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Poet Ilya Kaminsky Seeks Hope And Tenderness In Dark Times

2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award poetry winner Ilya Kaminsky tells the story of a village gone deaf after the killing of a young boy in "Deaf Republic" [Mary Fecteau /ideastream]
An ear made out of bricks illustrates the cover of Ilya Kaminsky's "Deaf Republic"

Ilya Kaminsky knows what it’s like to be an outcast. Family members were branded “enemies of the people” in his native Ukraine. He lost his hearing at the age of four. When he was 16, his family fled to America, where the accent of this immigrant, Jewish kid led to further communication problems. Such experiences inform Kaminsky’s 2019 collection of poems, “Deaf Republic.” He is one of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners.

Anisfield-Wolf is a Cleveland-based literary prize honoring work that examines issues of discrimination and diversity. 

Challenging perceptions and going against mainstream ideas has become a habit for the 43-year-old writer. His latest book uses a series of poems to tell the story of a fictional town under siege by an authoritarian regime.

“'Deaf Republic' is a story of a pregnant woman and her husband in a time of crisis,” Kaminsky said.

Sonya and Alphonso live in the fictional Vasenka, where a military force is keeping the townspeople in line. The book’s story launches when a sergeant shoots and kills a sassy young deaf boy. That shocking action renders the entire town deaf. Kaminsky describes it in one line: “The sound that we do not hear lifts the gulls off the water.”

There’s no gunshot, no blood, no screams. Just the image of startled birds taking off into the sky. Over the course of about 60 poems, Kaminsky tells this story with image after image.

I was a child who saw the world through images,” he said. “That was very much my mode of communication. And that's partly why I was drawn to poetry, because poetry is so much a language that shows, instead of telling.”

The second poem in “Deaf Republic” does it this way, as Sonya runs to the dead child, lying in the street. Kaminsky writes:

Fourteen of us watch

Sonya kisses his forehead --- her shout a hole

torn in the sky, it shimmers the park benches, porchlights.

We see in Sonya’s open mouth

the nakedness

of a whole nation

Kaminsky’s evocative writing is a product of growing up and learning to understand the images of his daily life.

You watch a lot of body language,” he said. “You can see how when people are uncertain, the way their lips move differently. When people are angry, they put their lips together in a different way. When people are tender, they look at each other in a different way. It’s all a language.”

Kaminsky’s family read the language of anti-semitism in the faces and actions of their neighbors in Odessa. At one time, 70% of the city’s population was Jewish. By the time they fled the city for America in the 1990s, that number had dwindled to two percent.

And when you see that people look at you like you don’t belong there, you begin to ask questions, ‘Well, maybe I should leave,’” he said.

From the occupation of his native Ukraine by Russian forces to the deaths of young people at the hands of police in America, the images from "Deaf Republic" resonate with events in the news in his two homes. But, while the story is very grim in parts, Kaminsky said it was important to him to include lighter moments, to leave the reader with hope.

Consider this three-sentence meditation called “Arrival.”

You arrive at noon, little daughter, weighing only six pounds. Sonya sets you atop

the piano and plays a lullaby no one hears. In the nursery, quiet hisses like a match

dropped in water.

“In the middle of misfortune, in the middle of crisis, it's a story that tries to find tenderness, tries to find the little moments of joy, because it's not all doom, doom, doom, horror, horror, horror," he said. "Even in the middle of darker things, people try to hold each other. Try to tell each other, 'it’s okay, we’re going to make it.' Try to love and to console."

Ilya Kaminsky is pleased to be included in a literary-award tradition that helps promote diversity and an understanding of difference.

“I'm humbled and beyond grateful. The history and the impact of Anisfield Wolf is incredible,” he said. “Deafness is something that is often, in the mainstream culture, seen as a negative, as a metaphor for something that's a misfortune. But it doesn't have to be. It's a wonderful, different perspective on the world. And why shouldn't everybody be like deaf people? Maybe everybody can discover something new about themselves.

The interview with Ilya Kaminsky is part of a series featuring the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winners.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.