Six Poets, Six Questions: Ilya Kaminsky in Conversation
Poets.org: How do you begin a poem?
Ilya Kaminsky: I write in lines. So the lines find their way on paper whether I overhear two boys insulting each other at the gas station, or see a gull cleaning her feet, or two old men playing dominoes on a hood of a car, or two young women kissing at the fish market. They become lines on receipts, on my hands, on a water bottle, on other people's poems. Lines collect for years, but once in a while they discover that other lines are sexy and, well, the poems may come from that sort of a relationship. If I am lucky. Which isn't often. But one has to have faith.
Poets.org: What poets do you continually go back to?
Kaminsky: I am hopelessly in love with Shakespeare, mostly plays: The Tempest, Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, of course, but also less famous ones, King John, for instance. My wife and I used to have Shakespeare parties at our place, which was great fun. We would provide everyone with lots of wine, copies of the book, and pencils; they drank and underlined their favorite passages in plays. So, after the party there was this great harvest of other people's Shakespeare, which was a hunter-gatherer's paradise.
My first Shakespeare, though, was in Russian. The poets of my generation got quite lucky since Pasternak translated many of Shakespeare's plays and also much of Goethe—and he did a supreme job. Because Russian literature is much younger than English (so we don't have much of a sense of 17th century literary Russian), one gets the feeling that one isn't reading a translation but instead reading Shakespeare as if he wrote in the 1950s, at the time Pasternak was translating him en masse.
Lyric poets I go back to a lot are Catullus, Dickinson, Mandelstam, Celan, Vallejo. I love these poets because they reinvented the language, the syntax, in a way that showed me their love/hate relationship with it. I love how Mandelstam isn't always grammatically correct in Russian (of course he simply sees new grammar), how Dickinson wants to grasp from one line to another, skipping the politesse, using dashes as stairs to jump between floors, or how Celan combines words because German vocabulary didn't make the right ones for the grasp of human despair. I love, too, the three dots in the middle of lines in Vallejo, who knew that language wasn't enough—this is probably the case, at one moment in her or his life, with any lyric poet.
And, I go back to Herrick and Donne and Stevens and Crane because they are great teachers of English music. In recent years I went back to Whitman’s "The Sleepers" and his wartime poems quite a bit as well. Longer poems I like to go back to or teach are Herbert Mason's "Gilgamesh" and Christopher Logue's versions of Homer. Those are great fun.
Poets.org: Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
Kaminsky: Yes. Otherwise, why bother? But then, my idea of breakfast has changed also. And, I like cats now! Next question.
Poets.org: Are you on Facebook or Twitter? Does that fit into your writing life, and if so, how?
Kaminsky: No. There are only 24 hours in the day. And, I love my wife too much to stare at the computer more than I already do.
Poets.org: Do you have a writing group or community of writers you share your work with? Who are they?
Kaminsky: I have been too lucky with incredibly gifted and patient writing friends. But, when I tried to name some of them in the acknowledgments in my book, one reviewer sat down and counted them, and there were something like 80 names! So, I won't embarrass them again. But I am grateful. Absolutely grateful.
The other community of writers, of course, are the dead. If one isn't good enough to write something that Coleridge or Nabokov would find of interest, why bother? Of course one must be humble. But not when one chooses the group of dead friends to sit around and listen to. That is what we call education.
And, finally, there are students. I have learned more from my students than they can possibly imagine. Each semester I make an individual list of 20-60 titles for each student to read, and come back and talk to me about. This gift of conversation has been amazing.
Poets.org: What are you reading right now?
Kaminsky: Kamau Brathwaite's Islands trilogy, Chris Wiman's new version of Mandelstam and Valzhyna Mort's new book, Collected Body. All three are quite brilliant. And, I am re-reading Tomas Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday which is just an amazing text: funny, beautiful music. It is simply as good as some of Shakespeare's best comedies. Also, re-reading Jerome Rothenberg's Technicians of the Sacred, which is a wonderful anthology. I recommend it highly.