Ilya Kaminsky is a Ukrainian-American deaf poet, translator and teacher. He emigrated from Odessa after the fall of the USSR and lives in California. He is known for his collections “Dancing in Odessa” and “Republic of the Deaf.” Among his many congratulationsit was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of the “12 artists who changed the worldby the BBC.
On Thursday, February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. At the same time, Kaminsky was giving a lecture on poetry at Princeton University, sponsored by the Program in Creative Writing. This in-person interview took place the following day.
The interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
The Daily Princetonian: Do you have any news from your friends and family in Ukraine? If so, how did they hold up?
Ilya Kaminsky: I heard from my cousin in Odessa. He’s worried and scared but safe as far as I can tell. I tried to contact my uncle, but got no response. He is also in Odessa. I heard from friends who are in Odessa and Kyiv who are in similar situations. Some people in Kyiv are trying to leave because Kyiv is under attack right now. Others try to leave for the Polish border.
DP: If you could only say one thing in this interview, what would it be?
THIS : I would say “be careful”. A lot of things are happening. What you see happening in Ukraine is imperialism, colonialism. But our country [the United States] often does the same elsewhere. Be careful, do what you can.
DP: How has your experience in Ukraine and America influenced your way of seeing the world and your work?
THIS : Well for starters, right now on TV, everyone is seeing images of violence and panic. And it’s true, it’s the reality of this moment. But Ukraine is also a beautiful country. It is the most populous country [outside of Russia] in [Eastern] Europe — 44 million people. It is a country that goes back centuries in the past. It is a country where people speak several languages. This is a country that has survived some truly untold things, [like] wars, man-made famines…
But I wouldn’t want to focus only on the negative, because that wouldn’t do justice to the people who live there. This very morning, I was in contact with someone in Odessa. The person told me that she was scared, but she also said that it was a very calm and sunny morning for a while. And there is a lyrical perception in there. And I don’t want to minimize that and just focus on the violence that Putin wants us to see. Because violence is the language that power wants us to see. And you, as a human being, want to see many different types and registers of language expressed.
Moreover, the war in Ukraine did not start today. It started at least in 2014, when Crimea was taken, when the war started in Donbass.
DP: What is your approach to writing? What are your “obsessions” and how do you seek to communicate them in your work?
THIS : I will say that in my first book, “Dancing in Odessa”, there is a long poem about the Russian modernist poet, Osip Mandelstam. The poem is called “Musica Humana”. It’s a poem that tries to ask, “What does it mean to be human? And what language can we find for a time of crisis? This question, I think, is always one of my obsessions.
DP: By being deeply connected to two places – Ukraine and America – you are also deeply connected to each other’s pain and joys. How do you deal with the fact that there can be so much pain and so much joy at the same time?
THIS : I was about 16, a bit younger, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Even before Putin, there was the first Russian “humanitarian aid” campaign. Moldova had a war and the Russian army entered a separatist region called Pridnestrovie. In previous years, during the Soviet Union, my family traveled to Pridnestrovie, about 40 minutes from Odessa, to buy a refrigerator. So now, in the 1990s, in the middle of the night, we are knocking on our door. A man shouts outside: “There is war in Pridnestrovie! I jumped in my car in my pajamas. I delivered your new fridge to you two years ago, remember me? I want to phone. So it’s an image of violence that I still carry in my head. What happens next is here I am, almost 30 years later, still watching this man in his pajamas, on the phone, being tender with his own child, trying to console his child on the phone. This is how the war first came to my mind. So, a moment of violence, yes, but there was also this act of tenderness, of a person trying to console a child.
We must remember that even in the most difficult situations, people are still able to retain their humanity. They fall in love, get married and have children. We need to honor that too, and not just talk about the darkness of war. We must honor human survival, because if we don’t, if we don’t pay attention to every aspect, we dehumanize suffering. And frankly, in the empire we currently find ourselves in, tragedies are also happening on a daily basis. Our neighbors may find themselves in a similar situation at any time. So let’s be careful.
DP: Yesterday, during your speech, you talked about translation. Why do you think reading translated works is important?
THIS : Translation allows us to see the world from different angles, to hear all the stories and to hear them in very different ways. My metaphor for that is this: if you don’t have a translation in a literature, so little has been translated into English, we end up having a kind of tradition that continues to look itself in the mirror. A translator is someone who opens a window and lets us see outside of that particular tradition. It’s nice to be in a house with many different windows! It’s great to be in conversation. This is especially important where we live, so we don’t start believing our own propaganda, which we unfortunately have a lot of.
DP: You also mentioned that people with disabilities have a lot to contribute by sharing their stories. Could you say more about this and what you think your works have brought?
THIS : I won’t talk about myself, but I want to talk about the term called Deaf Gain. It’s a term used by community researchers as a sort of way to identify how a particular culture, in this case Deaf culture, contributes to the larger world. Deaf people have a wonderful and diverse Deaf culture. There is a deaf language in the United States called ASL. There are also sign languages in most other countries. Deaf Gain in Disability Studies asks a simple question: Has this particular condition contributed to humanity as a whole? And the answer is yes, of course.
More specifically, in the field of linguistics, deaf culture has taught us that language is not limited to speech alone. And that’s a huge game changer in this area. But also in most areas, since, as you know, language is one of the primary aspects of our human condition.
DP: Last question: what gives meaning to your life?
THIS : Sometimes this question, this very question: the search for meaning. There is a wonderful Greek-speaking modernist, Cavafy. He has a poem called “Ithaca”. It’s a poem about the return of a hero. And in the poem, he says, “Don’t be in a hurry. Keep asking, keep traveling, keep seeking. Because when you arrive, you won’t find anything. And Ithaca didn’t lie to you. It gave you a nice trip. So sometimes the meaning is in the questions themselves. Any answer I can give limits to this particular piece of this answer. The question allows a free field because it can lead to another question.
In Odessa, we like to answer a question with a question. So that’s my recommendation. Princeton is a great university, and part of education is asking questions. Also, I hope people don’t just think of other countries when there are bombings or invasions. It is good for us to open up a bit and be restless. Don’t be afraid of the bustle. Restlessness is also part of the human condition. Sometimes it helps us to be more alive in the world. By “living in the world” I mean “being meaningful”. A great poet of the Spanish language, Lorca, said that “a poet is a teacher of five senses”.
I would end by saying that the purpose of empires is to numb the senses. That’s why Putin is sending tanks to Ukraine. Ukraine is free; they question their own government, they have conversations. I’m not saying that Ukraine is an easy country. It’s not. But it is open. Putin is afraid of it. Same thing with the dictator in Belarus, Lukashenko, who is Putin’s ally. He is very uncomfortable with Ukraine because it incites his own people to protest. Ukraine is full of color, full of meaning, full of willingness to ask uncomfortable questions. The empire wants to numb the senses, but a poet’s goal is to awaken them.
Editorit’s Note: This piece has been updated to reflect that Ukraine is not the most populous country in Europe. It is, in fact, the second largest country in Eastern Europe in terms of population.
Danielle Ranucci is a staff news writer who typically covers human interest stories. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @DanielleRanucci