INTERVIEWS October 1, 2021

A Conversation with Ilya Kaminsky

Born in the former Soviet Union in 1977, poet Ilya Kaminsky was granted asylum in the United States at the age of sixteen. His most recent book, Deaf Republic, won the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Book Award, and many other honors. NPR called it “an extraordinary book-length narrative work, re-envisioning disability as power and silence as singing.” Previous books include Dancing in Odessa and Musica Humana, as well as many anthologies and translations. He currently holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the BBC has named him “one of twelve artists that changed the world.”

In November 2020, Butler University English professor Chris Forhan interviewed Kaminsky via Zoom on Booth’s behalf.

Chris Forhan: Your book Deaf Republic begins with a poem in which the speaker says of the bombing of people’s houses, “we / protested / but not enough,” and concludes with a simultaneous confession and apology: “we (forgive us) / lived happily during the war.”

Certain people might say of that poem and the other poems in your book that they are political poems or poems of social consciousness. I’ve heard you say that only in America and in Western Europe is there such a thing as political poetry—that only in these places do people distinguish between poems and political poems. Do you have any way to account for that? What does that say about America and Western Europe that that is an issue?

Ilya Kaminsky: Well, I wouldn’t be the first person to say that it indicates that one is in a position of privilege if one can divide poetry into political and non-political, as folks seem to in Western Europe and the USA. Which is to say, I don’t think the fellow citizens of someone like Pablo Neruda or Anna Akhmatova would call them a political poet. They were—for their neighbors, who lived through the same terrors of the day—just a poet of everyday life. For Neruda, it was just as normal to write about lemons and a cat as it was to write about violence in the streets, because that was a part of daily life.

It may be because of the way segregation in our culture is structured: we are so separate from each other. It is not unusual for folks not to know their neighbors’ names. And, again, I’m not saying anything that’s new. Others have said this before.

CF: In Deaf Republic, we read of a citizenry that is under duress, and the citizens make a variety of responses: a unified, collective response but also individual choices within that unity. This is a big question, but I’ll try it. What do you think makes a good citizen—and is there a difference between what makes a good citizen and what makes a good poet?

IK: I think that’s a question for the likes of Ezra Pound, so to speak. I’m probably not a very good citizen myself. I wouldn’t be in any position to tell other people what to do in their lives.

But I think we all try to do something with our lives, and we do have choices. I think it’s instructive to look at poets who in a time of violence were accused of not writing about it enough, but in retrospect you look back and see, oh, they actually did, and they said some very wise things. I’m thinking of somebody like Robert Hayden, for example, whose “Middle Passage” is, to my mind, the greatest American poem about history. And yet in his lifetime, he was accused of not writing enough about his time’s wars. Think about Rilke, who managed to get through World War I without a single poem on the subject. How is it possible? Well, Rilke wrote a whole book about war—a book-long poem called The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke—right before the war started.

So instead of telling poets what to do, it is instructive to see how minds that we respect respond to crisis, and sometimes poets respond to crisis not in their subject matter but in their language. When we spoke to your class yesterday, we talked about a poet such as Paul Celan, who might in the late 1950s write a poem which sounds like a spell, which has completely nothing to do with “recent events.” But the way he deals with the German language, the way his language operates itself, the way his language denies Nazis’ main space in discourse had a lot to do with violence. So poets may operate on a level that’s more than just information.

CF: Speaking of language, there are a couple of moments in Deaf Republic that I want to draw attention to. In the poem “That Map of Bone and Open Valves,” you write, “The body of a boy lies on the asphalt like the body of a boy.” Later, in the poem “In a Time of Peace,” you write, “The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy.” These are moments when another poet might invent a simile; the poet’s personal imagination might have a take on that traumatic event. And I’m reminded of Neruda, in his poem “I’m Explaining a Few Things,” writing, “The blood of children ran through the streets without fuss like children’s blood.” That refusal to invent an analogy—did you have Neruda in mind in those moments?

IK: Because the book took such a long time to write, it is hard to speak of this or that specific reference. So many things cross one’s path in a decade and a half, after all. Of course, I’m familiar with Neruda’s statement and his body of work. I teach Neruda. So while I don’t know if I was responding to him directly, he was a part of my knowledge of poetry.

I do, however, want to talk a little bit about the idea of metaphor and the refusal of metaphor.

CF: Yes, please do.

IK: Because use of/refusal to use metaphor and figurative language is what Neruda is doing here—and that’s also one of the biggest discourses in disability studies, which the book also touches on and responds to, that one must not make a metaphor out of disability—the same way in Neruda’s work you can say one must not make a metaphor out of violence. But then, for disability studies to say that twenty, thirty, or more years ago—what did it mean? It was a world where people usually said negative things as a metaphor, and disability was used as a metaphor for something negative. The unspoken assumption was, let’s not use metaphors at all. Time passed. Now, you might have a poet who happens to be hard of hearing listen to this “rule” and say, “What does it mean? Does it mean that I as a person with a disability am not allowed to use the poetic device of metaphor while others through hundreds of years could?” Why is it that one poet can use a poetic device and another can’t? And so I wanted to write a book that would use deafness as a metaphor, yes. But not as a negative metaphor. A positive one. And then ask, where might that path lead us?

Then there is a question of use of/refusal to use metaphor in my book. In order for this dynamic/tension to work, I needed to provide a lot of metaphors and then at the most crucial moment say, “I refuse to use them now.” That refusal, on a particular page, surrounded by the sea of metaphors elsewhere in the book, would be impactful, I thought.

In the end, for me, it is not about “use this poetic tool” or “don’t use that poetic tool”—it is not about those kinds of rules. It is about how we use those tools, how we create tension in the text, and in readers’ minds, via our use of those tools. Knowing how to use tools on the page to create emotion in the reader’s mind is what we as practicing writers want, yes?

CF: The point you make about the tension between metaphor and the refusal to use metaphor: it makes me think of silence as a mechanism in poetry. You mention Paul Celan, and his poetry can be read as a grappling with silence, and Deaf Republic is literally, in terms of subject matter and narrative, about silence. The citizens of this village refuse to listen to the soldiers. So what is it that you conceive of as the function of silence in poetry and especially in relation to the use of words?

IK: To begin with—and this is also going to be an answer to your first question—I try not to divide poetry from life. So, in the same way, how can you say political or not political? How can you divide such things, you know? For somebody, to eat a sandwich is a political decision; for somebody else, it’s not.

Similarly, what does silence mean in our lives? Silence has so many different meanings. The political meaning that’s obvious on every page of the book is when people see violence and say nothing, and all the implications of that. But there are also metaphysical meanings. For instance, many great works of theology, philosophy, literature, etc., discuss silence in spiritual, theological, or philosophical terms. Much thinking in both the West and the East is based on that. But 8 percent of the population on planet Earth is people who are either deaf or hard of hearing, who do not believe silence exists because it doesn’t exist if you can’t hear it. What does it tell us about our metaphysics, our theology? What are we to make of this fact that none of that philosophy applies to a whole 8 percent of humans on earth in the first place?

Where does that take us? It takes us to an instant realization of limitations on all those theological, spiritual, and philosophical assumptions of our culture. Deaf people simply don’t have the same perspective on silence. So I’m not trying to answer the question, actually. Instead I’m trying to ask more questions. If those large cultural, philosophical, and so on assumptions are so obviously limited from the outset, what is next?

Then you can also talk about silence as a creative impulse. You speak against silence when you are in a civic situation, right? But in a creative situation it’s also silence that moves us to speak. It becomes an impulse for our outburst of lyricism.

I’m preparing right now to talk to students about a great Russian novelist, Mikhail Bulgakov, who had this wonderful statement which is inspiring for some folks: “Manuscripts do not burn.” It is from Bulgakov’s creative negotiation with silence that he came up with this thought, and how crucial this thought is for his great novel The Master and Margarita.

And yet, of course, manuscripts burn. Humans burn, the planet itself burns, the sun will explode, right? And, after that, what? Silence. But perhaps that planetary silence isn’t empty. Perhaps it is open. Or, to quote another poet, Dante, “It’s love that moves the sun and the other stars,” right?

Then, of course, how do we deal with that on the level of craft? Well, perhaps if the manuscript contains a kind of spark, a kind of “silence that moves us to speak,” and if the manuscript finds the right poetic tools to convey that silence—or perhaps we should call it a moment of awe—from one human body to another . . . that is, if poetic tools are used for the emotional intelligence of the work, when they become a kind of language of their own, a spell, then the poem becomes a kind of talisman a reader wants to carry around, to keep repeating. Then perhaps the manuscripts—at least for a little while—won’t burn.

CF: That leads me to my final question. I think there’s a relationship between this question and what you’re talking about. You have said, “Poetry is not about an event. It is the event,” which makes me think that poetry, when it really works, is something that lasts, that is worth returning to, that is not just a commentary on that which is but a part of that which is. So my question is, how do poets make a poem an event instead of merely a statement about an event?

IK: I think that is something we all forget as soon as we finish that poem, and then we have to learn again and again every time we write a new poem. I can give you a theory, but I don’t have a definite answer.

So one theory: I think we need to think about the origins of poetry. Are these origins in song? Story? Chants? Lullabies, funeral songs?

If we take a look at the oral tradition—I don’t mean just folklore, I mean simple everyday things, like humans talking to their children. Think, for a moment, about when a child asks a parent to read a story. What happens? The parent needs to really make that story alive for the child. Otherwise the child is not going to listen. The child is going to play computer games, right? That human necessity that exists in the oral tradition, that human need for the spell of language—that is the word I’m really looking for. Great poems cast a spell on us. Great poems are lullabies for humankind. They are mourning songs for humankind. They create patterns of language that convey ideas and emotions in a way that consoles, that invigorates, that challenges us, too, wakes us up.

How does that happen, in practice, this waking up? First of all, we forget that the magic is real, that we have tools at our disposal today, the same tools that our ancestors in the oral tradition thought magical: that nouns make images for us, and the images make the world vivid, that assonances, alliterations, rhymes, any rhymes, are mnemonic devices that humans remember their parents by.

In the time before photography—which is not very long ago—it was up to our tools of language, up to imagery, repetition, and so on, to keep the stories about one’s parents alive, vivid, still here with us. Language did that job.

Here is a true story, just from the other day: friends from Australia, who had lived in the USA for many years, were just introduced to the poetry of Les Murray. And I literally saw a person burst into tears. Why? Because she hasn’t been to Australia in a long while. And here it was, in front of her, on the page, a poem that spoke in the same language patterns of English her long-dead mother and father spoke. The poem brings that language back, and brings that whole sound of her childhood back.

Just a few dozen words on the page, with line breaks, with patterns, with sounds and images. Just a few words. They bring the whole world back. How is that not magical?

Well-written language does that: it conveys emotion one might have thought is long lost. It conveys the world anew. And that, to my mind, is a kind of spell. And that spell isn’t new-agey at all. It has to do with the tools of craft when they are coupled with emotion, with ideas, with passion and perspective toward the world.

That’s why any education for a poet is useful. It’s to prepare to be ready with craft when the feeling comes, so the feeling can be shared with another human in a language that’s interesting enough, seductive enough, compelling enough to become that human’s story. That’s why we remember poems and share them with our children—or stories. That’s how fairy tales survive for hundreds of years. They’re all based on poetic devices. Fairy tales are a great school of poetic devices—repetition, rhetoric, imagery, etc. We remember lullabies for a reason—rhyme, inner rhyme, diction, meter, denial of rhyme at crucial moments, etc. But a practicing poet needs to know how those things are made.

Chris Forhan, a Professor of English at Butler University, has published three books of poetry and a memoir. His forthcoming book, in Fall 2022, is A Mind Full of Music: Meditations on Imagination and Popular Song.