"When you start reading a book, the book starts reading you. When you open a book, the book begins to open you."
Thursday, October 5, 2023

Each year, the Writing University conducts interviews with writers while they are in Iowa City participating in the International Writing Program's fall residency. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home. Today we are talking with Iya Kiva, a poet, translator and journalist from Ukraine.

iya kiva portrait

Iya Kiva Ія Ківа  (poet, translator, journalist; Ukraine) is the author of poetry volumes Подальше от рая [Farther from Heaven] (2018) and Перша сторінка зими [The First Page of Winter] (2019), as well as of a 2021 book of interviews with Belarusian writers. Her poems have been translated into more than 30 languages and awarded nationally and internationally. She translates Polish and Belarusian poetry and contributes to the PJ Library program in Ukraine as an editor and a translator of children’s books from the English. Her participation is made possible by an anonymous gift to IWP.


Hello Iya!

1. Do you have a plan or project in mind for your time at the residency?

Before I came to the International Writing Program in Iowa, I submitted the manuscript of my new poetry collection "Laughter of the Extinguished Fire" to my publisher, so now I am at the stage where I'm looking for new ideas for further work, reading, taking notes, writing quotes, enter into a dialogue with the texts to focus on certain topics that I want to think about in the near future. Also, I'm working here on prose like autofiction. Trying to do something in prose is a new experience for me, so I can't say yet what will come out in the end. In general, I am a very slow poet – one poem in one to three months is a normal pace for me. Considering that I've already written one such poem while here in Iowa, I'm spending my time here quite productively.

2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?

Poets are not very disciplined people. My comfortable time for work is somewhere between 12 noon and 6 pm. In addition, my personal way of interacting with the world is collecting impressions slowly, both real-life (walking, talking, observing) and artistic ones (literature, music, cinema, painting), which then form the body of the poem, its architectonics. In other words, I am like an empty bottle that slowly fills with liquid, but the liquids can be different: water, tears, wine, blood, saliva, etc. I take a lot of notes, but actually I spend most of my time thinking about certain things and visualizing them in my imagination. From the outside, this process is mostly invisible. It's like when you see a person who is standing for hours in front of a particular painting in a museum, but what's in their head at that time, you don't know; only if they start talking, you have a chance to see the artistic statement that will come out of his or her head is like Athena from the head of Zeus.

3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?

I read mostly poetry, both randomly (for example, friends on social networks) and sequentially, reading certain books from cover to cover. I am currently re-reading the poems of Vasyl Stus and Paul Celan, as well as reading Yehuda Amichai's poems in English translations that I bought here in Iowa. As for prose, I started reading "The book of Goose" by Yiyun Li.

As for research and pleasure, it seems to me that these things are interconnected. When you start reading a book, the book starts reading you. When you open a book, the book begins to open you. I want to say that reading is a way to explore yourself through a certain text, because what you read enters into a dialogue with your experience, thoughts, worldview. It's also a way to explore other people and their experiences through text. But while reading, you are always juggling questions and answers about yourself, the author, and his characters. Reading is like having a conversation with a friend, even if you're reading a science book or non-fiction, and if the conversation isn't pleasant, it's just not meaningful.

4. What is something the readers and writers of Iowa City should know about you and/or your work?

I don't even know how to better answer this question. Since my childhood, I have been concerned about the issues of injustice and and about finding the language of love, because people are not too ecological in the way they treat each other. When I talk about love, I mean a way of interacting in such a way as not to hurt others, because every person has the right to be imperfect, vulnerable, has the right to be different from others and at the same time needs understanding and acceptance. If you look at my texts, I write mainly about war, refugees, death, violence, homelessness, the feeling of being unwanted and alien in this world – in short, not very happy topics. But I don't want to scare anyone or say how bad I feel or how bad my country feels; this is just my way of writing about the fact that evil is happening here, that here is something we can do to make ourselves and the world better. But in general, I write about the time in which I live and how I and the people around me live through this time. It seems to me that this is what poetry does – it captures time and how it is felt, because each private and historical time has its own language.

5. Tell us a bit about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?

I was born in Donetsk, a city in eastern Ukraine that has been under Russian occupation since 2014, and was formally annexed by Russia in 2022. I lived there for 30 years, and in 2014 I was forced to leave and became what we in Ukraine call a "refugee", and in international terminology it is called a "displaced person". So, in fact, I do not have a home, but my home is Ukraine, because it is the only country where I can feel like myself, a person with a Ukrainian identity, even though my ancestors included not only Ukrainians, but also Jews and Poles.

Now my country is in a state of war, the war that Russia started against Ukraine in 2014, and in 2022 this war entered a heated phase. I know that for many people in various countries of Europe, the USA, South America and Africa, the struggle of Ukrainians against Russian imperialism became a revelation, because the Russian colonial policy is not similar to the imperialism of other countries, where nations became the objects of colonization, for example, overseas, often very different in appearance and culture. But Ukrainian history is the history of a nation that for years existed without its own state and became an object of enslavement by other subjects of political will, including Russia as an empire. And that war, which everyone saw openly only in 2022, has actually been going on in Ukraine for centuries.

What do I want to say about my home? We, Ukrainians, want to live and are terribly tired of war and of Russian imperial ambitions, but if we do not win this war, we can forget about Ukrainian identity and freedom, in particular, the freedom to be Ukrainians in our home, on our land. In the same way, we can forget all the talks about justice, freedom, rights, democratic values, etc., because if we allow the truth of force, and not the force of truth, at least in one place in this world, then violence will multiply. What power of law can we talk about in this world, if no one can guarantee Ukrainians even the basic human right to life? We must fight for it, die for this right, explain that living is important. Although "thou shalt not kill" is known from the sixth commandment. I am a descendant of people who faced two of the biggest genocides that took place on Ukrainian lands in the 20th century: part of my family died during the Holodomor, the other part was murdered during the Holocaust. And today this existential drama is repeating itself with me: Russians came to kill me – just because I am Ukrainian. This is what my home looks like today and how I live in it.


Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today!