MARK SCONCE: Poet And Prince Among Men
By Margaret Ann Porter
Literary scholars agree that the seminal literary work of Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837) is his poetic novel Eugene Onegin. In it, Pushkin delves into the inhumanity of social convention and its tendency to crush souls and murder love, yet Pushkin somehow renders the selfish, irredeemable protagonist as sympathetic and unforgettable. The layered dichotomy found in such high drama speaks to the genius of Pushkin, who is often called ‘the father of Russian literature.’
“He was to Russia what Shakespeare was to England, what Goethe was to Germany, what Dante was to Italy,” says Mark Sconce, Ajijic resident, writer and poet. “He was the bridge between the old Russian ways in both sentiment and language and the new paradigm that helped produce important transitions in Russian society, even how people talked to each other. He invented a Russian literary language in a society where the power-elite spoke French.”
Mark continues, his face serious, “Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and many others – like Nabokov – acknowledged their debt to Pushkin, without whom there might not have been a Golden Age of Russian literature.”
I am sitting in the study of the comfortable mountainside home of Mark and his wife Lell. She’s out in the kitchen brewing coffee; he’s quiet in this moment, but I can see a storm of love gathering in his eyes – for Pushkin, for poetry, for Lell, for the entirety of life as it dances among the rhymes and rhythms of the heart.
Tall and lean, Mark has an intense and attractive face, at once inscrutable and generously open. As he regales you with his tales of a life well-loved, it flashes expressions of hope that you will guess some of his secrets.
Until recently, Mark wrote The Poets’ Niche, a monthly column for the Ojo del Lago, where he remains a contributing editor. Poetry became his passion in the early 90s when a tour of Russia introduced him to the work of Alexander Pushkin.
“Our group had a personal guide who was a Pushkin scholar. She recited and translated for us. It was meant to be; I fell for Pushkin and his poetry in a matter of minutes.”
Inspired, he returned home, read every book he could about and by Pushkin and was then moved to create The Pushkin Project, whose mission was and is to disseminate information about this Russian genius to English speakers. He contacted Pushkin scholars in Ivy League schools and beyond and asked for permission to include their names on his letterhead as consultants for The Pushkin Prize, a poetry contest for teenagers. Not one of them said no.
One of the judges for such a contest turned out to be the foremost translator of Pushkin into English, Jim Falen, Professor Emeritus, Russian Language and Literature, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He has been a mentor and close friend of Mark’s since the mid-nineties, and Professor Falen has even addressed the Ajijic Writers’ Group.
Marveling how a dead Russian poet could open doors, Mark tells the story of being invited to the 200th Pushkin birthday dinner party at St. James Palace in London with HRH Prince Charles – a longtime admirer of Pushkin – acting as host.
“About 200 people attended,” he recalls, “including the grandson of Winston Churchill, many Pushkin scholars, but only three Americans.” Then, in 2003, he and Professor Falen were invited to the Russian Embassy in Washington to breakfast with the ambassador and to receive awards for their work in highlighting a Russian hero.
Mark and Lell have been together for 13 years after meeting in Mesa, Arizona, where he approached “… a stunningly beautiful mortgage loan officer” to help his 87-year-old mother Elizabeth with a refinancing matter. He was swept away by Lell’s grace and tender sensibilities – she loved poetry, too, both his own and, after many recitations, Pushkin’s. They were married a year later.
Embracing you with all my heart
Is what I want to do
And be your faithful counterpart
From here to Khatmandu.
Once again be mine
You sultry Valentine.
Next month: Scone Profile—Part Two