Ilya Kaminsky, Poet*
Excerpted from From Heart to Art: Interviews with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Artists and Their Allies (Handtype Press, 2014)
When I came across Ilya Kaminsky's award-winning book of poems Dancing in Odessa, I was surprised never to have heard of him. After all, I was a Deaf poet myself and I thought I had met pretty much anyone in the Deaf community who wrote poetry!
Raymond Luczak: Tell us a bit about your beginnings in Russia and how you lost your hearing.
Ilya Kaminsky: When I was four years old, the Russian state doctor said I had a flu while I really had a bad case of mumps; so the nerves [in my ear] died. But in a Russian grade school, being deaf was often thought equal to being mentally unstable. Being both deaf and Jewish made things even more complicated. So I refused to wear hearing aids as a kid. I had the illusion that if I didn't talk to others, my deafness would disappear.
When I was 16 years old, my family received asylum from the American government and so, in early 1993 we arrived in Rochester, NY. There, I had no choice but to wear hearing aids for the first time in my life since my Russian lipreading skills were basically useless in American high schools. The attitudes to deafness in this country are vastly different: My classmates regarded my TTY as some sort of "magic boxes" that allowed me to "secretly" communicate with the teacher during the class—and I was more than happy to let them have that illusion! After high school, I got my B.A. at Georgetown University and then graduated from law school.
Luczak: How did your interest in poetry begin?
Kaminsky: Well, most teenagers write poetry—and most of them stop at age 16 or so. For whatever reason, I kept going. Perhaps because it became for me a way to understand my life and my time. One thing I can say for certain is that I didn't plan on writing poems in English. When my family left the Ukraine abruptly in 1993, I was still happily writing in Russian. Then my father died in 1994. But I couldn't write about his death in Russian—it'd hurt my family. And, above all, writing beautiful poems about his death in a language he taught me somehow seemed immoral. That I could not allow myself. But I had to write, and English was my refuge. I practically did not know the language, but I didn't care. Writing in a new language was for me a living embodiment of a poet's great line: "Death thou shall die." I like all sorts of poetry, from old Latin poets to ancient Chinese to contemporary Polish and American poets.
Luczak: In your book, you said that you became deaf at the age of four. Yet, in the poem "Joseph Brodsky," you described yourself as "hard of hearing." What's going on here?
Kaminsky: Well, here is what I want to tell people about my hearing loss but don't often get a chance: People often ask me what does it mean to be "deaf" or "hard of hearing," and the truth is—I don't know. Because I don't know what it means to fully hear. Does anyone fully hear? What is hearing? Now, the technicalities. For the purposes of "disability classification," I am considered "legally deaf." My audiogram labels my hearing loss as "profound." What do I tell people? I tell them to smile. Because I do not know what it means to be "hearing," my "deafness" for me is an imaginary condition.
Luczak: Do you ever use sign language? What have your experiences within the signing community been like?
Kaminsky: I studied ASL in high school. When I lived in Rochester, I was a lot more fluent in the language than I am now, unfortunately. My experiences with the signing community can only be described as: wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. There is a fantastic community in upstate New York that I was a part of, and I miss it sorely these days. But, recently, I have made new friends who are fluent in ASL and also in Russian Sign Language, which makes me happy. Sign language is a beautiful world; it is full of poetic motion and stillness. I think I learned quite a bit from it for my own writing, particularly in terms of image and humor.
*The interview with Ilya Kaminsky took place in 2005. To see an index of other interviews in From Heart to Art click here.