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Q&A with Ilya Kaminsky, Ukrainian-American poet, translator, and professor

<h5>Courtesy of Ilya Kaminsky</h5>
Courtesy of Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky is a hard-of-hearing Ukrainian-American poet, translator, and professor. He emigrated from Odessa after the fall of the USSR and lives in California. He is known for his collections “Dancing in Odessa” and “Deaf Republic. Among his many commendations, he was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has been named one of the “12 Artists who changed the world” by the BBC.

On Thursday, Feb. 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. At the same time, Kaminsky was giving a poetry talk at Princeton University, sponsored by the Program in Creative Writing. This in-person interview was conducted the following day.

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The interview has been edited for clarity and concision. 

The Daily Princetonian: Have you heard from your friends and family in Ukraine? If so, how have they been holding up?

Ilya Kaminsky: I have heard from my cousin in Odessa. He’s worried and afraid but safe, as far as I know. I have tried to contact my uncle, but I have not heard back. He’s also in Odessa. I have heard from friends who are in Odessa and Kyiv who are in similar situations. Some people in Kyiv are trying to leave because Kyiv is being attacked right now. Some others are trying to leave towards the Polish border.

DP: If you could only say one thing in this interview, what would it be?

IK: I would say “pay attention.” A lot of things are happening. What you see happening in Ukraine is imperialism — colonialism. But our country [the United States] often does the same thing elsewhere as well. Pay attention, do what you can.

DP: How has your experience in Ukraine and America impacted the way you see the world and your work?

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IK: Well to begin with, right now on TV, everybody sees the images of violence and panic. And that is true, that is the reality of this moment. But Ukraine is also a beautiful country. It’s the country with the largest population [outside of Russia] in [Eastern] Europe — 44 million people. It is a country that goes back centuries into the past. It’s a country where people speak multiple languages. It is a country that survived really unspeakable things, [like] wars, man-made famines...

But I wouldn’t want to just focus on the negative because it wouldn’t do justice to people who live there. Just this morning, I’ve been in touch with somebody in Odessa. The person told me that they were afraid, but they also said it was a really quiet, sunlit morning for a moment. And there’s a lyric perception in that. And I don’t want to downplay it and just focus on the violence that Putin wants us to see. Because violence is the language that power wants us to see. And you as a human want to see many different kinds and registers of language expressed.

Also, the war in Ukraine did not start today. It started at minimum in 2014, when Crimea was taken, when the war began in Donbas.

DP: What is your approach to writing? What are your “obsessions,” and how do you seek to communicate them in your work?

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IK: I will say that in my first book, “Dancing in Odessa,” there’s a long poem about the Russian modernist poet, Osip Mandelstam. The poem is called, “Musica Humana.” It’s a poem that tries to ask, “What does it mean to be human? And what language can be found for a time of crisis?” That question, I think, is still one of my obsessions.

DP: In being deeply connected to two places — Ukraine and America — you’re also deeply connected to the suffering and joys in each. How do you live with the fact that there can be so much suffering and so much joy at the same time?

IK: I was about 16, a little younger, when the Soviet Union fell apart. Even before Putin, there was the first Russian “humanitarian aid” campaign. Moldova had a war, and the Russian army entered a breakaway region called Pridnestrovie. In years before that, during the Soviet Union, my family traveled to Pridnestrovie, about 40 minutes from Odessa, to buy a refrigerator. So now in the 1990s in the middle of the night, there’s a knock at our door. A man is screaming outside, “There is war in Pridnestrovie! I hopped in my car in my pajamas. I delivered you your new refrigerator two years ago, do you remember me? I want to make a phone call.” So that is an image of violence that I still carry in my head. What happens next is, here I am, nearly 30 years later, still watching that man in pajamas, on the phone, being tender to his own kid, trying to console his kid over the phone. That is how war entered my mind for the first time. So, a time of violence, yes, but there was also this act of tenderness, of a person trying to console a child.

We must remember that even in the most difficult situations, people are still able to retain their humanity. They fall in love, they marry, and they have children. We must honor that too, and not just speak of the darkness of war. We must honor human survival, because if we don’t do this, if we don’t pay attention to every aspect, we dehumanize the suffering. And frankly, in the empire we’re currently in, tragedies happen daily too. Our neighbors can find themselves in a similar situation at any moment. So let’s pay attention.

DP: Yesterday during your talk, you discussed translation. Why do you think reading works in translation is important?

IK: Translation allows us to see the world from different perspectives, to hear all stories, and to hear them in very different ways. My metaphor for this is: if you don’t have a translation in a literature, if not much has been translated into English, we end up having a kind of tradition that keeps looking in the mirror. A translator is somebody who opens a window and allows us to see outside of this particular tradition. It’s nice to be in a house with many different windows! It’s terrific to be in conversation. It’s especially important in the place we live, so we don’t start believing in our own propaganda, which unfortunately we have a lot of.

DP: You also mentioned that people with disabilities have a lot to contribute through sharing their stories. Would you be able to talk more about this and about what you feel your works have contributed?

IK: I won’t speak about myself, but I do want to speak about the term called Deaf Gain. That is a term that is used by scholars in the community as a kind of way to identify how a particular culture, in this case, Deaf culture, contributes to the larger world. Deaf people have a great and diverse Deaf culture. There’s a language of the Deaf in the USA, called ASL. There are sign languages in most other countries too. Deaf Gain in disability studies is asking a simple question: has this particular condition contributed to humanity at large? And the answer is, yes, of course.

Specifically, in the field of linguistics, Deaf culture has taught us that language is not limited to speech alone. And that’s a huge game-changer in that field. But also in most fields, since, as you know, language is one of the primary aspects of our human condition.

DP: Final question: what gives meaning to your life?

IK: Sometimes this question, this very question: the search for meaning. There is a wonderful Greek-language modernist, Cavafy. He has a poem called “Ithaka.” It’s a poem about a hero’s return. And in the poem, he says, “Don’t hurry. Keep asking, keep traveling, keep looking. Because when you arrive, you will find nothing. And Ithaka did not lie to you. It gave you a beautiful journey.” So sometimes meaning is in the very questions. Any answer that I may give limits to that particular room of that answer. The question allows an open field because it can lead to another question.

In Odessa, we like to answer a question with a question. So that’s my recommendation. Princeton is a great university, and a part of education is asking questions. Also, I hope people don’t only think of other countries when there are bombardments or invasions happening. It is good for us to open up a little bit and to be restless. Don’t be afraid of restlessness. Restlessness is also part of the human condition. Sometimes it helps us to be more alive in the world. By “alive in the world” I mean “be full of senses.” A great poet of the Spanish language, Lorca, said that “a poet is a professor of five senses.”

I would end by saying, the project of the empires is to dull the senses. That’s why Putin is sending tanks to Ukraine. Ukraine is free; they question their own government, they have conversations. I’m not saying Ukraine is an easy country. It is not. But it is open. Putin is afraid of that. Same with the dictator in Belarus, Lukashenko, who is Putin’s ally. He’s very uncomfortable with Ukraine because it inspires his own people to protest. Ukraine is full of colors, full of senses, full of willingness to ask uncomfortable questions. Empire wants to dull the senses, but the purpose of a poet is to wake them up. 

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to reflect that Ukraine is not the most populous country in Europe. It is, in fact, the second largest country in Eastern Europe by population. 

Danielle Ranucci is a staff news writer who typically covers human interest stories. She can be reached at dranucci@princeton.edu or on Twitter @DanielleRanucci

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