Interview

Translating a Ukrainian poet whose “urgent, evocative lyricism spoke directly to my heart.”

Natalka Bilotserkivets was an active participant in Ukraine’s Renaissance of the late-Soviet and early independence period. Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow: Poems by Natalka Bilotserkivets (Lost Horse Press, 2021), translated from the Ukrainian by Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky, brings together a selection of Bilotserkivets’ poetry written over the last four decades. “Wolf Wine Bar,” which appears in this collection and at the conclusion of this interview, is used with the permission of Lost Horse Press. Solstice previously published two other poems from this collection: “Bridge” and “Knife.

Jennifer Martelli: I’d like to thank you for introducing me to the work of this poet, Natalka Bilotserkivets. Was your choice to devote such care and time to translating her work due to her obvious brilliance? Or, was it her place in history as a poet? As a woman? As a Ukrainian?

Dzvinia Orlowsky: All these reasons inspired us to take on this project. Bilotserkivets’ work belongs in the international canon of poetry, and we were determined to help secure its place there.

I fell in love with Natalka’s poetry back in 1995 when Ed Hogan, Founding Editor of Zephyr Press, invited me to co-translate several of her poems for its seminal anthology, From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine. The exception, however, was “We’ll Not Die in Paris,” which Ed encouraged me to translate solely—an opportunity for which I am forever grateful. Such extraordinary imagery!

After the anthology’s publication, Natalka and I stayed in touch. I continued to translate several of her poems, mostly for Ukrainian-published anthologies as well as for the Poetry International Rotterdam Festival. In 2003, Natalka translated seven of my poems from my book, Except for One Obscene Brushstroke and published them in Vsesvit, a Ukrainian journal of international literature founded in 1925. Seeing my poems in Ukrainian, particularly translated by her, was a huge honor.

Natalka was the first contemporary Ukrainian poet who through her urgent, evocative lyricism spoke directly to my heart. Prior, I was mostly familiar with epic or nationalistic narrative poems or short verse relying heavily on sentiment and rhyme.

Ali Kinsella: I think I sort of lucked into her obvious brilliance. I first encountered Natalka through her anthem, “We’ll Not Die in Paris.” I was particularly drawn to her because so little of what we were reading in my grad school classes was written by women, so when we finally got to 1989 and Natalka appeared, I felt like I could stop holding my breath. You could say she made an  “imprint” on me. It was a serendipitous imprinting, because this poem I loved so much had also been translated into English by none other than Dzvinia. So really there’s no separating my love of Natalka from my love of Dzvinia. They appeared at the same time, twice (for our collaboration on this volume is somewhat of another happy accident).

JM: Bilotserkivets was placed in the “generation of visimdesiantnyky,” also known as the “Eightiers.” Could you talk about how the events of those times shaped her poetic vision?

AK: Bilotserkivets was born in 1954 when the Thaw was already underway, and she was 31 when Stagnation came to an end and when Chernobyl exploded. But these major events were the punctuation to everyday life in the Soviet Union.

DO: “May,” based on 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, departed stylistically from her earlier poems. It was inspired by T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock,” and even more so, “The Wasteland.” Its dramatic shifts in punctuation, syntactical units, rhythm, and use of the universal omniscient “you/we” played against the direct address to the reader all provided Bilotserkivets with a wider range of voices through which she recreated a sense of emotional disorientation in an unstable world, a spiritual “drought.”

AK: Different members of the visimdesiatnyky—writers who started getting published in the eighties—reacted to their circumstances differently. Natalka wasn’t explicitly political, which is obviously not to say she didn’t have a political point of view, or that it didn’t come across in her work. She did and it did. But she was generally more focused on “art for art’s sake,” not “art to dismantle totalitarianism,” per se. Of course, totalitarianism and true art cannot peacefully coexist. In writing about her world, the personal, she inevitably touched on the political.

JM: I’d like to talk about the idea of language being alive and political. You mention that Ukrainian folklore was “tolerated” by the Soviet regime as being “unfit for serious matters.” It was considered childish, feminine. Did this play a part in Bilotserkivets’ writing and perhaps your own translation decisions?

DO: Ali and I considered translating several folkloric poems for this collection, but then decided against it because they broke the tonal density and nuances we were striving for. But these folk “symbols” are very important. Early on in her career, Natalka was drawn to such symbols because of their universality. In Ukrainian the bird was associated with love—often a woman crying for her lover—the nightingale hearing her tears, coming to her aid by splitting her tears with its beak, turning them into songs.

AK: Ukrainian folklore was very useful to the regime. The stronger the association between the Ukrainian language and song, dance, fairy tales, and women, the less it seemed fit for the realms of business, science, the military, progress, etc., paving the way for Russian to become more deeply rooted in all aspects of Ukrainian life. This is no secret. It was just one of the ways Russians encroached on the Ukrainian language and identity.

All Ukrainian intellectuals were aware of these processes. Certainly her decision to write in Ukrainian was a conscious and inherently political one, though she might say writing in Russian was never really an option for her. Under ordinary circumstances, it wouldn’t be political to say you never considered writing in a language other than your mother tongue, but unfortunately linguistic circumstances were far from ordinary then, though there seems to have been great progress made on this front, especially in the last ten years.

This particular aspect of linguistic politics didn’t really affect our translation decisions. The big decision was made long ago—to translate from Ukrainian. There were a couple poems, however, that subtly played with language to make a point, and it was certainly hard to convey that in English. In particular, I’m thinking of “Death in the Air,” which uses a lot of familiar Ukrainian literary imagery and names and “First Snow,” which for a reason I still haven’t figured out, references a Russian woman Tatiana, instead of Tetiana, the Ukrainian. This was certainly intentional on Bilotserkivets’s part, but I don’t know why—maybe she had a Russian friend.

DO: When I first began translating Ukrainian, a friend of my family’s gifted me a comprehensive (1160 pages!) Ukrainian-English dictionary in which he inscribed poet Ivan Malkovych’s words: “The Ukrainian language is the language of the nightingale.” Since then, I’ve always associated the nightingale with beauty as well as the musical nature of language. However, I learned while working on this translation that “pigeon-holing” the language as that of the “nightingale” became a way of suppressing it, of not allowing it to be used beyond expression of folklore.

In her poem “Bridge” Bilotserkivets writes: “It’s so quiet—the nightingales/must be drinking their own black alcohol.” It’s one of my favorite lines in the collection. Perhaps the nightingale can no longer bear the weight of its former responsibility.

JM: I adored the poem, “Blue-Gray.” I found the gender roles in this poem so moving: the man in the suit, the artist, and the command to the reader to imagine oneself gendered. I loved the couplet: “His neck is tense—but she’ll surrender. / His shoulders are slouched—it is already the end.”

Did you see these poems as responses to NB’s “ungendered present tense?” Could you talk about the poet’s choice to write in he “ungendered present tense” to avoid assigning her speaker a gender?

AK: Natalka herself cued me into this habit of hers in a 2016 interview with Trafika Europa. She and I have different interpretations—she claiming she wants to be “neutral” and “serious,” which is not at all to say she doesn’t think women or the feminine is serious. I certainly respect her very calculated approach, and I suspect it served her very well when she was starting out. Too often when talking about art, we forget to consider the economic side—Mama’s gotta get paid!

DO: But, yes, wonderful ambiguity is presented here. The “Author” could be Natalka or any writer who tries to make sense of the world. God as Author is another possible interpretation, leaving God’s gender open-ended. The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy had a lasting influence on Natalka. She identified with the universality of his poems. One can’t assert who he, at times, is writing about. A “body” can be male, female, or refer to an anonymous speaker or Cavafy himself. The specifics aren’t important. What’s important is the abstracted feeling about a particular experience, often intimate, a feeling that anyone can step into without wondering if he or she or they are “getting” the poem right.

AK: An unfortunate aspect of feminists pushing for more linguistic inclusion in Ukrainian is that the gender binary is being further entrenched. In this sense, Natalka’s resistance to “giving herself away”—though she never hid her identity—might have a whiff of freedom about it. There could be legitimate arguments being made in favor of feminatives (feminine versions of nouns for people, mostly professions) from a non-binary perspective that I’m not aware of. In fact, the presence of a third grammatical gender in Ukrainian might ultimately make the path to non-binary inclusion smoother there. I know of one person who chose a grammatically neuter name for themself (Siaivo, or “radiance”). If this is the case, I still fear the road to linguistic liberation leads through the valley of stricter gender roles, but I hope I’m wrong.

JM: As translators, what are your relationships to the Ukrainian language? Is it a first language? These poems flow naturally, with exquisite rhythm and wild imagery, including snakes, wine, and knives. How does one translate the perfection of “train-car womb” or “wine of angels,” or “heaven’s blade?”

DO: Although I was born and raised in Ohio, Ukrainian was my first language. My parents emigrated at the tail end of World War II, settling in a small village named Pleasant City, just south of Cambridge, Ohio. We weren’t allowed to speak English at home. My sister and I learned it off the TV just in time to attend first grade. My father, a doctor, opened a small practice in Byesville, 5 miles north of Pleasant City. I can’t imagine more reassuring names than “Pleasant City” and “Byesville” for attempting to leave behind the trauma my parents had endured as refugees. Their world had gotten smaller, more peaceful, safe. But cutting ties with my mother tongue was out of the question.

When I was six, we moved to Brunswick, 25 miles southwest of Cleveland. There my parents were able to connect with a larger Ukrainian community. The church, the Ukrainian National Home, and Saturday Ukrainian School were essential in creating and re-creating memory of the old country, its traditions, and upholding the language.

As an adult, my opportunities to speak Ukrainian greatly diminished. I spoke Ukrainian primarily with my mother until she passed in 2007. During this time, however, I managed to stay connected with the Ukrainian literary community by translating a number of Ukrainian poets, as I mentioned earlier, mostly for Ukrainian-published anthologies and European festivals. Translating Alexander Dovzhenko’s autobiographical novella, The Enchanted Desna (House Between Water, 2007) took five years of note taking and research. That and my co-translations with Ali are the most immersive projects I’ve undertaken with the language.

AK: I learned Ukrainian in my early twenties when I lived in Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer. I absolutely fell in love with the language and decided I couldn’t live without it. These particular examples aren’t necessarily the gems of translation. Natalka wrote it in Ukrainian; we just rendered it in English. My proclivity was always to be truer to the literal meaning of the original words, whereas Dzvinia was able to tame this tendency and help me be truer to the spirit of the words. Fortunately, she knows what a poem should actually sound like in English!

DO: Yes, both “wine of angels” and “heaven’s blade” are literal translations. Natalka did that gorgeous work for us! We were fortunate to have Natalka grant us artistic freedom, interpreting her poems—her imagery and sound sense, for example—as we intuited them. Departures and variations were allowed. But throughout, Ali and I chose to stay as close to the original text as possible.

JM: Dzvinia, you mentioned that there was a difficulty translating Bilotserkivets’ use of ellipses and exclamation marks; you chose em dashes, which are very dramatic. I’d like to talk about these technical translation choices that really excite and control the tempo of a poem—punctuation. In “May,” you made choices not to use an em dash in some places. The third section, which confronts time and trauma, was painfully strong. In this poem—as in many in this section—the lines spread across the page, the poems seem to rush past their borders. In fact, “We’ll Not Die In Paris,” doesn’t use punctuation at all: the lines pull the sentences apart, as if they’ve exploded. Could you talk about the poetic and emotional choices, especially in this part of the book?

DO: As I mentioned, we tried to stay true to Natalka’s originals, including her punctuation. However, as I learned from Ali, Ukrainians like to double up on its use: for example, an ellipsis following a question mark. Too many visual cues! To my mind and ear, the silence following hard punctuation is more powerful. In other places, however, we kept them. An ellipsis preceding a phrase or statement creates mystery and suspense just prior to the breaking of silence.

“May” establishes a sense of disrupted attention, hallucinations. Em dashes work perfectly for creating abrupt shifts while underscoring variations on long phrases and short staccato ones. I love your use, Jenn, of the word “tempo.” Reading this poem aloud is like reading music.

I haven’t changed “We’ll Not Die in Paris,” which appears in the book, since my original 1996 version. I stayed close to Natalka’s original except for adding larger spaces for syntactical clarity between several stand-out phrases and clauses. The poem takes place on a train. Much like the speaker’s thoughts, forward movement couples with abrupt hesitations. I wanted to highlight this. In addition, this added spacing emphasizes key internal and end-line sound links: depot/I know/we won’t…spied/cried…shamed/barricades.

Regarding emotional choices, as one example, I translated line 11 of “We’ll Not Die in Paris” as: “through the window a rose-colored lilac spied.” This line can also be translated as “and a disgustingly ruddy lilac peered out the window.” “Rose-colored” appealed to me because I liked the idea of something being forced or desiring (and failing) to take on another identity. “Spied” suggests that even nature, which we damage daily, is equally capable of scrutinizing potentially damaging information.

JM: I heard the echo of some of my favorite poets (Yeats, at the end of “Technically Speaking,” when the speaker says, “How suddenly the desert’s invisible wild beast / extends its white claws,” and Dickinson in “Knife,” with the poet’s use of dashes and white space,” and also Plath, with her obsession with images). Could you talk about Bilotserkivets and her “teachers?”

DO: I hadn’t made that connection between Yeats and the end of “Technically Speaking.” Good call, Jenn!

AK: All I can say here is I know Natalka’s favorite poets when she was young were Aleksandr Blok and Boris Pasternak, whom she read in the original Russian, and Federico García Lorca and Guillaume Apollinaire in Ukrainian translation. Somewhat later she encountered Constantine Cavafy, whom Dzvinia mentioned, and César Vallejo. Obviously she also read Ukrainian poets, her favorite being Pavlo Tychyna, especially for his musicality. I would be surprised if she was reading Dickinson or Yeats in her youth. The USSR only promoted Western writers who were ideologically compatible. Although, she did have access to a greater breadth or foreign writers (and likely Ukrainian, as well—anyone less appealing to the regime would have been harder to come by) since her parents were both “village intellectuals.”

DO: In terms of European influence, Bilotserkivets’ poem, “We’ll Not Die in Paris” interweaves influences from Vallejo, Apollinaire, and Paul Celan

AK: Paul Celan was born in the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi! He’s quite loved and celebrated.

DO: The title is a variation of Vallejo’s opening line in his sonnet “Black Stone on a White Stone”: “I will die in Paris with a rainstorm”; the Pont Mirabeau references Apollinaire’s “Le Pont Mirabeau” which explores love and the passage of time; and the poem’s “murky circles [that] won’t fade” refers to ripples in the water resulting from Celan’s suicide by jumping off the bridge.

In her poem “The Letter” the speaker imagines the letter’s author, but that someone is never identified. For Natalka, words can touch in a way that is as real of an act as a physical touch. A reality of spirit. In this way, I feel a connection between her work and that of Marina Tsvetayeva.

I’d mentioned earlier Eliot’s influence regarding Natalka’s poem “May”. But I also see parallels between Eliot’s “Prufrock” and her long meditative poem “November”.

JM: Iryna Starovoyt describes Natalka Bilotserkivets as a poet of “anticipation and clairvoyance.” I felt that whole pull of time throughout the collection. She is a poet so rooted in a landscape, yet accessible, universal. Her poems are urgent and important. Will you continue your collaboration with her?

DO: Natalka, I understand, has turned her attention to prose. But opportunities come up. For now, we don’t have anything else planned. Ali and I will, I hope, continue to collaborate on translating Ukrainian poets including Natalka.

AK: I would love to and, in fact, we already have collaborated some since this publication. We were invited to contribute new pieces to the wonderful Ukrainian Voices Folio you and Cindy Veach co-edited last December. Two more of Natalka’s poems appear there, as well as three by Halyna Kruk, three by Anna Chromova, and one by Dzvinia herself (and four by Jane Muschenetz that she wrote in English). More importantly, though, I would like to continue collaborating with Dzvinia.

DO: Thank you, Jenn, for your thoughtful questions.

AK: Yes, it is always a pleasure to get together with Dzvinia to talk about Natalka. Thank you for your curiosity.

JM: It is difficult for me to choose my favorite poem in this collection. I’m going to end with “Wolf Wine Bar” for its luminosity and dream-like prescience.

 

WOLF WINE BAR

Two years ago, maybe even two and a half,
life hadn’t yet seemed so hopeless:
chestnuts didn’t choke on rusty blood,
floods didn’t reach the windows of the buildings
with the Wolf wine bar and Dove coffee shop
and the small theater under the large lanterns.

Two years ago, maybe even two and a half,
we didn’t have such severe snows and frosts:
water didn’t freeze in the boilers and pipes,
flutes never froze to lips or fingers,
the snow didn’t stick to legs in thin stockings,
ice didn’t appear on carpets in hotels.

And the forest fires, tsunamis with women’s names,
blood and wine on dead legs in thin stockings,
carpets covered with the wreckage of aircraft.

So be it. There’s still time for the final sign:
a time when wolves run, doves fly,
and, having left behind their foundations, pulling out their roots,
the Wolf wine bar and Dove coffee shop will disappear,
the lanterns, chestnuts, hotel, and theater.

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