In March, The New School hosts the 2020 National Book Critics Circle awards, which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.
The following interview with Ilya Kominsky, a 2020 finalist in poetry, is part of a series of NBCC interviews conducted by New School creative writing students.
In his book Deaf Republic, award-winning poet Ilya Kaminsky explores political disorder in a community where the people are united in a time of tragedy, uncertainty, and death, and using the power of sign language to express rebellion. Kaminsky, a 2018 Guggenheim fellow, takes readers through a compelling and timely narrative that moves family and neighbors alike through a time of pain, fear, and violence, calling into question the way that silence can be a reaction to a disaster.
Jessalyn Johnson [JJ]: Deaf Republic tells the story of a town that goes silent after a deaf boy, Petya, is shot and killed by a soldier. It then goes on to discuss the rebellious response as a commentary on the corruption of political authority. Do you think it takes a significant amount of inherent strength and selflessness for a town as a whole to stand up for its people in times of desperation the way it is displayed in your book?
Ilya Kominsky [IK]: The reason why it took me 15 years to finish this book is: I wanted to write a text that is true to both my experience in Odessa, a city where I was born in former USSR, now Ukraine — and the United States, where I have lived since age sixteen.
Now, Ukraine is at war, a part of its territory is occupied by Russia. So the events in Deaf Republic speak to that part of my life.
But, then, there is also the American part: as Americans, it seems that we want to distance ourselves from a text like this one. We want to say all of this happens somewhere else. But there is pain right here in our neighborhoods: We see stolen elections, voter suppression. We see photographs of children in cages. 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 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.
What your question seems to really ask is: what kind of strength might it take for people who do see all of this to protest?
But if we don’t protest: who are we? What it is that we don’t see, refuse to see? Our own complacency, yes.
As a poet, I am interested in language as an active force. Not information, but a medium itself that wakes the senses. Poetry is not about an event. It is the event. Art is the resistance of complacency: It always stands in opposition to numbness.
It seems that your question implies this: the majority of people in our country are numb. Which raises a question: what is the role of language in this? The normative language of any time — but especially the normative language of 21st-century capitalist empire (e.g. words like “collateral damage” instead of an evocative image of a child shot dead in the street) is specifically intended to numb us.
Poetry, by definition, opposes the normative. The poem wakes us up; it must actively cast a spell on the reader now. Regardless of its subject. If it doesn’t, it fails, whether the poem is about a face that launched a thousand ships or about a woman standing in a line outside a prison wall or about plums in the icebox. That freshness of speech ravishes the human in us.
For me, this is what poetry is: not a kind of public posturing but a private language of music and imagery that is strange and compelling enough that it can speak privately and evocatively to thousands of people at the same time.
That is why it just doesn’t die, poetry — despite so many death notices. It is always there, waking us up when we get numb, poking us in the eye.
JJ: You moved to America from Odessa at the age of 16 before acquiring hearing aids. How did your reality change when this happened?
IK: Yes, 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.
What did this mean, in day to day terms? 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? I liked to imagine that. Silence, that last neighborhood, untouched, as ever, by the wisdom of the government.
And, yes, 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?
As for what changed: I could hear my mother’s voice. Imagine that: suddenly hearing your mother’s voice.
But my father died too soon after our arrival: so I didn’t get to hear him; I often wonder what his voice might have been like.
Although I already wrote poems in Russian when we came to the USA, when he passed, I understood right away that it would be impossible for me to write about his death in the Russian language, which he taught me, as one author says of his deceased father somewhere, “Ah, don’t become mere lines of beautiful poetry.” I started writing in 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.
JJ: What changes for you as a poet when you write in a second language?
IK: 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.
JJ: Could you say more about those oddities?
IK: 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.”
JJ: 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?
IK: 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.
JJ: “A City Like a Guillotine Shivers in Its Way to the Neck,” you write “At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow this? / And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow this?” This is one of my favorite stanzas of Deaf Republic, and not the only mention of God throughout, of course. What sort of role does religion play in your life, and how deeply does it affect the way you write?
IK: Since I grew up in USSR, religion wasn’t encouraged at all. It was actively discouraged, in fact.
But on weekends, they gather at the kitchen table, my parents and friends of my parents, shouting at each other well into the night: who is a better poet, Akhmatova or Tsvetaeva? What will happen to Gorbachev’s reforms? Is there a God?
During the day, Mother and Father stand in lines for milk and walk carefully around their Soviet supervisors. But at night, someone always shouts things like: I am not a religious person! but I do believe that there is a divine in us!
That’s my early 1990s: the great debates of my childhood always involve little glasses of flavored vodkas that Father brings to his friends on a tiny tray: pepper vodkas and plum vodkas are in high demand.
If there is a church I am willing to subscribe to, it is the Church of the Kitchen Table at 33 Sovetskaya Militsia Street, apartment #1 in Odessa. That’s where on Sunday nights they crowd into a little space and shout at each other: is there a God?
Years later, in America, I become a writer and find that some questions are not to be asked in polite society. Some things are not to be shouted about in the American literary world. Writers don’t ask each other questions such as:
Do you pray?
Yes, in extreme situations, I pray. Prayer exists when no world stands between me and the void.
In extreme situations: I speak directly to the void. The answers are often silence. But if that’s the case, then surely the language was invented to ask questions. For example:
Is there a God?
This desire to ask; this need to poke the silence; it explains something about us as a species.
But I am in the United States, a country which has invented TV evangelists. Here, anyone who tries to observe things, quickly realizes: organized religion in America is simply another form of corporation.
So, I don’t recommend it. But having said this, having acknowledged religion generally causes more wars and misfortune than perhaps any other institution in the history of the planet, what now? Is there a mystery — or none?
What I am interested in is the strangeness of our being here at all: the miracle that is this planet.
JJ: How has your background in law impacted your writing? Additionally, how has it impacted the way you view society?
IK: Yes, I went to law school, and have at one time worked for Legal Aid and the National Immigration Law Center. Before I moved to Atlanta last year, I did some pro bono work as a Court-appointed advocate for kids who are orphans on the California/Mexico border. I enjoy doing that kind of thing and look forward to doing more of it in Atlanta.
Does this work influence me as a poet? Surely: losing a case on which someone’s health benefits depend certainly taught me about the urgency of language. But then, all of our daily activities and interactions with others influence our vocabulary; if we are to believe Yeats, a poet should always be revising for a more passionate syntax.
But don’t poets see/hear/touch language everywhere? Going to the beach with my nephews fills the afternoon with language. Kissing my wife is a moment in which nouns understand their passion for verbs and adjectives shyly watch. Nouns start flying around the room when I engage with my brother in a shouting match, and the cats hide. And is there a better lesson in pacing and line-break for a poet than botching the delivery of a joke?
I love human beings. Time squeezes us from both ends like accordions, and I love this music we make. One might choose to see it from a distance. I prefer to see it from the inside, in the midst these person-to-person interactions. If I fail to be a human being first, I fail my poetry.
Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, in the former Soviet Union, in 1977, and arrived in the United States in 1993. The author of Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press), he has also co-edited and co-translated many other books, including the Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (Harper Collins) and Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (Alice James Books). Currently, he holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry at Georgia Institute of Technology.
Jessalyn Johnson is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She received a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Grand Canyon University and is an MFA candidate in creative writing at the New School. @jessalyn451 @jessalynjohnson
This interview was first published on March 6th, 2020 at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.