The Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odesa in 1977, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. His family emigrated to the United States in 1993, when he was 16, the age at which I first encountered his work. A girl I knew had scrawled a poem from his 2004 collection, Dancing in Odessa, in green ink and left it on her desk. She lent me her copy, and it split my life in half — into a before and an after.
Dancing in Odessa was a map to other poets like Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Anna Akhmatova. I read these poets in translation, and almost every translation of Russian poetry starts with the caveat that you cannot truly understand it unless it’s in the original language. So I decided to learn Russian and, later, Ukrainian; I lived in Odessa for a time among its rows of catalpa trees, its faintly decaying beauty, its cheap and abundant music.
New York asked me to reach out to Kaminsky during this war, when his home city of Odessa is under threat. This is in part because the first poem in his 2019 collection, Deaf Republic, “We Lived Happily During the War,” tends to go viral during any given conflict. The poem is an indictment of Americans living indifferently in “our great country of money” as others suffer and die, and its popularity seems to be the result of Americans feeling guilty. Kaminsky himself is not living happily during this war: He is in contact with the Odessans he loves, trying to get them out, to get them money, and, frenetically and constantly, sharing poetry by Ukrainians in translation.
I emailed Kaminsky, who is deaf, around half a dozen questions. His written responses (which have been slightly edited and condensed) are evidence that, even with the backdrop of such military horrors, if you ask an Odessan poet about Odessa and poetry, you will receive riches. As Kaminsky wrote to me about his first encounter with Tchaikovsky at the age of 4, “In others’ art one finds a rupture” — a city transformed.
You grew up in Odessa until the age of 16. Can you tell me some stories of your youth?
Here is a little memory for you:
On Sundays, my parents and their friends gather at the kitchen table, shouting well into the night: Who is better, Akhmatova or Tsvetaeva? What will happen to Gorbachev’s reforms? Is there a God?
During the day, Mother and Father stand in lines for milk and walk carefully around their Soviet supervisors. But at night, someone always shouts: I am not a religious person! but I do believe that there is a divine in us!
The great debates of my childhood always involve little glasses of pepper vodkas and plum vodkas that Father brings to his friends on a tiny tray.
If there is a church I am willing to subscribe to, it is the Church of the Kitchen Table at 33 Sovetskaya Militsia Street, apartment No. 1 in Odessa. That’s where on Sunday nights they crowd around a table and shout at each other: Is there a God?
Four years before the country’s collapse — it is the era of Gorbachev’s prohibition reforms. Alcohol is impossible to find in the USSR, though I am too young to care. As I bike by Rodina, someone in the line of drunks is shouting angrily about Metcheny Mikhail — their name for Gorbachev, because of the enormous birthmark on his forehead — Marked Mikhail.
I bike through Odessa, tickled to see a crowd of upset drunks lined up outside of perfumeries.
No, they aren’t buying presents for their wives.
They drink anything, from Cucumber Toilet Water to expensive Red Moscow Perfume — men have never smelled better in the history of this nation.
I don’t care, I am 8 years old and have more important things to do. I bike to the train station, where I watch people hug and cry as happiness hops in and out of trains. If only we could open our eyes and, despite everything we know, look. If you are like me, you are always a 9-year-old standing still, all alone and yet not alone, because, look! there are so many drunks in Odessa, and they all smell amazing. And on TV, on every single news channel, a giant birthmark on Dear Leader’s forehead, shining like a miniature map of our country.
I was born in Sovetskaya Militsia 33, a courtyard where kids always fight. Once, smart boys from across the street decided to win the war by asking us to solve a math problem.
We lost miserably.
Since then, Sovetskaya Militsia 33 is known on our street as the Courtyard of Idiots. “Don’t listen to him,” they say in school. “He is from the Courtyard of Idiots.” And yes, that’s where I am from.
But not so quick; I am not in school yet.
In Apartment No. 1 above the Courtyard of Idiots, I am a very young child. I try to grab everything I see and push it into my mouth. The chair leg, the sock, even little green tractors on a poster.
Most of all, I like the lamp on Father’s desk. For days, I stare at it while pretending to pay attention to Father’s stories.
To keep me at it, he switches the light on and off. Someone on the street might wonder what is happening, as if a code is being sent out into Odessa.
Somewhere in the Courtyard of Idiots, the light is on, then off.
Then the light is off again.
Memory is like this. You don’t have to agree with me. After all, I am just a man from a Courtyard of Idiots.
But I have paid, and have receipts.
I did not have hearing aids until I was 16: As a deaf child I experienced my country as a nation without sound. I heard the USSR fall apart with my eyes.
Walking through the city, I watched the people; their ears were open all the time, they had no lids. I was interested in what sounds might be like. The whooshing. The hissing. The whistle. The sound of keys turning in the lock, or water moving through the pipes two floors above us. I could easily notice how the people around me spoke to one another with their eyes without realizing it.
But what if the whole country was deaf like me? So that whenever a policeman’s commands were uttered no one could hear? I liked to imagine that. Silence, that last neighborhood, untouched, as ever, by the wisdom of the government.
Have you returned to Odessa since you came to America?
For the past 15 years I have returned every other summer or so. Odessa architecture is scaled down, “human sized,” and there was an opera house before there was potable water. Odessa loves art, and it loves to party. In the summer, huge cages of watermelons sit on every corner. You break them on the sidewalk and eat them with friends. The city has an especial affinity for literature. There are more monuments to writers than in any other city I have ever visited. When they ran out of writers, they began putting up monuments for fictional characters.
The most important holiday in Odessa isn’t Christmas, it is April 1, April Fool’s Day, which we call Humorina. Thousands of people come to the street and celebrate what they call the day of kind humor. All of Ukraine has a sense of humor — think of the man who offered to tow the Russian tank which had run out of gas back to Russia. Humor is part of our resilience.
I left the former USSR at 16, and that is the age at which people in that part of the world are quite formed in their outlooks on life. Of course, I can speak only for people of my generation who grew up in the 1990s and came of age watching their country fall apart and multiple ethnic conflicts flare up all along its perimeter.
I am a Soviet Jew whose holy books are Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Babel and Grace Paley and I.B. Singer and Bernard Malamud and great medieval Jewish poets of Spain and Bialik and Amichai and Kafka and Edmond Jabès and many other great Jewish authors of past and present.
In Odessa, being Jewish was, of course, also the question of language. Odessa Russian is very Yiddish-influenced language; it is quite different from Russian in Moscow or St. Petersburg.
Isaac Babel is the major writer who wrote in that language.
Let me begin afar: One day, I came home and I remember on the kitchen table a book was open. Yes, the book was by Isaac Babel, a writer from Odessa, a wonderful short-story writer. Let me begin further even more afar: Odessa is a strange part of the former Soviet Empire. It is a Russian-speaking city in Ukraine where, at that time, the population consisted largely not just of Russians or Ukrainians but Jews, Moldovans, and so forth. Some Bulgarians, some Greeks were still there. My Russian literature teacher was of German origin. So it was one of the very few actually international cities in the Soviet empire, and the language they spoke — although it is considered a Russian-speaking city — the language was kind of made up. Not exactly a Finnegans Wake type of speech but a language wherein you go to the market to buy cheese and you would hear new ways of creating a sentence. That is the kind of tonality, these fresh registers of speech are what interests me. It feels like home.
So, back in that moment of finding the open book by Babel on the kitchen table, I looked at the story and I realized, Oh, this is not the language that people speak on TV, this is not the language of government officials, not the language of the Soviet bureaucracy, this is the language that my parents speak to each other. One spoke the paragraph aloud and one smelled home. That, for me, was the beginning of stories or poems.
In addition to that, being Jewish in the former USSR is quite different than being Jewish in this country. Here, it is a religion. There, it is an ethnicity identified in your passport. But even if somehow (which was the case for many people) in your passport it says that you are Russian, your neighbors still look you in the face and see exactly who you are. And when they hit you, they aim directly in your face. It is a very different world.
What is it like observing the war from a distance?
First, let me take you 30 years back:
The USSR is collapsing. I am in my teens, and there are already “humanitarian aid” campaigns around here. Food shortages. My first war happens two hours away from our apartment. No, I don’t see the explosions in the middle of the Republic of Transnistria. I only see refugees: A woman pushes past the crowds of kids coming out of the building and shoves a photograph to my face.
Her lips move, frantically.
“I can’t hear you.”
I point to my ears.
I see her turn to another Odessa kid, then to another.
She asks them a question, but I only see the most exaggerated motions of her face. She turns to another kid nearby.
“Have you seen my daughter?”
She turns away and hurries on, before I can see anything but her question.
Who would I have become had my family stayed in Ukraine?
I see 1984 again, when kids are playing war: I see a 5-year-old buzz, pretending she is a helicopter cutting into the crowd at the fish market. Then, there is another helicopter. The two fly low, peer into windows. Then a third kid pretends she is a helicopter. An imaginary helicopter flies up, over the city, into the blue aorta of the sky.
What would become of my family here if we stayed? Would my parents still be alive? I walk the streets as if searching for an echo, a corresponding life: Is that a Ukrainian teenager staring at a middle-aged North American typing these pages?
All of which is to say: The war never really left:
1918, the year my mother’s mother was born, her family crossed the border nearly a half-dozen times, without ever leaving their Odessa apartment. Month after month, the region was invaded by various foreign regiments: Greeks, French, Poles, Germans, Romanians, Brits, Austro-Hungarians. Of course, the border had been a struggle for them as the city of Odessa was so divided between governments — French, Greek, Ukrainian, Romanian — that the family needed a travel permit just to see their cousins in the next street. Yes, crossing the border had always been a struggle — but that year, 1918, the border crossed through them.
My mother was born in 1939. You don’t need me to tell you what happened in 1939. The war never left.
When I was a kid: a flood of refugees from Transnistria, as I mention above. And, now people from Odessa are refugees, too. The war never left.
What do I do? I try to find ways to give people money (the food prices went up by over 50 percent), try to find ways to get people out.
What do I hear from those there?
“The West is watching us,” a friend writes. “This is their reality TV war, they are curious to see whether we will go on living, or die.”
Another friend emails: “We saw fighter aircraft, helicopters and Russian paratroopers from our window. But we walked for miles.” He tells me they’re safe now, that his wife is in Poland and he’s in Ukraine. He sends photos of the city where they lived.
A different day, a friend from Kyiv writes: “Am in Bukovina, took 2 dogs and 1cat with me, Sophies choice, left 3cats behind, being cared for by a neighbor.” It’s unbearable, she tells me. She is 12 miles from the Romanian border. Eventually, she crosses with only one dog.
An Odessa friend contacts me to say: “I’ve seen today 10km queue in Palanca and approx 500-600 people that were walking by feet. Mamas with kids and it’s snowing and some kids crying, others have serious men’s eyes.”
Another friend, who remains in Odessa, tells me he just got back from the store. “People are grabbing any food they can find. I’m trying to do art. Read out loud. To distract myself. Try to read between the lines.”
I ask how I can help. Finally, an older friend, a lifelong journalist, writes back: “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.”
In the middle of war, he is asking for poems.
What do you think of Russia’s “denazification” narrative?
It is third-rate propaganda. No, it is 14th-rate propaganda. Not very compelling, even to those who foam at the mouth about it.
Which poets in Russian and Ukrainian, contemporary and past, should we be reading to understand this moment?
We don’t read the poets to understand the moment. We read poets to understand ourselves. What do we know about ourselves in this moment other than the plain old fact that we are afraid? That we try to numb our fear with dailiness of shopping, flipping the phone, etc.
But if I must put it in terms of this moment: The purpose of the state is to numb the senses. The purpose of a lyric poet is to wake them up.
But one can also put “relevancy” in terms of the limitation of our culture as such. Why read Ukrainian poets or any poets in translation for that matter? Because if we don’t read poets in translation, we end up looking in the mirror 24/7. The translations open for us a window onto the larger world.
So, to open a window, I would suggest reading Words for War, an anthology of Ukrainian- and Russian-language poets from Ukraine who wrote about the conflict that has been happening for many years and which Americans have just somehow discovered. And, perhaps reading them we will learn something about ourselves, our limitations, about ways we can understand the world in which we live.
What gets lost in translation when it comes to Russian and Ukrainian, specifically, when brought over to English?
What gets lost? Usually music, or rather the particular meaning of particular musical patterns for a particular culture — their echoes. You hear one poet and you over-hear the echoes of ten more. That is lost in translation, where at best the reader will only hear that one translated poet.
Poetry, Robert Frost says, is what is lost in translation. To this, Octavio Paz responds: Poetry is what is found in translation.
How so? Because the reader suddenly realizes that image is an international language, it crosses boundaries of time and space, we are still marveling at images from centuries ago, we carry them in our bodies, our memories, our dreamscapes. Without translation, there would be no foundational texts of our culture — or most cultures. But at the same time note how Homer, Dante, etc., all get retranslated again almost every year — because our reality changes so quickly and each new generation wants to see the narrative of the tribe(s) through different eyes.
But wait, one thing has got to be said: Let’s not romanticize that East European world. Because by romanticizing it, we are also othering it.
I come from the part of East Europe of which people usually say, “Oh, wow, everyone loves poetry in Russia, in Ukraine, so much that people come to football stadiums to hear poetry.”
That is bullshit.
A lot of Americans tend to share your poem “We Lived Happily During the War” when war is in the news. Do you think there is something ironic about the way your poem has become something of a meme?
“We Lived Happily During the War” is not a piece of journalism or philosophy, where one might go into facts or questions of ethics. In a poem, one hopes to create an experience in the reader: In this case, the hope of the poem is to help the reader see their own complicity.
The poem doesn’t want to be a pronouncement. The poem is a warning. This is what happens when half-measures take place. “We lived happily during the war,” the poem begins, and it ends with the same words. But by the time it gets to its final line, one hopes the reader might find the horrific irony in that fact of repetition. How many wars can we live through, happily?
One hopes the reader sees the critique of this “we” and what it has done. By the time you get to the repetition of “our country of money” and then to “our great country of money” — one questions the word “great.” That is what art hopes to do: It doesn’t shout at the reader, “You must change!” Instead, the reader is changed via the act of reading.
There’s a part in that poem, the line “(forgive us),” where the speakers seem to be asking to be absolved of their guilt, for the “not enough” protesting and opposing they did, for living “happily during the war.” Do you think that is something that can be forgiven? What should be expected of those living outside Ukraine, or any country experiencing unrest, in times like these?
As an author, I see the irony in the citizens of the American empire showing so much concern for the victims of, for example, the Russian empire while America is regularly bombing people’s houses, and all the while it uses police brutality against its own citizens at right this very moment.
But author is not speaker. The speaker of the poem says “we lived happily,” the happiness of living our heads in the sand, pursuing wealth over justice. What can be done, you ask. I will answer your question with a question: Who remembers Chechnya right now?
Putin used ballistic missiles to bomb its capital, Grozny, to the ground in 1999 and 2000. The West shouted about it for five minutes. Then we forgot. We’re encouraged to forget. Why? Because oil and gas companies make money on their dealings with Putin. Follow the dollar and you will see the root of the problem. Our country of money, the poem says. Our great country of money.
As for irony in the poem’s reception. You know, when this particular war began, journalists began to email and ask me to comment on this piece. Which is ironic, yes — a very “We Lived Happily During the War” thing to do — to ask a poet to comment on a poem while this poet’s birth country is bombarded.