Forum: Poetry In a Time of Crisis

ukraine
East-European Poets Respond to an Ongoing Crisis in Ukraine

How did the war influence your life and your literary work?

Lyuba Yakymchuk:
The war influenced me directly. I was born and raised in the war-torn Luhansk region and my hometown of Pervomaisk is now occupied. In May 2014 I witnessed the start of war—I walked around the city controlled by murky armed people. At that time I already lived full time in Kyiv: so I visited my home with understanding that it might have been my last visit. In February 2015 my parents and grandmother, having survived dreadful warfare, left occupied territory. They were leaving under shelling fire, with a few bags of clothes.

I have a story how a friend of mine, a [Ukrainian] soldier, almost shot my grandma when she was still there. This is a terrible story involving BTR and snipers and some time in future I may write a novel about it. And at that moment, though: I didn’t sleep much and wrote poems. I wrote a lot and even published a collection of poems, Apricots of Donbas.

From the beginning of this war in Ukraine: literature rivals with the war, perhaps even losses to war in creativity hence literature is changed by war.  And my writing’s changed, too.

Lev Rubinstein:
Even if the war has influenced my work, this happened very indirectly. But it is visible. It is impossible to discuss one’s own experiences this way. I suppose my intonations have been changed, the nervousness and uneasiness infiltrated my speech, syntax, vocabulary, and phrase-making. I can not speak about this in detail.

Yuri Andrukhovych:
I don’t believe that a writer is supposed to announce, in case of war, something of a personal martial law—and to write only on military-related topics. A writer does not have a right to implement self-restrains neither prose, nor poetry; in this sense, there shouldn’t be any inner censor. But at the point when society is traumatized (now we are in such a moment), it’s worth being more restrained in current journalism.

At this moment, the war in east of our country has entered somewhat stagnant phase—it is as if there is no war at all; but we know the war is right there. If it’s not a war in the common sense of the word, it is not peace either. The zero hour has not arrived yet. If you didn’t decide to join the army, then by and large you live and work the way you did before.

Pavel Goldin:
This war has changed everything in my life: I used to live in Crimea before the war and now I don’t. During this war, I have stopped functioning as a literary person—in any case, at the moment I don’t work on any writing and I am not sure that I will be capable of writing in the near future.

Ostap Slyvynsky:
On the surface, my daily life didn’t change much. But my inner life is transformed. Why? Because in conditions of extreme instability and external threat one starts reacting very nervously to ordinary things. The society is overheated and a tiniest trifling factor may lead to ignition. I say semi-jokingly: perhaps we will realize. In many years. That at the moment we’re enduring historical period, but so far it looks rather hysterical. I notice that I also ignite easily, join worthless disputes, at times I let myself be provoked, then I regret it. All this doesn’t contribute to writing, perhaps I have never written so few literary texts. I think literature only benefits from situation such as this, when one aims to do a kind of writing that is very fresh, instant, “just from the stove” or “from the trenches” or many years later, when it’s “well ripened.”

Donatas Petrosius:
When all the events took place: Maidan, the annexation of Crimea, the war in the Donbas region, the intensity of information war—I did one small thing that was in my power: every month in 2014, I donated one tenth of my salary to different volunteer organizations that helped Ukrainians on the front. Through friends in soccer circles, we were able to collect approximately ten thousand euro for help. Though the literary channels, we provided symbolic solidarity.

I have been constantly staying in touch with my writers-colleagues in Ukraine via social medias, we participated for a few times every year in workshops dedicated to translation of Ukrainian poetry. Under the auspices of the Union of Writers’ in Lithuania, we were able to send out a petition in five or six languages through the Internet to the international community. But frankly, I doubt a real benefit of petitions and declarations due to the insignificant role of a writer in contemporary world, and because of instant loss in the onslaught of information. It seems to me that even a symbolic community of world- or European- writers doesn’t exist.

If one compares the impact of all the PEN centers in the world with the pro-peace activities of soccer-related communities, indisputably, the soccer community does so much more. However, I secretly hope that words of support have value as well.

When the war is going on and it touches you on daily basis, even your literary work becomes a a secondary thing in your life.

During this time of war, I have been writing some drafts, making notes or produced fragments—but the real work I am postponing until the peace comes.

When I am involved in war, when the situation is tense, I am no longer a writer.

Serhiy Zhadan:
This war influences the life of my country. Indisputably, this war determines the atmosphere of all we do in this society. My personal life isn’t any different from the life of millions of my compatriots—the act of military aggression against us took place, our territories were occupied, the war continues in our land, and today, it is in everyone’s daily life.

Andrey Khadanovich:
I’m noticing changes not quite in myself but rather around me. Unfortunately, all channels of Putin’s propaganda work in Belarus and many inhabitants—especially not very young and not very educated—do believe this propaganda.

On the other side: A year ago, my eight-year-old daughter after having heard that I would attend poetry festival in Ukraine asked me: “Daddy, bring me a Ukrainian flag from there.” After she saw my bewilderment, she added: “At school all my classmates support Ukraine.”

Another change: I started talking Ukrainian with Ukrainians. The way I could do it. My Ukrainian friends are struggling but they intelligently hold themselves.

Maria Stepanova:
In a certain way this war has made my work impossible.

Which, however, doesn’t prevent me from continuing to write this very prose, and even speculate about writing, answer your questions. One attempts, at least in some way, with the help of words, to fill the hole between cultures and people.

At the same time: I’m aware that my speech derives from the territory of guilt. I write in a language that is warped with understanding of injustice, it works within complex system where it’s impossible neither to assume responsibility for the ongoing events, nor consider oneself not guilty.

For poetry—where Mandelshtam-like feeling of inner rightness is important—such a situation is catastrophic; poets should start from the scratch, from the bareness of land.

Tomasz Różycki:
I have been observing the events in Ukraine from the very beginning: my friends are engaged in Maindan. I tried to support them by writing and publishing information that reflects reality of the bloody events in Kyiv in December 2013.

Polina Barskova:
The beginning of the war (which came to me personally with Putin’s annexation of Crimea) was for me a really difficult moment: basically I understood that “my country”, country of my language and my culture, ceased being mine, that its people allowed itself to be involved into something dishonest, that, I am afraid, will again become an impediment for this society’s civilized development. So, in short, for me this was a moment of grief, despair, and alienation.

On the other hand, this war made me look with more attention, more urgency onto the problem of the Russo-Ukrainian relationships throughout history, and specifically to look into Ukrainian culture and literature, about which I did not know much before. And upon looking closer, as it always happens, I became fascinated with what I found there: Ukrainian Romantic and Futurist poetry, Avant-guards in theatre and film, and also an unbelievable scale of destruction that Soviet power, Soviet state caused Ukrainian culture by, for example, wiping out Ukrainian Modernist poetry as a whole. Thus, it was the war that reopened this culture for me, paradoxically.

Jacek Dehnel:
The war in Ukraine didn’t influence my life directly—the fact that I often think about how fragile the peace in my country is, that at times I consider immigration to a quieter part of the world has nothing to do with how the war actually affects the life of people a few hundreds kilometers from here. I wouldn’t have the nerve to compare myself with them.

It doesn’t influence my writing either because I cannot write poetry about current issues. Or maybe it’s just a question of lack of proper talent or a lack of talent in general—Brodsky wrote a great poem about war in Bosnia, and Bohdan Zadura really moved me with his poem “Hotel Ukraine” which starts with the words: “would you let into your home/ refugees from Ukraine? / asks an online outlet”, and then it changes into a long list of Bohdan’s Ukrainian friends: poets, writers, publishers and artists. Or: yes, it’s possible. But I don’t know how to do it.

Marianna Kiyanovska:
We don’t know how to deal with war. I, for one, don’t know how to deal with war.

Writer, unlike the media worker, doesn’t produce news, doesn’t tell about war as a reporter, writer builds—at this particular moment and in the future—an image of this war.

Ukrainian writers cannot but react on this war because even the author that is trying «to be neutral», not to be involved in the news (or the events), or if a writer attempts to ignore the war at all, not to write about it, this is also one possibility through which the war can influence both a private (and/or public) person, this is yet one more possibility of a private and public reaction. I know many cases when writers who are publicly trying «not to react» to the events on Donbas and in Crimea beyond public space are actually very engaged.

Long before this war, in 2002, my friend, Maryana Savka and I, published a collection of poems entitled Love and War. Before and after that I wrote lots of poetry about war. But now, after the events of 2013, I don’t feel like using the word «war» in my poems. Only if it comes by itself.

At the same time, I do my best to be close to people participating in this war: I help to allocate money for the needs of the military, I went to the front line with volunteers for five times where I read my poems, I read in the hospitals, I was one of the first who brought to the front lines not only food supplies, but books as well (several hundreds of books), this was not pulp fiction: Timothy Snyder, Norman Davis, Milenko Jergovic, and so on.

This is why I went to the the actual front line – it was my desire to witness, to see with my own eyes in order to have right to speak about it.

Now I call my mission in this war: «invisible work with the invisible». Namely, it is resistance to the language of hatred, but not only. The invisible, as well as the war, can be of different kinds. For example, I noticed that today we all are stricken with diseases. If after the Maidan there was a record number of pregnant women and newborns, now we have a practically record mortality.

The reasons: stroke, heart-attacks, etc. On December 21, 2015 my dad died—three weeks after he was diagnosed with «lung cancer». I am convinced that this is also one of the invisible slithering effects of this war.

And yet, I remember my feeling of shock when at the front lines I saw that to the store with food supplies–cigarettes and alcohol–came both ‘our boys’ and ‘separatists’; I saw how everybody in this shop’s zone is untouchable because there is only one food store, and everywhere around it was war-zone.

Still, war gradually changes civil contract: people have become afraid of those who are next to them. The total lack of trust is being formed.

In the last two years my writing has become impossibly hard. I saw that no one was working with people whose psychology was devastated by war. I live seventy meters from the military hospital. Everyday I see people whose bodies might perhaps be treated, but their minds will never be healed.

Boris Khersonsky:
This war evoked crisis in my worldview and even in my identity. I was active mainly as a Russian-language poet whose works were published by Russian publishing houses; I have been receiving literary awards in Russia; I have been taking part in cultural events in Russia. Now I feel myself a Ukrainian poet who writes in Russian and Ukrainian, and translates poetry not only from Ukrainian into Russian, as it was yet three years ago, but from Russian into Ukrainian as well. I’m diligently studying the Ukrainian language, mastering it on a daily basis despite my elderly age. I’m waiting for my book in Ukrainian that will be published by Staryi Lev publishing house. I declined [offers] to participate in cultural events in Russia; I haven’t been there and won’t visit it until Putin and the concept of the “russkii mir” (Russian world) reigns there.

Marius Burokas:
My soul is disquiet and filled with anxiety, I feel this anxiety for my country as well whose luck it is to be situated on the intersection of a few empires and countries. I am afraid and I don’t want my country to become once again like an open house for various armies. What is in it after all that only half-deranged space is left after Russian and Soviet empires? Whatever we say and do, it’s nevertheless too late—all the guns will shoot, all the worst will happen. Mankind managed to put its collective head into noose again.

Dmitry Kuzmin:
The war impacted me quite directly: I left Russia. This decision was not only protest against the actions of Russian authorities (which I had no reasons to love in the past), but rather it was caused by lack of desire to breathe the same air and to stand on the same soil with those 80-90 per cent of the Russian population that (I don’t see the reason why I shouldn’t trust the polls) are ready to support this power in the meanest and the most aggressive achievements.

My poetry journal Vozdukh is still being published in Russia, but the books I publish in my new publishing house, Literature Without Borders, are mostly aimed for Latvia. In Latvia, they published Russian poetry before me, but during the last twenty-five years, from the time of independence, its been written only by local poets. I have been trying to establish a base here for Russian poetry, the authors’ geographical situation notwithstanding.

Photo Credit to Sasha Kurmaz
Photo Credit to Sasha Kurmaz

Is this war a war between cultures?

Polina Barskova:
Obviously, there are various ways to answer this question—culture creates war and culture is created by war in return. A huge wave of propaganda that arose on both sides, Russian and Ukrainian, but mostly on the Russian, is a certain kind of culture: we see films, hear songs, read propaganda poetry that serve a specific political message—creation of the new Enemy. As I understand, this message is very powerful. A very powerful and endlessly corrosive culture of danger, suspicion, and hatred emerged in Putin’s Russia: and it will be very difficult to dismantle it now. Once you begin suspecting your Other, your neighbor, your partner in doing something filthy—it is hugely problematic to stop this process, even if this suspicion is devoid of any foundation. It is like a plague.

Jacek Dehnel:
This is war is between two completely different concepts of how the world, state and society should be built. Although there is no dramatic differences between the culture of Ukraine and Russia which have similar languages, religion, and centuries-old traditions of co-existence within a single state—this war, however, is not is not about neighboring countries, but about whole whole cultural blocks.

Ostap Slyvynsky:
It is the war of world-views.

Lyuba Yakymchuk:
This is a situation in which the notion of “enemy” is transferred not just on people, but also on the authors and texts.

Dmitry Kuzmin:
The problem is that for our Ukranian colleagues the essence of this war is aggression from the outside, and they have their full moral right not to bother about the other aspects of this situation. While we, Russian citizens, clearly understand that the main kind of war here is of the State with its own population aiming to wipe out everything that contains life and sense on Russian soil, and the exterior expansion is nothing more than an effective instrument of this self-destruction.

Pavel Goldin:
It is too early to come up with any conclusions because the war continues and cultural situations change very drastically.

Maria Stepanova:
I don’t know what “culture war” is. To my mind it is an oxymoron.

Andrey Khadanovich:
I see in it not a culture war, but rather the war between culture and lack of culture.

At the same time, we’re observing an increased interest in Ukrainian culture and literature. Belarusian poets and translators started more frequently—even more often than earlier—to translate Ukrainian colleagues, poets and prose writers.

I think the most adequate part of Russian intelligentsia also sympathizes with Ukraine and supports it. I remember the issue of the literary journal Novyi mir dedicated fully to Ukrainian literature.

Serhiy Zhadan:
Of course this is a war of cultures, information, and historical contexts. However, in my opinion we should speak about the war in which die and disappear not just someone’s cultural and historical assumptions–but real people.

Marius Burokas:
One thing is obvious – different nationals of Eastern Europe (that understand quite well Russian and Soviet methods of propaganda) and Western Europe (which favors status quo) have very different takes on it. As for cultural ties: Russian and Lithuanian cultural links have weakened but have not disappeared. In recent years, we here in Lithuania have discovered the blooming Ukrainian literature. I pray to God those relationships continue.

Tomasz Różycki:
Most likely the wars begin because culture ceases to have any meaning in relations between people.

Photo Credit to Sasha Kurmaz
Photo Credit to Sasha Kurmaz

Can poetry oppose propaganda?

Ostap Slyvynsky:
The best means against propaganda is to provide information, and this is not the function of poetry. On the other hand, a poet can use [his or her] authority of a public intellectual to inform—this is worth doing and it’s necessary to do. But we aren’t talking about poetry as it is.

Lev Rubinstein:
Even if it can, then only in the sense that the writing (and reading) person spend all the efforts on purely linguistic resistance, won’t let its intonations, prosody, words, and word orders to fall under the influence of dull, yet powerful flame of propaganda discourse.

Marius Burokas:
I think to some extent it can. But propaganda is always louder. Poetry, however, is a discovery and epiphany.

Yuri Andrukhovych:
A poet cannot decide when now he/she is going to write a poem that will oppose propaganda. As soon as a poet thinks about it, he or she will become a propagandist. The goal of poetry is poetry. If this goal could be fulfilled, propaganda won’t have a chance; it will be, so to say, futile. All in all, these are two parallel realities. Therefore, under no circumstances such an opposition should be considered.

Andrey Khadanovich:
Propagandists have incomparably broader audience and information resources. On the other side: if you could do something—it’s worth trying. Propagandists work with tedious stereotypes about people. Poetry, as best as it can, may try to expose and shake it.

One practical example: during the last months my colleagues and I announced the next year series of events entitled “Understanding Ukraine” at the independent bookstore Lohvinau. Within it, I myself conduct talks dedicated to Ukrainian literature every Wednesday.

Serhiy Zhadan:
Yes, poetry can oppose propaganda. And, not only poetry. A person’s clear mind and social responsibility should oppose propaganda.

Boris Khersonsky:
Unfortunately, poetry can’t oppose propaganda. I would say that poetry ends up where propaganda starts off. The audiences of poetry and propaganda almost don’t overlap. These are different psychological types of people. The popularity of poetry and poets [in Ukraine] is relatively small. Hence the impact of poetry is insignificant.

Polina Barskova:
If poetry can do this at all, I see the task and potency of poetry in being critical towards the Putin’s propaganda message. Versus simplification of the world picture, poets can show the world as complex, and the situation as complicated. Versus turning people on the “other side” into a paper, two-dimensional and primitive figures of the Enemy, we, the poets, must turn them back into people, understandable, relatable, and real.

For me it happens very strongly in the recent poetry of Zhadan and Yakymchuk. Rather then inventing faceless, and thus incomprehensible, and thus seemingly dangerous “they”, a poet can focus on an individual fate and individual emotion.

Jacek Dehnel:
In the most obvious sense, there is no chance. The poet could be easily suppressed by censorship, end up in a prison or in a camp, could be executed and hanged. Anyway, the formation from which Putin originates, that is the KGB, and more earlier, NKVD, has a lot of accomplishments in this field.

And we know, however, that in time when censorship blooms, a poem can become viral, from a person to a person, and at times it becomes a starting point from which empires fall.

Marianna Kiyanovska:
Poetry can and must oppose propaganda under conditions that it itself doesn’t become propaganda. Among poetry that opposes propaganda there are essentially balladic poetry of Serhiy Zhadan, philosophical lyrics of Kateryna Kalytko, somewhat “poster-like” poetry (from the first sight) by Lyuba Yakymchuk, but written from the position of witness. I will say more: all good poetry de facto opposes propaganda. And not only contemporary. Celan opposes propaganda. Jan Twardowski opposes propaganda. Everything that makes one to make a move and think opposes propaganda. Basically, even a bouquet of wild flowers opposes propaganda. As soon as you choose to read poetry you are making a step not towards, but away from propaganda. Although there is an opposite point of view that since Putin has his propaganda we also should have it. I categorically disagree with it.

Reception of propaganda—either “ours” or “theirs”—is like eating already chewed textureless food. For a grown up and healthy person this is evil. Human beings should know how to reconstruct context at least on some level, to control its reception, have skills of functioning in information space. The same thing concerns poets as well. If we need to rephrase the question: Can poets oppose propaganda (and propagandists in themselves)? Then my response will be grounded in specific experience, it will no longer be so certain and clear because not all poets are capable of opposing propaganda. It is paradoxical that sometimes even good poets can fall victims to propaganda. And then they in fact die for poetry because the habit of consuming only what was chewed before leaves its traces.

Pavel Goldin:
Poetry as an any method of knowledge and cognition, cannot but stop on its own will to disseminate propaganda, since propaganda is based on ignorance. However, taking into account its esoteric nature, the impact of poetry is local and can serve as a shelter, a refugee only for a tiny circle of relic readers. Poetry can be an element of the “velvet underground” but one fancies not the largest and—more likely—not the only one.

Marius Burokas:
To some extent, I think, it can. But propaganda is always louder, brighter, makes more noise. It overshadows poetry, stands in its way. And poets who on their own will or for money serve propaganda services (and such poets, including rather talented, always exist) become infected by the propaganda rules: their poetry becomes full of lack of subtlety, nuance, fills with noise.This poetry aims to shock one. Though sometimes we have cases of the poets “drugged” by propaganda—here the case of Yunna Morits is remarkable. But all this is rather obvious.

I think that poetry can be more effective as cure against propaganda. It can explain, it can show details and nuances, it can remind about certain things. Poetry is a discovery and epiphany.

Dmitry Kuzmin:
By default, in the contemporary world, poetry addresses itself to a very narrow sociocultural layer—and this happens to be the layer that consumes propaganda the least. And yet, it is this layer that mostly needs to be mobilized, inspired—individually and as a group, emotionally and psychologically.

Ukrainian nation undergoes today its period of nation-building and that enables the existence of such an author as Serhiy Zhadan with his remarkable innovations; Zhadan finds himself at the very center of the social tensions and attentions.

Russians are less lucky in this respect today. Remarkable Russian writers of today are ousted to the margin of the societal attention, while the center of the cultural stage is occupied by pop-figures.

Lyuba Yakymchuk:
If poetry supports any kind of ideology, it ceases to be poetry. Propaganda begins where poetry dies.

Tomasz Różycki:
Poetry, as we all know, has often served as propaganda. It is actually a well known fact in Russia.

And yet poetry—if open or joyous, or outrageous, or despairing—can do a thousand times stronger punch than any propaganda like article in a newspaper. 

Maria Stepanova:
Propaganda and poetry have different wavelengths, they don’t overlap. Poetry, in a sense, is an education in being uncertain, whereas propaganda sells total assuredness of opinion like a protective shell. A poem is like an apple or a shoe, whereas propaganda is a description of an imaginary subject, a ghostly matter.

The only thing they have in common is an ability to destroy.

And yet, I don’t think that poetry today works as a cognitive instrument; actually I am not certain that it works at all—it simply hisses and twitches like a living thing in pain.

Donatas Petrosius:
In my opinion the most important thing is to make sure that poetry itself doesn’t become propaganda.

Photo Credit to Sasha Kurmaz
Photo Credit to Sasha Kurmaz

Can poetry help in the creation of language in which we (the society, various societies) speak about war?

Lev Rubinstein:
I’m afraid it cannot. Actually—we should speak not about the war but about the fact that war is absolutely unnatural in our world. We should speak not about the war, but about peace, and about an individual human being as the most precious thing there is.

Lyuba Yakymchuk:
Poetry can resist the changes that are happening in language, as well as initiate these changes.

Serhiy Zhadan:
Yes. Lexicon of culture is more suitable for conversation about especially painful conflicts.

Dmitry Kuzmin:
Yes, I do think that we, the poets, can influence, the language, the question is, who is speaking this language.

When we look into past, we see that what’s been used is the language created half a century ago by Russian poets such as Aleksandr Galich and Nataliya Gorbanevskaya, this is indeed language of goodwill indignity, language that served its purpose for the greater part of the Soviet intelligentsia that didn’t allow itself to be squashed by the authorities, but this language no longer works today. It doesn’t work for this day’s reality and our current problems. And yet there exists an embryo of the positive message here—that language that is created today by the dozen of the experiment—makers of the language field, by these authors who are so estranged from the rest of the nation, it can be useful for the next turn of history. This is why poetry that emerges today on the borders is so important.

Ostap Slyvynsky:
It seems to be that in poetry the war articulates itself best. For example, the best texts about War World Two in Polish (I teach Polish literature) are ballads. That is, the ballads are precisely the kinds of literary genres that convey tragic experience.

Yuri Andrukhovych:
One way to think about this is to consider the vocabulary of war in poetry. Traditionally, most poetic traditions tend to contain war-related images and metaphors. They are suggestive, distinct, stiff, and stern—that is, they are poetically condensed and “beautiful”. Poets gladly use them even if there is no war at the time. A popular Ukrainian singer sang in mid-1990s, some twenty years ago: “Run away because there will be war soon.” It would have been naïve to talk now about some prophetic sense of these words. But it would be extremely interesting to analyze pre-war Ukrainian poetry for its military topics.

Donatas Petrosius:
Poet digs into her mother tongue—the poet’s task is to get as deep into it as possible. It is vital to understand literature of other countries and people, too. But an attempt to create some other meta-language? What for?

Jacek Dehnel:
War always touches upon cases so painful and terrible that no language would be capable of managing it—in such moments poetry helps and, more broadly, what helps is an art which enables us to speak between the words, using subcutaneous metaphor. If there’s a language capable of presenting it, it’s only a non-verbal language, such as plastic arts, or going against the words, breaking them, giving them new meanings, or, in other words, poetry.

Marius Burokas:
Poetry is the only genre where an adequate language of description can be found for the radical change in reality. Real poets consciously or unconsciously take risks and break things of language.

Pavel Goldin:
Poetry always creates and recreates its own language no matter what the circumstances are for all the participants of the act. The question is whether conversation about war requires accuracy, since it involves the survival here and now; the ones who were or are at war can talk about it with the utmost accuracy, but most of the time they have other things to do. Shortly speaking, poetry can do everything, but the ones who are responsible for it are too preoccupied.

Polina Barskova:
I think, poetry, like no other medium, can notice and show destruction of the human psyche and connectedly of human language. Paul Celan by remaking, unmaking, deconstructing German language registered that language cannot remain unchanged after Genocide. Something changes, breaks in the nation’s psyche. For some time I have been studying poetry written during the Siege of Leningrad: we see similar linguistic phenomena there. Poetry can serve as a seismograph if you wish that notices: something is very wrong.

By attracting attention to the diseases of language (disease of misrepresentation, disease of fear) poets can bring attention to the diseases of the society.

Marianna Kiyanovska:
I believe that now poetry can assist with the nascence of a language in which people will try not to talk about war, but about peace; poetry may help in building a language of reconciliation. Language about war, language of war is a language that carries a problem in its system. Language is an action. Especially, the poetic language.

Poetry as well as a prayer has immense strength. I am stating it as a person who writes and prays.

Boris Khersonsky:
The process of creating a new language has been discussed during the last year; I took part in discussions about it. In my opinion, some modification of language is possible. Old words are acquiring new meanings. War generated neologisms; unfortunately, in most cases, it’s hate speech. The new language may emerge later, maybe in a few years, and it won’t appear in poetry, but in the novels that aren’t written yet.

Photo Credit to Sasha Kurmaz
Photo Credit to Sasha Kurmaz

How can poets influence this ongoing conflict? Can their poetry do anything at all in the current situation? 

Boris Khersonsky:
Poets can influence the ongoing conflict, as witnesses that transmit the emotional context of this difficult and even tragic period of life in Ukraine.

Marianna Kiyanovska:
Someone, perhaps, Podoroha said that poetry works like politics, but in different ways. I believe so, as well. Of course, philosophical or love poetry may appear to be weak in political sense. But there is poetry that manages to be strong—at least, such poetry existed. And I am not talking here about the poetry of Victor Hugo, but let’s say about the poetry of avant-garde that in its radical expressions worked like a language of violence.

Hence, perhaps, one of the tasks of poetry in Russia and Ukraine is to put an end to and exhaust the project of avant-garde, perhaps even to discredit it, but at the same time to talk it through, to endure and to use its benefits. It seems to me that the only way for poetry to make an impact on the ongoing conflict is to discredit the language of war, the language of hatred, and the language of violence, taking them to their absurd expression. And we have a good time for it: the whole new epoch opens now for poetry. We—if not for the first time since avant-garde—begin relating poetry with the everyday life; this allows for new visions of reality, new regime of contact with it.

Dmitry Kuzmin:
The voice of a poet (especially of a Russian poet) doesn’t weigh much in the eyes of the contemporary popular opinion. But even this small weight can be useful. Both Russia and Ukraine will have to be very patient: nothing will be resolved overnight, the acute phase of the conflict might go away. But we’ll have to figure out the results of this mess for decades to come.

Donatas Petrosius:
When they started shooting people at the Maidan, I walked around my room and understood that there is no benefit of me being a writer. It doesn’t matter at all if there are poems about peace. When people are being shot all this seems stupid, senseless. I knew that my very close friends there in Kyiv might die. All I could do was to call the Lithuanian embassy in Kyiv and to ask them if they would be able to hide my friends if they are wounded.

Yet, it seems to me that we have to continue doing what we are doing best—to write, to teach reading, and to understand clearly what one reads. We have to read the poet when literature can make a change in one person’s mind, in many person’s minds.

Yuri Andrukhovych:
As of today not a single poet and not a single poem has impacted our ongoing conflict. This does not mean as if this is not possible. And that it won’t happen tomorrow or even now. But let’s not forget that poetry doesn’t work with masses. It can have great success among large audience, but it can’t change people and their consciousness at large scale. Zbigniew Herbert once said something like: you can’t request from a barometer to make the weather better. This is a nice phrase despite being slightly lame. Because a barometer is a barometer and a poet is a poet. No one cancelled the role of personality during the overwhelming historical challenges.

Lyuba Yakymchuk:
Poets can’t stop war, but they can do everything related to its language.

Meaning: they can build narration and hence, create a parallel world in which this or that way will help a reader to cope with the real world.

Serhiy Zhadan:
Poets at least can talk most truthfully and openly. Which, come to think of it, is not at all an easy thing to do during the times of war.

Andrey Khadanovich:
I suspect that Putin’s martyrs that are shooting in the eastern Ukraine don’t read poetry. I don’t believe that influential politicians read poetry, on both sides. But I believe that there are situations in which poets can perform the roles of politicians: when Ukrainian authors read not far from the front lines and hundreds and hundreds of people who need support attend these events.

Tomasz Różycki:
The only thing that poets can do is—write poems, whether or not there is a wide audience in the current moment.

Maria Stepanova:
There is a duty not of poetry, but of poets—to call a cat a cat and an annexation an annexation.

Pavel Goldin:
Every person—a poet or a cop—is able to do something to change history.

About Poets:

Yuri Andrukhovych is Ukrainian poet, prose writer, essayist and translator. His latest novel in English translation is Twelve Circles (2015). He lives in Ivano-Frankivsk.

Polina Barskova is Russian poet, prose writer and scholar. Her latest collection of poetry in English translation is Relocations (2013). She teaches at Hampshire College and lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Marius Burokas is Lithuanian poet and translator. He lives in Vilnius.

Jacek Dehnel is Polish poet and prose writer. He edited the collection Six Polish Poets (2009). He lives in Warsaw.

Pavel Goldin is Ukrainian Russian-language poet from Crimea. He lives in Chernivtsi.

Andrey Khadanovich is Belarusian poet and translator. He lives in Minsk.

Boris Khersonsky is Ukrainian Russian- and Ukrainian-language poet and essayist. He lives in Odessa.

Marianna Kiyanovska is Ukrainian poet, prose writer and translator. She lives in Lviv.

Dmitry Kuzmin is poet, translator and publisher. He lives in Ozolnieki, Latvia.

Donatas Petrosius is Lithuanian poet. He lives in Vilnius.

Tomasz Różycki is Polish poet. His latest poetry collection in English translation is Twelve Stations (2015). He lives in Opole.

Lev Rubinstein is Russian poet. His latest collection of poems in English translation is Compleat Catalogue of Comedic Novelties (2014). He lives in Moscow.

Ostap Slyvynsky is Ukrainian poet, essayist and translator. He lives in Lviv.

Maria Stepanova is Russian poet. Her latest poetry collection in English translation is Relocations (2013). She lives in Moscow.

Lyuba Yakymchuk is Ukrainian poet and screenwriter. She lives in Kyiv.

Serhiy Zhadan is Ukrainian poet, prose writer, essayist and translator. His latest book in English translation is Voroshilovgrad (2016). He lives in Kharkiv.

This forum was moderated and edited by Polina Barskova, Ilya Kaminsky, and Ostap Kin.

Photos by Sasha Kurmaz are used with permission. More can be found at http://sashakurmaz.com/Ukraine-A-Space-of-Possibilities.

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