Feature Writing (Edited for Michael Del Castillo)

Originally published in Literary Manhattan

Ukraine’s warrior poet wages peace with an act of translation

Michael del Castillo

February 25, 2015


Days after the Ukrainian revolution erupted in November 2013 Taras Malkovych, a poet and …

Days after the Ukrainian revolution erupted in November 2013 Taras Malkovych, a poet and translator, accepted an invitation to address a crowd of angry protestors gathered at the Maidan, the main square of the nation’s capital, Kiev. Evening fell as a crowd of 20,000 people gathered in protest over the reluctance of the country’s now-ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, to sign a treaty that would form stronger ties with Europe.

The onlookers fell to a hushed silence as the soft-spoken Malkovych went out on stage with a sheet of paper shaking in his hands. He placed his lips to the microphone and began to shout the words from The Executioner, a poem he’d written just days before about a reluctant executioner driven mad by his effort to overcome an almost crippling fear of blood.

“I wanted to scream that image of blood, that there will be blood,” he said, recalling that cold November 28 evening, fifteen months ago. “The revolution began to be like a festival, a lot of music, a lot of entertainment, people smiling and hugging with each other. No spirit of protesting, of opposing someone.”

After the poem was finished, he put aside his manuscript and addressed the crowd directly, “This is not a garden party,” he recalled saying in English. “This is a revolution. So do it. And I will do it with you if I can.”

In dreams

In the months leading up to that November night Malkovych, who in 2010 edited a collection of 80 Ukrainian writer’s dreams called “The Sleepwalkers. Dreams of Ukrainian Writers,” began to have, what he describes, as strange prophetic dreams of his own.

He dreamt that masked men had thrown him, his friends and his family into a clay pit, sliced at their arms and legs, and used syringes and small plastic tubes jammed down their throats to force-feed them some form of vile sludge.

“In the dreams I didn’t know who wore the masks, but I figured that out in reality,” he said. “They were the police forces called Berkut which were pro-Russian, or Russian officers in the uniform of Ukrainian forces.” Though the Berkut forces, under the control of the now ousted President Yanukovych were disbanded in February 2014, an estimated 5,600 people have been killed so far.

The fighting began in November 2013 between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian loyalists in the Eastern region of Ukraine known as Crimea. Protests by both groups had broken out in Kiev’s Maidan area, also known as Independence Square, and afterwards turned violent. By February, pro-Russian Yanukovych was formally impeached for persistently refusing to do as the nationalist protestors demanded and to sign a treaty that would have led to closer ties to Europe, but distanced the nation from Russia.

But instead of preparing for battle Taras, who had won a Fulbright Scholarship to translate U.S. poetry into Ukrainian long before the fighting broke out, was en route to New York City, where he was expected to translate the city’s poetry with poet Timothy Donnelly of Columbia University’s poetry program.

Mixed with Malkovych’s dreams of torture and force-feeding were what he describes as “phantasmagorical” metaphors and poetic images, depicting the anthology he hoped to create. “I had the whole collection in my head,” he said. As his friends and fellow citizens fought and died to defend Ukraine, he struggled with the guilt of leaving.

Flight to Newark

Malkovych was born on the edge of town where the protests began on January, 15, 1988, to Ivan Malkovych, a poet, violinist, and publisher, and Yaryna Malkovych, also a violinist and a housewife.

Taras has a physical condition that gives him a stalky, somewhat imbalanced gait. He tells the story of how as a high school student he participated in an obligatory lesson to test how far he and his peers could throw a dummy grenade. Instead of catapulting his prop explosive through the air and falling in the vicinity of his peers’ efforts, the dummy fell what would have been dangerously close to their feet.

“I am not a pacifist,” he said with the stutter of a man confident with his written English translations but uncertain of his spoken words. “In my head, I am the radical of all radicals. But I know my physical abilities.”

On September 2, 2014 after more than 2,500 people had been killed in the fighting and NATO forces were preparing a “high readiness force” to join the fray, now known collectively as the Euromaidan, named after the square where it originated, Malkovych’s plane took off from Boryspil International Airport in Kiev, headed to the Newark Liberty International Airport. “I was flying and I thought, what I can do for Ukraine?”

The Project

The last time a significant body of American poetry was translated into Ukrainian was in 2006 when poet Yuri Andrukhovych compiled an anthology called “The Day Lady Day Died,” during his own Fulbright Scholar Program at Pennsylvania State University.

That translation which according to Malkovych has strongly influenced much of modern Ukrainian poetry, consisted mostly of Beat poets writing a generation ago, including Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Frank O`Hara. But while New York poetry has continued to rapidly evolve since the 1950s and 1960s, in part as a result of being exposed to the many diverse cultures for which the city is known, Ukraine is largely dependent on translators to introduce new world views.

The poems Malkovych has so far selected for his translations have been culled from his own personal experience with poets and recommendations made by his advisor, Timothy Donnelly a faculty member of the Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, poet Joe Fritsch of New York’s Poets House, poet Jared White, who co-founded Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop in DUMBO, and poet James Browning Kepple, who is also the vice president of New York’s Browning Society, and Malkovych’s roommate.

The subject matter of the poetry itself ranges widely from intense visual imagery, to politics, to baptism, to Brooklyn, to homosexual love. As of December he estimated he’d read about 1,200 pages of poetry from 50 different writers.

Though this, Taras’ second anthology, is directly influenced by the war in his homeland, it isn’t about war. In the application letter sent in March 2013 the translator proposed interviewing young American poets in their native environment. “The significance of this project,” he wrote, “is that it is aimed at giving a certain impetus for launching the poetry dialogue between young poets of the USA and Ukraine together with [the] creative young generation of both countries, interested in the poetry of their peers.”

But what he has so far ended up creating at this early stage of development is a platform that could open up a dialogue between much more than just the United States and Ukraine.

A new perspective

A graduate of the department of the theory and practice of translation at Kiev’s National Taras Shevchenko University, Malkovych currently lives with poet James Browning Kepple, the 34-year-old founder of Underground Books, a publishing house for poets that have been rejected by major publishers. The two live in cramped quarters in the historic Dunbar Building in Harlem, previous home to tenants including Harlem Renaissance figurehead, W.E.B. Du Bois (1869–1963), and Countee Cullen (1903–1946), another influential poet of the Harlem Renaissance. The building itself was named after Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906), one of the first African American poets to receive national recognition after his poems were published in the New York Times at the turn of last century.

Last September, as part of Malkovych’s goal to meet New York poets between the ages of 17-years-old and 40-years-old, he and Kepple visited Nolan Park on the eastern edge of Governors Island. In conjunction with the annual Governor’s Island Art Fair, the Dysfunctional Theater Company hosted a performance of “I Shall Forget You Presently,” a play inspired by the life and work of Greenwich Village poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, in an abandoned military residence.

He received word from one of the play’s cast members that across the sunlit Nolan Park — several acres of grassy fields surrounded by 20 former army and coast guard residences dating back to the early 1800s — was a Civil War exhibition hosted by the New York Historical Society. Malkovych broke away from the acting troupe to explore his newfound fascination with the art of war.

The exhibition, called NYC & the Civil War, commemorated the sesquicentennial anniversary of the U.S. Civil War. Though no Civil War battles were fought in New York the exhibition included photographs, newspapers, and works of art showing a range of perspectives on the fighting and how it impacted the way New Yorkers viewed their role in the Union.

As he wandered the century-old restored soldiers’ residence, he seemed compelled against his wishes to explore every image of war. “I looked about every weapon, how it shoots, how long it shoots, how strong it is, how strong is the armor of the people,” he said. “These things that have never interested me actually, they interest me unfortunately, and I am selecting the poetry in contrast to what is happening in Ukraine.”

Kulturträger

Taras views himself as a kulturträger, the German word for a person who transmits cultural ideas across generations and borders. For Taras translating a language — through music, through dance, or through another language — and transmitting a culture are synonymous. While he is clearly angry with the Russian government, his work at the intersection of cultures isn’t aimed at affecting the actions of the Russian government or even his own.

“It is an act of broadening people’s minds, Ukrainian people’s minds — my target audience, an internationalization of their minds,” he said. “How they accept other countries, how they understand who is good, who is bad.” Though the multi-faceted role Malkovych has created for himself as a Ukrainian Fulbright scholar, a translator, and a poet, is unique in this context, it is not for that matter new.

Poet Ilya Kaminsky, 37, was born in Odessa, Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union and is currently writing a book of poetry, called, Deaf Republic, based on poems from a manuscript of the same name that have won Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize and the Pushcart Prize.

Living in San Diego since 1993 when his family was granted political asylum, Kaminsky is deaf and in an interview with the Adirondack Review called writing in a second language an “insanely beautiful freedom.” In an email to Literary Manhattan Kaminsky wrote: “Poets have influenced each other, across cultures, for hundreds of years…Translation humanizes us, it reminds us of the world outside. Translators help us to stop looking into the mirror so much and to open the window for a change.”

Yet through everything Malkovych does, from translating the poetry of his fellow Ukrainians into English, to teaching young American children about their Ukrainian roots and the cultural heritage from other parts of the world, the memory persists of machine gun fire and tank artilleries from the other side of the world.

On October 25, 2014, Taras co-organized an event at the Ukrainian Museum of New York, the day before his home country hosted elections The Economist called a “triumph” for European and democratic interests, intended to help the country formally move past Russia’s incursions.

In attendance, Ukrainian musician Julian Kytasty played a lute-like Ukrainian instrument called a bandura as Malkovych translated videos of the country’s poets projected on a screen beside him. While Malkovych translated, Finnish dancer Inka Juslin pirouetted in the projected light of the videos, conveying her own translation of the words with motion.

The elections did not lead to peace, as hoped. A week later, on the day Malkovych met with Alberto Vitale, the former chairman and CEO of Random House, Ukraine accused Russia of sending 32 tanks, 30 trucks of soldiers, and 16 howitzer cannons into its embattled eastern region. Malkovych is also the international connections manager of A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA, a Ukrainian publishing house founded by his father, which takes its name from a 19th century Ukrainian story about a schoolboy with his own unique way of pronouncing the alphabet.

Following an introduction to Vitale by the Fulbright Institute, the two met to discuss the possibility of getting the Ukrainian publisher’s ebooks into the U.S. market. The multi-cultural ebooks include a version of Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen in which the reader can draw on one of the illustration’s digitally frosted windowpanes, blow on the screen to stoke the embers of a virtual fire, or play with the family’s artificially intelligent cat.

Then, on December 6, with the death toll in Ukraine rising to 4,300 people, Malkovych took Andersen’s interactive classic to the Ukrainian Heritage School in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. As both a representative of the publisher, and an unofficial ambassador of Ukraine, his mission was to instill in the students a sense of pride in their Ukrainian heritage and increase their awareness of international cultures. “The world is globalized in such a manner that staying secluded in your own country you become, like you cannot do anything other than operate a tank to destroy your enemies.”

In his native tongue

Five days before Christmas, as the United States and Canada imposed sanctions on Russia, Malkovych joined a dozen other Ukrainian poets for the Annual Ukrainian Literary Bazaar. The event was held at the Shevchenko Scientific Society, named after 19th century poet Taras Shevchenko, who the New Yorker described as a pioneer of “what would become a tradition of politically minded poet/prophets.” The East Village neighborhood, centered around Taras Shevchenko Place, has been largely characterized by its Ukrainian population since the 1890’s when a wave of immigrants moved there, according to the Greenwich Village Society For Historic Preservation.

Incorporated in 1948, the Society’s main hall has the cold gray feel of an aquarium’s incandescent light, split by sparse beige couches seemingly from the Cold War era. That evening, in the Society’s main entryway, an imposing marble head of Shevchenko rested atop a plain, wooden base between a tiny clay vase to the right, filled with dried purple flowers and dead twigs; and to the left, a discarded poster propped up against the wall, advertising the bicentennial of Shevchenko’s birth.

The aquarium coldness of the room was contrasted by two friendly women sitting at a spindly-legged table decorated with a bowl and a stack of brochures for the event. The women greeted the guests in Ukrainian and collected the $10 entry fee, placing it in the bowl. As the audience members filtered in they passed a dusty gallery of black and white portraits of previous leaders of the Society and approached the statue of Shevchenko.

Around the corner from the bust, on a wall facing the stairs leading to the second floor, the one jolt of color in the room seemed to be spilling out from the floor above: a modernist gallery of nearly identical Shevchenko portraits painted on blue, orange, and green backgrounds.

The reading, dedicated to the violence at the Maidan, attracted an audience of about 40 people to a much warmer room on the third floor, decorated with brightly colored artwork interspersed with ancient-looking Ukrainian books adorned with cryptic Cyrillic tesxt. The audience sat facing a screen on which apocalyptic images of exploded buildings, dead bodies, and police officers were juxtaposed beside the portraits of poets taken during happier times.

I understood nothing of the first speaker, who I learned afterwards, was Ukrainian poet, Vasyl Makhno, except the words, “New York,” and “Molotov.” Taras was the third to speak. I was struck by the passion in his voice as he recited in Ukrainian the words to The Executioner, the same poem he read a year earlier in front of the 20,000 protestors.

The stutters I had grown so accustomed to in his English speech completely disappeared in his native tongue. The insecurity I previously thought I perceived in the man, and attributed to his physical frailty, had entirely disappeared.

As he delivered the words in a militant tone he stood as tall as he could in his short, crooked frame. His body language, far from expressing the weakness that kept him from lobbing those grenades in high school, communicated a fierce strength that seemed to well up inside him. His fists clenched and the words exploded from his lips in melodic sounds I only wished I could understand.

Afterwards, I met with Taras and a member of the audience, a 91-year-old Ukrainian woman who identified herself simply as Miroslava, a name which Malkovych explained means “peace and fame.” The poet, once again serving as translator, responded to my questions to Miroslava and repeated her answers back to me in English.

“These are the poems that, if not for the war in Ukraine, there wouldn’t have been those poems,” Miroslava told me through Malkovych. “The poets wouldn’t have written them.” Miroslava, it turns out, moved to New York City 40-years-ago, and had been watching the events in her native country unfold on television.

She came to the event not for a deep philosophical engagement with lofty language, but to get the news of her homeland and to understand the impact the fighting had on her fellow Ukrainians. “It is very important to know what’s happening and I felt it straight away, not even after they read the poems,” she said. “But while they are reading. I am feeling this. It is reality.”

I saw in the eyes set deep in her wrinkled face that she understood at least some of what I asked her even before Taras translated. Before I finished asking her what she got from the event, as if the question totally missed the point, she impatiently interrupted to answer me directly in broken English, “Spirit gives me strength,” she said proudly, her voice, worn, but certain. “I doing all because my spirit tell me do. You have no choice, you need to do.”

Modern poetry

Poet Timothy Donnelly is Malkovych’s advisor and a faculty member of the Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. The author of The Cloud Corporation, for which he won the 2012 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, says that from what he’s seen of Malkovych’s selections, there does not appear to be much of a direct connection between the writing and war, which shouldn’t be too surprising.

“In order to take stuff that is politically charged, that actually has political commitment, and find a way to put that forward in such a way that’s aesthetically interesting and complicated, and isn’t just pious towards its own beliefs, that can be very difficult,” said Donnelly, who won a Guggenheim fellowship in 2012, and has been the poetry editor of the Boston Review since 1996. “So people tend to just veer away from a work of an explicitly political character.”

But that’s not to say, in spite of a poet’s apparent disinterestedness in politics, that his or her poem isn’t also political. As such Malkovych aims to understand not only what the poets who wrote the poems he selects intended their audience to take from the words, but the often incredibly personal and internal motivations behind the very words selected. From his conversations with the poets he divides the poetry into two age-old categories: the intellectual, and the emotional — but with a twist.

“I’ve met poets here like I’ve never met anywhere else,” he said. “Some poets here write in special codes. It’s not even a metaphor, it’s a really personal thing.” According to Malkovych these cerebral poetic exercises seem to be written for the poet, and the poet only, with one poem in particular even requiring a cipher to interpret.

While these intellectually dense forms of expression seem to fill Taras with a sense of awe at the technical accomplishment, their emotional sparseness, even if intentional, leaves him wanting. “It’s beautiful poetry, but it is without any… like the bone without meat,” he said. “The bone can be painted a very beautiful color, but it still doesn’t have anything to touch.”

And then there’s the love poetry, which Malkovych says has become almost exclusively the domain of today’s homosexual poets. Typically, he says, modern straight poets tend to focus on their feelings about current events. While homosexual writers tend to be more “aesthetic and ecstatic” about what they are experiencing and how they express it. “They are feeling the world,” he said. “The majority of straight poets they write about what they see, what they can read about it in books. [The homosexual] voice can feel the world.”

And yet, even as Malkovych prepares to translate at least one gay poem, he is worried about how the works will be received — both by Ukraine and Russia — when included in the anthology. “The American poetry right now, in this book, will be something totally different,” he said. “Especially homosexual poetry. I’m pretty sure that 99 percent of Ukrainian readers and Russian readers have not read such a concentration of homosexual poetry.”

Candor ends paranoia

PARIS FITS

By Filip Marinovich

Your hat is in my corner
on the night table
you forgot it when you left
the other night I wish
you would come pick it up
so I could throw you in bed
and kiss your chest
feel your heart beat
against my lips
your girlfriend can wait
she went to sleep early
but we stay up
play the radio loud
drink wine carousing talk
politics our languages anger
these fits will be our friends
if we dance with them and kiss

Paris Fits by Filip Marinovich is one of the poems Malkovych has identified to include in his anthology, which he says may be one of the first poems written about gay love ever translated into Ukrainian, relative to the entire body of Ukrainian poetry. Married to a woman, Marinovich identifies as queer and said he wrote the poem in 2003 about a fellow poet with whom he has long been in love.

“Any love that’s real love is going to be totally subversive,” said Marinovich, 39, during a conversation at Veselka, coincidentally a Ukrainian cafe about a two-minute walk from where he lives. “But it’s because of the expression. What’s really subversive is candor, Ginsberg kept repeating to us. ‘Candor ends paranoia.’ So any kind of completely candid, naked, fully expressed, rigorously expressed love is going to be subversive.”

To Marinovich, the act of translating a gay poem into Ukrainian is doubly subversive because by upsetting the status quo in Ukraine, it actually creates a common ground between Russians and Ukrainians and exposes the absurdity of attacking people because of their differences. The absurdity that everyone is different from everyone else, so choosing just one distinction is totally arbitrary.

“They can therefore become more comfortable, more familiar with their own most uncomfortable desires,” said Marinovich, whose third book of poetry,Wolfman Librarian, from The Ugly Duckling Presse, is expected to be released in March.

“And by together recognizing these desires through this beautiful, inspiring, pleasurable medium of poetry, that can eventually spread enough over time to create transformation, where these feelings are not only tolerated, not only accepted, but loved, celebrated.”

Common ground

In 2012, when ties between Russia and Ukraine were stronger, Ukraine parliament almost passed a law banning “gay propaganda,” according to a BBC report. Eight months later Russia actually passed their own version of law, making it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships and illegal to distribute information about gay rights, according to a Guardian report. Though the failed Ukrainian ban was formally removed from the Parliament’s agenda in January, according to a GLAAD report, optimism that the post-Maidan Ukraine would distance itself from Russia’s largely homophobic culture, quickly faded.

“Today many in Ukraine claim they reject Russia’s ways and endorse European liberal values, a better life, and greater freedom,” said Olena Shevchenko, director of the Ukrainian LGBT organization, Insight, according to a Foreign Policy report. “But LGBT rights continue to be seen as ‘a perversion.’”

A 2013 poll by the GfK Group found that 80 percent of the Ukrainian respondents thought that gay relationships were inappropriate. A Pew Research poll that same year found that 74 percent of Russians didn’t think society should accept homosexuality. By comparison, 33 percent of U.S. respondents agreed that homosexuality should not be accepted.

Calm sleep and the Cultural Bridge

At a memorial rally in Ukraine on Sunday, to mark the one year anniversary of the protests that led to the fall of Yanukovych, a bomb exploded deep in the nation’s mostly peaceful western region, killing two people and injuring ten others. A week old ceasefire is well on its way to being destroyed once again.

Malkovych says that leading up to the fighting he looked forward to waking from the dreams of his loved ones being tortured, and finding peace when awake. Now that the fighting has entered the real world, he says his dreams have stopped, and he is glad to finally fall asleep.

Malkovych’s work as both a poet and a translator, and as both a citizen of a war-torn nation and a remote witness of the attack, gives him the rare authority of a man with both a vested interest in the events and the perspective of observing the events that concern him from a distance.

Though his physical weakness prevented him from hurling those dummy grenades all those years ago, he is no less a part of the war today. Choosing to translate love poetry into a country of such violence makes him more than just a translator. His personal search to understand his fellow humans across different languages, borders, and sexual orientations makes him a warrior poet.

“I wouldn’t say that I am an awesome translator, but people say that I translate well, especially poetry,” he said. “And what I know exactly is that I’m a hell of a better translator than a sniper.”

Though the anthology will likely go out on the A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA imprint, which in 2009 expanded to include adult titles, and has since opened to an international, multi-lingual readership, there is not a date set for publication. Terms of the Fulbright program give him two years after returning to publish. He is currently scheduled to return to his homeland on June 1, 2015, though that may be extended, depending on the progress of his work.

After the anthology publishes, his hope is to host a cross-cultural poetry event in the United States and invite American poets to Ukraine to perform at one of the country’s literary festivals. “This is the cultural bridge,” he said. “The warriors may demolish all our bridges, but so long as they don’t demolish the cultural bridge, Ukraine will survive.”

Edited by Guy Anglade and Aaron Siewert

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