleeds into form. As we engage with poetic text that is (at least ostensibly) forthrightly “bad,” we hope to interrogate the reflexive process through which “literariness” is ascribed to verse language. In so doing, we will demonstrate how our own engagement with texts that freely shirk traditional standards of quality may be even freer, cleverer, and more intellectually generative.