"I still remember the moment: I was 16, it was summer 1976 and I stood on the Black Sea coast (the beach near Odessa). And suddenly I decided to start writing poems.”
In the four decades since the young Yuri Andrukhovych decided to become a poet, the author has soared to the forefront of Ukraine’s literary scene, co-founding the poetry group Bu-Ba-Bu. His impressive corpus of work includes poetry collections, novels, short stories, essays, and translations, while translations of his own writings have been published in at least 18 countries.
A literary evening with Yuri Andrukhovych
On March 24, 2016, HURI held a Literary Evening with Yuri Andrukhovych at Harvard University. With a full audience representing Harvard, the Ukrainian community, and the wider public, Andrukhovych treated attendees to a sampling of his works and a discussion about literature, his creative process, and Ukraine.
Reading in Ukrainian with the English translation projected on a screen, Andrukhovych gave a taste of his poetry and two novels: Moscoviad and Twelve Circles.
Andrukhovych began with his poem Rib, which was inspired by a visit to a museum in Lviv. The museum was, he explained, a ‘secret place’ not open to the general public but confined to the medical academic community.
He then read the first poem in his five-piece cycle India. “It’s not about the real India, but the place medieval Europeans imagined as the last country on the edge of the world,” the poet prefaced. The poem, then, was an attempt to create a journey to the end of the world.
On a biographical note, India is of particular significance to Andrukhovych. In an oft-quoted but somewhat tongue-in-cheek statement, Andrukhovych said he couldn’t imagine you could still write poetry after the age of 30 and not be ridiculous. Indeed, India came at just that threshold, after which the poetic muse seemed to leave the writer alone -- or at least he didn’t listen.
Such was not to be, however, as Andrukhovych returned with a flourish to the poetry scene in 1999, on the cusp of Ukraine’s protests of 2000. Why? Andrukhovych attributed the turn of events to a legendary rock band called Mertvyj Piven’ (Dead Rooster). The musicians were passionate readers of Ukrainian poetry and often used it in their lyrics.
To fully appreciate this factor, consider Andrukhovych’s words about his teenage self from an interview prior to the literary evening:
“I loved rock music very much and I dreamt about being a member of some band, but I couldn’t play any instrument, so I had to become an author of the lyrics for that imaginary rock group.”
Fast forward to the 21st century: Mertvyj Piven’ had composed about 45 songs based on Andrukhovych’s poetry, but the poet wasn’t satisfied with the results. When he decided to turn over his (half-serious) beyond-30 rule, it was with the resolve to write poetry that could never be used for songs, the poet asserted at the Literary Evening.
The title of the collection, however - Pisni Dlya Mertvoho Pivnya (Songs for the Dead Rooster) - seemed to challenge the band, and the band did, indeed, grab the poetry and record a new album. Pisni Mertvoho Pivnya (Songs of the Dead Rooster) was their best CD to date and should have been called Songs to Andrukhovych, the writer joked.
Andrukhovych also recited Glory to the Camels, Guess Who Was My Guest, Without You, Without You-2 (not about the band U2), Welcome to My Foolish Dreamland, and Seven-Eleven.
Moving on to the prose portion of the evening, Andrukhovych read from Moscoviad and his new book, Twelve Circles. The protagonist of Moscoviad is a Ukrainian poet witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union while studying in Moscow. In his head, he composed messages to the “Ukrainian King” living in Spain, a figure who had traced his family line from the dynasty. While the hero considers the King ironically, he articulates serious thoughts about Ukraine’s future, past, and the role of the poet, Andrukhovych explained.
The excerpt contained a description of the Ukrainian people, their very essence and soul, prompting the audience to ask Andrukhovych whether he thinks Ukrainians are different now. Perceiving both a transition to Europe and a repetition of the past, Andrukhovych noted that life is too short to feel history changing. The rare moment does give one a sense of change, but it’s always the extreme, always “Maidan”.
Reflections and projections
The Literary Evening drew a refreshingly full, engaged audience, including many young faces. Perhaps, as Andrukhovych noted in an interview, young Ukrainians embody a greater enthusiasm for literary events than their American counterparts:
“The audience of different literary events - reading, festivals, talks and lectures - in Ukraine consists probably up to 90% of young and very young people. They love to attend literary performances, to meet their friends there, to create some networks and communities related to a literary process. For some reason it is a kind of a fashion - a little bit superficial but it still allows the writer to feel the status of a rock star.”
What’s on the horizon for Yuri Andrukhovych? He’s working on a book he began in the 1990s, a short story collection of people on the margins of history. His next book in English will probably be a collection of essays and Euromaidan columns, he said. And, in light of the upcoming 25-year anniversary of Ukraine’s independence from the USSR, George G Grabowicz (Dmytro Čyževs’kyi Professor of Ukrainian Literature) wondered if Andrukhovych was planning to reflect on the past - an idea that struck the writer as very intriguing. Perhaps we’ll hear an excerpt at a future Literary Evening.