Ilya Kaminsky: ‘Fables Allow You to Break Bread With the Dead’

The Author of Deaf Republic in Conversation with John Freeman

Published with permission from BAM and the National Book Foundation

What is it about courage that astounds our ability to imagine it?

Perhaps it’s because, in dire times, we’re told to forget we can—not be courageous, but imagine what that looks like, what it feels like.

To imagine others, demonstrating it.

One reason in our time—among many—to read Osip Mandelstam, is how he can demonstrate (and imagine courage) at the same time.

The Russian poet born into the heyday of his country’s secret police, hounded most of his life, shipped into exile, who probably froze to death or had a heart attack on his way to the Gulag… even he…. even he remembers the courage to be silly; the courage to love; the courage to speak his voice.

“If our enemies take me,” he once wrote
And people stop talking to me,
If they confiscate the whole world—
The right to breathe, open doors,
Affirm that existence shall go on
And that people, like a judge, shall judge,
And if they dare to keep me like an animal
And fling my food on the floor,
I won’t fall silent or deaden the agony,
But shall write what I am free to write,
My naked body gathering momentum like a bell,
And in a corner of the ominous dark
I shall yoke ten oxen to my voice
And move my hand in the darkness like a plough

One of the powers of courage then, is how it imagines us—its descendants, and so I put to you that one of Mandelstam’s ten oxen was born not in Moscow in 1937, but in Odessa in the Soviet Union in 1977, so he could be a lamp in our time, and his name is Ilya Kaminsky.

We have gathered to hear him read from his remarkable new book, his verse fable, The Deaf Republic, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and to talk to him about poetry and love and the meaning of ancestors, of the eternal pleasures of parenthood, how they live through us in gestures, our voice, our principles.

If there is a poet more tuned to the way that tenderness marbles courage—makes it possible—I don’t know this person.

I began with Mandelstam because here is where Kaminsky’s own journey into poetry begins. After a childhood attack of the mumps stole most of his hearing, Kaminsky grew up in Odessa watching the fall of communism. One day in school he volunteered to work on a newspaper, and thus at age 12 became one of the youngest grub streeters I’ve ever heard of.

Visiting a newspaper office one day, he earned a poetry teacher, Valentin Moroz, who told him upon first meeting not to return until he’d memorized a poem of Mandelstam’s.

Thus began a life-time love of great poetry, of taking it in to his body in great draughts, and then redistributing it out into the world. In 1993, when he was 16, Kaminsky’s family emigrated to the US, whereupon he began—began(!)—to learn English.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Ilya Kaminsky is to poetry what Bob Dylan has been to folk music; acres of it live in side him; pour out of him; prick him tonight and it will geyser forth; it is ennobled by his love. He has co-edited four anthologies, and translated another fistful of volumes.

Mostly, one can detect his breath of reading in Kaminsky’s language, which rivers with the currents of poetry: in it you’ll feel Isaac Babel’s indoor yiddish, you’ll be carried along by Emily Dickinson’s pressure to get the self down right; there will be a current of Adam Zagajewki’s exile; and wherein you’ll remember Paul Celan’s miniaturization of all the world’s hearts into a size you can eat.

What’s most remarkable, though, is not the depth of Kaminsky erudition but how through it all—he sounds only like himself. Like a man in love with the Word and what it can do, who has found in this gorgeous new book, Deaf Republic, a way to show The Word working its power, in quietude. When a young deaf boy is shot by a soldier, the town of Vasenka decides to stop hearing. Their silence is their protest, and thus we enter into their private lives—that of a mother and a father; of a theatre director who starts a revolt; of puppeteers who trick soldiers and teach sign language in secret; of a young child passed hand to hand like a torch.

John Freeman

*

Photos courtesy of BAM.

John Freeman: At the end of your book, Deaf Republic: Poems, you have a line that says, “The deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.” I wonder if you can expand on that for me. 

Ilya Kaminsky: There are two answers at least. Well, there are probably seven answers, but we only have time for two. 

First, if you look at much of theology or philosophy in the western world, it is very much in flirtation with an idea of silence. It’s almost a fetish, silence. Silence and god, silence and morality, silence and public life, and so on. There are whole books written about it, whole bookshelves, really. 

Now what if you take it out—if you say that silence is just an invention, as most deaf people would tell you— what is left? If it’s just flirtation that’s left. It tells you something about our culture and its limitations, doesn’t it?

Because what is silence if you ask any deaf person and they tell you that it doesn’t exist? Because it doesn’t exist for 10% of the population of the planet. So what is it doing in our theology, and our philosophy, and so forth?

Theology or philosophy in the western world, it is very much in flirtation with an idea of silence.

And, then there is a more immediate, more pressing point I want to make; it is a point from the perspective of disability studies As someone who’s hard of hearing, I’m interested in, say, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a well known scholar of disability studies. Her book, Extraordinary Bodies, says something that’s very relevant for America today, for this coronavirus pandemic, which is: “the disable body should move out of the realm of the hospital room into the realm of political minority.” In a country right now even the democratic candidate “frontrunner” Biden would leave you with 10 million people uninsured. See how relevant it suddenly becomes?

John Freeman: Can you describe the soundscape of your childhood for me? What was it like to go to school, to get on trains, and to watch people speak? What were you looking at? 

Ilya Kaminsky: Actually, if you forgive me I hope to turn this question upside down. I would like to try to speak about the limitations of the soundscape. There is not just one way of hearing—everyone would agree. But what does that mean to say this?

There is such a thing as the body language, or just plain lip reading. And there are limitations to that too. But there is always a great advantage of that. How much of our communication is in English, and how much of it is in body language. And I don’t have data for English, but in Russian it’s almost 30% body language. 

So, that gives you a lot. 

Then, there is the case of the very basic studies that that were done when say four hearing people were put in a room, and they were from different countries, and didn’t speak each other’s language, different parts of the world, say, just for the sake of this conversation, France, China, Mexico, and the United States. They left them there, say, for six hours. They locked the door. When they came back they saw people sitting in different corners of the room, not speaking with each other, being a little bit suspicious of each other. 

That is the basic limitation of soundscape, yes?

But the interesting thing begins when you learn that they did the same thing with four deaf people from different sign languages because sign language is not universal. In Russia, they have one, even in the UK, they have a different sign language from American sign language. So they come back six hours later, what happened? People were making up a new sign language.

A poet doubts speech, because we are aware of the limitations of spoken language.

That is how much we are missing within our soundscape.

Now, as a poet, it is a curious thing: a poet is fully aware of the great gift of speech, everybody’s in love with speech, the music of language. But a poet also doubts speech, because we are aware of the limitations of spoken language as well. 

John Freeman: I didn’t mention this in the introduction but Ilya is a lawyer and worked in- 

Ilya Kaminsky: A former lawyer. 

John Freeman: Formerly a lawyer, that’s the best kind. And he worked in San Francisco, helping people who were trying to immigrate to the United States, children often. 

John Freeman: Your first book, Dancing in Odessa, uses some accounts of people to describe an event, and as a lawyer, you worked with children telling true stories. But these accounts [in Deaf Republic] were made up, and I wonder what it was like to make up stories like this, and what kind of details you felt needed to be there for us to feel what the people in town were going through? 

Ilya Kaminsky: Thank you. Forgive me, I might have to give you a longer answer if that’s okay, simply- 

John Freeman: It’s a long question, I’m sorry. 

Ilya Kaminsky: No, no, no, it’s a great question, it just requires more detail from me, because you’re talking about two books and they’re different in my head, and in my life, although they may or may not be so different for the reader. 

So, to start at the beginning: Because I didn’t grow up with hearing aids in Russia, I got them in the USA, and a lot of my Russian is very visual. I literally depend on images. So when I was writing

Dancing in Odessa, I didn’t know it at that point, but that’s what I was doing: I was literally constantly trying to write the book in a language of images. You’ll be hard pressed to find other poetic devices in that book. The majority of narrative is done in images, and that’s simply because that was the language I was used to, the only language I knew in Russian as a kid and teenager who relied on speech but didn’t hear it. So, when I came to USA as a 16-year-old boy who didn’t know English, the language of images, and the subject matter of the Russian poetics tradition—those were the kinds of refuge, places of dwelling.

And, that is reflected in the form and subject of Dancing in Odessa. That book has poems about family, yes, but also elegies for people like Osip Mandelstam, a great Russian poet. And, in that piece, I used the personal pronoun “I”, because it is a lyric poem and that pronoun “I”, felt natural for its tonalities. But at the same time I knew that it would be very presumptuous to use “I” if I didn’t use actual quotations from people who saw what happened—Mandelstam, after all, is a well known historical figure. And so, quotations are usually in prose and lyric was in verse, in that long poem for Mandelstam, Musica Humana. And, there is tension, in the piece, between the two. The prose and the quotes are used as props. And I would never be able to justify saying lyric “I” in an elegy of Mandelstam without those kinds of props. 

I was constantly trying to write the book in a language of images.

But when I was done with Dancing in Odessa, I had already lived in America for quite a long time, for 11 years. The book was published in 2004, I came to the country in ’93. I was already dating the woman, love of my life, who I later would marry, and we spoke English to each other, and so it would be a lie for me to continue this conversation with Russian poets, such as Mandelstam, and run around and play Russian poet, so to speak. My life has decided to be something else. But what? It is a question that every refugee, perhaps, needs to answer. At what point does one stop being a refugee? Does one ever stop being a refugee? 

And I didn’t know the answer, I might still not know the answers. 

But I knew that I wanted to write a book that would try to speak to both of those places: Soviet Ukraine, where I am from, and San Diego, California, where I have lived since 2006. And San Diego is a border town, I lived for over a decade just nine miles from the border. 

If you go to Home Depot, in San Diego, you will see somebody being dragged into an ICE car. That’s a horrific image, but it is also regular occurrence in a border town, a town that calls itself “America’s Happiest City.” And the dissonance is very stark if you’re a stranger, and you see that for the first time. 

So how do you speak to both of those ends, to Ukraine, which is now an independent country, a part of which being occupied by Russia, a place where I try to go to visit every two years or so. How do you speak about that and also about the reality of America which has a lot of violence that it pretends does not exist. 

A fable, a fairytale, a fantasy can speak both to the urgency of the present, but also allow you to break bread with the dead, so to speak.

That is the thing about USA: so many folks pretend that violence does not exist here. So many people want to ask: why did you come to America. No one wants to ask: what did you see when you came to America?

So, Ukraine and USA were very much on my mind.

How does one correlate those two? 

And, for me, from the East European tradition I come from, the outskirts of Europe, so to speak, fabulism is the obvious answer.  East Europe is the place of Gogol, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, Kafka, and all that. Those writers created the fables dynamic in which a fable, a fairytale, a fantasy can speak both to the urgency of the present, but also allow you to break bread with the dead, so to speak. 

So, coming from where I do, I find fable to be a very natural medium to navigate the above duality. 

John Freeman: In the poetry world, which includes probably as many people as are in this room, [Deaf Republic] was a little like Moby Dick. The stories of it were legend. You worked on it for 14, 15 years. It got big, it got small. In Dancing in Odessa, there’s a short bit where a man drops a watermelon in the course of wanting to tell a listener a story about a world where there are only deaf people. A city, a country where everyone is deaf. Was that the beginning of this book? 

Ilya Kaminsky: Thank you for these generous words. You are kind. The idea is when you can’t hear and you read lips, and you walk around reading lips. And in a city like Odessa, people speak more than one language: there is Russian yes, but also Ukrainian, also Yiddish and Moldovan, which is really Rumanian and so on. And thereby the Odessa Russian is very different from St. Petersburg in Moscow. It is a non-normative language. 

Which is an important thing, for a poet. Since any poet, to begin with, wants to write in a non-normative language; in figurative speech.

The state wants, the bureaucracy wants, a normative language. The poet wants to break out of that, right, to wake you up. It’s the only language that wakes you up, and it’s non-normative. 

Why do I say this?

Because right there you can see the place where the language is different from that of the state. It is the whole community that speaks a language you would never hear at official party meetings.

This was the city I was walking through as a deaf teenager: 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.

Those childhood imaginings feel quite relevant for me in America today. When Trump performs his press conferences, wouldn’t it be brilliant if his words landed on the deaf ears of a whole nation? What if we simply refused to hear the hatred of his pronouncements?

John Freeman: There’s so much warmth and tenderness in this book. As things get worse, it also gets more loving. You read the poem about making love, that happens after you know things have gone quite badly in the town, and soldiers are taking people away. Where does your belief in the fundamental eternal connection between people during times of crisis come from? 

Ilya Kaminsky: I think, partly because we live in the United States, in the late capitalism, where we literally sterilize it from the rest of the world, we have an illusion that we live on a Mount Olympus, overlooking the rest of the world. It’s not true, but that is the illusion we have. We think that the violence happens somewhere else. 

But of course, violence happens in our own communities, we shouldn’t fail to see. 

In the West we speak about the rest of the world as if it is constantly in crisis, and so everything must be crisis there, 24/7 crisis. But, wait a second. People still fall in love, everywhere in the world. People still make children, they love and care for aging parents, they since at funerals, they still sing lullabies to babies. 

I mean, it tells you a lot more about us, that we would expect for people not to have these basic emotions of tenderness, love, then about people who actually have them in a time of crisis. 

People fell in love in love during Holocaust. People fell in love during slavery in USA. People fall in love during the Trail of Tears here. 

It’s just curious to observe that our larger culture in the West forces us to think otherwise, to somehow separate sadness and tenderness.

Photos Courtesy of BAM.

This conversation is adapted from an evening with Ilya Kaminsky as part of Eat, Drink and Be Literary, presented by BAM in partnership with the National Book Foundation. More information about the series can be found here.

To engage with the reading portion of the evening, visit the Leon Levy BAM Digital Archive here.






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