Award-winning, Ukrainian-born poet Ilya Kaminsky – the Bourne Chair in Poetry at Georgia Tech – has been in constant contact with family, friends, and fellow writers in the war-torn country as the Russian invasion passes its 40th day.
In both of his acclaimed collections – “Dancing in Odessa” and “Deaf Republic” – Kaminsky’s childhood in Odessa, Ukraine looms large in the writing. He lost most of his hearing after a childhood illness, fled the former Soviet Republic with his family in 1993, and was granted asylum in the United States.
Since the invasion of Ukraine began, Kaminsky has been posting dispatches, poems, and news from his contacts in Ukraine via Twitter. Meanwhile, his poem “We Lived Happily During the War” has become a go-to text during the conflict, and we’ve reprinted another one of his poems, “A Cigarette,” below.
You were born and raised in Odessa before coming to America as a teenager. What would you like readers to know about the strength and resolve of the people not only in your hometown but in Ukraine? You have mentioned on social media about getting messages from your friends and family who live in Ukraine. How are they holding up?
First, a bit about Odessa. Although I keep coming back fairly often, I was 16 when I first left Odessa, a deaf kid who heard the USSR fall apart with my eyes. What did I see?
Odessa architecture is scaled down, “human sized,” and there was an opera house before there was potable water. Odessa loves art, and it loves to party. In the summer, huge cages of watermelons sit on every corner. You break them on the sidewalk and eat them with friends. The city has an especial affinity for literature. There are more monuments to writers than in any other city I have ever visited. When they ran out of writers, they began putting up monuments for fictional characters.
The most important holiday in Odessa isn’t Christmas, it is April 1, April Fool’s Day, which we call Humorina. Thousands of people come to the street and celebrate what they call the day of kind humor. All of Ukraine has a sense of humor – think of the man who offered to tow the Russian tank which had run out of gas back to Russia. Humor is part of our resilience.
These days it seems like Yiddish is undergoing a revival in Odessa: Every other message I get is calling Putin “schmuck” and “putz.” Lovely to hear my mother’s native language.
A writer from Kyiv tells me he sees people making Molotov cocktails together with their kids. An 80-year-old journalist from Odesssa writes: “The air raid just quieted down. It’s a sunny morning.” My cousin tells me potatoes are marked up 50%. A James Joyce translator writes about spending the night sleeping next to a dog in the bomb shelter.
A friend from Kyiv emails with a photo of a bullet casing: “There’s a military outpost next to my house, just 1-minute walk. I found this on my balcony. A photo for you – a result of the war in my hand.”
“The West is watching us,” a friend writes. “This is their reality TV war, they are curious to see whether we will go on living, or die.”
Another friend emails: “We saw fighter aircraft, helicopters and Russian paratroopers from our window. But we walked for miles.” He tells me they’re safe now, that his wife is in Poland and he’s in Ukraine. He sends photos of the city where they lived.
A different day, a friend from Kyiv writes: “Am in Bukovina, took 2 dogs and 1cat with me, Sophie’s choice, left 3 cats behind, being cared for by a neighbor.” It’s unbearable, she tells me. She is 12 miles from the Romanian border. Eventually, she crosses with only one dog.
An Odessa friend contacts me to say: “I’ve seen today 10km queue in Palanca and approx 500-600 people that were walking by feet. Mamas with kids and it’s snowing and some kids crying, others have serious men’s eyes.”
Another friend, who remains in Odessa, tells me he just got back from the store. “People are grabbing any food they can find. I’m trying to do art. Read out loud. To distract myself. Try to read between the lines.”
Finally, here is a bit from a conversation I’ll never forget with an older friend from Odessa, just a few weeks ago. After I asked for any way I could help him, he responded: “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are starting a new literary magazine.”
In the first days of war. Imagine.
You’re using your social media platform to share not only news, but also the words of poets and writers from Ukraine. Can you share a little about the role of poetry and literature in times like this?
I have a friend who, before she ran from Kyiv, spent days shivering in the bomb shelters as the city was shelled. What did she do? She first recited poems by heart, and then she began to translate the poems she remembered. And that is how she got through the hours.
Who is to tell me after this that poetry doesn’t matter? The poem is a charm; it must actively cast a spell on the reader now.
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.
Are there writers, news outlets, or folks on social media that you believe we should all be following to get a closer or more nuanced look at what is happening in Ukraine?
Kyiv Independent is a good resource. Al Jazeera combined with CNN or perhaps The Guardian is a good resource. Which is to say I try to pick very different news sources, with different kinds of ideological backgrounds, and after a quick look at three or four such places one begins to have a more or less balanced perspective. Same on social media. If you search for “journalist based in Ukraine” you will get a dozen folks, after five minutes or so you will be able to pick people with different perspectives. For me, that is the key: following folks with very different perspectives allows me to make up my own mind on the situation. But the act of searching in of itself is important—instead of me telling you who to follow your own looking will bring forth unexpected encounters, some of them eye-opening, and that is what we want from our search, isn’t it?
By Ilya Kaminsky
Vasenka citizens do not know they are evidence of happiness.
In a time of war,
each is a ripped-out document of laughter.
deaf have something to tell
that not even they can hear.
Climb a roof in Central Square of this bombarded city, you will see–
one neighbor thieves a cigarette,
another gives a dog
a pint of sunlit beer.
You will find me, God,
like a dumb pigeon’s beak, I am
every which way at astonishment.
The poem first appeared in “Deaf Republic” (Graywolf Press). Reprinted by permission of Ilya Kaminsky