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Interview with Ilya Kaminsky

Twenty-five years after he and his parents fled Ukraine, Ilya Kaminsky went back to Odessa, the city of his childhood. As he explored the city, he did not feel that he had truly returned until he removed his hearing aids. He has written that, for him, Odessa is ‘a silent city, where the language is invisibly linked to my father’s lips moving as I watch his mouth repeat stories again and again. He turns away. The story stops.’

 

In Deaf Republic, Kaminsky tells the story of a town, Vasenka, during a time of unrest when public gatherings are prohibited. Soldiers come to break up a crowd watching a puppet show in the central square. Petya, a deaf boy, is the only one who does not hear the army sergeant yelling ‘disperse immediately’ and he carries on laughing at the puppets. Moments later, he is killed. The gunshot becomes the last thing that the people of the town hear. From then on, the citizens refuse to acknowledge the sound of the occupying forces. ‘At six a.m., when soldiers compliment girls in the alleyway, the girls slide by, pointing to their ears.’

 

In its exploration of brutal state violence – and the consequences of silence – the book speaks urgently to the current moment. The murder of Petya echoes the killing of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, shot dead by a police officer in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Yet the story also has the timelessness of a parable. It lets us see the poetry of protest, both its power and its limits. For all this, it’s a story that never loses sight of the individual. There are moments of love, beauty and humour that hit harder for their scarcity, their bravery.

 

To talk about the book, I met Ilya in a stuffy attic room at the office of his London publishers.

 

Q

The White Review

—  What’s the first story that you remember telling?

A

Ilya Kaminsky

The first thing was not even a story but a certain attitude of language. A tone with which a story was told, and how the language changed. Was I interested in writing poetry at that moment? Not at all.

 

I was 8 or 9 years old. I was interested in bicycles.

 

Let me begin afar: one day, I came home and I remember on the kitchen table a book was open. The book was by Isaac Babel, a writer from Odessa, a wonderful short story writer. Let me begin further afar: Odessa is a strange part of the former Soviet Empire. It is a Russian-speaking city in the Ukraine where, at that time, the population consisted largely not just of Russians or Ukrainians, but Jews, Moldovans and so forth. Some Bulgarians, some Greeks were still there. My Russian literature teacher was of German origin. So it was one of the very few actually international cities in the Soviet empire, and the language they spoke – although it is considered a Russian-speaking city – the language was kind of made up. Not exactly a Finnegans Wake type of speech but a language wherein you go to the market to buy cheese and you would hear new ways of creating a sentence. That is the kind of tonality, these fresh registers of speech are what interests me. It feels like home.

 

So, back in that moment of finding the open book by Babel on the kitchen table, I looked at the story and I realised: oh, this is not the language that people speak on TV, this is not the language of government officials, not the language of the Soviet bureaucracy, this is the language that my parents speak to each other. One spoke the paragraph aloud and one smelled home. That, for me, was the beginning of stories or poems.

Q

The White Review

—  You have said in other interviews that you started writing in English because it was a language that none of your friends or family could read. Now of course your books are published, translated – they are read. Is there a conflict between that private language and the public reading of it?

A

Ilya Kaminsky

— I come from the part of East Europe of which people usually say ‘Oh wow, everyone loves poetry in Russia, in Ukraine, so much that people come to football stadiums to hear poetry.’

 

That is bullshit.

 

Every great poet is a very private person who happens to write beautifully enough, powerfully enough, spell-bindingly enough that they can speak privately to many people at the same time. That to my mind is the definition of an original poet. Not play for the sake of mere play. And not a public pronouncement either, but a very private speech that the form teaches you how to partake in – and that becomes the reader’s own private speech.

Q

The White Review

—  I want to talk more specifically about Deaf Republic, which I think took you fifteen years to write. Can you tell me about the process of creating that book?

A

Ilya Kaminsky

— I published Dancing in Odessa, my first book, in 2004. It is very much a book that comes from East European culture. Although I didn’t know it at that time, I realised later that I didn’t intend to write the book in English but more in a language of images. I was trying to make a space in English for that kind of imagination.

 

It is the imagination of a deaf boy who didn’t have hearing aids until he came to America. Who learned Russian, and began to learn English by watching people’s lips move.

 

But when Dancing in Odessa was published, I had already been living in the United States for eleven years. I had to ask myself: what I am going to do next? Am I going to keep playing Russian even though I don’t live in East Europe anymore? Or do I want to find out who I am here in this culture? Or, perhaps, between cultures.

 

That was not an easy question to answer because there were not a lot of models. But, in the end, it is a question any refugee will need to ask themselves.

 

I wanted to write a book that would speak both to the Ukrainian side of me (and Ukraine is not in a very good place right now – part of it is occupied by Russia) and the American side of me, which is a very confusing place: one side is a very rich country, but also an unjust country – as you can see every day on the news. You can see, for instance, that the USA is a culture that is at war with itself and its people; in a sense, Civil War never ended, it merely took different forms. So how do you find – I don’t want to say metaphors – but parallels: how do you write a text or language that can speak to both? Both the East Europe of my childhood and the USA of my present? And that was a question that I had to answer.

 

I actually published different versions of the Deaf Republic story. Some of them were ten to fifteen pages long, unfinished. Some of them were finished. I even published a puppet play. But it didn’t feel right. Some of it felt too American, some too Ukrainian. But I live on the border between the two, so to speak. So I knew the book wasn’t done until it felt honest to both sides of this experience. It needed to be a parable that could address both.

Q

The White Review

—  One of the most striking things about the book is the way in which the poems about contemporary American life are allowed the timelessness and beauty of a fable and, simultaneously, the poems set in Vasenka – which can be dreamlike and fantastical – always feel like they draw from reality.

A

Ilya Kaminsky

— Thank you. But this isn’t really a new thing under the sun. I mean, if you think of Gulliver’s Travels, it’s very much a criticism of his own culture. He’s making fun of the age but there’s also so much empathy, in addition to criticism. There are many other such examples in literature, where imagination is both ironic and even tragic about the present culture, but also creates a place where love can exist. It finds a language of images, sounds – those tools that make the imaginative landscape possible. One thinks of fabulist writing, too. Gogol, and so on. But one also thinks of writing-as-ceremony as in Leslie Marmon Silko’s famous novel. There are many such examples.

Q

The White Review

—  I’m interested in the technical challenge of writing Deaf Republic – of how you maintained the power of the individual poems across a sequence with a focused narrative. When you wrote each poem, were you thinking of what needs to happen next in the story? Or were you allowing yourself each morning to write whatever comes to you?

A

Ilya Kaminsky

— Oh absolutely, I just try to write a lot of poems: I have probably fifty big boxes in my house of bad poems that might be interesting in some regard, but just don’t go anywhere. As a writer you have to put your arse in the chair and wait for something to happen with your pencil. And some of it is never going to see the light. Is fifty boxes a lot of material, too much? Surely, too much. But out of so much material you can construct a world.

Q

The White Review

—  And how do you feel about letting go of Deaf Republic now that it’s published?

A

Ilya Kaminsky

— Oh, I’m happy for it to be out in the world. It’s been a long time.

Q

The White Review

—  You haven’t only been working on Deaf Republic for these last fifteen years. Among other things, you also co-edited a book of interviews with poets about faith and God, which is something we often see in your work as well. How does faith fit into your life and your poems?

A

Ilya Kaminsky

— I consider myself a believer but I don’t believe in organised religion. I think in 2020, it’s pretty obvious that organised religion is a corporation.

 

But what is faith. Faith is a different matter. Like you and I sitting right here, you drinking your drink and me drinking mine and asking ‘what the hell is faith?’ – that is far closer to the original idea of church. Two people wondering why we are on this planet.

 

And then there’s organized religion with all its dogma, with all of its bureaucracy, all of its corporate structure. Our basic metaphysical innocence – metaphysical awe – is far closer, to my mind, to the building of a community of faith.

 

It’s curious to me that in Western Europe, intellectuals, liberals, are so afraid of large metaphysical questions. I mean, maybe it’s because I was born in 1977: by the time my family left, it was already independent Ukraine. So all of my childhood and pretty much most of my adolescence was a time of the USSR falling apart. Everyone lost their salaries, pensions, etc. All the people’s assets became metaphysical because everything else that they knew was not there any more.

 

And many were happy. And many were not happy.

 

It’s not about a political position. It’s about a metaphysical position.

 

People were arguing until 4 a.m. about the purpose of life, about poetry, about what poets express these unanswerable questions. Who is better, Akhmatova or Tsvetaeva, who speaks best to our time, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, those kind of questions. People really argued: who gives words to shape my unknown?

 

And then there was the shock of coming to the US and seeing deeply intelligent humans completely unengaged with all of that. It was weird. It is not polite to ask metaphysical questions in the USA. Few do it with strangers.

 

So, a friend, the wonderful novelist Katherine Towler and I just thought, okay, why not start interviewing people because it gave us a mask. If you’re doing an interview, you can ask whatever you want and it’s not impolite.

 

I still marvel about this: for some reason in American society, asking metaphysical questions is not polite. I don’t know why but that is the case.

 

So the interview project was interesting because some poets who shall not be named gave wonderful interviews but later decided not to be in the book for the same reason. That, too, is a reflection of a Western Society. I keep marvelling at that.

Q

The White Review

—  Really? A sense that it was not part of who they wanted to be publicly?

A

Ilya Kaminsky

— Well, people have their own fears. It is a different society. The big problem in the USA is that all of those questions are completely hijacked by conservative terrorism, for the lack of a different word, which is the far right in the United States.

 

Any trace of thoughtfulness is completely wiped out and people who have the thoughts are refusing to engage.

 

In that way, I do believe that our intellectuals are in some ways responsible for what is happening right now in 2020: for not engaging with so many of our fellow countrymen. The end result is that the depth is taken away from the discourse. The discourse of ‘why am I on this planet’ is going to happen whether or not the intellectuals choose to participate in it. But depth of conversation might suffer should they choose not to participate. One sees that in the USA on a daily basis.

Q

The White Review

—  So then the gap between people gets wider and wider.

A

Ilya Kaminsky

— That is exactly what is happening. Isn’t it?

 

There is a wonderful Austrian poet, Ingeborg Bachmann, who has a poem that begins with the line: ‘War is no longer declared, / only continued.’

 

Disengagement is as much a participation in conflict as engagement is. It is like we are having a Cold War with our own nation. In the USA, these things are even more complicated, as there is ongoing racism, there is ongoing poverty, and so many people pretend that those things do not exist. But you already know that.

Q

The White Review

—  One of the key themes in Deaf Republic is that question of what things do we ignore and what do we notice – and when we do take note of something, in what ways do we process it. One of the most unusual metaphors in your book is about a dead boy – ‘the body of the boy lies on the asphalt like a paperclip’ – which is an image that seems to deliberately fall short. Then the next line is ‘the body of the boy lies on the asphalt / like the body of a boy’ because, in these circumstances, a metaphor can’t cover it.

A

Ilya Kaminsky

— Thank you for noticing this. For me, that image is probably the most important in the whole book. It’s what started the book, plot-wise, but it is also what unites the fable with reality. It’s a very American image. It’s the body of Michael Brown in the middle of an American street. And people are walking by as if they’re not seeing it for hours. But it is also a Ukrainian image. It happens in that country as well.

 

And so when the book denies a metaphor that is the most important, to my mind, image in the book – and it repeats two or three times. But in order for that to work, there have to be a lot of metaphors around it so that the denial of metaphor is seen.

 

And it’s not really the question of whether there’s a limit to metaphor (although it might be that, too). It’s a question of how do you wake the reader up. Technically, for me, a classic example of that would be Emily Dickinson when she’s giving you a rhyme and giving you a rhyme and then she denies you the rhyme. And then the moment when she denies it –‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ – she actually says something that she wants you to hear.

 

So it’s not about the limitation/abundance of a device, for me, but rather what it is that we do with it. I am interested in tension: sometimes yes, other times no. And what is it that you discover about the human person from a ‘yes’ or from a ‘no’.

Q

The White Review

—  You’re also good at waking readers up in your poetry readings, which are unforgettable. The way you read your poems aloud is closer to music, to song – they rise and fall beautifully. You declaim! I’m interested in how you came to that style of reading and also, when you’re composing your poems, do you read them to yourself in a similar way?

A

Ilya Kaminsky

— Thank you, and yes, I read poems to myself the same way. I think poets, when they write, they participate in that process physically. Some read the poems to themselves, yes. Many do. It’s got to be a physical activity. Language by definition is a production of a body: it’s a physical activity.

 

When I write I definitely speak to myself: I’m interested in the kind of intensity that language allows us to have, a kind of chant, incantation. There is a whole wonderful, beautiful world of performance, spoken word poetics. And it is something I respect very much but it’s not exactly what I’m after. What I am interested in is poets who, in reading aloud, continue the writing process.

 

So when I’m reading I often change words, but I can’t change too many words. So I change line breaks instead. Rarely is the line break the same as it is in the book. I change the accents a lot, I change emphasis a lot. So it gives me this room where I can still be a poet as opposed to a person who reads his poem, because otherwise I just get bored. I start watching a fly. But to read as if the poem is still being written, to use the mouth as a way to invent new line breaks, that is something that makes the public reading still interesting for me.

Q

The White Review

—  In this way, you feel like you’re actually communicating it as you read?
A

Ilya Kaminsky

— I want to be a poet. I don’t want to be a person who’s reading their poems because they’re trying to sell their book. I think that’s what we all want: to be poets. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t grow up in this culture, but I think we follow our roles a little bit too much. Fuck that. Let’s be what we want to be. If we want to be poets, let’s be poets. We don’t need to pretend to be anything else. If you listen to tapes of Pound or whoever else, they give crazy readings. There is an intensity – they’re not trying to be like chemistry professors delivering their lecture. Same for Yeats, Cummings, and so on. Look at Raymond Antrobus’s readings. They are marvellous.

 

Do you know Valzhyna Mort? She is a poet from Belarus, who lives in the US. She has two books, the third is coming. She does incredibly emotive readings: they are quite angry even. Yet when you talk to her in person, she is the super sweetest person. So there is this kind of tension. Sometimes a poet can be an incredibly shy person being shy in public. For instance, one of the most beautiful readings I have heard was a poet who has recently died: Brigit Kelly. And she was clearly very uncomfortable in public, but she was uncomfortable with such style, with such grace – it was beautiful to watch: she was being herself. She wasn’t pretending to be anything else but herself. That, too, is a style.

 

And it could come from a bardic tradition or an anti-bardic tradition or any-name-you-like-to-call-it tradition but {IK knocks the table three times} you feel it if it’s real. It is a lyric. A poet being themselves. I think of Paul Celan who has a line where he says: ‘You are light. I am lighter: in front of strangers I sing.’

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

has written the novels SubmarineWild Abandon and The Adulterants. A pamphlet of his poetry was published by Faber.

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