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Maintenant #70 – Ilya Kaminsky

An interview with Ilya Kaminsky by SJ Fowler.

Simply one of the few boundless poets on the world scene, and already a centrifugal presence within American poetry, Ilya Kaminsky carries with him the power of the great Russian tradition and the obvious potential to be recognised, in an age where poetry is a reticent presence in the public’s eye, as one of the finest writers of the oncoming century. An activist as well as a poet, his remarkable energy and intellect permeate his earnest, fulsome poetry and his unforgettable, idiosyncratic readings. In an interview which seems typically representative of his generous spirit, Ilya has offered one of the most ebullient accounts featured in the Maintenant series, and we are especially excited to have him read at the next Maintenant event in London, this coming october. To mark our 70th edition, Ilya Kaminsky

with thanks to Nikola Madzirov за многу нешта

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3:AM: You arrived in America at only 16 years of age, really you have spent more of your life in the US. Is this duality of nationality fundamental to elements of your work?

IK: A poet isn’t born into a country. A poet is born into childhood. And, those who are lucky, stay in that domain. (Akhmatova on Pasternak: “he was granted a gift of eternal childhood).

What that state of being has to do with geography is an open question. In my own life, the fall of the USSR, and the brief war in the neighboring Moldova was probably a great deal more fundamental in affecting my being a writer than a mere fact of a move to another country.

I was sixteen, yes—but sixteen years of age for a Soviet kid is pretty much an adulthood, and I was hardly an exception. When you think that Lermontov was already dead by something like 27, you get the idea.

But, then, there is the question of English. I did not know the language at all when I came here, so learning the new names for every single object around me, and them pushing those objects into motion with Anglo-Saxon verbs of music that are quite different from Slavic one – pushing them through sentences whose structure was a great deal more architecturally direct than one I was born into, was of course, quite a change. Russian words are for the most part much longer than English, and the Russian alphabet has 33 letters against the 26 in English. The grammar structure is a great deal more organized (they are still engaged in the reform of language in Russia as we speak; and the Russian equivalent of the King James Bible was only published this year). It was like moving from the wild bazaar into an opera house.

It is not to say that one is better than the other. Far from it. Some poets (most poets, actually) prefer wild bazaars to opera houses!

The question of language, especially as it relates to the lyric poet is something we can talk about for a while. You see, I believe that 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 in a slanted music of fragmentary perception. Half a world and half a century away, Cesar 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 Eliot’s phrase—a raid on the inarticulate. 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.”

As for duality – I don’t think there exists a poet on this planet without a duality. Duality is a mother of metaphors. And, if coming into a different reality by stepping on a different shore, propels a poet into more duality, a poet should only be grateful.

3:AM: Your work is marked by it’s energy, it’s pace of imagery and it’s weight, in my opinion, do you write within certain mental constructs, and develop your poetry slowly, or does it come in rushes?

IK: Thank you for your kind words.
Images do take an important role. Image, for me, is an international language. An image from Horace of a young boy playing on a flute to cows can be translated into any language. Whether you are in France or in Ukraine, or in China, you “get” it. It is a photograph made of words. So, image is a basic muscle of the poem, one could say. But I don’t think one can ride very far on just the images alone. There got to be some thinking/emotion and, of course, music. Music in the lyric takes different forms in different cultures, but it is always there. Even the absence of it is musical, which is to say we organize silences in our poems for specific reasons, and rhythms.

As to writing slowly or in rushes—I write very slowly; good old Horace’s advice to take 10 years per book is a sign on my doorstep. Or, to play with that old cliché that “poems aren’t finished, they are abandoned”: my next book is finished but not abandoned. I honestly believe that there is no better editor for the poet than time itself.

Your mention of “mental constructs” made me smile. Why? Well, you see Russian language is still quite a mystical, Borgesian, Kafkaesque creature. For example, until the early 20th century, the mnemonic names inherited from Church Slavonic were used for the letters. Which drove Pushkin mad, by the way, he wrote: “The letters constituting the Slavonic alphabet do not produce any sense.” Pushkin’s remark shouldn’t be our problem. But there is more to it: according to some scholars the names of the first several letters of the Slavonic alphabet:

“Aз буки веди глаголь добро есть живете зело, земля, и иже и како люди мыслете наш он покой….”

seem to form a text:

“I know letters” “To speak is a beneficence” “Live, while working heartily, people of the Earth, in the manner people should obey” “try to understand the Universe”

Imagine that! Imagine, that mirroring the above, every letter of English alphabet should have a name and together they all form a text. How about that. Where is Borges when we need him?

3:AM: At times the reflectiveness that appears in your work is driven away from being at all nostalgic by it’s reverberation of image, by the sheer force of it’s motion when considered on the page. Do you concern yourself with being too reflective or temporally sensitive in your work?

IK: I don’t think it is a good idea for a poet to turn into a philosopher. I like philosophers like I like my uncles. I will let them buy me lunch. But that is about it.

3:AM: What are your thoughts on contemporary Russian poetry? Are there noticeable trends in what is being read by Russians, are they reading poetry as they once did, in your view?

IK: The Russian literary tradition is one of the youngest in the world. Pushkin, the Russian Shakespeare, was writing in 1824. What the hell is 1824 for English poetry? Byron was already dead by 1824. And, who the hell is Byron? Think of Shakespeare, Milton, Donne and Co. – those that Russian poetry simply did not have. It is astounding.

But it is also a great gift and great luck for a literary tradition. That is why, I would argue, Russians were able to have the great epic novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the late 19th century. That is why Pushkin was able to do something with a novel-in-verse that no one else was able to even approach on the same level. That is also why the Silver age and years of Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mayakovsky, Zabolotsky, Kharms, Khlebnikhov, and others came out of nowhere and no other European tradition of that time can rival it.

Although Whitman told us that great poetry demands great audiences, I am quite unsure it is so. Yes, they had audiences of thousands for the poetry readings at stadiums in Russia in 1960s. But so what? The sort of a thing those audiences got to hear was very mediocre. Quite on the opposite side, Kharms died of hunger without much of an audience. And he did something Beckett dreamed of, long before Beckett began to dream about it.

And, that is just one example. A poet is a private person. A great poet writes work that is gorgeous enough, powerful enough to speak privately with many people at the same time.

Think: Dickinson. Think: Celan. Or, think: Mandelstam.

That is all I am interested in saying about audience.

3:AM: Do the movements of poetry within Russia take heed of work outside Russia, to your knowledge? For example, have trends in 20th century American poetry impacted the style and nature of contemporary poetry?

IK: Yes, by all means. Russia is one big house of influences. And anyone who tells you otherwise and who speaks of the “holy mother Russia” and its special unique place on Earth is most likely an ignorant nationalist who offers his loud opinions without reading his own native literature.

Zhukovsky, an early Russian classic and founder of the Arzamas literary society, who among other things was Pushkin’s teacher, was completely influenced by European Romantics. His poems, memorized by and heard by many Russians are actually translations. Many of Pushkin’s own lyrics, also memorized by thousands of readers as Russian classics are translations as well. Lermontov’s most famous lyric is in fact a translation of Goethe.

When Akhmatova was writing Requiem she was translating Macbeth. Pasternak translated many of Shakespeare’s plays and all of Faust. Mandelshtam wrote what is probably the most interesting essay/study on Dante that we have in the Western tradition. Tsvetaeva translated Lorca. Brodsky without John Donne would never be the Brodsky we know about. And so on.

A literary tradition is first of all a conversation – with the self, with the world, with other traditions. Without such conversation no literary tradition survives for a long time. There is always the wild need for fresh blood.

As far as 20th Century American poetry: one can certainly see the influence of Auden and Eliot, and to a much, much lesser degree Stevens and the language poets.

Russians, traditionally, have been influenced by the French and the Germans in their literary matters. Of course, Byron was a huge presence in the 19th century and certain English classics in the 20th (again, think of that marriage between Donne and Brodsky that produced many bastard children). An American influence is relatively new.

But then, of course, the question of influences isn’t new in any tradition. Where would we in English be without Italians and their sonnets that we so appropriately borrowed? Or, even before Renaissance, where would we be in regard to influences when we speak about Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde? And where would we be with Marlowe’s Ovid or Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat? One tends to think of Herrick as the most English of all English lyric poets, but where would he be without the Latin tradition of someone like Catullus? And, as for our contemporaries, what would Anne Carson do without Euripides and Sappho and Christopher Logue without Homer?

Regardless of what literature one considers, a conversation with another tradition is what makes it breathe.

3:AM: Could you tell us about the Ecco anthology of international poetry? It seems an immense undertaking.

IK: Yes, it was a lot of work. I am grateful to have had the chance to do it, as it gave me an excuse to close the door and read deeply for several years.

The book does not pretend to give a full picture. Far from it. But it does attempt to bring together most of the more or less important names from 20th century poetry in translation under the same cover. Strangely enough, there aren’t many books on the market that try to do it. Which is too bad. We need a great deal more conversation about other traditions in the English language. Other western languages seem to be a great deal ahead of us in this matter.

3:AM: You are prominent as an academic and as a teacher in the US, and seem to display an immense energy for teaching. How much does your work with students effect your own work or your own understanding of contemporary poetry?

IK: I am lucky to have good students. They are wonderfully dedicated, hardworking, gifted. Truly. They are hardly what you would call “pupils”. I see them as colleagues who teach me more than I teach them. My plan in this regard is very simple: before they raise their hands with “yes, but”—as students tend to, in this day and age—I put in their pockets a list of 30-60 books to read & discuss with me one-on-one. And, when they come back to my office, they are different people! Then, the real fun begins! And, I learn a great deal.

I don’t believe what they call a traditional workshop. I believe in conversation about literature, and conversation about language, about verbs, nouns, about images, rhymes, line-breaks, rhythms, tones, etc.

So in any given class of 3 hours we spend the first hour talking about other people’s books. The sort of books of poems that change our lives. Only after that do we talk about our own writing. And, even with this in mind: the idea of a workshop has begun to remind one of a business school classroom in this country. It does not have to be that way. The great classical poets such as Issa and Basho had workshops and led workshops for decades. Akhmatova, Gumiliov, Mandelstam and other Russians also had their famous workshop, the Poet’s Guild. I don’t need to tell you about Wordsworth and Coleridge. It is natural for poets to have an in-depth conversation about their work. If one sees it that way, one learns a great deal.

3:AM: Could you outline your work at National Immigration Law Centre and with legal aid organisations?

IK: I think I was lucky enough to study public interest law in one of the more liberal law schools in US, and at the time when things in CA public interest-law matters were somewhat easier—that is pre-Governator days. The National Emigration Law Center is a place where much of the immigration law advocacy research goes on in US. It is a small office with a few workers—all of them women quite passionate about what they do, and they produce a wealth of information. And, they are also very creative. In fact, my boss there at that time is now a published fiction writer. She was one of the kindest people I met. At Bay Area Legal Aid, things were quite busy—but happily busy—the lawyers there are hardly what the public image of lawyers in the US represents: they work 80 hours a week for minimum wage and they bring coffee to each other and their clients. The clients are those who can’t pay for the services, and there are lines and lines of them. I worked for the “benefits” department, with a great attorney, a very quiet and precise man who taught me a lot. Basically: you lose your minimum wage job and along with it your employer takes away the health-insurance which they are supposed to give you for X number of months. What do you do? You go to Legal Aid.

As for me, I started looking for another job after a certain body-builder became our State’s governor and many things changed at those public-interest organizations.

3:AM: How much is your reception often coloured by your origins as a Russian and some legacy of overt respect for European poets from Russia and Eastern Europe during the Soviet era? I notice often in positive criticisms of your work, names like Brodsky and Milosz seem synonymous with your identity as a poet, & is your deafness a profound element of your own understanding of poetry, or does it have no affect whatsoever?

IK: I will try to be brief: I did write in Russian to begin with. And I read in Russian a great deal. But do I consider myself I an American poet? Yes, I do. But, then: what does it mean to be an American poet? What is my American experience? Kissing my wife is my American experience. Taking walks. Eating out. Playing with my cats. Talking to my friends. Getting into bar-fights. Making love to this very language. And, yes, I can hardly hear it. So what? Aren’t these the things we all do? Yes. Therefore, although one is grateful to be mentioned in the same sentence with the likes of Milosz and Brodsky (whether one deserves such a mention is another question), I resist being pigeonholed as a “Eastern European poet” or “deaf poet” or even “American poet” for that matter. I am a human being. I like that tradition.

3:AM: Writing in a second language always produces a unique result, and you did publish work in Russian. Why do you write solely in English?

IK: Well, I think the answer to this question is fairly simple: I fell in love.

First, though, there was death. My father died in 1994, less than a year after we arrived to the US. 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 choose 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.

So, yes, you could say: I fell in love.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of two poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011) and Fights (Veer books 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 7th, 2011.