Vasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet in New York, not an outsider there any more, but a grateful observer. In his own words, the move to the United States, where he has been living for five years now, happened rather unexpectedly. It doesn’t appear to be the case that he fled from any place or hurried to any particular destination. Perhaps it was this kind of ‘aimless’ emigration that saved Makhno the poet. His New York poetry proves that a Ukrainian poet abroad can not only exist, but also write. And write well at that.
Makhno was born in the town of Chortkiv in the Ternopil region. His life began in a manner completely typical for a Ukrainian poet: interest in literature in secondary school, then study at the pedagogical institute in Ternopil, then graduate school. In 1995, he defended his doctoral dissertation on the topic of ‘The Artistic World of Bohdan-Ihor Antonych’, published as a book in 1999. The love of this Ukrainian poet for Antonych was also a rather typical phenomenon: almost every Ukrainian poet, especially of the younger generation, has acknowledged a debt to him. For that reason, Antonych and the Modernist tradition in general – both Ukrainian and global – are more than apparent in his work.
Nevertheless, at least one thing makes Makhno stand out against the background of a strong Ukrainian poetic tradition, and that is his rather prolific output. Since 1993, when his first collection of poetry, Skhyma (Schema), was published in Ternopil, he has published six collections of poetry, a collection of translations of the prominent Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, Struna svitla (String of Light, 1996), and compiled an anthology, Deviatdesiatnyky: Antolohiia novoi ukrains’koi poezii (Poets of the Nineties: An Anthology of New Ukrainian Poetry, 1998).
Makhno began to travel in the late 1990s. He taught at the Jagellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and in 1997, he was published for the first time in Polish translation. The Polish literary journal Dekada Literacka published several of his poems in Andrzej Nowak’s translation. Poland became the first step in Makhno’s westerly progress. It seems to me that his wanderings through the streets and taverns of old Krakow instigated his ‘literary emergence’, when the world that surrounded him started provoking no less interest than his own inner world. The shelter of the Modernist tradition, where many Ukrainian poets during the end of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century used to hide from reality, suddenly cracked.
And later there was the move to the United States, which undoubtedly effected a sharp division in Makhno’s life and poetry. The poet has called Plavnyk ryby (The Fish’s Fin), which was published in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, in 2002, two years after he settled in New York, his “most transitional book”. Half of it was written in Ukraine and the other half in the United States. But his subsequent, and most recent collection, 38 virshiv pro N’iu-Iork i deshcho inshe (38 Poems about New York and some other things), published in Kyiv, demonstrates that this rupture in his life didn’t break him, but caused fundamental structural changes in his work. It wasn’t the kind of rupture that grows into a dangerous precipice, but one like a break in a cocoon, which grants the freedom of new creation.
Makhno’s texts continue to be unusually dense, saturated with metaphors, symbols and cultural allusions. They continue to preserve his characteristic rhythm, as if they are written to be read in the same breath, with only a dash separating the words or, inversely, linking them together. Michael Naydan writes about this in more detail in his translator’s note, written especially for this site. However, Makhno is no longer hiding in his own poems. Poetry for him is now transformed into a way of living through a liminal situation, of living with the unexpected questions that life generates: about the boundaries of the Ukrainian ghetto, about poetry as a gift or a craft, about the Western tradition and the Eastern canon.
“Privately, I experienced a real rebirth,” said Makhno in an interview especially for Poetry International. “I came to the understanding that in essence the Western style of life differs from the Ukrainian, but the most important is that permanent feeling of art’s contemporary nature.” The search for poetry in New York, which in the end helped the poet to reconcile himself with one of the most modern and timeless cities, gave Makhno a kind of second wind. He has not only been transformed from a bucolic into an urban poet. Now, he is a Ukrainian poet who speaks a common language with contemporary Ukrainian poetry.
Also on this site
An Interview with Vasyl Makhno
By Kateryna Botanova
A Translator’s Note on the Poetry of Vasyl Makhno
By Michael M. Naydan
Skhyma (Schema). Ternopil, Zbruch 1993.
Samotnist’ Tsezaria (Loneliness of Caesar). Ternopil, Lileya 1994.
Knyha pahorbiv ta hodyn (The Book of Hills and Hours). Ternopil, Lileya 1996.
Liutnevi elehii ta inshi virshi (February Elegies and Others Poems). Lviv, Kameniar 1998.
Plavnyk ryby (The Fish’s Fin). Ivano-Frankivsk, Lileya-NV 2002.
38 virshiv pro N’iu-Iork i deshcho inshe (38 Poems About New York And Something Else). Kyiv, Krytyka 2004.
Wędrowcy (Pilgrims). Poznan, 2003.
Deviatdesiatnyky: Antolohiia novoi ukrains’koi poezii (Poets of Nineties: An Anthology of New Ukrainian Poetry). Edited by Vasyl Makhno. Ternopil, Lileia 1998.
Zbigniew Herbert. Struna svitla (String of Light). Ternopil, 1996.
Khudozhnii svit Bohdana-Ihoria Antonycha (The Artistic World of Bohdan-Ihor Antonych). Ternopil, Lileia 1999.
Poetry in anthologies
In English and Ukrainian:
One Hundred Years of Youth: A Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Ukrainian Poetry. Lviv, Litopys 2000.
Wiersze zawsze są wolne. Ukrainska poezja w przekladach Bohdana Zadury. Wroclaw, Biuro Literackie 2004.
Iz veka v vek. Slavianskaia poezia 20-21 vv. Ukrainskaia poezia. Moskva, Granat 2004.
Kerben der Zeit: Ukrainische Lyrik der Gegenwart. Brodina Verlag, 2003.
U inat vetrovima: Ukrainian poetry from 16 to 20 century. Banja Luka, Društvo srpsko-ukrainskog prijatelstva Republike Srpske 2002.
Imennyk. Kyiv: Smoloskyp, 1997.
Deviatdesiatnyky. Ternopil, Lileia 1998.
Mala Ukrains’ka Entsyklopediia aktual’noi literatury. Ivano-Frankivs’k, Lileia-NV 1998.
Ukrainian Poetry of the 20th Century. Kyiv, 2001.
Interview with Vasyl Makhno.
The Ukrainian Information Project UAZone
Latest poetry in the original.
Interview with Vasyl Makhno.
Poetry in translation.
Poetry in translation.
‘Aleg(l)oria Wędrowki’, article by Kszysztof Gryko.
An Interview with Vasyl Makhno.