by Tetyana Rudenko
Relatively new to American readers, Pavlo Korobchuk is widely popular in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. He has received numerous literary awards, both in Ukraine and in Europe, and holds the largest number of victories in international poetry slams than any previous Ukrainian author. His published collections of poetry include Natshchenebo (2005), Around the Clock! with Bohdan-Oleh Horobchuk and Oleh Kostarev (2007), Kayfology (Kayfolohiya) (2010), Dinosaur (2011), Flickered (2013), Fir (2017) and two volumes of selected poems in Slovak (Kameňolom and Pôžitkológia). Korobchuk’s first novel, The Sea for a Leftie, came out in 2012 to critical acclaim. His book of short stories, The Holy Book of Gopstories, (Sviashchenna Knyha Gopovidan) followed. His works has been translated into over ten languages, including English. The latest collection of translated poems is currently in the works in Poland. Pavlo plays the drums in a band and writes music. He lives in Kyiv.
The following interview took place over a series of emails in early 2017.
Firstly, I must say, I’m impressed with your level of productivity. You are mostly known as a poet in and out of Ukraine, with a new collection coming out every few years. You actively compete in poetry slams and tour to promote your work. You also write prose. Your novel and collection of short stories were published only a few years apart. Additionally, you work as a journalist covering the Eastern situation in Ukraine for the radio station Svoboda, compose music and play drums in a rock band. What else are you into? When do you have time to write and what does your process look like?
Sometimes I’m myself surprised when I think how much I have already written and published. However, I think it’s natural for me, and it’s my natural rhythm. I’m not in a hurry anywhere.
In poetry slams, I won so often probably because I participated so often. This was happening exactly when the slam movement started to bloom in Ukraine. Before 2006, no one here had heard about it.
The drums—yes, it’s a substantial part of my active life, and I drum away dozens of various musical combinations a day. I’m an avid sports fan, and will mention my favorite players below. Despite having almost no time, I manage to break away occasionally to enjoy football (as in soccer), table football (foosball), tennis, ping-pong, and chess. I don’t get winter sports, though. How can anyone do anything when it’s so cold outside? I’d rather cozy up with a blanket and a warm tea to watch a new season of Fargo.
My writing process looks different every time. I think I could concentrate on a poem while being onboard on a spaceship in complete weightlessness. But my ideal places for that would be the balcony with an August sunset or a warm bath. I wrote my first few books on paper, and these crisscrossed pages full of words, various versions and notes would look like a prison wall on which inmates made their marks for a hundred years. Later, I switched to a computer, and that made my text easier on the eyes. Sometimes I will not produce anything for half a year, but then write 10 to 20 poems a month. Every night then, I sink into the jungle of poetry, when the light fog veils everything around, and anything can be a victim of my metaphors. I walk the streets with a poetic tomahawk behind my back.
What writing habits do you have, and what advice would you give to someone just starting out as a poet or a writer?
I enjoy writing in a bathtub when I can hear nothing but a slight splashing of water and cast iron silence. I even got interviewed on video in my favorite place to write. I had to take off my clothes, lie down in a full bath, and re-enact my creative labors. The camera people had a blast.
I tried writing in an overcrowded subway and in a central park full of people. It’s also interesting because you have to concentrate on your text and words. The best time to write for me is after midnight. Although, it’s different with prose. I can write during the day and in the morning because I need different kinds of efforts for that. Writing prose doesn’t feel like such a flight of emotions as poetry, but more like a process, a shift at work.
To the beginner writers, I would suggest reading more and on a wider spectrum to get a clearer understanding of what had been written already, what is in the history of literature, how to combine it, take the best, come up with something new. When we mention a particular classic writer, we refer to his writing style and method as well. Writing as much as possible can lead to developing one’s own style eventually. Additionally, talking to people and exchanging experiences make a positive difference. I think that the most successful people are those who know how to express themselves—public people always speak well. In other words, talking, reading, and writing seem like simple things, but you have to practice them. On one hand, everyone can be running; on the other, there is Usain Bolt.
What attracted you to magical realism?
Magical realism is well-respected in Ukraine, and has been trendy for the last 20 years or so. Some of the leading writers use elements of realism in their work. I also played with it a little bit. It’s not my main style, but I like it. One of my favorite writers is definitely Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
I thoroughly enjoyed the immediacy of action provided by the first person point of view and the constant need to re-evaluate the world along with the main character in The Sea for a Leftie. How much of yourself do you see in him?
Some of the main character’s details came from my own life, especially in the beginning of the novel, but for the evolution of the story, it’s important that the main character separates form me, becomes someone else, becomes a viable fictional character. Closer to the middle of his story, the main character started to break away from under my control, begged me to change direction of the plot while fighting me at every turn. I’m sure this probably happens to every writer during work on a large project—a certain moment, a sudden halt happens, a wall in the plot, an entirely tangled ball, a mix of characters and events. The moment before resolution is the most difficult one, I think.
That is why when I work on a large piece of prose, I have a system for writing. I write every day and at the same time. That way I don’t lose plots and the characters’ emotions are still fresh from the day before. When I put down a period today, I already have 5 to 7 pages ready in my head for the next day. They are completely visualized, and all I have to do is put them on a paper. It’s vital to do it before plot hamburgers cool down.
Writers often agonize over the quality of their product. How many drafts did The Sea for a Leftie have before being published?
Although I like to write systematically, I finished the novel in a short time—21 days! The part containing the main idea was written long before, but during those 21 days, I wrote 5 to 6 hours every day, editing, crossing out, adding, changing characters, and thinking of new details. And those 5 to 6 hours happened after my regular work day of journalist reporting because no more than 10 writers can live in Ukraine only from their literary proceeds. I don’t belong to them yet and therefore have to work. And although literature brings an additional income, it also allows me to travel quite a bit, talk to interesting people, meet readers, and that is my main feedback from it.
When I finally finished my novel, I went out to the street on a wide, cool wave of euphoria and wandered about the city for two hours as if in a haze. This state after finishing writing is like traveling to 50 countries in three weeks and suddenly realizing that the journey is over. I remember every minute of that evening. Naturally, I edited the novel one more time a few months after, but made no substantial changes.
How often do you look back at your earlier work and wish to make revisions? Do you think that if you were to revise your novel now, would it have a different ending and/or other details?
I think that in The Sea for a Leftie I could clean up some things in the style itself. Also, in the structure of some specific sentences, I would make small corrections for a better flow, so that the sequences of the paragraphs wouldn’t look so crooked. All those are technical moments. But I would not change the ending because I wanted it exactly like I’d made it. One of the moments near the end discusses a topic hotly debated in futuristic circles, a topic of interest for Elon Musk, although the book was written long before anyone here knew about Musk. Transhumanism is the idea of moving the human consciousness away from their body. What kind of person would result from such a transfer? Where could that consciousness be moved? Into an ultraprecise computer? In some other biological structure? Into a robot? This is what is going to evolve in the next 40 to 50 years, and, eventually, will become a reality, I’m sure. But how, exactly? My novel fantasizes a little about how this innovative direction can evolve.
I spend considerable amount of time thinking and reading about this. For example, I read somewhere recently that to alleviate severe forms of epilepsy, patients get a certain part of brain removed, which results in having two consciousnesses. Interestingly enough, such patients remain healthy and without psychological abnormalities afterwards. When a doctor writes on a piece of paper the instructions for a patient to leave the room when only the left eye can see this, the patient leaves as instructed. But when “the right side” gets asked why the patient left the room previously, the answer will be something along the lines of: “I just decided to leave to get an apple.” The brain doesn’t realize what “the other” consciousness does, but “comes up” with the reasons to explain the actions.
I can’t fit it into my head.
Some writing exercises suggest trying to write from a perspective of someone who is nothing like themselves. Have you ever toyed with writing from the female point of view?
Oh, but I did try to write from a woman’s perspective. I have a few poems like this. The girls who heard them told me that I feel their internal worlds with high fidelity.
This is one of the tasks of the writer—to be an actor on paper, to be this Bill Milligan with tens of beings in one’s head while having them under control, not giving anyone a preferential treatment, and living as yourself. Such complicated internal struggle demands significant amount of effort for me to maintain. However, it gets easier to control the characters, emotions, and moods with age and practice.
I know that you are currently on a tour promoting your latest publication, Fir, which is a collection of 99 poems with the last, the hundredth, to be the reader herself/himself. Why this choice? Tells us a little more about the collection. What was the inspiration for it?
Yes, I’m on a tour right now, and visited 12 cities already. Ukraine is bit smaller than Texas, but still, it is the biggest country in Europe. The book has three parts, plus a small selection from my previous works. The first part is about war, the second one about intimate lyrics, and the third one about the integrity in negatives and positives: the finding of wisdom, peace, consolidation, the calm after war and love. Also, it’s the part about my family ties, about understanding yourself in the flow of generations, about the depth left to us by our ancestors, and what we should do with that depth, how to absorb it and pass it on.
The hundredth reader is the symbol of the book becoming whole, complete after it has been read.
I love the illustrations in the book. Tell me more about them.
When I stopped at the name “Fir,” I decided that this book will resemble a tree in some way. On the internal side of the cover—a tree bark. Inside and outside—fir tree needles, both in the illustrations and the poems. We met with the artist-illustrator, Dasha Babchenko, a few times and discussed the figures, the images, metaphors, which fir needles to bring to the book. Afterwards, she drew all of that and proposed a logical sequence of illustrations.
First of all, the fir needles were used as a symbol of wisdom, symbol of finding what follows not only the negativity of war, but also a positivity of love, symbol of finding peace with each other. The collection aims to get there.
I have to ask, what do the little schools of fish on the bottom of some pages mean?
The small schools of fish symbolize blood, the blood that flows while finding its direction. It serves as a reminder about the current war in Donbass. At the same some, it is an allusion to a few poems; for example, a poem about erythrocytes, which talks about many things or people, like soldiers, who are dying for us so that we would live well. But we have no idea how much effort they apply, so that we can tan on a beach, play badminton, or go clubbing.
On a couple of occasions, both in your novel and in epigraph to one of your poems, you reference another contemporary Ukrainian author, Taras Prohasko. You also honor other compatriots through epigraphs. What about the works of others do you enjoy and how much do they play a role in your craft?
In my previous collections, I had a few epigraphs paying homage to my favorite poets—Paul Celan, Julian Shooting, Joseph Brodsky, among others. In this collection, I decided to give a few epigraphs to Ukrainian writers, Taras Prohasko and Ihor Rymaruk, to honor them, so to speak.
I’m going to add this. I wonder why no Ukrainians have ever gotten a Nobel Prize in literature. I think that they’re definitely no worse than Polish, Russian, or Czech writers, from where many laureates came. We previously had authors who definitely deserved it, and now we have a few deserving ones. Our currency, hryvnia, displays only poets, with a few exceptions of historical political figures. Here, in Ukraine, we discuss this every year before the Nobel ceremony.
I know that you can always can talk to your father, who is also a poet, among other things. How often do you get together with such like-minded people?
Well, my father was the one who provided me with a strong foundation. He unobtrusively introduced me to the right kind of books when I was young. So afterwards, in the university, when I met other poets my age, I always had a wider frame of reference when it came to literature. I knew all the important names in the latest as well as historical discourses. Maybe because of this I later became the youngest recipient laureate of the most prestigious literature award in Ukraine, “Fire-torch” (Smoloskyp). I see poets and literature lovers all the time and have 2 to 3 presentations a week, mostly in Kyiv, but sometimes I get invited abroad as well. There is a peculiar practice in Ukraine. From time to time, large music festivals organize a separate literature stage for writers, and so various punks, jazzmen, or simply locals come to listen to us. These past few years, different creative writing courses (“courses of literary mastery”) became trendy, so I lecture there sometimes.
Some people hold the belief that however difficult writing can be, the alternative is not a choice for them. What do you think?
When I was young, I thought: if I won’t write a poem today, I will forget how to do it tomorrow. But with age, I think I tamed my inspiration as if it’s now in my pocket and I can take it out at any moment to pay for this or that impression. Inspiration for me is the currency to pay with, and this currency pays for my poems. Sometimes I try to completely distance myself from writing, and clear my head as the way to better digest someone’s emotions, histories/stories, get to know more people, and the spectrum of things to put on a paper grows accordingly. There is an interesting parallel with sports. My favorite player, Messi from Barcelona, a football genius, runs less than other players during the match except for the goalie. The same with Rodger Federer or Novak Djokovic; they try to rest as much as they can between tennis tournaments. Such contrast helps control the writing process better. Sometimes the writing process can be so difficult, I just want to drop dead.
What urges you to write?
Mostly, I write to understand myself and make the world around me, however trivial that sounds, but it’s exactly what it is. When some detail, one aspect of emotion, makes you spend a few hours just thinking about it. For example, some broken glassware. Why? For what purpose? How can you avoid it? What dress was she wearing when she was breaking it? What helped her? A half-an-hour-long cold shower? Pressing the gas pedal and driving south for half a night?
It’s sort of a trip to a psychiatrist for me. By the way, I have never been to a psychiatrist and can’t even imagine how that might be.
The renown, the performances, the PR, the books, the warm feedback from the readers, all that are enjoyable additions. All that is good.
To paraphrase the main character from your novel, we are not as important as the memories we leave about ourselves. Who has left the brightest memories in your life, and did that find reflection in your writing?
Yes, I think this message is important. Thank you for pointing it out.
My own family, women, and other people around me set an example in life, this ideal to strive for a certain kind of activity. Although I have never seen him, Magnus Carlsen, the chess champion, will leave a stronger impression on me than the neighbor in my apartment complex with whom I go down the elevator every morning. Family—my grandma, my parents did this for me because they invested countless emotions in me, and practically had been creating my impressions for years. For example, because of parents children get to experience Disneyland. Who would have sold me a ticket at a train station when I was little? One needs to be eternally grateful to one’s parents for that. And women, naturally—they often form a man unnoticeably, though conversations, through flirting. Eventually, a man might start hating them or listening and respecting. I chose the latter.
And really, it doesn’t matter that I might have holes in my socks today, more importantly—someone on the other side of the country or the planet reads Fir and enjoys the world.
Tetyana Rudenko, a 2017 Potomac Review intern, will present her talk, “Difficulties in Translating Ukrainian Poetry,” at the annual Confluence Conference on September 23, 2017.