Six questions for Ilya Kaminsky

Daniel Zhang ’22 asks the Ukraine-born poet about politics and poetry, writing in a foreign tongue, and tips for young writers.

Daniel Zhang ’22
October 30, 2020
Collage of scenes from Ilya Kaminsky's reading

Images from Kaminsky's reading of poems from "Deaf Republic." 

Ilya Kaminsky started off this year’s Lamont Poetry series with a reading that was vivid with passion. His Q&A with students, held the next day, was energized both by Kaminsky’s natural warmth and the students’ eager questions. Perhaps not surprising for this poet whose latest book, “Deaf Republic,” led the BBC to name him one of the “12 artists that changed the world in 2019.”

Described as a “two-act play in which an occupying army kills a deaf boy and villagers respond by marshaling a wall of silence as a source of resistance,” “Deaf Republic” has direct ties to Kaminsky’s own life as a Ukrainian immigrant to the U.S. who lost his hearing at the age of four.

One of the students strongly affected by Kaminsky was Daniel Zhang ’22, a poet himself and frequent contributor to The Exonian. Zhang “sat down” with the author via Zoom for a wide-ranging conversation. Below are lightly edited excerpts from that interview. 

You chose to write “Deaf Republic” in English as opposed to Russian, your native language. What transforms for you personally when you write poetry in English?

I came to the U.S. when I was 16, and I was still writing in Russian for a while.

My father passed away, and he was the person who taught me poetry to begin with. And so it felt weird to write Russian about the death of the person who taught you the language. It felt like, "What am I doing? Am I making art out of this?" And I decided, maybe mistakenly, "Well, maybe some of the poems I write might help my family because it's such a personal subject."

But if you're a poet, you don't really have a choice. You have to write. And so English provided this kind of escape, if you will, because nobody in my family could read English and I didn't really know [English]. I had just come to America. … We came to [the] U.S. in '93 and he passed away in '94.

So it was a private language, and I liked that it was. It felt interesting to have English just for myself, to be in the same room with English and nobody else in that room. The language, I thought, had a home for a certain kind of grief.

You have a very distinct reading style, one that's very expressive and varies greatly in tone, inflection and volume. Is that a public performance or is that a private act for yourself as a poet?

I'm one of those people who like to revise a lot and who believe that revision is really the heart of the writing process. Revision is what makes writing new and fresh and interesting. But once you publish a book you can no longer revise the poems.

Well, that's not imaginative! You can still revise it in your rhythm. You can change line breaks. You can change emphasis. You can change momentum. And that is what makes it interesting for me, the reading itself. Otherwise, it would be something that I do over and over and over again.

I don't write about political events. I write about human beings that happen to live together and what they do to each other."

When I go to an event ... I'm deaf, right? So I often don't hear the words when somebody reads their poem, but I can still see their body. I can still see how they express their language, how poetry enters their body when they read it aloud, how it moves their lips, how they move their hands, how they touch the podium. Literally, the person's relationship to speech.

And I find that fascinating how sometimes we read poems by people who are no longer alive — it can be Shakespeare or Dickinson or Whitman or Gwendolyn Brooks or many, many other kinds of poets. The people who wrote those poems are no longer here on this planet with us. But their words are living inside our bodies. Sometimes they heal us when we are in pain. Sometimes we share with our loved ones the words of somebody who's no longer here.

I think that poetry reading is our chance to create a world for another human.

Do you see the poetry in “Deaf Republic” as political commentary or referring to anything personally political for you and the nation of Ukraine?

Thank you for this question. I would like us all to think about, first of all, what is political? Is people being in pain political? Is people being happy political? Is soldiers marching into cities or policemen beating up people in the streets or mothers crying for their children political?

Or is it daily life that we see? In that part of the world, yes. But also, frankly, in this part of the world.

And so I'm interested in how humans live with humans, how humans react to the pain or happiness of others. I think there is a term, “political poetry,” that exists only in the U.S. This term does not exist in Eastern Europe, Russia or Ukraine. In South America, or in Mexico, in El Salvador, maybe in Ecuador, there's no such thing as “political poetry.” All poetry is political.

What is the word political? What does it mean in Greek, politiká? It's policy, a city, a village where people come together and live together. So I don't write about political events. I write about human beings that happen to live together and what they do to each other.

I think that poetry reading is our chance to create a world for another human."

“In a Time of Peace,” the final poem of “Deaf Republic,” contains many powerful images about a death at the hand of a policeman. Just to quote a few lines, "I watch neighbors open their phones to watch a cop demanding a man's driver's license." And then, "The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy." My class noticed that these images were shockingly similar to discussions of race-based police violence, which has risen in public attention this summer. Does “Deaf Republic,” or your poetry in general, reference this American issue of police brutality?

This poem is very much what it's about. I didn't want to name any specific names because I didn't want to take any advantage. After all, I am a white man. But I do feel that, in many ways, the book is about inaction for which we are responsible. Inaction in the face of violence is never a good thing. The book tries to show that.

The book is also, in some ways, a fairy tale, of course. But every fairy tale has a little bit of a warning in it of what might happen. Is the book about Ukraine or the USSR? Yeah, sure. Is the book also about what is already happening and what might happen in this country? Yes. Absolutely.

With this quote, "Art is fire plus algebra," Jorge Luis Borges talks about fire, the passion that inspires art, and algebra, the technique and craft that allows one to communicate it. How do you use algebra in “Deaf Republic”?

I'm certainly not an expert on algebra, but I feel that Borges is quite right about the fact that the process of writing brings together passion and intellect.

In many ways one can say that the act of writing is a spiritual discipline where the algebra of our knowledge, of our rational mind, is combined into the human desires, human hungers, human pains, human astonishments, human wonder.

You asked me about “Deaf Republic.” Yes, I'm very much interested in combining the narrative and lyric. I want to take some certain elements from a play and elements from a lyric poem or song or an elegy.

That has to do with the fact that I don't necessarily come from this particular tradition. I was born in Ukraine but I no longer live in Ukraine. So by virtue of living in the U.S., I am a part of this tradition. Kind of on the border of the two, if you will. And so as a person like that, one is pressed by life itself to ask a question: "What kind of form is right for what I want to say? Is there such a form? And if not, how can I create it or make it or discover it?"

In other words, kind of reinventing algebra. Reinventing certain forms to feed passions, to feed and find spiritual search or a search for justice or a search for understanding. How can form itself provide content? Or how can content recreate already available form, understand [it] anew so it feels right, so it feels like one can be true to oneself as opposed to trying to fit oneself into some kind of "tradition" which one may or may not belong to?

It's an ongoing conversation, if you will, between passion and algebra.

What advice would you give to younger writers who are navigating the publishing industry, trying to get published or just looking to begin their writing journey?

You guys are extremely lucky to be where you are. First of all, because you are surrounded by first-class experts on writing. You also have an incredible library for poetry. So try to read as much as you can.

The answer to your question — "What should a young writer do?" — is find delight and learn which arts delight you, ask what makes you excited and happy, and that will make you a happy person for the rest of your life.

Think about, 'How can I grow? How can I learn something about language, about myself with language?'"

As for publishing, my answer would be try to have a portfolio of, say, 10 to 15 poems or a couple of short stories that you love of your own, and make a reading group or a writing group of your peers and share your work. Don't ask people right away for negative commentary. At first ask, "What is working in my poetry?" Even if they underline a couple of lines, it's certainly very interesting. A couple of lines that spoke to a group of, say, seven people. Meaning that, OK, there is something in the language that you can really relate to, that other humans really relate to. Build on those two lines.

That will allow you to develop, to grow. And eventually, in your community, in your reading group, people will underline more than two lines. They will underline the whole poem perhaps. That's when you start asking other questions like, "Well, if you were writing this poem, what kind of decisions might you make? What kind of choices would you make?" 

A lot of people think of publishing as something that can give you anxiety, but it doesn't have to. It can be a journey of growth. Instead of asking, "How can I get something? Or how can I achieve something?" Think about, "How can I grow? How can I learn something about language, about myself with language?"

Editor's note: Kaminsky is the first Lamont Poet to have received the George Bennett Fellowship, a one-year residence that brings one writer each year to the Academy. He received the fellowship as a sophomore in college, the youngest recipient ever. 

More to Explore

"Deaf Republic"

See animated excerpts from The New Yorker. 

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