Greywolf Press Presents a Reading by Ilya Kaminsky

By Greg Emilio

The highlight of my AWP experience this year was getting to hear the magnanimous Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky give a reading from his most recent and long-anticipated second collection of poetry, Deaf Republic. In a nutshell, the collection is a fabulist novel in verse about a Soviet town called Vasenka, whose residents rebel against their totalitarian government by becoming deaf after soldiers execute a young boy named Petya in public. Kaminsky read from the first section of the book, the narrative thread that follows a man named Alfonso and his wife Sonya, who is a cousin of Petya. In his wild, incantatory reading style Kaminsky delivered a story of loss and protest and unchecked government aggression—the soldiers kill all the main characters—that has clear parallels to the current political turmoil in America and abroad. “And when they bombed other people’s houses, we//protested/ but not enough, we opposed them but not// enough,” begins the first poem of the book, “We Lived Happily during the War.” Kaminsky seemed to be reminding the audience that passive disapproval does nothing to change the behavior of big government. The poem ends with the narrator regretfully admitting, “we (forgive us)// lived happily during the war.”

I also loved what Kaminsky had to say in the brief talk after the reading. The moderator asked him about the long wait between Kaminsky’s first and second books, a span of nearly fifteen years, which might as well be dog years in the poetry world. Kaminsky said quite assuredly that some poets keep diaries, others “build houses.” He is without a doubt a master craftsman, a visionary poet, a guiding light not only for the literary community, but for all invested in imagining the world as a better place. If we’ve all become deaf with the white noise of today’s world, Deaf Republic could be the hearing aid, the wakeup call, we so desperately need.The highlight of my AWP experience this year was getting to hear the magnanimous Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky give a reading from his most recent and long-anticipated second collection of poetry, Deaf Republic. In a nutshell, the collection is a fabulist novel in verse about a Soviet town called Vasenka, whose residents rebel against their totalitarian government by becoming deaf after soldiers execute a young boy named Petya in public. Kaminsky read from the first section of the book, the narrative thread that follows a man named Alfonso and his wife Sonya, who is a cousin of Petya. In his wild, incantatory reading style Kaminsky delivered a story of loss and protest and unchecked government aggression—the soldiers kill all the main characters—that has clear parallels to the current political turmoil in America and abroad. “And when they bombed other people’s houses, we//protested/ but not enough, we opposed them but not// enough,” begins the first poem of the book, “We Lived Happily during the War.” Kaminsky seemed to be reminding the audience that passive disapproval does nothing to change the behavior of big government. The poem ends with the narrator regretfully admitting, “we (forgive us)// lived happily during the war.”

I also loved what Kaminsky had to say in the brief talk after the reading. The moderator asked him about the long wait between Kaminsky’s first and second books, a span of nearly fifteen years, which might as well be dog years in the poetry world. Kaminsky said quite assuredly that some poets keep diaries, others “build houses.” He is without a doubt a master craftsman, a visionary poet, a guiding light not only for the literary community, but for all invested in imagining the world as a better place. If we’ve all become deaf with the white noise of today’s world, Deaf Republic could be the hearing aid, the wakeup call, we so desperately need.