In Conversation: Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky on Words for War

There’s a way in which great poetry goes beyond the specifics of language, time, and place, illuminating patterns.

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky are award-winning poets from opposite ends of Ukraine, writing in Ukrainian and Russian, respectively. They work together as translators from Russian and Ukrainian to English, having lived in the US for over a decade. When Crimea, where Max is from, was annexed by Russia, and the war started in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, the geographic and linguistic differences they embody became markers of a conflict they were detached from, yet that was intimately close. The war gave Ukrainian poetry an impetus they could not ignore as translators, prompting them to assemble a collection that documents the war in its multiplicity, from various positions, modes of involvement, across languages. Words for War (Academic Studies Press, 2017), the resulting anthology, replants poetic testimonies of the war away from the local ground—there, the war loses some of its singularity—at once a document of this particular conflict and poems that speak of loss, pain and anger across borders. Today, Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Hungary, Diána Vonnák, discusses this groundbreaking project with Oksana and Max.

Diána Vonnák (DV): When I read the title of your collection, Wilfred Owen came to my mind as one of those poets who became iconic for English war poetry. He wrote this in 1918, just before he died: “This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War.” These claims are strong and for me they resonated with what you wrote in the preface: “Like broken furniture and mutilated bodies, these poems are traces of what had happened, as well as evidence that it did really happen.” What do you think about the relationship between poetry and war, the aesthetic and the political?

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky (OM/MR): Words for War is a provocative title. It’s also a difficult title to pull off, in that it can appear glib, easily interpreted in a hortative aspect: “Let’s get ready for war, sing some war songs, and say some war words!” For better or for worse, it’s not that kind of book. Our starting point was a series of observations: there’s a war in Ukraine, and people there think about it and talk about it. Politicians and administrators make speeches about it. Journalists and reporters cover it. It fills news channels and newspapers. Youtube users upload amateur videos from cities affected by war, and your own Facebook friends take different sides. In the streets, you see people in military uniforms; and you see civilians reacting to them, expressing a range of responses from gratitude to overt hostility. You see young men with missing limbs, with deformed faces. And then there are the endless witness reports. Because many people have been to war, and still more have been to the war zone, and they have stories to tell, and stories they prefer to be silent about. In short, war is ever-present, and it uses up a lot of words.

For the Ukrainians, the war is distant, and yet it’s here, in our own country. For us the “here” is more difficult, since we ourselves do not live in Ukraine. It’s a perspective that we can’t help taking, but that we can’t grant ourselves a permission to inhabit either. Just because we feel we’re “here,” it doesn’t mean that’s where we are. So, unlike Owen, who was a soldier, we were not in the position to evaluate whether Ukrainian poetry is ready or fit to speak of the heroes, or to talk about glory and honor; whether war poetry should only be about pity, or about power, too, and perhaps other things, like dignity, integrity, courage, duty, self-sacrifice. We did not want to make any calls about what poetry about war in general—and this war in particular—has to be like. We weren’t on a lookout for a specific pattern. But we were looking for poetry that was somehow of war, or about war; that came from war, with war, out of war.

We’ll say something even stranger, perhaps, and it’s this: that we did not quite know what we were looking for under the term “poetry.” Normally, you can approach a poetic text with certain questions, like, “Is this a good poem or a bad poem?” and even “Is this a poem?” The answer, of course, depends on what you think poetry is, how it works, what it must and can accomplish. The answer also depends on your theory of language, and your view of the human mind. We decided we wouldn’t presuppose that we know what we’re looking for, and resigned ourselves to groping in the fog. Our approach may be illustrated by the smoke theme that Grycja, the Berlin-based Ukrainian artist we worked with, chose for the book: as you begin to orient yourself in this new terrain of war poetry, silhouettes emerge from the smoke, gripping you, taking you places.

One of the questions that we allowed ourselves to ask was: “Will this sound right in the anthology?” Of course, we only had a nebulous idea of the whole project as we started out three years ago, so it was both a top-down and a bottom-up process, requiring a constant shift in perspective from whole to parts and back to the whole. The result is more or less what we had hoped for. There isn’t a single unified front, a coherent aesthetic or political direction; rather, the anthology contains many “poetries,” as Polina Barskova pointed out in her afterword. Yet it’s a unity, pages that have been bound into a single whole, contained between the two covers. We once translated a beautiful poem by Vladimir Gandelsman, about holding a dandelion like a flickering light between one’s palms, and that’s how we feel about the poems, forming together such a dandelion ball, each poem a seed with its own parachute. A reverse dispersal, a recollection. The anthology’s political and aesthetic significance depend on this final form.

DV: Also in the preface you reflect on your position as a couple that in a sense embodies the war in Ukraine: from Lviv and Simferopol, a Ukrainian and a Russian speaker, your shared story is far from obvious. How did this potentially fragile balance influence the selection of the poems? Did you aim for representation or were you mostly guided by aesthetic choices?

OM/MR: Our personal backgrounds meant that we had to do a lot of learning. We couldn’t just jump into sharing a worldview. And, on many issues, we couldn’t assume agreement—we actually had to come to an agreement, often through a series of battles. Larger political conflicts often play themselves out on the smaller scale of mixed-heritage families like ours. We tell different stories about the same historical events, stories that are rooted in who we take ourselves to be, what values we believe ourselves to uphold, who we think the enemy is or was. These narratives are not always compatible, and the differences are easy to misinterpret and misunderstand. Just hearing another’s narrative can be hurtful and can lead to conflict. It’s hard to distinguish between listening and legitimating, for example, or explaining and justifying. It seems easier to build a life with a complete stranger from a culture that is not directly in tension with yours than with someone from your own backyard, so to speak, whose people you consider bad neighbors. You have to become an extremely good storyteller to make it possible, to sustain it and not let it poison the love you feel for the other person.

That insight did inform our selection principles. We were looking for voices that could tell such stories, stories that were at least compatible with healing; narratives that identified the places of rupture, the wounds and the cracks that could be bandaged and cared for; perspectives from which bridges could be built. In this regard, the project has an ethical dimension: we did not include poems that we thought dehumanize the other side, that celebrate or legitimate the gratuitous suffering of the enemy, poems that feature what we take to be hate speech. Some of the poets from the anthology have written such poems, for various reasons; this fact did not make us exclude the poets themselves. But we decided we weren’t going to amplify expressions of hate and calls to violence and retaliation. We weren’t in principle looking to censor all such content; if we were to find poems that we thought had exceptional poetic qualities, we might have still included them, with notes and warnings. But we noticed something: such poems tended to be weaker overall; there was usually something off about them, to our ear. They appeared myopic, and they usually sounded flat.

DV: The war has become an endless background noise to Ukrainian news. It appears somewhat frozen, but for those nearby, the violence and the disruption it can cause do not change. You envision an open-ended project, an online platform where your collection can grow and become a continuous testimony. To me, it was striking that as much as positions were diverse, the anthology did not have a temporal arch: it was a catalogue of perspectives rather than a chronicle. How did you approach these two aspects of war? 

OM/MR: Most of the poems in the anthology were written between 2013 and 2017, over the course of four years. Some were written earlier, and were about different wars. Others were not about war at all, but captured something about the atmosphere in which war happens. It’s an atmosphere of despair, resentment, and the sense that you don’t belong. One of the signs of instability is having a population that has little or nothing to lose.

There is a feature to the poems that replicates the impression of “endless background noise,” where each moment resembles the preceding moment and the next moment. There’s no progress, because it’s not a process that’s being described. It’s an activity, a war, and it seems to have no end, no purpose other than pure disruption. So the question about temporal arch in a book of poetry about a never-ending war is indeed an interesting one. How would poetry temporalize itself? Would it involve indexing particular poems to the specific events? We do know that it’s been done, but we wouldn’t expect every poet to do it.

Poetry does seem to stand in a weird relationship to time. One way to put it, very tentatively, may be this: that it strives to be outside of time. Physicists often compare especially compelling formulas to poems. What they mean is that a poem has an elegance and a beauty to it, that it condenses complex thought into a simple unity. By the same token, it may also help to think of poems as physics formulas: they are as true now as they were a thousand years ago, even if nobody happened to formulate it back then. But maybe it’s not like that at all. Because poems are also historical documents, and poets are historically grounded individuals, with historical perspectives, and so the temporal arch may well be there, but it would require looking very carefully at each individual poet, and adding many more poems in order to identify something like a trajectory. Maybe we would need to start way earlier, before the war. It would be quite a different project, or a series of projects.

As for the open-endedness, that’s a hope, but it’s not entirely up to us to realize it. We tried to involve as many people in the project as we could. We’ve brought in thirty translators. At the Academic Studies Press, the Ukrainian Studies Series editor Vitaly Chernetsky and the acquisitions editor Oleh Kotsyuba have involved still more people as readers and reviewers. What we hoped for was a ripple effect: that as more scholars and translators get interested in the project, they’d look for new texts and authors, and contribute new translations. The project would then grow in virtue of this communal effort. It may happen like that. Or it may happen differently. We will contribute translations, but we don’t make it our mission to keep expanding the project as long as the war lasts. That said, people have in fact gotten interested; and have started looking for new voices in Ukraine. And that means that eventually new poems will be getting published, and new scholarship will eventually emerge about them. We hope to have a chance to cross-link these publications, to create a sort of study hub for scholars, students, and poets who are interested in this topic.

DV: The evenness of the English translation glosses over the fact that if this collection were published in the original it would have been bilingual, Russian and Ukrainian. Did you feel the need to mark this difference in English besides noting the original language after each poem? Did you feel odd that such a fundamental aspect of Ukraine, its linguistic diversity and richness, was so difficult to retain in translation? Or did it maybe feel liberating to have this unity?

OM/MR: In his introduction to the volume, Ilya Kaminsky raises this very issue. He talks about a poet who switches to Ukrainian as an act of solidarity with the Ukrainian speakers in Ukraine, and as an act of protest against the Russian aggression. The choice of language may be a political gesture, and such gestures do become obscured in the English translations. As you say, the differences are smoothed over, evened out. This is inevitable in translation to some extent, but there are reasons to resist it, too, and effective ways of resisting. You could decide to preserve some distinguishing characteristics of the intonation; you could translate the idioms literally, which would convey the strangeness of another culture; you could play with grammar.

We have a strong preference for translations that sound like poems in the English language, but retain some elements of foreignness. Of course, preferences change, and ours may change, too. We tended to work with translators on condensing and amplifying, making the English language translation self-sufficient. We were greatly helped in this process by Kevin Vaughn, who has an amazing ear for poetry, and who worked with us on editing many of the translations in the volume.

Originally, we did consider proposing the project as a “bilingual” edition. We ultimately decided against it. Bilingual editions are often prepared differently: the idea is to showcase the originals, and to give some help to the readers who approach them with a scholarly goal. Insofar as a bilingual edition aims at illuminating the original text, this shapes how one approaches the task of translating it. A translation becomes “another poem,” to be measured against the original. A subsidiary text. In our volume, each translation must answer for itself. It has no original by its side to support it or to answer to. That does not mean that translators are not responsible to the text, or to the author; but it does mean that they are freer in how they respond to the demands and constraints of the original poem. Yet the originals are so very important to research and scholarship. So the website that we’re in the process of polishing does contain original poems.

This same contingent preference—that we like translations to sound like poetry in the English language—means that we were not worried about smoothing over the differences between Russian and Ukrainian. The voices may speak with slight Ukrainian or Russian accents, but they are indeed all English-speaking voices. We suppose in that sense every act of translation diminishes diversity—it takes inputs of one kind and converts them into an output of a different kind. And whether you have two different types of input, or you have twenty, the output still has to be in English. The more differences you retain through the conversion process, the less comprehensible the text will be; the more it will sound like a foreigner or a child trying to communicate. That in itself is a literary device, and sometimes it’s appropriate. But that cannot be an overarching strategy for every single poem.

There’s a way in which really great poetry (and maybe really great storytelling more generally) goes beyond the specifics of language, time, and place, illuminating patterns rather than isolated episodes in history. We were looking for poems that could transport the reader beyond a particular sociolinguistic context and geographic location, beyond the particular historical moment. Texts that displace us a little bit, moving us, compelling us to move, too.

Oksana Maksymchuk writes and translates poetry. Her writing appeared in Words Without BordersPoetry International, Modern Poetry in Translation, Los Angeles Review of Books, New Orleans Review, Salamander, Cimarron Review, The Common, and elsewhere. She won first place in the 2004 Richmond Lattimore and in 2014 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender translation competitions. Maksymchuk teaches philosophy at the University of Arkansas.

Max Rosochinsky is a poet and translator from Simferopol, Crimea. His poems had been nominated for the PEN International New Voices Award in 2015. With Maksymchuk, he won first place in the 2014 Brodsky-Spender competition. His academic work focuses on twentieth-century Russian poetry, especially Osip Mandelshtam and Marina Tsvetaeva.

Diána Vonnák is an Editor-at-Large (Hungary) at Asymptote. She is a social anthropologist researching how the war reshapes cultural politics in Ukraine. She has written reviews for Hungarian Literature Online and Visegrad Insight and a number of Budapest-based publications, and is currently working on a collection of short stories in Hungarian.


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