At MAXXI in Rome we met Oksana Stomina, Iya Kiva and Natalia Belczenko. Poetry, war, testimony
01/12/2022 – Francesco Brusa
First published in Italian on the website Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso, on 1 December, translated by Pina Piccolo
Even in the “safe space” of the MAXXI in Rome, even in the tranquil context of an evening of poetry readings, there seems to be no escape from the war. This is what the poetry of Oksana Stomina, Iya Kiva and Natalia Belczenko expresses, at least at first listening: three Ukrainian authors who have just conducted a ” tour ” in six Italian cities called Planting a flower in the scorched earth (Abano Terme, Bologna, Verona, Trento and Milan before the capital), organized by the writer, translator and curator of the blog “The dreaming machine” Pina Piccolo and enriched in last Thursday’s stage by the presence of guest poet Elina Sventsitskaya, currently a refugee in Anzio. Sometimes, in fact, war is equal to water: it comes out “hot or cold” from the tap, as Kiva says. Other times, as in Belczenko’s poem, it is seen as a metaphysical “punishment from God”. But, in general, it seems to be a horizon into which existences are sucked up and which the poetic word can only bear witness to.
Plant a flower in the scorched earth
The event was introduced by footage filmed by photojournalist Niccolò Celesti, showing footage from the very first and bloody moments of the conflict, filmed between Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel and later on the war front around Kherson. After the video, the writers commented and read their own poems – read in Italian by Isabella Mangani and Marina Sorina – to conclude then with an dialog with the audience on the meaning of writing in a context of uncertainty like the current one, on the role of international solidarity towards the Ukrainian population, on (non) relations with one’s Russian counterparts. The poets greatly differed as far as background, styles and personalities – Stomina is from Mariupol and the author of children’s books, Belczenko was also the translator of Wisława Szymborska, Kiva of Jewish origin, grew up in Donetsk and had already fled the conflict in Donbass in 2014 . They do however share a “common mission”: that of making Ukrainian culture known abroad and to shed further light on what is happening in their country. I interviewed them to investigate with them what the role of poetry could be in such a delicate moment and to understand how they see the present and the future of Ukraine and its culture.
How did the tour go? Can you make an assessment?
Belczenko : Before starting the tour I had some concerns, because I wasn’t sure that people could understand us and our poetry, our situation. Instead, in the vast majority of cases, we received a warm welcome: we met both people who already had in-depth knowledge of our context and of what is happening now in Ukraine, as well as people with great sensitivity and humanity who, while not knowing what is happening, understood which side is good and which side is bad.
This tour also made me realize again that poetry is a communication tool that works, in general. I say this because my writing style is not “reporting”, concrete, but rather metaphorical. Nevertheless, people welcomed what I recited, they understood the message behind the words and the imagery.
Stomina : For me, starting to overcome indifference is the first step: traveling from one city to another here in Italy I was able to meet many people who are not indifferent and whom I consider a point of support for building a lasting dialogue. In every city there was always someone with whom I could try to build a relationship.
Kiva : The tour was very important because we needed to make up for the void concerning Ukrainian literature, which, in Italy, is not translated much or is done poorly: an Italian reader doesn’t have the opportunity to enter a bookshop and get an understanding of what Ukrainian writers, men and women have to say. The tour fills this gap.
Another important thing to point out is that the three of us are very different figures: both in terms of character and personal history as well as in terms of our works. So I think that – thanks also to the care of the organizers of this initiative – the Italian audience was able to see three different approaches to poetry and, in this way, go beyond an imaginary that up now was too static and homogeneous. Thanks to our presence in Italy, I think Ukrainian poetry acquires a face, a concrete personality.
Speaking of which: Right now your country’s identity is in transformation, due to the ongoing war. Do you think your poetry is also a means of questioning such an identity, can it play a role in the dynamics taking place?
Stomina : On the one hand, I think our task is to show an identity that has already been in existence for years but which was not so well known and visible in Italy or in other countries. Above all, we are interested in defending it from contamination and misrepresentations.
Kiva : I think two things are important: making the existential experience present and visible and verbalizing it. We make our identity as writers and people concrete in the very act of writing and for me writing, in this moment, is in all respects a material action: that is, it is not a question of a merely intellectual or cerebral activity, but I feel it as the almost physical expression of our being.
Belczenko : There is also a linguistic transition from Russian to Ukrainian underway, which we feel we must elaborate and “fix” as our “mother tongue”. It is a dynamic that is already taking place first and foremost on a daily level, but which is strengthened through poetic exercise.
Stomina : I know that from the outside, it was very difficult for many people in Europe to distinguish between Russia and Ukraine: two countries and two contexts seen within a single space-time continuum . Instead, I hope that finally, both since the 2014 conflict broke out and especially since the large-scale invasion began, this difference has become clear and evident to everyone. So one of the tasks that I see for poetry and culture at the moment is precisely to explain and make evident what this difference consists of, as well as to fill that “void” that Ukraine represented until yesterday in the eyes of those who considered it simply a rib of Russia. Starting with the fact that the history of the two countries is different and that the values and aspirations of the population are different. We have no imperial ambitions to conquer other countries, for example.
Here, in general what is or what should be the task of culture in Ukrainian society?
Kiva : At the moment it is obviously difficult to say precisely what the role of culture should be in our country. All the intellectuals and people who work in this field who have remained in Ukraine are in danger like the rest of the citizenry, while those who are expatriates find themselves with a limited field of action. But what we want, what we aspire to, is to establish a dialogue on an equal footing with other countries and with other cultures so that Ukraine is not always seen in relation to Russia (whether it be a relation of comparison, contrast, etc.). No! We would like to have an equal dialogue with French, Italian, Spanish, etc. poetry and culture. As Ukrainian authors.
Stomina : We must not forget that throughout history educated people in Ukraine have been systematically persecuted by the Russians. Just think of our national poet Taras Shevechenko who was imprisoned just for being a patriot, or of the repressions of the so-called ” executed Renaissance “.
Belczenko : When we talk about direct dialogue between cultures, one could cite the case of Poland for example. Even before the war there was a mutual interest, which in some cases allowed us Ukrainians to rediscover authors whose memory we had lost precisely because of the Soviet repressions.
Kiva : Also, if Ukraine wins the war and therefore survives – also in terms of culture – we will no longer have to deal with people executed or put in prison, who may write beautiful poetry while in prison. In short, we will no longer have to deal with trauma every time we deal with poetry and culture, but on the contrary we will be able to enjoy the cultural development of a society that is no longer threatened by an impending external danger.
In your poems you speak clearly of the experience of war, which pervades your daily life. Does writing about this in verse change the relationship with that experience, with the traumas it entails?
Kiva : The fact is that our daily reality changes with such rapidity that, even if we were Olympic running champions, we could not keep up with it. The moment of writing, on the other hand, forces us to slow down and fix certain moments, ensuring that it coincides with what I’m saying, that I can cling to reality, even if only for an instant. Then the race and the disorientation start again. But when this “setting” occurs between my feelings and what I put on paper, a diary and a testimony are born and that instant will remain fixed over time.
Stomina : As I also had the opportunity to say during the evening, I consider everything I write now and which concerns the war as a “reportage”, as a report that is faithful to the facts. This is a very important activity: I would like any reader, of any age or social background, with any biographical background, to be able to clearly understand what I see and what I witness. I want him or her to clearly understand my state of mind, what happened. It is about the desire to set once and for all the events and stories within their concrete reality, precisely because I know what propaganda and falsification are, and I know how much these two things are present both in my past as a person who grew up under the ‘Soviet Union, and in the present.
Belczenko : Connected to what Oksana says about the “reportage”, I can say that I am experiencing a speeding up of my emotions, which pass from one different phase to another very fast. So for me writing a poem is photographing a certain emotional moment.
Stomina : But writing doesn’t ease my pain: every time I read my poem aloud I feel the same pain I felt when I wrote it.
Kiva : Poetry is sometimes said to be therapeutic, but I totally disagree. On the contrary, it’s like having so many scars on the body that are torn open again every time you look at them.
Stomina : At the same time, reading poems by others who talk about events or moods that are similar to your own helps you realize that you are not alone.
Belczenko : For example, today I re-read a poem that I dedicated years ago to my mother’s passing. Every time I read it again, I cry. But now I’ve managed to work on that emotion, not because it matters less than then, but because it presents itself to my conscience in a more “softened” way than before. So poetry is also this: a distance from one’s feelings, while preserving a vivid memory of them.