A Creature of the Senses: An Interview with Ilya Kaminsky

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It has been sixteen years since poet, translator, and teacher Ilya Kaminsky’s first book, Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004) took the poetry world by storm, earning its author international acclaim and reinvigorating American poetry with its originality and dynamism, its deep sense of history joined with unselfconscious joy. This past year, Kaminsky released his second book, Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, 2019), which has been lauded as “a contemporary epic,” “a work of genius,” and “a 21st-century classic”—and which was a finalist for several of the Anglophone world’s most prestigious book prizes, including the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize and the National Book Award.

Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet city of Odessa, Ukraine; he and his family sought political asylum in the United States in 1993, when he was sixteen years old. Beyond his English-language poetry, Kaminsky continues to advocate for a global and inclusive approach to literature in translation, whether through his own translations—most recently, of the acclaimed contemporary Russian poet Polina Barskova—or his editorship of anthologies like the Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (2010). He is currently the Bourne Chair in Poetry at Georgia Tech University. I recently had the chance to sit down with Ilya Kaminsky and ask him about his Russian literary inheritance, his views on translation and genre, and how we, as poets, might understand the nature of our (both private and public, timeless and contemporary) task.

This interview was conducted in January of 2020 at the University of Michigan. It has been edited for clarity and length.

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Michael M. Weinstein (MMW): In returning to your first collection, Dancing in Odessa, I was reminded of how deeply the book engages with Russian writers of the earlier twentieth century, especially the “Silver Age:” Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Babel—and their descendants, like Brodsky. And, in your new book, Deaf Republic, I can’t help but see formal and tonal echoes of the Futurist moment, with its emphasis on revolutionary performance and the re-invigoration of folk genres. What do you most value about the early-20th-century Russian canon? And what do you think contemporary poets (or readers) could learn from it?

Ilya Kaminsky (IK):Wonderful question. Thank you. I must begin with the city of Odessa because it is a little bit strange, a little bit unusual, even for the former Russian Empire, even for former U.S.S.R., even for contemporary Ukraine, simply because it was one of the first free cities in the empire, there no slavery, no serfdom in Odessa. And, remember, this was in the time of serfdom in Russia. Every person who entered the city of Odessa–as long as they brought a stone to pave the city street–was considered a free citizen of Odessa. And people came from all over the world.

So from the very start, the language of Odessa was not exactly the Russian language—but a mixture of everything from Yiddish to French. And, with an obvious pride of being such a mixture, of not being exactly the language of the empire, a pride of being different, of speaking differently, or making its own space, both in geography and in the mind.

Obviously, the language of Odessa is an extension of Russian, it is in conversation with the Russian language, but it was not the so-called “proper Russian language” at all—and happily so.

This is reflected in the literature that came from this place. One thinks of Isaak Babel, for instance. Those of you who know Russian literature probably know it is very center-oriented: you’re a Russian writer if you’re from Moscow or St. Petersburg, or you’re not a writer at all. The “Odessa School” of Russian literature, with which Babel is associated, was the first school of Russian literature outside of those centers of state power.

This, of course, impacts anyone from the region who picks up a pen.

As for me: when I came to the U.S. in 1993, for various reasons, I didn’t really have English.

It wasn’t a language I planned to write in, or live in, at all.

But even when I did: I never really thought about Dancing in Odessa as a book I was writing in English. I thought of it as a book I was writing in images.

You see, I didn’t have hearing aids before I came to the U.S., so the majority of my communication was very visual. And Dancing in Odessa, as you mention, is very much a book in conversation with Russian or Ukrainian or Eastern European Jewish writers—but for me this happens through the language of images.

At the time of writing it, I was learning English (I am still learning English)and I was obviously homesick: so that conversation with Russian literature was really about trying to find a home, somewhere, anywhere, in a language, in silence, in images, in space:  and to see what is lost, and—with luck—what is found.

As for Russian literature, in a larger context: what we consider modern Russian literature is very young. Aleksandr Pushkin, the so-called “father” of modern Russian literature, was writing in 1824. What the hell is 1824 for literature in the English language? Who was writing in English in 1824? Byron was dead by 1824, and who the hell was Byron? [winks] There were so many other world-class writers in English before Byron; English literature had already taken so many paths and detours.

So, who is qualified to translate Akhmatova or Mandelstam, or any of those other poets you mentioned, if they were writing in the early twentieth century, when Russian literature was less than 100 years old?

Through what eyes should we see these Russian modernists? Should we call them Modernists the way we call Woolf or Pound a modernist? Where Pound is revising a tradition, poets like Akhmatova and Mandelstam and Mayakovsky and others are creating a tradition.

And, that is very different thing, with a very different context, even if some of the same modernist tropes and tricks might be employed.

How does one respond to that, in a new language, new culture, new context?

This youthful aspect of any literature can be a wonderful thing, though. Say, if you think about things like rhyme. So much rhyme in English by now has become a singsong. But that was not the case when John Skelton was writing in the sixteenth century, right?

So is Pasternak’s innovation on Pushkin’s classical Russian (done barely a hundred years after Pushkin) something like Shakespeare’s innovation on Skelton?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

But the question is: who is qualified to translate that, and in what context?

The language ages—and then, as a poet, you have fewer of the conventional devices at your disposal.

In a young literature, all those conventional devices are still exciting and interesting!

This kind of anthropological difference [between Russian and English literatures] is very useful.

For instance, from this perspective, you can take a larger (and very different) look at  the great novelists, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. They were reading Homer, Shakespeare, in the late nineteenth century, saying, “Oh, nothing like this exists in my literature! There’s so much I can do.”

So, you can say Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were doing something very different from their counterparts in the Western tradition. They weren’t just making new kind of novels the way Western writers were doing. They were also shaping the literature, for the first time, since modern Russian literature was less than a hundred years old at the time of their writings.

So much can happen for us when we think beyond the idea of literature as a specific kind of canon (such a terrible word to use at any rate!) If you allow yourself to step outside of it and allow yourself to play, allow yourself to be in conversation with the world, with different traditions, different contexts—then suddenly, literature is exciting and interesting and playful, and so much can be done.

Tradition doesn’t have to be a prison. And that is the furtherance of the Russian modernist project: let’s not live inside convention. Let’s dance with it; let’s tango!

Let’s consider it on the level of language structures themselves, on the level of grammar itself: In English, there are things you can say maybe three different ways. Like, “I have a bottle of water.” But in Russian, you can say, “Bottle of water have I”; “bottle of water I have”; “water I have bottle”—and it all makes sense!

Think of the history of the English language, and the history of empires producing the English language, and the regimentation of it: how you’re supposed to march in a particular way, and how our minds are imprisoned by that grammar. “I have a bottle of water”—and no other way to say it. You’re commanded to speak in a specific way and that is it!

That wasn’t the case before the seventeenth century, before the imposition of the normative. Just read Chaucer. Read Shakespeare!

So that is an interesting thing about how Russian is– yes, an empire, but a very young one. As a result, you can actually see [in Russian literature] what happened in English literature before it became so goddamn organized. And that is useful for a poet to watch these things, to smell them, because any poet is a creature of the senses. Any poet wants to speak in images, in line breaks, in assonances and alliterations, and not in the “proper,” normative language of the time. The last thing a poet needs is the kind of monumental thinking the empire loves. For a poet, becoming a monument is death. The poet wants to forever be a shape-shifter.

MMW: I’m fascinated by how Deaf Republic seems to combine elements of so many genres we don’t often encounter in contemporary American poetry: the puppet drama, the Greek tragedy (with its chorus of witnesses), the parable or folk tale, and the prayer, among others. How did you think about genre in crafting this book? Are we, as readers, meant to read this hybrid work as not just a conversation with the current moment, but also a conversation with earlier modes of representing community and resistance?

IK: You ask about breaking rules—but we poets don’t really have rules. Rules are for people who want to tell us what to do.

What we have, as poets, is patterns: creating expectation, defying expectation, creating a chorus, surprising it with a break out of a solo voice: a conversation between a chorus and a solo voice, a tension. In painting, we have a mixture of colors that allows us to see what we don’t otherwise see. No many how many thousands portraits there are of Madonna and the Child: the last thing the painter is interested in is the story. It is all in how the colors and perspectives reveal the story. In sculpture, we have to keep cutting until we finally discover what there is inside that stone: what we saw in our mind’s eye before we saw the stone. What we discovered in the process, what changed our mind’s eye. It’s all about patterns in tension with mind, in tension with emotion, it is all about revealing something while a human being is in conversation with a medium of page/stone/paint.

Of course, when we teach literature, we teach in terms of genres—but as a writer, I don’t sit down and think, “OK, I’m going to write a lyric poem.” We think, “I have a desire to sing.” We don’t think, “I want to write a story.” We think, “I’m writing from the impulse of a child who’s enchanted by a story that a parent told, a child who still remembers that story and wants to come back to it.” That deep need to be enchanted by the storytelling voice. You don’t start from genre-as-defined-by-Norton-Anthology-or-Harold-Who-Knows-Everything-Bloom. You start with artistic impulse.

As for “hybrid genre”: it happens when you need to say something that cannot be said otherwise, something for which you don’t seem to find a ready-made form, but what needs to be said regardless. If you’re a refugee, that is pretty much your situation: established genres don’t get at what you want to say: you are not in Ukraine, you are not in America—how do you stop being an immigrant, even though you live here for over twenty years? That’s hybrid. The difficulty with hybrid genres is to create a pattern that speaks to both your Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish part and your American-living-nine-miles-from-the- border-in-San-Diego part.

In terms of hybrid genres [in Deaf Republic], I knew I wanted lyric poems in the book, and I knew I wanted a fairy tale, simply because I’m from Eastern Europe, where there’s a lot of fairy tales and fabulism—Isaac Babel, Sholem Aleichem—how can you not have fairy tales? Gogol, Kafka, nightmares and dreams and enchanting things and terrible things. What I found out is that Americans are not very different [from this]; we just don’t talk about it. And every time I do talk about it, people want to know about the Russian part of me, not about the San Diego part. And a good question is, why?

A lot of these genre questions for me are technical questions, having to do with poetic devices. Poets write in the language of poetic devices; they don’t write in English, or Russian, or Yiddish, or so on. The same way Marc Chagall thinks in red, green, and blue. The same way Rembrandt thinks in shadow. The challenge is to make that apparent to your reader. And it doesn’t matter how many people come to your reading; it matters what they hear, and what kind of clarity and mystery and understanding they have. A great poet, to my mind, is a very private person who happens to write well enough, beautifully enough, strangely enough, to speak privately to many people at the same time. That is where craft joins emotion—where your craft opens up your emotion to another person. Poems might contain information, but they’re not about information. A poem is not about an event; it is an event.

MMW: In addition to being a celebrated poet, you’re also a prolific translator and a cultural impresario of poetry in translation. Do you find that there is such a thing as “thinking translationally” – i.e., thinking like a translator? And does that mode of thinking inform or influence how you write your own poetry?

IK: : These days, I tell my students to read poetry from around the world for sensibility, and to read poetry written before the twentieth century for music, because we tend to be focused on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, simply because we all want to know what our contemporaries are doing, and we want to participate in that community. And, that is natural, and wonderful. But since we write in a medium that has so much to do with music and silence, we need to know the history of the music of the language we are writing in, in order to be in control of the medium (which is why reading the poems from before 20th century is useful). And we need to be open to sensibilities from outside of the medium (which is why it is useful to read work in translation).

One problem (among many) of being in an empire is that the rest of the rest of the world knows exactly what we are doing, and we don’t know much about other literatures around the world. There was a little bit of an opening maybe five years ago, but not nearly enough… and now at least four major presses have publicly announced that they’re no longer publishing translations.

Only three percent of literature that is published in English, from around the world, is literature in translation. Now, if you live in Germany, for example, the number is much, much larger. That’s just one example. But that tells you about how our publishing industry happens to be—and how dangerous that is. Obviously, that is dangerous politically (look at that self-admiring Moron-in-Chief in Washington DC), but also aesthetically—and on a human level. How narrow-minded we’ve become.

On a personal level—me, sitting here, talking to you—I’m hungry! I want to eat! And if you’re a writer, you eat books. So, you want books that surprise you, books that wake you up, books that say something that makes you organize silences in your mouth a little bit differently. Reading literature from around the world definitely influences me. And I’m happy for it.

MMW: Lastly, I want to pick up on what you said earlier, about how “people want to know about the Russian part of [you], not about the San Diego part.” That makes me curious to ask you about English. You mentioned how highly regimented and rule-bound the English language is, and how great poets transform or transcend the restrictions of English. What are some ways that you feel English could stand to be transformed? What are some kinds of transformations you are interested inin your own work, or in the poetry of others?

IK: I’ll just give a few examples. Gertrude Stein, for instance. People very rarely talk about the fact that Gertrude Stein’s first language was not English. In her childhood, she did not speak English; she spoke Yiddish. But she heard English all around her. Think about the poetry of Gertrude Stein. It’s poetry written from the perspective of somebody who doesn’t want to make sense by meaning but wants to make sense by sound, by syntax, by sentence. Her perspective on English, as a non-native speaker, created one of the most radical modernists we have– and she pretty much followed that perspective all the way, as far as she could take it.

This perspective is easy to understand for someone who is a non-native speaker of English. Think about how sometimes you go to a performance, and there’s music, somebody is singing– and you understand the words, and you’re crying. Sometimes, you go to a performance, and there’s music, and nobody is singing– and you’re still crying. The point is that the meaning doesn’t have to be the only vehicle for emotion. The music of the speech, the images of the speech, are vehicles for emotion.

But it is not just in Stein. You can see it in Pound, in Eliot, in [William Carlos] Williams. In his poem, “To a Poor Old Woman,” about the old woman eating plums, he repeats the line “They taste good to her” in all different ways. It’s really like a non-native speaker trying to say more than one thing through exactly the same sentence, just by means of music. And, of course, William’s mother was born in Puerto Rico. Or take Shakespeare— the monologue in which King Lear—that mad, blind, old disgraced king holds his now dead daughter Cordelia in his arms. What does he say? He doesn’t speak in a normative sentence. He says, “Never, never, never, never, never.” It’s not supposed to make sense, and yet it does.

As a native speaker or a non-native speaker, we all have grief, and we all have the question of how to deal with it. We all have joy, and we all have the question, “Why do you even need language, if you’re feeling joy? Why are we even having this conversation if we could go dancing?” And, if so: what language can express that, and how.