An Interview with Vasyl Makhno
Vasyl Makhno corresponded with Kateryna Botanova about the process of writing and varying perceptions of the function of poetry both in the United States, where he has lived since 2000, and Ukraine.
“and predestined myself for exile among mussels
having bought the ticket that Ovid never had . . . ”
from ‘Farewell to Winter on the Shores of the Atlantic’
KB: You have described writing poems as “scribbl[ing] words”, at times a rather painful process, almost a duty. And you could either compare scribbling to a drug addiction or put it in the same category as, say, making coffee – a cozy process that adds rhythm to one’s days, makes them homologous and routine. So are poems more like a struggle with the self, with the desire to remain silent, or are they the fulfillment of “the need for writing”, like the need for drinking/breathing/smoking . . . ? What is it that connects the pain, or even a certain physiological tone of your poetry, with the somewhat romantic traditional image of the poet – both in the ‘elevated’ sense and in the sense of “gravitating towards the canon of romanticism’?
VM: The liminal linguistic and cultural situation in which I find myself makes this kind of antagonism or internal ‘struggle’ simply inevitable. That’s why this higher obligation begins with scribbling words. A poet is not obligated to anyone. He or she has an obligation, to put it in terms of the ‘elevated’ style, only to his/her language, because language, according to Heidegger, is the dwelling of Being. So the poet’s obligation to Being is to be aware of it or to verbalize it, providing his/her angle of understanding during a momentary possession of it.
At first I thought that the need for writing was the need for, as you put it, “drinking/breathing/smoking”. But today it seems to be more of a record or an arrangement of sensations and visions caused by various intellectual ‘irritants’.
Thus today I cannot say that writing poems is an unusual human endeavor. To a certain extent, I share the probably not very popular idea that poetry is a kind of craft, like anything else. In the West, the conviction inherent in the Slavic world – that poetry comes from God – is inexistent or almost inexistent.
It is true that I have authored a considerable number of poems about poetry and poets; there these ideas function in various combinations and patterns because art is probably the only occupation on Earth that, conventionally speaking, does not make sense. That’s why for me these inevitable questions crossed over to the category of experiencing loneliness and the worthlessness of everything, to comprehending the sense of being damaged, of the sheer otherness of those who partake in this occupation.
I think that the image of a poet is slowly changing, because the world itself is changing. And there is no turning back from this process. Even in Ukrainian society, the attitude towards literature, and hence towards its creators, has changed.
Our Ukrainian culture, or the national form of cultural existence, is part of the tradition that assumes a romanticized approach to poets, to poetry writing and so on. Therefore, the poet is a prophet, a precursor, or someone else like that. Because of that, various taboos took root: you can write about this, but not about that. Thus for many people it is hard to let go of these stereotypes.
KB: At this moment in your words, as in your poetry, there is a deep, even fundamental, unresolved conflict between the ‘Ukrainian’ and the ‘Western’, between ‘ours’, which for you is slowly becoming distant and alien, and ‘theirs’, which slowly transforms into ‘one’s own’ and comes to be internalized . . . How do you perceive the role of poetry now, and how much has this perception changed?
VM: I am very aware that you and I aren’t going to solve the problem of poetry and the role of the poet, if only because it is always changing, just like the perception itself is changing. Nevertheless, my liminal existence between East and West undoubtedly influences everything that I now write. In the West, poetry has long stopped performing a social function (and in Ukraine this is also becoming passé). The creation of poetry, its publication and reading, is founded most often on the desire to communicate with the world using cognitive and linguistic forms that are different from those of the mass media. This is an attempt to hold on to another language for the understanding between the poet and the reader or the listener.
In this sense, poetry’s function becomes unique and irreplaceable, but again, only for those who feel the need for non-formalized thinking; there aren’t that many of them either in the US or in Europe. Maybe because of that, after attending a poetry festival, I ironically wrote, ‘Ten Poets Read for Ten Listeners’.
Zbigniew Herbert, for example, said that poetry cannot stoop down “to the tribunal gossip and the black foam of newspapers”, but another Polish poet, Tadeusz Różewicz, used the very poetics of the quotidian, of banality, and the forms of poetic expression devoid of metaphors, so that through irony he could speak plainly about the essential.
Along those lines, the main discrepancy apparently lies in the very approach to the fundamentals of poetic creation. In the United States almost every university offers courses in Creative Writing, where they teach how to write poetry, prose, drama and essays; this, in turn, also allows writers to avoid starving. This massive educational institutionalization of literature evidences the extreme rationality of the Americans’ approach to the business of writing. I don’t know whether this yields any palpable results, but I do know that all the well-known names in American poetry didn’t spend a day in those classes.
In Ukraine, new forms of cultural life are also being conceived, although not without Western influence as well. Now it is not the membership in some writers’ union, but more often, the very opposite thereof that defines the professional level of writers. And the publication of new journals, though not always regular, somehow gradually shifts the accents in literary life and processes. The emergence of literary websites also makes different forms of literary life more distinct.
In New York, there are countless literary cafés with good reputations, in which readings happen almost every day; there are countless literary magazines, ranging from self-published to academic.
I think that the chief difference lies in this multifaceted diversity, which is only making its first baby step in Ukraine.
KB: Finally, you mentioned New York. How did it happen that you have been living in New York since 2000? What motivated your departure from Ukraine? Was it planned or spontaneous? Did it divide your life into two parts? And what about your poetry?
VM: It is still hard for me to understand what exactly motivated my move. On the one hand, of course, I had the desire to see and to experience the American world, and on the other, I was perfectly aware of all the complications of taking this step.
Then I couldn’t even predict that I would come to live a part of my life in New York, though ‘the western vector’ was always present in my subconscious. Well, rather, it was the esthetic component of this ‘vector’. The fact that I had spent a period of time in Krakow, Poland, may have served as a catalyst, as well as my general inclination towards the Western model of literature.
Teaching at the Jagellonian University in Krakow, I had the opportunity to acquaint myself more closely with Polish culture, to travel in Poland. My debut in the pages of the Polish literary press took place precisely in Krakow, when in 1997 Dekada Literacka published a few of my poems in Andrzej Novak’s translation. I corresponded with Katarzyna Herbert, the wife of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert whom I was translating at the time. Unfortunately, my meeting with the poet himself never happened because of his illness. That was a highly exciting period of my life.
My departure for the United States was spontaneous, not overly planned either psychologically or linguistically, because I couldn’t imagine American life, and because of that didn’t really reflect on what might be in store for me. Neither did I believe I was going there for a long period of time.
The move, I’d say, divided in half both my life and my work. For example, in the book The Fish’s Fin, which was published in Ukraine in 2002, half of the poems were written in Ukraine and the other half in New York. This is the most ‘transitional’ of my books.
At a certain moment during my stay in the United States, I somehow explicitly felt that I needed to change something inside myself. Many factors caused me to lean in this direction, but foremost was the feeling that Ukrainian culture is marginalized in a global context, a humiliating feeling of being stuck in a ghetto. That is why my new collection, 38 Poems About New York and Some Other Things, which was published by Krytyka in 2004, is a fundamentally different book.
Privately, I experienced a real rebirth. I came to the understanding that in essence, the Western style of life strongly differs from the Ukrainian, but the most important is a permanent sensation of art’s contemporary nature. For the West, a never-ending search for the contemporary language of art is crucial; perhaps, this is exactly why the West constantly produces something new.
The stereotypes acquired at home about the decadence of the West and that ‘ours is better’ fell away naturally.
KB: In the poetry from your latest collection, New York has a strange look: it is as though it were the city of imagination, a city-image, which has long abandoned the one-to-one correspondence with reality. Your walks through New York are walks through memory, which doesn’t remember and cannot remember anything other than what is before your eyes. Can we say that New York left you disappointed, or is in the process of disappointing you?
VM: It’s hard to say what New York is for me. First of all, it was a city which I wasn’t able to take in; I was an alien, thrown in from another life. My wanderings through this city resembled to me walking through galleries filled with paintings that I found loathsome. The disappointment caused by New York was really a disappointment in my personal myths about the city and about the United States in general. It’s good that I have let them go. At first, the whole New York landscape depressed me. And this was completely natural: I felt lonely. I took a step, perhaps to nowhere. This city where everything moves around 24 hours a day was strange and unwelcoming, unknown and completely not European; some of the poems from this period, probably, give the foundation for such a conclusion.
With time, everything changed and I began to discover some of the city’s possibilities that were unknown to me at first: its energy, its diverse cultural life. I started to search for poetry in it, which above all constructed inside me the past and present topoi of memory. My poem ‘A New York Postcard to Bogdan Zadura’ makes a telling example: it illustrates my sentiments and synthesizes the two polar topoi, American and European. About two years after my arrival, New York grew filled with certain highly meaningful content for me: new poems and essays, poetry readings, meetings with New York’s bohemians, attendance at art events – this New York began to open up in a different way. Consequently, I began to discover for myself this unique city, considered today to be the capital of the world, the intersection of not only business, but also cultural streams.
I always compare other American and European cities with New York and never find even the smallest similarities. New York, without exaggerating, influenced me and my texts.
KB: What is world literature for you today? Which names is it composed of? What is the place of Ukrainian literature in it?
VM: World literature is an ever-changing notion, which is filled with new names each time. A conviction exists that the canon of world literature is comprised of texts written in English, German, and French, and everything else is on the periphery. There is some truth to this, maybe not highly pleasing for other cultures. All the same, in my opinion, this is a fairly snobbish approach. There are a lot of esteemed works written in other languages.
If we are talking about contemporary poetry, for me in Poland it is Bogdan Zadura, Adam Zagajewski, Janusz Szuber, and the generation of BruLion. There is highly interesting Bosnian poetry, first of all, Izet Sarajlić and Hadžem Hajdarević. In American poetry I highly regard John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara; in Slovene, Dane Zajc, Tomaž Šalamun and the younger poets, such as Primož Čučnik and Gregor Podlogar. As far as prose, the texts of Witold Gombrowicz and Milorad Pavić impress me the most. I believe that today the prose that represents Central and Eastern Europe makes a crucial difference: for example, Yuri Andrukhovych from Ukraine, Andrzej Stasiuk from Poland, Georgi Gospodinov from Bulgaria or Andrei Bychkov from Russia is rather important.
In any case, I am not inclined to identify the world canon merely with this part of the Earth, because young Brazilian and [other] Latin American literature is also of great importance, even though we know less about them, or maybe nothing at all.
What is the place of Ukrainian literature in a global context? The present situation is pregnant with possibilities, if one takes into account the processes of the Ukrainian texts’ emergence in the global and, above all, European cultural consciousness.