Ihor, what was the inspiration for the poems in A Flight Over the Black Sea? What inspires your writing in general?

IP: A pure nostalgia for Ukraine when I was roaming in other countries of the world or soaring in aircraft over the Black Sea and over the oceans. I love the skies, it’s in my blood, and I love the sea. There is a wider social meaning encoded in the title of this book that could refer to spiritual flights over Ukraine, which underwent two Maidans. The Black Sea has become a symbol of geopolitical events that are significant both for Ukraine and for the world. Love in general inspires me, along with the cosmos and love of one’s homeland in all its dimensions, from my native Volyn to the planet Earth.

Steve, how did you come to translate A Flight Over the Black Sea?

SK: I was introduced to Ihor’s work by a colleague, Dmytro Drozdovsky, from Ukraine. I was immediately captivated by the pagan spirit of the poetry, by the fact that Ihor had created a world, based on Ukraine admittedly but a Ukraine which had been transmuted into myth, an open space of the imagination roamed by wolves, and anarchists, and the pagan gods of Ukraine.

Ihor, does your writing speak to a broader Ukrainian literary tradition? If so, how?

IP: Yes. I draw the material for my creativity from the prima, fresh impressions of colours, smells, sounds, touches and the songs and tales of my early childhood until I was about five years old. I lived with my grandparents and great-grandparents then. My great-grandmother, Hanna, told stories marvellously and sang folk songs, ancient and deep as artesian wells. Then, when music was born in my soul, I began to describe it in words and that’s what poetry is for me – it’s music, written in words… I learned how to create the content and form of text and the text of my life from the great poets of Ukraine and the world – they taught me how to live and how to write. It is impossible to be a greater poet than, let us say Byron or Virgil, or our Ukrainian philosopher Hrihorii Skovoroda and poet Taras Shevchenko … but it’s possible to continue their traditions and become a significant poet of one’s own time. I try to tread this difficult but felicitous path.

A Flight Over the Black Sea has been translated into several languages. What is gained by translating poetry?

SK: Poetry is the voice which speaks from the soul of every person, from the heart of every person. It is an affirmation of our common humanity. When we read a poem which touches us, we realise that someone else, another person, often far away, has been in love, has been afraid, has been hurt, has been injured, and experienced the same sensations that we have. Or we are shown a world in a new light, and our own world is reinvented. So poetry affirms our common humanity. It affirms the power of the imagination to reinvent the world. It is an incantation against barbarism, against sectarianism and against everything that would divide humanity. This is precisely why it’s so feared by tyrants and authoritarian regimes.

Ihor, how do you see your writing developing in response to the war in East Ukraine?

IP: In war, when you are in the trenches, you will not really write a great novel. There the human heart needs prayers and songs. I am glad therefore that some of my poems have become songs that are sung in the war zone. The renowned Ukrainian director Serhii Arkhypchuk took a selection of my verses to read to those on the front line. My son-in-law is a Ukrainian army officer. I myself have signed up as a volunteer… I feel personally the huge, apocalyptic scope of this conflict. A war is being waged now in the soul of each individual and every country, a war which I am also involved in. Therefore I have started writing about this theme in my verse novel Palomnyk and other works.

Steve, if you were stuck on a desert island, what one book (in translation!) would you take with you?

SK: I would take A Song Out of Darkness, which is the translations of Tarashevchenko by Vera Rich. Vera Rich was an English literary translator who devoted her life to translating Ukrainian and Belarussian poetry into English. She is one of the most professional and one of the most passionate translators that you could wish to meet, and her translations approach the ideal of being a transparent membrane through which you glimpse the original. She was so closely in tune with Tarashevchenko that she wished to be interred near his grave, and her wish was granted. I think that shows the degree of commitment that she brought to her literary translation, and she’s a person to be admired and emulated, and should be more widely known.

And finally! Ihor, if you were stuck on a desert island, what one book would you take with you?

IP: I know my favourite books by heart, so I would take a packet of blank paper and a pencil – so as to write a new book in the solitude and contemplation of a desert island, a book that would ennoble and save humanity from… humanity…

Steve Komarnyckyj is a poet and translator who was born in Yorkshire in 1963 but maintains strong links with his ancestral Ukraine. His literary translations and poems have appeared in Poetry Salzburg Review, The North, and Modern Poetry in Translation. His book of translations from the Ukrainian poet Pavlo Tychyna, The Raspberry’s Eyelash (Poetry Salzburg, 2011), was described as a ‘revelation’ by Sean Street. His translation of Vasyl Shkliar’s novel Raven was published in April 2013. He runs Kalyna Language Press with his partner Susie and three domestic cats.

This interview is also available as a video on our YouTube channel, together with clips of Ihor and Steve reading extracts from the book.

Read a previous PEN Atlas piece by Steve Komarnyckyj about free speech and the Euromaidan movement.

Find out more about A Flight Over the Black Sea on the World Bookshelf.