Still Dancing: An Interview With Ilya Kaminsky

Garth Greenwell
From the March/April 2019 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

I first met Ilya Kaminsky more than two decades ago, when we were both undergraduates. Even before the publication of his first very beautiful book, Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004), Ilya’s brilliance was unmistakable. He was different from anyone I had ever met, in the breadth of his knowledge of the poetic canon across time and languages, in the intensity of his commitment to poetry as something more than an art, as a kind of unifying principle of existence. Shortly after Ilya published Dancing in Odessa, he began circulating among his friends a new manuscript, a kind of parable-in-poems about a country whose inhabitants suddenly go deaf, refusing to hear the authorities. Ilya produced version after version of this project, eventually titled Deaf Republic, over more than a decade, while editing anthologies and publishing translations, until it acquired a nearly legendary status among his fellow poets. Graywolf will publish it in early March. 

Ilya Kaminsky (Credit: Bob Mahoney)

Ilya was born in Odessa, in what was then the Soviet Union, in 1977. Substantially deaf from the age of four, he spoke no English when he immigrated to the United States with his family at sixteen. He studied at the University of Rochester and Georgetown University and has a JD from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. His honors include a Whiting Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Metcalf Award, a Lannan Fellowship, Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. His anthology of twentieth-century poetry in translation, Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, was published in 2010. He is also the editor in chief of the literary journal Poetry International. After several years teaching in the graduate creative writing program at San Diego State University, Ilya now holds the Bourne Poetry Chair at Georgia Tech. The following exchange was conducted via e-mail this past November and December; it also draws on conversations, many of them on long evening walks, from the month Ilya and I spent together in Marfa, Texas, in late 2016, as Ilya was finishing his manuscript.

What was the genesis of Deaf Republic? How did the idea of a country suddenly going deaf come to you?
I did not have hearing aids until I was sixteen: As a deaf child I experienced my country as a nation without sound. I heard the USSR fall apart with my eyes. 

Walking through the city, I watched the people; their ears were open all the time, they had no lids. I was interested in what sounds might be like. The whooshing. The hissing. The whistle. The sound of keys turning in the lock, or water moving through the pipes two floors above us. I could easily notice how the people around me spoke to one another with their eyes without realizing it. 

But what if the whole country was deaf like me? So that whenever a policeman’s commands were uttered no one could hear? I liked to imagine that. Silence, that last neighborhood, untouched, as ever, by the wisdom of the government.

Those childhood imaginings feel quite relevant for me in America today. When Trump performs his press conferences, wouldn’t it be brilliant if his words landed on the deaf ears of a whole nation? What if we simply refused to hear the hatred of his pronouncements?

I want the reader to see the deaf not in terms of their medical condition, but as a political minority, which empowers them. Throughout Deaf Republic, the townspeople teach one another sign language (illustrated in the book) as a way to coordinate their revolution while remaining unintelligible to the government.

What led you to write about this invented country at war, and how did you discover your central characters, Sonya, Alfonso, and Momma Galya?
Like many others, I am a misplaced person, a refugee, a man cut in half by history. A part of me is still in Odessa, that ghost limb of a city I left. While these characters are imagined, they are also my family. I keep seeing images related by my grandmother about her arrest by Stalin’s regime in 1937:

When the police come to arrest her, they go straight to the kitchen. Right past her. The first policeman. Second policeman. Third. Straight to the kitchen. To the stove. To smell the stove, to see if she has burned any documents or letters. But the stove is cold. So they walk to her closet. They finger her clothes. They take some for their wives or daughters. “You won’t need any of this,” they tell her. And only then do they shove her into their black car.

They are so busy taking her things that they don’t notice the child in the cradle. 

The infant stays in the empty apartment when she is taken to the judge. (The child in the cradle, my father, will be stolen and taken to another city. He will survive.)

She doesn’t know this. She also doesn’t know her husband was shot right away. The judge tells her, “You have to betray your husband in order to save yourself.”

She says, “How can I do that to the father of my child? How will I look into his eyes?” 

She doesn’t know he is already dead. 

And so she goes to Siberia for over a decade. And behind her, the infant stays. 

Though the invented country you write about resembles Eastern Europe, the first and last poems in the book explicitly address our American moment. Do you think of this as a book about America? 
As Americans we want to distance ourselves from a text like this one. But there is pain right here in our neighborhoods: We see stolen elections, voter suppression. Is this happening in a foreign country? No. A young man shot by police in the open street lying for hours on the pavement behind police tape, lying there for many hours: That is a very American image. And we talk about it for a bit on TV and online. And then we move on, like it never happened. And children keep being killed in our streets. This silence is a very American silence.

That image of a shot boy lying in the middle of the street is central to Deaf Republic. Of course, the book is a dream, a fable. But as you note, it begins and ends in the reality of the United States today. That is intentional. It is a warning of what we might become. Of what kind of country we have already become.

Americans seem to keep pretending that history is something that happens elsewhere, a misfortune that befalls other people. But history is lying there in the middle of the street. Showing us who we are.

In all the years of our friendship, I don’t think I’ve ever asked you why you first began writing poems. How did you first discover poetry?
The late 1980s in Odessa was the time when poets worked at newspapers. Many newspapers were faltering. It was a somewhat hungry time. It was the most exciting time. A publisher came to my classroom.

Who would like to write for a newspaper?

A room full of hands.

Who would like to write for free for the newspaper?

One hand goes up. 

Which is how I found myself at twelve years of age writing articles for official and unofficial newspapers.

In the hallway at a newspaper I met an old man with a cane, Valentin Moroz, a legendary Odessa Ukrainian–language poet, a man who was often in trouble with the party officials in Soviet days.

He was reading Osip Mandelstam in the hallway, sitting next to me in the hallway, unable to sit still, unable to read quietly, unable to pretend that he isn’t inhaling the large gulps of free air with every line of verse. His voice trembling as he read a stanza, then turning to a young deaf boy: “Do you hear? Do you hear? This is Mandelstam, this son of a bitch, Mandelstam, no one writes better than this son of a bitch Mandelstam. Don’t you know this Mandelstam?” 

I didn’t know.

Moroz stood up. He read in the busy hallway standing up. He took me by the hand.

To the tram.

To his apartment.

He recited poems by memory all the way from the hallway to the tram station and all the way on the tram to his place.

I left his place with a bag of books and with a handwritten note not to come back next week unless I had read and memorized poems by Mandelstam.

Thus began my education.

And how did you start writing in English?
When we came to this country, I was sixteen years old. We settled in Rochester, New York. The question of writing poetry in English would have been funny, since none of us spoke English—I myself hardly knew the alphabet. But arriving in Rochester was rather a lucky event—that place was a magical gift; it was like arriving at a writing colony, a Yaddo of sorts. There was nothing to do except for writing poetry. Why English then—why not Russian? My father died in 1994, a year after our arrival to America. I understood right away that it would be impossible for me to write about his death in the Russian language, as one author says of his deceased father somewhere, “Ah, don’t become mere lines of beautiful poetry.” I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it; no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.

What changes for you as a poet when you write in a second language?
Even the shape of my face changed when I began to live inside the English language.

But I wouldn’t make a big deal out of writing in a language that is not one’s own. It’s the experience of so many people in the world; those who have left their homes because of wars, environmental disasters, and so on. 

What’s important for a poet speaking another language are those little thefts between languages, those strange angles of looking at another literature, “slant” moments in speech, oddities and their music. 

Could you say more about those oddities?
The lyric itself is a strangeness inside the language. No great lyric poet ever speaks in the so-called proper language of his or her time. Emily Dickinson didn’t write in “proper” English grammar, but with a slanted music of fragmentary perception. César Vallejo placed three dots in the middle of the line, as if language itself were not enough, as if the poet’s voice needed to leap from one image to another, to make—to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase—a raid on the inarticulate. Our contemporary, M. NourbeSe Philip, has created her very own music out of the language of colonial power. Paul Celan wrote to his wife from Germany, where he briefly visited from his voluntary exile in France: “The language with which I make my poems has nothing to do with one spoken here, or anywhere.”

How important is language or nationality to your identity as a poet? Do you consider yourself a Russian poet? An American one? Is that a meaningful distinction to you?
Well, I still write in Russian from time to time. And I read in Russian a great deal. But do I consider myself an American poet? Yes, I do. But, then, I must answer a question: What does it mean to be an American poet? What is my American experience? It is laughing with my friends, making love to my wife, fighting with my family, loving my family, loving the ocean (I love water), loving to travel on trains, loving this human speech. But we all have these things, don’t we? Yes, we do. And therefore, I fiercely resist being pigeonholed as a “Russian poet” or an “immigrant poet” or even an “American poet.” I am a human being. It is a marvelous thing to be.