Featured Poet Ilya Kaminsky
The Adirondack Review
The Adirondack Review
Interview with 
Ilya Kaminsky
Q: When did you first get acquainted with poetry?  When did you start to learn English, and how did it manage to become your preferred language for literature?

Well, I wrote verses in Russian for quite some time before we came to America. When we came to this country, I was sixteen years old. We settled in Rochester, New York. The question of English being my "preferred language for literature" would have been quite ironic back then, since none of us spoke English — I myself hardly knew the alphabet. But arriving in Rochester was rather a lucky event —  that place was a magical gift, it was like arriving to a writing colony, a Yaddo of sorts. There was nothing to do except for writing poetry! Why English then — why not Russian?  My father died in 1994, a year after our arrival to America. I understood right away that it would be impossible for me to write about his death in the Russian language, as one author says of his deceased father somewhere, "Ah, don't become mere lines of beautiful poetry!" I choose English because no one in my family or friends knew it — no one I spoke to could read what I wrote. I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.

Q: What were the circumstances leading to your arrival in the United States as a teenager?

My brother left the country first. He fell in love with a woman who was going to America, got married and left. But my father did not want to leave. Odessa was not only a home for my father, but also his life. Immigration is a difficult game;  I would not advise it to anyone. It is a period of a tremendous emotional change. It breaks lives. But as Soviet Union collapsed it became considerably more difficult to live as a Jewish family in Ukraine. My father was a rich man during Soviet times, and so he was able to bribe officials in exchange for our safety. Later, in the independent Ukraine, party members became, quite openly, the members of the mafia, and it became almost impossible even to bribe — plus, my father's fortune disappeared with the inflation. It was a time of significant civil unrest. There was a war going on in the neighboring Moldova — bombs were dropped on schools, we had friends who left their houses with a single change of underwear — and never came back. When, in 1993 United States approved our application as political refugees, we left.

Q: How have you adjusted to life in the United States?  Was it difficult at first?  Did you experience major culture shock?  Do you still return to the Ukraine from time to time? Do you miss it?

As I said, we arrived to Rochester, New York. A culture shock? Well,  I personally tend to think of exile as a wonderful gift. One is able to look immediately at one's past — as if it is a city on a valley, and you are flying above it. And it is not a dream. And, no I never went back. It is almost ten years now. It is a different country. They even speak a different language — Ukrainian. The country I left does not exist anywhere except in my imagination. Which is, perhaps, a good thing. But you have got to understand something else: how can I come to the city of my childhood as a tourist? It would have been extremely vulgar. The people suffer there, you understand. I cannot allow myself to be a tourist in their suffering.

Q: What is it like to write poems that are widely accepted in a language that is not your native one?  Was it a strange experience at first?  How do you feel when you write in Russian, now that you have been living in the States for some time?

Well, I still write in Russian to begin with. And I read in Russian a great deal. But do I consider myself I an American poet? Yes, I do. But, then, I must answer a question: what does it mean to be an American poet? What is my American experience? It is laughing with my friends, to making love to my girlfriend, fighting with my family, loving my family, loving the ocean (I love water), loving to travel on train, loving this human speech. But we all have these things don't we? Yes, we do. And therefore, I fiercely resist being pigeonholed as a "Russian poet" or "immigrant poet" or even "American poet." I am a human being. It is a marvelous thing to be.

Q: Why do you write poetry?

Because I cannot stop.  As good old Yeats says, "Argument with someone else is a rhetoric. Argument with yourself is poetry." A lyrical voice is first of all a human voice, which we all have. And poetry is an international language. An image of a boy playing a flute to his cows in a poem by Horace is available in any language, understood by any civilization. I love languages; English, Russian, Ukrainian, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Polish and so forth. But poetry, I admit, exists above any speech. Being able to write poems in more than one language only affirms me in this statement.

Q: On translation: how do you feel about the mechanics of translating poetry?  What about the spirit of it?  How much is lost in translation?  Do you translate your own poetry?

Akhmatova says somewhere that translating poetry is in a way almost like eating one's own brain. I can see her point quite clearly; but it is a cruel point. I think that the work and position of the translator is a very important, almost spiritual task. So what is lost in translation? Quite a bit. Music of the native language for sure, some archetypal cultural affinity. But what is gained? What is preserved? Image survives. If the translator is skillful (and lucky) he preserves the rhythm.

Q: You were recently awarded the Ruth Lilly Fellowship in Poetry, among many other prizes. You have also enjoyed a glorious reception from many of America's most highly regarded poets, yet you remain surprisingly humble -- and it doesn't seem put on!  How has all of this affected your work?  What was it like to receive praise from so many established poets at such an early stage of your career as a writer — at such a very young age?

Well, you got to understand one thing-- it is a different art: all of that, praise, acceptance, prizes, publications; these are all wonderful things, I am extremely — extremely — grateful for them. But what do they have to do with poetry? Nothing. When I sit down to write a line, or when I walk humming a line to myself, or when I tell a line to a friend  I stake my life on that line! It is my being, my voice, my memory, my imagination: these things are private. When I write poetry, it is a private thing. Yes, many folks have noted that my poetry has a public appeal. But this public "appeal" is simply a way of being able to speak privately with many people at once. And, about young age — well, I am almost 26. Lermontov, a great Russian poet, was already dead at 26. So, I sort of... have a different kind of standard to look up to, yes?

Q: What was your first poetry publication?

I published in newspapers in Odessa quite a bit as a kid. I was 12-13 when I wrote prose articles. I am rather happy that I began with prose — at least now I do not have to blush for it. Poetry was always a private affair for me. I kept it to myself. But I did have a chapbook out in Odessa in 1992, it was a combination of poetry and prose and was called "Blagoslovenii Gorod" which translates, somewhat loosely, as "The Blessed City."

Q: Have you considered writing fiction in addition to poetry?

Yes, all the time. Fiction is a splendid thing. I think in this century there has been a wonderful industry of novels and short stories. There are some prose writers who I love more than many many poets, Issak Babel and Vladimir Nabokov for instance.

Q: Your new chapbook, Musica Humana, is rather unique in its format.  What made you decide to write the work this way?  Could you explain to readers who have not yet read your book what makes it unusual in style?

Well, you place me in an "unusual" position here, I am quite awkward at self explanations... So let me try to be impartial: Musica Humana has three long poems: "Musica Humana," "Natalia," and "Praise." Some folks have noticed that the book seems to work together as one piece, one united whole. And that makes me happy. My goal with that collection was to write (and here I am being immodest) something of "epic proportions" by "lyrical means." One should not be ambitions. And ambition was not, in fact, my goal. My goal in this book was to write the way poets I love wrote: Celan, Mandelshtam, Emily Dickinson. I have always loved how their speech is always clean and lyrical. But I had no wish to write like these poets. So, this is where the "long poem" comes in — the long poem allows me to tell a narrative, a tale in verse, of sorts. I have also experimented a bit with prose. The prose has always fascinated me; its rhythm, its endless possibilities for reopening the narrative. So, a long poem for me, in its combination of poetry and prose, is like an orchestra, it goes (to use Pasternak phrase here) "above the borders, smashing those borders." And, another thing -- I have always complained that no one — absolutely no one — is writing happy poems these days in America. What happened? It is after all up to the writer what to leave his readers with. I want to leave my readers laughing in a poem about death and crying in the poem about weddings. Why? Because we do so constantly in our daily experience. This is the ultimate act of witnessing. If a writer is unable to witness the joy of being on this third planet of the sun, I doubt that he or she has found his or her truest vocation.

Q: Tough question: how would you describe your own work, your style, your sensibilities?

Well, how about this: my old poems are boring, my new poems are fun. Really. No, not really. Well, maybe. I'll have a little argument with myself here. Am I a poet? Yes, I am a poet. But I am first of all a human being — and if I fail to acknowledge that in my poetry, I fail my poetry. What are my subjects? They are the same that had been around for thousands of years: elegy, praise, joy, playfulness, desire, a joke, a tear. I tend to like working with large pieces -- five, ten, twenty or so pages poems. But at the same time attention to detail is instrumental in my work. As Paul Celan (whose birthday was yesterday, by the way) says, somewhere: "attention is the natural prayer of the soul." And, about my new poems, since they're more fun to speak about: I am working on a long piece about the country where everyone is deaf. It is, in the long run, the poem about silence. I am myself deaf.  And I speak against silence, and again, against silence, knowing that silence moves me to speak. Is it a human dialema? You bet. So there is quite a bit of questioning going on there (as my Jewish mother says: "he answers a question with a question") in the new piece, some thinking. But there is also quite a bit of longing, cursing, fucking, dying, being adored and badly hurt, and even talking to kids about it. 

Q: You say that much of what you write comes from your imagination, which must be extraordinary.  Some, though, must come from your life.  Can we see characters from your own life in your work?  You write many poems about your father.  To what extent have people in your life influenced you and/or given you inspiration to write?

Well, I am hardly a confessional poet. I aspire to be a spiritual poet. I aspire to be a storyteller. I aspire to catch those blessed moments of being. But family narrative is not my thing. I use the characters, the voices, the loved one's touch, of course — the truth, the sincerity is impossible otherwise. But such memory is very "selective." You can call it an "imaginary memoir," if you will. Let me give you an example — in Musica Humana I talk about Osip Mandelshtam, who was killed and whose wife, Nadezhdah, was exiled. But my grandfather was also killed in 1937. My grandmother was exiled to Siberia for 20 years. So there is a material that comes from my life, yes.

Q: Who are some of your favorite poets and writers?

Horace, Vergil, Shakespeare, Propertius, Catalus, Pushkin, Mandelshtam, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Montale, Dickinson, Ungaretti, Parra, Cavafy, Celan, Trakl, Rilke, Anna Swir, Anna Kamenska. And many more. It is impossible to really name all. I can start with Auden or with Sappho, or with Andrew Marvel. I love Milton and I love Mitskevich. I love Bacho. This is not in any particular order. There can be 50 or 100 more names. 

Q: You are an editor for the noted on-line literary journal In Posse Review.  How did you happen upon the position?  What are the ups and downs of the job?  What do you think about the future of on-line literary publishing?  What are its advantages and disadvantages?

In Posse Review is a lot of fun. About three years ago I sent my poem to Mike Neff, who is the editor of the Webdelsol.com and he wrote me back asking if I wanted to edit poems for In Posse, which is a child of Webdelsol.com and Rachel Callaghan, my wonderful co-editor. Ups and downs? Well, one has to do things like formatting, etc., which one does not always have all the time in the world for. But there are wonderful moments when a college freshman sends you poems and you go: wow! I love those moments. It is also always very nice randomly to receive pieces from authors whose work you have admired for years; you are surprised and impressed that they want to appear in your publication. As for online publishing — well, I think is a wonderful — wonderful! — thing. It allows much democracy, but also teaches us where the democracy must end and the literary taste must begin. It is a very valuable lesson for me personally as an editor and writer. There is this sensation of immediacy in communication, of not just reaching many strangers, but communicating with them instantly. I love that aspect of e-publishing. Also, as native speaker of Russian language living away from Russia I am very grateful to internet for allowing me to keep track of contemporary literary arena. You might be surprised, but in Georgetown University, where I went as an undergraduate, they even offered a class "Russian Literature on the Internet" — and it was very successful. So as far as this aspect of instant communication goes, e-publishing has a lot to offer in my opinion.

Q: Do you prefer to write in a special place, or do you write where you can, when you can?

I have no "special places." As my life stands right now, I find myself lucky enough to have an hour here or there to write at all. It is a great gift to be able to write, at whatever place, at whatever time. I am immensely grateful for it.

Q: You co-founded the organization Poets For Peace.  Tell us about that.

You can find a wealth of information about Poets For Peace at our new web-page, www.unitedpoets.org, which was recently created by Los Angeles poet Larry Jaffe. I co-founded the organization with attorney Paloma Capanna back in 1990s during the on-going crisis in former Yugoslavia. But the organization really picked up the speed after 9/11. We have more than a 100 poetry readings in different countries and in almost all major cities in the United States. The idea is to invite poets to read for free and to ask audiences for donations to such relief organizations as Doctors Without Borders, Survivors International, Red Cross and so forth. Many well known poets have read for us for free. Many grassroot poets and organizations has also supported us and, thankfully, continue to do so. It is wonderful thing to offer poets to read their work and by doing so to help relief organizations, I think. We have also founded an award for younger poets. We are collaborating with a number of other organizations, such as United Nation's "Dialogue Through Poetry Among Civilizations" project. We are always open to new collaborations.

Q: And now for the inevitable question about advice for aspiring young writers: what would you suggest to other young people who want to write literature?

I will tell you what my own teachers told me: get private. Only after you get private with yourself, you can truly start writing. Read a lot. Read a lot, yes. Read everything.
by Colleen Marie Ryor
ILYA KAMINSKY was born in Odessa, formerly the Soviet Union, and moved to the U.S. in 1993. He has won the National Russian Essay Contest, the National Shepardi Prize for Poetry, and most recently the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry magazine. In 1999 and 2000, Ilya served as a George Bennett Fellow Writer-in-Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy. His manuscript was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Walt Whitman Award. He has also received the Florence Kahn Memorial Award and the Milton Center's Award for Excellence in Writing. Current work appears or is forthcoming in The New Republic, American Literary Review, DoubleTake, Salmagundi, Southwest Review, Tikkun, The American Writing, Literary Review, and Mars Hill Review.  Kaminsky also writes poetry in Russian. His work in that language was recently chosen for 'Bunker Poetico" at the 2001 Venice Biennial. His most recent chapbook, Musica Humana, is available from Chapiteau Press.