Editor’s note: “Against Naming” was selected by Anya Silver as the winner of New South’s 2016 Writing Contest. Check out her interview with Poetry Editor Anna Sandy, and read/listen to Julia’s prize-winning poem below:
What started you writing poetry, and did you always know that’s what you wanted to do?
I grew up in a Russian-speaking household immersed in poetry. For bedtime stories, my parents would recite—often from memory—Pushkin’s rhymed and metered epic fairy-tales or my dad might strum a few bard ballads on the guitar. My parents like to tell the story of how the neighbors would yell at my dad to stop singing inappropriate songs about “the alcoholic who takes care of stray dogs” to a baby. This childhood full of listening to the music of poetry in my mother tongue certainly explains why poetry ended up being the way I found my own voice in English.
This happened in third grade, when a remarkable teacher, Ms. Finn, taught a unit on poetry and had the class put together a literary magazine of our own creative works. I remember feeling like I had so much to say but no way to say it in English. I remember feeling: how could I write poetry in a language I couldn’t fully speak yet? who would listen or understand? My family and I had only been in the United States for a little over two years, my language acquisition was largely from Power Rangers and Barney, I was still taking ESOL classes, I was still made fun of for being the foreign girl, and was still called the commie, even in 1995. Ms. Finn encouraged me to write into all of these feelings, into the uncertainty and inadequacy, to write into a language that wasn’t mine in order to make it my own. And so I did, and have been ever since.
You emigrated to the U.S. as a Jewish refugee from the Ukraine, and the poem you submitted to our contest (that won!) was strongly rooted in that experience, as are many of your other poems. Did you ever plan to write about that emotion and place, or did your poetry naturally go there? And after being in the U.S. for more than twenty years, do you ever find it difficult to get back into the emotional and mental mindset that your poems take place in, or do you still feel just as strongly connected to the sense of place and the events that you write about?
Because I started writing at such a young age, when my identity as “immigrant” and “foreign” and “different” was most palpable and strongly reinforced by my peers and surroundings, it’s almost inevitable that my poems both escape from and into an unknowable past in Ukraine and our flight away from it—a past so veiled and unremembered now that it bursts with imaginative potential. Writing for me becomes an act of nostalgia, defined brilliantly by Svetlana Boym “as a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.” Poems like “Against Naming” are my way of reaching out to a birthplace, home, childhood, and even language, that is just out of reach.
While my poetry always naturally veered into the past, within the last few years—especially in response to the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, the 2016 election, and the hatred espoused by the current administration and its contribution to the influx of hate crimes and anti-Semitism within the US and abroad—writing about and from my position as a Jewish refugee from Ukraine seems even more necessary.
On November 9th, the day after the election and the 78th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, a shop window in Philly was marked with a swastika. I was scared. I said: this is just the beginning. My non-Jewish husband didn’t believe me, reassuring me I shouldn’t worry and that this would blow over. But likely because I came from a place where hatred was sanctioned, where difference—Jewishness in my case—was marked on passports, where my family members were physically and psychologically harmed for being who we are, and where “this” didn’t blow over and so we had to leave, I knew that I, and so many others, had every reason to be scared.
Yesterday, after a Jewish cemetery had been vandalized minutes away from my home in Philadelphia and another wave of bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) erupted across the country, my husband came home and told me he was devastated, he was now scared for me and my son and the country he called home. He never believed “this” was possible in the America he grew up in. This is all to say that I write into my past in order to remember and be mindful of everything my family fled from and in order to stand against its reoccurrence in our present.
Your poems obviously carry a heavy load of history and experience behind them. Do you consider yourself, as a poet, a historian or activist, or are your poems purely personal to you?
In his poem “Dedication,” Czesław Miłosz asks, “What is poetry that does not save/ Nations or people?” According to him, poetry is more than craft, more than personal expression, it is history, philosophy, religion, and activism. It should inspire change and reestablish the prospect of hope lost in tragedy. Likewise, for me, the role of poet is inseparable from that of historian and activist. Language is itself inherently political and historical, ever more so in the hands of the poet who is acutely aware of its potential and power.
I’ll also share that a big turning point in my writing happened when my great-grandmother passed away. She had endured WWII in the former Soviet Union and lost her partisan husband in Ukraine—likely in the Babi Yar massacre. This unshakable woman, this woman who raised me, didn’t speak about her traumatic past until the last few years of her life when it uncontrollably emerged into the present. She became haunted with visions of a Nazi who had back to life in order to kill and rape her. She would scream at him, fight him off with her cane, and blame us for not protecting her. She had seemed so unfazed by the actual unimaginable history she survived, only to be brought down by the reemergence of its ghost. Perhaps it is because no one knows what she endured or how my great-grandfather died or many of our other family members, perhaps because this history is by its very nature unknowable no matter how many times we hear it or write it or read it, perhaps because it only emerges as a ghost, there are so many possibilities for why it continues to haunt my writing. And yet there is the certainty that no matter how uncertain, unknowable, and unwitnessable—no matter the numerous uns and perhapses—engaging this past and writing it beyond the personal, is all the more necessary.
Lastly, are there any particular poets and poems that you draw inspiration from or continually return to, and have those tastes changed since you began writing poetry?
I must admit that I am especially aware of coming to creative composition as both poet and scholar since I am also working on a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania where my research deals with contemporary American poetry about the Holocaust. Irrespective of this though, I think most of the poets whose work I admire tend to look at poetry as a multidisciplinary genre that engages scholarship, history, activism, art, and much more, regardless of whether or not the poets themselves are pursing higher education.
The question of particular poets and poems is always such a tough one because there are so many and the list is every growing as I work on my dissertation and am lucky enough to be surrounded by more and more amazing poet peers. I still love reading Pushkin, only now, I read or recite his rhymes aloud to my son, hoping that the music of poetry finds a home inside of him the way it did within me. When it comes to other Russian oldies but goodies, I love rereading and toying around with translating the Silver Age poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Madelstam, they are the ghosts haunting everything I write. I continually turn to Holocaust verse in translation such as Miklós Radnóti, Paul Celan, Czesław Miłosz, Wisława Szymborska, and others. Within the American cannon, I often return to Whitman and Ginsburg, whose freedom with the line and ecstatic aesthetic continue to inspire me, as well as Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Gertrude Stein, who are so fearless with language and arresting with image-making.
In case it’s not evident from these few choices, I am a glutton for the elegy, the longer poetic sequence, and poets who constantly challenge expectations of genre and form. A few of my all time favorite more contemporary elegies are Larry Levis’ “Linnets;” Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red; Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa; Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song” and “Dead Doe;” Mark Doty’s “Atlantis;” and Carl Phillips’ “As From a Quiver of Arrows”—though I love so many elegies by Doty and Phillips, and I especially look to their brilliant essays on craft for guidance within my own writing and in how I teach craft to my students.
Since this catalogue of poets and poems could go on endlessly, I’ll end by turning to what Miłosz said in his Nobel lecture: “Every poet depends upon generations who wrote in his native tongue; he inherits styles and forms elaborated by those who lived before him. At the same time, though, he feels that those old means of expression are not adequate to his own experience.” I am indebted to the mother-tongue Russian poets and native-tongue English poets who continue to guide my writing as I write back to them, against them, away from them, or in directions that have yet to be written into language.
Let’s not name her or compare
flesh to fruit. Let’s joke instead
how she swallowed a seed and let it
grow inside her. Just imagine,
how heavy is that sound and what
it tastes like in ripe summertime heat.
I had no cravings though. Only wanted to touch
the cold or be touched. Polish berries carried
the winter, so I ate them by the bucket.
Gooseberries, currants, sour cherries, bursting
childhood in my mouth. A past made sweeter
by its being passed. My mother sweating through
tolkuchka—the little push n’ shove bazaar—
to return home with a stained skirt and fruit
dangling from her ears and me, hungry
inside her. The Krakow market was a harvest too
this hottest July on record and in Oswiecim, the camps
didn’t know what to do with all the people
in such heat, so at the gates of Auschwitz
sprinklers appeared—for the children mostly.
And you, my love, were just about the size
of an artichoke inside me then, its heart
soft and yours, wanting. Water and a past
that isn’t this. One not passed down.
But I carried you there anyway. Against
my family’s urges. Against even your future
ones, maybe. Walked you miles across
black ground turned red then gray then left
for colorless. The dead beneath us
silent. The ones around us, growing.
And I sang to you of a golden city
under a paling sky with its magic garden
and single star and the flame-maned lion
waiting there. You listened, my love, perhaps
they did too, ashes rising in the creek and in the petals,
Birkenau’s waters and purple wildflowers,
its big book of names
from which we did not choose
to name you. Valen, valiant, strong, unmarked
by ancestry or first-generation or Slavic or fruit.
But V, for the survivor who refused
to be named that, for the numbered and unnumbered
names unwritten and scattered there, for the woman
who made seeds grow as gorgeous
out of flesh as out of stone.
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach emigrated from Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine as a Jewish refugee when she was six years old. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Oregon and is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania where her research focuses on contemporary American poetry related to the Holocaust. Her poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, The Missouri Review Online, and Narrative Magazine, among others. She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf and TENT Conferences as well as the Auschwitz Jewish Center. Julia is the author of The Bear Who Ate the Stars, winner of Split Lip Magazine’s 2014 Uppercut Chapbook Award. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Construction Magazine. Visit her wordpress to reach her or read her failed blogging attempts.