A native of Ukraine, Kaminsky was a teenager when he escaped to the U.S. with his family in 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of violent anti-Semitism.
Neither Kaminsky nor his family could speak English, but he learned to write in the new language and continued a practice he had begun back in Ukraine, writing poems on any available scrap of paper.
His ability to pick up the new language was remarkable, considering that he had lost most of his hearing at age 4, due to a misdiagnosed case of the mumps.
Kaminsky joined the Tech faculty only a year ago but has already won a Guggenheim Fellowship and an American Academy of Poets Fellowship.
“For Ilya to come here and do all of this in the first year is pretty amazing,” said Richard Utz, chair of the school of literature, media and communication at Georgia Tech. “We have a poet who is at as high a level as our colleagues in engineering.”
Louisiana native Jericho Brown is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Brown came to Emory in 2012. Speaking Wednesday as he was boarding an airplane in his native Shreveport, where he received the Corrington Award, he said he felt “ecstatic,” when he learned he was a finalist for the National Book Award.
“I haven’t really processed it,” he said, “but I had this moment of vindication and accomplishment: that I was right. I felt justified. In this world when you’re any kind of a writer, and most definitely when you’re a poet, there’s a way in which you’re defending yourself and justifying yourself to the rest of the world.”
Brown said “The Tradition” is about questioning our institutions, the national values that tolerate mass shootings and the killing of unarmed African-Americans by police. “When I travel abroad,” he said, “people jokingly say ‘I hope you don’t shoot me,’ and I don’t know if that’s from some lie about me being black, or some truth about the United States.”
Kaminsky said in a statement that becoming a finalist for the national award is a great honor. “I have worked on this book for more than a decade, and it is gratifying and humbling to see the response,” he said.
Kaminsky’s “Deaf Republic,” published by Graywolf Press, is a hybrid, a novel in verse. In it he creates a story of the citizens of an occupied country and their reaction when a boy with a hearing impairment is shot and killed by soldiers.
In response, the people of the country all lose their hearing, and create a wall of silence blocking out the occupying forces.
In addition to teaching poetry, Kaminsky is director of the Poetry@Tech program.
Poetry@Tech brings internationally-known poets to the community and to local schools, and also publishes the Atlanta Review, the South’s oldest journal of international literature.
The National Book Foundation will announce the winner of the award Nov. 20.