Audio

Blossoms in Ukraine

March 22, 2022

AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

Poetry Off the Shelf: Blossoms in Ukraine

 

 

(MUSIC PLAYING)

 

Helena de Groot: This is Poetry Off the Shelf. I’m Helena de Groot. Today, Blossoms in Ukraine. On Friday, three weeks and a day since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, I talked to two Ukrainian poets. Oksana Lutsyshyna (who lives in the US) and Oksana Maksymchuk (who lives in Ukraine). Well, lived in Ukraine. Because, not long before we talked, the poet, translator, and scholar Oksana Maksymchuk had left her city, Lviv, in the west of Ukraine, with her husband and child, and arrived in Budapest.

 

Helena de Groot: I can imagine that you have a lot on your mind. So let me just first ask you, how are you doing today?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: We are well. But, of course, we’re getting new news every day. And the news today is that my city, the city where I was born and my dad still lives and a lot of other friends still live there, it has just been bombed. It is in the vicinity of the airport. So, clearly they were trying to hit the airport. But because they are sending missiles from far away, they missed. So, it wasn’t the airport, but the neighboring areas that were affected.

 

Helena de Groot: Wow, so residential areas.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: I don’t think it was a residential area, actually. So they missed the residential area, too, fortunately. It just, it was so close and it could have been anything. It could have been the Opera House, it could have been the library. It could have been a residential area.

 

Helena de Groot: That is just horrible. Who is with you? Who came with you?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: So my son and my husband both came with me. We left shortly before the general mobilization.

 

Helena de Groot: So, before they closed the borders and they said men between 18 and 60, was it, are not allowed to leave?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: Right.

 

Helena de Groot: Right. So, you went straight to Budapest?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: We went to a little village near Budapest at first, because it was an intuitive decision to leave. Until the last moment, we thought we were going to stay. We cleared out our cellar. My husband was buying all of these medical supplies and watching videos on, like, how to use, like, this tightening device in case your arm gets torn off. And then you have to apply this thing under immense pressure. And if nobody comes within half an hour, basically the arm will be severed. And imagining all of these things and possible eventualities, you know, it was fine for a couple of days, but eventually I started having these panic attacks. And when I have panic attacks, I become a bit immobile. So, like, I become extremely numb and sleepy and cannot make decisions. And I didn’t want to be in the situation where we would be getting bombed and I’d be this, like, burden, bedridden thing that my family wouldn’t know what to do, even though there would be a lot of pressure not to expose a child to this experience. I don’t think it’s a valuable experience for anyone, but especially for children, I think it can have very long lasting effects.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah. And, I mean, you told me a little bit already, but the decision to leave, and especially to leave your family behind, I mean, you said your dad is still in Lviv, how do you make that concrete decision to leave? Is it like a long, drawn out discussion? Is it just like a snap decision, and then you just commit? Like, how do you even really get there?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: It was under conditions of great uncertainty. So, like, I packed a turtleneck and a couple of pairs of underwear. I packed some pants for my kid. We packed our laptops, and we left pretty much with nothing, because we thought we’d be coming back in a week. So I think this is probably how you rationalize this kind of decision. That it’s for a really short time that you’re leaving. I don’t think that if I were thinking through—you know, even like on February 23, before Russia invaded, the foreign markets were estimating the possibility of full-scale invasion at 10 percent. And the people on the ground, much less so. I thought it’s like three to five percent chance that maybe there would be a full-scale invasion. And it still seemed like a lot. Part of the reason why all of these people have stayed in these cities that had been occupied and cut off or are under fire right now, is because very few people actually thought that anything like this is going to happen. And even though the US and British intelligence were telling us that they have good information suggesting that Russia is planning a large-scale, very painful attack that will start with aerial bombing and that will continue with a full-scale ground invasion, our presidential office and the media were persuading us not to panic, that the panic is the weapon of propaganda, that it’s being weaponized by the Russian media, and that it has terrible effects on our economy, too. So, there were lots of pragmatic reasons as to why we were not supposed to trust this news until it actually happened.

 

Helena de Groot: Do you think that that was strategic, that it was like, in order to have not everyone leave and have this huge exodus and have no one left to fight? Or do you think that they truly thought this was just Russian propaganda, you know, like the next one in a long series of aggressive posturing on their side?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: Right. I think they thought that it’s Russian propaganda. And I don’t think it was really in bad faith that they distributed the news. I also think that they were thinking theoretically about it. So, if people stay and cities are inhabited, then the cost of invasion is going to be so high that they wouldn’t dare. While taking an empty city is going to be much easier, also would involve fewer casualties and would be simpler to justify to the West.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah. What has been so remarkable about the war in Ukraine for outside observers, but from what I’m hearing from you too, is that, your brain is so slow to catch up with the reality, in a sense, you know, like, you can’t believe it even though you see it happening. And I’m wondering, how … are you there yet? Or is there still a part of you that disbelieves?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: On the one hand, we have been at war for eight years, so, there has been a lot of accustoming. Like, we got used to this and habituated to the new reality, where somebody is always fighting, protecting our borders and actively fighting. And even though it was in the frozen stage for about six years, we were losing people weekly. And so, there were people covering this and people writing about this. But, it was also … you know, when it happens for so long, people get really worn out. So there was a lot of also willful ignorance. You sort of don’t want to—I mean, people grew up during this time, right? If somebody was born in 2014, they would be, like, eight now. And that’s an important period in a person’s life. So, people fell in love, people had children, people did all sorts of events, and the war was sort of pushed to the background, but it was always present. So I think the presence of the war out there has habituated us somewhat to the fact that it could happen any time. And the urgency of making the most out of your time of peace was very deeply felt. Like, people really feel much more joy. And that’s part of the reason I think that, you know, when my Ukrainian friends are offered these longer term residencies in Europe or in the states, very few are tempted by them. Like, there was an intensity to your lived experience, I think, that is often missing when you’re … consuming things, for instance.

 

Helena de Groot: That’s interesting. Yeah.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: But at the same time, I think we are still stunned. Especially those of us who are distant from it, and are watching it on our screens. So, even though we have people who are close to us and dear to us on the ground affected directly by these experiences, they are still highly mediated.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: So there is a virtuality to the war. And this is true also for more peaceful cities like Lviv.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: It’s getting bombed now. Within the past week, the way you can tell that there is a war is that there are a lot of refugees passing through the city. So, at any given moment now, there are like 200,000 people staying for a couple of days, staying at the train station. Lots of theaters and public places have been equipped with beds and cots so that people can just stay there for a couple of hours or days or weeks and make their way to Europe.

 

Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: And of course, a lot of men have been mobilized, so the men are fighting quite often on the front lines. And I’ve seen a number of friends of friends who had been confirmed as dead. So far, none of my immediate friends that I know of have been killed.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah. Just one more question about your current situation. You’re in Budapest right now. I mean, you said when we emailed that your son, who’s 10, would be in school while we talk. So, you know, it would be easier. So, does he go to school in Hungarian?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: So he goes to this wonderful international school. They just opened three years ago, just when we came here first, to pursue these fellowships at the institute. And it’s a climate change school.

 

Helena de Groot: Wow.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: It’s a school that’s focused on developing a curriculum that would be relevant to these children dealing with problems that we haven’t had to face in our lifetimes. And it’s very much focused on collaboration and developing various skills that would enable children to undertake projects that involve drawing people from different disciplines. So, they are learning fewer of these, like, memorization techniques. It’s an open space concept, so they are all constantly interacting. And they pursue, a lot of the time, projects that they choose as a group, and then they distribute different roles. So there is a lot of this, like, developing of logistical and leadership skills. It’s vegan. They cook for themselves as well. And another aspect that they pursue is, like, entrepreneurship, because the founders have been very successful, I think, investors in projects. So, at some point like in his early 40s, one of the founders decided that this was something he wanted to do in Hungary, and they went to the Green School in Bali, learned from them for a couple of years and then developed a system for Budapest.

 

Helena de Groot: I’m glad to hear that he has some modicum of routine. You know, that he can just go to school and be a kid.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: Yeah, it’s amazing that they did this and they’ve actually accepted 15 refugee children as well to help support these families in transition.

 

Helena de Groot: That’s beautiful. I’d like to ask you about the anthology that you and your husband worked on of new Ukrainian poetry titled, Words for War. And it came out in the wake of—or you started working on it in the wake of the 2014, you know, war and invasion in the east of Ukraine. And you and your husband are both Ukrainian nationals, but you are ethnic Ukrainian. You speak Ukrainian, your husband is ethnic Russian, from Simferopol, which is the capital of Crimea, which, in 2014, was annexed, stolen, whatever the word you want to use, by the Russians. And I’m curious to know, while you were working on this book together, like, really working with poems from people in affected areas, different kinds of people, Russian speakers, Ukrainian speakers, how did this fault line all of a sudden show up between the two of you?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: That’s an excellent question. So I think right now it’s difficult for me even to think back to this moment when we may have had these sorts of tensions, because right now my husband is very … like, a militant, pro-Ukrainian. He, like, every couple of days, he searches for his passport and, like, wants to go back and wants to fight. And he has no military training. And, you know, no medical training. (LAUGHS)

 

Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: He’d be sort of useless. He can help people here when he goes to the station and like, directs people as to where to go, because he knows Ukrainian and he can translate, you know, as somebody who’s lived in Hungary. We are not fluent in Hungarian, but we can help figure out where to go and buy things and host people or accommodate people while they’re making their trips to Germany or Austria. So now he is really … you know, a staunch defender of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. But when Crimea was first annexed, we did have disagreements. He is not 100 percent ethnic Russian, but he was brought up thinking that he was. So, his mom is actually from Ukraine, and her parents spoke Ukrainian when he was a child. He was aware of this. But she spoke Russian because of the policies of de-Ukrainianizing Ukraine and bringing it into the fold of the Soviet Union. So, ideally, everybody was going to emerge speaking the same language. And that was part of the reason why they were so hopeful that these national differences between Ukraine and Russia could be erased. They just give us a common tongue, and not a common tongue that they develop synthetically, like Yugoslavian, but actually impose their own language on us, their culture, and then we are going to feel like we are one people. So, his mom and millions of others are very successful examples of how this was actually done and accomplished. And Max growing up in Simferopol did think of himself as Russian. And so did a lot of people in his circle.

 

Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: I think that did make us a lot more sensitive to these perspectives where people would be sympathetic to these imperialist visions. And that led us to include some poems in the book that people thought we were wrong to include.

 

Helena de Groot: Interesting.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: Poems in Russian that were expressing these same sentiments, but also, usually subverting them.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: There is a wonderful Simferopol poet whose name I’m not going to mention, but we did do translations of his work and published them in Poetry International. And he, for example, and people like him, who said, “I’m not Ukrainian and I don’t want really to be included in Ukrainian projects,” we didn’t include.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: But we also sort of supported those voices in the early phases of the war … before I feel it became this criminal terrorist enterprise.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah. I was wondering if we can get to a poem, you know, a poem from the collection, Words for War. Is there a poem that you’d think of that, you know, that is really resonating with you today?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: So, I was actually thinking of reading a poem by Vasyl Holoborodko, this very pragmatic Ukrainian dissident poet now in his late 70s, who was repressed and who didn’t get published for a long time, and was in the circle of people who actually spent decades in the Soviet prisons. So it’s the one that’s like, the dandelion seed.

 

Helena de Groot: Oh, yes. Can you tell me what is a dandelion seed in Ukrainian?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: Let’s see what word he uses. Nasinilkuyu kulbabu. So kulbaba is a dandelion and nasinilka is a little seed. It’s diminutive.

 

Helena de Groot: And kulbaba, does it mean anything? Like is it, the etymology, is it something—

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: Kula is a sphere and baba is an older woman.

 

Helena de Groot: Oh! Because it’s all gray? Like, white, basically? White hair.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: Maybe.

 

Helena de Groot: That’s really interesting. (LAUGHS)

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: So.

 

Helena de Groot: Yes. “I Fly Away In the Shape of a Dandelion Seed.”

 

Oksana Maksymchuk:

 

(STARTS READING “I Fly Away In the Shape of a Dandelion Seed ”by Borys Holoborodko in Ukrainian)

 

(FADES OUT)

 

(READS “I Fly Away In the Shape of a Dandelion Seed ” by Borys Holoborodko, translated from Ukrainian by Svetlana Lavochkina)

 

I know that from here you cannot escape by plane –

you have to be able to fly on your own.

Cats in the house, so many cats,

gathered from the whole neighborhood

(how did they catch a whiff of my departure?)

not our cats but feral cats,

although there is no such a thing as a cat gone wild.

Cats as a warning and threat to my flight

as a bird,

they notice a red spot on my chest

like a linnet’s,

so I’m forced to take flight in the form of a dandelion seed:

 

(READING in Ukrainian FADES IN)

 

(READING in Ukrainian FADES OUT)

 

(READING in English FADES IN)

 

I leave the house in search of wide open spaces,

past my garden and into the street

and float toward

a direction very remote –

now the wind gusts will

carry me away, away!

 

(READING in Ukrainian FADES IN)

 

(READING in Ukrainian FADES OUT)

 

Helena de Groot: Thank you. Can you just tell me why did you choose this one, what arrests you about this?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: So one of the … I wonder when he even wrote it. Because of course there is something about them poets who want to escape their reality, that is too difficult to bear and is in many ways unjust. But, I think in the context of the war, it acquired this different meaning, where people are trapped in these cities that are occupied. And I think the presence of cats makes it more salient, because what happens in these cities is that pets are left behind, especially cats, because dogs really rely on humans to supply them with food and they go wild. Little dogs in particular get eaten by bigger dogs quite often. So, it’s very dangerous to leave a dog behind. But cats, we have this idea that they are more self-sufficient, so you can just, like, put a cat out in a country house and then come back in half a year and the cat will be there.

 

Helena de Groot: Right, they’re just eating birds or something.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: Right.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: So, there are all of these cats that he mentions as surrounding the house, and they are signs of abandonment, right?

 

Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: But they are also a threat to him because of the transformations he envisions that he would have to undertake to escape. So he is—it’s a very traditional trope in Ukrainian fairytales, where a hero, in order to escape or to fulfill his feat or complete the journey, must assume the shape of the things he is not. Or she is not, because some of these heroes are female. So, he is taking on these different shapes, and it seems that in the end, he is successful.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: And then, Holoborodko, actually, even though he is internally displaced, he has this wonderful poem about trying to come home. So Holoborodko is one of the poets who has been displaced for over eight years. He had to leave Luhansk, that had been occupied in 2014. And since then, he has been homeless. So he is not really homeless, but he is living in basically a writer’s dorm that is summer housing and is not suitable for winter living. And there have been a lot of attempts to try to find a home for him, but none of them were successful. So, this is the poem I’m going to read. It’s titled, “No Return.”

 

Helena de Groot: Right.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk:

 

(READS “No Return” by Borys Holoborodko, translated from the Ukrainian by Svetlana Lavochkina)

 

 

To come home means more than to be present

in the land I’ve left for a long time

(you could come back in your thoughts as well)

but to truly return is to learn anew

the names of all things around you:

I stand under a pear tree laden with fruit,

elongated, like small jugs,

although it’s not some cultivar,

rather an ordinary wild pear

whose name doesn’t spring to mind,

I can only recall it as a special one.

What I can remember:

this pear tree bearing hard little “bony pears,”

languishing on the ground,

“lazy bones” or “rotties” as some called them.

What these pretty ones are,

I can’t recall,

I ask an old neighbor:

he can’t help me either,

just a pear, he says, that’s it

but I know it carries its own name,

and I can’t recall it

however hard I try,

standing here beneath this tree

laden with such small

elongated pears like little jugs.

 

(Epiphany:

the name-no-name of the pear –

a symbol, by definition, of:

“something constant.”)

 

(READING in Ukrainian FADES IN AND OUT)

 

(MUSIC PLAYING)

 

Helena de Groot: I also talked to Oksana Lutsyshyna, a Ukrainian-American poet, translator and scholar who lives in Austin, where she teaches Ukrainian at the University of Texas. But first, I had one last question for Oksana Maksymchuk.

 

Helena de Groot: And it’s a little bit back to your personal life, if that’s OK. Because I’m interested in how, what it’s like to parents now. You know, yeah, we’ve just had this worldwide epidemic. You’re in the middle of a war right now. And your child is going to climate change school. Can you tell me what it’s like to parent your little boy at a time of so much uncertainty?

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: I’m afraid I’m going to start crying. (LAUGHS) (PAUSES) It’s … I mean, when you look at it historically, then you become more cheerful. So, the wars we’ve had before, humanity usually finds a way of recovering after such disasters. The plagues and epidemics we’ve had before, we’ve always been able to recover, even when half of Europe was wiped out. Yes, there was Dark Age for some time. But eventually, people build themselves up. There is hope, if not for our generation then for some next generation or the generation after theirs. So what you try to do, I guess, in those situations, is just to prepare your children for a life of struggle and of uncertainty and of difficulty. Now, with climate change, I think the situation is quite different, because it’s not something we’ve dealt with before as a species. So, we don’t have experience on a wider scale or no basis for optimism that’s indexed to some previous time where we’ve dealt with this problem successfully. So, in many ways, I … I am very mad about the war that’s happening, in part because I think it is distracting us from much more important tasks that we face as a humanity. And my child is too.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: So, in many ways, I guess we just share the anger. And in this very difficult situation, try to figure out how we can still make progress in the relevant ways.

 

Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: In the past two years, we have been watching movie after movie about the apocalypse. And most of these movies are escape fantasies, right? So, most of the time, humanity either survives as a small batch somewhere here on Earth and they flee. So there is a lot of this space travel and expansion and colonization of space fantasy that I think is feeding into a certain kind of hopefulness for the human race. But it’s really signaling to me the abandonment of hopes here on Earth. And I think what I like about him, and maybe that’s something that’s cultivated at the school, is that he resists that. He doesn’t think that it’s most useful to think about colonizing Mars, for instance. Or building some kind of intergalactic society in the outer space, or finding a new planet, when we have perfectly good planet to begin with. We just have to fix the ways we deal with it. And I think children have a very strong sense of justice that gets maybe thwarted or interfered with as they’re growing up and they become less certain. And that can lead to inaction. So that’s something that we, I think, as parents, have to look out for. What Russia has been doing very successfully is that it’s been prohibiting dissent inside the country, but exporting doubt for the outside. And I think we have to become more aware of this, that the more we doubt and the more we accept all positions are equal and everybody has the right to rule or to be president or to put their feet up on the table, we are not going to make a lot of progress. And for pressing issues like climate change, it’s really important to have a more unified narrative that’s informing our decisions. And I think that’s a good lesson for children.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah. This is a really unexpected lesson to learn from how Putin approaches things. (LAUGHS) But you’re very right, I think.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk: I mean, I’ve been learning this for decades, so.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah. Yeah.

 

(MUSIC PLAYING)

 

Helena de Groot: Our second poet today, Oksana Lutsyshyna, lives in Austin, Texas, where she teaches Ukrainian and Eastern European literature at the Slavic department. But she’s originally from Uzhgorod, where her parents still live. And Uzhgorod is about as far from Russia as you can go in Ukraine, all the way on the border with Slovakia and Hungary, which makes it relatively safe. She told me people wake up to the sounds of the sirens and go to shelters, but there still hasn’t been any shelling. As a result, the town of about 100,000 people has become a point of refuge for Ukrainians fleeing the violence in their hometowns. Many people she knows in Uzhgorod are volunteering in some way, either by helping to feed and house these refugees, or by traveling east, where many of the men she knows have gone to fight. I wanted to know what it had been like for her, having to see the war play out on her screen, far away from her loved ones.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Well, it’s been actually very difficult, very slow. I have times when people ask me to, you know, send something, a commentary, a poem, and I just stare at the computer imagining that I’ve already done that. (LAUGHS) So like any kind of coordinating effort or any kind of doing anything effort is somehow very difficult.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: It seems like your mind just stops sorting what’s important, what’s not. So whether it is a poem, a deadline, reading the news, or, you know, going to the store or donating, it’s the same sort of difficult activity that it has to somehow start.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah, yeah. You teach at the University of Texas at Austin and you teach, among others, Ukrainian. What’s that been like talking to students? Like, what are you all talking about?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Well, my Ukrainian language class is very small, so we actually just talk about whatever. (LAUGHS) But at least my students don’t have to ask me, “What happened between Ukraine and Russia?”

 

Helena de Groot: Right.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: This came to this.

 

Helena de Groot: Right. Are any of them Ukrainian or no?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Students?.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah, because Ukrainian is a relatively small language, like, maybe 35 million speakers worldwide. And so I’m just wondering, like what—do you know their motivations? Why did they pick Ukrainian to study?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Well, the language program is super tiny. It’s usually a couple of people who need the language for research or who have family ties. Sometimes it’s because of the heritage and sometimes because they marry somebody from the area. So, it’s still one of those what you’d call less commonly taught languages. It’s actually students who wanted to do it. So that’s how it’s happened that I got hired.

 

Helena de Groot: Oh, really? So students basically asked for it? They didn’t have a Ukrainian program.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Right.

 

Helena de Groot: Wow! How long ago was that?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: This was in 2015.

 

Helena de Groot: Ah.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Yeah, our department chair Dr. Murray Neuberger responded to the demand.

 

Helena de Groot: I mean, that’s a double too, right. I mean, if it was in 2015, then of course, it was after the war and invasion, then.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Yes.

 

Helena de Groot: I mean, it must be so double for you, too, that people get really excited about Ukrainian or Ukraine when there’s a war, you know?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Well, and I think this time around, at least there’s some public awareness of that, you know? I cannot imagine how Ukrainian diaspora fought for Ukraine all these years that Ukraine didn’t exist on the map, but the diaspora wouldn’t let the West forget that it does. And we would have people who would, you know, still do Ukrainian studies at American and Canadian universities. People who contributed to all kinds of world expos and just, you know, so there was a lot the diaspora was doing just kind of in the vacuum, really, because informationally speaking, even in the 1990s, I would receive letters from the state addressed to me as, “Oksana Lusychyna, Ukraine, Russia.”

 

Helena de Groot: Hmm. Interesting. But that’s—I mean, that is so, like, there are also, like, you know, writers, artists that I honestly had no idea were Ukrainian. You know, Malevich, Kazimir Malevich, I had no idea who was Ukrainian. I mean, I knew Gogol, you know, because he was kind of made fun of in the beginning for like, writing these Ukrainian stories that were kind of seen as folksy in Russia. And yeah, Bulgakov. So that’s strange too, right? Like, a lot of people that we think are Russian or actually Ukrainian. How do you deal with that? Like, how do you undo all this Russianization of our brains, you know?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Well, yeah, it’s a huge problem. And if maybe in the United States, you could still be, you know, keep some of your identity or at least these days. And I mean, I’m not saying this country doesn’t have problems. It has huge problems and it’s forever silenced, you know, people of other races, and, you know, in Russia, it’s like everything that touches Moscow becomes Russian. It’s kind of like a philosophical stone. I remember my outrage when about 10 years ago, I saw that on one of the sites like Amazon, Alexander Dyachenko was listed as a Soviet Russian filmmaker, which he was not. And yeah, and I went to San Antonio to a museum, and I don’t remember which particular artist or artifact it was about, but it was also something that’s not Russian that was marked as Russian, because, again, the Soviet legacy somehow marked it as Russian.

 

Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: It’s also that, you know, how it’s considered that Russian culture and literature is so huge and transcendental also, that to belong to it is a great privilege. And somehow it all talks about these general human universal values, which postmodernists proved a long time ago. Well, actually, structuralists. It doesn’t exist.

 

Yeah.

 

But, you know, Soviets really love that. So one of the sort of big master narratives of the Soviet epistemology was this, you know, that we have these obshechelovecheskiye tsennosti, the universal values. And if you actually look at Russian literature, Russian culture, you see that it’s not so. That it’s just as colonizing and patronizing and imperial. And by saying that, I’m not even putting this culture down. This culture, because colonial enterprise is not locked just, you know, in one area of the world. But somehow, the whole idea was that Russian culture transcends all that. That it’s, it only brings its messianic message that’s beyond all messages and above all messages.

 

Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm. Why do you think that that word “colonization” is so rarely, like, people rarely think of Russia. Why do you think that is?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: I guess because the West imagined that colonization is something that only happens to places overseas. So it didn’t really think about it as this neighboring kind of thing. And some Ukrainian scholars said that, George Leibovich of Harvard, Marko Pavlyshyn of Monash University, they did lead force. But it’s only now that the world is finally ready to receive that message fully. And it’s not unheard of in world history. I mean, if you look at the English and the Irish. I think it also offers a certain helpful model for the analysis of relationships between these peoples that colonized each other and act as colonizers, as a colonizer to each other. Again, people think that it could be like a derogatory term, but I’m here using it strictly as a historic scholarly term. It’s just this is how it is, and Russia is not the only country that’s done it.

 

Helena de Groot: Your clarity is really helpful. Can you give me like an example or two of something about the relationship between Russia and Ukraine that you can understand it better if you think about it like colonization?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Yeah, well, I mean, it goes back, centuries back. So if you look at the 19th century, it’s basically banning of the Ukrainian language in various ways in which the Czarist Russia, the imperial Russia at that point did it. So basically, our writers had to publish eventually the Habsburg Empire, which was a little bit better about that. And if you look at what exactly is banned, you could not school your children officially in Ukrainian language. You could not publish books, and you could not stage plays. And if we think about what the role of theater was at the time, is like Netflix for us. So, it’s a great tool for hearing a language, right. It’s a certain mirror of your identity. And suddenly it’s like, No, you can’t do that. You can do it at home with your kids, but just not publicly. And then just the image that Russians would have of Ukrainians in their language, in their literature, in their culture. It’s this sort of like, you know, like you mentioned Gogol and how he—it’s like exoticizing. It’s like, “Oh my God, he’s writing about these cute Ukrainian villages with cute Ukrainian demons there.” Or, you know, it would be a sexual exoticization. Not so much with Gogol, because he was not into that, but—(LAUGHS)

 

Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: But with other writers, you know, there was always going to be some, I don’t know, [Ukrainian phrase] who are good writers. Again, not saying they’re bad writers necessarily, but who write about these, like, Southern nights in this beautiful Ukraine and some beautiful Ukrainian girl that’s going to come to this haystack to spend some time with this, you know, Russian guy who comes over. And then also just seeing us as, at the same time, inherently dangerous somehow, you know?

 

Helena de Groot: Mm-hmm.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: We are a menace. It’s like, for example, cursing our great head man Masipa and the Russian Orthodox Church for 200 years, proclaiming anathema to him because he sided with the Swedes against Peter the Great. So it’s this rewriting of history. It’s like, you sell us your national hero in the shape of a big villain that we help you curse for 200 years. Now, how more colonial can it get? And then, again, the Russian culture is like that not just towards Ukrainian culture. It’s just like that period. And if you read the great writers with transcendental values, you can see that. Well, not all, but most. You know, it’s Lermontov is describing how he goes to The Caucasus and shoots some Chechens, you know, because he can. And his character in A Hero of Our Time kidnaps a local girl and kind of like, has his way with her. And then, well, then, you know, the girl can just die, because what else is there to do? The great writer is satisfied. So it’s these patterns that we are looking for when we are talking about something being colonial. Or Dostoevsky, who, you know, can have lots of things to say and actually kind of instrumental in understanding what’s going on in Russia now and all the literal demons that are unleashed. But at the same time, in every novel of his, there’s always somebody he calls a “damn Pole”, a Polish person. In Russian, it would be “proklyatyy polyak.” Like this piddly Pole or whatever, like insignificant but also awful and annoying. And he just runs with it. He just cannot stop. Whenever he hits that, you know, nerve of a Pole. Because Poles were also, you know, incorporated into the Russian Empire. They absolutely did not enjoy it. They constantly had all kinds of uprisings, and I guess Dostoevsky didn’t like that.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m also interested in what it meant for you growing up yourself. Like, do you remember, you know, what kind of literature you read, what writers were available to you, and when you noticed like, “Oh, there’s an absence here”?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Well, like, you have to resort to reading because there’s literally absolutely nothing to do in the Soviet Union. And of course we read a lot of Russian literature, more than Ukrainian because more of it was available and published and some of our writers were banned. So it’s only when the Soviet Union ended and I was like about 17 that I had access to that. But as for colonial patterns, actually, I have an anecdote for you. In Uzhgorod, which is west, and which is kind of south, so it’s not, like, terribly cold, you know, snow melts in like, what, March ish, April, May is when my grandfather would cut the grass for some animals or whatnot. And yet in school, it’s like it’s very much, you know, I think people like Derek Walcott could relate to it, because the same happened in the Caribbean where this British literature was cold British weather. And they’re told to write an essay about winter. All these kids cannot imagine winter, so they write something like, “and the snow was falling onto the sugarcane plantations.”

 

Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: So, and I remember that we would have the celebrations of winter, it was called Russkaya zima, the Russian Winter. And it would be like some woman looking Russian. I mean, she probably wasn’t, but I mean the costume. And there would be like a Father Frost, which is equivalent of Santa Claus. And there would be some, you know, games and kasha and whatnot. And I remember my dad, who was from western Ukraine, would be like, “Now, you look, what makes this winter Russian? You tell me, child.” And I’m like, “I actually have no idea, but I guess really nothing.” And then in school, we studied these poems that say, [Russian], which translates roughly like, “And in April, in April, the snows are melting.” And it’s like, excuse me, but in April we have summer here. So. (LAUGHS) So and that’s when you understand that something’s off. Like, well, why is winter Russian if we are not in Russia? Why is the snow melting in April if it has melted two months ago?

 

Helena de Groot: That is very interesting. I love that you remember that so specifically. And it also seems like your dad was aware of that and wanting to make you aware of that, too. What kind of avenues to express his Ukrainianness?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Well, he spoke such bad Russian that nobody wanted to hear it. (LAUGHS)

 

Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) That’s interesting. I was wondering about that, too. Like, does every Ukrainian speak Russian, but so, no, not really?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: They do, but some of them have such disgusting accents and struggle so much and it sounds like mutilating of the great Russian language that nobody wants to speak with them in Russian. And he couldn’t really do much, because that would endanger me. But he did bring lots of Ukrainian books home that he himself enjoyed. And he was like, “Read this book.” I don’t recall him ever bringing me a Russian book.

 

Helena de Groot: Ah!

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: So he used to bring this slightly subversive—well, at that point, subversive, now it is, of course, reinstated in the canon—Ukrainian sci fi writer, fantasy writer Les Bogdanich, who actually spent some time in the camps and was very much pro-Ukrainian. And whose books were frowned upon, because if there was an expedition to the stars, you know, led by someone, that someone would be a Ukrainian, but that should have been Russian, of course, because they are the only people who should fly to the stars. And my father would bring all that to me. He brought like 10 books of this author. (LAUGHS)

 

Helena de Groot: Wow, that’s amazing. You know, that you don’t even realize like what he’s doing at that time, I guess, right?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Yeah, exactly.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah. I’d like to shift gears a little bit and talk about your own work, both as a poet and as a translator of poetry. I was wondering if you can read a poem of your own. It’s the one titled—or it doesn’t have a title. It’s on page eight of Persephone Blues. And it starts, “eastern europe is a pit of death and decaying plums.”

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: (LAUGHS)

 

Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS) And I don’t know if you want to introduce it somehow, or you just want to go straight into it, whatever you like.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Well, it’s, believe it or not, I took some classes on Eastern European literature and poetry in the United States. That’s when I was doing my PhD at the University of Georgia, in particular was Dr. Katarzyna Jerzak, who’s Polish. And another professor, Dr. Dezs┼Ĺ Benedek, who is, well, Romanian, but Hungarian. So he is a Hungarian person from Romania. And he was telling us about some of the poets mentioned here and we read Zbigniew Herbert. And then we read Miklos Radnoti with him. And Miklos Radnoti, actually, was a guy in the concentration camp.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah, Hungarian Jewish poet.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Yeah. Who wrote a bunch of poems and got killed. And then they found these poems on his chest when they dug the grave up, so.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: And it’s pretty—it’s not the kind of poetry you read just to kind of, you know, feel good about life. (LAUGHS)

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: So, yeah.

 

(STARTS READING POEM in Ukrainian)

 

(READING in Ukrainian FADES OUT)

 

(READS POEM in English, translated from the Ukrainian by Oksana Lutsyshyna and Olena Jennings)

 

eastern europe is a pit of death and decaying plums

I hide from it in the body of America

but sooner or later I’ll slip from this light

back down into that other

and will start talking about death because that is our national sport

talking about death

sad yet beautiful

hoping that the world will hear us and gasp at the beauty and sadness

 

my lover spreads my fingers with his own

he was educated in good old france

then America

he also studied buddhism and erotica somewhere near the borders of thailand

it’s good to drink wine with him and chat

but not about death or eastern Europe

because the world’s a shithole and it’s worthwhile to learn only one art:

that of hopping from one pleasure islet to another

and not giving a damn about plague-infected continents with their corpse-eating flies

 

he kisses me goodnight and disappears into his dream

as I lie in mine, full of summer sun and ephemeral sweetness

mitteleuropa zbigniew herbert whispers in my ear

middle europe enters a labyrinth without a single turn

a labyrinth of fate and freshly laid brick

it enters and doesn’t exit

it endures and revives, small like newly seeded grass in the evening

strong like the grandchildren of those that survived the war

when, when will I die? – someone asks in my still childish voice

but I don’t hear the answer because it suddenly becomes dark

in this death pit, where miklos radnoti is writing his last poem

 

(READING in Ukrainian FADES BACK IN AND OUT)

 

Helena de Groot: Thank you. I was wondering if you can tell me about plum trees, fruit trees. I’ve read so many plum trees and apricot trees and pear trees in Ukrainian poems. And I’m wondering, what do you think it evokes?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Well, I guess a fruit tree is just an artifact that’s very common for our landscape. And again, it’s funny because the orchard, the idea of the orchard, to some more northern regions of Europe like Russia, would be southern.

 

Helena de Groot: Mm.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: So it’s a very inherently Ukrainian thing, especially the plums. I am an awful botanist. I do not have a green thumb.

 

Helena de Groot: (LAUGHS)

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Everything dies as soon as I approach it, so I don’t even have any cactuses at home.

 

Helena de Groot: Uh-huh.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: So I cannot tell you exactly where the plum trees grow, but it’s also an indicator of good soil.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: You know, that some parts of Ukraine have chernozem, which is this very, very good soil. So, the saying goes that even if you put a stick inside that soil, it will bloom eventually and become a tree. So it’s, I guess it symbolizes this deep connection to literally the roots, but also, capacity for regeneration and again, richness of soil and hearts and traditions and so on.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah. I so love this poem. I mean, it’s incredible how, like, that tonal turn, you know? Like it starts sort of funny and a little bit flippant, you know, and then, yeah, it takes this real dark turn at the end. You know, “he kisses me goodnight and disappears into his dream /

as I lie in mine, full of summer sun and ephemeral sweetness,” you know. And then comes this dark turn, “enters a labyrinth without a single turn / a labyrinth of fate and freshly laid brick / it enters and doesn’t exit.” And then, of course, that real darkness about, “I don’t hear the answer because it suddenly becomes dark.” And this death pit where Miklós Radnóti was writing his last poem. What’s it been like for you, with your Eastern European sensibility, where talking about death is more normal, I think, to live in the United States?

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Well, actually revisiting this poem for me right now was kind of interesting because, you know, I didn’t realize how all these words have changed meanings now because of the war. And it’s really, in Ukraine, we, we are not always happy with Europe, for example, because Europe expresses deep concern but doesn’t necessarily help us, so.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah, yeah.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Actually, one of our poets, Halyna Kruk, even has a poem that starts with, you know, “Europe, again, is expressing its deep concern.” But how about other things that it can express? So, Eastern European sensibility in that sense is, you know, yeah, many people would construct it as this constant expectation of a bad thing, right? It’s again like it’s transgenerational trauma or PTSD that everybody carries. But suddenly, it turns out there wasn’t all that untrue.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: So perhaps that did change a little bit. So, overall, yeah, I know that I tend to be perhaps a little bit dark, and mostly humorously so if I have to talk about everyday interactions, because you can’t just scare people all the time. But there’s a certain even, you know, the way the body moves that reminds you that you’re not from here, that you’re never safe. You know, so for example, any Eastern European is dreading lines. When we see lines it’s like, we turn around. We don’t go to Disney World. I don’t care. I don’t even go to the post office if I absolutely don’t have to because of the lines. And again, people are, “Oh, but it’s no big deal, it’s just a line,” but to us it is a big deal. And I think it’s because we think it’s a bread line. It’s a line for your life.

 

Helena de Groot: Mm.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: And again, if you think about all these crowded buses and cars and all these crowds of the evacuated, then I know that if I have to take a trip, it’s actually nice now that I just live with my cat, because, you know, a cats is, you know, a cat. But if it’s a person, they would get extremely nervous just seeing me collect things and being so nervous myself. And then again, I know that that’s because of these memories of, you know, relocations, evacuations. And again, they’re not memories, they’re actually real. We were right the whole time.

 

Helena de Groot: Yes. Yeah.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: So all that kind of lives inside you. And then also, I’ve had people who asked me to smile more because, not because I’m a woman and women, of course, should smile more to please people, but simply because it makes a better impression on people if you smile, and if you don’t smile, that’s just not so nice. And I’m like, (LAUGHING) I can’t really smile that much, so. But you know, I can’t really kind of say that United States in some ways has been unfair to me or anything. It’s a pretty big place. There’s lots of, lots of milieus, lots of pockets of different environments, so it’s not so bad. But yeah, so, your question mainly made me think about the fact that Eastern Europeans with all their darkness kind of do know something that the world perhaps should not forget.

 

Helena de Groot: Yeah. But the sweetness, too. I mean, this is what I love about the poem, you know? That there’s also a sweetness, you know? So, you know, “He disappears into his dream / as I lie in mine, full of summer sun and ephemeral sweetness.” And I’m wondering about that, too. I think people often think about the Eastern European sensibility, as, you know, sad, morose, morbid, maybe, even. But I’m wondering what sweetness you have been finding even in the dark days that we’re going through now.

 

Oksana Lutsyshyna: Well, I think it’s a bit of a civilizational problem, too, because the West has tried so hard to live undisturbed that it took its toll. Everybody’s either depressed or something. Or trying to feel something, because people just don’t feel anything. And then there’s this whole philosophy of, like, enjoy the moment, but nobody understands either what the moment means, nor how to enjoy it. So it became this not even just, you know, like kind of, to paraphrase the Constitution, the pursuit of happiness, but it became this desperate pursuit of happiness. This kind of being unable to feel because, you know, comfort became God. So, in a sense, you know, I know that people who have survived hard times, they said they have never felt love so great or appreciation so big of their loved ones. And people ran away literally without any possessions having lost their homes. And yet they … they feel. And in that sense, I think Eastern Europe never, never unlearned how to feel, never stopped how to feel, because it kind of preserved all of that.

 

(MUSIC PLAYING)

 

Helena de Groot: Oksana Lutsyshyna is a poet, scholar, and translator. She is the author of four poetry collections, one of which has been translated into English, Persephone Blues. She has also published one collection of short stories and two novels, the most recent of which, titled Ivan and Phoebe, won two of the most prestigious literary awards in Ukraine, the Lviv City of Literature UNESCO Prize and Taras Shevchenko National Prize in fiction. Ivan and Phoebe is currently being translated by Nina Murray and will come out from Deep Vellum Publishing in the summer of 2023. She teaches Ukrainian and Eastern European literature at the University of Texas, and lives in Austin, Texas, with her cat.

 

Oksana Maksymchuk is also a poet, scholar, and translator. Together with her husband, Max Rosochinsky, she edited an anthology of new Ukrainian poetry, titled Words for War. She also published two award-winning books of poetry, and translated, most famously, the Ukranian poet Lyuba Yakimchuk’s Apricots of Donbas. She won the 2004 Richmond Lattimore Prize for Poetic Translation and the 2014 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize. Her work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Right now, she lives in Budapest, Hungary, together with her husband and their 10-year-old son.

 

To find out more about Oksana Maksymchuk and Oksana Lutsyshyna, as well as other contemporary Ukrainian poets, the anthology Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine is a great place to start. The music in this episode is by Todd Sickafoose and Eric van der Westen. I’m Helena de Groot, and this was Poetry Off the Shelf. Thank you for listening.

 

(MUSIC PICKS UP AND FADES OUT)

Oksana Maksymchuk and Oksana Lutsyshyna on life as a refugee, the God of comfort, and the deep roots of the war.

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