Iryna in the cloisters at St John’s. Photography: Jean-Luc Benazet

Spotlight on: poetry and war


Iryna Shuvalova (2016) is a poet who loves places. She has been performing and publishing her poetry since she was 17 and has already authored four books of poems in Ukrainian. The first book-length translation of her poetry into English will be released in the autumn 2019. Alongside her poetry, she works as a translator and is currently a Gates Scholar at St John’s, completing a PhD on what songs about the War in Donbas can reveal to us about the affected communities.

Briefly summarise your academic journey so far.

Iryna’s great-grandfather Hryhorii Zhukovskyi (1896–1979) loved reading, but was discouraged from pursuing higher education

I come from a poor working class family. All of my grandparents were born in peasant families and spent at best a couple of years in primary school. My parents were the first to attend universities. I have been incredibly fortunate myself to have had access to higher education and to have been able to pursue my genuine passions: first with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Philosophy in Ukraine, then with another graduate degree in Ukraine — this time in Translation Studies — then with my second Master’s in the US in Comparative Literature and now with my PhD here at St John’s. When people ask me how come I’ve spent so many years in academia, I half-jokingly reply that I’m earning a degree for each member of my family who has never had a chance to get one.

Why did you choose to study popular songs and the War in Donbas?

My great-grandfather, who lived in a tiny village in the woods, used to hide from his neighbours when reading books because this wasn’t considered a proper thing for a grown man and the father of a family to do. Afterwards, he would tell the stories he read as fairy tales to his children. My grandma never knew who Robinson Crusoe was, but she remembered her father telling her a story about a man whose boat sunk and who had to live on an island and plant a vegetable garden there.

My initial intention was to work on oral poetry for my PhD precisely because this medium has often given a voice to people who would otherwise remain voiceless. My people have been stripped of their voice in a variety of ways — by being denied access to education, by being discouraged from speaking their native language (Ukrainian) for political reasons or by being locked in a vicious circle of tradition and prohibition with no way out of it. Gradually, I became increasingly interested in popular culture as a medium where orality also plays a crucial role, with my current focus being on war songs.

The War in Donbas has been going on since 2014 and remains far from over. Photography: Vadym Kovaliov via Creative Commons

I did not choose the War in Donbas for my research: it chose me. I could have looked at any other of the sadly multiple wars and conflicts raging all over the world. I could have looked further from home. However, I believe that to do justice to a task as demanding and as overwhelming at points as a PhD is, you need a strong motivation to push you forward towards the project’s completion. My family history and the stories of my people are a powerful source I tap into when my work is starting to get the best of me.

Tell us more about the relevance of poetry and songs to war.

Street art in the port-town Odessa, Ukraine

Popular culture, including popular songs, is meant to be accessible, with no level of special preparation needed to appreciate it and with a sense that this content is available for creative interpretation. Anyone can record a song cover, changing the genre, style, lyrics and very message, post it on YouTube and have their video go viral. Popular culture tends to give people with less access to economic (and hence cultural and educational) resources the agency to create and re-create, interpret and re-interpret — and, crucially, have their voices heard. This is precisely what oral poetry often made possible in earlier societies.

In times of war, this enabling function is particularly relevant. War songs can be created and disseminated very fast, providing an immediate imprint of the ongoing conflict which is, of course, constantly in flux. The people who write and perform songs and poetry in times of war get an opportunity to work through their emotions and experiences. They also create a tremendously important socio-cultural tool: a shared lexicon of war, which aids us in speaking about this pain and understanding each other.

Iryna performing her poetry with a group of actors and a cello player Yaroslava Trofymchuk (now of the Philharmonia Orchestra, London). Photography: Oleksandr Khomenko

You write poetry yourself. What about?

The dreaded question!

Let’s say that I’m building my own personal mythology out of space and voice. Spaces are important because we, as people, always inhabit one space or the other. We cannot exist beyond space. Time is also a constant, of course, but it seems like a variety of space to me: a place or a location that is different from the here and now. Voices are important because through them we inhabit the space of place and the space of time. We live — and particularly live on — through our voices and by leaving a mark that says ‘I’, says ‘I was here’, says ‘I was.’ In a way, I don’t really write about anything beyond space and voice.

I am sometimes fortunate enough to be able to say exactly what I feel

When did you first become interested in poetry?

I started rhyming and describing the world around me in poems long before I learned how to write. My mum kept a little notebook, in which she would record the funny and memorable things I would do or say as a child. When I turned two, some of the records she made were of the poems I was making up on the go. Then, as I was learning to write, I began to note down my poems myself — in big print, with some letters looking the wrong way. I remember one being about the ship on the sea and the heart falling in love with the wave.

Which style of poetry do you prefer?

I can’t say that there is a certain style that I prefer. My poetic voice changes over time, although I think it is still very much recognisable. In my first three books, with rare exceptions, I used both meter and rhyme. However, in my fourth book I take a lot of liberties with language. I write free verse. I use intentionally broken meter. I use unusual rhymes, such as visual rhymes — quite common in English, but rarely found in Ukrainian.

I feel very much at ease with my voice at the moment. Never completely at ease, mind you, because every poet is hanging on the thread of their voice, dreading for that thread to be cut by the invisible scissors at any moment. But while the thread holds, I can swing wildly and do somersaults. I am sometimes fortunate enough to be able to say exactly what I feel, and this, I think, is the highest reward a poet can hope for.

In 2016, Iryna was part of an experimental multimedia project with the visual artist Ihor Tsykura and electronic musician Iurii Iefremov

You also work as a translator. What has been your favourite text to translate?

I have edited and translated into Ukrainian the first comprehensive selection of 100 poems by Ted Hughes. Contemporary British poetry is drastically under-translated into Ukrainian and very little known even by the sophisticated reading public. It is my dream to see this project reach its intended readership instead of gathering dust in my desk drawer. Selling poetry is a challenge anywhere in the world, and extra funding is regularly sought: in this case, one thousand pounds or so would be enough to help a respectable Ukrainian publisher shoulder the expenses of a beautifully illustrated hard-cover edition. However, for four years now I have been unable to find sufficient funds to publish the book.

If this project interests you, please do get in touch.

Iryna with the fellow writers-in-residence at Hawthornden Castle, where she completed her translations from Ted Hughes in 2015

What will you do once you finish your PhD this year?

At the end of summer, I’m moving to Hangzhou, China. I’ll be working there, but the most important thing I’ll likely be doing will be walking around the West Lake and taking in the famous Ten Scenes. With names like ‘Three Pools Mirroring the Moon’ and ‘Lotus in the Breeze at Crooked Courtyard,’ these sound like very appropriate places for a poet to take a stroll — particularly a poet interested in places.

Want to read more? Look out for an article written by Iryna in the spring 2019 issue of Johnian magazine, where she shares with us poetic glimpses of and a knowledgeable introduction to her native Ukraine and other places she’s lived.

Get in touch with Iryna via her University of Cambridge academic profile page.

Photography: Jean-Luc Benazet



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