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Review: Альгометрія (Algometry) by Iryna Vikyrchak

June 23, 2021

Parasolia Publishing, an all-women publishing house launched in 2021, arrives with style: Its inaugural title is Iryna Vikyrchak’s outstanding poetry collection Альгометрія (Algometry)

On its carefully designed Instagram feed, Parasolia posted a multi-point apologia for reading and writing poetry with the following preface: “Sales data show that poetry books sell significantly fewer copies than prose. We consider this to be unjustified, and here is why.”

If I may be allowed the pun, Algometry is unapologetically here to evangelize: It is smart, deeply empathetic, and superbly crafted. These are poems you will want to memorize, from a book you will want to be seen reading. Ms. Vikyrchak’s afterword elucidates the origins and the conceptual axis of the collection, and I do not wish to deprive the reader of the pleasure that is the sense of entering a dialogue with the author. I found myself underlining many statements and writing notes in the margins. Halyna Kruk’s introduction guides the reader into the book by meditating on the title which refers to the scientific process of quantifying pain.

The collection is organized into three parts, each including a titular poem.

“Algometry”, the opening section, reads as a personal archaeology–specific, delicate, and inevitably revealing. Reading the anapestic lines slows one down like the slow work of uncovering a buried ship’s ribs or the roots of a chopped down vine. While the speaker, at one point, insists on “holding on to the early experiences, the childhood” (“триматися за досвіди ранні, дитячі”) she also acknowledges their limited relevance, saying “but we outgrew it, Mom, we did” (“але ми переросли, ма / переросли”). The phrase, used so often by Soviet and post-Soviet pediatricians to allay parents’ anxieties becomes here an affirmation of becoming one’s own person, one who belongs a new, distinct generation.

The middle section, “Anthropology,” is a many-voiced, iterative reading–or, perhaps, hearing–of the physical messages sent by the world. The speaker her is a confident augur, acutely attuned to her body’s presence and movement in space, along a river, or awake in the short hours of the morning. She is a keen interpreter of her physical environment haunted by uncertainty–not about her interpretation of the world, but the world itself.

In the final section, “Amnesia,” the work of “rolling up your pain into a ball” continues. Pain, which has been the social fabric of these poems, evidence of being alive and, sometimes literally, in touch with others, must now become subject to forgetting.  One must forget in order to make room for a new love. Phantom limbs, however, persist–including a heart worn, with the help of a different language, outside one’s chest, on a sleeve.

The experience of reading the collection, which I did in two sittings (and plan to do again), began for me with an adjustment to my inner ear: Ms. Vikyrchak commands three-foot meters with extraordinary dexterity which makes reading her work both effortless and transporting. The formal quality of these poems communicated, for me, its own insight, namely, that human experience, no matter how painful or remarkable, is rarely limited to a single occurrence. Pain lingers. Dust collects. Memory is iterative. We hurt and heal over days. We live routines.

Zen and the Art of Translating Long Novels

June 21, 2021

The art, of course, is in not thinking about it.

I am just about half-way through Oksana Lutsyshyna’s wondrous Ivan and Phoebe. If I allowed myself to think about the page count or to contemplate the great seas of text ahead of me (to be translated) and behind me (to be edited), I would be paralyzed. I know this because about a week ago or so this is precisely what I did.

There is only one novelist I know well enough to know how he writes. It’s my husband, and he happens to start at the beginning and write until the end without much adjustment or rewriting. He, too, often gets stuck in the middle.

It occurs to me that while the author works at his/her own pace and frequently without deadlines or supervision, the translator does not necessarily have the option of walking away from a project for a while and then picking it up again. The obligation I feel to the text I have committed to translate is such that even if I made myself take a break, I would still be thinking about it. The break would not work.

Thus, one invents a new system of measuring progress–one that does not involve word- or page-counts and should generate as little anxiety as possible. For me, it’s time.

I allocate and manage work in specific chunks of time I spend on it. I use the Pomodoro technique, so for me, it’s two Pomodoros. Then a break. Then we see.

I discovered a while ago that setting a timer did wonders for my ability to focus at whatever is at hand. For me, doing so removes the pressure of focusing on accomplishing the task. The timer is going to run no matter what I do, so I might as well, in this case, translate while it’s running. When it stops, I stop.

I also have to promise myself a reward. After I put in my time, I tell myself, I can do whatever I want–take a nap, go for a walk, or watch the Walking Dead. I will have earned it.

I do wonder if, paradoxically, it would be easier if I were fitting this work around another full-time job as I had done with every project before. I think the daily task would have less mass, less gravitas then. It would stand out less. It would also have decidedly less time before and after it–intervals I tend to fill with apprehension and second-guessing, respectively.

I have taken many personality tests in my life, most recently some corporate ones that promise to elucidate one’s strengths and identify the type of work to which one is best suited. The read-out told me I was particularly good at short, manageable jobs that produced a tangible result.

Translating is not like that. At all. But I still love it.

Day Ten: Junk Drawer Song

June 8, 2021

I am now in the panning-for-gold mode: going over pages I filled with my riffs on the NaPoWriMo poetry prompts, and trying to make sense of what happened.

On day ten, there was a multi-step prompt, which I did very much enjoy. Feel free to check out the prompt first, or read what happened first and try to guess the prompt :)

The thing about ‘junk drawers’ is, they take a while to fill. And we call them ‘junk’ drawers, aren’t we dismissing the value of our lives, and the accumulated tribute to thrift, exercise of prudence, the material declaration on the intention to stay, be, persist? Dolmens they are. Cairns, inkusuit. Places of stay and accumulation because stay = accumulation. Moving away without leaving something behind means not having actually been/having just traveled through, still possessed by the road.

A cairn of paper clips, sandpaper, hammer, pencils. Playing cards

Stet Fortuna Domus

The king of spades rode his white horse to Hades.

The queen of hearts fed rocks to the hearth.

The jack of clubs hammered a tub.

The ace of diamonds became a pub sign.


stet fortuna domus

leave the junk drawer

let it be a sign

you were once of this house


the road will take

what it wants:

paperclips pencils

a hammer

a stone — but you

leave a cairn

pretend you belonged

Final Thoughts from the Self-Inflicted Writing Residency: With a Little Help from my Friends

June 2, 2021

Special thanks to PCGuy5, a member of the NaPoWriMo community, who left a most thoughtful response here.

NaPoWriMo is very much a community enterprise, hence the last question: will I be throwing my hat into the ring next year?

That’s a great question. When that banner says 2022, will you see it on this blog?

I don’t know. It’s a long time until then. There will be the poetry postcard fest in July and August, which is also a lot of fun. That does not involved structured prompts, which, as PCGuy5 points out, works better for some people.

One thing I learned/taught myself in the last month is not to take prompts too literally (the good-girl, straight-A student never dies!) — I loved a couple of the tangents I went on, especially when they involved language found that very morning by my ‘magpie brain’. Reading other people’s takes on the prompt was helpful. Listening to the readings was also very helpful: I listened to much more poetry than I would have read during the same period of time, which is noteworthy in itself. Equally important is that watching videos of other poets reading one can learn what not to do ;)

I have reconfirmed my approach to drafting – which is not to draft. Rather, I let the idea run its course and see if it is, in horse-racing terms, a five-furlong sprint or an Ascot Gold Cup. Either one might be fine, but the latter is almost always more competitive. Then I rewrite the same idea from start to finish. Sometimes again.

I do have a dozen pages in my notebook filled with new material. In very small handwriting – and! No coffee stains!

So I think if you’ll bear with me some more, I will be posting bits and pieces on my Instagram feed. Look for me here.

Happy writing!

More Notes from a Self-Inflicted Residency

May 21, 2021

I have written every day for another week. This makes me very happy.

I still don’t know what it is exactly that puts my mind at ease: whether it’s reading other people’s responses to the same prompt, or listening to other poets (even if their work does not immediately resonate), or the prompts themselves–off which my brain seems to have learned to riff.

It feels loose inside my head, roomy and secluded. It’s like a room you can dance in and no one needs to know.

The mind is a magpie. The mind is a racoon. It will get into anything: roadside plants, a news story, mother, nursery rhymes… I have not re-read anything I’ve written so far–there will be time for that–but it has been, dare I say, fun.

A few quotes from the poets reading this week:

The dog I just got is orange… I think that would help with the poem

Eileen Myles

The mind is a grocer.

Erin Lierl

which seemed, when dreamed,

so profoundly much…

Sylvia Plath

Notes from Self-Inflicted Writing Residency

May 14, 2021

As some of you may have heard, I failed in my earlier attempt to participate in the National Poetry Writing Month.

I did, however, feel that I was ready for a regular writing practice (if it killed me!), so on Monday this week I set out on a self-paced NaPoWriMo.

I am quite pleased to report that I have showed up and applied the pressure (of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair) every day thus far. Astonishingly, I wrote something every day. I may just be learning something… Here are a few takeaways:

  1. Writing is like sex: better scheduled than none.
  2. Whatever you do, it is very important not to tip your coffee mug over your keyboard. Especially when the laptop is next to your notebook. In which you write with an ink pen. Just sayin’.
  3. The good folks at NaPoWriMo have done yeoman’s work pulling together prompts, links to readings, and responses from other poets. Do be grateful!
  4. Writing poetry is like sex: imagination only takes you so far, and then you have to focus really hard.
  5. In a randomly selected sequence of five days, all five readings were by male poets.
  6. They were all very good.
  7. Generally speaking, I try to take my work seriously but never myself. This experiment is teaching me to reverse the attitude in order to enter a state of play: I have to take myself seriously, or at least literally–attend to the whims and random associations that come up, abstain from judgement, accept whatever comes–but not the work. One can’t write to shift the foundations of the world every day. But that does not mean that one can’t write. I have a hard time with that. But I’m learning.

As a caveat, I am also in the middle of a translation project that is both good and just the right degree of challenging. So I never have to feel like I haven’t done enough in the day–even if my poetry exercise produces three lines of sound-play, there will still be the one thousand words of translated prose in the afternoon.

My Failed NaPoWriMo

May 10, 2021

Ok, maybe not “failed”. Better “incomplete.” “Extended.”

April, in case you missed it (and I don’t blame you for a second if you did) is the National Poetry Month in the U.S. and the National/Global Poetry Writing/Revision Month on the internet. Kind people post prompts and encourage each other to write every day. I did read (almost) every day, and it is truly amazing what becomes possible for a writer who manages to silence the critical and mocking voices in her head.

I was not one of those writers, I’m afraid. I intended to respond to every prompt, but, of course, got stuck after one or two, and then committed the self-defeating error of not getting myself unstuck at the next prompt. I couldn’t quite develop the routine for exercising that “poet muscles” as Cathy Bryant called it on her blog here, and routine, as we all know is key.

I am also particularly inhibited in the area of drafting — if an idea does not come together, if it does not produce that sudden, elusive leap into the unpredictable, I can’t stay with it. Every teacher will tell you that this is not a good attitude. It’s a great way to get yourself stuck. In order to write something one likes, one does have to write first. Words. On a page. Maybe I would do better if I didn’t insist on sentences…

The other excuse I have in my pocket is that my month is August, when the Postcard Festival runs its own 30-day challenge. But August is quite far away, and my postcards are in a shipping container with the rest of our ‘effects’ on their way to England.

So, here is something I can do. Much like the folks who invented #DIYMFA for the shutdown, I can benefit from the tremendous amount of output and curation already done, set a reminder on my calendar, and work through the 30 days of poetry at my own pace. I’ll try to post about my progress, if only to keep myself accountable.

Wish me luck!

“Your Ad Could Go Here” Wins Translation Prize

May 7, 2021

I am honored to report that the American Association for Ukrainian Studies has chosen Oksana Zabuzhko’s collection of short stories Your Ad Could Go Here as the winner of its 2021 prize for Best Translation.

We are delighted to congratulate the winners and we thank members of the three selection committees for their hard work. The AAUS plans to honor the prize winners at the AAUS business meeting that we plan to hold in person during this year’s ASEEES Convention in New Orleans.

– AAUS press release.

The Honorable Mention recognizes Maria Rewakowicz for her translation of Mykola Vorobiov’s Mountain and Flower: Selected Poems published by Lost Horse Press. Well-deserved congrats to the team at Lost Horse!

Working on a book of short stories is a unique enterprise. The book includes translations of individual stories by Marco Carynnyk, Marta Horban, Halyna Hryn, and Askold Melnyczhuk, as well as my own. My additional task as the editor was to make the volume read as a unified whole.

We translators, I think, can sometimes find ourselves at the receiving end of sharp and over-generalized criticism prompted by a single word, an odd phrase, or an awkward sentence. What the translator focuses on in the process of transplanting the text into a new language are not always (however much we all wish it could be) the same things as the ones an editor looks for. Which is why I was very honored to do this collection of short stories the service of being its editor, in addition to being one of the translators. The piece I translated alone, An Album for Gustav, had previously been published in Berlin Quarterly and had gone through editorial care there.

This is all to say, it takes a village. Every time. Every book. If you are in a position to help someone as an editor, please do it.

Oksana Lutsyshyna Discussion and Reading — Now Online

April 21, 2021

Thanks to the Danylo Husar-Struk Programme in Ukrainian Literature of the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, last week we had a few dozen fans come together for an International symposium dedicated to the work of Oksana Lutsyshyna, followed by her poetry and prose readings. Yours truly was also there and attempted to make an intelligent contribution at about 1 hr 7 min mark. At the very end of the reading Oksana was kind enough to read an excerpt from her novel Ivan and Phoebe in my translation (which my husband said was “flawless” and that’s a big deal because despite being my husband, he is my toughest editor).

Participants: Tamara Hundorova, Maxim Tarnawsky, Vitaly Chernetsky, Taras Koznarsky, Olena Jennings, and Nina Murray.

Organizer and moderator: Alex Averbuch 

Oksana Lutsyshyna is the 2021 laureate of the Taras Shevchenko National Prize in Literature, awarded for her novel Ivan and Phoebe (2019). The novel has also been awarded the UNESCO Lviv City of Literature Award (2020). Lutsyshyna (b. 1974) is an award-winning writer, poet, translator, PEN Ukraine member, and literary scholar. She is the author of three novels, a collection of short stories, and five books of poetry, all but one published in Ukraine. Her latest poetry collection, Persephone Blues, was published in English translation in 2019 by the Boston-based publisher Arrowsmith. Oksana Lutsyshyna holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Georgia, and is currently a lecturer in Ukrainian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Who Am I to Say? A Personal History in Publishing

April 12, 2021

Here I am, telling folks to invest their time and attention to listen to me dispense advice, and you might find yourself reasonably wondering, why should anyone listen to me?

First of all, as we have all heard, free advice is worth exactly what you paid for it, and a long time in the trenches of grants and program management has taught me conclusively that advice paid-for is advice written down. And better remembered.

Those considerations aside, I do think I have seen/published a thing or two. If you don’t know me yet, read on.

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