Saturday, April 29, 2006

Something new. Kaminsky.

The exact details are all a blur to me, but somehow I wound up at Burning Word, an all-day poetry fest on Whidbey Island. It was a random sequence of events, a chance mention from a friend, and there I was. With great difficulty I staggered out of bed at 6:30 on a Saturday morning (agony!) and into the shower, dressed and had breakfast at the Columbia City Bakery (savory croissant with squash and feta; brilliant and delicious), woke my friend when (so he told me) his cell phone vibrated off the table and onto the floor, and hit the road. I'd never been to Whidbey Island on my own; naturally, I got lost somewhere south of Mukilteo and took a few minutes (or ten) to get back on the right track. A quick ferry ride and a short drive to the Greenbank Farm, and I was there.

The main event was a series of readings in a converted barn, which began at 10 am and went on all day, at times hilarious, heartbreaking, beautiful, and excruciating. And then there was Ilya Kaminsky. I must admit that I have little experience with modern, or I should say contemporary, poets. This experience of hearing people read their own was entirely new to me. Until now.

I spent my late teens to early twenties, obsessed with Russian, or I should say, Soviet literature and poetry of the twentieth century, Akhmatova to Zamyatin and pretty much everything in between (as I said in an earlier post, this all seems part of another, distant time). Kaminsky is new; he is young, not too much older than I, and in some works he looks to the past but burns so brightly with the passion of his own, present time. On the page, his words are captivating; on the stage, Ilya is electrifying. What I remember best is his reading of Musica Humana [an elegy for Osip Mandelstam]. His voice booms out, a rolling mixture of his native accent (and I would give anything to hear him read his poetry in Russian, even if I can't understand it all) and the slightly dissonant voice of a man who has been deaf since the age of four but is unafraid to speak out. An uncontrollable, alive, crescendoing river of words. It is a beautiful poem, the story of Mandelstam, the poet who suffered imprisonment and exile in Soviet Russia and who died in Stalin's gulag, and his wife Nadezhda, who memorized his poems because on paper they could be destroyed. Whereas in memory they remained as words of flame, immortal and indestructible, passed down for generations to reach us in the present.

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