Ilya Kaminsky on poetry, performance, and the personal.


Ilya Kaminsky is a poet born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa in 1977. Kaminsky is fluent in both Russian and English, having emigrated to the United States at the age of sixteen, and he has written poems in both languages. The manuscript of Kaminsky’s forthcoming collection, ‘Deaf Republic’(2019) was awarded Poetry magazine's Levinson Prize and the Pushcart Prize. He was recently nominated for the Neusdadt International Literature Prize.

This interview was first published in Black Market Re-View #5

Interestingly, Dancing in Odessa is dedicated to your family but there are also poems about other writers (Akhmatova, Brodsky, Celan, Mandlestam, etc.). What was the experience of combining these various sources of inspiration?

I grew up in a country that was atheist, and the writers were held in a slightly higher regard then they are in the West. Writers like Akhmatova, with a story of her standing outside the prison gates, approached a level of national myth, as almost every family (including my own) had someone standing outside the prison gates. So, in many ways, these sources weren’t various at all. They were unified by historical situation they all found themselves in. The relationship between history and privacy, between country and childhood, between literature and myth, between myth and chronicle are usually also the relationships between phrases and/or characters in the book.

Memory and forgetting co-exist as important themes in the book. Have you found that your time in America has allowed you to access your Ukrainian childhood through memory alone? As your life in America progresses, how do you stay connected to Odessa and your Ukrainian upbringing?

I left when I was 16, by Ukrainian standards very much an adult. I had a job as a journalist at that time, and most of my friends already had children. Hard to imagine, by contemporary Western standards, but that is how it was in the Ukraine of 1990s.

But coming into a different language was a kind of second childhood, yes. That so-called Adamic task of the lyric poet, of naming each thing anew, is something every child does, and also something every recent immigrant is forced to do. Childhood, in the book, was also the way of being alive again, and if there is any freshness in that book, it is probably because of this; the language is seen for the first time, and so is the world it names.

As for my connection to Odessa and Ukraine today—I go back almost every year, these days. It is a country at war, and also the party city that parties around its literary history (Odessa is a city of literary tourism; the writer Isaak Babel is something of George Washington in those parts).So, the wild mix of drunken joy of tourists and high style literature is blended together with actual war refugees and stories of real-life bombardments and terrorists attacks. People are burned in buildings alive and in the next street there is a wedding. This is Odessa today.

But then, in the United States, boys are shot in the streets, crazy millionaire is the president, and every single politician of some note is sold out to this or that corporation. All poets of reknown also teach as college professors, and talk more or less in the same way.

Now, you tell me: what world is more surreal?
The truth is, the answer to that question matters little. What matters are the sounds, images, different ways of perception that sometime, often against themselves, light our way to what might be—perhaps—a semblance of truth, of recognition.

We listened to you reading Musica Humana and I was wondering if you rehearse your readings and, if so how? How much of any reading involves aspects of character and improvisation?

I don’t rehearse readings. I really don’t believe in public readings, and/or performances of literature. I find attending most such events almost physically painful. Perhaps this is because I can’t hear what those speakers say? Or because most speakers read as if they really don’t give shit about they words they impose on us? Either way, I find myself struggling with how all of this is in line with capitalism, with read-to-sell-more-books structure in the Western world.

On some fundamental level, perhaps because of that situation from my childhood I described above, wherein writers were considered to be a bit more than mere scribblers, literature is still a holy activity for me. Perhaps because I am a foolish man. Or for the luck of anything else holly that is at least somewhat believable and not marred by scandal of some sort (e.g. I am not one to follow a religion, since I see most contemporary religions as mere corporations). There is something in literature that still moves me, on fundamental level, that still changes my life, who I am as a man in these streets, among these trees.

And if writing and reading changes you so, then reading poems isn’t merely reading poems, it is something else. Or, at least, should be so.

Improvisation, a word from your question, is an interesting word. If you mean it interms of theatre improv, I could care less. But if you mean this as a way of probing the possibility of language with one’s throat, that is more interesting to me. The poem is already written, it is on the page. Yet, no poem, in its finality, is ever written, is ever, absolute. (God is absolute). So, one tries, with one’s voice, to go elsewhere, to probe further. So, in my readings, the syntax would often change, the lines would get longer or shorter, the possibility of engagement a bit further, a bit longer, a bit deeper, is something that makes the readings of poems aloud more interesting for me, more bearable.

You arrived in America and learnt the language in order to write there. Did this develop new themes for your work?

I didn’t learn a language in order to write. I learned a language in order to ask: how do I go to the bathroom? Where can I buy water? How much is this apple? Who is next in line? Will you forgive me? Will you fall in love with me? Will you not hurt me? And, by the way, where is the trolley stop #4?

I began to write poetry in English for a very personal reason, which I do not need to go in here other than to say someone I love died and I couldn’t write about that person’s passing in Russian, my native language. That would feel like a betrayal. English gave a chance of make-believe world, a chance of a world—if only in my imagination—without death. A world that has joy of new sounds, a joy of naming words anew for each thing one sees around one’s body in this world.

In a single sentence, can you define your poetics or writing process?

It has to be alive on the page; words, Emerson said, are animals.

You are a lyric poet and also a nomadic poet who transcends the singularity of experience. How do these things work together (or apart) in your writing? Are you aware of a single, fixed self in your poetics?

I don’t quite believe that a lyric poet = singularity of experience. A notion of nomadic poet (I assume you mean Pierre Joris definition from his book on the subject) is still something very vague; sounds pretty, but isn’t convincing. Who is to say that Emily Dickinson wasn’t nomadic in her travels from one gravestone to another, in that cemetery, fifty four steps from her living room. Who is to say that each of us doesn’t undertake a nomadic journey from our mother’s body to some hole in the earth?

As for a lyric poet: I think this is someone who is a very private person, whose language is beautiful enough, strange enough, spellbinding enough, that it can speak privately to many people at the same time. If that definition is correct, then a lyric poet very naturally transcends the singularity of experience just by a virtue of being a lyric poet.

St Petersburg, Odessa, the US. This book travels through multiple places and landscapes. How far does place displace us? How does this affect aspects of voice (or voicings) in your work?

Place is (or can be) a myth, like anything else that you allow to hold a magnetic pull over your chestbox. And, yet, place is physical, it is visible, you can touch it, bite it, spit at it. It is a myth— e.g. imagination—standing right in front of us, around us, above and below us. Yes, it can displace us. That is why most writers of place are exiles. They re-write the place so that it can’t re-write them.

Did you publish poems in Russian? How are they different to your poems in English?

I used to. But I come from a very specific tradition in Russian poetry (Odessa school, or Southern Russian school of literature, as described by Shklovsy once) which is very much based on the senses. Spanish poet Lorka said something elsewhere that might as well describe Odessa school: poet is a professor of five senses.

Which, for me, means, the ability of going to a market and trying tomatoes and overhearing a new word, spoken by someone who visits in that market. And then getting in a fist-fight in a bar and hearing new slurs and shouts and curses that were made up, just now, in that fist-fight, in that bar, for the first time every. Language is alive, words are animals.

But if you live away from the place where that language is spoken, the thing soon becomes artificial. I am not interested in museums’ neat expositions. I am interested in bar-fights. Which is why writing in a language I don’t live in the midst of doesn’t quite work for me. Which is not to say it can’t be done. Nabokov and Co are glorious examples of the above being untrue for others. But everyone has to find their own truth. This is mine.

You famously once declared to Carolyn Forche in a workshop: ‘my name is Ilya Kaminsky and I write for god’. How much do you worry about a reader’s perception of your work? Where does the idea of an audience arrive for you in the composition of a poem?

I don’t give a shit about audience. I would like to find out why I am alive, what is the purpose of being here, how and why (and why not) do we fall in love, kill each other, help each other, destroy the world around us, buy each other flowers. I assume others are already interested in these questions so they will be interested in the work. But if not, who cares? Language for me is a way to salvation, whatever that might mean. I am not interested in being a low-level entertainer or academic who presents to a dozen other academics. Life is too short for that. Language is too beautiful for that. There is too much joy to waste on things like worrying about audience. I am much more interested in astonishement, in bewilderment, in tragedy, in empathy—and how all of them can be slightly heightened, surprised, probed or disturbed, in our minds, and in our mouths, by sounds, images, turns of phrase. What these turns of phrase reveal to us about the nature of our kind.

In Dancing In Odessa, the poems seem to come from a very personal place. Do you ever feel that your poems are more about emotional catharsis than about the work itself? Would you ever choose not to publish a poem because it is too personal?

Excuse me, but if writers were worried about things like this, we would never had Greek drama wherein mothers slay their children, we would never had the Old Testament wherein brothers kill brothers, we would never have Gilgamesh—the very first epic story a human kind possesses—that begins with a prostitute and proceeds with a moving recounting of the love of two gay men. What the fuck is personal? Are the bones in our bodies too personal? Are lungs? Get a life.

Well, of course, this is an over-the-top response to a very lovely question. But what I am trying to say is: nothing is too personal or too impersonal. The real question is: how do we frame it? What does it tell us about ourselves, as a kind, as a species? Any sound, image, story, any turn of phrase has a chance to aim at metaphysics, to go deeper. There are no forbidden sounds or stories or themes. Whoever tells you otherwise is constipated and needs to take a pill.

What you want to ask, instead, how do we take these things-- often very uncomfortable things that humans do to other humans-- and try to find some kind of truth from the shock of life we live, from the stunning of our acts, our intimacies, or expectations. Google what Dickinson says about her take on reading poetry (e.g. the top of her head going off) what Kafka says (eg the axe for the frozen in all of us) and ask yourself what is it that literature does to wake you up. An interviewer once asked a great Polish poet, Zbegnew Herbert: what is the purpose of poetry? And, the man responded: To wake up.

Of course, it would be all too presumptuous for me to say that I have done that—in Dancing in Odessa, or elsewhere. That's for others to decide. But I can tell you what I wanted to do, what I still want to do, why literature isn't a mere pleasantry for me, isn't just work (what the fuck is "work"?) but but an ecstatic activity. I am more interested in literature as a way to the unknowable, literature as Job might define it, as Isaiah might define it, as Dickinson or Celan or Ceisaire or Tsvetaeva might. Everything else is for academics. And life is too short for that.

Kaminsky’s latest collection, Deaf Republic is published in the US by Graywolf Press and will be released in the UK by Faber and Faber in summer 2019.

This interview was conducted over email in October 2017, with questions by Abigail Cox, Alicia Caples, Amy Connolly, Eve Lewis, Daniel Smith, Mostyn Jones, Madison Corthell, Dylan Booth, Jessica Hughes, Sonyun Shin and James Byrne