(Not Quite) 10 Questions for Ilya Kaminsky
- By Edward Clifford
Yes, I bought you a wedding dress big enough for the two of us
And in the taxi home
we kiss a coin from your mouth to mine.
—from “Of Weddings,” Spring 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 1)
We asked poet Ilya Kaminsky the same ten questions we ask our other contributors. He responded with nine of his own.
How do you begin writing a poem?
I write in lines. So the lines find their way on paper whether I overhear two boys insulting each other at the gas station, or see a gull cleaning her feet, or two old men playing dominoes on a hood of a car, or two young women kissing at the fish market. They become lines on receipts, on my hands, on a water bottle, on other people’s poems. Lines collect for years, but once in a while they discover that other lines are sexy and, well, the poems may come from that sort of a relationship. If I am lucky. Which isn’t often. But one has to have faith.
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.
There is a beauty in falling in love with a language—the strangeness of its sounds, the awe of watching the sea-surf of a new syntax beating again and again the cement of your unknowing. Learning to speak again can be erotic—the unfamiliar turn of the tongue, the angle of the mouth, the movement of lips.
On the other hand, you are so powerless, so humbled, so lost, bewildered, surrounded by nothing but your own confusion. That, too. You don’t know the word, what to do?
And then: the miracle of metaphor. You know other words, they come to redefine what you wanted to say in the first place, you see the world slightly differently from where you began, your mouth makes sounds you didn’t know were possible.
Even the shape of my face changed when I began to live inside the English language.
But I wouldn’t make a big deal out of writing in a language that is not one’s own. It’s the experience of so many people in the world; those who have left their homes because of wars, famines, environmental disasters and so on. My being bilingual is no big deal, fellow humans migrate all the time, and have done that for thousands of years.
Migratory and bilingual experience is rather commonplace among writers, too. Here is a sample list - Gertrude Stein’s first language wasn’t English. Mandelstam’s first language wasn’t Russian. French wasn’t Edmont Jabes’ first language. Venus Khoury-Ghata claims to write in Arabic through French. Li-Young Lee was born in Indonesia to Chinese parents who fled from Indonesia to Hong Kong to Japan before they settled in USA. Milosz was a man from Lithuania writing in Polish (something that haunted him, as he admitted countless times; he felt he couldn’t do things that Polish poets from Warsaw could do; but perhaps what he couldn’t do gave him something larger?). Hell, Russian wasn’t Pushkin’s first language—and this is the founder of the Russian literary tradition we are talking about here.
What’s important are those little thefts between languages, those strange angles of looking at another literature, “slant” moments in speech, oddities, the music of oddities.
Could you say more about this strangeness?
The question of strange language, especially as it relates to the lyric poet is something we can talk about for a while. Isn’t lyric itself a strangeness inside the language? Isn’t silence? After all, what is music—any music—without silences in it? Mere noise? If so, what does that tell us about strangeness, about duality. You see, I believe that no great lyric poet ever speaks in the so-called “proper” language of his or her time. Emily Dickinson didn’t write in “proper” English grammar but in a slanted music of fragmentary perception. Half a world and half a century away, Cesar Vallejo placed three dots in the middle of the line, as if language itself were not enough, as if the poet’s voice needed to leap from one image to another, to make—to use Eliot’s phrase—a raid on the inarticulate. Paul Celan wrote to his wife from Germany, where he briefly visited from his voluntary exile in France: “The language with which I make my poems has nothing to do with one spoken here, or anywhere.”
What is it like to write poems in a language that is not your native one?
Well, I still write in Russian from time to time. And I read in Russian a great deal. But do I consider myself 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.
Tell us about your poems included in this issue (a selection from the forthcoming Deaf Republic).
These poems are from a recently completed manuscript, Deaf Republic, which will be published by Graywolf Press in 2019. In the book, a boy is killed by soldiers breaking up a protest, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear—all have gone deaf, and their dissent is coordinated by sign language.
My native country, Ukraine, is currently at war. The country in which I am alive right now, USA, is currently harassing/bombing/taking advantage of more than half of this Earth’s population. How do I address this, as a lyric poet? Do lyric poets address such things? What is silence? We speak against silence, but it is silence that moves us to speak.
I am not a documentary poet; I am a fabulist. And, yet, the world pushes through, the reality is everywhere in this fable. My job is to make this border between the shelter of fable and the bombardment of reality a lyric moment, I feel.
You have worked for some time as a lawyer for the poor. How did that influence your writing?
Yes, I went to law school, and have at one time worked for Legal Aid and the National Immigration Law Center. While these days I teach at San Diego State, I still continue to work pro bono from time to time as a Court-appointed advocate for kids who are orphans on the California/Mexico border. I enjoy doing that that kind of thing.
Does this work influence me as a poet? Surely: losing a case on which someone’s health benefits depend certainly taught me about the urgency of language. But then, all of our daily activities and interactions with others influence our vocabulary; if we are to believe Yeats, a poet should always be revising for a more passionate syntax.
But don’t poets see/hear/touch language everywhere? Going to the beach with my nephews fills the afternoon with language. Kissing my wife is a moment in which nouns understand their passion for verbs and adjectives shyly watch. Nouns start flying around the room when I engage with my brother in a shouting match, and the cats hide. And is there a better lesson in pacing and line-break for a poet than botching the delivery of a joke?
I love human beings. Time squeezes us from both ends like accordions, and I love this music we make. One might choose to see it from a distance. I prefer to see it from the inside, in the midst these person-to-person interactions. If I fail to be a human being first, I fail my poetry.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Ice skating! Cooking! Dancing at gas stations!
ILYA KAMINSKY lives in San Diego, CA. His new book, Deaf Republic, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2019.