Poet Of The Week

Ilya Kaminsky

     April 29–May 5, 2019

Called by Library Journal “an important voice in world poetry,” Ilya Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union and is now an American citizen. He is the author of the recently published Deaf Republic, which was called “riveting” by Publishers Weekly, “extraordinary” by NPR and “glorious” by Lit Hub. His previous poetry collection, Dancing in Odessa, won a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Whiting Writers Award. Kaminsky is also the coeditor of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry and was recently named a finalist for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. On Thursday, May 2, Kaminsky will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Tina Chang and Brenda Shaughnessy at the Brooklyn Public Library.

In a Time of Peace

Inhabitant of earth for fortysomething years
I once found myself in a peaceful country. I watch neighbors

their phones to watch
a cop demanding a man’s driver’s license. When a man reaches
     reaches for his wallet, the cop
shoots. Into the car window. Shoots.

It is a peaceful country.

We pocket our phones and go.
To the dentist,
to pick up the kids from school,
to buy shampoo
and basil.

Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the
for hours.

We see in his open mouth
the nakedness
of the whole nation.

We watch. Watch
others watch.

The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body
     of a boy—

It is a peaceful country.

And it clips our citizens’ bodies
effortlessly, the way the President’s wife trims her toenails.

All of us
still have to do the hard work of dentist appointments,
of remembering to make
a summer salad: basil, tomatoes, it is a joy, tomatoes, add
     a little salt.

This is a time of peace.

I do not hear gunshots,
but watch birds splash over the backyards of the suburbs.
     How bright is the sky
as the avenue spins on its axis.
How bright is the sky (forgive me) how bright.

—From Deaf Republic, Graywolf Press, 2019.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I take a lot of notes. They usually come from images, from scraps of music, from bits of voices, from tiny details: eleven people in the crowded elevator, and suddenly a little child starts laughing and soon the whole elevator is laughing while going up full speed. Or the snow, falling on benches, falling on sidewalks, falling in our pockets, our nostrils. The snow turning the city into a hospital. And the dogs run out like medics.

Things like that.

They go into journals, and stay around for years. But sometimes, they meet other images or sounds, and the poems come out of those ungodly meetings. Or not.

But, at other times, like in the case of this poem, I just sit down and write the whole draft. That happens rarely. But it does happen. This one was written in the UK, after I saw a presentation by Carolyn Forché and Patricia Smith. It was supposed to be a formal presentation on American poetry for a UK audience. But soon it turned into a very personal conversation about what it means to live in the USA under the current regime. Patricia told us that she was afraid for the lives of her children. The words were simple, and very moving, and we saw the whole room change and be transformed as the two poets spoke. There was the shame of being an American, of what we as a country have become; or perhaps what we have always been, but now the mask was torn off and we could see clearly who we are.

Sometime that week, while still in the UK, I wrote the draft of this piece.

What are you working on right now?

I am always writing new poems. Sometimes they end up going in a box and staying in that box for a few years, or forever. Other times they end up being published. It depends on how they behave.

But right now, I am also trying to finish a book of essays as well. Prose is a new adventure and it is lovely.

What’s a good day for you?

A day when I am a master of my own time.

But it always helps when my wife is laughing, somewhere not too far. It is always nice when my cat comes by and teaches me how to take a proper nap. A bit of sunlight and a good walk under many trees is also always welcome.

I love people and I love books. A good day is to be the master of my own time in between those two spaces.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it?

These days I say my home is where my wife is.

But I suspect a part of me is still very much at home in Odessa, which is where I was born and lived, in the then-USSR, for the first sixteen years of my life. I now live in the USA and am an American citizen, but I do try to go back to Odessa every couple of years or so.

What do I like about it?

The place has changed, the people I love are no longer alive there. But at times I can still see the light change, the light fall on the trees, and the sidewalks’ dust and the raindrops smell of childhood.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I go to Brighton Beach to visit Russian bookstores once in a while. That place hasn’t changed in over two decades. Same train overhead, same grandmothers buying oranges for their little kids, same grandpas in purple jackets with green ties and yellow socks selling books on street corners. The smell of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Home, sweet home.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?

Poetry community is a good conversation. Two people deeply passionate about what they do, and deeply knowledgeable and in love with their subject, talking about poetry deep into the night—they make more than just a community, they make something holy. That kind of good, deep conversation is what I am after, what makes me love being alive and talking to others about this thing we love, that is poetry.

My second book just came out and I am doing readings for it. It’s been fifteen years since my first book. So, it’s been a while. And boy, how things have changed! I have to say I am saddened and appalled by how commercial things have become, how businesslike it all is these days. I mean, all this talk about branding, really? Folks, we will all die one day. Let’s stop wasting our time.

I have been lucky to have great students and fellow poet-neighbors both in San Diego where I lived for twelve years and in Atlanta where I am now. In both places I was lucky enough to have very different, but very passionate, conversations. The kind of conversations that taught me a thing or two about what it means to be alive, and what it means to try to write better. That is what I value most.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I am reading Shakespeare in Russian right now. Which is a mind-blowing experience. Why? Because modern-day Russian literature began relatively very recently, say in the 1820s when Aleksandr Pushkin was writing his novel-in-verse, Evgeny Onegin, which is at the heart of Russian poetic tradition. Now, what is the 1820s for English literature? Not much. It was already well established by then, with many giants.

Which is to say: Russian literature is still a baby. Which is also to say: the translation of a classic into Russian language makes that classic very immediate, very present to us, very alive. Pasternak’s Shakespeare is extremely alive, extremely contemporary. I mean: I read Lear in English and I am very moved, and then I go have a good dinner and play with my nephews or watch some TV. It is very moving, but it is not exactly life changing. There is a healthy dose of time, of aged language between me and the play in English. But then I read Lear in Russian and I am devastated. I can hardly speak for a week. I literally respond with all my senses, I start crying mid-sentence. It is so god-damn close. It is written in gorgeous Russian, yes, but also: contemporary Russian. It just smashes you, as if it were written yesterday, written just for you, and here in front of you this poor old fool is kneeling, with a dead daughter in his arms and he is shouting, Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.

What else is there to say?

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I haven’t read much Dryden at all, other than the anthology pieces. I love Ovid’s Metamorphosis and I have learned a thing or two from his Tristia and Epistles from Pontus, but I need to read the rest. I am quite in love with Wang Wei and Tu Fu, but there are many other Chinese classics I am not familiar with, and could learn a lot from, I am sure. As for more contemporary works: I love Césaire’s writing, but there are other poets from the Négritude movement that I need to read as well, and so on.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

A bunch of books on the bedstand, a bunch of books in the bathroom, a bunch of books in the kitchen, a bunch of books in the car. You get the picture.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I usually do things that I haven’t tried before, although unlike most of my friends, I don’t really believe that a poet should write a different book each time a poet writes a book. That is such an American thing to do and say. Poetry books are not new seasons of clothes at Macy’s; they don’t need to change every summer, fall, winter, spring. They do change as we change. But that comes from hungers, from desires, from obsessions, and not from projects or the sport of trying-what-you-haven’t-tried-before.

God knows, we don’t need to change as a poetry assignment. Our bodies change on their own as years pass, just fine, and quite speedily, as our absent-minded spirits are running far, far behind.

I don’t say this to complain, actually. I say this in the hope of encouraging others to be themselves, not to follow the next fashion. There is too much pressure to do that in the USA. Fashions can go to hell. Poetry is our air, our joy, and oftentimes the final thing that we can still have.

Having said that, to give a more direct response: I am toying with the idea of a long poem that isn’t narrative. Just because life feels more symphonic these days than chronological.

Why Brooklyn?

Why not? It is a place as good as any. Perhaps a little more open minded than most places in the USA these days. Good people, good food, good libraries and bookstores. Which makes one hopeful when one is there.