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Ilya Kaminsky: “Putin has managed to get poets to reject their own language”

The Ukrainian-American poet on language, war and art in a time of crisis.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON, DC – On the first night of the war in Ukraine I watched CNN reporters in Kyiv and Kharkiv describe the sound of the explosions, and listened to Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s permanent representative to the United Nations, tell the UN Security Council that they were too late, and war had begun. I was surprised to find that one of the only complete thoughts I had was the title of an Ilya Kaminsky poem: “We Lived Happily During the War.”

Judging from social media, I was not the only one. Scrolling through Twitter I saw, between videos of Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, and clips of destruction in Ukraine, Kaminsky’s poem. In an email interview, I asked the Ukrainian-American poet, born in Odessa, if he had noticed this, too, and, if so, what it was like to see people reaching for his poem.

He responded by quoting the poem’s opening lines — “We lived happily during the war / and when they bombed other people’s houses, we / protested / but not enough” — then saying: “It is a poem in which irony tolls its bell, trying to warn the reader that the so-called greatness of our capitalist nation, its so-called happiness, is the happiness of those who do not care that much about what happens elsewhere. It is a poem about complicity.

“In the middle of answering your question, allow me to ask you a question, too. Who remembers Chechnya right now? Back in 1999-2000, Putin bombed its capital city, Grozny, into the ground. And what happened? The West protested for a week. Then things went to business as usual. Why? Because oil companies do business with Putin. ‘Our great country of money’, the poem says. The poem isn’t a pronouncement, it is a warning. That is what poems want to do, they want to create a kind of reading experience inside which the reader discovers their own emotions, in this case the emotion of complicity.”

***

Kaminsky came to the United States as a teenager, in 1993. Since then, he has written two prize-winning books of poems: Deaf Republic and Dancing in Odessa. Of beginning to write poetry in English, he said, “Well, I wrote verses in Russian for quite some time before we came to America. When we came to this country, I was 16 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 at a writing colony. 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. 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!’”

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None of Kaminsky’s friends or family members knew English. No one with whom he spoke could read his work. “I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.”

And what of Russian? In the 2017 anthology Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine, Kaminsky, who wrote the introduction, wrote of speaking Russian in Ukraine, and asked what it would mean for a poet to reject a language. What did he think now about the relationship between war, language and poetry?

“Let me share a line from a poem with you,” he said. “‘Buried in a human neck, a bullet looks like an eye, sewn in, / an eye looking back at one’s fate.’ This is from the Russian-language Ukrainian poet Ludmila Khersonsky, who lives in Odessa. Now, President Putin claims he is sending troops to Ukraine in order to protect Russian speakers. What does Ludmila think about Putin?

‘A small gray person cancels
this twenty-first century,
adjusts his country’s clocks
for the winter war’.

“The problem is that Putin has created a fiction. He is saying he is protecting the Russian language. And Ludmila Khersonsky, a Russian poet, who lives in Ukraine says: sorry, but I don’t need your protection.

“When Putin first invaded Ukraine some writers, including Ludmila’s husband, Boris Khersonsky, who is the most famous Russian-language poet in Ukraine, decided to write in Ukrainian. This is what Putin has accomplished. The poet rejects his own language in response to the troops invading cities.”

***

Language matters. If it didn’t, a poet would not turn his back on his own language. Still, despite this, I sometimes find myself wondering what good is art — literature, poetry, words strung next to one another — in times of war. Kaminsky is convinced that poetry has power.

“Poetry is the art that smashes the borders of time, to misquote Boris Pasternak,” he wrote. “For me poetry is a moment of awe — that silence that travels from one human body to another by means of words. Gilgamesh was written 4,000 ago and it transforms us still.

“This is what poetry is: not a kind of public posturing but a private language of music and imagery that is strange and compelling enough that it can speak privately to thousands of people at the same time.”

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