Ilya Kaminsky holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry at Georgia Institute of Technology. He was born in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa and lost most of his hearing at age four. Kaminsky was granted political asylum in the United States in 1993. His book, Deaf Republic, won numerous awards and was named Notable Book of 2019 by the New York Times. The BBC selected him as “One of the 12 artists that changed the world.”
My native country, Ukraine, is currently at war, partly occupied by Russia. The country in which I am alive right now, the U.S.A., is in a crisis of its own. For years, it seemed like many Americans kept pretending that history is something that happens elsewhere, a misfortune that befalls other people. But history is lying there in the middle of the street, behind yellow police tape. Showing us who we are. How do I address this, as a lyric poet? Do lyric poets address such things? What is silence? We speak against silence, but it is silence that moves us to speak. I am not a documentary poet; I am a fabulist. And, yet, the world pushes through, the reality is everywhere.
At the end of the day, the artists witness the world around them, its crisis. But it is also important to remember that true witness isn’t just about violence and war. To only notice those things is to witness only a part of our existence. But there is also wonder. I see it as my duty to report this lyricism in the whirl of our griefs. It is a personal responsibility for me: My father was a Jewish child in German-occupied Odessa, during World War II, who not only suffered, but also learned to dance. The Russian woman who hid him, Natalia, hid him for three years. She taught him how to tango. And so they danced for the three years of that war, in a room where the curtains were always drawn. Once, he escaped outside to play and the German soldiers saw him, so he ran to the market and hid behind boxes of tomatoes. All my friends tell me there are too many tomatoes in my poems. They say there is too much dancing. Is there enough? I don’t know.
Is it foolish to speak of little joys that occur in the middle of tragedy? It is our humanity. Whatever we have left of it. We must not deny it to ourselves. I am a love poet, or a poet in love with the world. It is just who I am. If the world is falling apart, I have to say the truth. But I don’t stop being in love with that world.