Ilya Kaminsky says he heard the collapse of the Soviet Union with his eyes.
Deaf since the age of 4, when a doctor in his native Odessa misdiagnosed mumps as a common cold, Kaminsky learned as a boy to closely observe the world around him, to take in all the nuances of the adult interactions he was unable to hear.
“Walking through the city, I was interested in what sounds might be like,” he says. “The whooshing. The hissing. The whistle. The sound of keys turning in the lock, or water moving through the pipes two floors above us. I could easily notice how the people around me spoke to each other with their eyes without realizing it.”
As the society around him began to fall apart, he also pictured what things might be like if everyone in the country were deaf like him. “I liked to imagine that,” he says. “Silence, that last neighborhood, untouched, as ever, by the wisdom of the government.”
Kaminsky, now an Atlanta-based poet and professor at Georgia Tech, where he directs the Poetry @ Tech program, says those childhood daydreams can still seem as vivid and relevant today as they ever did.
“When Trump gives his State of the Union address, which is full of lies, wouldn’t it be brilliant if his words landed on the deaf ears of a whole nation?” he asks. “I am curious to imagine a nation where the tables are turned: What if we saw deafness as empowering?”
That notion, of an entire country going deaf as a strategy to deal with political upheaval, is the subject of Kaminsky’s extraordinary new book of poems, “Deaf Republic” (Graywolf Press). The linked poems are set in an imagined, vaguely Eastern European country where soldiers open fire in the town square, killing a deaf boy. The gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear — they all go deaf as a protest — and their protest is coordinated by a new sign language.
Kaminsky, 41, first began writing poetry in Russian. Whatever scenes he witnessed in Odessa — a gull cleaning its feet, two elderly men playing dominoes on the hood of a car, two young women kissing at the fish market — he was fascinated by the way the soundless experience could become words on paper. He often scribbled passages on scraps of paper in his pockets or on his hands, on a water bottle or even in the margins of other people’s poems in the books he was reading.
But as the political situation in the Ukraine worsened, it became clear that his family couldn’t stay.
“My parents were already in their mid-50s, which is not a young age by Russian standards,” Kaminsky says. His brother, 14 years older, was the first to leave for America. “So my father said, ‘If you want to go, go. But we won’t.’ Well, in no time the country collapsed, anti-Semitism was on the rise, and the front door to our apartment was set on fire.”
In 1993, when Kaminsky was 16, the family received refugee status and came to America, eventually settling in Rochester, N.Y. None of them spoke English. Kaminsky couldn’t even recognize the letters of the Latin alphabet. But for him, the new home was paradise. He received his first hearing aid, and the isolation of living in a new environment where he didn’t know anyone and couldn’t communicate afforded him all the time in the world for writing.
“That place was a magical gift. It was like arriving to a writing colony,” he says. “There was nothing to do except for writing poetry.”
At first, Kaminsky wrote in Russian, but when his father died a year after the family’s arrival, he switched to the language of his new home.
“I chose English because no one in my family or friends knew it — no one I spoke to could read what I wrote,” he says. “I myself did not know the language. It was a parallel reality, an insanely beautiful freedom. It still is.”
Although he remains fascinated by language and poetry, Kaminsky chose to study politics and law, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science at Georgetown University and a graduate degree in law at the University of California. He held jobs at the National Immigration Law Center and Bay Area Legal Aid, helping immigrants with their legal issues. Although the two pursuits — law and poetry — may seem about as far apart as two things can be, Kaminsky says for him they’ve always been somewhat linked.
“Losing a case on which someone’s health benefits depend certainly taught me about the urgency of language,“ he says. “But then, all of our daily activities and interactions with others influence our vocabulary.”
Kaminsky’s first book of poems, “Dancing in Odessa,” published in 2004, was met by high praise. It won a number of prestigious awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, the Dorset Prize and the Ruth Lilly Fellowship given by Poetry magazine. It also was named Best Poetry Book of the Year by ForeWord magazine. His work has been translated and published in Holland, Russia, France, Spain, Romania and China.
Kaminsky moved to Atlanta last year after being named the Margaret T. and Henry C. Bourne Jr. Chair in Poetry at Georgia Tech. He loves his new home, especially the greenery of all the trees, but he remains deeply troubled by recent, all-too-familiar political turbulence and the passivity of his fellow citizens. At times, the country in his new book, where “a young man shot by police in the open street … is a very American image,” says Kaminsky. “We talk about it for a bit on TV and in papers. And then we move on, like it never happened. This silence is a very American silence. Americans seem to keep pretending that history is something that happens elsewhere, a misfortune that befalls other people. But it is in the middle of our streets. It points its bony finger at us. It shows us who we are.”
Kaminsky still occasionally writes in Russian, and he reads often in that language, but he considers himself an American poet. But whatever the language, whatever the subject, his deep love for words — and the people who speak them — stays with him.
“There is a beauty in falling in love with a language. Words come to redefine what you wanted to say in the first place. You see the world slightly differently from where you began. Your mouth makes sounds you didn’t know were possible,” he says. “Time squeezes us from both ends like accordions, and I love this music we make. One might choose to see it from a distance. I prefer to see it from the inside, in the midst of these person-to-person interactions. If I fail to be a human being first, I fail my poetry.”
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