Vasyl Makhno
by Kateryna Kazimirova
Short profile

Vasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, prose writer, essayist, and translator. He is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, most recently, One Sail House (2021). He has also published a book of short stories, The House in Baiting Hollow (2015); a novel, The Eternal Calendar (2019); and four books of essays: The Gertrude Stein Memorial Cultural and Recreation Park (2006), Horn of Plenty (2011), Suburbs and Borderland (2019), and Biking along the Ocean (2020). Makhno’s works have been widely translated into many languages; his books have been published in Germany, Israel, Poland, Romania, Serbia, and the United States. Two other poetry collections, Thread and Other New York Poems (2009) and Winter Letters (2011), have been published in English translation. He is the recipient of the Kovaliv Fund Prize (2008); Serbia’s International Povele Morave Prize in Poetry (2013); the BBC Book of the Year Award (2015); and the Ukrainian-Jewish Literary “Encounter” Prize (2020). Makhno currently lives with his family in New York City.

It is a pleasure to welcome you to Washington. Don't you have the feeling that there is no more trans-Atlantic distance between America and Ukraine?

– Your observation is interesting. It seems to me that Ukraine has actually spread all over the world. I see it both in Europe and in New York. Because of our tragedy, the world began to look at Ukraine differently. I think that even after the Orange Revolution, even after the Revolution of Dignity, there was still no such attention. But this war and the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people brought Ukraine closer to the West and civilization. And I have a feeling that the Ukrainian language is becoming international. Firstly, it is heard everywhere. Secondly, there is increased attention to our culture and art. And thirdly, the world finally realized that Ukrainian culture, history, and language are completely different from Russia’s. And today we see these impetuses not only at the frontlines, where real battles are taking place, but these changes are in the field of culture. In my opinion, Ukraine holds this bar very well, and we are gradually conquering the world. How it will be in the future, we do not know, but the fact that we have opened the door is a statement of fact.

– You have been living in the States for 20 years, and at the same time you remain extremely connected to Ukraine and are primarily a Ukrainian poet. This allows you to have a unique perspective – at once both near and far to both centers of your life – Ukraine and New York. I assume you can better see some processes and changes in the perception of us, Ukrainians. What is so new that is happening now that hasn't happened before? Why are we so supported?

– First of all, we must realize that the world has given us a loan. Not just financial but civilizational. We are gradually mastering it. We make presentations, publish books, bring symphony orchestras – and yes, currently, there is increased attention to Ukraine and its history. What country is this? What kind of people are these and why do they act and think the way they do?

But there is also a situation inside the country. Everything is not so encouraging here, in my opinion. First, I generally want to talk about war in the paradigm of culture. Culture, which forms a nation, a personality; which contributes to self-identification. And here we turn to the Ukrainian language. We see a rather diffuse situation. On the one hand, we understand that those who came to us as invaders to fight against us are Russian language speakers, but we also have a lot of Russian speakers. And here a kind of déjà vu arises. It arises when our Russian-speaking refugees find themselves in Western countries, and often the representatives of these countries cannot identify them – who are they? These are very difficult questions.

In my essay "Change in Order to Survive", I tried to think a little about the philosophy of the future State, its construction, and on which pillars it should stand. Of course, the biggest task now is to win – to win back our territories. But there will continue to be difficult challenges for the Ukrainian State. In this cultural paradigm, we must completely change. But it won't happen in a year, it won't happen in two, it's a whole process. For this, there must be a reasonable policy, a transparent political system, and an understanding of one thing: culture, language, and literature are those marks of identity without which no country and no nation can exist. Yes, we have different minorities. Yes, we should provide them with the conditions to develop, but it should be in the context of Ukrainianness.

The future of the development of Ukrainian culture in monolingualism: it seems that even those of us, from whom we least expected, have decided on this. But how do you see whether the American audience – intellectual, academic above all – perceives the fact that we are heading towards monolingualism? Here I mean precisely the fact of giving up Russian. I ask because at events, especially literary ones, I meet frank surprise and discussion of the feasibility of such a refusal. It is as if we limit ourselves to such a choice, not realizing the fact that for the first time in history, language has become an excuse in war, and used against us.

– Yes, for us it is a matter of survival. But I don't think everyone in the West and here in America clearly understands this. They simply cannot understand these circumstances. Secondly, there was a powerful propaganda of Russian culture here, starting in the 20s of the 20th century. Therefore, I do not think that something can quickly change in the attitude of even a Western intellectual. We see similar situations not only in America, but also in Germany and France, where people are also fascinated by the great Russian culture, but do not know Ukrainian culture. Go to any bookstore and ask for Shevchenko translated adequately, and you won't get it. But you will get Pushkin, and even in several translations. But it is important to me that today the American political community – generally, not all of them – understands us. Because politicians set the tone. I think the situation with studying Russian culture and literature in universities is changing. The process has begun. And how it will go further depends a lot on us.

Now there is a new wave of temporary or permanent resettlement of Ukrainians. I know that you do not consider yourself a representative of the diaspora or a poet of the diaspora. Why? Is this due to a certain connotation of the term, or is it generally outdated and needs to be replaced? What do you call Ukrainians who live abroad, but remain connected to Ukraine and involved in its cultural context and the volunteer movement?

– There is a dictionary meaning of this term. Many people in the English-speaking world use this word “diaspora.” Since I know the connotation of this word for Ukrainians living in Ukraine, that is why I say that I do not accept this definition. But there is one more thing that Ukraine did not accept, but must accept. After 1988 or so, when the communist Poland changed to an independent one, the Poles had the idea that the Polish diaspora no longer existed in the cultural sense. That is, every artist who lives elsewhere belongs to Polish culture, and with that, the issue is closed. This did not happen in Ukraine. But the actual war and this support for Ukrainians abroad, who live in different parts of the world, shows that Ukraine also needs to open its eyes wide and understand this blood connection. Yes, you can live in another country, but stay with Ukraine. Especially today, when millions of Ukrainian refugees have left, now those people who looked at all this through rose-colored glasses or with outright negativism, have seen what life in the West is like – how to live here, how to survive. I think that when Ukrainian culture acquires elements of another culture through the work of some writer or musician, it only enriches the culture.

The concept of diaspora for Ukraine is a "us and them" paradigm. And at this level, we will build a relationship? I think this is completely wrong. Firstly, it is not timely; it is too late. And secondly, I think that this diversity of Ukrainian society on a global scale is only beneficial. Other countries use it more or less. We understand that during the 20th century, Ukrainians left in several waves: some voluntarily, others as a result of war, and now also as a result of war. And this is a traumatic situation for every person who left, regardless of when one left and why. Because leaving, moving, is already a radical change in your life. This experience, unfortunately, is not perceived in Ukraine as traumatic, and it is also one of the consequences of sovietism. Because it was this which laid several paradigms: on the one hand, to leave is equal to being a traitor; on the other hand, it means you are no longer ours; and finally, it’s as if you received an award and happiness has eluded you. I think that such societies, which are self-sufficient, do not even care whether a German lives in Argentina or in the United States; he/she will come back later. And on the other hand, for a writer or an artist, not having a sense of borders is very important. Now, of course, with globalization, everything has changed, but for my generation it was a leap over a barrier because we lived in a closed world, and for us abroad it was something so extraordinary. 

Yes, and then our 20-euro Wizzair tickets…

– In fact! That is, all these transformations take place. And they pass in Ukrainian society on the one hand quite quickly, and on the other – not painlessly.

We talked about what an artist acquires if the world is open and there are no borders for him/her. And what does one lose when he/she is away from the homeland?

– Everything has pros and cons. I wrote a lot about it in my essays. The Orange Revolution took place, then the Revolution of Dignity, the war began – and I do not live this together with my country. I watch it from the sidelines. And even when I go, it's still not a daily living, you still don't feel what your fellow citizens feel. The second point is the feeling of language change. I notice it a lot. I'm coming, and some new words have already appeared – especially the slang of the younger generation. This indicates a living, developing language.

These losses are internal. Yes, I have seen many countries. I have attended many international literary festivals. But when I go to Ukraine, every detail is precious to me. This is not sentimentality, I am far from a sentimental person, but I understand that my language and land are made of these details. When I go even for a month, I realize that I touch these details only temporarily.

The question of loss is also a question of home. I always ask myself the question: where is my home? Sometimes I think it is on the soles of my shoes or in a suitcase. And this feeling constantly haunts you. You cannot get away from it because you understand that it is impossible to live in two countries.

This is a system of losses. And when you weigh these scales, or when these thoughts pass through you, they create this moment of writing. And you think that this experience of yours will be important for literature and the reader. Because every person on your path is a teacher, every book is a teacher.

Is writing your home?

– Absolutely.

Did this system of losses determine the lyrical hero of your new cycle of war poems – Du Fu? You call him a poet of loss in your essay.

– In my first series about the war, I was quite blunt about certain things (by the way, we had a play at the Soho PlayHouse on November 6th). And then I thought that I didn’t want to exploit the theme of war anymore. Because I saw a lot of poetic production appearing and how some make a name for themselves with it. And secondly, I was a little burned out emotionally. On February 24th, I wrote the first poem about the war.

As my eyes wandered through my bookcases, I saw Du Fu's collection. And when I was driving here, I took it, a collection of Antonych and Svidzinsky. I remembered this Tang era, I remembered Du Fu and his biography. I understood in which era he lived – in the era of constant wars, and all the time he was forced to lose his home and constantly leave inhabited places. It is very nice that you noticed this and understood this message. The metaphor of ancient Chinese history made me want to do this cycle because I didn't want to be too direct anymore. I wanted to do it in such a disguised form, but so that the attentive reader could read and understand what it is all about. The history of mankind is the history of wars, the history of losses and sacrifices. The alternation of war and peace is a constant amplitude of our civilization.

This is no longer poetry-reaction, but poetry-comprehension. That is, the time has come to understand what is happening to us through the means of art? Does emotional state dictate what form or even genre you choose when you write now?

– I am currently working on a new book of poems, a collection of short stories, and a novel. This is what I am trying to combine. Sometimes I want to write poems, other times I want to sit down and finish a story, and sometimes I look into a novel. That is, I have already written about 50,000 words of the novel, and I believe that it is only half. But the war still stopped me. I write constantly, including essays. I have now submitted a collection of recent essays called "From Vowels and Consonants" to the Yakaboo publishing house, which should be published in March 2023.

But it happens that I don't write for months. And this is also a normal state because at this time you are accumulating something. Between writing and not writing are also interesting oscillations for every writer. Everyone goes through it differently. But I try to keep myself in good shape. If I'm not writing fiction, I try to write essays.

Yes, someone temporarily stopped writing on February 24th, but on this day you wrote the first poem for the future war cycle. Has the war changed your writing routine? After all, a lot of unplanned and uncontrolled emotional stimuli with the news fly into our information field.

– I have a daily ritual – I go on the Internet and read everything that happened in Ukraine during the day. And then, depending on what happened, there is a certain mood. There are no special rituals, I just try to understand the time in which we live and why this happened. Sometimes I think we experience this war, in a sense, as guilt – ours or the nation's guilt for many things. Because we didn't talk about many things, didn't think about them, and turned a blind eye to many things. They thought: "Ah, somehow things will go on without me." And it turns out that this is not the case. You have to be responsible for everything. It turns out that even the sand moved by the wind is already a change. And what can we say about changes on the scale of the country or on the scale of national life.

You write "a poem is a coat you throw on", or "but how can one live with a poem that is a witness?". Is the poem now a witness? What is poetry now and what is its fundamental function?

– It is unchanged. It remains independent of time, political situations and social movements. Poetry is the spirit of a nation. It sounds pathetic, but that's how it is. Of course, not all people perceive it that way. For many, it is complicated, sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes not clear at all – why waste time on it? People in different countries live their daily lives. Among them are people who are interested in literature and those who are not. There are people who have a taste for words, and people who do not. I think that today the best examples of Ukrainian poetry capture the times of change because our country changes, we change, our thinking changes, and our priorities change. Poetry captures this. Poetry captures the obvious, but also the invisible, which is even more important to me. Ukrainian poetry is currently doing this better than prose. After all, it still takes time to understand everything in prose. I am very suspicious of the things that are appearing now about both the war and Bucha. As a rule, these are not very high-quality works written quickly. There are other things such as, for example, documentary prose or diaries. But deep things currently relate to poetry in one way or another, no matter how it is treated, no matter how many readers or supporters it has.

We have a perfect example – Taras Shevchenko. Suddenly, from a textbook, which is sometimes boring for school children, he again became our leading poet. As school children grow older, they begin to discover these texts, and these texts sound so modern, so universal, and even magical. So there is something so timeless in his lines that resonates in every heart: both in the person who sells at the market, and in the intellectual, and in a student. And this name – Shevchenko – unites everyone. This is a phenomenon that, by the way, other European countries do not have. I recently met with some Germans and asked if Goethe was their national poet. They don't even think like that.

We even have poets on the money. Mostly.

– In general, this is characteristic of the Slavic peoples. Or for peoples who have either jumped onto, or are just jumping onto the civilization train, which has been chugging along for a long time. Western culture is imbued with such healthy cynicism. Well, Goethe, well, Walt Whitman, and what?

Poetry is different. And you said you're cautious about what's being produced now. But popular poetry is appearing and developing, which may not be highly artistic, but it is gaining thousands of reposts and tens of thousands of likes on social networks. Is this a good sign for Ukrainian literature?

– Of course, such poetry has the right to exist. This is a back door for literature in general because literature that develops an aesthetic that has many levels and contexts requires a trained reader. And the reader today, and I observe this not only in Ukraine, but also in the States, wants simplified, understandable literature. This is a universal trend. The only thing is that I would not put these things in one row. There is a drawer for pop, and it must be so, and the other thing is for those who love high literature. Will they overlap? No. Secondly, there is already a moment of choice here, and tastes are not disputed. I think that the popular literature that appears today serves its function. And that's not a bad thing.

About images in your poetry, in particular in the collection Paper Bridge. Fish, and it’s absolutely clear, are our universal image of the artistic word in Ukrainian literature; foxes are a legacy of the literary tradition, a tribute to Antonych; but how and where did blackbirds appear later? "I’d borrow a blackbird’s throat and play the lute," "and you say I’m a blackbird with a clear throat." Now the voice and song of the thrush is the voice of your lyrical hero?

Blackbirds have already appeared here in America. I haven't seen them in Ukraine, but there are many of them here. They sometimes fly to my courtyard, peck at the grass, and fly in flocks. I decided to attract them to poetic texts. In the spring, they sing very beautifully. There are no nightingales here.

You started working on this book even before the pandemic. How did you choose which works would be included in the collection of translations?

– Olena [Jennings – Craft.] began to translate my poems, which I sent her. But she chose which ones. If she felt like it, she translated it. These poems are from the book Paper Bridge, One Sail House and some new ones. All these poems were united under a single name, which everyone liked the most. I completely relied on Olena and her taste. She knows better the conventional American audience and which translation of which poem would be better suited for a book. There are certain cultural barriers, there is something untranslatable and we have to orient ourselves in which country the book is published and for which audience.

The place affects the poet, but the creative person also affects the place where he/she lives and works. You also wrote that it is important for you to master the space in which you live. How can you influence New York with your Ukrainian context?

– Of course, first of all, these are translations. Also they’re live readings – I've done a lot of those. I feel such ambivalence about it. This must be done through the printing of books and through publicity in American literary circles. This is important for every author. We live in a world dominated by four languages – English, German, French and Spanish.

How can a Ukrainian writer become the author of a bestseller in the USA? After all, there are well-known examples when translated literature became a bestseller – Elena Ferrante, Olga Tokarchuk. Or can it be only in the niche of migrant literature, which exists as a separate type in the United States? These are stories about how the character, after going through a series of trials, found his/her freedom and realized his/her dream in the USA.

– In a sense, yes, these are the kinds of stories that sell well. In particular, writers from the Spanish-speaking world – Puerto Rico or Mexico. I don't know how bestsellers are made. It's a mystery to me. I understand the tastes of the American public. Ukrainian and American readers are in slightly different categories. The American reader is a product of healthy cynicism. They have already read everything, seen everything, nothing will move them. For Ukrainians, there are many things that were not and are still not in Ukrainian literature. That is why I see how Ukrainian publishing houses massively print translated literature from Europe and America.

Which genre, for example?

– Fiction. The book market is 60% filled with translated prose. And there are different varieties, both fiction and biographies. Perhaps another model of compensation – they translate what is not in Ukrainian literature. And on the other hand, it’s devaluation – again, we look at what we already have, and sometimes we don't notice what we ourselves have. And if we don't notice, then the question arises – why don't we have it? And maybe we shouldn't have it. We have a different mentality and background. Why can't we be who we are? Earlier, as I noticed, young people wanted to be more with Western trends, and now something else is breaking through. It is the same songs of Dakha Brakha, for example. It turns out that the Ukrainian language can be modernly sung, and even old Ukrainian songs sound new. And it turns out that they can be interesting for the West, and there is an audience for it.

In your essay, you wrote that war would return words to their true essence. And that this will apply not only to Ukrainian, but also world literature. Has this return process already started?

– The real essence is the authenticity of literature, the authenticity of poetry. The authenticity of feelings, beliefs, and the authenticity of the State. If we talk about literature, for me the word is always sacred. The word is not simply in the sense of naming something, but the word as a whole complex – it will acquire a different weight after the war. This does not mean that we will now write only about the war. This means that people, in particular Ukrainians, should think about very important things. And this can be done by a word, by a verbal action. Verbal action is writing. So that writing forms a person, one’s identification, so that it gives, on the one hand, freedom of thought, and on the other hand, a sense of time that is not one-dimensional but three-dimensional: past, present, and future.

Short profile

Vasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, prose writer, essayist, and translator. He is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, most recently, One Sail House (2021). He has also published a book of short stories, The House in Baiting Hollow (2015); a novel, The Eternal Calendar (2019); and four books of essays: The Gertrude Stein Memorial Cultural and Recreation Park (2006), Horn of Plenty (2011), Suburbs and Borderland (2019), and Biking along the Ocean (2020). Makhno’s works have been widely translated into many languages; his books have been published in Germany, Israel, Poland, Romania, Serbia, and the United States. Two other poetry collections, Thread and Other New York Poems (2009) and Winter Letters (2011), have been published in English translation. He is the recipient of the Kovaliv Fund Prize (2008); Serbia’s International Povele Morave Prize in Poetry (2013); the BBC Book of the Year Award (2015); and the Ukrainian-Jewish Literary “Encounter” Prize (2020). Makhno currently lives with his family in New York City.