The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Ilya Kaminsky


The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Ilya Kaminsky about his latest collection Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, March 2019), 

This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.

This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.


Brian S: We’re a few minutes before the chat will officially start, but I want to just remind everyone that you should jump in with your questions and comments whenever you wish. Don’t hold back and wait, because we’ll only have Ilya for an hour.

Also, I’m likely to be a little slow with questions and comments personally because I broke my arm two weeks ago and am typing one-handed as a result. I have had more than enough of this winter, I can promise you.

Who all is here tonight? And is anyone colder than I am in Des Moines?

Eduardo Ramos Ruiz: Hi Brian, greetings from the West Coast… it’s cold for California.

Brian S: Hi Eduardo! You have no idea how jealous I am right now. I’d be happy with temps above freezing, seriously.

Liz: Liz in Brooklyn, where we were supposed to get a blizzard today and everything shut down for what turned out to be two inches of snow. Sending empathy.

Eva Woods: I’m in LA and I’ll skip describing the weather!

Megan: Hello from Cleveland, where for once in my lifetime it’s actually nicer here than in most other places.

Debby: I’m here in Seattle.

Brian S: So while we wait for Ilya to join us, maybe let’s talk some about what stood out to us in this book.

Gwen Dawson: I liked how the collection holds together as a single narrative. All the poems are small parts of a whole.

Eva Woods: I think the structure—the poems forming the narrative the way they did, was amazing.

Gwen Dawson: I also liked the glimmers of hope/love/etc., even during the bleak times.

Eva Woods: Those little glimmers of tenderness made the rest of the book even more horrifying to think about in contrast.

Liz: Everything you’ve all said, plus absolutely heartbreaking.

Brian S: It’s such a hard thing to pull off—maintaining the energy for a whole book while also having pieces that will stand alone as poems in their own right.

Liz: He also managed to write with both ferocity and compassion.

Eduardo Ramos Ruiz: Yes, stand-alone poems as part of a narrative… with use of stage direction sign language symbol. It’s a powerful effect: symbols and words.

Gwen Dawson: Brian, yes exactly. Having these stand alone is the amazing part.

Debby: That actually leads in to one of my questions: Did Ilya write all the poems for this book, this story arc, or did he have some he had written otherwise and repurposed them?

Gwen Dawson: Good question; let’s ask that one when Ilya arrives.

Liz: Yes, Debby. In many ways it reads like a novel. I wonder how much Ilya thought of it that way as he wrote.

Megan: I became so emotionally involved in the characters, and as they died off I felt such loss.

Debby: Oh, me too. I felt killing them off kept the book heartbreakingly honest. There wasn’t going to be a fairy tale ending.

Liz: Yes, yes. Our desire for a sentimental solution wasn’t satisfied.

Debby: I also adored the framing how the first and last poem are about our modern Western culpability.

Eva Woods: Yeah, it totally didn’t pull punches there. That was dope.

Liz: I’m so struck by how the book calls us to account for our passivity or courage, and yet the voice of the poet manages to include compassion for our frailty.

Brian S: There are also those moments where it seems like he deliberately pulls back from what we might think of as poetic language. Like in “That Map of Bone and Opened Valves,” with the lines “The body of the boy lies on the asphalt like a paperclip. / The body of the boy lies on the asphalt / like the body of a boy.” Like, metaphor won’t do here.

Ilya Kaminsky: Hello! My goodness, just catching up with all the wonderful questions here! Thank you for this!

Let me try to answer the questions that I see right in front of me, and then if I miss someone’s question, I hope folks will be able to remind me. Sound good? Let’s start. The first question/observation I see is from Brian about “That Map of Bone and Opened Valves.”

Brian S: That bit I quoted reminded me of a part from Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel,” where she says, “There is no other way to say this.” Metaphor in that moment would cheapen it in a way.

Ilya Kaminsky: Yes, the metaphor won’t do with the image of a boy shot by police lying in the center of the city. Sometime a fact is a fact. The book is full of metaphors, as you might have noticed, but at times it helps to put things into focus when one withdraws from the metaphor when you most expect it. That old Emily Dickinson trick of denying the rhyme when one most expects it. Withholding can be a part of the story, too.

I wasn’t thinking about Carolyn Forché’s poem, but come to think of it now, it does make sense. Carolyn Forché is a brilliant writer.

Ilya Kaminsky: For me, I wanted the onslaught of detail in that poem—so you have the guards in the tower, you have woman being pulled away from her apartment, you have all other kinds of images. Then, in the moment you cite, you do have a metaphor “like a paperclip” and right after the denial of that metaphor.

As I said, I think Carolyn Forché is a powerful writer—to my mind she is one of the best living writers in the world. Without any doubt. My own imagination leans far more to fabulist writers, such East European authors as Bruno Schulz, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and even Isaac Babel.

Eva Woods: As you were writing, did you ever run into a situation where you felt you had to kill a poetic darling to serve the narrative better?

Ilya Kaminsky: Ha! Killing of poetic darlings is a good thing to talk about, isn’t it? I have to say, yes. There are several (published) versions of Deaf Republic. Some of them are quite different. For example, there is a version that is a fairy tale that was published in Harvard Review over ten years ago. Then, there is a version in Poetry magazine, about ten pages, that is also different. I did have a reason for these different versions. And, I wanted different versions to exist in the world.

Gwen Dawson: Reminds me of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, with all the different versions.

Ilya Kaminsky: Well, that is very nice. Whitman is a genius of revision. If you compare different versions of Leaves of Grass that in of itself is an MFA in revision. Absolutely brilliant changes. The first page includes whole new stanzas, etc.

My own reasons for different versions were far more personal. I am a refugee. I wanted to have the book that would speak to both my experience in USSR and as someone who cares deeply about the current situation/war in Ukraine. That is one side. I also live in the United States, and have been here since 1993. I have lived on the US/Mexico border—less than ten miles from the border. And, I have seen people arrested in the streets and dragged into police vans on daily basis. That is the other side. I wanted to write about that would speak to both of these experiences. That is, I wanted to have the book that I could say truly represents the refugee’s view of the world—of what was left behind, and of where one is now.

Eva Woods: Sheesh, that’s a thoughtful answer!

Brian S: That certainly helps explain what I picked up on in the piece I wrote for Rumpus, about how this book felt both specific to a place and time and yet universal.

Gwen Dawson: Yes, that was one of the things I loved best. This collection seems to be about a very specific town at a specific moment in time, but it’s also about all of our towns right now. That’s why the final poem, is such a perfect capstone in my view.

Ilya Kaminsky: As to universal: I would actually not recommend going for “universal”—that usually means just the majority’s (e.g. white people’s, in this particular country) version of what they value at any given time. One rarely makes works of art when one aims for that. But the particulars that are so evocative that can wake up to many people people at the same time—that is a good aim, in my opinion. That specificity that is specificity to many humans, that locality that is local to many humans, that is the kind of “universality” I think is worth of considering.

Brian S: I agree, Ilya, and that’s an important distinction to make.

Eva Woods: I was just going to ask about the setting! How did you choose what to specify and what to leave vague there?

Ilya Kaminsky: What to specify and what to leave vague… In case your question relates to what I said about being a refugee and trying to portray that double-view: Well, there are many things about USSR or Ukrainian culture that Americans won’t get. There are many things about American culture that folks elsewhere don’t get. So, eventually one finds a balance. But in case you meant more generally… I don’t think things need to be left vague at all. But in fabulist literature, as in most fairy tales, it is a good idea to leave some things unsaid, so that the reader is implicated, so that reader is participating in the story.

Liz: The reader being implicated—I was trying to articulate that idea. You don’t let us off the hook.

Brian S: No, that’s clear from the opening poem

Eva Woods: The opening poem is a knockout.

Brian S: The move between we and I and back to we, so powerful.

Eduardo Ramos Ruiz: Professor Kaminsky, I found the poem “Yet, I am” a powerful existential voice by the speaker from the silence of the book. And the lines, the answer by the child: “On earth we can do / —can’t we— / What we want.”… wonderfully contradictory, kudos! Can you please expand on the importance (existence) of a voice in a silent world? And perhaps the making of the poem, too?

Ilya Kaminsky: That, Eduardo Ramos Ruiz, on voice: Well, one has to be careful with saying voice in this context. Do you mean actual physical voice? Well, many people might have a physical voice (e.g. physical muteness). If you mean metaphorical voice—then yes, sure, I am with you. I think, at its essence, a human voice is an intimate lyrical utterance. The first time the human being sat on the rock and looked at the beautiful landscape and said, Ah. That was, perhaps, the first poet. Or, on the other side: the first time, the human being was hurt, was in pain, was moaning, Ohhh. That was, perhaps, too, the first lyric moment.

Eduardo Ramos Ruiz: Yes, metaphorical speaker’s voice…

Ilya Kaminsky: Well, I hope I answered your question about the metaphorical voice. If not, let me know and I would be glad to follow up. The lyric poem is always in existence between the realm of silences and the realm of musics. (Yes, with an s at the end of both words). The music itself is mere noise, without silences in it. Yes, silence as such doesn’t exist. It is just a different configuration of noises. The voice, that music, that lyric impulse of what is human in us, always rises. But at times it is also at its strongest when it is in whispers.

Liz: While reading I was thinking a lot about physical voice and the ability to speak and hear. How we choose when to be silent, but also how physical disability or trauma can alter speaking and hearing. Knowing that you have a hearing loss, I wondered how your experience of hearing and verbal communication helped shape the centrality of speech and deafness.

Ilya Kaminsky: Well, being hard-of-hearing certainly did shape this book. I may not be the best person to judge how, since it is harder to see one’s self from a distance. All I can say that I am interested in disability moving away from the realm of the hospital (where it is currently placed by the mainstream culture) to the realm of political minority. If we look at it that way: disability is already very much a political question in our country. Just think about our politicians voting to raise their own salaries while voting against our healthcare rights. So, yes, many people’s disabilities in this country are very political. But having said, that, I must confess that as a poet I am interested in the questions of language far more than the above: I am interested in images as a language of its own. Can one write in a language of images instead of English language? Image, after all, is an international language.

Eduardo Ramos Ruiz: Well said, images as symbol… As seen in all cultures.

Debby: I love this conversation, but I have some questions in a completely different direction: Has this poem/play been performed? Have you ever written a poem in ASL?

Ilya Kaminsky: I do not write in ASL. I am hard of hearing person, not a deaf person. Deaf people have an amazing culture and an incredible language, ASL. When I was growing up, my father tried to teach me Russian sign language. It didn’t work out for various reasons outside of my or his control—1980s and 1990s were a rough time in that part of the world. To answer your other question: yes, when book was still in progress, parts of it were performed by New York City Ballet at Grace Farms in Connecticut.

Eva Woods: Could you imagine this story in another format? Film, etc?

Ilya Kaminsky: Thanks to all kind comments. Well, I can imagine it in other formats. But I am not an artist in other formats. It would only work in other format if a person who knows what they are doing imagines it!

Debby: I’ve watched ASL poetry. Would we call that a language of images?

Ilya Kaminsky: ASL is a very rich, very nuanced language. It would be reductive to call it a language of images. To some extent it is, yes, of course. But what I meant is: why not imagine English a language of images? I mean: we had Jabberwocky as an imagined English—a language of sounds. That influenced Modernists tremendously. People don’t talk enough on how much Jabberwocky influenced someone like Wallace Stevens or someone like Eliot or Lindsay, and so on. But what if one could imagine English made entirely of other elements of poetic craft, such as images? What would happen? Where might it take us? This is just one person wondering, of course.

Brian S: My mom was an ASL translator when she was young and I remember her struggle in trying to explain to seven-year-old me that the sentences didn’t work the same way. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood what she meant.

Liz: Have you made other forays into writing in a language of images? I find this fascinating (as well as the political nature of disability, as a disabled person myself.)

Ilya Kaminsky: Yes, my first book, Dancing in Odessa, has two long poems, “Musica Humana” and “Praise,” wherein I consciously tried to write a poem that’s entirely made out of images, even though both have an argument/plot of sorts, etc. I wouldn’t claim to have succeeded, necessarily. But it was fun to try.

Liz: Oh good. I will buy and read.

Eduardo Ramos Ruiz: Dancing in Odessa was an amazing debut… I was fortunate to hear you read at USC, thanks for passing out loaner books. Everybody should get your first book!

Liz: Writers must hate when readers say this, but have you considered expanding on the world of the book? Is this the final version? (I hope not. I want more and more).

Ilya Kaminsky: This book is already an expansion on two other versions of Deaf Republic story that have been published elsewhere. I might do more, I might not. I do wonder about Anushka.

Liz: As do we all! And thank you for Deaf Republic. The book means a great deal to me.

Eva Woods: Before we run out of time, what are you loving right now? Music, books, anything? Did any of the media you’re interacting with influence the book?

Ilya Kaminsky: I am a Shakespeare-crazy person. So, I am re-reading King Lear. I am also re-reading lyric poets such as Vallejo and Mandelstam and Dickinson. I teach Lucille Clifton’s work often. I think she was underrated as an artist. Carolyn Forché was mentioned above, and I just got a copy of her memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, which I think is really powerful. I am reading Jericho Brown’s new collection, The Tradition, which I think is fantastic. I think Valzhyna Mort is a very powerful poet. I think Victoria Chang’s new book, Barbie Chang, is an amazing book. Very interesting how she brings multiple different arcs into that book. Also, interesting how she brings music in unexpected ways. I admire many other writers at work today.

Thank you all so much for the kind words. I am grateful.

Liz: Well, there’s my reading list for 2019.

Eva Woods: Fantastic recommendations! Thanks for your time, this was really enjoyable and interesting.

Ilya Kaminsky: My pleasure. Thank you for reading the book. It means a lot to me.

Debby: I’ll be at your reading in Seattle.

Ilya Kaminsky: Very grateful.

Gwen Dawson: I loved this book. Thank you.

Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight, Ilya, and for this marvelous book.

Ilya Kaminsky: Thank you all. Much appreciated. Truly.

Brian S: Good night everyone! Stay warm if you can.

Ilya Kaminsky: Good night. Many thanks, again.


Photograph of Ilya Kaminsky © Cybele Knowles, 2013, courtesy of The University of Arizona Poetry Center.

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