Acclaimed poet at Georgia Tech shares dispatches, poems from Ukraine

Ilya Kaminsky’s ‘Dancing in Odessa’ is being read around the world, including at public readings.
Ilya Kaminsky is Margaret T. and Henry C. Bourne Jr. chair in poetry in the school of literature, media and communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. CONTRIBUTED:

Ilya Kaminsky is Margaret T. and Henry C. Bourne Jr. chair in poetry in the school of literature, media and communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. CONTRIBUTED:

Every day, Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky shares piercing, heart-wrenching dispatches from poets and others in his homeland. In a stream of social media posts, a video shows mothers with their newborns crowded together in a hospital bomb shelter. Other horrifying images show people burying neighbors in front of their apartment buildings.

“This war feels like something out of a movie or a poem — but it is real,” Kaminsky said in an e-mail.

At the same time, the Twitter account of Kaminsky, a professor at Georgia Tech, shows sparks of light in the darkness, extraordinary acts of kindness, humor, love.

Kaminsky, an award-winning poet and author of the critically acclaimed collection, “Deaf Republic,” believes being a true witness of the invasion isn’t only about violence and war. To only notice those things, he says, “is to witness only a part of our existence. But there is also wonder.”

Ilya Kaminsky, a native of Odessa, is a poetry professor at Georgia Tech and head of the Poetry@Tech program. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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On March 8, International Women’s Day in Odesa, a city on the verge of being attacked, where people were gripped with fear and food prices soared, men hurried everywhere on streets and buses, handing out long-stemmed red roses to women. A video captures the delight and surprise of women. He shares other photos showing women in Kyiv planting flower beds.

“Which is to say: even on the most unnerving days, there are very tender moments. We have a duty to report them, too,” said Kaminsky, who is 44.

In 1977, Kaminsky was born in Odesa when it was still part of the Soviet Union. Deaf since the age of 4, when a doctor misdiagnosed mumps as a common cold, Kaminsky learned as a child to closely observe the world around him.

He didn’t get hearing aids until he was 16. He says he heard the USSR fall apart with his eyes.

“Walking through the city, I watched the people; their ears were open all the time, they had no lids. I was interested in what sounds might be like. 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 one another with their eyes without realizing it,” he said.

Portrait of Ilya Kaminsky at his home  on Friday, February 15, 2019. He lost his hearing at age 4. His family received political asylum in the U.S. when he was 16, and they made their home in Rochester, NY, without knowing a word of English. A lifelong poet, he began writing poems in English a year after arriving in the U.S. following the death of his father because his family couldn't read what he wrote. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM


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His book “Deaf Republic” opens when a deaf boy is shot by a soldier from an invading army in a public square. The gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear — they all go deaf as a protest.

“Many poems in Deaf Republic have to do with civic strife. But the story circles around the life of two newlyweds, the moments of small joys in a young marriage,” said Kaminsky, who is Jewish. “I am a love poet, or a poet in love with the world. It is just who I am. If the world is falling apart, I have to say the truth. But I don’t stop being in love with that world.”

In 1993, when Kaminsky was 16, the family received refugee status and came to America, eventually settling in Rochester, New York. 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.

Kaminsky, who directs the Poetry@Tech program, says his childhood memories seem as vivid and relevant today as they ever did.

This is certainly the case for Kaminsky’s poetry, which includes “We Lived Happily During the War” which has gone semi-viral during the invasion.

These days, Kaminsky who describes his state, as “deeply worried,” is in constant contact with friends and poets in Ukraine. He shares daily slices of life of Ukraine under siege.

Russia is unleashing a wave of destruction against Ukraine, hitting multiple cities and bases with air raids or shelling, and attacking by land and sea. The war in Ukraine has displaced millions of people in only a matter of weeks. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers are also believed to have been killed.

In constant communication with his friends and many poets in Ukraine, he is urgently trying to help get people out, get them money, sharing poetry and stories. His publisher, Tupelo Press recently announced all profits from Kaminsky’s “Dancing in Odessa” are being donated to the Ukraine Crisis Relief Fund. (Note: Odesa, also spelled Odessa, is generally the preferred spelling of this seaport town and is line with the Ukrainian government’s preferred name and transliteration).

His friends, he says, tell him about seeing fighter aircraft, helicopters and Russian paratroopers from their windows, about families separated, with mothers and children fleeing the country, while the men stay behind to fight.

Another friend, he said, must make a “Sophie’s choice” with her pets, two dogs and one cat. She eventually crosses the border with one dog.

“It’s unbearable, she tells me,” says Kaminsky.

During recent days, posts included one from Vitya Brevis, writing from Odesa: “I taped my windows, criss-cross, like they do in movies. If something exploded, the blast wouldn’t leave my apartment covered in glass. I moved a dresser in front of the window for better protection. As days went by, we got used to being afraid.”

Another one shows globe-like snow flakes in Kyiv.

“In the midst of so much devastation and tragedy, a certain photographer’s lens still catches a lyric moment,” Kaminksy writes.

He also shares poems some from many years ago, some more recent, and yet they all seem to resonate today.

For the past 15 years, Kaminsky has returned to Odesa about every other summer. Odesa loves art, he said, and “it loves to party. In the summer, huge cages of watermelons sit on every corner. You break them on the sidewalk and eat them with friends.”

The city, he said, also has a special affinity for literature. “There are more monuments to writers than in any other city I have ever visited. When they ran out of writers, they began putting up monuments for fictional characters.”

And now, nearing the first days of April, another one of Kaminsky’s poems — “Dancing in Odessa” — is being read around the world, including at a public reading at Trafalgar Square in London. The poem embodies heartache, loss, and love, often at the same time. It’s timeless, and yet so timely now.