Ukrainian prose writer, poet, culturologist, author of the conceptual magazine project "Thursday". "Stanislav phenomenon" representative.
“The Hottest Ukrainian Artist 2021”, a 2021 Shevchenko Prize nominee in literature, writer, musician and painter Iurii Izdryk celebrates his 60th birthday this year. For quite a long time already, he has been living in solitude in Kalush near Ivano-Frankivsk. At the same time, he has been keeping top positions in the Ukrainian poetry charts according to poetry books’ circulation figures.
In 2020, in collaboration with Nastia Tielikova, a Kyiv photographer, Izdryk presented Naked One project – the exhibition of a series of his nude portraits and the poetry book with the strict “58+” mark on the cover (the author’s age at that time). On the eve of his 60th anniversary and after another internet ‘fight’ because of the naked body demonstration, we are having this talk with Iurii Izdryk about honesty, its limits and limitations.
Your latest published book Naked One – whether a deliberate act or not – was considered by the public as the act of honesty on the verge of exhibitionism. The range of reactions provoked by this project proves its ‘challenging’ nature. This book is very frank, and I mean not only photos. But before we start discussing the book, tell me if honesty is a virtue for you?
Demonstration of naked body has always been bringing out ambiguous emotions in people. That’s why this reaction was quite normal.
No, honesty is not a virtue to my mind. It may only be explained apophatically, like our tries to explain the essence of God. Even ignoring the fact that lie is the basis of communication, that the society – as we know it – would stop existing without it, your attempts to determine the honesty would be similar to the attempts to find your true self. It’s elusive. You get mired in endless self-exploration by trying to be honest with yourself. It’s a perfect circle with no way out.
It’s good that now we live in the so-called post-truth era (it’s no good in fact, as we have always been living under these conditions but never realized it) – which is recognized now. Just imagine: firms that do fact-checking for news aggregators do not mark a fact as “true/false”; pieces of information are rather distributed between 4 possible categories: 1) most likely truth, 2) most likely lie, 3) truth taken out of context, 4) half-truth. We live in the era when fact-checking has become impossible.
As a consumer, I mostly won't be able to find a proof (which was still possible in the 1990s) – in 99%, my search would end up with getting a looped link (as it would with my attempts to determine honesty). In the end, there are always two sources, and this has long been a recognized phenomenon. So, the short answer is that truth does not exist. Although, it is possible to be honest.
In this meaning, truth as a certain kind of virtue – illusive, partial, taken out of context – does function in the society. Sincerity to a certain level (which I may have surpassed), as well as no plotting, intrigue or machination is welcomed. But without cheating, we wouldn’t be able to either do business or maintain our social interactions. Eventually, we couldn’t have internal monologues full of self-deception and all sorts of illusions.
Is literature a tool for deception?
No. For me, literature is autopsychotherapy – at least, when it goes about prose. I am as sincere and frank as possible in it. Sometimes, as in Wozzeck, to the point that people recognize themselves in parodies there. Replaying the situations faced, attempting to name your emotions – this is the act of psychotherapy of writing. Essentially, this is the vain Freudianism. The present pop psychotherapy is largely based on the psychoanalysis’ invention of the need to establish a connection between words and emotions. Properly named emotion ceases to torment or control you.
When there’s a constant inflammation in your brain that interferes into other networks’ routine, you can get rid of it by switching on certain word related mental operations. The way it happens is completely unknown, but it works. The point is to name your emotions correctly – which means to be honest with yourself. Apparently, a clear naming and identification of the sources of these emotions is rather rare, it only happens in the case of ideal therapy; but any naming that brings relief is correct.
In most cases, people feel the healing effect while just talking to someone they do not know, to a stranger, and in the process of speaking very often (unwittingly) you just speak it out. The same happens while writing. Of course, you also give free rein to imagination. You connect to your thoughts: you are a modern writer, a postmodern author, you can use some formal techniques; but the main text body just ‘comes out’ of you. It is important to have professional skills, to know as many words as possible, in order to write down this flow without doing much thinking. Another skill is to get into this flow. But as soon as you are immersed into this state – we know how it just ‘pours out’ of a person.
If so, is literature an answer to “Who am I?”
It’s very likely.
Ultimately, has this book become any kind of answer?
Everyone is searching for an answer to “Who am I” question for a lifetime. There’s no permanent ‘me’, every day a new ‘self’ wakes up. The problem of a continuous identity is obvious. Getting back into the past, I do not recognize a lot of my ‘selves’ – moreover, I wouldn’t want to deal with most of them. Up to the age of 48, I’d been an a**hole and an alcoholic, I had hardly known myself. Only after the 50th birthday, I’d quitted alcohol, started getting acquainted and engaged with myself, and learnt a lot about human nature in general.
On one hand, I didn’t mean to find any special ‘self’ in this book. On the other hand, I’m glad that project has been realized because I wouldn’t dare to do it now.
In 2013 my first poetry book U was published. Since that time, at least one book has been published annually. At presentations, I try to emphasize (not very successfully, though) that this is no high-level poetry. The web publicity it has gained is just comparable with its quality. Out of 2000-3000 poems I’ve composed, I’d hardly find a hundred I wouldn’t feel ashamed of. Soon "the best" collection should be published – we shall see. There are cases of good rhetoric, but… the poetic imagery is mediocre, mostly cross-rhymes are used, rhymes are poor. This is Coelho in poetry – the poetry for those who do not expect any particular sophistication. Even the hundred of my best poems (according to my intuitive feeling, because literature is not a sport) is not from the space where Kalytko, Zhadan, Babkin and many others, whom I consider poets, live.
Therefore, I make no scene to the absence of reviews of this book and no poetry award nominations. This poetry lives online. I did not expect any literary success of it. When I became a Facebook user and saw its format, I began writing without punctuation and capital letters – it’s been done consciously, to for the graphic simplification. My criterion for a good poem for Facebook is a three-stanza poem; a four-stanza is already a bit of a bust, and if longer it is really too much, because like any other post, a poem has three seconds to capture attention. This determines the format of the web poetry.
Each time creating a new book, I had to solve the problem of its construction. Book’s architecture and structure have a big influence on its perception. Even the same texts compiled in the same order but printed on a different paper, using a different font, format and design can make a quite different effect. One collection may be fine, the other one – just very poor. My single intention is to create an artefact – to express myself not through mediocre poetry but through ‘engineering’ interference into reading process.
The idea of creating a nude photoset has also been growing for a long time. The previous one was situational, published in LiveJournal 8 years ago. Nevertheless, it also caused scrap; though, resulted into an interview with Natalia Vlashchenko in Public People magazine, where not only the poems were published but also the set of frank photos by Rostyk Shpuk.
I am quite narcissistically in love with myself, especially after I turned 50. "Zolotyi Lifon" is an additional pleasing proof that someone else has also understood this love. And since after fifty you can show the whole range of your ‘awesomeness’ to just a few women in real life, I decided to make it a national treasure (laughs).
Habitually, I do not tend to bring my ideas to life at a time, let alone those ungodly ones. I’m an honored citizen of the town of Kalush, a Silver Cross of Merit Chevalier of Poland, a Chornobyl disaster liquidator – I have no good reason to publicly take off my underwear. However, when I saw Nastia Tielikova’s photo artworks, the old idea of a nude photoshoot has revived. I liked the way Nastia worked with light; I was able to imagine my body in her camera, and realized that I could easily undress and feel free at her presence.
The idea of combining candid poems with the frank pictures of the body that wrote them seemed quite reasonable. As far as was taking risks anyway, I got very excited about the opportunity to show f*ck to all the glorious Ukrainian culture, which I’ve been fighting for during 30 years by printing Chetver [magazine - ed] and discovering new progressive talents, but it’s still there – enlightenment, populism, ethnography, and sacred cherry dumplings. And I’ve shown. Completely unambiguously. Now I feel better.
Were you impressed by what you’ve seen in those photos? Has your self-perception received any update?
Well, no. I knew the camera loved me; I knew I liked myself in photos – and I didn't like in videos. Some shots I would have directed differently purely from a staging point of view. The shooting was taking place at the time of the quarantine surge in cosplays’ popularity, I also was being very interested in classic nude photography, though unsystematically. It all happened impulsively; I, as a model, first of all, wanted to play that game, to feel the excitement. I should feel comfortable and free – then the body acts naturally, the way it is. It's like going onstage: a sort of stage animal switches on inside my personality and talks to the women in the auditorium. It's not me talking to them.
I try to understand if you had any desire to see yourself from aside (the reason that women often have for such experiments)? Before that, you talked a lot about accepting age, self-reconciliation, so this book looks to me like the next stage of this acceptance, including physical.
I wanted a good photographer to take pictures of my body. And I’ve got that. I’m quite pleased to have that kind of a photo album as a good memory. Probably, it was the result of problematic recognition of my age of 58. Probably, it was important at that time. But the main point is that I’ve created a successful project. Just the poetry, without those pictures, could simply be another collection by Izdryk.
But this book contains an extraordinary poetic cycle “verlibr, bro” – truly honest and I’d say heart-baring. If compared to your other poems, even those collected in this book, the cycle is in a completely different world. It seems that you are finally talking with yourself in it, and not with all the women you have been communicating for the last 8 years by means of poetry.
Yes, it’s extremely sincere. To my mind, I was appropriate to use just that kind of visuals for it. And it contains physical drama as well. Once, it’s been aptly said that all my writings are the way of talking to women. In "verlibr, bro" the She is also present – so there was no other way out but to create a "bro" for a real-man talk with your other ‘self’ at a locker room, and to tell him something in a highly artistic manner.
In addition to this extraordinary experience of a nude photo album instead of a poetry collection, recently you also have been featured in the full-meter movie based on a Artem Czech book Who Are You?; there, you also play a rather honest role. What was that experience like for you? Would you have taken those risks if it hadn’t been Ira Tsilyk, whom you knew and loved?
Apparently, I would have gone for it, because in my life I play the game "And where have you not been yet, Iurania?". But for me, a director and a story would have been important, since I have some experience in filming. And Ira's offer I would have accepted anyway. We’ve agreed on that since our joint tour. I didn't even read the script completely.
What are your thoughts about the character you’ve played?
Can you imagine any common sentiments a former GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate) colonel and a grandson of a repressed anti-Soviet Catholic priest may have? It’s only alcoholism. Since I knew it all very well, I was not afraid of filming at 5 am in Kyiv, when I had to lie drunk at a fountain, pigeons walking around me, and the sun just rising over the right-bank Khrushchyovkas.
At the beginning, I was trying to play ‘an actor’. Since I’ve been a cinematography lover for a long time, I know that ‘Stanislavskiy’ is of no need there. Nonetheless: here we go with a quarrel scene, now you have to start shouting, you’re getting ready to be angry as soon as they say “…and action!”. This is bullsh*t. I had a chance to witness the professional actors’ work: the way they find reasons for their moves, or the way the tune in those ‘fake’ quarrels. In a second my partner Nastia Karpenko is turned up – she is no longer my partner – she is an unknown angry lady screaming at me. And naturally I start shrieking at her too.
I also enjoyed observing Ira and Artem – how they’ve been filming it together, discussing the footage – it’s been a real pleasure to see them in the creative flow. For me, it was a guarantee of the meaningfulness of everything that was happening. Not to mention the whole phenomenal and friendly team, a very encouraging atmosphere on the location – it is rare to our culture. So, the remoteness of my character was compensated by that kind of perks.
Would you like to shoot your movie?
I doubt I could direct a shooting process, though I could be able to see an image in my head, I suspect. Perhaps, it could be just a porn-mockumentary. (laughs)
I’m more into recording an album before turning 60. There’re 14 trusted tracks. It would be a pity to not record them.
Do you consider yourself as the evergreens’ author, by the way? Your texts have turned into folklore long time ago.
Oh, men… Had I been born somewhere, say, in America where they have the efficient royalty system, or had I been a Soviet song texts writer so that I could receive royalty from each artist (over a hundred of them already) who uses my texts, I would have lived a prosperous life. However, under the conditions we have here, it’s not profitable to hire an agent to knock out royalty fees; even the attempts of our musicians to apply for help to copyright agencies are not very successful so far. So, I decided to not give a damn. If it’s so popular, let it belong to populus.
I’m freaking out a lot though when I’m asked to sign some documents permitting to use my texts at no charge. I tell them, “You may take my poems – I give you my word.” “No, we cannot,” they reply. “Fine, that’s your problem then,” I continue, “I give you my texts as a present – but I won’t sign any paper to renounce my texts in favor of your creative powers.”
Getting back to the game of your life, where have you not been yet, Izdryk?
Here’s my unexpected answer. As often mentioned, the new pandemic reality has destroyed my latest kind of happy life. The necessity to start something new is obvious. My habitual form of socialization – writing verses to Facebook, getting likes, attending festivals from time to time – is no longer practical.
What have I been doing while writing those verses? Apart from trading emotions – I’ve been doing it rather sincerely; I mean I wasn’t constructing them but lived them through, so I’m happy if they have been transmitted to someone – I’ve been constructing my future. While prose was rather a psychotherapy, a tool for understanding the past; poetry (at least, in my case) was a key to understanding my future.
Just now, at the beginning of 2022, the world I’ve been constructing started showing up, piece by piece. It occurred to me that living in the created future might be the most interesting experience (more interesting than music or porn) – not living in your present, but in the future I’ve written myself. So, I will be doing it now. This answer also relates to the question of honesty.
Meaning, you want to ‘leave the matrix’? (laughs)
I don’t see a different way. Now, I get less and less motivated to create something mass-oriented. Even my narcissistic nature can’t make me either write prose or create podcasts or record my rap-trap tracks. I know what I will be busy with during the next two years. I’ve put down all my visions.
Translated by Natalia Letik
Ukrainian prose writer, poet, culturologist, author of the conceptual magazine project "Thursday". "Stanislav phenomenon" representative.