Chytomo Picks

Ostap Slyvynsky`s poetry book: a shared space which we can all inhabit


You see an error in the text - select the fragment and press Ctrl + Enter

Ukrainian poetry abroad is on the rise, and last year we saw a surge in the publication of poems by Ukrainian authors, from renowned platforms like The New Yorker to local anthologies produced by small publishers. The poetry has also appears in books, and a series dedicated to Ukrainian poetry published by Lost Horse Press is a particular joy for English-speaking readers.


The publishing house released works by Yuriy Izdryk, Lyuba Yakymchuk, and Kateryna Kalytko, who all enjoy considerable recognition in Ukraine. This year, it published Winter King, a book by poet, translator, and Vice President of PEN Ukraine Ostap Slyvynsky.


We spoke to author Ostap Slyvynsky and the two translators, Vitaly Chernetsky (translator, professor, First Vice President of the Shevchenko Scientific Society in the US) and Iryna Shuvalova (poet, translator and scholar) what this book is about, and what Ukrainian poetry is about today.

Tell us about the process of creating the book. Whose initiative was it to publish your poems in English, and what were the main challenges on the way?


The idea of publishing the book arose even before the full-scale invasion. Actually, before that, Vitaly Chernetsky and Iryna Shuvalova had been working on the translations for more than a year. I knew that the work was underway and did not rush things. Then the great war started, and it was not a priority for a while, but in May of last year I received an unexpected letter from Grace Mahoney, the editor of Lost Horse Press, saying that everything was up to date, the book would be published in 2023. At the time, 2023 seemed like a distant future, but here we are, the book is here, and we’ve made it alive.


Vitaly and Iryna picked poems that resonated more deeply with them, and it comes through somehow. In general, I believe that the personality of the translator should be visible in poetry; it is inevitable and normal. That was a delicate work, and both translators would sometimes send me some draft versions of the texts to ask for my opinion. My opinion was usually concise: “Wow.” I’m also glad that the book didn’t come out in 2021, that we were still able to add some poems written after Feb. 24. They seem to attach the book to our times, to our sensibility of 2023.

The collection “Winter King” was first published in Ukraine in 2018 by The Old Lion Publishing House. Tell us how these poems were read back then and how the same poems are perceived now, after the war intensified. What was that first book about and what is this English-language collection about now?


“Winter King” is a book largely about war. I recently read in public some poems from an even earlier book, “Adam,” from the completely pre-war year of 2012, and this book was also to some extent about the war. Some of the poems from there are perceived as if they were written today or yesterday. It was as if we were always living in a state of anticipation or even some kind of preparation. The war never stopped, “our life always balanced on the edge of the abyss,” to paraphrase C.S. Lewis.


“Winter King” was largely about the experience of surviving trauma, but it was written as if from the outside. It was someone else’s trauma, someone else’s experience. There are a lot of old people there who tell us something, but there is no direct access to their experience, as if there is a key missing.


They often say something strange, even unintelligible. Now this distance has disappeared. Our experience of the great war is perfectly superimposed on the experience of people two generations older, and it has a powerful resonance. And these new poems written in 2022-23 are no longer about “them,” they are about “me.”

In March-April last year, in interviews and posts on Facebook, you talked about the loss of language, the impossibility of writing poetry during the war, and especially during the genocide (that particular April was especially difficult because the crimes in Bucha were discovered). What do you think about this now? What is the nature of poetry, in your opinion, that is written in times of disaster?


I see several important changes in poetry over the past year and a half. First, there is an emotional polarization: poems that try to find an expression for trauma are either extremely emotional or dry, documentary, or devoid of traditional poetic techniques. Second, it is functionality. Poems, like most of us in life, try to be “useful” — to document crimes, to give voice to living and dead victims, to be a chronicle of war, a psychological aid, a requiem, a magical curse, express gratitude to defenders or farewell to the dead, etc.,. Nowadays, it is difficult for many people to write a poem for no reason. It requires motivation, understanding of why this poem is needed here and now, to whom and what exactly it should communicate, how it should help. Does this narrow down, schematize poetry? Of course it does, but it is impossible to do otherwise. This is the price that literature pays for the war. This is the price we pay, basically, for being able to live and write.

How do you personally experience writing now?

I write essays, columns, and some research. And I translate. Writing poetry became difficult and extremely rare. I’ve noticed that it’s easier to write when someone orders a poem from me, which happens nowadays. Some kind of social campaign or publication, for a specific project, often with a specific idea or theme. I wrote one of my poems last year for the late Vika Amelina’s volunteer initiative “Fuck Them Up Poetically,” and I imagined that the lines of that poem became a drone, or at least a part of a drone, for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Now I’m writing for the Center for Civil Liberties, which is currently working on the return of Ukrainian prisoners of war and has launched the Poems of Captivity initiative. I used to be unable to write on request, but now it’s like a lifeline for me. If someone asks for a poem, it means that someone needs it.

Which poem would you like to leave for the readers of this conversation as a postcard?


Let it be this one. It helped many people during the most difficult days of Maidan, and later when russian aggression began in the spring of 2014. Perhaps it will help now as well.



Something always shone in front of us:

not a waymark,

not a sign of those who lost their way,

not a bonfire, not a warning sign,

no one’s home, no one’s

hunting party, nor the war that had stopped

here for good,

not a man, not a beast,

not a dry tree that fell into its own


relentless, like the soul of light, not

a command, and not assistance,


in solidarity with us when we’re at a dead end,

inconsolable when we are inconsolable,

calm when we

make peace with a loss.

Unchanging in times of war and peace,

deaf to requests, but anxious when

we stay silent too long. The same

for the neighborhood kings

and for those chased down the stairs.

Nearsighted and keenly responsive

like a mother in deep old age.

And not hope, for

sometimes there is no hope,

but it is still with us.


Translated by Vitaly Chernetsky, published with the permission of the translator and Lost Horse Press Publishing.


RELATED: Forgotteness by Tanja Maljartschuk: Forgetting or finding oneself through Lypynsky

After the beginning of the full-scale invasion, there’s been an increase in interest in Ukrainian literature, especially for the literature of fact, for direct testimony of war, and literature that documents the current time. How about the interest in other Ukrainian literature and Ukrainian literature in general, without any connection to current events? Do you feel any positive changes in this regard?

I think there is a general interest in, and even hunger for, Ukrainian literature among a fairly significant community of readers. It may not be numerically large, but it is influential as a gateway community of tastemakers: many of those who already seek out literature in translation and are interested in diverse perspectives are certainly curious, just like they are curious about Ukrainian cinema, visual art and music. A very important channel for introducing Ukrainian content is college and university teaching. Ukrainian books can work well in thematic and comparative courses; having discovered one or several, students often want to learn more. Publication of Ukrainian literature in English translation in the US is still largely driven by university presses, like Harvard and Yale, or small but active independent presses, like the Lost Horse Press and their excellent contemporary Ukrainian poetry series, but larger commercial presses are also beginning to take interest.

What kinds of experiences do you think Ostap Slyvynsky’s poetry opens for English-speaking readers?

Ostap Slyvynsky’s poetry to me stands out by its sensitivity to the minutest details of human experience. His poetry is deeply rooted in history, including his family’s history, but it always reads history through stories of individual human beings. Slyvynsky’s poems often brim with emotional intensity, especially in accounts of children’s intuitive sense of (in)justice that is refracted through the eyes of a critically recollecting adult. Those poems then acquire new unexpected dimensions when juxtaposed with others, containing survivors’ accounts of war trauma and the often paradoxical ways in which it is verbalized. Slyvynsky’s poems abound in questions—and they are not rhetorical, they are an invitation and a challenge to the readers to enter the poem’s space—a dialogic interpellation, or perhaps even a test for empathy.

Who of Ukrainian poets would you like to find translated into English in the near future?

While there has been a steady stream of recent publications of Ukrainian poetry, there are so many authors and texts that still need to find their way to English-language readers. In general, while there have been a lot of translations of contemporary poetry, I hope we can also provide more translations of poets from earlier periods. 


To me, the most pressing need is to have a comprehensive collection of Vasyl Stus’s poetry in English, so that the world begins to appreciate him as a literary giant and not only as an important political dissident. There is a project in the works, and I hope the resulting book will be out soon. Even the classics like Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, and Lesia Ukraïnka need modern, vibrant translations of their work (the recent publication of a poem by Shevchenko in Askold Melnyczuk’s translation in the New Yorker is a telling sign). 


Ahatanhel Krymskyi is totally unknown to English-language readers, and he would be a great figure to showcase in emphasizing the diversity of voices and experiences one can find in Ukrainian literature. But I certainly also want to see more contemporary poetry brought to the English-language readers. Many poets’ texts right now are only available in anthologies, but they do not yet have books of their own. It would be great to see books by Yuliya Musakovska, Iryna Tsilyk, or Oleh Kotsarev out, for example.


Who of the English-language poets would you recommend reading before reading Ostap Slyvynsky’s poems? Who would you associate and link the poems from his collection Winter King with?

Like any good poet, Ostap has his unique style, and so it’s hard to frame his work in terms of other people’s writing. Nevertheless, I would say that his clarity of expression and his intentness on tracing those deeper undercurrents running under the surface of things remind me of Yves Bonnefoy, one of France’s major 20th-century poets whose work is also available in English. At the same time, Ostap’s seemingly boundless capacity to see the smallest of everyday occurrences as manifestations of the greater wonder of life is very much in the spirit of Carl Sandburg.


Additionally, those readers who appreciate contemporary poets coming originally from emerging Europe but now working in the US, such as Ilya Kaminsky or Valzhyna Mort, will definitely enjoy Ostap’s work. I am thinking particularly of the way in which Ostap works through historical experiences of our shared homeland through personal stories of people around him, doing it with genuine care, respect, and deep humanity. I strongly believe that Ostap’s ability to bring those very diverse, sometimes fragile voices to life in his writing is one of his major strengths as a poet.

What challenges did you face while translating Ostap Slyvynsky’s poetry?

Poetry is a very delicate balancing act between transparency, clarity for the reader – and, at the same time, opaqueness, because it always remains a space for secret and hidden things impossible to capture in everyday language. As a translator working with a writer who is my contemporary, I was, of course, very tempted to ask for Ostap’s help in making my translations as transparent as possible, deciphering all the little puzzles hidden in his text. It was a major challenge for me to stop myself from doing that and to let those hidden things in Ostap’s poems remain hidden, letting the readers encounter them on their own terms.


Today, when the debate about the value of arts and humanities is so heated, it is particularly important to remember that literature in general and poetry specifically can serve as a kind of repository of our collective humanity. Ostap’s poems, for instance, capture and preserve unique voices, moments, bits of experience, and facets of vision that otherwise almost certainly would be irretrievably lost.


By reading these poems, we have a chance to inhabit those experiences as respectful guests, without actually living through them. In that sense, literature, including poetry, is a very important construction site for commonality: a shared space that we can all inhabit, being open to each other and listening to each other – something particularly important in times of war raging not only in Ukraine but in many other parts of the world.

You communicate with English-speaking readers not only as a translator, but, first of all, as a poet. Your book is included in the series that published Ostap’s collection — the Lost Horse Press Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry. From this perspective, could you tell how you are able (or not) to talk about the experience of war through poetry? How does poetry contribute to understanding people with very different experiences and collective histories?

In my own work, including Pray to the Empty Wells, my book that came out in the Lost Horse Press Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series, I attempt rather than accomplish the impossible task of articulating war, that is of saying the unsayable. At the same time, these attempts, even if we ultimately fail at them, are still incredibly important for creating a shared space of conversation, of feeling and experiencing sometimes deeply traumatic things that, perhaps, might become somewhat less traumatic precisely through the experience of being shared.


Poetry, I think, is always an attempt at the impossible. It is bound to fail, but paradoxically, it succeeds in its failure – as a process of trying. That’s why, I’m content with failing to say the exact things I’m trying to say about this war. It’s fine. It is certainly no reason to stop trying.


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.