Olga Khersonska

A Poem as a Shield and a Prayer: An Interview with Lyudmyla Khersonska


It has been over four hundred and eighty days since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began; Lyudmyla Khersonska, a poet from Odessa, has been chronicling this war, fiercely, in her poems. Her poetry is an incantation, an attempt to charm, protect, and neutralize.

I am from Odessa, and Lyudmyla is a dear friend. I yearned for Anglophone readers to experience how her poems bear witness to the ravages of war in 2022.  This longing led me to collaborate with Andrew Janco, Lev Fridman, and Maya Chhabra to translate her work, resulting in the publication of Today Is a Different War (Arrowsmith Press).  Her recent poems develop the complicated genre of the war diary. Many of her poems bear a title in the format of “War. Day X.” This march of time suggests the unrelenting pace of war and evokes the presence, bravery, and warmth of Kheronska’s lyrical voice. The war diary also allows for an incredible range of voices to speak on different days: children, mothers, spouses, bickering friends, God.

Khersonska is the author of four books in Russian, which have gained recognition both in Eastern and Western Europe. Last year, her first English collection, a joint project with her husband Boris Khersonsky, entitled The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear (Lost Horse Press), was edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris and featured translations by Diane Seuss and Javier Zamora.

Khersonska is currently in residency at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, in Umbria, Italy. She and I spoke via Zoom, first during a discussion at Drexel University’s Writing Festival on May 11, 2023, and then from my home. We talked about her creative process during the war, using humor during a disastrous time, and how children sometimes serve as role models of fearlessness. My fellow translator, Lev Fridman, contributed to this interview.


The Rumpus: Russia’s war in Ukraine began in 2014. How did it impact your poetry then?

Lyudmyla Khersonska: All my poems were about the war that was taking place at the time. Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began last year, people have been asking: “How did you write this? Did you foresee what’s happening now?” When you see minor signs of what’s going on, you can construct the whole picture. I was analyzing it and drawing parallels with Aleppo [Syria]. I had these persistent visions. We were passing a supermarket on the way home and I had a very bright image of a rocket hitting this supermarket and the explosion. . . . Really, that was almost obsessive. Poets are often separate from the rest of the world, they often have a kind of tunnel vision. It’s a very important tunnel because in the end it will lead to insight and understanding.

Today is a Different War cover

Rumpus: The title of the book we put together is Today Is a Different War. The title poem, which Maya Chhabra translated, was written in 2016 and is attempting to foresee what will happen: “Today’s a different war. Not the one from yesterday. / Today’s is harder, heavier. Rain drizzling down since morning / . . . Everything’s a little bit mortal—arms, legs, stomach. / Everything’s a little bit eternal, living in blood and smoke.” What did it mean to you to say that “everything’s a little bit mortal” but at the same time “a little bit eternal”?

Khersonska: We all are a little bit mortal and eternal at the same time, regardless of what’s happening to us. Normally you have time for thinking, praying, repenting, reading, for talking to people. But when there is a war, you have no time to process anything. Many things happen through emotions and through necessity, and they are only about survival and the physical body. Which is actually quite sad. If people had more space, more quiet time for thinking, praying, and understanding what’s going on, hatred would not have been that concentrated. So yes, mortality and eternity are forever. The thing with war is that war distorts our way to both of them.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little about how anger plays out in your creative process?

Khersonska: Anger is a normal reaction to the pain that somebody causes you. What’s strange is that the enemy is invisible. If the enemy were visible, I could probably just hit him or say something to his face. Russia’s missiles are there, not their army. Russia has made that choice. Their evil is visible in the results of their attacks, but they are unreachable. It makes you really frustrated. Anger cannot last forever. You feel it, it goes away, and you are left with your helplessness. There is no one to talk to, no dialogue. There is only stupid metal.

Rumpus: In one of your poems written last year, “War. Day 1,” the speaker does speak back to the enemy, because you personify war: “So the war is here. No one asked it for a visit, / no one made its bed, or set the table / with a snow-white tablecloth.” This conversation with the war happens in several poems. Do you personify Putin, the Russian soldiers, or something a bit more general?

Khersonska: That’s true, I do talk to the war. For me, the enemy is not personified, except for some people who I know are guilty. It is very important to talk to evil, evil in general. You know, when children are afraid of the dark, they sometimes talk to it. They try to understand what’s behind there, saying, “Hey, darkness, I’m not afraid of you!” Then they get up from their beds at night and feel strong. So, perhaps in part, that dialogue with darkness comes from childhood.

Rumpus: I think about the children in your poems about the war as very vulnerable. But when you talked about childhood just now, it sounds like they stand for much more than vulnerability. What do you think is the meaning of children in your work?

Khersonska: You know, I feel a strong connection with children. It might sound funny, since I’m a grown person, but I trust children. I like children’s openness, and children cannot be hypocrites. The way they describe the world is absolutely fascinating, and their metaphors are so beautiful. I feel like I’m part of their world, and therefore it is very important for me to understand what they feel. I always kind of feel this guilt that I cannot protect them. I do not want them to hear all these explosions or be afraid to hear air raid sirens. Most of the children in Ukraine are now growing up with this feeling of fear that something uncontrollable may happen. Children are always afraid to talk about death.  They do not actually understand what death is, and they can be really frightened. This is why there are so many children in my poems.

Rumpus: One of the poems that Lev [Fridman] translated starts with what sounds like sarcasm: “The Ruscists are firing at some strategic locations / shell-shocked cows / wounded dogs / deafened cats . . .” How would you say the war in Ukraine has affected nature?

Khersonska: This is one of the most painful pages in the war for me. I can hardly talk about it because I just feel so sorry for all these abandoned and wounded animals. They trust people and while they trust people, people do these terrible things to them. They do not understand what’s going on, like humans do. I mean, at least humans realize it is a war. I remember my cat was so afraid of the sound of a thunderstorm. Then you can realize what torture it is for them, all those explosions. This is something that probably will be talked more about later, what humans have done to nature.

Rumpus: All the poems in our book were originally posted on Facebook. What does social media mean to you?

Khersonska: It’s important to post a poem and get responses from people, to see who they are, what they feel. It’s also a space to get very frustrated. There is a filtration system in place that reminds me of censorship in the Soviet Union. I don’t write my poems to get them published or to seek payment, and yet at this point I know that just for posting them, somebody will get me banned from Facebook again. I just hate it. They ban you for truth and description, whereas I think they should ban the real evil that is described.

Rumpus: Your Facebook account has been suspended three times, which made your husband joke, sarcastically, “Lyudmyla got banned from Facebook again for excessive hatred, but I wonder, hatred for whom? Let’s all ask ourselves: ‘Who does Lyudmyla hate so much?’” Was someone reporting your poetry as offensive?

Khersonska: I think it was reporting, and my friends on Facebook think the same because some of the poems that were banned did not have words that the algorithm would interpret as “forbidden words,” or words of hatred. If people are afraid of the written word—of just a poet and not a military man—it means that I can be a part of this fight for my country, a strong part. I do not feel hatred; I feel anger and repulsion. My poetry documents the horrible pictures of this war.

Rumpus: A major theme of your poetry is the struggle to preserve the rituals of domestic life in the middle of war. Could you tell us how you see the role of poetry in helping people establish normalcy among the chaos?

Khersonska: Actually, no one can establish normalcy among the chaos and any external violence. It is aimed at ruining human life and dignity. People cannot oppose missiles to protect their lives, but people can keep their dignity. Amidst chaos, one can concentrate on minor things that are still intact or normal. Pieces of normal life are still there, and they are reachable. One needs to hear a normal human voice, soothing and reassuring.

Sometimes one needs to hear the voice attacking the offender, attacking that silence of fear. I think it is intolerable. Silence brings out insecurity. So during the air raid siren, I would just talk to myself, or to my cats, or my plants. I would just hail down curses on the enemy, and I would lay a spell on all the enemy’s bombs and missiles, so that they would not explode.

Actually, this is one place that poetry comes from, if you are not on the front lines. People want to have somebody helping them with the names of things, for someone may forget words during the war. A poem is like a shield and a prayer.

Rumpus: You have published four books of poetry in your native Russian. The poems in this book have been posted in Russian on your Facebook page but are gathered, in this print edition, in English. What is it like for you to see them in this way?

Khersonska: I want to thank you, my dear translators, for this chance to be heard. I would say that, in a way, it is a book of warning to all of us. Just like we have warnings in many places where human life is endangered.

My mother tongue is Russian. As you have said, I write my poetry in Russian. I want to say that my Russian has nothing to do with Putin’s Russian. In Putin’s Russian, words mean their opposite. Putin’s Russian vocabulary is limited. It consists of the words of violence and the words of punishment, and it is all lies and threats.

Rumpus: You write a great deal about women. Can you tell us more about this topic?

Khersonska: I think women during war bear an extra burden. They are responsible for keeping [everyday] life going. So they fight and heal the wounded at the front, and they take care of their children and their neighbors’ children and their elderly parents and homes and pets while the men are fighting to defend their motherland. They grab the kids and go to the shelters during the air raid sirens, and they take the kids to safer places. Women write poetry in my country, and they shout from the rooftops for the whole world to hear their pain and anger. They register the number of crimes Russia has committed in my country. They try to stay strong and cope. We have very strong women in Ukraine.

Rumpus: In one of your poems, the speaker watches the Russian military parade on TV: “. . . veterans watch from their brotherly graves / all those crutches, / all those portraits, / thinking: wouldn’t it be better if they painted a bench, / or fried some chicken?” What is it like for you, watching Russia from abroad?

Khersonska: I do not like any kinds of weapons, therefore, for me there is no particular difference between many different guns. Unfortunately, now I have to read about the difference between different missiles. People have learned to recognize different air-strike weapons and different strikes. Like every person who was under fire, I learned to tell by ear what was flying, and where it might fly, and whether it was dangerous or not, and whether it was time to go to the shelter. Or, I think I learned.  I’ve been watching their parades, not because I enjoy this spectacle, but because I try to understand what’s going on. I try to understand how far they might go. And with their demonstrations, I found that their violence was just kind of growing and growing, and it was. It was funny and terrifying at the same time, almost surreal.

Rumpus: Now you are in Italy, at a residency—I think at an actual castle?

Khersonska: Yes, it is called Civitella Ranieri, and it is a beautiful place for fellows who are doing different arts and are awarded fellowships. It’s nice, on a hill in Umbria, and it is isolated, but that is probably exactly what we need, because in the state we are in, we just need this feeling of shelter. I walk around the castle sometimes, just admiring the walls and checking how thick they are, and I think to myself: “If a missile hits this place or this building, where do I hide? Do I hide here, or there?” Then I say, “There are so many places to hide, such a beautiful building, such a smart building where you can hide from missiles, and they even have this basement, and all the stairs. Their walls are this thick, and their windows are very small. . . .”

We had an earthquake here recently, and it was quite strong. I wasn’t even scared. I thought, “So the Russians are shelling again?” That was my first reaction. Everything is shaking. The building is shaking. But you think it is the Russians firing at your home. I came out of the building smiling, and everybody else was scared.

Rumpus: What have you been reading lately?

Khersonska: In the first several months [of the full-scale invasion], I literally could not read. Then, by and by, this ability came back.  I am very happy now that I can enjoy reading fully the same way as I could before the war, due to the place where I am now. I’m sure that if I were in Ukraine right now, I would not be able to read. It’s very hard for many of my colleagues or my friends to concentrate on reading. Of course, we read each other’s poetry, and, I would say, it is very much about the same thing, speaking out your pain or your indignation.

Rumpus: Are there books that support you at this time?

Khersonska: What helps me very much is going back to totally different authors from a totally different culture. Recently, I have read a couple of novels by the beautiful Japanese author Kenzaburō Ōe. I love him very much. In his work, there are surrealistic descriptions of ruthless reality. He is trying to understand: how come there is such evil in human nature? Where does it come from? How does it appear in other cultures, and how similar is it across cultures? How, how is this possible? In the twenty-first century, what is the meaning of this destruction, destruction for the sake of destruction?

Reading is a panacea when you seek support and understanding. It helps you realize that very many people before you have undergone much violence, and they ask themselves the same questions: “How do we oppose violence? How do we survive?”




Author photo by Boris Khersonsky

Olga Livshin's poetry and translations appear in the New York Times, Ploughshares, the Kenyon Review, and other journals. She is the author of A Life Replaced: Poems with Translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman (Poets & Traitors Press, 2019). Livshin co-translated A Man Only Needs a Room, a volume of Vladimir Gandelsman's poetry (New Meridian Arts Books, 2022), and Today is a Different War by Lyudmyla Khersonska (Arrowsmith Press, 2023). Follow her at @olgalivshin. More from this author →