Poet Ilya Kaminsky Discusses His Relationship to Language and Hearing

Kaminsky, a poet and professor at Princeton, read from a recent collection before a conversation with Professor Ilan Stavans. He talked about writing in his non-native English, the centrality of silence to language, and poetry’s place in the war in Ukraine.

Poet Ilya Kaminsky Discusses His Relationship to Language and Hearing
“The deaf do not believe in silence,” Kaminsky said. “It is an invention of the hearing.” Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

Poet, translator, and professor Ilya Kaminsky appeared in Stirn Auditorium on Thursday, April 18, in the fourth installment of the Point/Counterpoint series. Kaminsky read his poetry and engaged the audience in a conversation about writing with and without one’s native language, his identity as a hard of hearing Ukrainian-American poet, and his work as a translator.

The talk was moderated by Ilan Stavans, professor of Latinx and Latino culture.

Kaminsky was born in the USSR and identifies as Ukrainian-Jewish-American. He became hard of hearing when he was four years old due to mumps. He is most known for his critically acclaimed collections of poems, including Dancing in Odessa and Deaf Republic, and is currently a professor of poetry at Princeton.

This year’s Point/Counterpoint series is titled “The People’s Tongue,” and has focused on defining a healthy democracy through the prism of language. Stavans said that the Point/Counterpoint lecture series originated in 2016, as a response to feelings that Amherst was a “bubble disconnected from the outside world.”

Stavans said that it is “crucial and often forgotten that different types of voices need to be brought to campus that represent other aspects of society.”

Kaminsky began by reading a selection of poems from Deaf Republic, and the audience was able to follow along with a screen that was projecting the poems behind him, for accessibility.

Stavans asked Kaminsky about what it is like writing in a language that is not his “mother tongue.” Kaminsky, whose first language was Russian, explained that to him “this is not a question of language but of temperament.”

He explained that he needs language to be “touchable,” so that he can interact with the people around him in the dominant language of the country, as his poetry comes to him from these interactions. He emphasized that he “needs to write where his body is.”

Kaminsky then explained how he became hard of hearing at the age of four. He explained that he already knew language before his illness, and that he is able to hear with hearing aids, which is why he considers himself a hard of hearing person. He explained that as his childhood illness progressed, he was engrossed in “more fever and less reality, but maybe that is a good thing.”

Kaminsky went on to explain that, to him, “language is a very erotic thing, and it is not necessarily just in sounds.” He explained that silence is in fact a conversation, and that it can take many forms, such as “silence as protest, and silence as violence.”

He explained that the eight percent of people in the world who are deaf or hard of hearing understand that “silence is full of motion.”

“The deaf do not believe in silence,” he said. “It is an invention of the hearing.”

In his poetry, Kaminsky uses the phrase “et cetera” frequently. He said that he uses the term to explain how a person may feel when they are in crisis, as they “jump from one minute to another.”

Stavans then asked Kaminsky about his work as a translator. Kaminsky explained that even though works read differently in different languages, this “doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try” to translate them. He also said that poets aren’t the only ones who should translate poetry, as scholars can also do great translations.

Stavans asked Kaminsky about what he thought the value of poetry was in times of war. Kaminsky explained that he has worked translating poetry for his friends who are currently in Ukraine, and he explained that translating poetry takes time, but that he has friends who immediately “want to be heard.”

Because of this, he interviews the Ukrainian poets, removes his questions from the record, and then publishes their testimonies as mini-essays. Many of the poets he speaks to have begun to doubt the power of figurative language, but then they “realize that this is the last armor that they still have.”

Kaminsky recounted a story about his friend, a Ukrainian poet who translates poems for young children in Ukrainian bomb shelters, which Kaminsky says “tells him a lot about the value of poetry.”

During the Q&A session, Kaminsky would walk toward students to be in close proximity to them in order to be able to read their lips.

A student asked a question about why Kaminsky began to write in English, and asked if he would ever again write in Russian. Kaminsky explained that he started writing in English in 1994 when his father, who was a major inspiration for his poetry, passed away.

Kaminsky took to writing his poetry in English messily on scraps of paper, so that his family wouldn’t understand, because he didn’t think this would “help them to deal with the pain.”

Aiden Cooper ’26 expressed admiration for Kaminsky’s poetry, which he feels has “a lot of bite to it.”

Cooper said that he “brings such joy to his writing.”

Cooper and Pauline Bissell ’25 explained that they had previously interacted with Kaminsky at LitFest, where he ran a metaphor-building workshop, and Bissell found herself “reflecting on that experience a lot,” particularly during his poetry reading, where he “brought his works to life.”