Interview by Chuck Salmons, OPA President
Iryna Klishsch, a senior at Denison University (Granville, Ohio) was chosen as this year’s winner of the 2018 NFSPS Edna Meudt Memorial Award, which includes a cash prize and publication of her first chapbook, A Monster the Size of the Sun. Klishch, who is Ukrainian by birth, grew up just outside Chicago. I interviewed her via e-mail to discuss her award and the chapbook.
CS: First of all, congratulations on the award and on graduating from Denison. After reading the chapbook, I’d say the NFSPS made the right choice. How has life changed since receiving and sharing the news? Or has it?
IK: Thank you so much for your kind words and for taking the time to read my chapbook. The support I’ve received from family, friends, and Denison’s community has been so incredibly moving. People have been so kind and generous with offering feedback, supporting the little book, and bringing all new light into my life. Poetry has always been the one constant, true thing in my life and for that I owe it the world—so to be able to share it with a larger audience other than my workshop class, has been a dream come true.
CS: You are Ukrainian by birth, but grew up in the Midwest. How old were you when you moved to the U.S.? What kind of role has your Ukrainian heritage played in your development as a writer/poet?
IK: I moved to the United States when I was around 6 or so. But my younger sister and I went back constantly—visiting my grandparents each summer for a span of 4 or so months. All my happiest childhood memories are there. My grandmother was and is a wonderful story teller. She’d tell Russian folk tales, incorporate her own wit and charm into each piece, and leave my sister and me falling in love with stories from a very young age. My grandfather was an avid reader, and I was constantly surrounded by novels, adventure, and classics. I feel so much love for Ukraine, and because of the current political situation, I find it important to write about themes of war, power, family, and always—light.
CS: There is a strong feminine voice in these poems. Does this voice represent someone from your personal life or is it imagined?
IK: My mother, my grandmother. They are the strongest, most courageous women I know. Their support, their love, their curiosity have helped and shaped me in a multitude of ways. They have taught me the importance of kindness, love in all that I do: that home is an experience, never a place.
CS: As in the chapbook’s title, the sun, heat, and energy all permeate the imagery in the collection, especially in terms of items that are yellow or orange in color, which can convey happiness or joy. But in reading the poems, they built on each other in a sense that was oppressive, like a stifling summer day in the southern U.S. What was the inspiration for such a dominant trope?
IK: A majority of these poems settings were taken from Nadvirna, Ukraine. I’d spent so many summer months swimming in the river, so many months surrounded by trees and gardens, fields and mountains. To be surrounded by so much light, and then to have that contrasted with Ukraine’s history, current political situation, was always so difficult for me to understand. How can so much beauty exist with so much hate? How can there be lightness and darkness? I hope my poetry was able to shed some ideas on how this could be so.
CS: The sounds that come through in the poems create a real tension. There are many m sounds, especially in names such as Maria, Michelle, Magnolia, Ma. Combined with other “soft” sounds, like apricot, these seem to counter “hard” sounds, like teeth, stockings, lipstick. Add to that the visual movement that is conveyed by the shape of many of the poems on the page, and I’m left feeling as if I’m being pushed and pulled, like a struggle. I’m thinking of the line in your opening poem, “The Kingdom of Heat”: “war is something we have no language for.” Was establishing a sense of struggle something you strived for in the collection?
IK: I’m glad you found themes of struggle evident in my poems, both in subject matter and in visual disposition across the page. Creating a sense of struggle, the hesitation, the quick reading, the soft speech were all very prominent and important to me. I wanted my readers and audience to read quickly, then to stop, have their eyes move across the page, let the words fall. More than anything though, I wanted my poems to be read with a sense of urgency, I wanted to create language that was all fists, but all light.
The judge for this year’s contest was Dr. Benjamin Myers. He was the 2015–2016 Poet Laureate of Oklahoma and currently teaches at Oklahoma Baptist University as the Crouch-Mathis Professor of Literature.
Many thanks to Iryna for her thoughtful responses. Her book, A Monster the Size of the Sun, is available from Amazon.com here.
Learn more about the NFSPS College Undergraduate Poetry prizes here.