Visiting Ilya Kaminsky reads original poetry

By RUDY MALCOM | April 11, 2019

Humanities students at Hopkins are used to not getting the same opportunities as their STEM counterparts. Friendly fire proved just as fatal, however, when faculty members in the Writing Seminars started closing the door on students attempting to enter the overstuffed Tudor and Stuart Room in Gilman Hall on Tuesday, April 2. The Writing Sems department selected Gilman 388 (as opposed to the usual Mudd 26) for its intimacy, but it’s truly a shame that more students weren’t able to attend the reading of Margolies Visiting Writer Ilya Kaminsky.

Kaminsky was born in Odessa (present-day Ukraine) in 1977. When he was four years old, doctors misdiagnosed his mumps for the common cold, resulting in the loss of most of his hearing. At age 16, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of anti-Semitism, he and his family sought political asylum in the U.S. When they arrived in Rochester, N.Y., they couldn’t speak a word of English. Since graduating from Georgetown University in 1999, Kaminsky has become an award-winning and critically acclaimed poet, translator and critic. For his collection Dancing in Odessa, he received the Dorset Prize, the Whiting Writer’s Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award.

Kaminsky read poems from his recently published second collection Deaf Republic, which, as Karl Kirchwey for the New York Times describes, is “presented as if it were a play in two acts.” And as if it were a work of ancient Greek drama, Deaf Republic features a list of “Dramatis Personae,” including a chorus of the townspeople of the fictional Vasenka, which is under martial law. Kaminsky explained that Deaf Republic took him 15 years to write because he had no full-length model for a work of this nature.

“Deaf Republic traces the consequences of the murder of a deaf boy who spits at a sergeant while attending a puppet show (public gatherings have been outlawed) in the town square,” Kirchwey said. 

As a gesture of civil disobedience, many townspeople pretend to be deaf to the soldiers.

“Watch, God — / deaf have something to tell / that not even they can hear,” he read from “A Cigarette.”

Indeed the townspeople’s deafness symbolizes both their insulation from nearby corruption and their apathy toward others’ suffering. The figurative landscape of Deaf Republic is abstract and complex, but — to the success of the collection — is rendered concretely on the literal level.

Predicting that his thick accent might make him difficult to understand, Kaminsky had the Writing Sems department print and distribute packets containing selections from Deaf Republic. Throughout the poems he read, his word choices were deceptively simple, but as American poet and essayist Rita Dove said, “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”

Perhaps more notable than Kaminsky’s diction was his idiosyncratic reading style — an emotional and ecstatic performance and a valuable experience that enriched his poems by making them more palpable.

Sophomore Manny Sargen agreed in an interview with The News-Letter.

“It was really interesting to see where he accents different words to hear exactly what he hears,” he said.

Kaminsky literally breathed new life into iambic meter in lines like, “You step out of the shower and the entire nation calms” and “I don’t know anything about you — except the spray of freckles on your shoulders” in “Still Newlyweds.” Similarly his distinctive cadence made “We Lived Happily During the War” especially evocative; he exaggerated the rhythm of “America / was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house” and “in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money, / our great country of money,” making the reader more sympathetic to the suffering that the townspeople of Vasenka ignore. 

“We (forgive us) / lived happily during the war,” Kaminsky concluded in a whisper, reflecting the guilt of the poem’s speaker.

After reading several poems Kaminsky answered questions from Dora Malech, an assistant professor in the Writing Seminars, and other attendees.

Sargen particularly enjoyed the Q&A.

“It was really cool to see his inspirations for writing these things and how his father’s history made him passionate enough to write these poems over more than a decade,” he said.

In addition, Kaminsky shared his profound insights into literature, revealing an astute knowledge and understanding of poetry and poetic forms. He mentioned that a poem’s tone can get lost in translation, citing English poet William Blake’s “The Tyger” as an example.

“Blake’s having a metaphysical crisis in the middle of the poem,” he said. “The translated version in Russian... is a poem about a big cat.”

Kaminsky was also quite humorous. 

“Who were your favorites or inspirations or models for love poems?” someone asked, to which Kaminsky responded, “I’m happily married,” with a laugh.

On the topic of love poetry, Kaminsky said that American writers are often afraid to be sentimental. He proceeded to explore the meaning of the words “sentimental” and “emotional.”

“The difference between emotional and sentimental is really very simple,” he said. “‘Sentimental’ is me crying in front of you. ‘Emotional’ is me making you cry.”

Finally Kaminsky encouraged us to write about what happens around us — not just what happens to us.

“You should be free from just saying, ‘This is my experience, and I’m going to write about it,’ because then you lose all the experiences that could be yours if you let them,” he said.

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