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Poet Ilya Kaminsky On 'Deaf Republic'

Credit: Cybele Knowles, courtesy of The University of Arizona Poetry Center

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky has been referred to as “an important literary event” and the collection described as “a contemporary epic,” as “a poetry collection framed as a two-act play,” and as “book-length series of poems.”

In anticipation of his visit to Wichita State University, KMUW's Beth Golay reached out to Kaminsky with some questions about his new collection. 

Beth Golay: Could you give us an overview of the story?

Ilya Kaminsky: Deaf Republic is a story about a pregnant woman and her husband at a time of crisis. At a public gathering they watch a soldier shoot and kill a young deaf boy. And they see that the responsive to this murder, the whole town protests by refusing to hear the authorities. And the people's protest is coordinated by sign language.

Can you talk a little about setting? Because to many readers, the setting will be uncertain but very recognizable.

The setting of Deaf Republic has to do with the fact that I'm both of Ukraine and of the United States. I'm responding to both parts of my life, and a refugee both. So of course Ukraine is currently at war with the Russians. And of course I also lived on the border between Mexico and the United States for twelve years. So the setting of this book responds to both of those places my life.

Have you written other collections that do form a cohesive narrative? 

Deaf Republic is a story told by lyrical poems. My first book, Dancing in Odessa, involved these elements too. In this book, however, I really wanted to ask myself. Okay so I'm done now. I have lived in American for quite a while now. Yes I am a refugee. Yes I speak to both parts of my life. And yet how am I going to confront that in my writing? So I wanted Deaf Republic to speak to both Ukraine and the United States. 

English is not your first language, and you’re also a translator. How do these language elements factor into your writing? For example, do you think in English before you put pen to paper? How do you approach a poem in English when a word might be better in Russian?

Although my first language is Russian, and although I come from the largest Russian speaking part of Ukraine, I wrote this book in English. This simply has to do this with vast differences between literaure. It would be pretty much impossible to write this book in Russian and then translated into English simply because the Russian literature is much younger. Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature, was writing in 1824 when he was writing the novel in the Soviet Union. Now what do you read in '24 for English literature? English literature had so much already accomplished by that date. So as you can see the really anthropological differences that make it pretty much impossible to write this book in Russian first. 


Here's an audio of Ilya Kaminsky reading one of his poems from Deaf Republic:

We Lived Happily during the War

And when they bombed other people's houses, we

but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house--

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.


Ilya Kaminsky will read at Wichita State University on Tuesday, September 10 beginning at 5:30 p.m. as part of the Reading Now, Writing Now lecture series.

Beth Golay is KMUW's Director of Marketing and Digital Content. She is the host of the KMUW podcast Marginalia and co-host with Suzanne Perez of the Books & Whatnot podcast. You can find her on Wichita Transit in conversation with other riders for En Route, a monthly segment on KMUW's weekly news program The Range.