Second Chances in Language and Life: An
Interview with Ilya Kaminsky by Brian Leary & Diana Park from Box Car
Q: You've mentioned in previous interviews that you began writing in prose, even publishing
essays in Odessa newspapers at twelve and thirteen years old. Would you please tell us a little about how you came to writing
A: Frankly, I don't
really remember. The newspaper writing was an accident: because in early 1990s many professional journalists in Odessa could
not afford to continue working on the meager pay, many teenagers suddenly had this wild chance to write about what interested
them for publication in the local news. Kids wrote about everything—from descriptions soccer games to the reviews of
local Opera Theater performances.
As for poetry, it is hard to say. There always were poetry books in a house
and some of my father's friends were poets. So it wasn't anything unusual or extraordinary. Did you write a poem? Yes. So
what? I think it is better that way—it is a part of private existence, a private joy, but nothing special, nothing for
Beginning to write in English was a different matter—it was more of a conscious choice. I began
writing in English after my father died partly because I could not allow myself to admit in the Russian words he taught me
that he was no longer able to speak them. English offered something else—I myself could not speak it very well at the
time, but I imagined I could learn the language for both of us, could give him that chance—"Death thou shalt die"
is a famous line in English poetry. For whatever reason, when I first translated it back in Rochester, NYC, with my small
dictionary, it seemed like some hard-realized fact. I believed we could get a second chance in that new language.
Q: We like the idea of English providing a second chance for your father
and you. That's beautiful. We wonder: are there further second chances, or freedoms, that writing in English provided to you
after immigration? Does writing in English free you in any way now?
A: Yes and no. For one thing, the Russian literary tradition is much younger than the English one—Pushkin,
the father of contemporary Russian literature was writing in 1824. But what is 1824 for English poetry? Shelley? Byron? These
poets are wonderful, but there is a great strong tradition behind them. There is much less behind Pushkin's shoulders. Why
do I compare these things? To explain that in contemporary Russian poetry formal traditions are still quite important. There
is much formal music that is still very necessary to the Russians in a way that it may not be as necessary to many poets writing
in English today. So, for me coming from the Russian tradition here was not simply a change of language—it was more
like taking a ride on a time machine of sorts. It may sound silly, but formally speaking for a practicing Russian poet to
write in English today is like living in the future. It is a very different game. And, because it is so different, one is
pressed very hard to ask oneself: what is it I am doing? If poetry is not music, if it does not even depend on any particular
language, then what is it? Why is it necessary?
And you realize that you want to do what is necessary, not just
a line here or a line there, but something on which you can stake your life, even at its most playful moment. And that sort
of realization really liberates you from whatever language-wise illusions you may have. Should your language be beautiful?
Of course it should be. But—this is not just about language anymore.
Q: In another interview you said, "When I sit down to write a line, or when I walk humming a line to myself,
or when I tell a line to a friend—I stake my life on that line!" It seems as though you're emphasizing the individual
line. How do you begin your poems?
A: I would not want to say that poems begin in any specific way. I have a strange memory—I remember only a
few poems in their entirety, but I remember a lot of lines, probably hundreds of lines—they become a part of your being
once you say them to yourself in a moment you need them most. There is a certain slant of light. Come be with me and be my
love. Things seem filled with the intent to be lost. And you, sir, are a senator.
Sometimes poems are drawn together
around a single line. But sometimes they are not. It is always a surprise how a poem begins or comes together—if I claimed
to know how the exact recipe it happens, even just for one person, me, I would be writing trash. I like that there is a certain
sense of uncertainty always. Because how can we be sure? Are we sure we will wake up next morning? Do we know exactly whom
we will meet on the street? For me—perhaps it is a stupid thing to say, but I believe it—poems are not very different
from our days, daily events, what is real.
They can begin with a line, yes, or with an image. Or with an idea.
Or a word. Or, sometime you carry the whole thing in your mind for days. Or you can write something down and not know what
to do with it for months, and then suddenly it makes sense, it is a poem. Sometimes two completely opposite passages come
together and make a poem complete. But who says it is complete?
Q: Yes! Bishop’s right; things do seem filled with the intent to be lost. Do you feel that you let, or even
help, your own lines get lost so that they may be transformed or opened in some way--even if the only lines transformed or
opened are those left behind?
It is often a blessing to get confused by one’s own words. In real life, my grandmother was “growing” tomatoes
on the balcony in Odessa. But my mind was confused when I wrote it, and in the title poem of “Dancing In Odessa”
my grandmother “throws” tomatoes from the balcony. Somehow, words make up their own stories. It is more
interesting to me that way. Reality is not always true, but it is always interesting.
“I want to make something
imagined not recalled” Robert Lowell says in his famous Epilogue—and then his argument switches back to the memoir.
But why not write an imaginary memoir? Lowell himself often did just that, of course, and all good poets do, I think. The
line between memory and imagination is precious, and is often—to quote you here—“left behind” if words
demand more vivid detail of real life than truth is able to offer.
Imagination is a great gift to any poet, I
think. Somehow poets forget it these days in their relentless search for irony in things. That, I think, is a mistake.
Q: The title of your first book
is Dancing in Odessa and many of the poems include dancing, even specific dances: waltzes, polkas, tangos, flamencos, among
others. How is the image of dance significant to your poetry?
A: The image of dance is important to that specific book, there is a line in the beginning that says something like
“we dance to keep from falling”—and that has to do as much with the content of the book as it does with
the form. Formally, there is a dancing party of poetry and prose, lyric and narrative. I do not believe in what they call
a prose poem. I simply believe in good prose. And I see no reason why it should not be combined with the lyric if the need
arises. I think they make perfect dancing partners.
On the level of content, there is a notion of praise, of affirmation
in the book that in itself is synonymous for me personally with the idea of dance. Why? Because when I think of dance, I remember
my parents dancing in our living room in Odessa right after the earthquake (it was a minor earthquake, by California standards
at least, no numerous deaths, just lots of injuries) among the falling TV and our large candelabra lying on the floor.
I am an awful dancer. But I love it. And, I happen to embarrass my wife (or, on occasion a friend) by inviting her
to dance with me in a gas station or supermarket or dentist’s office. There is a certain joy in it which I think the
world calls from us.
seems that combining opposites is something you do a lot throughout Dancing in Odessa--in form when you mix prose and verse,
and even in tone, for example, in the paired elegies of the "Traveling Musicians" section. What details or ideas
do you attend to as you arrive at these mixes? How do these combinations contribute to a
sense of completion?
The ideas of anti-self are quite old in poetry. In order to put life on the page—and that is what I believe all great
poetry does—one need to do exactly what life does: "Nothing human is alien to me," "Unattainable earth,"
"Do not compare, the human beings are incomparable"—these lines I am quoting from others are really a philosophy
that poets from many different countries and generations seems to embrace and agree upon. Whether you call it a combination
of high and low styles which you see in Villon or Cattulus or the opposites of Inferno and Paradiso that produce Comedia Divina—in
order for the verse to speak about the world, it needs to attempt to represent as much of the world as it possibly can on
the page. So, what I am doing is hardly new—it is as old as night and day.
Well, let me repeat myself and
say something I must have said before more than once. They are lying when they say that art imitates life. They are also lying
when they say that life imitates art. They have no idea what they are talking about with those pretty formulas. Art is life
in itself simply because there would be no written poetry without us to write it. And, by God, what are our daily lives if
not a combination of opposites? “Do not compare, each living thing is incomparable” Mandelstam teaches us. Every
single moment we are here is completely unlike the previous. We only need to pay enough attention. Attention, Celan beautifully
commented, is the natural prayer of the soul.
If there is no argument inside my work, my work is worthless. For
several reasons, there is only one thing I demand from my own lines, or from any poetry I love—I want to read it and
to have a sense of having lived. I want to find a texture of life in the lines.
Odessa, the beautiful seaport
where I spend 16 years, and the landscape of my book, is the city imagined as much as it is actual. That sort of mixture.
I populated it with human beings I loved, whether or not they were real. The question: What did it mean to be a human? The
answer: I did not know. But there was an urgent need to ask that question in what drew me to write those poems. Writing them,
I wanted the imagination and language to be clear enough for the readers to look at them and see that world.
for contradictions, look—even this very language in which we are right now writing back and forth is full of opposites.
Clearly the nouns are not the same as verbs, but we need both to complete a sentence, yes? That an obvious thing, but just
think: out of the thousands of words in the English dictionary, no two are exactly same. How rich we are—to find peace
among so much contradiction.
You say that art does not imitate life and that our daily lives are a combination of opposites. We see this in your book—a
texture of life in the lines, as you say—mixed prose and verse, a recipe for soup, things very real but also very imaginary,
a lot of sadness and a lot of joy. Was this something that happened organically or something that you purposefully created?
A: I love people. I am not a
sort of a poet who wants to spend his days in the room surrounded by books. I deeply need and overwhelmingly adore other human
beings. Therefore any term like “pure” poetry is an oxymoron to me—pure poetry is found in the streets.
As Anna Akmatova, a divine poet, used to say: “I live for two things in life—gossip and metaphysics.” That
is one way to answer your question.
Here is another way: I just spoke about my inability of escaping the world
in the room full of books—and yet I love the Stoics. I love the notion of great hermit St. Anthony who examined his
conscience every night. I love Marcus Aurelius. I love how in certain monastic families the religious order was no longer
necessary—if one had chosen to live the life in the monastery—having very little of the material leisure—that
in itself was considered a prayer: planting the bread was a prayer, washing the floor was a prayer. I think often of that.
That sort of attention which—let me repeat myself again—Paul Celan called “the natural prayer of the soul”.
And, yet, in the end I think my writing is closer to the Jewish tradition and not the Stoics. Think for a moment
of Job, as compared to the Stoics—he does not merely endure in a quiet moment of the soul: he protests, he praises,
he raises his voice in love and in a scream. That sort of human expression of days is something I find very close to my heart.
Whether it happens purposefully or organically, I do not know. Does that matter?
But how does that come to form
in something very specific—composition of a poem or a sequence or a book? By intuition: you look at a line and you know
that you need something else in the next line. You look at the page and you know what you do not want the next page to be
like. You want a wealth of emotions, feelings, images, sounds. You want to embrace the reality with every hand you have got.
You do not want to be bored.
People often confuse lyric with boring. Bad mistake. Lyric can and should
be full of laughter and abandonment. Just as our moments here and now are.
Q: Is your love of being around other people tied to food? Dancing in Odessa includes many food-related images so
that food becomes, too, an instrument of praise. And often when food is referenced it occurs only in relation to a person,
a character, a body—such as, the man with the watermelons, kissing on the floor among lemon peels, the man in "the
list of days" buying a plum as he dies. What makes food such significant imagery for you?
A: I love the idea of the feast—of writing all day, then walking in
a park, then going to the market, buying fresh, vegetables and making a gorgeous dinner. If it sounds like a ritual, then
yes, it is a ritual. And why not? The world is eating us up all day long. But three times a day (breakfast, lunch, and
dinner) we can launch counter-offense. I like doing that with a flavor.
Q: How is the cold mint-cucumber soup recipe significant to the elegy for Mandelstam?
A: How is it not significant? I have been criticized for it in public by
very esteemed individuals (whose own work I like a lot, by the way) and can’t help but laugh out-loud at that sort of
politeness in literature—“you can’t have a recipe in a book, it ruins your high style”—get a
life! It makes high style only more visible, for opposites—alas!—attract. It makes into poetry what is not accepted
as poetry, and thus it broadens the genre. And if I am wrong—if it is my mistake—then, well, at least those among
my kids who’ll hate poetry will have something else to look forward as they open “Dancing In Odessa”. “Nothing
human is alien to me”—now, what sort of a bearded anti-intellectual said that? Whitman.
Q: Let’s talk about the first poem that opens the book: “Author’s
Prayer.” This poem seems to include two sections: a prayer for your capacity to speak for the dead—to write the
book’s elegies; and an insistence of your own existence: “yes, I live”: dance, praise, laugh, sleep, pray.
Why should this juxtaposition begin the book?
A: Because no poet, and frankly, no human being, arrives out of nowhere. Whether I like it or not, I am a part of
the tradition, be it a family or a country or individual human beings (poets, in this case) that make me glad that I am alive.
For that, one naturally wants to say thanks.
I happen to like the tradition I come from, and W.H. Auden’s
famous notion of “breaking bread with the dead” is indeed appealing to me, but I think it only goes half way.
That is why there is “yes, I live” in the middle of that poem. I have no interest in only honoring the dead—there
is a lot more we can do with our days.
Here is a story for you: a certain philosopher asked St. Anthony, of Desert
Fathers: Father, how can you be so happy when you are deprived of the consolation of books? Anthony replied: my book, O philosopher,
is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God, the book is before me.
Q: As you talk about both honoring the dead and living now, we're reminded
of the balance that exists in your elegies--a way of praising and honoring the dead but also, by bringing yourself into the
poems, a way of praising life. Is this what you intended? Why were these writers--Celan, Babel, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva--that
you praised in this book? Could you have, as easily, written of Pushkin, or Mayakovsky, or Rilke?
A: To answer your first question: yes, that was the intention. Elegy is
incomplete if it merely mourns those who once lived—there is more to life than that. That is perhaps the reason why
Auden’s Elegy for Yeats is in the end a call to praise. It is a great example how the elegy, a homage to the dead succeeds
by asking us "to rejoice." The poem is, of course, also a powerful ars poetica. It had been a model, I think, for
many great elegies of this century—certainly for Lowell’s, Roethke’s and so on. But I wanted to do it a
bit differently—by bringing a bit of humor, a bit of street talk, a bit of fairy-tale into it. I hate it when elegies
are merely solemn. That is too expected. And, frankly, that is the last thing the dead would want from us.
to answer your second question: why these specific poets? Because they have been personally important at a specific moment
in my life, that is all. There is no great system or formula to it—if I told you I had one, I would be lying. I wrote
about Celan during the year I discovered my mother’s picture in the Holocaust museum in Washington DC. I did not know
about that part of her past before the event. I wrote the third part of the Brodsky poem a few years after he died, and the
two other parts came later. He was an important figure for me—more as a human being than a poet, even—because
my father used to know him (although I myself never met him) so in my childhood there were all those private stories about
him. Isaac Babel created the world of literary Odessa which was still alive when I was a kid, and my family still speaks what
they call "Isaac Babel" dialect—the language of his stories that helped to preserve the world of Odessa Jews
long after that world disappeared first in Soviet and then in Nazi camps. And, Marina Tsvetaeva piece was really a love poem—love
of her difficulty, the utterly openness of her voice. They say that Alexander Blok once told to her (comparing her work to
another poet): "She writes as if a man is looking at her, but you should write as if God is looking at you.” That
sort of a lesson.
As you can see, I am a sucker for the literary marginalia. But all these anecdotes are irrelevant,
they are beside the point. Even the idea of homage to the great mind is beside the point, really – "Be your own
father, young man" Ralph Ellison tells us. All these people died long ago, yet their words move us, live inside our bodies.
That is what matters. And that is an amazement to me, the most interesting thing. As for the structure of that sequence: I
wanted to achieve a feeling of duality there, yes. The formal elegies are on one side, a bow. But on the opposite side these
people are alive, in my imagination, where they still are—a way of saying hello in a poem. I wanted, desperately, to
give them a chance to stay outside of the realm of elegies, if only for a moment.
Q: What is the “Isaac Babel” dialect? You sort of defined it
in your answer, but I’m still not sure what it is. I’m just intrigued because I’m a huge fan of Babel’s
work but, of course, have only read the English translations.
A: There are several reasons why Isaac Babel was a fiction writer who became a great poet. One of them is the following:
he wrote in a dialect that existed very briefly in real time—the Russian language of Yiddish speaking Jews in Odessa,
combining also the grammar of Greek, Bulgarian, Armenian and other nationalities who lived in Odessa at the time into a wild
form of Russian—existed openly only for about 30-40 years (the time that people who spoke it existed; these people were
either exterminated or they immigrated or they assimilated). Babel was able to put that reality into words on a page. The
way those words are put together in sentences, and in paragraphs have preserved that world, for the generations to come. Of
course, one would counter, every good writer does that: preserve the lost world of imagination—just look at the Magical
Realists! True. But, Babel is a slightly different case—he is that very strange case of magical realism, where the world
of magic exists not in his content (i.e. narrative) but in his form (the way his characters put their sentences together).
His ability to put so much force into the way words speak—not necessarily always what they say—is
what makes this fiction writer a great poet in my mind. Now, in Odessa of my time, putting the words together in a way Babel
did—i.e., imitating him in a daily conversation—was a form of protest—you protested the officialdom of your
daily life by speaking to your loved one this wildly different language preserved by Issak Babel. It made the grey reality
of the Soviet life whole a lot more interesting. I remember memorizing whose pages of his by heart and reciting them to other
schoolboys—who recited other pages back at me. To use Auden’s phrase (from his Elegy for Yeats, again), one could
argue that we were “hurt” into Issak Babel. But it was a marvelous thing to be hurt into.
is something unrelated, that Babel also taught me also: Reading his stories one knows that they come from other’s real
life—it is well documented that Babel really brought a lot of other people’s stories into his work— it is
as if he was imagining other people’s memoirs. That had a huge impact on me as I was writing the poems about others
in Dancing In Odessa. Whose stories are they? My father’s? Osip Mandelshtam’s? They are not alive. Mine? There
isn’t any such thing as mine, I will be dead in sixty years, the world will eat me up—it does so as I am speaking,
of course. I know it may sound silly of me to say this (but I am willing to sound silly, and repeat myself, if necessary):
in a way, all stories available to us come from just one book—we can get it for 10 bucks at Barnes & Noble—the
English dictionary; the rest is the world.
Q: Some would say language itself is political, would you agree? How much does that play in your writing?
A: Language itself is a collection of symbols. What makes it holy is how
the way in which we use (and struggle with) these symbols can raise us above what we are. In a way, silence is what interests
me whole a lot more. Silence is political, indeed. Silence is what I speak against—what every human being speaks against
as long as they breath—and yet it is what moves me to speak.
I refuse to participate in this collective
language worship of language. We are not a herd of sheep, we have brains, so let's use them. All that linguistics-in-verse
that flood American (and French) poetry these days is silly. Yes, there are many wonderful things that I learn from it—playfulness
with words, for instance, which is a great gift. But to put that on a pedestal? Please?
Also, the use of
the word “political” in our literary culture in this country always amazed me. It is used as an attack weapon—either
to defend someone with a flavor or hit them real hard in the eye on the front-page of some little-read literary periodical.
What I want to point out is this: many great poets—Celan, Akhamatova, Milosz, among numerous others—are
known as “political” early in their career only to be regarded as “deeply spiritual” by the end of
it. That is something to consider, no?
Q: In "Natalia," you play with time. The times change. The forms change. The characters change. On page
34, you write, "Someone else is on this page, writing. I attempt to move my fingers faster than her." Why the confusion?
Who's writing who in "Natalia"?
A: “Natalia” is, of course, a love poem—but at the time I wrote it, I was thinking much of Torah,
of Jewish tradition where scholars commenting upon—and thus, constantly rewriting—the holiest of their texts.
That notion of a living text appealed to me a great deal—text that continues the revision long after it is completed.
I must mention here that I am a revision nut—I keep revising my poems a great deal after they are published in magazines;
when the book is finished and published and I can’t revise it anymore, I try to do so anyway—by voice, as I read
these poems out-loud at the readings. I try different line-breaks, different emotions, I continue to play with these poems.
Because—how could I not?—if those are not living texts anymore, why bother reading them to myself (or the public)
But in Natalia, in the notes on the bottom of the page, I wanted to do so consciously, in the body of the
poem—I wanted to comment on that poem in prose pieces as I was writing it. That allowed me more than one voice, more
than one obsession, more than one angle of light, and yes, more than one period of time. Who is writing there? The poem—as
you are saying it aloud—it changes you, it makes you say things to yourself, it makes you take them inside your body
and live by them, if only for a moment. It occupies your hours. Who is writing who? You are asking. Well, that is exactly
what I wanted you to ask.
And to finish: remember that good old anecdote of Stein’s last words—“What
is the answer?” she cried out. When those around her dying body speechless look opened their hands in loss of response,
she looked at them, “In that case, what is the question?”
People who talk about postmodernism today
assume that postmodernism means that there is no truth. That is plain wrong. It means that there are many truths. Let not
Q: You seemed
to define things throughout the book, often following a question or a comma. The last poem “Praise” begins with
five definitions. Is this work of defining another way of imagining?
A: Yes, we must redefine our world as we speak it into being. We must redefine the words for every single moment
of our being here. This is the only way to understand who we are. Language is a tool which should be filled with human spirit,
otherwise, it will be left empty.
We must redefine our intentions and the words that we use for them. I think
it is very important, actually. Just look at what is going on around us right now—we live in a country that confused
“power” with “greatness”.
One should not make such mistakes, particularly if one is an
artist. We must re-measure the reality, otherwise, we won’t really understand this world we live in. Here are some words
by George Bernard Shaw for you: “The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor: he takes my measurements anew
each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.”
Q: Have you ever (or thought of ever) translating Russian poetry to English
(or English to Russian)? Do you translate your own poetry in either direction?
A: Well, probably because much of what I write in English –or, to
be more precise, much of how I live in English—is by definition a translation from the culture that brought me up (Russian);
translation is an integral part of my existence. But this does not mean that I translate poetry often. In fact, I rarely do.
What can be translated?
* Images (image is an international language),
* Rhythm (the way
we walk is similar in any language),
* Ideas (unlike commonly held—American—opinion, ideas are wonderful
to have—as long as they are interesting ideas, that is- even that famous dictum “not in ideas but in things”
is in itself an idea, no?)
* Music, for the most part, is lost and needs to be regained laboriously.
In best translations, translator learns something from the original poem, yes, but also brings something new to it. Here
is an example: in John Felstiner’s translation of “Death Fugue,” the translator enriches the already fantastic
landscape of Celan’s diction by bringing a combination of two languages into it. He makes the English-speaking reader
learn German language in a poem whose author fights German language in his lines. I like that.
As for myself,
I don’t often translate. Why not? I don’t have much time: I don’t have a teaching job with a summer vacation
attached to it. So, I got to take whatever time I have and apply it to more pressing projects at hand—original poetry
in English or in Russian.
When I do translate some Russians, those are usually classics—Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova,
Mandelshtam, Brodsky, Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Kharms, Zabolotsky- I do that because I want to share with my wife a poem I love,
which is previously unavailable in English. Also, I sometimes translate my Russian friends’ poems—Polina Barskova
for instance—there are some brilliant Russian poets in my generation in that country, and I want to share their work
with my American friends. As for translating my own Russian pieces into English—why bother do that if I can spend my
time writing original poems in English instead? That would be a silly ambition and I just don’t have enough time to
write the same thing twice.
Would you please tell us about your next book?
A: It is a delightful mess. The new book-long poem I am working on at the moment is a fairy-tale-in verse which
happens during an epidemic of deafness. It is an intimate, personal account about the war and also about married life in a
country where hearing does not exist.
The subject of hearing loss is a personal one. Although I lost much of my
hearing in childhood, I still don't know what it means to be deaf, just as I don't know what it means to be hearing. What
I do know is that sound is not necessarily the only instrument of human music. Silence has a crucial role in it, I think.
As I said earlier, we speak against silence, but it is silence that moves us to speak.
Q: At the end of “Traveling Musicians,” a man tells the speaker
“the story about the country where everyone was deaf.” Did your second book grow out of this moment? How do your
two books speak to each other?
I am not sure I understand the division of one’s work into books. I tend to write poems as sequences, or as specific
projects. In a way, each of the sequences in Dancing In Odessa was written as a little book—I wanted each to be self-sufficient
in that way. But I really do not subscribe to the notion that one’s work should be changing drastically from book to
book. This view is rather popular in America these days, and I think it is really a way of showing off, as if saying: see,
I can do this, and I can do that as well. So what? For me, the point is not how many things one can do, technically or otherwise,
but how deeply one lives on a page – and how that depth transforms the language into something magical. Otherwise, what
is the point?
It was kind of you to read Dancing In Odessa so attentively as to note that hint. It is there on
purpose. I do intend my projects to speak to each other, to offer one continuous whole. Why? Because my life does not change
from book to book—I only get older. Now, formally speaking, here are several differences between the two projects. The
new piece is a fairy-tale in verse. "I wanted to do something imagined, not recalled"—you understand.
It is hard for me to talk about this fairy-tale without being able to share it with your readers. I can only talk
about the joy or the difficulty of the project.
The main difficulty is to combine the lyric moment with the imaginary
narrative. To write a story that is interesting in a language that is lyrical enough. That is hell. But I like it that way.
Q: Could you say a few more things
about the situation of “imaginary” narrative in the lyric?
A: I already spoke earlier on the luck of use of imagination in contemporary poetry. I think that is going to change.
In the last several hundred years, trends in poetry tended to follow trends in fiction rather closely. For instance, Mandelshtam
often said that Akhmatova’s teachers weren’t Russian poets, but Russian prose writers—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,
Chekhov. And that is a fact. And, look at other literary traditions, how the modernism in English has changes brought forth
by Joyce and Eliot going hand in hand. It is also so with the Beats, and with the literature of witness.
ask yourself, what sort of fiction was enjoying a great success in recent years? Imaginative fiction. Vladimir Nabokov. Garcia
Marquez. In Europe, books like Suskind’s "Perfume" or Baricco’s "Silk" enjoyed an enormous
success in the last decade. Those are wonderful pieces of imaginative literature—they bring entertainment back into
prose. On the other hand, we see less of the Witnessing in literary prose—there had been no giants such as Solzhenitsyn
and I doubt there will be any more great prose writers like that for quite a while. But imaginative trend is certainly back.
I suggest that it will return to poetry as well. In a few years the poets will realize that we can no longer make
copies of Akhmatova or Celan or Zbegnew Herbert or Cheslaw Milosz or Allen Ginsberg or Robert Lowell—their genius was
to personify collective experience. Yet our experience is utterly different. Let’s admit that.
And if we
admit that, we will realize how free we are to bring together the imaginative element and the lyric moment to try explaining
to ourselves what it means to live on this planet. That old question. We will realize also that the narrative and lyric poetry
have no obvious need to be as divided as they are on the contemporary scene. After all, they co-exist perfectly in Shakespeare,
Q: I agree
with your observation. And I’m not surprised but delighted that you’re working on a fairy tale in verse. There
are short tales in your first book—the list of days, the watermelon story, the city under the sea. They enhance and
are part of the joy in your work. Did you read or listen to many tales as a child?
A: There is a connection—it may not be true in reality, but in my
mind, it is—between the feeling of joy and the world of imagination in a tale. The ability to enter other bodies by
using your imagination has been pondered on for a long time—just think of Christ’s “love your neighbor as
you would thyself”—for me it has to do with the tale. I did listen to fairy-tales when I was a child. And, actually,
many of the tales I encountered were on stage—since Odessa has one of the best Opera/Ballet Theaters in the world, and
in the Soviet times the price of the ticket to such a performance would equal to the price of two pieces of bread.
So, enacting the tale was something that gave me great joy as a child. Or, to put it this way, these tales put me in the
direction of joy.
Speaking of joy—I have been criticized for having too much joy in my work. I won’t
speak about that now, but I will say this: it amazes me how the people who claim to be religious or spiritual or people who
claim to understand human values and literary transcendence can scorn so easily at happiness in literature—but not to
be happy is not to be grateful, isn’t that an obvious thing?
Ilya Kaminsky's poetry turns his losses into gifts
to readers by ERIC MCHENRY, SPECIAL TO THE SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER
Before Ilya Kaminsky reads at the Seattle Art Museum Thursday,
he'll pass out copies of his poems.
Kaminsky, a native of the former Soviet Union, has been legally deaf for most
of his life and an English speaker for just over a decade. So he's now writing poetry -- stunning, moving, award-winning poetry
-- not only in a second language, but in a language he has never heard clearly.
"Most people still have quite
a bit of trouble understanding my Russian accent," he says in an e-mail interview. "When I don't (distribute copies),
people sometimes complain that there is no difference in hearing me in Russian or English: Both are impossible to understand."
Kaminsky may have yet to master his accent, but there's no question that he has mastered his medium.
first full-length collection of poetry, "Dancing in Odessa," was published earlier this year by Tupelo Press after
winning the prestigious Dorset Prize. Its cover blurbs, from some of America's best-known poets, are blush-inducing even by
cover-blurb standards: "I am in awe of his gifts," writes Carolyn Forché.
At 27, Kaminsky could
write a remarkable memoir. His short life has been extraordinarily eventful (although when another interviewer pointed this
out, Kaminsky objected, "It's not short! Russian poets die at 22!").
He was born in Odessa, in what is
now the Ukraine, to Jewish parents who had prospered against long odds: His paternal grandfather had been killed by Stalin,
his grandmother sent to Siberia, and his father stolen from an orphanage and raised by an uncle.
most of his hearing at age 4, when a Soviet state doctor mistook a case of the mumps for a cold. He lost his homeland at age
16, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when rampant crime, inflation and anti-Semitism forced the family to seek political
asylum in the United States. They arrived in Rochester, N.Y., in 1993, not speaking a word of English.
later, Kaminsky was a Georgetown University graduate and the youngest writer-in-residence ever appointed at Phillips Exeter
Academy in New Hampshire. This year, as his first book was going to press, he was finishing his law degree.
he hasn't written a memoir. He has written lovely, elliptical poems that draw on his personal history without dwelling on
it. Kaminsky is an uncommonly outward-looking poet, and dislocation and loss seem to have deepened his sense of the preciousness
The note his poetry most frequently sounds is one of praise: for the physical world, for the poets --
such as Osip Mandelstam and Paul Celan -- who have inspired him, and for his loved ones.
a poem dedicated to his wife, Kaminsky writes: "She slept in my bed/ I slept on a chair, she slept on a chair/ I slept
in the kitchen, she left her slippers in my shower, in my Torah, her slippers in each sentence I spoke. I said: those I love/
die, grow old, are born. But I love the stubbornness of her bedclothes!"
Not many young American poets would
dare use an exclamation point with so little irony. That unselfconscious celebration is one of many qualities, according to
former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, that set Kaminsky apart from his peers.
"He's interested in history,"
Pinsky says in a telephone interview. "He knows poetry in more than one language. And so there's a kind of intellectual
breadth and cultural density to his poetry. There's also a rather unfashionable quality: He's a moralist. He's very interested
in concepts like truth and justice."
Yet there's nothing simplistic about Kaminsky's moralism, or his praise.
They're too deeply informed by experiences he refuses to romanticize -- by a sense that all precious things are threatened.
An image that recurs throughout "Dancing in Odessa" is of poems or songs being smuggled -- in a suitcase, a pillowcase,
even a saucepan. "What is happiness?" he writes. "(A) few stories / that have fooled censors."
"Exile is good for you if you are a poet," Kaminsky says. "It teaches you that loss is also a gain. Of course,
it teaches you that by beating you with a hammer on your head. You see your life from a distance; your days become your own
commandments. You learn how to start your life anew. Exile (to misquote Auden) 'hurts' you into poetry. So for a poet it is
a great gift. But if you write no poetry, it simply hurts."