Monday, April 9, 2018

The Split This Rock Interview with Ilya Kaminsky

By Jennifer James

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille T. Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

On-site registration is available every day during the festival at the festival hub: National Housing Center, 1201 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. A sliding scale of fees is available for full registration, beginning at $200. Student registration (with ID) is $75. One day passes are $85. Two-day passes are $170.

Full festival schedule available on the 
website. The Festival Mobile App is Live! Download the free app  for iOS and Android today for easy access to the schedule, session descriptions, presenter bios, and more! Just search your app store for Split This Rock.

Events Open to the Public

  • Nightly Free Poetry Readings: National Housing Center Auditorium
  • Social Change Bookfair, Saturday, April 21, 10 am-3:30 pm, National Housing Center (Free)
  • Poetry Public Action, Friday, April 20, 8:30-10 am, Location TBA (Free)
  • Open Mics, Thursday, April 19 & Friday, April 20, 10 pm-12 am, Busboys and Poets, 5th & K, Cullen Room, 1025 5th St NW, Washington, DC 20001 ($5 at the door)
  • Closing Party, Saturday, April 21, 10 pm-1 am, National Housing Center Auditorium ($10, tickets available soon at Split This Rock's website)
Open mics and the closing party are free to festival registrants.

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Ilya Kaminsky stands in an alcove with large windows. He is laughing and his eyes have closed. He has short, medium dark hair and wears glasses. He is wearing a striped button-down shirt and a dark pullover with a zipper.Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, Ukraine in 1977 and came to United States in 1993 when his family was granted asylum. He is the author of Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press) and Deaf Republic (forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2019). He is also the co-editor of Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (Harper Collins) and co-translator of Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, among several other books and anthologies. His work had been recognized with American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, Whiting Writers Award, Lannan Foundation Fellowship, Yinchuan International Prize for Poetry (China), and several other honors. In addition to his writing, he is the professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State. He has also worked as a law clerk at several non-profits including National Immigration Law Center and Bay Area Legal, and most recently as court appointed special advocate for orphaned children in San Diego. Learn more at his website. Photo by Cybele Knowles.

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Jennifer James (JJ): In your introduction to The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (2010) you write that its intention was, in part, to bring American poets into conversation with “a global poetic tradition,” and that translation can be a “conduit” whereby “poets can speak to each other over time, space and cultural difference.” That was nearly a decade ago. Can you speak more to the value of that in 2018, when the world seems more interdependent than ever, and do you feel that American poets have indeed become more global in their influences and outlook?

Ilya Kaminsky (IK): I wish I could say yes to this kind of question. But that would be false. 

Of course, we here in the USA are not in conversation with poets from the rest of the world. 

Of course, most of our poets don't know of the wonderful things happening in say Romanian poetry today--just to use one example. Of course, we know very little about what is happening in Latin American poetry. How many American poets you know who can tell you ten great Latin American women poets, for instance? I made a point to ask. Not many of our American contemporaries can answer that question, I am sorry to say.

This is not the kind of thing people like to hear. Why? We, intellectuals in this country, often refuse to take responsibility for what this empire does to the rest of the world. But we are responsible. We--especially the academics among us--want to paint a pretty picture of how we are embracing the rest of the world of how we are all one happy village. 

This is very far from the truth, and very far from how the world sees us. We are a part of an empire, with all its self-imposed cultural limitations, and very few of our contemporaries have any interest in reaching out to the rest of the world. I wish I could say things have changed much in the past ten years. There are a few more journals that publish literature in translation. Shall that be a cause of celebration? Hardly. There are not nearly enough venues for aesthetically diverse conversation about literature from around the world. In a country such as Denmark, over 50% of all published literature is literature in translation. In the United States this number remains less than 3%. That number speaks volumes about our contemporaries' disregard about what happens in the rest of the world. It is a shameful thing. But this is how this empire acts. 

Until we stop pretending that we live in an enlightened republic, and actually look in the mirror and see our country for what it is--an empire that likes to beat its chest and congratulate itself--we won't make much progress in reaching out to the rest of the world.

JJ: I am going to quote you to yourself again. In writing about a poet I admire greatly, Paul Celan, you make a claim about poetic language that I find perfect in its reminder of what poetry should do: “We are asleep in the language until language does not wake us with its strangeness.” Celan “wrecks” syntax; that “wreckage” awakens us. Is that something you try to do in your own work? How?

IK: English is my second language-- which is to say it is already wrecked. My perception is fragmentary-- I am a deaf man in a hearing world; an immigrant, a stranger in an empire. For better or worse, my syntax is wrecked enough already. This is the situation quite opposite to Celan's. He wrote in his native language--however strange his relationship to that language might have been. I don't write in a language in which I have ever heard lullabies as a child. My English is the world I make as I go. It is already a private language, an imaginary language. Already a wreckage. My job is to find, among those wreckages, what is beautiful, what might have lasting value (however mistaken I might be about that value) what is worth learning by heart, repeating, becoming a spell. That is the goal.

What a great poet such as Paul Celan does for me is this: he casts a spell. His poems, however strange they might seem to another reader, possess a strangeness that isn't easy to forget. A strangeness of a phrase that one remembers by heart long after other things that "make sense" are forgotten. The kind of strangeness that helps one to go on, the kind of phrase that one whispers to oneself in the hour of need, when nothing else suffices. A spell.
At this point I have to add: it is too easy for us in America to talk reverently about Celan as a poet from a distant land whose language was wrecked by history. It is exotic.

But here we are: in a country where our neighbors' children are shot in a broad daylight by policemen. It is not an isolated occurrence. It happens regularly. It is reality in which we live, in which our neighbors are forced to live. It is something so many of us pretend not to see. But language is a barometer whose needle tells us who we are.

So, what happens to language? How does this act of terrorism by American government against its own citizens affect our shared language? How do the lyric poet's lines change in such a time? What is being "wrecked" in our speech today?

JJ: Can I return to this question of language through the matter of memory? You lost your hearing at age four and were brought to the United States from your native country when you were a teenager. You made the decision to write in English after having begun your poetic life in Russian. Does the Russian language “haunt” your work in English?

IK: Of course it does. How can childhood not haunt a human being? How can lullabies and drinking songs, and songs of protest or love lyrics and anthems not live in our bodies? Who are we if there is no music in our throats?

I came to America at 16—a young person, yes. But that was 1993, the year after USSR collapsed, the time of breaking of empires, the time of history looking at itself in the mirror, if only for a moment. Sixteen-year-old boy in Ukraine of 1993 had a different idea of time than a sixteen year old boy today. Whether or not that is a good thing is another question. But that is what happened, and the language I have is, inevitably, possessed by history, the ghost of history, even more so than it might be possessed by Russian or English or Ukrainian or Yiddish. A poet, after all, things not in logical statements but in fragments of music, in images. Image, after all, is an international language.

JJ: I am struck by the way you write about silence. In “Praise,” the line “I have run through silence: in 1993 I came to America,” and the line “What is silence? Something of the sky in us,” from “Deaf Republic I” offer silence a spatial dimension, which intrigues me. I am not even sure what I want to ask about that—other than whether you can discuss that imagery further?

IK: We speak against silence, but it is silence that moves us to speak.

There are different kinds of silence, of course. The private silence—that innermost hour of the soul—in which a man is alone with his metaphysics. Which is a beautiful thing.

And also, there is another kind of silence: the silence of a country watching a cop kill a boy in the broad daylight and doing nothing about it. A shameful thing.

There are many other silences, of course. They are all around us, and in us. There is, after all, no music without silences in it. Music without silences in it is just mere noise.

JJ: Another statement you made about American poetry emerges from what you have called the “difficult topic” of “belief” in your and Katherine Towler’s collection of interviews, A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith (2012). You write: “In America in the twenty-first century, irony holds sway over much of our public intellectual life, and a dialogue about faith asks us to set aside irony for a direct engagement with beauty, hope, doubt and fear.” You mention a hope that the discussions in the book will help take the discussion of religion outside of “the polarized and polarizing, influences of ideological religious politics.” I would love to learn how your own faith informs your work.

IK: Personally, I do not believe in organized religion. To my mind, organized religion in 2018 is just another form of corporation.

However, to my mind, two people, sitting at the kitchen table, arguing about things that matter, about holiness of life, the grace of it, the honor and beauty and terror of it, about things that are much larger than what we are, about things that pierce us and move us—call it spirit, call it dignity, call it higher purpose, whatever is your term—those two people at the kitchen table, talking into the night, make up a church. They have passion and drive to honor the world that is around them, to embrace that world with and through language. 
That, for me, is a start.

What struck me when I first came to the United States is how rare such conversations are among the intellectuals and writers in this country. We simply do not speak openly to each other about things that truly matter. There are panels at every single conference on how to publish or win awards and so on, but who speaks about how do we save ourselves from ourselves; how do we go on in the country that bombards other countries on almost daily basis; how do we retain grace in a place where the only currency is money?

Katie Towler, a wonderful writer in her own right, is an old friend. We spoke about those things to each other, but both found ourselves surprised by how little conversation there is on the subject in our public intellectual life. So, we thought it would be a good idea to engage other writers in such a conversation, to hear what they might say. And, an interview as a form is a perfect excuse, a perfect mask, to come up to someone and ask: why am I alive; what is life; what is God; what is love in the time of injustice; what is music and how do we live in it and for it? The subject of religion came up naturally. For many years, it seems to have been a taboo in American literary community. This was before Robinson's Gilliad, before Christian Wiman's and Fanny Howe’s wonderful memoirs, etc. This was the time when American literature at times felt like it was imitating Seinfeld’s in its tone, in its ironic outlook. And, what is Seinfeld’s? It is a a group of people who refuse to acknowledge that there is the larger world outside Manhattan. It is a group that is afraid to have emotions, so there is irony. A world eaten up by irony.

But don't get me wrong: Irony in of itself is a very useful literary device. When Zbigniew Herbert in Poland during Martial law had to write in an ironic tone because he would otherwise be shot, irony was a terrifically powerful thing. But how is it a powerful thing for a middle-class academic from Brooklyn right now?

Or, another example: When in Gulliver’s Travels we have a great ironic panorama of the world—we also know that we have a great, enormous empathy for that world. Swift is passionately in love with the world he attacks and laughs at. That empathy is something Katie Towler and I wanted to see more of when we sat down to ask interview questions for that particular project. And empathy is something I still very much have faith in. For what and who are we without empathy? Without it, what is the point for being?

Yet, inevitably, there is also the question you didn't ask--but one that is implied in this conversation. This question is about the privacy of a lyric poet. What does this privacy, this dwelling, this inner space, mean for the language of the lyric poem?

I do not believe that a lyric poet is a public person. I do not believe that poet must have ambition to speak to thousands of people from stadiums, to reach large audiences. I think it is silly to have such ambitions.

I believe that poet is a very private person. But one who happens to write in a language that is spellbinding enough, heart-breaking enough, that it this very private person can suddenly (and yet, still privately) speak to many people at the same time. 

And so, if this poet is lucky enough her private language becomes others' private language. Others begin to whisper that poem to themselves to stay sane.

That is what happened to Akhmatova and her Requiem. You mentioned Celan earlier. That was definitely the case of Celan. But it is also the case in the best of religious language. The Psalms, for instance. Whether or not one believes in organized religion, one recognizes this intersection between private language and shared language in the Psalms. For a poet, it is crucial to know this, to have this sense of language's capabilities.
Thus, this project you have asked me about. Of course, it doesn't have to be the Psalms alone. Before and after the Psalms there were chants, and wailing-songs, and so on, in numerous different traditions. 

We are told by different textbooks that our Western literature began when one blind man decided to tell us the epic about the burning of Troy. But that is just one side, this narrative tradition. There were also whisperers and soothsayers, and women who came to bury the dead, there were wooing songs and chants of curse. The lyric tradition, the witchery of language never really disappeared. We see it in Celan yes, but also it is also very present in other great poets-- in Aimé Césaire, in Dickinson and in Hopkins and in modernists and in so many others. 

What is always present in this alternative tradition is an element of the sacred, an element of language being possessed by something that defies the grammarians. Irony has little place in that element. It is an ecstatic moment. As I mention above, it comes closer to a spell.

This shared language can be one of beauty or terror, or a light-hearted note, or a thousand other things, but whatever it is, this language of poetry is always closer to a spell, to memorable speech. It is something that enters our bodies and won’t let go. 

(JJ): I am eager to know what you are working on now.

(IK): I have just completed the manuscript, Deaf Republic, which is a parable in poems that will be published by Graywolf Press in 2019.

This book opens in an occupied country in a time of political unrest. When a boy is killed by soldiers breaking up a protest, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear—all have gone deaf, and their dissent becomes coordinated by sign language.

With Deaf Republic now completed, I am writing lyric poems. 

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Additional Links

A host of Kaminsky’s poems at The Poetry Foundation

Kaminsky and all the Festival Featured Poets in the April 2018 Poetry Magazine

Ilya Kaminsky: A Conversation,” by Tatyana Mishel (Cranky Literary Journal, downloadable PDF)

 maintenant #70 – ilya kaminsky,” An interview with Ilya Kaminsky by SJ Fowler (3:AM Magazine)

That Map of Bone and Opened Valves,” by Ilya Kaminsky (The Quarry)

Tie This Guy Up, Make Sure He Stays at SDSU,” From the land of poets column by Thomas Lux (San Diego Reader)

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Jennifer James smiled at the camera as stands before a large stone and adobe facade, with a wide valley in the background. She has short dread locks pulled into a high ponytail, and her sunglasses pushed up on her head. She is wearing large, silver earrings, and a pink v-neck cotton blouse.Jennifer James is Associate Professor of English and Director of Africana Studies at the George Washington University and author of A Freedom Bought with Blood: African American War Literature, the Civil War-World War II. She is at work on two books, “Black Jack: Andrew Jackson and African American Cultural Memory,” tracing three generations of her ancestors enslaved by the President, and Captive Ecologies, exploring intersections between theories of blackness and environmental thought. Recent essays include “‘Buried in Guano’: Race, Labor, and Sustainability,” in American Literary History and “Ecomelancholia: Slavery, War, and Black Ecological Imaginings” in Environmental Criticism for the 21stCentury. James is a member of the Split This Rock Board of Directors.

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