Ilya Kaminsky - Patron of the "Un Week-end à l’Est" Festival dedicated to Odesa
Known for his poetry collections, Dancing in Odesa and Deaf Republic, which has just been translated to French, Ilya Kaminsky is the patron of the 2022 Un Week-end à l’Est Festival. As a sign of support, the Festival, taking place in Paris from 23 to 28 November, spotlights the city of Odesa. With the support of the Institut français, the festival is built around some forty events with the participation of around one hundred Ukrainian artists, writers and philosophers.
We spoke with Ilya Kaminsky about his attachment to his city, Odesa, regarding the actual uncertainties, but also about the festival, the Ukrainian literature, the importance of poetry and his upcoming projetcs.
Published on 15/11/2022
You have lived in the United States for many years, but you still have a strong attachment to your home country, Ukraine, and to your city, Odesa. How do you explain or interpret this affinity in spite of the passage of time and distance?
Yes, I have lived in America for a good number of years, but I try to go back to Odesa every summer. Why? The answer very simple, and can fit in just one word: love. You can't explain love, but you know it when you have it. Odesa is an easy place to have affection for - it is a beautiful city, filled with senses. For me, too, it is a city where both of my parents were alive.
When I was growing up in USSR, I didn't have hearing aids, although I grew up profoundly deaf, I came to America at 16 without hearing aids. So Odesa I know is the city where language is invisibly linked to my father's lips moving as he is telling stories. He turns away, and the story stops. He moves back and the story continues. That's how it was with that man who told stories non-stop. Now, coming back to Odesa, when both of my parents are already dead, I don't feel I have quite returned until I turn hearing aids off.
Click-- and people's lips still move, but no sound.
No footsteps of grandmothers running after their grandchildren. No announcements by tram conductors as the tram stops at a station and, finally, I jump off. The cab whooshes by me and abruptly parks at the curb. I do not hear the screech of its brakes. This is the Odesa of my childhood: father's lips open and the story begins. He bends to pick up a coin. The story stops. Then, as he straightens up, it begins again.
I come back to this city and the conversations continue, even if those whose stories I listen to are no longer alive.
How do you feel about the current situation and the uncertainties related to the outcome of the war? Are you able to write?
It is all very real. I was there just a couple of months ago, visiting in the middle of this war. My uncle & aunt who still live in Odesa are in their 80s. The building on my uncle & aunt's street, one block away, has been bombed. Still, every time I suggested that it is a good time to leave (I came to Ukraine, flying into Moldova, driving into Odesa, since Ukraine is a no fly zone, arranged car to go across the border with them) my aunt asked why am I so skinny, am I eating enough? and uncle hollered that my aunt "has been teaching music in this city for 40 years, half the town are her former students" never-mind that half the town left and has been replaced by sandbags and anti-tank devices.
But they want to stay, because Odesa is where they have lived their whole lives.
How was it in Odesa ? It was summer, everyone was in the streets, eating out in restaurants, etc. typical jovial Odesa (once upon a time it was known as the party town in former USSR). Typical, these days, too, are air-raid sirens, at least 3-4 a day, so there we sat, in the restaurant, while air-raid siren moaned. And people kept making toasts.
As surreal as it gets.
But then, this kind of attitude also isn't surprising. When the war just started, I was writing frantically to family and friends asking what can I do, how can I help.
And, so I e-mailed an elderly friend, a journalist in Odesa: please let me know what can I do for you, I really would like to help you.
And he wrote back: Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.
And that is in the middle of war. Imagine.
Could you share a few words about contemporary Ukrainian literature - which the festival will honour in different ways and which we still know very little about in France?
Literature in Ukraine is very diverse, it would take a great deal more than just a brief interview, or a festival, to introduce it. But this is a start and I am very grateful for that introduction. What I think would be helpful is for people to see the necessity of poetry, and how the situation in Ukraine reminds us of it, how people themselves remind.
Let me tell you a story: When the war started and Kyiv was heavily bombed, a Ukrainian friend emailed me about spending whole nights in Kyiv subway stations—which are being used as bomb shelters—reciting poems to herself and those around her to keep sane. When she grew tired, she started translating those poems into other languages, just as a way of keeping going.
Critics in the West often ask whether poetry matters. I now realize that the only valid response to this question is: Do such critics matter?
If a person sheltering deep underground as her city is bombed recites poems as a survival tool—to soothe herself and others—that is all the evidence I need that poetry matters. But we humans always knew that.
And poetry now is as necessary as ever. Not because it is pretty or fancy. But because it helps us to articulate the most impossible moments: It gives us a gasp, a scrap of air in our lungs. When we have nothing else, we can still hold a handful of words in our memory, a tune, and that might be all we have got now to survive—we don’t know yet. But if we are lucky, it is there. Keep it safe, this verbal music. Memorize new line poems if you can. You might need them one day, war planes or not. When facing the blank wall that is crisis, everyone needs a bit of music, a tune, a balm.
Around one hundred writers, film-makers, philosophers and musicians are involved in the festival for some forty events over six days. Is there a piece that you feel particularly passionate about?
Yes, I am beyond grateful to the festival for doing such an amazing, powerful and moving work to introduce the culture from Ukraine in France. And, of course, as a human among humans I am most excited about meeting old friends at the festival, for instance about meeting a terrific poet from Odesa, Boris Khersonsky and the terrific, very talented poet and translator Sabine Huynh, among other wonderful artists and writers.
Can you tell us about your recent and upcoming projects?
At the festival, I will be presenting my new book Deaf Republic, which has just been translated into French - it is a story in verse about a country where at the public gathering in the occupied country an invading soldier shoots and kills a young Deaf boy. And in response to that murder, the whole community decides to protest by refusing the hear the authorities, and their refusal is coordinated by sign language which people invent and which the authorities do not speak.
Deaf Republic is a fable that was first published in 2018, but of course it has elements of reality which you can see happening right now.
As for new writing, I am always writing new poems, and essays, and these days I also translate a lot of poems and testimonies by people living in Ukraine.
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