/ 19 September 2019

Week of the Festival: Lviv, Ukraine

Personal Poetry

Translation and Writing

My love for Ukrainian poetry began with the work of poet Bohdan Ihor Antonych, an imagist poet, whose work a friend copied by hand and sent to me in the mail, and the work of poet Natalka Bilotserkivets whose collection Allergy (Krytyka, 1999) I read and translated in grad school. Earlier, I heard her poem ‘Knife’, a ballad to an object that has the power to kill, performed in the translation of Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps, who often translate poetry for the stage. I then slowly began to be drawn into the world of Ukrainian literature. 

My love for Ukrainian poetry began when my mother read me Ukrainian story books as a child. Some of them had lists of vocabulary in the back that I read over like poems. 

My love for Ukrainian poetry began from the lips of my grandparents. They knew the poetry of Ukraine’s bard, Taras Shevchenko, by heart.

I started writing poetry in English in high school when I took a class at an independent bookstore, Woodland Pattern, with Milwaukee poet Peggy Hong. Then my poems were published in local publications. However, I wanted to write a novel. I thought that writing a novel was a sign of being a real writer. I joined a novelist critique group, but the ending of my novel eluded me. I never finished.

Around that time, I started translating. Translating poetry made me crave the process of writing poetry. However, I still struggled with novels and it wasn’t until 2017 that I published my first poetry chapbook,Songs from an Apartment.

I feel that much of poetry is about what we experience in daily life, emotionally and physically. The poetry I write was first inspired by the confessional poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and then, during the war in Ukraine, I turned to a theme of memory in which I explored by grandparents’ pasts in The Memory Project (Underground Books, 2018.) The war in Ukraine has caused many Ukrainian poets to shift their focus. Some write directly about the war while others write about trauma in other situations, a history that the war has prompted them to remember.

I continued to translate poetry. I found that attention to words was an aspect I would replicate in writing my own work. My own work focused on images that I hope are sharpened by exact language. Here I will explore the work of four Ukrainian poets whose work I feel drawn to and who guide me in the process of writing poetry, especially in writing about trauma.

Marianna Kijanowska’s poetry, once incantatory and full of light in her collection 373 (Vydavnytsvo Staroho Leva, 2014) focuses on tragedy at Babyn Yar, the site of the largest mass killing under the guidance of the Nazi regime and its collaborators during its campaign against the Soviet Union. I use her work as a model of how one can write about trauma. The collection Babyn Yar in Voices (Dukh i Literatura, 2014) is written in the voices of those who experienced Babyn Yar. They are written so that the reader searches for breath at the end of them, lines pushed together. She writes, ‘We have mixed not languages/ a silence and bones’. Later she writes, ‘The last war though terrible was not like this’. The poems are striking in the way they deal with death, ‘and esther says to her mother/ will I die now’? Maybe the reader will find a voice that they can relate to in the tragedy. The reader is encouraged to remember. 

Poet Iya Kiva also deals with trauma. I use her work as a model for writing about family trauma. In TheFirst Page of Winter (Dukh i Literatura, 2019) she writes ‘I move my lips translating the language of death/ at the cemetery I looked for signs of your family’. She writes about sickness, ‘sister Maria was dying for a long time’ and ‘the doctors cut the pale canvas of her body’. This poem is also dedicated to the Kherson region where Iya’s family lived until the Holodomor, the forced famine in Ukraine, a time of extreme trauma in Ukraine.

Poet Daryna Hladun in her collection Rubaty Derevo (Smoloskyp, 2017) deals with the current war. Her poems teach me how to use silence in writing. Yet, the current war is not something that can be spoken about. There are poems labelled ‘Chechnya’, ‘Iraq’, ‘Afghanistan’, with a fourth poem untitled, drawing a comparison between the current war and previous conflicts. Hladun’s texts are meant to be performed, using symbols to create pauses. Her innovative writing can be seen as a way to deal with tumultuous times by allowing a freedom when other freedoms seem restricted.

In this issue of Versopolis, Week of the Festival poet Iryna Shuvalova celebrates the release of the collection Pray to the Empty Wells (Lost Horse Press, 2018,) which I translated together with her, with an interview. Living abroad, mostly in England, her collection is a combination of poetry inspired by different locations, but also by the location of the nature and often nature is personified. Her work serves as an example of how to write about displacement for me. The voice in her poetry relies on luck and fantasy. The voice of her poetry takes the hand of nature.

These are only some of the examples of Ukrainian poetry that have influenced and inspired me to me. All four of the poets I described deal with the war in Ukraine in different ways, some forging into the past, others turning to the spiritual powers of nature.

The process of translation continues to inspire my work by drawing attention to formal aspects of language. It also inspires me to reproduce that beauty that is found in the originals, to carry over that almost intangible characteristic.

By Olena Jennings, the author of Songs from an Apartment(Underground Books, 2017) and Memory Project (Underground Books, 2018).  Her translation from Ukrainian of Iryna Shuvalova’s poetry collection, PRAY TO THE EMPTY WELLS, in collaboration with the author, was released in August 2019 by Lost Horse Press.