FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH ILYA KAMINSKY

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

ILYA KAMINSKY: What draws one to poetry?

I write in lines. So the lines find their way on paper whether I overhear two boys insulting each other at the gas station, or see a gull cleaning her feet, or two old men playing dominoes on a hood of a car, or two young women kissing at the fish market. They become lines on receipts, on my hands, on a water bottle, on other people’s poems. Lines collect for years, but once in a while they discover that other lines are sexy and, well, the poems may come from that sort of a relationship. If I am lucky. Which isn’t often. But one has to have faith.

As for how I began to write in English – I wrote poems in Russian for quite some time before we came to America.

When we came to this country, I was sixteen years old. We settled in Rochester, New York. The question of English being my ‘preferred language for literature’ would have been quite ironic back then, since none of us spoke English – I myself hardly knew the alphabet. But arriving in Rochester was rather a lucky event – that place was a magical gift, it was like arriving to a writing colony, a Yaddo of sorts. There was nothing to do except for writing poetry! Why English then – why not Russian? My father died in 1994, a year after our arrival to America. I understood right away that it would be impossible for me to write about his death in the Russian language, as one author says of his deceased father somewhere, ‘Ah, don’t become mere lines of beautiful poetry!’ I choose English because no one in my family or friends knew it –no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.

FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

IK: For a refugee, there is a beauty in falling in love with a language – the strangeness of its sounds, the awe of watching the sea-surf of a new syntax beating again and again the cement of your unknowing. Learning to speak again can be erotic—the unfamiliar turn of the tongue, the angle of the mouth, the movement of lips.

On the other hand, you are so powerless, so humbled, so lost, bewildered, surrounded by nothing but your own confusion. That, too. You don’t know the word, what to do?

And then: the miracle of metaphor. You know other words, they come to redefine what you wanted to say in the first place, you see the world slightly differently from where you began, your mouth makes sounds you didn’t know were possible.

What changes?

Even the shape of my face changed when I began to live inside the English language.

But I wouldn’t make a big deal out of writing in a language that is not one’s own. It’s the experience of so many people in the world; those who have left their homes because of wars, famines, environmental disasters and so on. My being bilingual is no big deal, fellow humans migrate all the time, and have done that for thousands of years.

Migratory and bilingual experience is rather commonplace among writers, too. Here is a sample list – Gertrude Stein’s first language wasn’t English. Mandelstam’s first language wasn’t Russian. French wasn’t Edmont Jabès’ first language. Vénus Khoury-Ghata claims to write in Arabic through French. Li-Young Lee was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents who fled from Indonesia to Hong Kong to Japan before they settled in USA. Miłosz was a man from Lithuania writing in Polish (something that haunted him, as he admitted countless times; he felt he couldn’t do things that Polish poets from Warsaw could do; but perhaps what he couldn’t do gave him something larger?). Hell, Russian wasn’t Pushkin’s first language – and this is the founder of the Russian literary tradition we are talking about here.

What’s important are those little thefts between languages, those strange angles of looking at another literature, ‘slant’ moments in speech, oddities, the music of oddities.

But what – what is that strangeness?

Isn’t lyric itself a strangeness inside the language? Isn’t silence? After all, what is music – any music – without silences in it? Mere noise?

If so, what does that tell us about strangeness, about duality. I believe that no great lyric poet ever speaks in the so-called ‘proper’ language of his or her time. Emily Dickinson didn’t write in ‘proper’ English grammar but in a slanted music of fragmentary perception. Half a world and half a century away, César Vallejo placed three dots in the middle of the line, as if language itself were not enough, as if the poet’s voice needed to leap from one image to another, to make – to use Eliot’s phrase – a raid on the inarticulate. Paul Celan wrote to his wife from Germany, where he briefly visited from his voluntary exile in France: ‘The language with which I make my poems has nothing to do with one spoken here, or anywhere.’

But you ask about development.

So, am I a Russian poet? Or an English language poet?

I still write in Russian from time to time. And I read in Russian a great deal. But do I consider myself an English language poet? Yes, of course. But, then, I must answer a question: what does it mean to be a poet in this language? What is my experience of English? It is laughing with my friends, making love to my girlfriend, fighting with my family, loving my family, loving the ocean (I love water), loving to travel on train, loving this human speech. But we all have these things don’t we? Yes, we do. And they should count as development just as much as line-breaks do. Decisions of craft are an extension of who we are in life. And therefore, I fiercely resist being pigeonholed as a ‘Russian poet’ or ‘immigrant poet’ or even ‘American poet’. I am a human being. It is a marvellous thing to be.

Which is to say: I love human beings. Time squeezes us from both ends like accordions, and I love this music we make. One might choose to see it from a distance. I prefer to see it from the inside, in the midst of these person-to-person interactions. If I fail to be a human being first, I fail my poetry.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

IK: I am surprised and honoured and humbled.

Thank you. 

FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?

IK: My book opens with a story of a pregnant woman and her husband who in a time of crisis watch as a boy is killed by soldiers breaking up a protest. The gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear – all have gone deaf, and their dissent is coordinated by sign language.

This silence is personal. I did not have hearing aids until I was sixteen and my family immigrated. As a deaf child, I experienced my country as a nation without sound. I heard USSR fall apart with my eyes.

Walking through the city, I watched the people; their ears were open all the time, they had no lids. I was interested in what sounds might be like. The whooshing. The hissing. The whistle. The sounds of keys turning in the lock, of water moving through the pipes two floors above us. I could easily notice how the people around me spoke to one another with their eyes without realising it.

But what if the whole country was deaf like me? So that whenever a policeman’s commands were uttered no one could hear? I liked to imagine that. Silence, that last neighbourhood, untouched, as ever, by the wisdom of the government.

Those childhood imaginings feel quite relevant for me in America today. When Trump performs his press conference, wouldn’t it be brilliant if his words landed on the deaf ears of a whole nation? What if we simply refused to hear the hatred of his pronouncements?

I want the reader to see the deaf not in terms of their medical condition, but as a political minority, which empowers them. Throughout Deaf Republic, the townspeople teach one another sign language (illustrated in the book) as a way to coordinate their revolution while remaining unintelligible to the government.

But you ask what led me to write the book.

Like many others, I am a misplaced person, a refugee, a man cut in half by history. A part of me is still in Odessa, that ghost limb of a city I left. While these characters in Deaf Republicare imagined, they are also my family. I keep seeing images related to me by my grandmother about her arrest by Stalin’s regime in 1937:

When the police come to arrest her, they go straight to the kitchen. Right past her. The first policeman. Second policeman. Third. Straight into the kitchen. To the stove. To smell the stove, to see if she has burned any documents or letters. But the stove is cold. So they walk to her closet. They finger her clothes. They take some for their wives or daughters. “You won’t need any of this,” they tell her. And only then do they shove her into their black car.

They are so busy taking her things that they don’t notice the child in the cradle.

The infant stays in the empty apartment when she is taken to the judge. (The child in the cradle, my father, will be stolen and taken to another city. He will survive.)

She doesn’t know this. She also doesn’t know her husband was shot by the government right away. The judge tells her, ‘You have to betray your husband in order to save yourself.’

She says, ‘How can I do that to the father of my child? How will I look into his eyes?’

She doesn’t know he is already dead. And so she goes to Siberia for over a decade. And behind her, the infant stays.

In Deaf Republic, too, there is a young mother and her husband. Both are taken by the government. But the child is stolen and saved.

So, that is one ghost behind the book.

Today Ukraine is at war again. I go there once a year. Donetsk is occupied. In Odessa, that party town, there are terrorist attacks. And, yet, at the same time – the people are dancing on the sidewalks in a public park. Young couples are kissing in cafes. There is laughter.

How do I address this, as a lyric poet? Do lyric poets address such things?

I am not a documentary poet; I am a fabulist. And, yet, the world pushes through, the reality is everywhere in this fable. My job is to make this border between the shelter of fable and the bombardment of reality a lyric moment, I feel.

So that is another ghost behind the book.

But then – there is also the reality around me in the USA. For in some ways this is also a book about America.

As Americans we want to distance ourselves from a text like this one. But there is pain right here in our neighbourhoods: we see stolen elections, voter suppression. Is this happening in a foreign country? No. A young man shot by police in the open street lying for hours on the pavement behind police tape, lying there for many hours: that is a very American image. And we talk about it a bit on TV and online. And then we move on, like it never happened. And children keep being killed in our streets. This silence is a very American silence.

That image of a shot boy lying in the middle of the street is central to Deaf Republic. Of course, the book is a dream, a fable. But it begins and ends in the reality of the United States today. That is intentional. It is a warning of what we might become. Of the kind of country we have already become.

Americans seem to keep pretending that history is something that happens elsewhere, a misfortune that befalls other people. But history is lying there in the middle of the street, behind the yellow police tape. Showing us who we are.

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

IK: I grew up on Russian poets: Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Pushkin, and so on.

Russian literary tradition is extremely young. Let’s say Pushkin, the father of Russian poetry was writing his epic novel-in-verse, Evgenii Onegin, in 1824. But wait a minute. What is 1824 for English poetry? Byron was dead by 1824. And who the heck was Byron? What I mean is: English tradition is much older, far more developed.

But that also gives one opportunities, in a younger literature. That gave Tolstoy and Dostoevsky an opportunity to write epics in the late 19th century when no one else could dream of doing so.

As for other writers: Shakespeare is always in the back of my mind. One can’t go anywhere without Shakespeare. I love Ovid. I love Gilgamesh.

As for lyric poets: Dickinson. Celan. Vallejo. Tu Fu. Wang Wei. John Donne. This list changes daily, of course.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

IK: I am working on new poems and finishing the book of essays.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

IK: Read a lot. Read a lot, yes. Read everything.