Yuriy Tarnawsky
by Oleksandr Mymruk
Short profile

Yuriy Tarnawsky is a Ukrainian and American writer, translator, and cybernetic linguist; he writes his works in Ukrainian and English. Tarnawsky is one of the founders of the avant-garde Ukrainian union of diaspora writers "New York Group" (NYG), and a member of the American group of innovative writers FC2. Co-founder and co-editor of the Ukrainian émigré literary magazine "New Poems" (1959–1972). Tarnawsky is one of the leading Modernists in Ukrainian literature. He lives near New York.

When we planned to have this conversation over a year ago, the world around us was completely different, although there was a sense of impending major changes in the air. The world before 2022 was dominated by the pandemic, people wearing masks, discussions about climate, and plans for the next year... And then, on the 24th of February, everything changed, and I think the questions the writers answer now are very different from those before. So, what can we say about Ukrainian writers?  Could you tell me,Yuriy, what you are currently being asked in interviews? Have literary questions taken a back seat?

– I think that since then, I have had two interviews. One of them was a conversation with George Salis. He has a website called The Collidescope, and we talked about literature there, and then he asked me what I would say to Putin if we met. I replied that I wouldn’t say anything to him but would simply throw myself at him, tackle him, tie him up, and take him to Nuremberg, and that I would probably be invited to witness his hanging there. It's impossible to talk to Putin. He doesn't seem to engage in thoughtful consideration; instead, he reacts impulsively based on his reptilian brain.

Every day I check to see what's happening in Ukraine. At first, I was afraid, and thought that the war would be over for us very soon, but then euphoria set in and I began to feel that we would win. But now I have a feeling that it might turn into a long, drawn-out stalemate which would be very bad for Ukraine. It's better for Russia – they have vast resources. We can see now that the imposed sanctions are not working as well as expected. So, I'm quite concerned about the situation. People often say that a Ukrainian counteroffensive will start soon and the war will end, but I'm not optimistic about it, although I am convinced that in the end, we will win. However, I think it will be a very bloody and costly war.

If the Russians can indeed continue for a long time.

– By the way, I have stopped calling them Russians. For me, they are Muscovites. Until the beginning of the 18th century, they referred to themselves as the “Muscovite State.” Then Peter the Great Son of a Bitch, renamed it Russia, and it was a huge blow to Ukraine. They appropriated our vast culture and history and made them their own.  We must put an end to this right away.

Have you heard about the petition that has gathered over 20,000 signatures calling for the official renaming of Russia to Muscovy? It has already been submitted to the president for consideration.

– I saw that just yesterday. It's interesting to think if I had anything to do with it because a video recently appeared online where I argue that Russia is not Russia but "Muscovy." Perhaps it influenced someone's opinion. I would be very glad if it did.

You have never been associated with the image of a poet who writes so-called civic poetry, and there are not many such texts in your work. However, during 2022, I came across fragments from your poems "Ukraine," "Russia," and Urana. Your readers especially like to mention your image of Ukraine as a "chewed-up heart." But you didn't stop there and have recently written a poem called " It is the rotting of the corpse," which deals with the war. You read it in front of an American audience. How did they react?

– I initially wrote this poem in English and have subsequently translated it into Ukrainian, and it came out in the Ukrajina Moloda, as "Ce hnyje trup." (Ukrainian version) It was written specifically for City of Asylum Pittsburgh [a nonprofit organization, that helps writers exiled from their countries, offering them free housing, medical services, and other assistance in the United States - ed.]. The organization operates in several cities in addition to Pittsburgh. When invited to perform, I initially thought of reading something from Urana, but I felt the need to write something new, and this is what came out. The poem was conceived as an op-ed piece, like a letter to the editor of a newspaper (I was thinking in particular of The New York Times).  It was recently published in the original in Kyiv Post.

As to the reaction, it was very positive. I got a standing ovation. Afterwards, some people came up to me and expressed their praise. I've heard from other Americans that this poem resonated with them.

When it was published in the Ukrajina Moloda, Yuriy Kovaliv, the poet and literary critic, posted a link to it on Facebook, and there were some of the Ukrainian readers who didn't like it. (I remember a comment from some female reader, saying, "But I didn't like it!"). How can you talk about liking or disliking an op-ed piece which lays out the facts? This is a work intended to draw attention to what is happening, not to please someone’s esthetic sensibilities.  I don't live in Ukraine, and I don't see what's happening there, but I write about what I know from the media and so I convey it in the form I receive it in. I feel that the poem accomplishes what it sets out to do – to evoke a boundless, justified hatred for Russia. So, I'm surprised by Ukrainian readers' reactions.  It appears that foreigners react to it more properly.

I think I ought to mention at this point that the poem is written in Whitmanesque poetics, in that it is structured on anaphora, in other words, repetition of the initial phrase, something Whitman often employed, as for instance, in the famous ”I Hear America Singing.” I did this deliberately, wanting to point out by this my dual indebtedness—that to my Ukrainian heritage and to my American citizenship.  This fact, by the way, was noticed by some non–Ukrainians who have heard me read the piece, but not by Ukrainians. In October of 2022, for instance, I read the poem in Madrid, in the magnificent Madrid Ateneo building, interspersed with a Spanish–language translation by Alain Arias–Misson, and was gratified to hear that some in the audience had picked it up.

I worked on Urana for about a year and a half or two. It was an incredibly painful task. The piece is not just a poem – it's a book of about 150 pages long. I worked on it right after Chornobyl, when I realized for the first time that Ukraine was disappearing, that it could soon cease to exist, and so I wrote in a paroxysm of despair. Some people then also told me that they didn't like the poem.  My poetry has always been based on metaphors, and in this poem, just as in "It is the rotting of the corpse," I rely more on rhetorical devices, so they sound different but nevertheless I think they are effective in the way they are intended to be.

I wrote the poem "Ukraine" in 1965, after returning from Spain. When you look at the map, the shape of Ukraine is very similar to a traditionally depicted heart which has been chewed up, so I used this metaphor in the poem. And "Russia" was written in 1970 as a reaction to the suppression of the "Prague Spring," when Soviet planes landed at Prague airport one morning. These poems are over 50 years old, but for me, they are just as relevant today.

I would like to write something personal about this war, but I can't. I'm not there, and I can only experience it through the news I hear. That's why "It is the rotting of the corpse" turned out the way it did.

There is currently a real explosion of civic and military poetry in Ukraine. Poets, as always, are the first among all artists to react to current events. There is even a special website now dedicated to collecting such poems, and there are countless anthologies of Ukrainian poetry abroad. Undoubtedly, these poems vary in quality, but still what do you think – can civic poetry truly have an impact? Or is it rather a tool for self–therapy for the author, a way to explain something to oneself?

– I am saddened by what I have seen. Most of the works I have read are weak, beginners’ pieces that are extolled as poetic masterpieces. I don't know, maybe, there are good works out there somewhere, but I haven't come across any that moved me poetically. Perhaps it's therapy, but in many cases, I believe it is primarily self–promotion. People are rushing in with their work to publishing houses with the same fervor as they used to with their paeans to the "great brotherly Russian people" and the "democratic, humanitarian communism" in the Soviet times. The similarity is frightening. It’s clear, everyone is trying to cash in.

I obviously haven't read everything and don't want to mention any names, but I am deeply saddened by what’s happening. I used to bemoan the fact that traditional verse was still being written in Ukraine, and now almost everyone has switched to free verse, but the poems are no better. At least back then, one could hide behind the form, but now, everything is exposed, revealing its rickety essence. It seems like this is nothing more than an attempt to join in, become popular, and gain fame.

Did you ever think, Yuriy, that you would have to live through times of great change again? You have a rich life experience. I remember in 2019 when you presented the Ukrainian translation of the novel "Warm Polar Nights." It was a text precisely about life at a turning point – war, occupation, and a huge flood of refugees to Europe. All of this applies to the current situation, and we know that there are already thousands of Ukrainian children who have experiences similar to yours.

– I never thought that this would happen. While I feared that Putin might do something, I didn't expect it to reach this level. The destruction, devastation of cities and the environment – I believe such a war has never been seen before, except perhaps in Vietnam. I don't understand how Ukraine will rebuild, how long it will take for it to happen, and given my age, I don't think I will live to see what it will look like in the end. It's a unique war, where one great nation attacks another and says, "You don’t have the right exist, we will destroy you."

This morning I learned that a documentary film about Navalny received an Oscar award, but not the film about Ukrainian children from the frontline territories, " A House Made of Splinters." At first, I thought, well, it's alight, it’s about Navalny who’s against Putin, but Navalny himself recently said that Crimea is Russia and that it should not be returned.

He said that Crimea is not a sandwich that can be passed back and forth.

– Well, you see. Now, it seems like he changed his mind, but I don't believe in Russian liberalism.

While everything in Ukraine has become engulfed in the war and has pushed aside other news, you managed to start another novel after completing "Sebastian in a Dream." If we consider this work as another reflection of your experience, what does it tell us?

– I started writing it towards the end of 2021, anticipating what was about to happen. And with the outbreak of the war, it became a cozy place for me, where I could hide and protect myself from the horrific news that came day after day. The title of the novel is "The Burial of the Count of Orgaz," taken from one of El Greco's finest paintings located in the small church of Santo Tomé in the Spanish city of Toledo. I have just finished the first draft, and if all goes well, I will finish it in about six months. This work is the second volume of The First-Person Dilogy, with Sebastian in a Dream being the first.

I don't remember how the first novel came about. Perhaps it stemmed from the need to write something personal, which prompted the name "The First–Person Dilogy," because both the first and the second novels are written in the first person POV, meaning "I." It was directly inspired by my short story "Father" from the collection Short Tails, which was influenced by Beckett's writing style. I decided to experiment with his form of internal monologue, and it turned into something of my own – I will make a certain statement and then contradict it, saying that it's not true, creating tension between what was said earlier and what is being said now. I really enjoy it – this uncertainty of what has been said, the struggle between truth and falsehood, which adds dynamism to the work. I use this technique in both novels of the dilogy.

Now about Sebastian. One of my favorite poets is Georg Trakl. It so happens that he was born on February 3rd, the same as me, although many years earlier. In addition, his first name is the same as mine (Georg is Yuriy in Ukrainian), and the first three letters of our last names are the same: "tar" and "tra." It's a remarkable coincidence, and it's one of the reasons why Trakl is dear to me. The second reason, and much more important one, is his poetry, which I find deeply harmonious. "Sebastian im Traum," which is the original of “Sebastian in a dream,” is one of Trakl's best poems, and I really love it. I used the first three lines of this poem as a motif for my novel – "Mother carried the child in a white moon." They have a double meaning – how she carried the child, whether in her womb or in arms, and what was moon – the moon or month. I wrote the entire work, based on this motif, incorporating details from my personal life, my biography. But monologues are formless, and I love form, so I structured the novel on one of my favorite works of Bach, “The Goldberg Variations." The same as the Bach composition, the novel consists of 30 variation, which are preceded and followed by an aria. But Bach developed his variations on musical basis, while I had to develop my own, which is extremely complicated, and I won't go into it here.

When I finished this novel, though, I still felt that I hadn't said everything I wanted to say, and for some reason, kept thinking about a man who lives alone in Toledo. Then I remembered how much I love El Greco's painting and that I saw it in Toledo, so I decided to link the second novel to it. In this work, I analyze the 30 figures we have in the painting. The number 30 is a complete coincidence, but it was there, and I took advantage of it to formally connect the two books. The second part of analyzing each portrait includes my associations with Spain, where I once lived. However, this work is not biographical. It is a work of fiction that incorporates autobiographical elements.

Is there hope for a Ukrainian translation?

– I don't know. But I certainly won't be doing it myself. I was lucky that I was able to work on the translation of my novel "Warm Arctic Nights" with Maksym Nestelieiev. He pretty much let me have a say on the vocabulary we used (for example, I didn't want to use the word "soldat" and we used "vojak" instead), which led to a very pure, natural Ukrainian. If I had written it myself, it would have turned out to be in a somewhat diasporan language, but this one is organically Ukrainian, with no trace of Russification. I am very satisfied with the translation, and am grateful to Tempora for publishing it, even though it apparently hasn't gotten much attention. This surprises me, because, as far as I know, it's the only novel describing World War II in Western Ukraine and the escape to the West. There were some Soviet literary works dealing with the war, but nothing about what happened in Western Ukraine and how people were escaping to the West.

By the way, in that interview in The Collidescope, George Salis asks me if I feel guilty for no longer writing in Ukrainian, and I say that I find it very comfortable to write in English but that I am ready to switch to Ukrainian the moment a need for me to do it comes up. It looks like there isn’t one coming any time soon. In other words, all is fine here, and I am perfectly satisfied with the state of affairs.

Writers are often told that they should not be experts in all matters and should refrain from commenting on, for example, political events or other areas where they don’t have a PhD. However, in our culture, the author has always been more than just a producer of texts, and personal experience is inherently significant. How do you feel about this? What is your definition of a writer?

– I think you know what I'm going to say. To me, being a writer is a purely personal matter. It's not a profession; it's not a choice. It’s a state. When you become a father, you are a father – you have certain responsibilities, perform certain functions, and act in certain ways. For me, being a writer is like being a father, with literature having taken place of the child. I have said this many times before, but I’ll say it again – it's not good for a poet to take on the role of a politician. Such people almost invariably turn out to be bad poets and bad politicians. If you are a poet, a writer, be that. To be a politician, you have to be born a politician. It rarely happens that there are both in one person. The two talents don’t go together, and the flaws are always bound to come out.


Translated from Ukrainian by Anna Petelina 

Short profile

Yuriy Tarnawsky is a Ukrainian and American writer, translator, and cybernetic linguist; he writes his works in Ukrainian and English. Tarnawsky is one of the founders of the avant-garde Ukrainian union of diaspora writers "New York Group" (NYG), and a member of the American group of innovative writers FC2. Co-founder and co-editor of the Ukrainian émigré literary magazine "New Poems" (1959–1972). Tarnawsky is one of the leading Modernists in Ukrainian literature. He lives near New York.