It’s not along steppes and not over mountains
that your geography stretches—
on the hemispheres of millions of hearts
and through the invisible space of folksongs.
You weren’t crated by history
but by the yearning for your beauty.
You sprung up in people’s souls like a poem
and your concept sounds like a metaphor.
Country of moans and prayers,
an important producer of death,
no wonder that your shape
resembles a chewed-up heart.
Не степами і не горами
простяглася твоя географія, –
на півкулях мільйонів сердець
і крізь невидимі простори пісень.
Не створила тебе історія,
а туга за твоєю красою.
Ти народилася в душах, як поезія,
і твоє поняття звучить, як метафора.
– Країно зі стогонів і молитов,
важливий продуценте смерти,
недаром своєю формою
нагадуєш розжоване серце.
Yuriy Tarnawsky (born February 3, 1934) is a Ukrainian-American writer and linguist, one of the founding members of the “New York Group”, a group of avant-garde Ukrainian diaspora writers, and co-founder and co-editor of the journal «New Poetry», as well as member of the US innovative writers’ collaborative Fiction Collective. He writes fiction, poetry, plays, translations, and criticism in both Ukrainian and English. His works have been translated into Azerbaijani, Czech, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, and Russian. His New York University PhD dissertation Knowledge Semantics argues against decompositional semantics and combines Noam Chomsky’s and Hilary Putnam’s views on language into one formulation.
While at Columbia University, he was instrumental in founding the archive of the group at the university’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library to which he has contributed his papers. His first volume of poetry Life in the City (1956, in Ukrainian), with its urban motifs and concentration on the theme of death, was received by critics as a new word in Ukrainian poetry, such that broke with the language and subject traditions of Ukrainian literature and laid down a path which many of his contemporaries were to follow. The declaratively existentialist novel Roads (1961, in Ukrainian), which deals with the life of German youth in post-war Germany, is likewise considered a new word in Ukrainian fiction. The roots of Tarnawsky’s early works lie almost exclusively in Western literature, in particular in Hispanic poetry and the poetry of the French pre-symbolists, surrealism, and the philosophy of existentialism. With time, his technical and linguistic background began to exert more and more influence on his literary work, as a result of which it employs a radically new use of language, as for instance in the volumes of poetry Without Spain (1969, in Ukrainian) and Questionnaires (1970, in Ukrainian) and the novels Meningitis (1978, in English) and Three Blondes and Death (1993, in English). In the 1960s Tarnawsky switched fully to writing in English, first in fiction and then in poetry; although in the latter he subsequently made Ukrainian versions of the English-language works (the volume This Is How I Get Well (1978) and the next five collections). He joined the group of innovative American writers Fiction Collective (later FC2) and published with it the novels Meningitis and Three Blondes and Death, both of which received high praise from US critics. (Three Blondes and Death, for instance, was compared by one reviewer to the skyscrapers of Mies van der Rohe and Gropius which towers over the cottages of contemporary American fiction.).
With Ukraine’s independence, which came in 1991, Tarnawsky returned to writing in Ukrainian, publishing literary works and articles in the press as well as separate books. His works now show elements characteristic of postmodernism, such as polystylism, collage, pastiche, and the taking on of many, sometimes opposing, stances or masks (for instance, the poetry collection An Ideal Woman (1999), the book-length poem U ra na (1992) and The City of Sticks and Pits (1999), as well as the cycle of plays 6×0 (1998), all in Ukrainian). This process culminates in the publication of a three-volume set of his writings in Ukrainian— 6×0 (1998, collected plays),They Don’t Exist (1999, collected poetry 1970-1999), and I Don’t Know (2000, new version of Roads, excerpts of his English-language books of fiction Seven Tries, and the autobiography Running Barefoot Home and Back). His own Ukrainian-language version of the English-language collection of stories Short Tails that shows the influence of existentialism, absurdism, and postmodernism, was published in Ukraine in 2006. Flowers for the Patient, a book of his selected essays and interviews in Ukrainian, came out in 2012.
1) Since your life is divided between two worlds, the Ukrainian one and the USA one, so different and so distant, how are these two worlds melted in your literary creation in prose and poetry?
I have lived outside of Ukraine since the age of 10 and have learned to be a Ukrainian and a member of the surrounding culture at the same time. Somehow, it was never that difficult for me to do that. We settled in Germany upon fleeing Ukraine, and I attended German High School. I came to the US just after I turned 18, and right away went to college. I learned English quickly, and within a few years began writing in that language, without knowing how to get published. But there were opportunities for me to get published in Ukrainian, so I devoted more effort to writing in my native language. But eventually, the pull toward English got stronger, and I wrote in both languages, often translating my own works from one to the other, so that I became a bilingual, Ukrainian-English writer. In recent years, I have switched over almost exclusively to English, and concentrate primarily on prose—a path that most writers seem to follow as they grow older.
2) Which part of the Ukrainian literary tradition do you think is most linked with your literary creation? Which part of the American one?
It seems to me that Ukrainian literature has not had a significant influence on my writing. I found it to be too traditional and was attracted by the modernist currents in Western literature. In fact, I started to write in Ukrainian in order to change Ukrainian literature, to make it more like what attracted me in the other languages. In my early years, I was actually not affected very much by American literature, but by German, French, and Spanish, in particular Latin American poetry.
3) Do you think that poetry can be expressed only in the mother language or also in a language learned later?
I think you can do both, and even be better in the new language, if you master it well. But here “master” is a subjective term. You don’t have to know the language like a native speaker, but master it in your own way, create a private language of your own and bcome a master of it.
4) Do you think that a poet is able to translate his own poems in a different language?
Oh yes, definitely. I have been doing it myself for years and much of my poetry is written in both languages. The two versions are usually very close, but sometimes there may be important subtle differences.
5) Speaking about translation, do you think your poems are “translatable” and, through a good translation, also accessible to a non-Ukrainian and non-USA public?
My poetry is primarily image-based, with little reliance on phonetics, and so it’s relatively easy to translate. In my poetry I also often tackle common contemporary themes, which make it easily accessible to readers of different cultures. I consider myself a writer of Western Culture, who writes in Ukrainian and English, so my writing should be accessible to people of the Western World.
6) Have you noticed any substantial differences when you are conceiving and writing a poem in English or Ukrainian?
No, I seem to be able to express myself equally effective in either language, although right now I feel myself more comfortable writing prose in English than in Ukrainian. Ukrainian language has undergone big changes in the last 50 years or so, and since I live outside of Ukraine, my “private” Ukrainian is a bit too different. I think it’s fine for poetry, where language can be very individual, but may seem too idiosyncratic in prose.
7) What is your current relationship with Ukrainian language?
I use it freely in everyday life, at home or with friends, but lately have been writing only in English, primarily prose, but also some poetry.
8) Who is the poet to whom you think you were indebted when you started writing poetry?
I was influenced most strongly by Georg Trakl, Pablo Neruda, and then, and most profoundly, by Arthur Rimbaud.
9) Your poetry seems linked to a philosophical dimension. Were there any philosophers that have inspired you in your writing?
I was strongly influenced by Existentialism, in particular by Jean-Paul Sartre, his novels and philosophical writings, as summarized in the article “Existentialism is a Humanism.”
10) Do you think that poetry can and should circulate in a wider circle of readers or that circulation in a niche of readers is inevitable?
I think poetry should address itself to the needs of the poet. So it should find its reader milieu naturally, by itself, be it wide or narrow.
11) Many critics have pointed out in your collection “Poems about nothing” a tendency towards “pictorial” representation. Do you think that poetry should be connected to the figurative arts, and in particular to contemporary art?
It depends on the poet, whatever he wants to do, or does. I have always been visually oriented, and that’s why visual elements are so strong in my writing. But I don’t try to imitate art, unless I am writing a poem about a particular painting.
12) Among the avant-garde movements of the twentieth century, the one to which your poetry seems to be closest is surrealism. Do you believe that your poetry is somehow connected or has any relationship with surrealism?
Definitely so. I was extremely attracted to Surrealism, especially the art and cinema, and it has certainly colored my writing. One of the things that attracted me to Latina American poetry is its “non-rational” nature, which, although not officially surrealist, to me has much in common with the latter. So, I would credit such poets as Neruda as having made me a surrealist