Ilya Kaminsky, Author
The day I interviewed Ilya Kaminsky, a light rain was falling in Culver City, and grey stratus clouds surrounded the Antioch offices. I had heard Ilya read several times before, but until that day, I had never introduced myself. As I walked from the elevators to the MFA offices, I saw him talking to Victoria Chang in the hallway, and could feel my heart in my throat. Ilya had just returned from New York, where his book, Deaf Republic, was honored as one of the five finalists for the 70th National Book Awards. I was nervous to interview him—his genius permeates every aspect of his poetry and readings—but I soon relaxed. In the fourth-floor conference room, looking out over the unusually wet landscape of the city, Ilya was remarkably alive with questions, even when he was answering mine.
Ilya Kaminsky grew up in Odessa, Ukraine, when it was still part of the USSR. At the age of four, a Soviet doctor misdiagnosed Ilya’s mumps as a cold, sending him home with his mother to get well. The untreated mumps caused Kaminsky to lose most of his hearing, and throughout his childhood, he functioned in a soundless environment. When the Kaminsky family was granted asylum by the United States and moved here in 1993, Ilya was sixteen years old. He was soon fitted with his first hearing aids and began to hear most things, including how Russian and English languages were so different from one another. Kaminsky has said in other interviews that he began writing poetry in English because he wanted to compose in a private language—he further clarified this in our interview.
Kaminsky is both playful and powerful with language, image, and meter. In his debut collection, Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press 2004), beautiful and horrific images inhabit the same page, and the language of joy and persecution dance, side by side. In Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, 2019), language takes on an added dimension. When soldiers fire shots to break up a citizen’s protest, killing a deaf boy, the villagers all go deaf in protest. In each section, Kaminsky’s poems are illustrated with sign language, the new language the villagers use to plan their dissent.
Kaminsky’s poems speak of the darkest human atrocities, uplift the simple acts of love and kindness, and champion courage, especially in the face of oppression.
I introduced myself to Kaminsky and began the interview, my head swimming with a thousand questions. As I switched on the recording device of my phone, I explained how I didn’t want to misquote him.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll misquote myself.”
Ilya and I talked effortlessly, about the National Book Awards, the way language behaves, how Deaf Republic became the book it is, and how we become better writers.
* * *
Janet Rodriguez: First of all, congratulations on the National Book Award nomination! I was happy for you, but not surprised. Deaf Republic is amazing! How did you feel about the whole National Book Award experience?
Ilya Kaminsky: (thinks) Have you ever been on a bicycle?
JR: (laughs) Yes…
IK: The first time you get a bicycle, you pedal around the park, maybe go to the beach, you drive around and then you go home and write your poems. Yeah, it was a fun party. When you go to the public stuff like that, you’re playing a poet. Then when you go home, and you are a poet. You get to write poetry.
JR: Like our residencies?
IK: Oh, but at these residencies, you can go to lectures and at least get some language for your poems.
JR: Since you bring up language, I once read you started writing in English because it was a private language that your family wouldn’t understand?
IK: Yes, but I think any poet’s language is a private language. Poetry, period, is a non-normative language. Society, by definition, wants humans to be homogenous. A poet, by definition, does not want to be homogenous.
JR: So, a poet questions a homogenous language and tries to change it?
IK: Yes. Our society speaks a bureaucratic language, especially the empire. The empire is a place where the language of bureaucracy is the language of a lie. You don’t say, “A kid died;” you would say, “There was collateral damage.” A poet is somebody who is interested in the language of the senses. Federico Lorca said a poet must be “a professor of the five senses.” So, by definition, it would have to be a language that is private. But private not just with oneself, but with the world, perhaps. It’s not necessarily a lack of communication with the world, it is just trying to have “real communication.” Communication despite the fantasy of bureaucracy, despite the fake, despite the numbness of the empire. The empire wants us to be numb, so we don’t feel. The empire can be on a small scale or on a large scale, but still have the same kind of attitude towards the lack of emotion.
A poet, by definition, is a little bit odd, but he’s not odd because of his fetishism of oddness. It is odd because the poet has feelings that his language doesn’t have room for. So, a poet tries to change their language, tries to find different words, or a different way of speaking. Some of our greatest poets, like Emily Dickinson, do this. You would have a hard time finding a proper English sentence in her poetry! (smiles) But there are so many other ways she finds to speak that are fascinating, musical—slant. Slant is what she’d say.
JR: Do you believe we have a homogenized language here?
IK: Of course! We live in an empire! How can you have capitalism without homogenization? We—as humans, as a species—can only thrive if we keep learning. Homogenization, by definition, doesn’t want us to keep learning. So, there are many reasons why Plato wanted the poets out of the cities. Now, I would never say philosophers want the poet out of the cities because many poets are philosophers and many great philosophers are very poetic (smiles). But there is a particular strand that doesn’t like the imagination.
JR: And imaginative language is…?
IK: It’s the language of the senses, a language that is always fully alive with smell, touch, hearing, and different possibilities. We may not be able to express our feelings, our thoughts, but we have to express it anyway. Beckett uses imaginative language when he says, “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” Dickinson says, “Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.” You can read this as a pronouncement or you can read it as a confrontation with the self (smiles). So, you can say an argument with somebody else is rhetoric; an argument with yourself is poetry.
JR: (laughs) I can see that…
IK: There are so many ways to examine language, completely different ways to talk about it. Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet, once said, “I live for two things in life: gossip and metaphysics.” You want two things in life: the little, unexpected stories, the surprises, but we also need language of life to examine them. “What is the purpose in this life, and where are we all going?”
Language is such a physical thing. You hold it on your tongue. It changes the shape of your lips as you speak. It’s the only thing you always have with you. You can walk around the city of Los Angeles, sometimes in good weather, sometimes in bad weather, and you can recite a few poems to yourself as you walk. You always have them with you. You’re never alone. You are always in conversation. For instance, the Elizabeth Bishop poem, “One Art:” The art of losing isn’t hard to master… She died before I was born. Her words move my lips, and they change the shape of my mouth.
JR: It’s in our DNA.
IK: I prefer to say that it’s transferred from one human body to another by means of language. She walks out her feelings, but it’s our fascination with HOW she walks with them that allows that feeling to transfer to us.
JR: Dancing in Odessa begins with one of my favorite poems, “The Author’s Prayer.” The first line is one that I say to myself: “If I speak for the dead…” That’s an incredible beginning! Those words have always haunted me. Do you want to speak to that line?
IK: Well, you could look at that line in more than one way. On one side, you could say that writing, like W.H. Auden said, “is like breaking bread with the dead, and without communion with the dead, a fully human life is impossible.” Or you can see that line as a writer that I don’t want to be—in competition with my contemporaries. I want to be in competition with those who came before me because they’ve survived the test of time. Or you can talk about that line on a very metaphysical level. How do you break the barrier? Just because someone is not alive anymore doesn’t mean that the conversation has stopped. How do you express that with language? So, there is more than one way to talk about that beginning. You talk about it as a literary ambition or you can talk about it as a human who needs to go on.
JR: Do you think your poetry is spiritual?
IK: It depends on how you define spiritual. For me, the difference between spiritual and religious is very simple: Religion is a corporation. Why would I need another corporation in my life? But you could also say that religion allows a human to exist within the parameters of a ceremony, and a ceremony, a ritual is, perhaps, also a poetic form. It all depends on how you look at it and what day you look at it.
You know, the beginnings of language, if you look at our mutual beginnings—I’m not an expert in anthropology—but Anthropology 101 says we were once part of a people in a small group on the African continent and we had a shaman. When the shaman made fire for the very first time, the shaman looked into the fire and chanted for many hours, “firefirefirefirefireFIREFIREFIREFIRE!” Then, he dropped. Maybe the other people looked on in astonishment; maybe their eyes were wide open. This was interesting because what happened at that time is this: language was used, not for information, but for the enactment of something. That’s the interesting thing about poetry: it’s not about an event; it is an event.
JR: I love that.
IK: So, to answer that question, I would say it depends on the day. I mean, are my poems spiritual? Maybe (smiles). Spirituality is wonderful, but we all still need a sandwich for lunch. We need tools of poetic language, such as repetition, assonance, alliteration, inner rhyme, imagery… Spirituality alone won’t make a text into a poem.
JR: You did Dancing with Odessa in 2004. You came out with Deaf Republic in 2019. I would say you are a very careful poet—not racing to publish. Can you tell me about your process?
The things that tend to happen in some of the worst situations elsewhere, also do occur here, even though Americans pretend they do not. It is, in some ways, this is what Deaf Republic is about.
IK: (Thinks) Well… the book took a long time for me to write because I come from a different country. My first book was very much in conversation with my Eastern European background. Russian poets and all that. I came to the US in 1993 and Dancing in Odessa was published in 2004. I lived in America for about eleven years. My wife is American and so, I spoke English at home with her. By the time Dancing in Odessa was published, I had to ask myself what the next book was going to be like. Am I going to continue playing the Russian? Even though I’m not exactly in Russia anymore? Or am I going to try to figure out what I am? And that is, for better or worse, a question I wish I could ask. And I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t know how American I am, but I live here. At that time, my wife and I moved to San Diego, which is right on the border. A lot of the things you see on the news now—people being dragged off to ICE camps in a Home Depot—that kind of thing happens every day. That’s a recurring image. During that time, things in Ukraine weren’t exactly wonderful, either. Russia invaded the country. In the United States, what you saw on the news, showing how the police shot a boy there, how the whole street had people who were just walking by as if nothing happened. It was part of our reality. For me, I was just trying to see how the two places (Ukraine and the US) were wildly different and still the same in certain ways. And where the similarities occurred was where I felt like I could see myself perhaps say, “Okay, now I understand,” and I can express. I really am kind of a divided person. Both here and over there. But, scarily enough, those are two places that can echo each other. Americans like to see their country as a Mount Olympus. Here we are, Americans, overlooking the whole world from the mountain. The things that tend to happen in some of the worst situations elsewhere, also do occur here, even though Americans pretend they do not. It is, in some ways, what Deaf Republic is about.
In the book, the first-person pronoun “I” belongs to characters, and the plural “we” is used, it is the town. I, the writer, am not one of those wonderful characters who protest and are shot. I become part of the “we” who watches and does nothing, and that is something that needs to be written about. In many ways, this is a book about guilt and shame. Guilt and shame, or even words like “I’m sorry,” are not common words in American literary discussions. There are literatures that we can look at and learn from, and they would be very useful for us. In German literature, after World War II, writers were learning how to say, “I’m sorry.” In America, we still are processing our feelings surrounding all of this, so we’re just figuring it out now. The questions of how one might be writing in the time of the late empire, from what perspective one might be writing, who one is, in all of this—these are relevant questions to ask a lyric poet. However lyrical you might be, you still exist in time. So, that is something that I’ve been grasping with as a part of this book, as well. But, of course, the book is not a political manifesto—it’s a fairy tale.
JR: It’s interesting that you gave your book the title of Deaf Republic rather than Deaf Democracy or Deaf Village. Why did you make this choice?
IK: Well, partly because the metaphor of deafness is usually something negative, and I wanted to begin the book by using deafness as a kind of empowerment. I wanted to give the people an ability to confront speech. But… as I was writing the book, I realized something. This is all lovely and wonderful, but I was writing about humans, and humans are flawed! So, even in the imaginary republic, even though the people want to protest, it doesn’t mean that they’re wonderful humans. It’s quite the contrary.
JR: In the book, the whole village goes deaf as a protest, but they become silent in the face of persecution.
IK: Yes, correct. Also, these are very different kinds of silences. There is the silence of the protest, but there is also silence in their refusal to see the horrible things they do to each other. There could be silence in the metaphysical sense. If you ask any deaf person if they believe in silence, they say, “No, of course not. Silence is complete fiction.” But so much spirituality, philosophy, or religion is based on the idea of silence being holy, so what does this tell us? It’s a fantasy. At least eight percent of people believe that, because eight percent of people in the world are hard of hearing. Do you see what I’m saying?
IK: Silence is a creation of the hearing. We speak against silence, in one way, but in other ways, silence moves us to speak.
JR: There is a line that says, “…no one stands up. Our silence stands up for us.” Is this part of the different kinds of silence? If so, what does it mean?
IK: Sometimes people are powerless, and they refuse to speak. They realize, “Okay, we can’t do anything about it. If we say something, we’ll be gone.”
JR: Is it the poet’s job to question this?
IK: Yes, hopefully.
JR: And we? As the village, do we participate in these questions?
IK: Yes, but we should take a step back for a moment. We should ask, “What is poetry as a medium? What can it do? How does it do it in some situations? With what tools of craft? What is it all about?” Because poetry is about so many things. If a poet becomes righteous and says, “Oh, I know the solution…” then poetry walks away very quickly. We are creatures of the senses, and whatever questions we have, we answer not with definite statements, but with images and metaphors and music. This is the stuff that poets do. If you ask a painter to paint you a picture of the impossible question, they don’t give you a lecture. They go out and ask themselves: “What paint am I going to use?” If you ask a sculptor to create a sculpture, they’re thinking of what wood or stone or iron they are going to use. They will ask themselves, “Is this going to be a single sculpture or is it going to include an installation of twenty-seven different things? Is it going to involve a telephone, a chair, and a dead branch from a tree? Or not?” So, with us, the obsession is not only with the questions, but with the materials themselves. The material becomes the colossus.
One of the best books of the twentieth century, Beloved by Toni Morrison (Knopf, 1987), is a great book because of our history, yes. But it is also a great book because at the end of the book, you have a monument to Beloved. That’s the last image you see. Then, you close the book and realize that the whole book is a monument. That’s when you realize a book can be more than just a book—it can be a monument.
Or Leslie Marmon Silko’s book, Ceremony (Penguin 1977), is a wonderful novel that tells the story of a wounded, returning World War II veteran, a man who is of mixed heritage of Native American and white ancestry. He comes back from the war and tries to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. The whole book is about finding the ceremony for healing. It is a great book because it doesn’t give you a big pronouncement, but itself becomes a ceremony. I think in many ways, our engagement with language is a ceremony, whereas a poem itself becomes the event.
JR: What is your writing ideal? Do you think a poet needs a certain kind of environment to create?
IK: You know, I used to be very righteous about this kind of thing (smiles)—that a poet should come out with a book every ten years—but now I think it’s silly to be righteous about that kind of thing. Writers have very different kinds of empowerments. Some writers are serial writers, like a daily writer. Other writers, there has to be a change in their lives for a poem to happen. For them, poetry is not a daily event; it comes from a radical change. But who is to say that one is better than the other? They simply have different empowerments. There are different temperamental types between humans. Some writers will say, “Everything I have to write needs to be perfect,” and others will say, “I need to write two thousand and one things and the chance will tell me what is perfect—the discovery.”
JR: Do you have any advice for poets? Anything you can tell us?
IK: Yes. READ. Reading has become more and more challenged in this culture, just to have engagement with books. We are taught to consume, but books require time. They require sitting in a chair and not buying anything. You sit and you read. So, my advice is to read. Read things that are not like what you write. Discover what you love, what you read over and over. Discover books that you love and maybe hated ten years ago. What does this tell you about the book? What does it tell you about yourself and how you’ve changed? Don’t think of yourself as part of the business community. Think of yourself as part of the community that asks questions and answers them with music. Think of yourself as part of a forest—and then think of the tree next to you. How can you reach them on a page? Are you a character person? Or are you a person who is into syntax? If you’re not interested in a sentence at all, what are your characters doing to begin with?
I like to read books like these. I like to see how they make me change. I’m privileged and lucky to have a lot of good friends who read my poems. I come from a smaller country and a much smaller city—in Odessa I have maybe twenty friends who read my work and give me comments that I respect—but here, I have all the response I need. People whose work I actually care for. I don’t need to be part of the hype to be part of the industry. I can just live a creative life.
Eventually, the obsession is over—these books are an obsession—and you publish and you move on to a new obsession.
JR: (laughs) And does that work? Do you stop obsessing once you publish?
IK: (smiles) In the old days, we used to say we had a muse. Then something happened: Freud happened. Now we call it an obsession. We write out of our deep engagement with something. In this something, we try to find words—language to express our feeling about this. Sometimes it’s a poem, sometimes it’s a book. Sometimes, it’s a series of books. And when it’s done, you’re like, “Okay, what else can I do?” You’re like a little chick again who just hatched out of the egg. You stick your beak in something, and eventually, you find a new obsession.