Poets from Odessa, Ukraine, come to Mason Square

The biggest poetry & human rights event in Virginia, featuring Carolyn Forché and Ilya Kaminsky

by Esther Goldberg

Poets from Odessa, Ukraine, come to Mason Square
(From left to right) Carolyn Forché, Ilya Kaminsky, Lyudmyla Khersonska, and Boris Khersonsky

“Ukraine may be the only country on earth that owes its existence, at least in part, to a poet.” These words frame “In the Hour of War: Poetry from Ukraine,” a new anthology of poetry from Arrowsmith Press.  The poet being referenced is Taras Shevchenko, a national hero of the Ukrainian language, and his face appears on the country’s banknotes.  

On November 8th, the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center will convene four poets, to read and discuss their work on the Arlington campus’s Mason Exhibitions art gallery. Edited by poets Carolyn Forché and Ilya Kaminsky, this anthology is a critical reminder of the struggles Ukrainians are facing in light of war, and serves as a beacon of hope, determination, and reckoning for Ukrainians across the globe in their continual fight for democracy. 

“As Ukraine begins its counteroffensive, and as millions of Ukrainians across the nation continue living under the threat of missile and drone attacks, this anthology and others like it continue to be timely additions to the global literary canon,” states Ukrainian American writer Nikola Yurcaba in her Tupelo Quarterly review of the collection. “These poems boldly remind readers that while news regarding the war has all but disappeared from Western headlines, the war, for Ukrainians, remains an everyday reality.”

In collaboration with Mason Exhibitions, Plamen Press, and the Lannan Center, this is the Cheuse Center’s fourth program focusing on Ukrainian voices this year. The November 8th event “In the Hour of War,” is a reading featuring four poets, including two poets who continue to live in Ukraine during the war: Lyudmyla Khersonska, author of four poetry collections in Russian and Arrowsmith Press’s Today is a Different War; and Boris Khersonsky, widely regarded as one of Ukraine’s most prominent Russian-language poets. The reading will also include the antology’s editors: Carolyn Forché, Director of Readings and Talks at the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University—who previously worked at George Mason University for fifteen years—and author of poetry collection In the Lateness of the World: Poems; and Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic and Dancing in Oddessa, whose poem “We Lived Happily During the War” went viral when war in Ukraine broke out in 2022.The Khersonsky’s are coming from Ukraine to America for this series of readings. 

The reading will be moderated by Katherine E. Young, author of poetry collections Woman Drinking Absinthe and Day of the Border Guards and translator of work by some of the great contemporary Ukrainian poets like Iya Kiva. The Cheuse Center recently showcased Katherine E Young’s translation of the memoir “Look at Him,” by Anna Starobinets, the Center’s visiting writer in exile from Russia. Young’s work has earned her national and international awards. She also serves on the Cheuse Center’s advisory board and as the inaugural poet laureate of Arlington County.  

“I first visited Ukraine in 1981; since then, I've traveled a bit around Ukraine, lived there, even run a joint venture with a Ukrainian business partner,” stated Young on her work leading up to the event. “When the war intensified in 2022, I'd been translating a couple of Ukrainian poets, including Lyudmyla Khersonska—those were terrible days, when it looked as if Kyiv might fall, and all of us waited desperately to hear whether the people we cared for in Ukraine, including the writers we translated, were alive. Suddenly, American editors wanted to publish Ukrainian voices, voices they hadn't been able to find space for literally a few days earlier.” 

During the Cheuse Center event in February, 2023, which featured the collection Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing from Ukraine, Young was honored to read her translation of poet Iya Kiva. Now, Young is eager to help spread these Ukrainian voices again. 

“I'm delighted to be hosting the November 8th event for In the Hour of War, a different anthology edited by Carolyn Forché and Ilya Kaminsky, which spotlights more of these wonderful writers,” says Young. “I don't think you can go wrong with either of these anthologies—Ukrainian writing today is urgent, powerful, and necessary, and the poets, in particular, have been translated well.”

Working on multiple events with the Cheuse Center this year around Eastern Europe is Roman Kostovski, Plamen Press’s Publishing Director and Acquisitions Editor, who says, “This will be the fourth event on which we have collaborated with the Cheuse Center and its director, Leeya Mehta. Our press promotes literature from Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe, so having the opportunity to document “In the Hour of War,” an evening that features Ukrainian poets, is right up our alley. There is so much exceptional literature in that part of the world that has not yet made its way to English-speaking readers, and our mission is an uphill battle. However, it is gratifying to know that organizations such as the Cheuse Center are willing to support, encourage, and share this mission with us along the way.”

The free public reading will take place on November 8th, 2023, at Mason Exhibitions Arlington from 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM. These poems touch not only on some of the darkest periods in Ukrainian history, but on the universal struggle towards human rights. “Some of these poets are currently fighting on the front lines, some are working to provide humanitarian assistance, others are telling Ukraine's stories to the world,” voices Young. “If I weren't hosting on November 8th, I'd be in the front row—this event is a "must see" for anyone interested in poetry.”

Details: Nov 8th, 7-9pm @ Mason Exhibitions, 3601 Fairfax Drive Arlington, VA 22201, Arlington, Virginia; books sold by Bergstrom Books, and author signing to follow the reading. Seating is limited to 90 chairs; please RSVP here. The Alan Cheuse International Writers Center is part of Watershed Lit: Center for Literary Engagement and Publishing Practice. The Cheuse Center brings international writers to Mason's campus, sends Mason MFA creative writing students abroad to conduct research for their projects, and programs free public events providing a platform for the voices of international writers in conversation with American writers in the D.C. metro area.