Safe Place: An Interview with Ukrainian Poet Yuliya Musakovska from Lviv, Ukraine by Laima Vince
Updated: May 4, 2022
Artwork by Alyona Zhuk
Are you in a safe place? —
This sounds like a prayer,
repeated over and over since February 24, 2022
to loved ones and friends.
I’m asking myself: am I in a safe place?
Could I be?
Could I be in a safe place
when my parents refuse to leave their home
but have no air-raid shelter beneath their apartment block?
The cellar that serves as one looks like it may
turn into a mass burial too quickly.
Could I be in a safe place
when my father, in cancer remission, is not able to walk quickly
to a school in the neighborhood
that has a proper air-raid shelter after all.
For those who can run, it takes about seven minutes
to get there.
What are his chances?
Could I be in a safe place
when my nearly blind grandfather can hardly descend
a staircase even if guided carefully,
with no rush.
He, who fought Nazis in World War II, is not afraid of today’s Russian fascists.
He will outlive them all, he says.
Them, soon to lay in the fertile Ukrainian soil.
They haven’t bombed your city yet, some say.
You are in a safe place, stop whining.
Just air raid sirens several times a day
and probably at night.
Sometimes none at all, it is safe.
Could I be in a safe place
when my friends are under constant shelling in Kharkiv,
Sumy, Irpin, Bucha, unable to leave?
When my friend’s parents in Chernihiv are out of reach
for several days?
No more electricity, gas, or roads, they say.
Could I be in a safe place when 1,300
have been killed in besieged Mariupol?
Today, in the city of Zaporizhya
calling themselves Russian soldiers
crashed a civilian car
with their tank.
A little boy burned to death.
Are you in a safe place?..
(First published in Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland)
An Interview with the Ukrainian poet, Yuliya Musakovska
1) Tell me about your life as a Ukrainian poet before the war. How did you find your voice as a poet?
I’ve been writing poetry since I was a little kid. In the beginning, it was basic rhyming, but I enjoyed it. I remember vividly when I was in the second grade and sick with whooping cough and coudn't sleep at night, I composed a long, rhymed fairy tale that my grandma wrote into a big notebook. Then in my teenage years writing poetry became a little more serious, getting published in local newspapers, taking part in various local contests and writing song lyrics for school bands. My family never thought too much of it, they wanted me to concentrate on my studies and starting my career as they couldn't support me financially. So, I started working pretty early and forgot about poetry until I was about 25. Then, having a steady job in IT brought some kind of stability and allowed me some space for creativity. This was an era of literary portals in Ukraine where any author could publish their works. After receiving a great deal of feedback, I also decided to submit my poems to several literary contests and publishers. My first book, Exhaling, Inhaling, was published in 2010, and the next year I won the Smoloskyp Award, a prestigious literary price for young writers in Ukraine. It resulted in my second book, Masks, being published in 2011. I have published a total of five poetry books in total.
As to the topics, I have always been interested in human nature, exploring human experiences and relationships through my writing. I also address the significance of one’s roots and self-identification, women’s unity and self-fulfillment.
An important milestone for me was the Revolution of Dignity when the last pro-Russian president of Ukraine was cast out. He wanted to change the country’s course to Russia instead of the EU which is established by Ukrainian constitution, and so the Maydan protest began. Yanukovych had to flee, but many protesters were killed on his orders. These were people who chose freedom over shame and oppression and sacrificed their lives for it. I think it was a tipping point for me as a poet. It feels like almost every poem written ever since was more social than personal.
Then, in 2014, Russia occupied Crimea as well as parts of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine. People were forced to leave their homes on the occupied territories at that time. It is heart-breaking to see that now many of them have to be displaced again because of this full-scale Russian invasion.
In the spring of 2014, I wrote the poem called “Men are carrying war inside them.” Since then, war has been among the central topics of my writing, even if I wasn't physically present in the war zone. And now, when the war has filled the entire existence of Ukrainians, how could a poem write about anything else?
2) How does one “be” a poet in war? Describe your writing process under conditions of war.
Lviv, my native city, is located close to the Polish border. Since the war began, there were two Russian missile strikes in the city and two more in the region. It is considered relatively safe in Lviv, but there is no entirely safe place anywhere in Ukraine after Russia launched its full-scale war.
About two weeks after the war began, I wrote a poem called “Safe Place.” I wrote it in English as I couldn’t find the right words in Ukrainian to describe what I was feeling. English is my daily work language, and at that time I was getting tons of messages from worried friends worldwide, and, of course, I was mostly answering those in English. It felt natural to use this language to start speaking to the world about Russia’s unbelievable atrocities that we were experiencing. The poem is filled with worry and pain for my family, friends, and all fellow Ukrainians, it was later translated to Polish and published in Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the major daily newspapers in Poland.
As to routines, I would say the workload increased incredibly. I have been working full-time before the war and doing my literature work as a part-time extra job. Now it feels like I work two full-time jobs with constant overtimes, in addition to basic daily chores. The world is now hungry to get to know Ukraine, its art and literature. My new poems about the war have been immediately translated into several languages, invitations have been extended to participate in various projects and events. It feels wrong to turn them down as it’s a part of a cultural frontline where Ukrainian voices are being heard. In the past two months I’ve contributed to the initiatives launched by USA, Israel, Norway, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Italy, China and elsewhere. I’ve spoken and read my poetry about the war at live events, such as the Katowice ArtJazz Festival in April and will read at the Kaunas Literary Week in May.
As to the emotional state, it is truly hard to describe. Sometimes black pain and fury takes over, making you completely numb and unable to do anything. However, it is crucial to learn to turn that fury into some kind of fuel to be able to fight further. I couldn’t write poetry for many weeks after the news about Russian atrocities in Bucha. But then you realize that you must pull yourself together and continue doing your job. Because your country's fate is at stake, and you must do whatever you can. We have to keep working and fighting no matter what. This is a matter of survival for Ukraine and Ukrainians.
Poetry has a privilege of reacting quickly to events, capturing raw emotions, bearing witness, speaking the truth. One of the poet’s jobs during war is to record and help comprehend what is happening, to help people, including the author himself or herself, to cope with it. Poets have an opportunity to become the voices of those who cannot speak. But what would these people really want to say? It is a huge responsibility and a challenge to find the right words, and also not to hurt anyone, especially the people who have been already suffered too much. Sometimes it’s like walking on eggshells. And sometimes poetry hurts in a good way, and I think it should. It reminds us that we are still alive and helps get the message through to the world.
3) Could you please explain your decision – and that of many Ukrainian poets – not to participate in cultural projects together with Russian poets, even those who claim to oppose this war? Why is this important?
Would you sit at the table or be featured in the same project with the people from a nation killing, raping and torturing your fellow countrymen, women and even children? People who want to erase your country off the world’s map and physically exterminate you? People who are financing this brutal war through their taxes paid to the Russian budget and, basically, paying for the bombs that fall on your homeland? I think the answer is clear. It is surprising and frustrating that some organizations and people still question this firm position of Ukrainian artists. For me, it is a matter of human decency. The entire Russian culture must remain in quarantine, at least until the war is ended. The place of the imperialistic, chauvinistic culture that laid foundation for this brutal bloody war, should be strongly reconsidered. Instead, let the silenced speak. It is time to focus on the Ukrainian culture. Russia has been trying to destroy the Ukrainian culture and language for centuries. Now the world is discovering how amazing Ukraine is, and this is just the beginning of the journey.
Yuliya Musakovska (born in 1982) is a Ukrainian poet and translator, a member of PEN Ukraine. She is the author of five poetry collections, The God of Freedom (2021), Men, Women and Children (2015), Hunting the Silence (2014), Masks (2011), and Exhaling, Inhaling (2010). A translator of Tomas Transtromer into Ukrainian and of Ukrainian authors into English, her own poems have been translated into English, Norwegian, German, Spanish, Italian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Polish, Bulgarian, Hebrew, Chinese, etc. Yuliya is the recipient of numerous literary awards in Ukraine, including Krok Publishing House’s DICTUM Prize (2014), the Smoloskyp Poetry Award (2010), the Ostroh Academy Vytoky Award (2010), the Bohdan Antonych Prize (2009), and the Hranoslov Award (2008). She lives in Lviv.