Spotting the White Elephant: Ukraine on the Literary Map of the World

In February, among the riots in the streets of Kyiv and general unrest in the country, the regime of Viktor Yanukovitch – then still a President, now a wanted criminal – has done three notable steps in recognition of the significance of Ukrainian poetry in the affairs of the nation. The first step was to arrest a hapless young poet together with his two friends and imprison them under alleged incrimination of “organizing mass riots”. The second step was to shoot the Secretary of the National Writers’ Union in the head: thankfully, with a rubber bullet. Finally, in Kharkiv one of the best known Ukrainian poets had his face beaten into a bloody pulp, because he refused to kneel (literally, not metaphorically) to the government-hired bandits. In light of these accidents I could not help giving in to the urge of briefing the global community on the present state of literary affairs in the country, where the art of writing seems to be given so much weight.

Spot the Question Mark

This country the size of France, squeezed between the European Union in the West and Russia’s vast expanse in the East, in many ways still remains a terra incognita for poetry connoisseurs worldwide. Honestly, can you just give me a random Ukrainian poet whose name pops up in your head? Apart from Taras Shevchenko, the 19-th century icon known for his tumultuous life story as well as for his folk-ballad-inspired writing, the rest of the names that are likely to be given in response to my slightly extravagant request, are Yury Andrukhovych, Oksana Zabuzhko, Serhiy Zhadan (if I’m really lucky). That’s more or less it. It seems that the nation, whose literary tradition is a couple of centuries older than its state, is still in progress of delivering its cultural product to the readers worldwide.

Even the omniscient world wide web seems to be particularly modest in terms of providing information on the issue in question. For instance, if one were to search Wikipedia for Ukrainian poets, 82 pages would be found, out of which less than twenty represent the currently active poets (including the three names cited above). On the Poetry International website there are 13 Ukrainian poets listed, most recent updates about them coming more or less from around the time of the Orange revolution, even if by coincidence. Links to Ukrainian poetry in translation online are few, which, sadly, quite accurately reflects the number of such translations generally conducted (despite the dedicated efforts of long-time translators, such as Mykhailo Naydan of Penn State University). In other words, it is close to impossible for a non-Ukrainian to get the idea about the actual state of things in Ukraine’s poetry milieu.

Meanwhile, the poetry scene in Ukraine is booming, despite the publishers’ all-too-familiar reluctance to deal with the books of verse and despite the poets’ all-too-familiar predicament of being forced to earn their living with anything but their writing. Being a Ukrainian poet myself, I gladly agreed to compile this very short guide to the country’s contemporary literary scene for those of you who would be interested in digging in deeper, which I would highly recommend. Because let’s face it: this buzzing bubbling brewing thing that we call ‘Ukrainian poetry today’ is well worth exploring. So let’s try and spot the white elephant together.

Spot the Voice

In Ukraine at some point we acquired this habit of labeling our poets not depending on the school or style they represent, but based on the generation they belong to. This is how some quite unpronounceable for a non-native speaker categories emerged – starting with ‘shistdesiatnyky’ (the generation of the sixties) and up to – hold your breath, and guess where the stress falls – ‘dvitysiachidesiatnyky’ (those, active, roughly, from 2010 and on). However, to spare you the trouble of twisting your tongue any further, we will stick to the facts instead of sounds, which makes things quite simple. Essentially, the poets are being categorized according to the decade when they emerged on the country’s literary scene – this is how we get the generations of the 1960’s, the 1970’s and so on up to the representatives of the 2010’s generation, barely of legal age. What I intend to give you know is a mini rollercoaster ride through the selection of the poets who emerged on Ukraine’s literary scene after the country gained its independence in 1991. And yes, despite this selection being purely subjective, my aim was to make it fairly representative of the milieu in question.

Among the most interesting and prolific Ukrainian poets nowadays I believe are those, who actively entered the literary process in the 1990’s (“devyanostnyky”). Here, the variety of styles and approaches is impressive. Marianna Kiyanovska is a metaphysical poet with a darker prophetic touch to her voice. Ostap Slyvynsky’s delicate and mystical free verse praises the beauty of everyday things. Halyna Krouk cuts open the experience of feminine existence with precision of the surgeon and, at the same time, surprising compassion. Serhiy Zhadan is the generation’s best-selling author, socially-acute and welcomed at literary festivals all over the world. Bohdana Matiyash is a spiritually-inspired poet possessing a voice of admirable clarity and simplicity. Dmytro Lazutkin successfully maintains his image of a bon-vivant and the girls’ icon, although his poetry often offers much more than appealing imagery and catchy lines. Kateryna Kalytko seems to be a wound-inflictor and a wound-healer simultaneously, transforming pain into enlightment through her verse.

The turn of the millennium has brought about plenty of interesting newcomers into the country’s poetical milieu. The best representatives of the 2000’s generation (the so-called “dvotysiachnyky”) came into the spotlights, providing an infusion of fresh blood and swiftly establishing themselves as the trend-setters of the day. Pavlo Korobchuk, another favourite of female poetry lovers, opens up a sensual but socially reflective universe in his poems. Oleh Kotsarev is a singer of urban sprawl and kindness amidst absurdity. Yulia Stakhivska constructs her transparent poems of strange but irreplaceable details. Kateryna Babkina, also a prose writer, in her straightforward ironic poems provides an admirable touch of human sincerity. Anna Maligon’s writing dwells on her personal experiences and mystical vision. Yulia Musakovska masterfully masquerades her poetical alter-ego into the multitude of cultural references. Svitlana Bohdan offers to the reader poetry of sunshine and belief. One of the youngest in the generation, and probably rather belonging to 2010’s, Myroslav Laiuk writes of natural objects, crude and merciless in their beauty. Another newcomer, Olena Garasymiuk, dwells heavily on the mythical side of things, connecting her personal history with the universal.

Spot the Trend

One question I often hear from the writers I meet outside my country is “What is contemporary Ukrainian poetry like?” Do we use rhyme? Do we do regular meter? Do we write in free verse? Do we have poetry slams? The answer to all those questions would be ‘yes, we do’, because one thing that makes contemporary Ukrainian poetry so exciting is the lack of uniformity in it.

It is true: Ukraine has a strong tradition of accentual-syllabic verse, which even nowadays does not sound dated to its Ukrainian readers. To understand this, it is important to take into account the history of the language itself, mostly treated as merely a local dialect or “the peasants’ talk” in various empires that used to rule over the lands and peoples of what is now Ukraine. The full advent of Ukrainian as a literary language happened relatively recently: what is considered to be the first full-scale literary work written in modern colloquial Ukrainian, Ivan Kotliarevsky’s burlesque version of Vergil’s “Aeneid,” was fully published only in 1842. Therefore, Ukrainian is far from being worn out as a language of poetry: there are plenty of fresh rhymes to be discovered, new subjects to be discussed, and, boy, are the young Ukrainian poets passionate about the task at hand.

At the same time, while their colleagues are exploring the more traditional forms of verse, many young poets join what has in the recent years become a vibrant slam culture. It is interesting, however, that the genre of slam is not the only dominant form of public poetry performance. In addition to slams, and, of course, traditional poetry readings, there are also many exciting attempts of cooperation across media, when poetry is being combined with theater, live music, visual and video art. In the past few years concrete steps have also been made to strengthen the cooperation network uniting the poets inside the country, as well as the one helping them to connect with the colleagues from abroad.

Spot the Place

Among the recent landmark events in the country’s literary life was the opening of the first-ever Ukrainian residency program for Ukrainian writers “Stanislavsky Fenomen” that started functioning in Ivano-Frankivsk in summer 2013. Besides, the first international residency program for poets and poetry translators “Meridian Czernowitz” has been started in spring of the same year in Chernivtsi. Earlier yet, around three years ago, the first Ukrainian festival of videopoetry “Cyclop” has been founded in Kyiv.

“Cyclop” became a great specialized addition to the country’s major literary festivals, among which five are especially remarkable: the international literary festival during the Publishers’ Forum in Lviv, “Meridian Czernowitz” – the international poetry festival taking place in Chernivtsi, and three regular events in Kyiv: “Knyzhkovy Arsenal” book festival, the literary component of the “Gogolfest” and “Kyivski Lavry”. Three out of these five take place in September, and two in the late springtime (in case you were wondering what’s the best time to catch the prominent literary events in the country). All of them provide plenty of opportunities to familiarize yourself with Ukrainian poetry, as well as diverse cityscapes, amazing people, local beer and cuisine… Am I getting distracted here?

This winter, however, one of the most popular hotspots for poets became the barricades built by the anti-government protesters in the heart of Ukraine’s capital. Poets’ voices also emerged among the most authoritative ones to comment on the current events in Ukraine (see, for instance, an essay for New York Times by Yury Andrukhovych). However, it was not just poets who brought the poetry into the streets, among the rioters. One of the most touching videos from Ukraine’s “Euromaidan” events is the one, in which Serhiy Nigoyan, a member of Ukrainian Armenian community, recites the lines of Taras Shevchenko’s poem “Caucasus”. On January 22, Serhiy was killed by the members of the pro-government armed forces.

Iryna Shuvalova,
Ukrainian poet and translator,
Fulbright Graduate Student in Comparative Literature
at Dartmouth College

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