“A Poetic Text is Fighting Eternity”


Teutonic Knight:
“A Poetic Text is Fighting Eternity”
Ten questions for Vasyl Makhno
By Dmytro Desiateryk, The Day

Photo from Vasyl MAKHNO’s personal archives

Vasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, essayist, translator, and literary critic. He is member of the Zakhidny viter literary group, and holds a Ph.D. in Philology. A member of the International PEN Club, he is also a winner of the Budny Prize.

Makhno was born in Chortkiv in 1964. He graduated from the Ternopil Pedagogic Institute, taught literature at the Ternopil University, and later at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. He has been residing in New York since 2000, working at the Shevchenko Scientific Society. He has authored the collections of poetry Skhyma (Schema; 1993), Samotnist Tsezaria (Loneliness of Caesar; 1994), Knyha pahorbiv ta hodyn (The Book of Hills and Hours; 1996), Liutnevi elehii ta inshi virshi (February Elegies and Other Poems; 1998), Plavnyk ryby (The Fish’s Fin; Ivano-Frankivsk, Lileia-NV Publishing House, 2002), 38 Virshiv pro Niu-Iork i deshcho inshe (38 Verses about New York and Some Other Things; Kyiv, Krytyka Publishing House, 2004), Cornelia Street Cafe (Kyiv, Fakt Publishing House, 2007). Makhno’s poems have been translated into Polish, Serbian, English, German, Russian, and Armenian.

I will start with rather sharp statement, albeit in poetic form. Your collection 38 Verses about New York and Some Other Things, begins with the line, “Ukrainian writer of poetry ought to write rhymed verses and only — oh, away with that!” Why so expressly?

“It was a challenge to some extent, and to certain extent, a reaction to some lingering state in poetry, but the meaning of the poem was that the Ukrainian poet does not have to write merely rhymed poems. I guess my moving to New York coincided with the newest wave of spreading of free verse in Ukrainian poetry, which took place in late 1990s and early 2000s. This new poetry existed in that of Boichuk and Tarnavsky — in the 1980s-1990s, but this form of poetry was not the prevailing one. Conversely, Western poetry, specifically that of our closest neighbors, the Poles, fully switched to free verse starting from the late 1950s. If you ask me what is better or more advanced, or anything of this kind, I won’t reply positively in favor of rhymed or free verse. Sometimes it depends on national traditions, at times it is an individual choice or fashion. In my view, the poetry of the Beatniks and New York school had an extremely strong impact on the European poetic school, specifically that of Slovenia, Poland, and Ukraine. Why them? The thing is not about the form of poetry, but perhaps first and foremost, about things it refers to and the dialog between poet and reader. Beatniks and representatives of the New York school spoke about things that had been a matter of concern for entire generations, using simple language with elements of popular slang. Europeans, including us, have picked up this tendency, filling it with our realities. Beatniks went through the crisis of generations and syndrome of the post-war generation, whereas we are experiencing the syndrome of a new Europe and a post-Soviet society. We have some things in common, yet there are certain differences, but the way of expression and struggle against tradition are present. My new poems are partially rhymed, and my new book of poetry will be comprised of both free and rhymed verse. Perhaps it will be an answer, or a way to reconcile, that expressive statement, as you’ve put it.”

In this case, how can you characterize your creative method?

“If you mean the way of writing as a process, it has not undergone any essential changes, though I myself must have changed. As a rule, I type poetry on my computer, and, as I print the first edition, I bring in some corrections, small ones. I try to write poems immediately, in one breath. When I have difficulties with a poem, I put it aside, sometimes I return to it, but at times I forget it exists. Poetry is too subtle and delicate to seek logic or rules. Each time you find yourself face-to-face with the white field of the computer page and blinking cursor, and like a juggler, you have to show your best number.”

Why is the image of a fox so frequently present in your work?

“A friend of mine, a Ternopil artist Petro Moroz, painted my portrait, where he depicted me with a fox, pretending to be a faithful friend, thus fixing a visual image of all my foxes. The animalistic symbols in poetry have been wandering from century to century. Well, perhaps this fox has been brought from foxes of Bohdan-Ihor Antonych, whose verses were a poetic code for me in my youth. Undoubtedly, Antonych changed the symbol of the fox in his poems to the folk fairy tale symbols, where foxes are cunning and sly; Antonych’s fox is the poet’s alter ego. I liked this new meaning very much, therefore foxes in my poems are flying like birds, one may drink ‘red foxes’ tea,’ and the fall comes to the hills where ‘giant foxes are lying’ etc. I became so keen on this modification and the possibilities to go on with it that I started to invent new roles for foxes — they ceased to be real and acquired extraordinary qualities. Now there are less of them in my verses.”

What influence does New York have on you? How did it change you?

“New York is an extraordinary city, meeting it may be dangerous unless you quickly save yourself from the myths and stereoptypes you bring. But it is tolerant as well, when you are speaking with it in a modern language, even your own. One should feel this balance through some inner, intuitive sensation. New York has had different kinds of impact on me throughout this period of time and continues to affect me. There is the only thing that has not changed, the sharpness of feeling that you experience during the initial months of your stay, even for several years. It was this sharpness that inspired me to write the book 38 Verses about New York and Some Other Things, because these landscapes, urban and oceanic, cultural and ethnic, just had to find a way out. However, another resident of New York, Joseph Brodsky, considered it impossible to describe this city. He has several poems about New York. It is hard to tell what kind of person I have become, but there is no doubt that I needed this New York experience. Bohdan Rubchak, who is a NY resident as well, made an especially keen comment on the topic of homeland and foreign space in his article about me: New York and poetic word, combating this space and conquering it, perhaps he had experienced similar feelings.”

Is a place of residence important for a poet nowadays?

“Yes and no. The era of Internet gives the feeling of omnipresence, knowledge about everything, wherever you live. But there is also a notion of milieu, elitist places, prestigious publishing houses, important museums and concert halls, thing that the Internet cannot change. After all, there is architecture, human faces, living streets, again what I lack when I stay long outside the city. New York has many calm, almost European streets, with Italian restaurants somewhere in Greenwich Village for example, or the ocean coastline in Coney Island, or the commercial entertainment of China Town. This versatility produces, at least for me, the feeling of oversaturation and probability of choice. But the notions used by poets are nearly the same, due to the universal nature of poetry and locality of place.”

Is prophet poet still actual in today’s world?

“By all appearances, certain times, an epoch, need such a personality but we are living in somewhat different times. The Romanticism epoch needed a poet with such a key role, whereas it ceased to be actual in the time of Modernism, on the contrary, the Modernist artists got square with the society each in his or her own way. So, if to go on with this logical sequence, the social function of poets is getting narrower. Playing with social or political trends in your country or the world does not rule out the possibility that poetry may be used for fighting, but is it useful for poetry? Political commentaries of writers in their web blogs is one thing, whereas the poet’s posture revealed via poetic text, where political and aesthetic attributes of his time should coexist, is a music from quite another opera. Poetry should keep to the golden mean, so that poetic text does not turn into a publicism or banality. There are heaps of examples of keeping this balance. Who remembers Pablo Neruda’s pro-Soviet or pro-Communist poems? But his Autumn Butterfly is a masterpiece.”

What poetic relations do you have with Taras Shevchenko?

“You are the first to ask me this question, and it poses a dilemma for me: first, I don’t have any poem about Shevchenko, I’ve mentioned him only once in the poem ‘The Ukrainian poet must write,’ in order to justify somehow the bohemian existence of my generation and millieu, so I turned to the experience of my predecessors. I don’t struggle for or against Shevchenko, for me Shevchenko is poetry, what else can I add here?”

What should poetry be like today?

“Varying. I recently returned from the poetic festival in Columbia, where they read, sang poetry, danced to it and yelled it. I heard various languages and poetic forms floating in the air. I heard political, love, ironic, sarcastic poems, rhymes and free verse. In spite of all that, all lingual material and word juggling aside, a poem should contain something like a flash of a lighter, some magic of words that are put in a certain order, specific periodic system, some mystery.”

Does the division into avant-garde and tradition remain actual?

“This division has always been actual. The thing is that the golden epoch of avant-garde in literature, painting and cinema has not taken place as yet. The search typical of avant-guard has already been found, so avant-garde belongs to the precisely defined period in the history of art. Destructive action, diffusion of meanings and symbols, breaking stereotypes, seeking new aesthetics, new art language are typical of avant-garde. Avant-garde is a regular irritation of art and the reader, molecular chemical reaction of discord. Interesting transformations have taken place in avant-garde, because something from its arsenal, revealed by its adepts, something from its aesthetics was later adopted and stopped being provocative or evoking rejection. The advancement made by avant-garde of the turn of the 20th century was followed by scandals or misunderstanding (Mayakovsky and Semenko in poetry, Malevich’s picture, Arkhypenko’s sculptures, Stravinsky’s music etc.), but now those are regarded as absolute achievements. As for tradition, this is a question of interplay between the adoption, distinguishing the most important achievements of national and global cultures, which is a lengthy, albeit faultless process.”

Finally, the last question: what is a modern-day poet? What kind of strange personality is this?

“I think that a poet today, yesterday, The Day before yesterday, a hundred years ago, or in ancient times, deals with one and the same thing, that is bringing his/her speech in order, and his commission before the language automatically transformed into a social duty. A poet is no more and no less than a poet, performing the actions typical of this kind of activity, sometimes making mistakes, sometimes being capricious, sometimes overestimating the meaning of poetry, sometimes professing rightist or leftist ideas, belonging to a sexual majority or minority: all of these things become but facts in his/her bio, whereas the poetic text — the struggle against the word, i.e., time and eternity.”



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