This interview was requested by Chinese Poetry Quarterly in China after Ilya Kaminsky’s poems were published first in Poetry Forest Bimonthly in 2010 Issue #6 (which were re-published in Poetry Monthly (China) in its Issue #6 of 2012).
Chinese translation of the interview was published in Chinese Poetry Quarterly, Issue #2 2011, along with 12 poems.
An Interview with Ilya Kaminsky
by Ming Di
Ming Di: When we left Santa Monica beach with Nikola last night, you said “I like America but I don’t like what it does to others.” I didn’t ask you to elaborate on that as I was focused on driving at that time, but what you said haunted me for a while. I have mixed feelings too about America as well as China. I never write about “my country”, as I don’t feel belonging anywhere even though my “heart” is sometimes where I am physically absent from. Ilya, tell me what you feel about “country”, “home”, “homeland”, “native language”… and how they impact your writing.
Ilya Kaminsky: To say that United States of America is modern-day Roman Empire is to say what everyone already knows.
The locals in Rome lived a life of relative comfort—there was access to culture, there was food. All this was supported by conquest of other territories, other nations, other humans.
Roman empire has produced many things that were valuable to modern civilization. But at what cost to other nations?
This is the question anyone living in the USA today, particularly its authors, should be asking.
Why authors? The answer to that lies in the works of Paul Celan and B. Brecht, and anyone who haven’t read their books shouldn’t be wasting time reading my interview, but instead go to the library and check under “C” and “B.” The writer is the secretary to the invisible, as Milosz used to say, and is also a secretary to truth, and beauty, I believe, however one decides to define those vague terms.
What is beauty? Didn’t Mao write poems? Didn’t Stalin? Wasn’t Hitler a painter? Well, as Joseph Brodsky used to say, “their kill list was longer than their reading list.” Anyone who reads and writes books should attempt to see with clarity the world they live in, pay taxes in, support by mere being there. Not everyone is guilty, Dostoevsky used to say, but everyone is responsible.
To give even more precise answer to how I feel about living in San Diego, California, USA, in our time, here is a poem:
We Lived Happily During the War
and when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun
in the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money, in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
Don’t get me wrong: on a very deep and profound level, American can be an extremely generous, kind, beautiful country. This does not mean, however, that we should close our eyes to the enormous sense of darkness that this very same country has caused in the larger world.
What is native land? – the answer is: I do not feel that I lived in Russia. I lived in childhood.
Do I live in America? I live in my family.
What is citizenship? The citizenship a writer desires is that among other writers, in my case, that would include Akhmatova, Mandelstam, but also Ovid, Auden, Li Po, Villon, Dickinson, Valejo, Issa, Cavafy, and so on. Those are the voices that make one’s life interesting, in my case, at any rate, voices of heart’s desire.
As you can see, I struggle with these questions. Perhaps this is so because I grew up on the Russian poetic tradition, with a famous line of Nekrasov’s hanging over it: “one may or may not be a poet, but one must be a citizen first.”
And, this is, perhaps, where I should combine all my answers: I prefer to be the citizen of childhood. I prefer to be the citizen in the language I hear around me (in this case, English). This does not mean that such a citizen should not be concerned with such things as “truth” and “beauty” – this only means that I declare allegiance to the sky, to earth, to elements, and to my neighbors, past and present, who live among those elements. The “citizenship” is a beautiful word (what word isn’t beautiful?). It is the citizenship of one planet. As an immigrant, I have no other answer.
MD: I totally agree with your concept of citizenship. Allow me to move on to “exile”. “Exile” is an important theme in poetry and literature in general of the last century, and also a constant personal subject matter for many writers with Jewish background. We’ve talked about it before but I’m always interested in finding out how you feel and if there are any changes in your feelings and thoughts. Personally I’ve never considered myself as “exile” even though my decision to stay in America was triggered by the 1989 incident in China. I’m more interested in “exile” as a human condition since the beginning of “civilization”. And I’m more puzzled by the forever fighting between Jewish (along with the overwhelming western world) and Arabic world. Can you share your true feelings and inner thoughts on this sensitive subject (even if they maybe politically incorrect)?
IK: Judaism, for me, is a cultural condition, not a religious condition. It is the culture of Sholem Aleichem and Isaak Babel and I. B. Singer and countless others. While I do consider myself a believer, I do not believe in praying in a group, which makes any organized religion, with its dogmas irrelevant to my being here on this planet.
You cannot exile someone who is the “other” in the given culture. You cannot exile a Black person from USA where racism is still an issue. Similarly you cannot exile a Jew from Russia. Simply because they are already “the other”. I did not grow up in a religious family. I found out that I was Jewish simply because someone hit me in the face and said “dirty Jew” – and there is no complaint in this statement; it is simply a fact of my life. And the exile is a word for a human condition in general, yes, but I feel at home when I am by the ocean or at the public market where tomatoes and apples and pears and fish are sold, and I am at home on crowded trains and when I read poetry at the top of my voice in the middle of the night, and my cats gather around me as if to console me, and my sleeping wife, from another room, yells, “Kaminsky, shut up!” Yes, this is home. “Home” is just as interesting a term as “exile” and I prefer, often, to focus on the changing meanings and various metamorphosis of that word. It lacks sentimentality and allows the world to enter the human voice. I am not interested in withdrawing from the world of others. Human beings are precious.
MD: Nikola Madzirov said yesterday that he would feel betraying himself if he were to write about his childhood in English, he had to write in Macedonian. Personally I don’t feel so strongly about what language to use especially when I look at the past from a distance and think about it in English. Still, I write in Chinese, but for a different reason – I can only make poems more subtle in my native language. But Ilya, you can think rationally, imagine wildly and speak persuasively in English – your poetry and everything about you shows. When do you write in English and when in Russian? What makes you decide what language to use? Were you ever afraid of losing Russian – I mean losing the ability to write poetry in Russian? Besides personal ambition, readership and the initial motivation of writing poetry in a different language when your father passed away, were there any other factors involved in your decision? Or was it action without decision? Or as they say poets are looking for an Esperanto? You edit the Poetry International and you stay abreast of what’s going on in other countries, do you think we would understand each other better if we all write in one language? Or the other way round, we would understand each other better if we write in different and unique languages?
IK: My current writing in English has very little to do with ambition. When my father died in 1994, I was seventeen years old. Writing poetry about his death in the language he taught me, making “beautiful” rhymes about it didn’t feel right. I knew, also, that such a thing would hurt my family—not because my family was in any way opposed to my writing, in fact, they were very supportive, but because it felt like a betrayal to make an art out of the breath of someone whose warm breath, only some days or weeks ago, was next to mine, and now was just the page, the pen, the rhyme.
It felt wrong.
But writing demanded itself from my body, my mouth, my fingers, my days. And, English was there, all around me, a language I was learning to speak, the language I had to speak to go through the day around me on the street, in school, in the grocery, and so, without my willing it, without my full awareness of it, the poems in English, about my father, were already on my lips, I was writing notes with images, and sounds on paper-napkins, on bus tickets, on milk and bread receipts.
That is how my writing in English began, and then I realized that this gave me one last chance to speak to my father still—it was a private language, a language no one in my family knew, a language I was making as I went in it, it was my world of words and I could speak to someone no longer alive in it as if giving him a voice, if only for a moment, that different reality was there with me, with us.
It was a beautiful freedom. It still is.
As for your other questions—
It is never a choice, for me, in what language to write. If such a choice had to be made, then the language wouldn’t be natural, in my experience. It has to do with a language around me, a language I hear in the streets, in crowds, in newspapers, from neighbors yelling at each other, from my wife whispering to my cats, from the world I know. That is the language I respond in, to that world.
To write in Russian, I will need to live in that country.
And, one day, at least for some years, I hope to do so. It would be a wonderful thing. And, I look forward to it.
Of course, Russian is still very much a huge part of my days. It is the language I speak to my mother, my brother, my nephews. It is the language of my memory, of my childhood.
English is the language of my wife, the language of love, of friendships, of adulthood, of freedom of movement from one place to another, one city to another, a language I hear in the streets.
Ambition has very little to do with any of it.
Lyric poets aren’t ambitious for great audiences. My audience includes the dead poets I admire. I write for Shakespeare and Dante and Ovid and Mandelstam and Sappho and Wang Wei, and whoever wrote Gilgamesh. Those are the people sitting in the front row of my imagination. I don’t bow to the past. Instead, I bring them into the future, teach them how to live in my moment in time. That sort of a conversation (and, by no means a reverence, we slap each other on the face all the time!) is necessary for a lyric poet to grow.
If this is ambition, then, yes, I am ambitious.
As for audiences—well, I think that a lyric poet is someone who is a very private person, and their poetry becomes great poetry only if they in their privacy are able to craft a language interesting enough, magical enough, to speak privately to many people at the same time.
MD: You seem to know a lot about contemporary Chinese poetry, you must be also aware of the literary influence Chinese poets received – among the western literary traditions Russian poetry was a huge influence – as of today Chinese poets still talk about the Russian poets of the Silver age. Can you introduce some outstanding Russian poets (I mean poets of Russian language) at present time and the current poetry scene in Ukraine? How do you keep in touch with the poets of your generation in your homeland? I remember you once said you don’t want to go back there as a tourist. But you’ve been back through your poetry, right? Your poems have been translated into Russian, do poets in Ukraine identify you as “one of them” or they think you write very differently? How different?
IK: Russian poetry today isn’t as strong as Russian poetry of Silver age, in my opinion, and yet, there are many marvelous voices. Some really good poets of the 70s and 80s include such voices as Brodsky, of course, but also Lev Loseff, Elena Shvarts, Sapgir, Prigov, Rein, Zhdanov and others.
Except for Rein and Zhdanov all of those voices have died in the past few years, but there are relatively newer poets, such as Gandelsman. There is a good website, www.vavilon.ru, which will lead you to find many new names in contemporary Russian poetry.
As for Ukrainians and Byelorussians, there is a real new wave, with such authors as Zabuzhko, for instance, and Andrukhovich and Bondar, Zhadan, Lysheha and others. The brightest star of contemporary Byelorussian poetry is Valzhyna Mort, and for a good reason. Her new book, recently translated into English, The Factory of Tears, is a marvel—alive, powerful, compelling. This is one of the voices that will enter and change world literature in the years to come.
As for my presence in those languages: I currently write in English. My poems have been translated in both Russian and Ukrainian and there have been articles in Russia that speak about the poetry of Russian diaspora which may exist in Russian language, of course, but also outside it. I let critics speak about those things. Myself, I prefer to write poems.
Russian literature is something I grew up with, it is the literature of my childhood. No one can take it away from me. It is the language of poetry to live with.
Ukrainian literature is something I always loved, and something I always look at with fascination and interest. It is the language of my birthplace.
As for the country where I was born: it no longer exists.
To answer your other questions:
I do not think that there is anything at all unusual in Chinese writers’ interest in literatures from other countries. Poetry cannot grow without intersections with other poetics, other ways of creating metaphors, sounds, images, rhetorical play. Literatures thrive on influences. Bei Dao’s work is clearly influenced by Mandelstam and Caesar Vallejo. Mandelstam, in turn, was influenced by the Greeks and Dante. Dante was influenced by Roman poets and of course the Bible. Bible also influenced Walt Whitman, who in turn influenced Appolinaire, Milosz, Salamun, Yona Wallach, and countless others. Yes, a poet who revolted against Whitman, Ezra Pound, was someone who went to study the Chinese tradition. Pound made countless embarrassing mistakes with his cultural tourism, and yet his wild passion for the “otherness” expanded the traditions of his own language. This list can go in any direction, in time or geography or even gender and other dimensions of human existence. People love to gossip about their neighbors, to copy other’s window curtains arrangements, food recipes, lawn-mowers. Literatures aren’t different, they are living, breathing beings, and thrive of couplings. Literatures are erotic, ecstatic, neurotic, and out of their restlessness, beauty is born.
Of course, there is no such thing as a bland, colorless “international” poetry – every poetic tradition has its own various approaches to music, to tone, to images, and so on. Yet the conversation with other literatures allows a writer to stop looking in the mirror and open the window. That is how a human mind begins to grow.
MD: I used the word “western” in the previous question but I realize there are different ways to define “east” and “west”. Traditionally we define the terms by their geographical meanings, but China, former Russia, and Macedonia share certain ideological thinking, and even France where Helena Cardona was from had Paris Commune in 1871. Here we are, four people form four countries, sitting in a diner in Santa Monica. I was happy to be with your guys because we hold a common passport, poetry. Yet within something “common” there are many different shades of colors, some of which define a collective “cultural mark” or national/ethnic tradition. Yes, you do sound very “Russian” – it was very nice to listen to your reading again yesterday. How important is it to you to carry on a certain tradition vs. to maintain a personal voice? More than other poets you identify your ancestors in your poetry. Here in America you have an Americanized Russian style, unique and fresh. But do you sometimes make an effort to stay away form your “tradition” or even away from your established personal style? Do you try to make each poem a new beginning? Or is it important to keep a certain “water mark”?
IK: I don’t think in terms of tradition. I have a personal relationship with every poem I love. With every word I love. With every sound I love. It is like marriage. We argue, with yell, with kiss, with sleep together. Yes, there are days I can’t stand Pasternak. I spit in his direction, his narcissisms. There are other days I recite his poems at the top of my voice from memory for hours and hours. It is true for any other poet or poem I enter, or any other poem that enters my body. I love having this erotic, yes, and also ecstatic relationship with literature.
As for a reading style. I don’t think much about it. Anyone who doesn’t know Russian language and English language but goes on youtube.com and listens to the tapes of Ezra Pound or Yeats as well as tapes of say Brodsky or another Russian poet, won’t necessarily make a difference between their traditions, their voices. Of course, there are very subtle differences, very specific curiosities, strangeness, but at the end of the day, it is a naked human voice standing the forest of time, and speaking to us about the pure being. Which is to say: lyric.
MD: I like your passionate and lyrical voice in argument above, which is to me very Russian, something that runs in Russian music too. I’m not trying to stereotyping you, it is actually the way I listen and catch subtle differences. To say the least, you have a quality that many American poets don’t have. Now, what is the number one thing you like about current American poetry?
IK: Aesthetic diversity and restlessness.
MD: And what is the number one thing you don’t like about it (if there is any)?
IK: Lack of basic education among many contemporary poets. It is not at all unusual to have a conversation with a prominent contemporary poet who will tell me, with a sense of a strange pride: “I have never read Goethe, and I am proud of it.” I think that is wrong. I think ignorance is wrong. I am open to all sorts of opinions and judgments, but I am not open to ignorance.
MD: Does it bother you?
IK: Bothers me? No. It bores me. Ignorance is boring.
MD: What do you do to make a change?
IK: I tell people that poetry demands more than imitating stand-up-comedians in poems. There is a beautiful and very large world out there and US poets would do well to open their eyes and see it for what it is.
MD: Or do you really think you could make a change?
IK: On one side, there is no need for a lyric poet to be an activist. On the other side, as a human being, one longs for a conversation.
MD: As for yourself, what do you intend to do after you complete the “Deaf Republic”?
IK: I don’t think of my poetry in terms of books. “Deaf Republic” is very much related to “Dancing In Odessa”. Next book will be related as well. It is a life long journey.
MD: How do combine personal experience with a broader view of life, of being?
IK: Frankly, I don’t separate them. Levinas, an interesting French philosopher of later 20th century argues for life of the spirit and life of social justice as something that isn’t separate. I find that notion appealing. It for me, though, comes not from Levinas but from older prophets. Issiah, for example. I don’t believe in their dogmas, but I find their wild and deeply spiritual need for justice in the world to be quite beautiful.
MD: What is the most attractive thing about poetry that makes you keep writing?
IK: It makes me feel alive. I find language to be wildly erotic, ecstatic activity.
MD: And what do you think poetry can do in spite of everything?
IK: I don’t make wild proclamations about poetry. But if it has saved one human being—me, in this case, — it certainly, — in spite of everything—can save others. Poetry is the art of teaching a human being to pay attention to the world. And, as Paul Celan used to say: attention is a natural prayer of the human soul.
I find that notion very appealing.
And, yet, for me, poetry isn’t merely a serene activity of a seeker in solitude, it is also an activity of the senses, a wild discovery of the world through senses embodied in language. Poet, Lorca used to say, is a professor of five bodily senses.
That, too, is a notion I find to be true, in my life.
And, yet, a poet is hardly an ideal human being. We see a moment of light, in a poem, in a line, in a combination of two words, two letters even, perhaps, and then— then— then— that moment is gone. Yes, gone. And, we see the empty page in front of us again. And we don’t have any answers. A poet does not know the truth, but seeks it, desperately, perhaps, passionately, of course, with joy, yes, there is a seeking for a poem, a word, an image, that makes the world clearer, if only for a moment.
Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, former USSR and arrived in the United States in 1993 when his family received asylum from the American government. He is the author of Dancing in Odessa, which won a number of awards, including American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, Whiting Writers Award, Lannan Foundation’s Fellowship, and others. He currently lives in San Diego, California, where he and his wife both teach at the Creative Writing Program at SDSU.