Kateryna Kalytko
by Olena Huseinova
Short profile

Kateryna Kalytko is a writer and translator. Winner of the "LitAccent of the Year" award, winner of the "BBC Book of the Year" awards, METAPHORA, Joseph Konrad-Kozheniewski Prize, and others. In 2019 she was awarded the independent Women in Arts award. Researches and translates contemporary literature from Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Olena Huseynova is a poet, journalist, radio host. Winner of the Smoloskip prizes and the All-Ukrainian Literary Prize named after Vasily Symonenko.

Do you count your poetry books? If I ask now, what number book are you on now? Can you say or will you have to start counting?

— No, I don't think so. The ninth seems to be out now, but I could be wrong. That's why the honest answer is that I don't count anymore.

From what moment did you stop counting?

— Apparently, after the release of Torture Chamber. Vineyard. Home. I started counting books not by number, but by the experience they denote. That is, lately, in fact, since 2014, when Torture Chamber. Vineyard. Home was published, it turns out that each poetry collection summarizes a certain layer of my both private and public experiences. That's why I distinguish the stages of life by my own books now.

The last two books are about the new Kateryna Kalytko.

— Probably, the Order of Silences is about the latest — this is understandable because chronologically it’s the most recent collection. It seems to me that there is already a new identity here, which we began to see through Nobody Knows Us Here, and We Are Nobody. Now it has taken shape and has become a face. This face appears both in the title and in the illustrations (these are the works of the artist Kateryna Kosyanenko, used in the design of the book Order of Silences — notes OH"). When a face is assembled from scattered fragments and half-sensations, it is created almost in a medieval way, as if unreal features and peculiarities are depicted, but a clearly developed canon is used. But suddenly it moves and turns into a human.

Mobility and liveliness, this is about the quote from "Nobody Knows Us Here": "Here's your language, woman, shoot from it”. I heard and saw these lines in the most unexpected places, from the radio series about Lesya Ukrainka, which I did according to the script of Myroslav Layuk together with the team of the literary edition of Radio Cultura, to pins and t-shirts…

— And there are tattoos. Several people got tattoos and sent me photos. I did not design all this consciously. This is probably the abyss over which the artist finds him/herself. Here you are doing something intuitively, and you’re feeling and writing. And you write a very desperate text, in the first year of the war, when you realize that the wheel is spinning endlessly, everything goes on, goes on, and goes on. The only thing left for you is to do well what you do in your place: think, reflect, speak, and write. I had no idea that I was now creating an apt quote that is good for T-shirts and tattoos and is suitable for actions in support of the Ukrainian language law or women's marches. That's why the reach of this line is incredible for me. To see your line tattooed is, first of all, a great honor. People took it to have for forever. These are the people I know and respect, and it was by the tattoo that we were introduced. Secondly, there is an awareness that language remains a weapon, and a conscious need to testify, here and now.

You started writing very early. Have you ever wondered in what language to start writing?

— I started in Russian in Vinnytsia, which was mostly Russian-speaking at the time. But starting from the age of thirteen, my poetry has been basically Ukrainian. I often tell this story about the conscious choice of the language of writing and communication, the first trips to all-Ukrainian summer competitions, and how hostile my Russian-speaking school was. That's where my long struggle for my own language began, which I haven't given up on since.

Did you read a lot of Russian poetry in your youth? For example, Oksana Zabuzhko often says that our generation is probably the last one to be influenced by Russian poetry. It's as if we can automatically quote Brodsky or Akhmatova, but we can't quote Stus or Zhilenko.

— I read Russian poetry, of course, because it was both school curriculum and available reading. Parents often could not physically buy the works of the "Shot Renaissance", The Sixties, Stus, and other important books — they brought home some bad printouts. And I read a lot of Brodsky in my youth, like any of our poets, as well as Blok, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, and a whole library of classics. But now my pop-ups of poetic quotations are only from Ukrainian poetry. This is how consciousness has adjusted. In the end, the moment when Ukrainian poetry began to appear systematically, in decent editions in the home library, was when I was a senior in high school and began to fill up this library on my own. It was the late 1990s and early 2000s when books that you could only flip through in the library's reading room were finally free to buy in Kyiv bookstores and put on home shelves.

You mentioned the experience of studying in a Russian-language school, and we talked about the poetic tradition. What does it mean when the education in the humanities of a person for whom poetry in the future will be a profession begins with a foreign language tradition?

— From the start, it charges you for protest, which makes you work more actively in your field, does not allow stagnation, nor having atonic literary muscles, and makes you constantly strengthen them. Our generation is constantly reading, keeps reading unread classics, and doing so quite passionately. It is constantly discovering, rediscovering, and rethinking something in its own literature. It is a reward for not absorbing all this at a very early stage, as a background, and now we are constantly accompanied by these flashes on the left, right, front, and back. This becomes very tangible, for example, at international festivals and in conversations with colleagues. They often ask why our poetry is protest, socially engaged. And we cannot and do not allow ourselves to be distracted from social issues because they are very closely intertwined with the construction of our own tradition and our own heredity. We’re still figuring out where poetry lives in this society. We have not legitimized its place so far, we have not given this coexistence a healthy form, we have not set up such a symbolic bookcase, where poetry will live in society without being pushed out. So that every child automatically can go to this symbolic bookcase and take what they like. We are still struggling, rearranging shelves, and swapping classics. We live in a magmatic flow, in the constant formation of the canon because there are several self-evident figures — Shevchenko, Lesya Ukrainka, Franko, a few smaller names, well, and the current classics. But how to put them, in what order, how do they interact, who stands between them, why are there certain connections, certain continuity? Until now, everyone has been looking for answers for themselves. It affects poetry and language as such. My personal literary pantheon has always remained a constant, plus or minus, but, apparently, this is also a natural process: in the same authors you love different texts in different periods, and you perceive them as part of your experience. Or you read the same things completely differently, with a different accent and approach.

I remember your presentation in 2014, probably in the year Torture Chamber. Vineyard. Home was released. You were asked what books you repetitively read from poetry, you said that there were Palimpsests by Stus and Exotic Birds and Plants by Andrukhovych. Has that changed?

— Stus is unchanged. And Andrukhovych is unchanged, but my reading of him often goes beyond Exotic Birds and Plants. In general, Svidzinsky and Vingranovsky were added to the active list. They were there before, but now they have become more frequent. This is for Ukrainians. For foreigners, I most often return to Lorca — one of my main names.

What does it mean for a poet to read poets, especially classics? These are the poets with whom everything seems to have been clarified, even with Andrukhovych. Since we are talking about real paper books, the metaphor of this clarity can be how the book always opens itself in the place where we most often open it. What does this return to the place of permanent "opening" mean?

— It's like measuring the temperature or feeling the pulse in the literature and making sure that everything lives in its place. It seems like the obvious moment. Now is a very busy time, so both poetics and language, in general, are very saturated, electrified, and therefore constantly changing. You feel that even your own language changes every day, and you can't fully explain to yourself how because it's always the hardest thing to explain about yourself. Therefore, it is important to return to poetry as a home. This is your own room, where everything is perfectly arranged; you can walk here in the dark. But still, sometimes you need to stand aside and see how this space works. The same goes for the return to important texts. I want to see how it is done, how these words are composed, and what this language is made of. Why is it exactly like that? Why doesn’t it fade over the years?

Of the four poets of your "canon", this is only one contemporary with whom you can talk, — Yuri Andrukhovych — what kind of figure is this for you?

— This is a man without whom there would be no current Ukrainian literature — that tone of voice it has now, that depth of voice. I call him not a patriarch, but a demiurge because for me he is just like that. I remember this happy feeling after entering Mohylyanka (university - ed.): people from all over Ukraine were sitting with Perversion on a long break between classes, or with Moscoviada, or with poems. And you were a black sheep at school when you were obsessed with Recreations. And now you suddenly see that it is good manners to read Andrukhovych, and, accordingly, bad manners to know nothing about him or not to recognize the quote. So for me, it is a name and a figure that also symbolizes the moment and the point of finding "ours". That is why for me Andrukhovych is almost an egregore of all current Ukrainian literature. I don't think we would be able to tell human stories the way we do now if we didn't learn from Andrukhovych. And we would not be able to be so frankly sharp and attentive to details. In travels, for example, when I want to go home, I remember his 'Kolomyia Regiment in Paris': "The war is over and seven barrels of wine, too, a maple leaf flows through the Seine" — this is one of the most touching things for me. So much that I am fascinated only by Yiddish songs when I miss Vinnytsia.

What do Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (National University — ed.) and Podil (district — ed.) mean to you as spaces and myths?

— Podil is a space that I can walk in with my eyes closed and find myself near the synagogue several times. A lot of extremely important stories and sharp details are sewn here. Here is the proximity of water I need and the secret nooks and crannies where my student homelessness still lives. Here I carry in my head a poem by Leonid Kiselyov "Podol — bad for dogs." My friend from Vinnytsia, a poet and a doctor, now lives in Podil. During the Book Arsenal, he and I climbed Shchekavytsia (hill — ed.) during the night, watched as a thunderstorm rolled over the left side of Kyiv, and looked on as a half-asleep Podil moved below. It was a nut’s shell in which light was poured.

For me, Mohyla Academy combines two categories that often contradict each other: tradition and freedom. From the eighth grade, I wanted to come here, in fact, to join the legend, the revived tradition of Ukrainian education, which lasts for centuries and shares its achievements with the world. Of course, after joining, I lost some illusions. The human factor spoils a lot of good. But I am still grateful for the freedom, value, and driving force I found here, which has been with me ever since.

Nobody Knows Me and Order of Silences are the first two books where I do not hear in your writing the constant Balkan breath. How to interpret this to those who are used to looking in your texts for this salty and spicy wind of the Balkans, in which pain you have, to a large extent, taught us to rhyme with our pain. This is how I experienced the beginning of the war when you immediately showed that you could go to another literature or culture by experience, and find solace. For this, you had your translations of Croatian and Bosnian writers, and, of course, your poetry.

— I myself survived the beginning of the war because I read and translated those poets you are talking about now. Every connection with a certain place or territory is almost always tied to great human history. Therefore, perhaps the most obvious answer to your question is that authors are also people, and people change. Their experiences change, and their ways change. There are tragedies in their lives that end certain stories, so it hurts to go back to the places where your most precious stories ended tragically. Therefore, there are pauses or colons, which do not promise to continue the sentence and generally speak on the same topic. And it’s also a completely natural process when you pay more and more attention to your wounded country because the wounds deepen and do not heal. And it is your duty as a person who works with subtle meanings — let this not sound pathetic — to do the best of your ability to do something to put at least a temporary splint on the fracture.

Would you like to live in such a language and culture in which the main poetic plot is not the country itself, but human relations?

— We met writers of such languages ​​and such kinds of literature at festivals and residences. I've never lived in such literature, so I don't know. I know no other way to live and write than the one in which I live and write. Apparently, this is also a good and cozy world. But I completely subjectively, without imposing this maxim on anyone, consider a great problem, both human and literary, this great calm, which easily turns into satiety. This is the product of our injury. When you get used to a large dose of something, a small dose no longer has an effect. If you get used to a high degree of experience in literature, you will not be affected by the literature of the calm. You will see that it is terribly well made and linguistically perfect. That the space of language experiment is much larger because it often happens when the language itself is calm, and this calm needs to be destroyed. Because Ukrainian poetic speech cannot afford to simply plunge into these depths, abysses, and waves, tides and ebbs of language because there are other, more important things. And you react reflexively to external stimuli. This is not an agenda, none of the serious poets decide, “Oh, now I will sit down and write a poem, and it will be about the fate of Ukraine or the spirit of the times.” People write about what they are experiencing, feeling — about what does not give them peace. I watch with admiration, as if I was watching beautiful flowers, beautiful sea fish, poets in great calm, or literature and languages. Sometimes even with envy — good, not evil envy. And whether I could exist like that myself — I do not know. To do this, it was probably necessary to form myself in a different context, and this is where we started our conversation.

Do you suppose that in many years — in 100 years, for example — Ukrainian girls and boys will read your texts as love poetry?

— What I am writing now is, to a large extent, love poetry.

But there is this fracture of our optics. I, as your reader, think that you copy love poetry, but in fact, say other things. And behind each text, I see the work of memory: both political and historical. I see our challenges — challenges of our identity, and our life. But when these challenges are no longer so convex and become part of a history textbook, your poems will be read as poems about men, women, their love, and hate.

— I would not even talk about copying. I would talk about a kind of curse: our love stories are always stories about the struggle and the search for identities. They are inseparable from the current history of the country. They have not separated for more than a hundred years. This tradition is very long. Everything we learn from classical Ukrainian literature and the canon, is tied to social challenges — even the most subtle love poems. And it seems to me that the Ukrainian reality forms and educates its poets that way. This does not mean that you let the country into your bedroom, it's different. You are made up of this country. Different versions of this country interact in a love story. And that's why it's not a game of masks or dubious halftones; it's a completely natural process. And I will be very happy if there comes a day when young men and women, or older women and men, do not understand everything that is in the background of our love stories. And they will read them simply as love stories.

You are not afraid of the words ‘love’ and ‘to love’ in the verses. And you are not afraid of the words ‘pain’ and ‘painful’. These are dangerous words for poetic speech. It is very easy to get into rhetoric with them, and you are not afraid of it. Why aren't you afraid?

— Because this is what people are made of — out of love and pain. You can run away from it as much as you want because, you see, this is a common place, a truism. But the edge of perception of the word "love" is very thin. Meanwhile, sometimes this word leaves "blood on the teeth" (again, I can't do without a quote from a classic!) and in some cases, it's just a catchphrase to which you can safely put a sticker of a cat and make a good likable Facebook content. The line is very thin, and it seems to me that this is also a sign of the quality of poetry: when you feel love as love in a certain text. When it's blood — not paint on a poster.

You are a female poet. Many people have been saying for the last 7-10 years that Ukrainian literature, in particular poetry, is run by women now. Do you think so about Ukrainian women's poetry in such a context? And do you use the wording of “Ukrainian women's poetry” in general?

— Let's start with the disclaimer. When we talk about good poetry, we are talking primarily about good, non-gender-labeled poetry. But we cannot say that there is no division into women's and men's poetry, simply because women and men write about different experiences. They have different experiences of feeling their body, different experiences of interaction with this body, and their body with the world. There are different experiences of emotions. There are different levels of involvement in social life and different models of social expectations. And when poets work with this experience, it is automatically retransmitted into conditionally female poetry, marked with a female theme, and conditionally male poetry, marked with a male theme. This is a purely mechanical thing. There are indeed more female poets who sound loud and who signify certain red lines that move the magmatic flow of current Ukrainian poetry more than men. I don't know how it happened, to be honest; I didn't have time to follow this sociology. But our generation has really powerful female voices. On the other hand, I do not rule out that this is an aberration of perspective because I, as a woman, perceive women's poetry closer to me, and more consistent. Perhaps I misread something in contemporary men, so I am very careful about the distribution since not all experiences can be read equally well, and equally deeply.

You are talking about different female and male experiences, and several times in your various comments on the new book you said that you wrote about silence as a woman's restriction. You have the image of a woman with a mouth sewn shut — a woman who is not allowed to speak, who cannot speak for herself and cannot be heard. Logos as a word and voice belongs to men, which is why women write diaries and cookbooks, and men — history. What is the real relationship with the logos of Ukrainian men, or do you have a feeling that Ukrainian men are now learning to speak, as well as Ukrainian women?

— They are learning, of course, and in a sense, it is an even more difficult topic than women's silence. Because women's silence is such an obvious problem that we have been dealing with for decades or even centuries. Now we are watching live how the modern link of the poetic canon is formed. And between the current generation, in which women rule, and the generation of the eighties, in which only Oksana Zabuzhko and Natalka Bilotserkivets sounded loud, not so much time has passed — but what a colossal leap. This is also a question of combining literature with social and political processes. It’s an interesting sociological and anthropological topic, not only literary. And if you go back to what you are asking about and try to illustrate and distance yourself as much as possible, the relationship of Ukrainian men with the language is also difficult. It is believed that men always spoke, had the right to vote, and expressed everything they could and wanted to say, but in fact, did not. And this silence is even deeper; it is often even unconscious. There are often no proper words to describe the space in which this male silence lives. There is no place to put it, such trauma. It is the other side of patriarchy, after all. There is a bar of expectations that you must reach. All deviations from the path prescribed to you in advance lie in the mind as potential injuries. This non-recognition of men's right to deviate from the main program, in the end, does not allow the individual and his successors to speak. But let them start.

What do you think might be interesting about this in Ukrainian men's creative writing?

— First of all, it seems to me, going beyond traditional, and brutal poetics. Machism in the worst sense. Something very subtle, vulnerable, tender, and real.

I was waiting for this word ‘tenderness’. It seems to me that this is one of your most important words, from which you took off the sentimental clothes. This word is a blade, a word that cuts. And I was happy when I crossed paths with it in the Order of Silences again and I could watch its new life. It's awesome that you did it with the word ‘tenderness’. But I will now ask about the urgency. I will try with tenderness. We all expected a novel from you, we were waiting for a novel after Bunar. If I'm not mistaken, the chronotope of this novel is the beginning of the twentieth century and Vinnytsia. I was convinced that it was about to appear. Instead, two new books of poetry appeared. Do you not want to share the novel with readers, or are you really still working on it? You even read excerpts from it during the "Month of Author's Readings" in 2019.

— I'm still working on it. I am a permanent resident of hell for perfectionists, where the cauldrons are a little uneven, and I always want to fix them. I write, rewrite, and rewrite the text of the novel. I change something, throw something away, and add something. It's not a historical novel. It's a novel about the city on the map and the people in it, and about the fact that we've all really changed very little internally in the last hundred years.There is a chance that we, despite all the external scenery, will change just as little over the next hundred years. Therefore, our texts will not be so incomprehensible to our descendants — including politically.

I reread Martian's Lawyer this year and realized that I had never read so reliably about the experiences of Donetsk and Crimean lawyers who live in the occupied territories and dare to work with Ukrainian prisoners and political prisoners.

— You see! And this thing is completely out of context: the Roman Empire, the first Christians…

It seems that you are writing the first novel in Ukrainian literature about Vinnytsia — a great novel.

— Listen, I guess so. But I'm afraid of the definition of "great novel". I would not like to talk about a great novel.

A great novel, not in terms of expectations, but great in terms of volume. Will it be an artistic, thick book about Vinnytsia?

— Medium, I think. Now I am fighting against the book not becoming completely thick.

Is geography very important in writing for you? And you work with Vinnytsia as a palimpsest, you show what is hidden under Vinnytsia, where you can come, where you live, and try to keep these two landscapes together: the one we can only imagine and the one in which we live. And you're trying to make them both visible, right?

— This, you know, is the overlapping of photos on top of each other, when they complement each other. Vinnytsia of the beginning of the 20th century was a city with a rather expressive, characteristic, specific, multicultural face. Today's Vinnytsia is also terribly interesting and quite prosperous, but in a sense a bit flatter than then, I think. Maybe I'm recklessly making the city sacred because I didn't live during that time. Perhaps, in a hundred years, today's Vinnytsia will seem just as interesting, deep, and contextual of a city. I want to show that space breathes, that it is not faceless, and that it has a history. As banal as it sounds, stones and walls speak. In Vinnytsia, as in many places in Ukraine, there is not so much preserved bright architectural heritage, and for a person with imagination to reconstruct this lost face of Vinnytsia, he/she needs to make some effort. When you get used to interacting with space in this way, you begin to hear it speak to you. This is not a manifestation of mental deviation. It is a kind of level of interaction with space when you see and can feel the invisible. It was an incredible compliment for me, when a long time ago, back in pre-Facebook times, in Life Journal, some strangers wrote about Vinnytsia, saying that Kateryna Kalytko can see another city and show it in texts. For me, it was a holiday and the best compliment because I did not consciously work towards it then. But the city spoke against my will and my intentions. This work with the Vinnytsia space seems to me a very important gesture of gratitude to the context that has grown me. At least. And I am convinced that this place is important for the understanding of all-Ukrainian identities of history, which are worth telling. That's why I don't want to write a big, historical, pretentious novel. I want it to be just a well-told human story.

When should we expect your book?

— I really hope this year. But I'm afraid to guess. Because both the turbulence of our common reality and my individual life significantly lowers the planning horizon. But I once again set out to deal with the novel this year.

We talked a lot today about what an important moment it is — the moment of knowing ‘ours’. I want to ask, what is this environment like for you? And more specifically, what is our environment, our literary and cultural environment? How do you shape and build it for yourself? What do close people mean in this environment? Until 2020, we lived in large communities. The full community met almost once a year. There were ritual hugs, conversations, and all this forum atmosphere, which in one way or another filled and kept us. Now everything is different — a little different or very different. And we still need to build this relationship in a new way. Do you build it for yourself in any way and what does it mean to you?

— Over the last year, my most difficult personal year, I have significantly revised the concept of "my people" and thinned the environment. The environment is what you live with and struggle with all your conscious life, how much strength and intelligence you will have until you are overcome with dementia or something like that. First, you reach for something. You are a social animal; you need to join collective practices. Children and adolescents always feel lonely if they do not have friends and that environment. Then you fight, on the contrary, you object, you tell the community that you don't need anyone and that you are proud, however, alone. But there comes a moment when you understand: we are the adults, and the formation of the environment is our responsibility. And then you realize at the same time its weight, importance and fragility, but also the artificiality of many social mechanisms that kept us together in the framework of the "general meeting" you mentioned. The current pandemic time is both difficult and good in the sense that you really have a distance from the big community. You have silence and you have a cocoon in which you can better hear the voices you really need. You see people with values ​​that are close to yours or not. You see those who are defiled or deprived so much that they cease to be interesting both in literature and on a purely human level. It becomes easier to thin out the environment, including the closest, and in general, the canon of contemporaries, which you make for yourself. It is a painful process, and in the wake of this quarantine year, I can say that I am terribly, unimaginably happy because a few of those people who meant a lot in my private pantheon have remained as they were before. And they remain in my orbit. It seems to be a huge luxury nowadays.

Do you think that this Ukrainian literary environment is a good environment?

— No. We are very broken, ourselves, and we break others.

We talk a lot about the 1920s now. We like to say "our new 20s". The environment of the 1920s and the relationships in it fascinated us. We often imagined something about them, chose from fragments of memories of them that we could, and made our own mosaics — and so we saw this legendary environment. We looked at these people as those who had a short but golden age and we even envied them. Do you have a feeling that we inherited the tradition of "being together" from them? This tradition of being together is a bit painful and inevitable.

— We inherited the tradition of the need to be together. And, in fact, that is why being together is inevitable because it is a need and another way of creating a new language. It’s understanding the new reality, which can be described only together because otherwise, it turns out as a fragmentary picture and a fragmentary experience. It only works in synergy and in a certain, preferably healthy, environment. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian environment cannot be unequivocally considered as such. I have already mentioned that we are terribly broken. It all ends with some distant and close inner images, and, accordingly, either by distancing or by refusing to create in a common field. But there is still an irrational, even childish, call to come together and say something together, or to discuss what is happening to us. And great and terrible things are happening to us. With all the wonderful legacy left by Ukrainian literature, we still do not have enough words to describe what is happening to us now. And we try: we get together, and we try to pick up those words.

Translated from Ukrainian by Kateryna Kazimirova

Short profile

Kateryna Kalytko is a writer and translator. Winner of the "LitAccent of the Year" award, winner of the "BBC Book of the Year" awards, METAPHORA, Joseph Konrad-Kozheniewski Prize, and others. In 2019 she was awarded the independent Women in Arts award. Researches and translates contemporary literature from Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Olena Huseynova is a poet, journalist, radio host. Winner of the Smoloskip prizes and the All-Ukrainian Literary Prize named after Vasily Symonenko.