Books

“The Poem Is a Warning”

Ilya Kaminsky on his viral poem “We Lived Happily During the War” and Ukrainian resistance.

A man with brown hair and glasses laughing.
Cybele Knowles, courtesy of the University of Arizona Poetry Center

The Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky’s book Deaf Republic tells the story of a city under siege from an occupying force, and the steps the citizens to fight back. It also portrays the experience of watching conflict from a safe distance—something many Americans have experienced this week as images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine flood our social feeds and televisions. I emailed with Kaminsky this week about what he hopes readers take from his work, how the Ukrainian sense of humor has influences images of resistance, and the newly heroic Volodymyr Zelensky.

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Slate: Earlier this week your poem “We Lived Happily During the War” went semi-viral online. What was it like to suddenly have a whole new audience encounter this work, divorced from its context as the opening poem in your book Deaf Republic?

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Ilya Kaminsky: “Deaf Republic” opens when a deaf boy is shot by a soldier from an invading army in a public square. The whole community decides to protest this murder by refusing to hear the authorities. The townspeople coordinate with each other by sign language. In the midst of this violence, people still fall in love, laugh, make children.

I grew up watching the collapse of USSR and the war in Transnistria—Russia’s first so-called “humanitarian aid” campaign, which was very similar to the current war in Ukraine, though less well publicized. Then I came to USA, where for 12 years I have lived only 8 miles from US/Mexico border. It was not unusual to have your car stopped and searched for people trying to cross the border, or to see people being taken away in ICE vans. And of course the police brutality against Black and brown people has been such a hugely visible and important issue, finally, in the past few years.

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So, as the author, a living human, I couldn’t help but notice certain similarities between images of violence caused by this empire—violence taking place here in this country—and images of violence in Eastern Europe. And at the same time, there is happiness. People fall in love, laugh, make children.

Beginning with the poem “We Lived Happily During the War,” which is heavy with irony about the greatness of our capitalist nation, shows a different kind of so-called happiness, the happiness of living with our backs turned—ignorant bliss. The poem is meant to serve as a wake-up call; to prevent people from reading “Deaf Republic” as a tragedy of elsewhere. Deaf Republics, with their hopes, protests, and complicities, are everywhere. We live in the Deaf Republic.

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As for the poem—”We Lived Happily During the War” is not a piece of journalism or philosophy, where one might go into facts or questions of ethics. In a poem, one hopes to create an experience in the reader: in this case, the hope of the poem is to help the reader see their own complicity.

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The poem doesn’t want to be a pronouncement. The poem is a warning. This is what happens when half-measures take place. “We lived happily during the war,” the poem begins, and it ends with the same words. But by the time it gets to its final line, one hopes the reader might find the horrific irony in that fact of repetition. How many wars can we live through, happily?

One hopes the reader sees the critique of this “we” and what it has done. By the time you get to the repetition of “our country of money” and then to “our great country of money”—one questions the word “great.” That is what art hopes to do: It doesn’t shout at the reader “You must change!” Instead, the reader is changed via the act of reading.

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Deaf Republic imagines a town’s sharp resistance to an occupying force. We’re now seeing citizens of Ukraine engaging in active resistance to the Russian invasion. What do you see in the response from non-Ukrainian observers to this resistance? What can we learn from the “sunflower seeds” lady, for instance, and how do you feel about people’s lionization of her?

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I was 16 when I left Odessa, a deaf kid who heard the USSR fall apart with my eyes.  Odessa architecture is scaled down, “human sized,” and there was an opera house before there was potable water. Odessa loves art, and it loves to party. In the summer, huge cages of watermelons sit on every corner. You break them on the sidewalk and eat them with friends. The city has an especial affinity for literature. There are more monuments to writers than in any other city I have ever visited. When they ran out of writers, they began putting up monuments for fictional characters.

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The most important holiday in Odessa isn’t Christmas, it is April 1, April Fool’s Day, which we call Humorina. Thousands of people come to the street and celebrate what they call the day of kind humor. All of Ukraine has a sense of humor—think of the man who offered to tow the Russian tank which had run out of gas back to Russia. Humor is part of our resilience.

But alas Ukraine is not a perfect country. There is corruption and a lot of crime, especially among political figures. There are oligarchs. Although the Ukrainian president is Jewish, there is still antisemitism in daily life (which is why my family left). But what gives me hope is the new generation of Ukrainians, people who grew up after the fall of USSR. They are free—probably more free than Americans or Europeans. They have respect for freedom because the mindset of corporations hasn’t yet entered Ukraine the way it has the West. They believe in culture. There are festivals all over the place. In Odessa, for example, they had an event when people created a human chain across the city, and each person read a favorite passage from a book to a person standing next to them. I have hope in that generation.

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You’ve written about the role language has played in the Ukrainian–Russian conflict. It’s interesting to me that in every video of interaction between Russian soldiers and Ukrainian military or civilians, there is obviously no language gap; they are communicating easily. Ukrainians are even, allegedly, helping captured Russian soldiers call their parents on the phone. What do you make of the cultural and linguistic connection between the invading force and the people they’re invading? 

Ukraine is a bilingual country. Ukrainians know both languages. It is the Russians who only know one language. And, yes, there is a moral in this accounting.

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The problem here is that Putin decided not to speak any language except that of violence, showing us what authoritarian regime circa 21 century is like. He has decided to have a war on the pretext of “saving” Russian language—whether or not it needs to be saved. My cousin Petya in Odessa speaks Russian. Does he want Putin to come and save him? Hell, no. You go on Russian news, and what do you read? You read that Ukrainians are bombing their own houses as they retreat. Seriously. Fake news.

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But, wait a second, how is it different from our own wannabe authoritarian, Mr. Trump and all his barrage of fake news? It is not that different at all. And everyone who pays attention has noticed that. It is a tragedy that Putin’s propaganda was able to do what it did with the Russian population who is now attacking its neighbors and friends. But isn’t it somewhat similar to what Mr. Trump’s propaganda is doing to people who are calling to ban books from schools, etc.? Let’s take a very long and very close look in the mirror here. Haven’t we got a somewhat identical problem?

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You’ve been sharply critical of Ukraine’s leaders in the past. What is it like to see the president of the country turn into a kind of folk hero, even as his and his country’s immediate future remains troubled?

Whether Zelensky is a good president on the daily basis, whether he is a kind of bureaucrat who was able to create transparency and due process—that is not up to me to say. But I can say he is certainly someone who can inspire his people in the time of trouble. And that is quite a lot at this moment. Quite a lot.

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