January 20, 2005
In Praise of Laughter
by Aviya Kushner
Rising poetic star Ilya Kaminsky speaks against the silence
Ilya Kaminsky’s poems are sometimes deliriously happy and sometimes full of horror, but they are always immense in their ideas and their reach. Kaminsky’s verse spans continents and centuries, and feels like it belongs to Russian immigrant dreamers, American tourists and the millions who perished in the Holocaust and Stalin’s purges, all at once.
If you sit and read his poems out loud, you’ll quickly move into cities of seaweed and wide waters that lead to wider waters; you’ll find yourself talking to long-gone poets who suddenly get up and dance. Some poems are deeply Jewish, but all of them try to address the wider world.
It’s no wonder that many longtime poetry readers are excited about this young writer. When Kaminsky read in Iowa City recently, the home of the famous International Writing Program, audience members who had never heard him before were moved, and also obviously stunned by the voice of this new poet.
Kaminsky is deaf, and has been since the age of four. He hands out copies of his book to the audience so they can follow along more easily. When asked a question, he looks closely at the asker’s lips so he can read them. Another source of surprise is that English is very much his second language; he came to America only a few years ago, without knowing a word of it. This is a writer who taught himself English through poetry, and who began writing as a way to comfort himself after the death of a loved one.
“To defy death was what made me write in English,” he says.
In conversation, Kaminsky is anything but death-obsessed, though. He loves to discuss art and life. Over and over, in his references to ancient poets and contemporary ones, Kaminsky comes back to the topic of happiness.
“I don’t think it’s a poet’s job to witness only tragedy,” he says. “I think it’s a poet’s job to witness joy in the world, no matter how much tragedy also exists.”
Winner of the 2002 Tupelo Press Dorset Prize, this rising star from Odessa has already received the Ruth Lilly fellowship from Poetry magazine, and was the youngest person appointed Writer in Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy.
In the sunny lobby of the International Writing Program’s home, 27-year-old Kaminsky discusses his new and much-acclaimed book of poems, Dancing in Odessa, and reflects on some of the people, writers, books and memories that appear in it.
In “Author’s Prayer” at the beginning of your new book, you write: “If I speak for the dead, I must leave/ this animal of my body.” Who are the dead you are speaking for?
I imagine that line as a sort of a wave of the hand to someone who lived before me. Does all poetry have a responsibility to the dead? Yes and no. Yes – because poetry, in a way, is a private art of collective remembering. And no – poetry does not have any responsibilities except for being well written. Only its authors, as human beings, have responsibilities.
You also write about childhood, and the kind of places that only exist in the imagination, like “the city made of seaweed” in “American Tourist.” What is the connection, for you, between childhood and poetry?
The city I come from was a little unorthodox for the Soviet Union. It had too many Jews – and Jews, no matter how oppressed, always tend to have their own view of reality. From Sholom Aleichem to Babel, Odessa was written about by Jews. The city streets and the sentences in the books were all mixed up in one child’s imagination.
Thus, there was one interpretation of the world – that of soviet reality – and another, of literary imagination. we read from early childhood the great books that described odessa in a light way, utterly different from the reality we were supposed to see on our streets. one simply did not see – or refused to see – the gray prose of the soviet reality.
When I left, I entered a third kind of world – the world of memory. And memory is most interesting, I think, at least for a writer. For one or two years, you remember the details. After 10 years, you imagine the facts, and then you start to like what you imagine a lot more.
But to answer your question, I have to speak about writing in a different language. After we arrived in the US, I wrote only in Russian. Then my father died. I couldn’t write about him in Russian; it felt somehow immoral to close the gate in a language that he taught me. I was not ready to accept his death. My family, moreover, was certainly not ready for my verses about his death; it would feel disrespectful to put a man who lived just yesterday into words he could no longer speak today. It felt too abrupt, too violent.
English offered something else. I did not know the language very well, so it gave me a degree of privacy. It also offered a “make-believe” world. When I write in English, my childhood is still here. My father is still here. It is a world which I make for myself.
There is a line in English poetry [by John Donne] – “Death, thou shalt die.” When I first read it with a Russian-English dictionary 10 years ago, I knew I wanted to write in English. It was a private reason, no large ambitions. I had a deeply private illusion that I could defy the deaths of people I loved by making them alive… for myself, at least… in a different language.
In one of Yehuda Amichai’s poems about his mother, he describes the details of the world that is gone… his mother, flowers on the table, the curtains to which he was clinging… but, he says, “my hands clinging, remain clinging.” People say art imitates life. That’s not true. Art is life.
You have a poem called “A Toast” that quotes Theodore Herzl’s “if you will it, it is not a dream.” And so many of your poems deal with moments in Jewish history. What attracts you as a poet to Jewish history? And why are you, as a 27 year old in America, writing about the Holocaust?
Toast is about my not wanting to write about the Holocaust. When my mother was a little girl, her parents went on a vacation cruise. They didn’t expect anything to happen because of the Stalin-Hitler Pact. And then war broke out. So at the beginning of the war, my mother’s parents were elsewhere. Imagine that!
She went to the ghetto with my aunt, and my aunt died. My mother survived. No one knows how she did; no one in my family ever spoke about it. I went to college in DC, and one day I went to the [Holocaust] museum, and there was my mom on the wall. She didn’t want to talk about it, and still doesn’t.
There are many tragic memoirs by children and grandchildren of survivors, but I refuse to write such a memoir. It’s up to survivors and their children to decide what they want to spend their days writing. I have only respect for the attempts to witness those horrible crimes on the page.
But I want to say something else: I don’t think it’s a poet’s job to witness only tragedy. I think it’s a poet’s job to witness joy in the world, no matter how much tragedy also exists.
I think authors who write only of tragedy are mistaken; they give us only one half of human experience. People still loved during the Holocaust; that should be written about, and that’s what I want my readers to be left with. That life is “short and unhappy” is not true. Life is a miracle.
You have poems to Paul Celan, a great poet, and Isaac Babel, master of the short story. Both are also Jewish writers. Why do you love them? Why do they matter to you?
The poems I wrote for Celan, Babel, Brodsky and others – I felt at the time I was writing them that I was linked to a tradition. The best way to steal is to acknowledge. Each one of these authors was important to me. There were moments when I didn’t know how to go on living, and their work helped me figure that out. So the poems I wrote for them were my way of saying hello.
How do Jewish prayers influence you, if at all?
I try to make at least one line in every poem a prayer. Why? Because what’s the point of writing poetry except to acknowledge the divine in us?
There is the divine in us, whether you call it God or the universe. We’re here on this planet for 80 or 100 years at most. Instead of talking about what we don’t have, or about our daily troubles, let’s talk about what we do have: the chance to be here.
The unbridled love for life is what is so essential for me in Jewish tradition. That’s why Job is so different from the Stoics, for example. He confronts existence not by merely enduring, quiet as a stone; he praises, he wails, he screams and laughs. That is what I love about the attitude of Jewish tradition.
Your poems are so musical, so reliant on refrain and repetition. I was especially moved by the line in “American Tourist” – “all that is musical in us is memory.” Can you talk a little more about that?
“All that is musical in us in memory” – how to explain that?
Once, I had a good fortune to talk to a man with Alzheimer’s disease who remembered only the precise details of 50 years back! So nothing is lost. “All that is musical in us is memory.”
But let me not get too serious here, after all, I think that a poet is someone who stands on the corner with a sign: I’ll answer any question for 28 cents.
What is it like to write poems which are so musical when you are hard of hearing? Do you edit with your eyes more than with your ears?
I speak when I write. I don’t really know much about syllabics, and sometimes I get in trouble. But I do say my poems out loud. When I read other poems, I read them out loud. And I do that quite a lot. Poetry is human experience in that way also – a very physical way of spending one’s hours.
I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t know what it means to be deaf, just as I don’t know what it means to be hearing. What I do know is that sound is not necessarily the only instrument of music. Let’s not underestimate the role of silence; we speak against silence, but it is what moves us to speak.
The poetry I like to read, both in Russian and English, has a rhythmical tradition. It is musical, and I like it that way.
In a city made of seaweed, we danced on a rooftop, my hands
under her breasts. Subtracting
day from day, I add this woman’s ankles
to my days of atonement, her lower lip, the formal bones of her face.
We were making love all evening
I told her stories, their rituals of rain: happiness
is money, yes, but only the smallest coins.
She asked me to pray: to bow
towards Jerusalem. We bowed to the left, I saw
two bakeries, a shoe store; the smell of hay,
smell of horses and hay. When Moses
broke the sacred tablets on Sinai, the rich
picked the pieces carved with:
“adultery” and “kill” and “theft”
the poor got only: “No” “No” “No.”
I kissed the back of her neck, an elbow,
this woman whose forgetting is a plot against forgetting,
naked in her galoshes, she waltzed,
and even her cat waltzed
she said: “All that is musical in us is memory”
but I did not know English, I danced
sitting down, she straightened
and bent and straightened, a tremble of music
a tremble in her hand.
— Aviya Kushner is a poet whose work has recently appeared in Partisan Review, Harvard Review and Poets & Writers magazine.