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Maintenant #98 – Volodymyr Bilyk

An interview with Volodymyr Bilyk by SJ Fowler.

At the heart of a new Ukraine, as poetically as politically, the work of Volodymyr Bilyk, and it’s worldwide repute, as is tied to the new possibilities of technology in the 21st century as it is the quality and innovation that defines it. Bilyk is the new face of a nation whose poetic history is as often entrenched as its political, and his groundbreaking visual, minimalist, conceptual, sound and artpoetry has been published across the globe, due in no small part to his willingness to embed himself within internet culture and its potentialities. Moreover, his immediacy as a poet, as evident in his poetics as in his colloquially eloquent, unpretentious mode and manner, reveals itself as the expression of an individual willing to commit utterly to the ideal of democratic freedom in his homeland. This interview is conducted during the unyielding protests, and the resultant government violence and oppression, wracking the Ukraine in late 2013 / early 2014, of which Volodymyr Bilyk, the 98th respondent of the Maintenant series, is a central and formidable part.

3:AM: As we finish this interview, on February 19th 2014, Europe awakes to the news that yesterday was the bloodiest day in the battle for Ukraine’s democratic future, with 26 dead by latest news estimates. There is the sense now that these protests, lasting months already will not just fizzle out and be swept away, like so many others have in Western Europe and America over the last few years. What is the feeling in Kyiv towards this and the immediate future?

Volodymyr Bilyk: I can describe it as “We shall overcome!” and “No pasaran!”. It is “the end of something” and “It’s the beginning of a new age”.

3:AM: The experience must be intensely surreal, to be in a battle zone essentially, and for Yanukovych to still be in power after the brutality of the police response to the protestors…

VB: I think Yanukovych had gone mad at some point. He’s not adequate. His recent message to the people was confusing – I thought he was talking about himself. Very GG Allin thing.

3:AM: Could you describe how the protests began, in physical, immediate terms?

VB: November 21. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov suspends the preparation of the association agreement between Ukraine and European Union. It was phase I – at first there were two Maidans. One on Independence Square – non-political scene. One on European Square – political scene. Then two Maidans were united. It happened on November 26. Big non-political Maidan full of hipsters lasted until the summit – then nothing happened. And then on November 29-30 night – violent dispersal happened. If this never happened – protesters would go home and the story would end but this attack changed everything. December 1 riots started Phase II – “this time it’s personal”. First barricades had grown and Maidan started to develop it’s own infrastructure. For the most part of december and half of january – it was almost a carnival. And then on January 16 – anti-protest laws were passed. And then right-wing tigers broke free and Hruschewsky Street battle happened. A week later several people were killed – Pavlo Mazurenko, Serhiy Nigoyan, Mikhail Zhyznevskyi, Roman Senyk. Since January 16 – Maidan is on Phase III – and it’s a timebomb. Every idea of Nestor Machno is now put on the test. And it kinda works. And now it’s Empire Strikes Back. On February 18 Parliament was to return the 2004 Constitution but Party of Regions blocked the process. Meanwhile on the streets – police started an attack which culminated in the evening battle on the Independence Square. Berkut started a fire in the Trade Union House. There were messages that many wounded died in fire. I want to think it’s not true. They say it’s only anti-terrorist operation. Now on February 19 there were few riots in the regions. Overall feeling
Its armistice at the moment.

3:AM: How has it settled into a pattern?

VB: I don’t know how to explain it. Maybe naturally. Rebirth of the nation happened.

3:AM: The wider context of Russian influence in Ukraine, back from the false optimism of the Orange revolution, must have remained a visceral in the minds of pro-democratic, Europe leaning people in the Ukraine over the last many years. Is this the case?

VB: Every time russians try to do something in Ukraine – they fail. They do epic fails. Russians don’t understand with whom they’re trying to deal with. And they don’t want Ukraine to exist. And it’s a little bit old-fashioned dream.

I don’t think that “Fake Optimism” are right words for the thing happening. 10 years ago – people thought that everything is going to be fine without an effort – just because. Now they understand that the only way to make difference is to – DO IT YOURSELF.

3:AM: Has this resurgent sense of a necessary DIY politics palpably affected the art & culture that’s happening now across the country?

VB: Lots of caricatures, novelty songs, videos documenting some events (there is even a big audio-video archive titled Chronicles of the Revolution http://maidanchronicles.com/), even an internet tv-channel www.hromadske.tv – big DIY-thing. Also group of psychiatrists and political analysts gathered into Warm Ocean Strategy – they plan to rebuild the state – step by step.

3:AM: Has this energy of resistance reached a critical point, do you think?

VB: After Battle on Hruschewsky Street – no, but the tension grows – ’cause powers that be don’t want to give up. The thing had turned into the natural anarchy. Self-organisation is the law. DIY is the law.

3:AM: Is this attempted political and cultural domination by the Russians, historically, a major factor in shaping Ukrainian culture now, and it’s poetry? Perhaps through an inherent culture of resistance?

VB: Political and cultural domination by the Russians is more a myth and a dream of russians than reality. Historically russians always wanted to eliminate ukrainian culture – and historically – they fail every time they try. Their imperial chauvinism is subject for toilet humour – and nothing more. Also you must understand that Soviet and russian – are not the same (even if russians claim it is). You can find a lot of soviet shadows – mostly victims of the Purge or later repressions (one of the KGB-lawyers – the one who is responsible for the final imprisonment of Vasyl Stus – is still around – and still not punished). But nevertheless we have more or less ironical attitude towards this phenomenon. Things have changed. Russians dont have a clue about what’s happening here – politically or culturally – even ukrainian writers who write in russian are very different from russian writers. Any time you try to compare Ukrainian and russian cultures – they’re too different to be compared. It’s all just a big Awkward moment in history.

Ukrainian poetry is shaped by Ukraine itself. Ukraine as a concept. “Eternal revolutionary / Soul which brings the flesh into the fight” as great Ivan Franko had written years ago. Robert Fripp described King Crimson as “the way of doing things” – and so i can describe my Ukraine as “the way of doing things”.

3:AM: Is there a palpable sense of wanting to be more European in the Maidan movement and in a new generation of Ukrainian’s and Ukrainian artists and writers?

VB: It depends on what do you mean under the word “European” – if it’s values and human rights – yes, we’re up for it. It takes time to realize the price of freedom. It takes time to understand that dignity and respect makes everything easier. Finally – it’s about realizing the power of DIY.

3:AM: I’m interested in your role, as an experimental poet. Do you think there is a connection between the radicality of your work and you’re political engagement here?

VB: I don’t know if there is any direct connection.

3:AM: Is there an ethical energy that underpins experimental poetics do you think?

VB: Maybe. For myself, I can describe it by quoting a line from Pink Fairies song – “Don’t think about it – Do it! It’s Rock and roll and the message is – Do it!” – something like that.

3:AM: How did you come to practise visual poetry?

VB: John Lennons writing. Then Yoko Onos writing. And then all the Fluxus stuff. And then concrete poetry and then dada and futurism and then lettrism. And then I found out that there are lots interesting things in Ukrainian literature. Even inside body of works of undisputed grands like Schevchenko(Rebel without a Pause) and Franko (Pound-like figure in UA-lit). Piece by piece i’ve made my picture.

3:AM: Is there a tradition of avant garde poetry in Ukraine?

VB: Not one but two traditions. One goes back to the baroque days. Ivan Velychkowskiy for example. The other is from Futurist 10s and 20s. Ukrainian futurism was more like beat generation or punk(cowpunk, actually). Andriy Chujiy even made few typographical novels – and they are far more impressive then De Stijl. Also don’t forget about Pavlo Tychyna – who was an Ezra Pound and Kurt Schwitters combined – his poems are literally – music, but his words are also incredible. After World War II it came to some kind of an end and turned into standalone examples. Oleh Lysheha, Vasyl Holoborod’ko, Andriy Antonovskiy and many others. However – no community since the 20s.

3:AM: Your work is marked by its minimalism, and it’s humour, is this vital to you?

VB: Yes, i prefer to go to the point. Zigzagging, rolling and tumbling. Constained writing is good for manners. Also I think that the poet needs to let go many things. I think it’s all because of Ezra Pounds Ideogrammic Method. And Bob Fosse’s dancing (every dance is a book of poems).
Humour is magical. It can make a whirl of sense. It’s also the best and only destructive force.

3:AM: You always seem to work in monochrome too, black and white, is this significant?

VB: In some way – yes. First of all – i’m fan of black and white (films, photos…song, game and its sequel too. Jokin’.) Then – because it’s easier to recreate in a guerrilla way – by photocopying, printing, etc. And it’s funny too. It reminds me Type O Negative songs. I think I need to grow up to use more colours. And it’s yet to come.

3:AM: Your work must somehow be overcome by the physical reality of the events surrounding you…?

VB: “We shall overcome!” Oleh Lysheha wrote “Kick your head against the ice – ‘till it’s too late. / Kick your head against the ice – ‘till it’s too dark. /Break through! Break out! You’re up to see the brave new world”

3:AM: Do you still work with more lingual, traditional forms? did you ever?

VB: I don’t know. I write in Ukrainian. As i said before – i can find something experimental even in classical works of UA-lit. I’m playing when i’m translating into english. Translation gives you an extra space inside the poem. And so poem can reinvent itself.

I think I need to play with words. One day i saw a dream in which every word had a Chuckie (a killer-doll) hidden inside of it. So if I neglect any word – this hidden Chuckie will come out and kill me.

3:AM: You are one of the few international known younger poets in the Ukraine who are trying to innovate and experiment with poetry, do you think it will continue to be the case that such figures as yourself as isolated, or is a community growing so that as Ukraine’s culture changes into the 21st century, one hopefully far more peaceful than the 20th century, so the poetry will change also?

VB: I don’t know. I don’t feel myself isolated that much. Internet helps a lot. IMHO, no one wants to change Ukrainian culture. Ukrainian literary communities feels comfortable inside that system. They try to maintain somekind of status quo inside the regional scene. That’s not right.
It’s time for heroes, for frauds, for parasites, for mavericks. Finally, it’s for mistakes and dead ends! Try, fail, try again, fail better – it is the only way to evolve

3:AM: How profound has the internet been to your practise, and your ability to build a community of fellow practitioners who are not physically present?

VB: Internet plays a big role in my practise. In fact – it’s the main space of my activity, ’cause I live in somekind of “Antonioni meets Tarr”-city where nothing happens and so you can do anything you want to without a chance to put it out somewhere – ’cause no one cares. This attitude can drive you mad or turn you into pathetic creep. So internet is also a kind of therapy. It’s a chance to grow up.

You can read examples of Volodymyr Bilyk’s here & here & here & here & here & here & here & here & here & here & here & here & here

SJ Fowler is a poet, artist, martial artist and vanguardist. He has published six collections of poetry, and been commissioned for original works of poetry, sonic art, visual art, installation and performance by the Tate, the London Sinfonietta, Electronic Voice Phenomena and the Liverpool Biennale. He is the poetry editor of 3:AM magazine, founder of the Maintenant series and curator of the Enemies project.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 20th, 2014.