Ilya Kaminsky & Rodica Draghincescu

 

 

(Ukraine-USA)

 

 

(France)

 

 

And, if there is real poetry, there is also a kid pissing against the tree, and a newsboy shouting of the latest scandal, and a girl flirting with a policeman while behind his back another girl steals his car.

 

 

 

 

RD: – Ilya Kaminsky, my dear poet, you were born in Odessa, in Ukraine, and you now live in the United States. Odessa is directly connected to the biggest cities in Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Moldova, and it is at the crossroads of many cities on the Black Sea, and on the Mediterranean through sea links. I know at least 38 cultural figures who were born in Ukraine, or who have roots and parents born there. Those authors and artists include the singers Serge Gainsbourg (who is already a legend) and Michel Polnareff in France. And, of course, you are an essential poet yourself, a symbol of Ukrainian poetry, but also of the poetry of immigrants to America, your adoptive country. Aside from that, how would you define Odessa?

 

What is a city? Or, if one looks deeper into your question: what is childhood? Or, if we go one step further, what is that city of childhood that remains in all of us, no matter where we turn?

First, a geographical place: Odessa was of course the city named after Odysseus, a home to many writers. Now it is of course a place where there are more monuments to dead writers than actual living ones. When they run out of writers to put monuments to in today’s Odessa, they began putting monuments for book characters. That is reality of the time we live in—the literary city becomes the tourist destination for its literature of the past, whereas the literature of the present steps away, shyly, into shadows.

But poetry is still in the streets—because Odessa is a multi-national city (a rare thing in the former Russian empire), the Russian language spoken in Odessa is a language that is constantly reinvented– new words, phrases, combinations, are taking place each morning at the local bazaar or bread line. It is the part of city culture, and the city prides itself on it; it is a cliché actually, it is provincialism, actually. But, in that way, isn’t Joyce’s Dublin also a provincial place? In fact, Odessa is the city that Joyce dreamt about: the symphony of Finnegans Wake, with its invention of words on every paragraph’s streetcorner—behind any laundry-line, in any garage, in any street-fight of the city.

 

For me that place has to do with the flavor of language; the Odessa dialect. In Soviet times it wasn’t encouraged, but I grew up in it. That language was more than a dialect. It was a music of something that wasn’t quite permitted. Something that was almost illegal. Once upon a time that Odessa dialect was the mixture of Yiddish, Greek, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Russian. Isak Babel of course is the major writer who wrote in that language. But there are also numerous others. As a child I first found Babel’s book on the kitchen table—that was before I wrote poems, or really even read books much—and finding it, I realized that the language in which my parents spoke, which was different form the language those teachers and officials at my school spoke—was something that could be in a book. That is how literature became alive. Books could be alive. Odessa of the streets I knew could step between the covers of the book and keep laughing. That is the Odessa I still carry with me.

How do I define it? A part of me wants to say it is a myth. And, it is, indeed, a myth, that city. I have left 20 years ago, yet come back often, and walking through the streets, I am amazed by how much has changed, and yet: how little has changed.

And, on the other side: it is not a myth at all. It is a place where real people live, a place that is a major Russian speaking city in Ukraine, a country that is currently at war with a much larger empire, a war that uses language as a pretext for bombing houses. It is a very real place, with a very real history of pain.

And, yet—and that is very Odessa at its heart is a myth—in the middle of that pain, on the streets flooded by war refugees, there is still laughter, there are still street musicians, there is still that dialect that refuses to take the Russian language of officials seriously, that proposes its own, different music.

That music, for me, is Odessa.

 

In Odessa even Pushkin lived in exile (I had a chance to see him life size, an impressive statue). What does Odessa, the city of your childhood, represent for you, and in particular for your writing?

 

The city in my writing is that music, I mention earlier. But when it comes to writing, one has to ask – writing in what language? Yiddish? Ukrainian? Russian? English?

 

Russian is my native language though I grew up daily surrounded by Yiddish and Ukrainian. I write in English now.

 

But I don’t really think great poets—or at least great poets I love–write in any proper language or proper grammar or syntax. Dickinson breaks English language, all those dashes; Celan makes German words collide, invents new ones. Mandelstam, too, was accused by critics of not knowing Russian. Valejo placed dots in the middle of lines, trying to jump from one word to completely different one, defying sense—as if language was not enough.

 

Celan once visited Germany to get a prize and wrote back to his wife: I don’t think language I write in is spoken here or anywhere.

 

Is that exile? Yes. But that is the kind of exile that any lyric poet has.

 

RD: How, where and with whom did Ilya live, as a child, in Odessa?

 

I had a typical small family: mother, father, grandmother, brother. Now, only my brother is alive.

 

But, of course, leaving the city at 16, in USSR of 1990s, as empire was falling apart, one wasn’t really a child, and one didn’t just live in a family, one lived in history. That is one relative that keeps walking by us, and refused us any divorce.

 

Who does a child live with, except for parents ?—

 

When I return to Odessa—I try to go once a year—I walk by the streets that no longer exist; some have different names, but others actually are no longer there. I walk through them anyway, saying hello to neighbors that once lived in these now-imaginary buildings of a now razed and empty area of Odessa.

 

A poet is not born into a country. A poet is born into childhood. And, those who are lucky, stay in that domain.

 

Childhood doesn’t stop when one is issued a passport on one’s 16th birthday. It doesn’t stop when the country suddenly breaks down and then war starts in neighboring Moldova, only two hours away. Childhood doesn’t stop when one’s father’s friends are shot in the street simply because they are journalists writing about wrong things at a wrong time. Childhood continues. In the USSR I read books of course, but my education was the city itself, the world around me—an agitated woman beating up the an man in a bread store because he stole a little bulochka, my spine trembling like a compass needle.

 

 

 

 

RD: What from that place is the most precious for you in your emotional memory, such as smells, tastes, sounds, unforgettable words?

 

Odessa in 1980s and 1990s was lyrical in its details: the rawness of its colors, its smells. Odessa has one of the largest food markets in Eastern Europe, Privoz.  But why do I mention the food market, when you just asked about education? Because in Odessa, where Yiddish, Ukrainian, Russian, and several other languages are spoken, languages flirt with one another at Privoz, they bargain with each other and batter, attack and comfort, full of little slaps and clacks. The food bazaar is where one finds the language being reborn continuously, on the tongue, along with brinza cheese and sour apples.

 

You know what is strange? In America our sensual life doesn’t exist in much of our daily experience—we don’t find people walking on streets in most neighborhoods or suburbs in this country, we don’t even have smells in our supermarkets — the world around us is neat, packaged, and comes straight out of the cooler. Now, that is strange. That is surrealism poor old Salvador Dali didn’t have the guts to imagine.

 

As for unforgettable sounds—

I was a nearly deaf boy since I did not wear hearing aids in Russia. Hearing aids entered my life when I came to the USA at 16. Odessa was a silent city where I watched lips; the language was utterly physical, bodily, sexual, and full of trams and taxis and newspaper kiosks and puddles of snowmelt and sandals and acacia trees and sunlight. The city was the conversation I overheard.

 

That is one way to speak about education—for what is a library? Even that infamous library that Borges told us about? And how serious and desperate—and with what sort of longing—are we to speak about libraries if we don’t even mention blind Borges’ love for Buenos Aires? How are we to speak of libraries if we forget to speak of the love and abandon of a man going blind—who touched every wall of his city with his fingers the way he touched the faces of people he loved, also, with fingers. Isn’t that the way to speak of libraries? So, how would you like a man to speak to you about his “origins” in Odessa, in a country he’s lost? With his fingers?

 

 

 

 

RD: Ilya, do you write to find a single theme and a stylistic unity, or do you just write without asking yourself too many questions?

 

Actually, poetry is in the questions. The questions are chants, the spell of the questions.

 

Answers, if they come, aren’t directives, aren’t logic, they are surprises, they are—if one is lucky—revelations.

 

I write in images, as if one paints the page. And, the music is that lonely conductor, in the empty city streets, that raises his hands, to some music only he hears, and the pigeons fly by and sit down on his hands, and his shoulders, and his hair.

 

And, if there is real poetry, there is also a kid pissing against the tree, and a newsboy shouting of the latest scandal, and a girl flirting with a policeman while behind his back another girl steals his car.

 

The poetry is life that (when the poet looks elsewhere) visits the page.

 

RD: – How important to you are everyday words and woes?

 

Everyday is the miraculous. And, it is, frankly, all we have got.

 

These details of everyday, in my life, come in form of living in a border-city (San Diego, California), where I teach only a few miles away from US-Mexico border, with all its beauty and all its pain, with the wall that is threatening to go even higher, with the politics of the empire which are ugly, with the human faces and laughter and wisdom of my students, many of whom are immigrants and bilingual and who have crossed these borders, sometimes illegally, to protect their families from poverty and injustice.

 

There are words of woe, yes, but also kindness. And, sometimes—often—these are the same words.

 

Although I teach poetry for a living now, I was educated in law school, and worked for Legal Aid and the National Immigration Law Center. While these days I teach, I also still continue to work pro bono as a Court-appointed advocate for kids who are orphans on CA/Mexico border. I enjoy doing that that kind of thing.

 

Does this this daily reality influence me as a poet?  Surely: losing a case on which someone’s health benefits depend certainly taught me about the urgency of language. But then, all of our daily activities and interactions with others influence our vocabulary; if we are to believe Yeats, a poet should always be revising for a more passionate syntax.

 

But don’t poets see/hear/touch language everywhere? Going to the beach with my nephews fills the afternoon with language. Kissing my wife is a moment in which nouns understand their passion for verbs and adjectives shyly watch. Nouns start flying around the room when I engage with my brother in a shouting match, and the cats hide. And is there a better lesson in pacing and line-break for a poet than botching the delivery of a joke?

 

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 these person-to-person interactions. If I fail to be a human being first, I fail my poetry.

 

And the words of woe in your poems? Are they simple and melodious, or complex, painful, unsettling and subversive?

 

Your question makes me think of Walt Whitman who once compiled a list of 80 words that sound like sorrow.

Of course, all poets do that. But for me, the word woe is suspect. What sounds to one man like woe sounds to another like a wedding song. And, the poetry is in that similarity. To my mind, in any rate. Or, in finding a new sound for woe. For laughter.

Poetry isn’t just one thing, it is different every morning. So it depends on the morning you ask! But to take a larger look—for me, poetry has always been ecstatic in the ancient Greek definition of ekstasis: to stand outside of one’s self. The way I see it, poetry allows us to stand outside of ourselves because it is a medium through which one can transport silence, awe, clarity, bewilderment, emotion—from one human body to another.

 

And, to give this morning’s example: I’ve heard that at the time of my birth in 1977, Elizabeth Bishop was already an old cranky lady. Christopher Smart, already long dead, was a madman who, in the streets of London, stopped strangers and begged them to kneel in the dirt and pray with him. Why should I bother reading their work?

 

And, yet, like numerous other people, I this morning I want to recite by heart Bishop’s “The art of losing isn’t hard to master / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost…” or Smart’s luminous piece for his cat Jeoffrey. Their words live in my body, they move my lips, they organize silences in my mouth. That, for me, is magical, is an ekstasis.

 

 

 

 

RD: Your poems always have a narrative thread that we have to follow to understand where your emotions are taking us. Where does that thread come from? And where is it going? Tell us about the emotional journey that has led to everything what inspires you in your work….

 

I am interested in the moments when the epic (e.g. story) and the lyric (e.g. song) come together. Can

an epic be written by lyrical means?

 

In Russian, we have a genre of poema, which is neighter a narrative poem nor epic nor a lyric song. It is a combination of the above. In English, there is no such genre. Why not?

But even as I try to rationalize this response, I do understand that you are asking for more than a genre. You are asking for that moment when the emotion and the form come together, cross, so the sparks rise.

 

And, with that, I do find myself thinking of that inner space, that duende of Lorca, a space which sings even in a dark fire. I think of the experience of a poet such as Akhmatova, who began as a marvelous erotic poet and became one of the wisest voices of the 20th century through her engagement with the despair of history. I think of Frost’s “the best way out is through.”

 

A poet is a very private person. How can a private person live in history? A poet retreats to an inner space, away from reality, however violent or however uncaring and bewildering–and in that space one is alive, one is at the center of the earth, one holds a book in one’s hands and reads it at the top of one’s voice, and the earth turns on its axis, the earth swings on its axis, gently, just for you.

 

And the pigeons on the balcony shit, without hesitation, on the fancy cars of capitalists, just for you.

 

And the dogs in the neighbor’s apartment bark, in the middle of the night, just for you.

 

And, then there is March again, and the world is alive again, also, for you.

 

Because you are part of it, and you cannot escape it, that world which is all about us.

 

And who would want to escape it anyway, this wonder, this astonishment?

 

We all know that a lyric poet is a very private person. But from that private space, the poet emerges, with (if one is lucky) a poem. And the poem (if one is lucky) finds a way to give voice to others in this moment in history which is—whether or not we like it—all around us.

 

 

 

 

RD: – What are the philosophical or lyrical models that form the basis for your evolution as a poet? Disciples? Teachers? Schools? Books?

 

The “Odessa School” or the “Southern Russian school of Russian literature” (as Shklovsky called it) was the only real literary school outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg generally accepted by critics in that country. Even so, being a poet from Odessa is already a kind of translation for a Russian speaker. It means—for many—being immersed in the language that is a far cry from the “clean” or “civilized” literary Russian.

 

That particular literary moment was important for me, when I began writing, because I feel close to this rawness coupled with music, this combination of high and low styles that the Odessa School tends to bring to life. I feel close to it because I notice, quite often, that people laugh at funerals and cry at weddings, this contradiction of human tonalities isn’t merely a literary device, it is a fact of life.

 

But, of course, the Odessa School writers (e.g. Babel, Olesha, and co) did not invent it. It is there all the way back in Shakespeare (a man king buries his daughter while only a few pages a way a fool makes a joke) and in the Bible, where the erotic and metaphycical go hand and and, from page to page. And, of course it is there in any true poet, such as Akhmatova, who once said, have joking: I live only for two things in life: Gossip and Metaphysics.

 

RD: – Do you consider yourself a committed poet or a free poet? Or a metaphysical dancer?

 

I do believe in the necessity to metaphysics, though I feel subscribing to just one metaphysical notion is silly. A man needs metaphysics but cannot have one. And, so he dances.

 

RD: – How did you experience your poetry in Ukraine? Politically? Poetically?

 

My English language poems have been translated in both Russian and Ukrainian. I like these translations. In general, the poets of different languages in that country are quite friendly with each other. Unfortunately, it is not the case for politicians. Or rather, poets step from the theater stage and go to life, holding hands. Whereas politicians keep pretending that life is that theater stage. You look at such a fool and wonder if its is simply wind circling there around the podium, holding a microphone. Today it is one political fool, tomorrow another. Only the ageing podiums seem to stay put.

 

 

 

 

RD: – Is there a linguistic proximity between politics and poetics in your life?

 

In America there is this idiotic notion that politics and poetry are somehow separate. There are whole conferences dedicated to this subjects, there are many panels, many critical books. This is idiotic. Or, rather, it is simply a byproduct of capitalism in the Western World. The intellectuals are so far removed from the reality of the streets that they think politics and art are separate. Can you tell Akhmatova or Neruda or Dante or Marvel or Ceisaire that politics and poetry are separate? Of course not. Would there exist poetry of Paul Celan without the terrible politics of his time? Would there exist work of Homer without wars? Poets who don’t pay attention to the world around them are destined to write the intellectual equivalent of wallpaper.

Of course, then, the question rises: what is politics? How is erotic poem not political? How is human body not political? How is human silence not product of conflict? These questions are endless and wonderful. If asked right they can lead to all kinds of poetry. If asked in a boring way (e.g. way of political rhetoric) they quickly become quite dull. The issue at stake, really, is when the language and emotion cross, when and how high the sparks fly. That is the question of skill with words, and passion. When the two come together, poetry happens.

 

 

 

 

RD: – How is your poetry written in America? What changes has it gone through? What has it received? What has it lost or gained?

 

I didn’t start out with any specific plan to write in English.

 

My father died in 1994, less than a year after we arrived to the USA. 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, yes, an insanely beautiful freedom; it still is.

 

How so?

 

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.

 

RD: -You are altruistic, dynamic and versatile. You campaign for the noble cause of poetry, for the translation of the best voices of universal contemporary poetry. You are on the editorial boards of many literary magazines and journals. You have a full life. What do the words « fullness, » « full » and « full meaning » mean to you?

 

I don’t know what a full life means especially when related to editorial boards of literary magazines. That is rather an empty life, for me. Full life has to do with human faces, with human emotions, with stories that are written in the eyes, in the wrinkles, in the sounds a cat makes when it got too high up in the tree and can’t quite climb back, so you have to call a fireman, and while the fireman climbs up the ladder the grandmas quickly bake cookies which they present to that large man who climbs down now, from the branches, with a sleepy cat in his arms. And, the full life is in the smell those cookies make.

As for my activities – well I simply believe in something. That “something” has to do with my dislike for borders of any kind. With my deep desire to join hands with whoever stands on the other side of the fence. That is why I translate, and edit books by authors from elsewhere. That is why I look for other voices.

We all work out of our deepest obsessions. This desire—of a deaf man, of an immigrant—to hear the voice of another, is one of the things that drives me.

 

RD: – And emptiness? Silence? Melancholy? Do you know them? In what forms?

 

 

 

 

Well, we all speak against silence. But it is silence that moves us to speak.

 

There is a sacred that exists inside language (without silence any music is merely noise).

 

There is a sacred that exists outside any language. How?

 

Tell me tell you a story: scientists once put four hearing men from different parts of the world (lets say China, Mexico, England and Germany) in the same room. Left them there for 8 hours. Came back. What did they find upon return?

Four men sat, frightened, staring at each other from their four corners.

The same scientists placed four deaf men, from those different parts of the world (who didn’t speak each other’s sign language) in the same room. Left them for 8 hours. What did they find upon return?

The four deaf men were making the new language with their hands.

 

That tells you a lot about various meaning of the word silence.

 

And, it also tells you a lot about the limitations of speech. Of how much silence the speech imposes on us.

 

RD: – What did you find when you came to America and began to write in a different language?

 

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 Edmond Jabes’ first language. Venus 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. Milosz 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.

 

RD: – According to you, can poetry be institutionalized and transformed into an institution for peace and peace agreements?

 

Poetry is already an institution for peace and peace agreements. It is just not the kind of institution that needs parliaments and elections. It is the kind of voice that lives in the chest-box. Everyone needs a little poetry in their life before they die. No one can leave this world without tasting a little.

Poetry doesn’t stop wars, but it tells us what happens to a human condition in a time of one. It is a kind of barometer, as another poet says somewhere, a kind of barometer for telling us what our human weather is like.

 

 

 

 

RD: – What still fascinates you in your country of origin? What disgusts you?

 

Ukraine –and Eastern Europe, in general—is a place where people love European values, have real hope for those European humanistic ideas, those philosophies, those thinkers—far more than those we know as “Europeans” of the Western world actually do. In a sense, Ukrainians are far more idealistic and passionate about Europe than Europe is about itself.

What disgusts me is corruption, and plain disregard for otherness, for the value, the sacred value, of another person’s life.

 

RD: – And in America?

 

What disgusts me in America is its empire, which is ugly, as any empire.

But what I love is the large, amazing mix of humanity in places where empire—even if for a few moments only—stops. I mean places like a subway in New York, or a poetry reading in San Francisco, where humans come together and you forget, for a moment that you are of this or that nationality and/or religion and you see yourself for who you are, a person in time, on this planet, who is here for a few decades, and so you go in the streets, and you buy a sandwich and you sit on a park-bench and you are full of love for all these humans who pass you by on the streets.

 

 

 

 

RD: – Ask yourself a question that no one has ever asked you and that you have been waiting for a long time.

 

What is imagination, if not remembering, from the other side, of course?

 

RD: – A final word on your past, a word on your future.

 

Joy. I might be writing out of a place that has much historical darkness in it. But it is joy in life that drives me. Joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

____________________________________________

 

BIO

 

Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, Ukraine and currently lives in California. He is the author of « Dancing in Odessa » which has been translated in a dozen languages and published in many countries. In 2019, Graywolf Press in USA will publish his new collection, « Deaf Republic. He is the translator and editor of many books, including Ecco Anthology of International Poetry and Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva. He is a professor at San Diego State University.

 

www.ilyakaminsky.com

 

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