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A new article in the rubric “To read in Emigration”: in it the team “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” talked to Andrey Khadanovich – Belarusian poet and translator, literary historian, chairman of the Belarusian PEN Center (2009-2017), why he chose poetry, how to write during “historical events” and and whether Belarusian and his poetry has changed after 2020.

– What was your path to poetry? Why not prose? Why did your heart go to rhymes rather than prose or “blank verse”? What is there in poetry that other genres of literature don’t have?

Let’s start with poetry. I think that, on the one hand, it is the most infantile kind of literature, it is in a good way “childish”, a direct contact with the world. If it’s pain, it’s the most concentrated. If it is joy, it is the most all-encompassing joy. Prose is more rational, it requires synopsis, plans, checking by the “algebra of harmony”. Poetry is more unpredictable: you don’t know what awaits you, what trick will pop up last and what will surprise you. Perhaps delighting in the world and surprising myself is the most interesting thing for me about poetry. Poetry can be created on the go, on the road. See-hear a line or an image in a dream. You’re lucky, you don’t forget it. And you can finish the rest, because you already see and feel something.

However, I didn’t choose anything consciously. Here the element itself chooses its “victim”. The element of language, a certain mood: when they come, they suggest something themselves, and you have to listen carefully and find the form that suits your mood. I sometimes rhyme, and sometimes I don’t. Though I think that rhyme is not exhausted in the Belarusian linguistic arsenal, it has not been erased, that it is possible to find something non-standard and unexpected. In some languages (for example, Western languages) rhyming poetry moves away because of the limited number of possible rhymes. They become predictable and cause associations either with long-standing classics, or with a song, or with children’s literature. There is still a lot to be found in the Belarusian language and, consequently, in rhyme.

Andrey Khadanovich, photo from the hero’s personal archive

– Do you think that “white verse” is a poem or not?

– Let’s clarify the terminology a bit. “White” is a poem with quite a regular rhythm, just no rhyme at the end. Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet” in white verse. Vers libre, or free verse, is a poem devoid of that regular rhythm familiar to us from the school of iambic chorus. I’ve written two books by them. They happen to be connected with travelling and foreign experiences. Apparently, the vers libre form better conveyed the rhythm and atmosphere around the lyrical hero in the chaotic movement of the metropolis. One of them has the punning title “Berlibres”: verlibres invented in Berlin. It was there that I began to write them. Then the brilliant poet and designer Mikhail Anempodistov, when he made the cover for them, ironically called them “Berliners”. Well, let them be. As long as they savour it.

– Do you think the poems in translation are the same poems or something new?

– It’s enough to compare translations of the same poem made into the same language by different translators. Sometimes they are very dissimilar and look like independent works. But each (if good) version adds something significant to the understanding of the original. A translator may stray far from a literal understanding of the original, but retain something essential. Or he may translate all the words, but they fall apart in the translation. For me, it’s important to retain the intention of the author or authoress. To imagine what he or she would do with this work in Belarusian. To imagine the reaction of their readers or listeners – and to try to make the Belarusians laugh or cry in the appropriate place too. Someone compared translation to the restoration of old paintings. Someone compared it to adapting a piece of music for other instruments. Translators like to say various aphorisms about untranslatability – and continue to translate, sometimes very well.

Anyway, literary translation is also an inspired work, and translators should step out of the shadow of their authors little by little. I like the tendency to put the translator’s name on the cover, albeit in smaller letters, next to the author’s title and surname. My fellow translators in Belarus and I have for a long time made a magazine called “PraidziSvet”, dedicated to translations.

We organised public readings of translated literature. At the festival “Poems on the Asphalt” in Memory of Mikhail Streltsov we even organised translation slams, when translators and translatoress competed in front of the public, who would vote for the best and remember the names of people who made foreign literature sound in Belarusian.

Andrey Khadanovich, photo from the hero’s personal archive

– How has poetry – yours and Belarusian poetry in general – changed after 2020?

– I think something really changed both during our protests in 2020, and in 2022, with the outbreak of full-scale war. Poems became a way to express solidarity, became part of the resistance to violence, repression and lies, became peaceful weapons of unarmed protesters. Creative shouting, punning posters, songs of course, but also poems – at rallies, marches, and above all during the courtyard movement of the fall of autumn 2020. They were published on social networks, collected in internet collections, and then began to appear in books. The texts inspired, helped overcome fear, sent a ray of support, were (and still are today) something therapeutic.

On the other hand, poetry has become more documentary. Including other voices to whom the poet or poetess gives space in their texts, like Anna Komar. Or Vlad Lenkiewicz, who reflected his experience of detention and jail days in a strong cycle of prison poems. I’ll also mention Dmitry Strotsev, who published poems “documenting” the events of summer and autumn 2020. Marches, yard meetings, fake news, arrests, the experience of being a poet in the “glass” and, of course, the voices of others merging into one big chorus. The poems eventually came together in the book “Belarus Turned Upside Down”. Dima wrote them in Russian, and I translated them into Belarusian. And both versions (as well as translations of individual poems into several other languages) came out under one cover. These poems are attentive to seemingly small details, each of which are symbols of something larger, with more universal ideas “shining through” them. We could also mention the painful poems of Anastasia Kudasova, as well as poems by authors and contributors who stayed in Belarus, so it is not necessary to mention them now. But in general, it seems that in 2020 poetry was coping with the challenges of the time.

In 2022 (judging by myself, but also by the confessions of my colleagues) poets began to write less. But, at the same time, they turned more to Ukrainian literature. Translations began to be created, first of all collections of poetry translations, about the war, at the front and on the home front, about relocation, about bomb shelters, and so on…. I think, for all the possible offences between our countries, poetry unites, not divides. And this is different from ideology, politics with its populism, which seeks easy answers to difficult questions, divides people, and looks for guilty parties. Poetry speaks about love, opposing hatred. After 2022, more Ukrainian literature became available in the Belarusian space. For example, last year at the festival “preface” in Warsaw there was a presentation of three books by Serhiy Zhadan at once: they were printed in three Belarusian emigrant publishing houses, in London, Warsaw and Berlin. A translation of “Sweet Darusya” by Maria Matios has been published. More recently, with the help of Swedish publishers, a collection “About words and the silence between them” – 13 contemporary Ukrainian poets and poetesses in Belarusian – has appeared. The collection grew out of publications in the Internet magazine of contemporary Belarusian poetry “Taubin”.

I would like to believe that there will be more such publications.

Andrey Khadanovich, photo from the hero’s personal archive

– When is it easier to write: in peacetime or during “historical events”?

– It seems to me that a lot of things have to coincide for you to start writing. I, for example, went numb twice: first in August 2020, then in February 2022. It took a very long time for my voice to come back. Reality itself trumped our imagination and ways of responding to it. There just weren’t the tools to capture it in any way. But there are people I can name because they are safe: Algerd Baharevich, Yulia Timofeeva, the aforementioned Dmitry Strotsev, Serhiy Prilutsky (a longtime Ukrainian citizen, but a Belarusian-speaking poet). Serhiy, by the way, survived the aggression in Bucha, then the separation from his wife and child, wrote a very touching poetic cycle of “letters to Adam”, to his young son. And now it came out as a separate book. It’s a very human book. I have a lot of respect for people who find words at this time. Sometimes it comes out very painful, but it resonates. (I personally find it easier to share joy than pain. I think back to 2019, for example, when I was writing very well and ended up with “Grass School” with some pretty good, seemingly harmonious lyrics.)

I started writing again in the winter of 2021: I remember I was on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, it was about minus 20 degrees frost, and the snow was knee-deep. I walked for a long time in the snowy neighbourhoods, and started composing ballads that reminded me of my footprints in the snow. Short rows of long stanzas, like long paths that you trample somewhere. I thought at first that I was the only one psychotherapeutically interested in all this, but reactions began to appear on social media. And several grateful people wrote to rewrite these texts in letters for our political prisoners. Immediately there was additional motivation to trample paths and write new texts. It seems to be an unhappy time, but the writing was quite active. Most of these texts appeared in the last book “On the shore of freedom”.

– Is poetry for you more about fantasy, about the feeling it generates, or about the sublimation of reality in a poem?

– It’s hard to draw that line. Sometimes some texts have an autobiographical basis, but you look at something, you feel something, you write it down, and the text takes on a life of its own. One of the not the worst lyrics was a dream. I woke up in the morning, started to write it down and caught myself thinking that I didn’t understand what I had dreamed and what I had actually dreamed. It turned out to be a text about memory, where everything is wobbly and often doesn’t depend on you at all.

– Were many of your poems written out of warm feelings for Belarus and Minsk in particular (for example, about the 38th trolleybus)? How do you write without it?

– I have two lines about the 38th trolleybus. Its final stop is just opposite my house in Minsk. Today it hurts a little to remember it, as I have been living not in Belarus for three years now, and the 38th trolleybus circulates only in my memory.

The first of those poems is the result of a real experience. Once in winter I went to the bus stop in the morning, I was not fully awake yet, and I saw this trolleybus, new, illuminated from below with some lights, as if it were a small aeroplane that was accelerating and about to take off. Well, I developed it a little in the poem into a full-fledged flight.

To what extent is the real Minsk present here, and could this have happened in another country? Of course it could. My Lithuanian colleague, a translator, changed the number 38 of the trolleybus to another one, because it was prettier in Lithuanian, and my Spanish translator made a 38th bus for the Colombian festival, because they don’t have trolleybuses. I didn’t protest, the main thing is to make the readers feel good.

Andrey Khadanovich, photo from the hero’s personal archive

– Your poems are very atmospheric. Being in temporary exile, do you manage to catch the atmosphere of a new way of life, a new place and translate it into your work?

– It happens less often than I would like, but it happens. Sometimes both time and place coincide. Once I was in Warsaw when everyone was celebrating the anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising: thousands of barely armed people once rose up against the Nazis, had little hope and died. But a symbol remained. I was just at the Warsaw Uprising Museum on August 1, and I wondered: what remains of our 2020? And I wrote a poem about such a future museum of our recent history. There are many gloomy images, but there is a happy ending, because there will be many museum halls, but they will all be part of one museum, the museum of our victory.

Another text was written when I lived for a while in the neighbourhood of Vienna. There the winter is much more benign: it may snow,  but at the same time there are red roses. And there are clumps of white snow falling on their petals. Well, the scheme white-red-white formed, and the author wrote a poem not only about snow, with Earth and sky, Fatherland and exile … I try to catch moments like that, but not many yet.

– Is it harder to write poems for children? What do you think is the most important in them? How do you find a balance between being interesting not only for kids, but also for adults who read poems to their children?

– I think to write a poem for children, you don’t have to be too focused on the fact that you’re writing for children. When I wrote the book “Daddy’s notes” , I didn’t think until about halfway through that it would be a children’s book, that it would be of interest to any readers. I enjoyed spending time with my daughter Elena. There was another stakeholder in the process – my wife Marina. We were the three conspirators, they were the two first readers. Then I was surprised at how many other people, both children and adults, were also interested in these poems.

I think the moment of sincerity is very significant here. On the other hand, I started to write myself, because I lacked children’s poems in Belarusian. I used to read to Elena before bedtime the anthology “Next to Us on Earth”, children’s poems about animals, put in by Oleg Minkin. Yes, there were good poems by Ryhor Borodulin, Artur Volsky, and others. A lot of the texts I found were primarily instructive in nature, lacking some kind of lightness and freedom. But it seems to me that children’s poems are not about morality, not about being instructive, but first of all about freedom and the joy of creative discovery of the world. Even when you make some bumps, you get to know the world. I wanted to convey the atmosphere of play and experiment, freedom and happiness. And whether I succeeded is not for me to speculate.

And then kind people took me with them to perform at Christmas in an orphanage. I arrived, I was standing there, looking at the children who had no parents, then at my texts about a happy family, and I turned them over, looking for them, everything didn’t fit. It’s good that I found the one about chocolate candy, after all, there are universal values.

After that I had to write for different children’s magazines. But writing to order is a little different, and again a couple of times was not very happy. The editor wanted to do a thematic issue about aeroplanes. I agreed, but on the same day I learned that a fighter plane had crashed in Baranovichi, killing people. And a little later, just before my deadline, a plane with Roman Protasevich landed. So how are you going to wiggle out and write a poem about an aeroplane? Good thing we have the classics. I grabbed Kupala’s “Boy and the pilot” and did a children’s remake on behalf of a girl.

The second proposal was to make a text about our yard, and just then the yard movement was gaining momentum – everything was like a carnival, like a holiday. And while the issue was being prepared, there were more quiet people, mass arrests and repressions began. And you write your poem through tears.

Andrey Khadanovich, photo from the hero’s personal archive

– What are your literary plans for the future?

– Something is being written, something, I hope, will be written. And translated too. The latest one is a libretto based on Korotkevich’s “King Stakh’s Wild Hunt”, for an opera by Olga Podhajska. It premiered in London in September, and the other day the opera (and the Free Theater that produced it) was shortlisted for a prestigious British award. I hope to have this verse libretto published as a book soon.

I also hope that I will soon complete a book of poems by our Jewish poet Moyshe Kulbak, especially since such a Yiddish expert as Serhiy Shupa is helping with the translation.

And, of course, I keep my YouTube-channel, every Monday there are video lectures about 

Belarusian literature, as well as about world literature in Belarusian translations, about the most interesting book novelties. You haven’t subscribed yet? Then I invite you.