Chytomo Picks

Halyna Kruk: Poetry goes through restrictions on sense sensibility


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In May 2023, American publishing house Arrowssmith Press released A Crash Course in Molotov Cocktails, a bilingual poetry book by Halyna Kruk. These were poems about war, written between 2013 and 2022, based on Halyna’s experience as an author, volunteer, wife of a military man, and witness to conflict.

Furthermore, the Ukrainian-speaking audience is well-acquainted with Halyna Kruk — a poet, prose author and literature historian. Kruk is increasingly active on the international stage, with her poetry featured in numerous anthologies across various languages, including Italian, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Polish, English, German, Lithuanian, Georgian and Vietnamese.

We had the opportunity to talk with Kruk about her experiences in writing and reading poetry centered on war, as well as her latest English-language book (translated by Amelia Glaser and Yulia Ilchuk).

Learn more about Halyna Kruk’s volunteer activity in her previous interview for Chytomo as part of the Words and Bullets project.


Could you describe the process of creating this book? Who initiated the idea of publishing your poems in English, and what were the main challenges you faced?


I have been writing poetry about war since 2013, and have lots of material based on my personal impressions from trips to the “anti-terrorist operation zone” in 2014-2019.


In 2017, together with Musician Yurko Yefremov from Kharkiv, we started working on a multimedia project, and in 2020-2021, we presented, as part of the ART Resistentia festival, the first variant of  BookWar. It was my poetry and electronic music by Yurko, and also ethno singing by Halyna Bresovets. The project existed in this format until quite recently, not being translated to a printed format, and back then it was difficult to find a publisher for a book of poems about the war. At that time, there was a watershed: you had the choice of either going to a publisher of veteran literature, but I was not a veteran and my poems were not written at the frontline, or to other publishers, but mainstream literature was not open to the war topic. They were afraid of it, and, what’s even worse, it was considered to be opportunistic. As if a person strived for hype.


On the other hand, I didn’t feel that the book was completed. Poems continued to be written, reality continued to alarm, and premonitions devastated me. Then Feb. 24 happened, and the topic, sadly enough, became relevant, as the war took on new and more acute features. I saw many people quote my poems I posted on my Facebook page. Some of the old poems, such as “Air-raid Shelter”, suddenly sounded as if I had written them from the experience of sitting in a shelter. It took me about a week to recover, and then I started writing poetry anew. In fact, it was the only form of self-reflection and recording of reality that I was capable of back then, if not taking into account the lists of volunteer activities and things I needed to do. It was a kind of not fully meaningful attempt to feel myself in the new environment, to cope with my emotions and reactions.


Poetry helped me, and people responded it helped them too.


The only thing I had was the title — БукWar (A «Bookwar» title read in Ukrainian means «Primer», so there is a word play for bilingual readers — A Primer and a Book of war), but in the American context, it lost the basic meaning as a book children use to learn how to read at school. The publishing house offered a new title and a new concept, maybe a bit too radical at first sight, but very expressive for the American market. This is how A Crash Course in Molotov Cocktails appeared. Well, I still remember the Molotov cocktails from 2014, used during the Revolution of Dignity, and poems about it are also included in the book. 


Read more: New calendar spotlights authors in Ukrainian Armed Forces ‘The Ukrainian voices should be heard’


What was the principle of selecting poems back then?


These poems are the texts that appeared both during the full-scale invasion (starting with  February 2022), and before that, starting in 2013, after the Maidan. Chronologically they are arranged this way: after the full-scale invasion and before. I’m not an author who writes based on things read and thought, I need to have live material I experienced at Maidan, during my volunteer and writing trips to the anti-terrorist zone, and communication with my husband, who was then serving in Azov near Mariupol, communication with the military in hospitals. General background, individual stories and exposition emerged from these fragments.


Please explain your approach to writing poetry. Is it documentation, talking through trauma, or finding a new language for depicting or explaining reality?


I used to have a different approach to writing poetry: my poems were like icebergs, where lots was hidden from the reader, you had to co-created and read — symbols, allusions, references to various cultural traditions. I tried to create several levels in the poem — a seemingly simple and playful visible part, and something that appealed to an advanced and philologically engaged reader with a rich cultural background. Working with a complex form was an exciting thing to do for me.


With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, there was neither time nor opportunity to write this way.


I realized I would record my emotional state and document the background full of events. I wanted this new language to be as transparent as possible, and not to distract or prevent us from seeing the reality that stood right behind it. I had to remind myself that literature, as any other type of art, has a mimetic nature. All the formal virtuosity should go into what the author wanted to say.


I saw many times later that when the poems were read in different languages, it was exactly this transparency of language that allowed the translators to immerse themselves in the realities in which we, Ukrainians, found ourselves. That is, the suggestion worked: one could get closer to feelings and emotional experience through the poem. In other words, I cannot explain why people, who are not Ukrainians and who are far from these realities, sit during reading with tears in their eyes. Poetry is capable of touching them so deeply and allowing them to get as close as possible, be empathetic and sympathetic.


It was proof that such a risky and poor artistic (little artistic) style of writing also works: the absence of metaphors and the simplicity of poeticalness allowed to focus on human tragedies and the humanitarian consequences of the war.


Which kind of barriers readers might experience when reading your poetry in translation? And how do your poems create a barrier-free communication with readers?


In these poems, there is a subtle distance between a word and its underlying meaning. This was my intention. But it was still a poetic form, sometimes rhyming (rhyme comes to me automatically and spontaneously, I can’t forcefully suppress it). This use of rhyming in poetry posed a challenge for translators, particularly in instances where the rhyme contributed to the poem’s form or plot.


References to historical realities, such as in the poem about the “Serpent’s Wall”, were more complicated and had to be explained to the translator and to be made accessible to the readers. I did not want to make it even more complicated with footnotes.


It was difficult to explain the everyday specifics of the war. For instance, I mention a specific case told by commander Ihor Topolya in 2015 or 2016 in one of my poems. They could not take away the bodies of their fallen comrades who were in the hands of the enemy and they hung the bodies and shot at them as if they were targets. In the poem, this is mentioned in a story about the mother of that soldier. The image is very specific, but a misunderstanding occurred during the translation: as if the shooting was a training session, and the image of the desecration of the body after death was lost.


The lack of understanding of images that might be too scary or poignant is often a protective barrier for a person who, in a different culture, country, or continent, finds oneself at a distance from the war, looking into this abyss is both frightening and painful. We, Ukrainians, against our own will, are immersed deeply in this aggressive and destructive reality to the point where we are no longer surprised by the level of suffering; we do not plunge into it to its full depth, our emotions have become dulled, and both our psyche and central nervous system have gradually adapted to a state of ignoring and detaching, otherwise, we will not survive. We have adapted to some extent, yet no one is fully equipped to endure the sheer enormity of this tragic and existentially limiting event, often requiring immense human effort to live with the varied experiences of war, loss, and trauma for years to come. War is always a debt to the future.


You have extensive experience in literature behind your back (over 20 years of “systematic writing”). What was your experience with translations of your poetry before? How easy was it for a Ukrainian author to break through to English-speaking readers?


First translations of my poetry into English appeared in the early 2000s on the Poetry International website, translated by Olena Jennings, who is both a translator and poet. It serves as an excellent showcase for an author because the website features authors from different countries and different literatures. In 2003, Kateryna Botanova curated a selection of contemporary Ukrainian poets for this website. I remember that, besides me, the list included Serhiy Zhadan, Yuri Andrukhovych, Natalka Bilotserkivets, and Andrii Bondar.


Read more: Yuri Andrukhovych on irony during war, ‘quarantining’ Russian’ and why he believes in a Ukrainian victory


Later I came across reviews and analysis of my poems, especially feministic ones, in English-language programs of courses of contemporary literature and poetry. It was nice to be included in a global literature process, in the context of notions and tendencies. 


It would be good if books appeared after such translations-showpieces. But let’s be honest, many foreign publishers would only publish an unknown foreign poet if they were sure that it would pay off or that the publishing risks would be covered by a grant or financial support from the publisher. Poetry was not a genre that could be used to introduce an author to a new market. Even Andrukhovych or Zhadan (famous Ukrainian prose writers and poets) first published prose works and only then poetry. As for me I had no books of prose or essays.


The vast majority of editions of poetry that were published abroad at that time were funded by Ukrainian studies programs at universities, targeted towards a group of sympathizers and aficionados of Ukrainian literature, often comprising individuals from the Ukrainian diaspora. It was very difficult to introduce a translated book to a broader audience beyond this specific group, to make it publicly available, visible, and commercially viable within the expansive book markets of a large country like the United States. 


The events that brought Ukrainian poetry beyond domestic consumption were important. For instance, the PEN Poetry Prize for Selected Poems of Oleh Lyseha collection in 2000, translated by James Brasfield. Right now the war and its tough consequences have brought additional weight and attention to Ukrainian poetic voices, but the price is too expensive and bloody.


Poland has become a bridge and a platform for further translations in other countries for many contemporary Ukrainian writers. The situation with knowing Ukrainian contexts is better here, and there’s a whole cohort of translators brought up in the environment of university Ukrainian studies and beyond, long personal contacts, festivals, environments, organizations and a number of scholarship programs for Ukrainian artists. It fosters convergence of cultures and gives its translation results. Four books have been published in Poland (three books of poetry and one prose book). It was much more difficult to publish translated books in English or other languages, although there were many translations already. 


It happened that the first publishing house that offered to publish my book in the United States by another publishing house, Lost Horse Press, before the full-scale invasion. At this moment this book is on the final stages of creation, and the translation tandem of Dzvini Orlowski and Eli Kisnella is working on it. These are completely different poems — more complex in their poetics, lyrical, written in my manner, most of which have not been published in Ukraine as a separate book. The book will be published as a bilingual edition at the beginning of the next year. There are lots of play of words, breaking up old idioms, flickering of direct and figurative meanings in this book. This is often a difficult task for a translator, and we discussed many nuances.


How do readers react to the language of your poetry? What can English-speaking readers find in your poems? 


I, as an author, find it difficult to take the side of a reader with a very different cultural and historical background. And I never try to adapt to the reader, I can only analyze it all post factum. I’m surprised that people in different countries perceive these poems differently, and pay attention to different things. For example, during my recent tour in Italy, the organizers of performances in different cities chose texts of a certain biological and ecological orientation, where war is shown as an evil against everything living — plants, animals and humans. The title of one of the evenings was “Human Warmth.” War topic in the title would scare the Italian audience off for sure. In Ireland, on the contrary, poems about the mother tongue, resistance and defending of independence found the best feedback. The Portuguese and Spanish audience paid attention to the theme of family and family relations, or maybe it was only my impression and it was only this particular audience that reacted this way. My selection is too small to make global conclusions like this. I wrote from our Ukrainian experience, about my personal and our collective.  


It surprises many of my Western readers that poetry can speak about reality, that poetry can deal with war and still be poetry. In Western poetry, only certain thematic or social poetry has access to a specific reality, such as feminist, queer, and ecopoetry, socially engaged rap, and so on.  But when thematically or socially unbiased poetry dares to get close to reality, to be functional, it risks to lose its poetic nature. We have seen that this is not necessarily so. 


When a poet finds themselves in conditions of a war, turning away is out of the question.  Poetry does not force you to choose either/or: either you are a poet or you are a citizen. Poetry can be a part and manifestation of a civic position as well, go deeper into the collective experience, speak not only on behalf of “me” but also “we.” This is exactly the perspective European literature has forgotten or underestimated. 


It astounds them that neither specificity nor involvement in the common, nor function ruins poetry if it is real.


How do foreign audiences perceive Ukrainian poetry and the contemporary context of its creation?


In the course of my readings I often speak about the sense of responsibility Ukrainian poets feel in this situation — responsibility for the things they say, for the consequences it will have. In this case you realize that only with your words you can drive someone further into a state of despair or give hope. 


On the other hand, this responsibility debunks a poet of the lightness without which it is very difficult — the lightness of creation, the lightness of experiment. In one of my interviews I said I missed this lightness most of all because it will never be back. Losses, tough experiences and traumas make this lightness impossible.


Return of poetry to functionality surprises my Western readers. This is something archetypal and syncretic, where poetry has always been not only for aesthetics, but also served a function at the same time. Stories to remember, incantations, prayers and ritual cursing.


The forms that Ukrainian poetry is taking now and the processes that are taking place inside of it, give Western literary critics much material for reflection and analysis, and become a touchstone for many outdated insights.


I subscribed to notifications of academic mentions and citations, and I see how these processes are being analyzed and comprehended in different countries, and how much attention is being drawn to these processes in literature. I think Ukrainian war poetry will be perceived as a unique phenomenon in the history of contemporary poetry in general, not just through the prism of a couple of names.


This poetry gives Western literary critics many things to think about: what we missed, where we had the intellectual audacity to think that we know everything, and this is not the case at all.


You spoke about your performances in the context of transmitting the experience of war and in the context of building new connections with readers. What other tasks, as an author, do you set for yourself while giving speeches abroad? You give a lot of speeches, and probably you also set yourself a lot of related tasks, such as advocating for Ukrainian literature and calling a spade a spade, and so on.


Before the full-scale invasion, I traveled mainly as an author, a poet, for presenting my texts and professional networking.


Right now, after February 2022, it’s more educational work: I go to tell what’s happening in Ukraine and how our lives and literary practices are being changed in the conditions of war. I go to talk about the richness of culture, and explain our values. This is advocacy for culture and at the same time a narration about the victims, the dead and people in captivity. Now these are almost mandatory things Ukrainian writers and artists abroad have to do.


I ask to have not only poetry readings but also a format of discussions and interviews. This year I had more than 20 performances, last year it was more than 30. These are different audiences, not always focused only on poetry, so I have to speak more broadly. Poetry without a context ends up in a vacuum.

There are also presentations or lectures on Ukrainian literature because foreign audiences often know very little about it. Recently I had a performance in Milan where I talked about a number of authors from an anthology of Ukrainian poetry translated into Italian by Yaryna Hruscha-Posamay and Oleksandr Akilli. It would be unfair not to mention the authors of previous generations — Vasyl Stus (an iconic Ukrainian poet who worked in 1970-1980 and was a dissident), Hrytsko Chubai and Natalka Bilotserkivets (Ukrainian poet, born in 1954). Their poems were read, and finally I talked about Volodymyr Vakulenko and Victoria Amelina.  Such conversations allow us to show the richness and continuity of Ukrainian poetry.


I often give speeches as a speaker: short ones, like my speech at the Berlin Festival, which was translated into almost all European languages and which contained an important message that war is not a metaphor. A message that is obvious to Ukrainians, but needed to be explained to people in the West. 


Here, and in general, it is important to speak in the semantic field of the interlocutor, to speak in terms that the audience understands. And that’s the moment you can knock the listener out of the saddle and encourage them to look at the situation in a new way, to see what was there in the blind spot.


Here literature makes it possible to go further in communication with the audience, it penetrates deeper than news feed and affects people longer. Where news or photos can be blurred or put restrictions on the sensitivity of the content on, literature passes these filters and leaves a deeper mark and causes greater change.


The publication is a part of the “Chytomo Picks: New Books from Ukraine” project. The materials have been prepared with the assistance of the Ukrainian Book Institute at the expense of the state budget. The author’s opinion may not coincide with the official position of the Ukrainian Book Institute.