Let’s back up a bit. When did you move to the US?
I came to this country in 1952, having left Germany at age 17. My 18th birthday I celebrated on the boat a week before landing in New York. I had just graduated from High School. This was in February, and in the fall I enrolled at Newark College of Engineering (now New Jersey Institute of Technology) in the BS program in the department of Electrical Engineering. I didn’t feel I had any other choice. Having spent my formative years in post-WWII Germany, I saw of how little use was liberal arts education during times of crisis so, like most of my Ukrainian friends, I decided to study engineering. Being “technical” was the answer. This kind of thinking permeated the whole Ukrainian immigrant community. New Jersey had a lot of recent Ukrainian immigrants at that time; I believe that about 10% of the students at the college were Ukrainian. (Both my brother and stepbrother later followed in my footsteps.)
I had no particular interest in engineering as such (I hated to tinker around with things and never put together a radio as some of my friends did), but loved math, so I chose Electrical Engineering, which was the most theoretical of the engineering disciplines. I took lots of math and physics, and actually enjoyed the technical subjects more than the less technical ones, such as economics, “principles of engineering,” and even English. I preferred dealing with clear-cut issues. But there was another reason I went in for engineering. While in High School, I avidly read Dostoyevsky, and one of my favorite characters of his was the nihilist Kirilov from The Possessed, which I mentioned earlier. He, as you may recall, was an engineer. I fancied myself similar to Kirilov in many ways and like him wanted to be an engineer.
What happened after that?
I graduated in 1956. At that time computers were just beginning to come into wide use. I recall that Time magazine had a cover story on computers and IBM in the spring semester of 1956. This whetted my interest; I was drawn to the possibility of working with automata which tried to approximate the human mind, and was set on getting a job with IBM. I had two more interviews in addition to IBM, namely with General Electric and Raytheon, but as soon as IBM made me an offer, I didn’t look further. The offer was for the T. J. Watson Research Center in Poughkeepsie, NY, and I accepted it immediately.
[Update 17 May 2011: In regards to the above photo, Yuriy wrote: “I started in 1956 in Poughkeepsie. Then we moved in 1959 to temporary quarters in Yorktown Heights (Mohansic) while the new center was being built. In 1961 we moved to the above facility, when it was completed. It is a beautiful building by Eero Saarinen—an arc half a mile long.”]
At first I worked at IBM on circuit problems, with diodes and transistors, but in 1959 a project was started on automatic language translation from Russian into English. They were looking for someone with a knowledge of Russian. I had learned Russian on my own by reading the Russian classics, as I said, primarily Gogol and Dostoyevsky, so I applied for the position, and got it. I was charged with putting together a dictionary for the initial test, and later headed a group of lexicographers at IBM, as well as at the Library of Congress and at the Air Force Russian language school in Syracuse, NY. This was an “automatic” dictionary, involving developing schemes for handling morphology (inflection and word formation), which is very complex in Russian. The work stimulated my inborn interest in languages and eventually led to my pursuing graduate study in linguistics at New York University.
After getting my Ph.D. in Linguistics in 1982, I got involved in a series of projects dealing with Artificial Intelligence, such as Expert Systems and Natural Language Processing. Among other assignments, I headed a project to develop a natural language front end to the programming language PROLOG. This consisted of defining an artificial language which was a proper subset of English (fully contained in the English language), developing a parser for it, and mapping in onto the semantics of the programming language. At that time I had already developed the syntax that I used in my novel Three Blondes and Death, which to some degree influenced what I did for IBM. [See Part 1 for more on the writing of that book. —Adam]
So, my writing influenced my computer science work. As to how my computer science work influenced my writing? …I am sure it did to a very significant degree. First of all, it must have sharpened my awareness of structure. I did a fair amount of programming in addition to the applied linguistics work, and programming teaches you to organize your thinking in a strict and logical way. My writing has been accused of being “cold” and this may be the reason. Second, the work focused my interest on language: how to say things, not only what to say. In some sense, in my works, I speak as much about language as about the topics I deal with. And, finally, I did a lot of technical writing for IBM—reports, manuals, proposals, articles—and the style I developed there must have seeped over into my literary texts. And then there was also the influence of Wittgenstein I mentioned earlier, which was due at least in part to IBM.
Which languages have you written in?
My first published works were short prose pieces written in Ukrainian, shortly after I arrived in the US, which were published in Ukrainian émigré periodicals. They were followed by a book of poetry in Ukrainian called Life in the City, which was published in 1956. At that time I started to write fiction in English but also worked on a novel in Ukrainian, Roads, part of which came out in 1957. (The full novel was published in 1961.)
After that I wrote fiction exclusively in English, as I had constant problems with Ukrainian editors with my prose: they kept “standardizing” it without my approval. My poetry, for some reason, they left alone, so I kept writing and publishing poetry in Ukrainian.
In the sixties, I switched to writing poetry in English and didn’t write any in Ukrainian until the eighties, when my daughter was born and I began using more Ukrainian and teaching it to her. After that I wrote my poetry only in Ukrainian. When Ukraine became independent and I could get published there, I wrote a book-length autobiographical piece in Ukrainian, and translated excerpts of my English prose and had them published. I also translated my English poetry into Ukrainian, wrote more poetry in it, as well as a cycle of plays, some of which I translated into English.
As you see, it is a virtual linguistic whirlpool, and I have grown sick of it. At this time, I write exclusively in English, both fiction and poetry. I am not needed in Ukraine. Whether or not I am needed in this country is another matter. But still, I prefer writing in the language I hear around me and for those with whom I probably have the most in common.
How many languages do you speak? And how has being a polyglot altered your writing, and view of language?
Virtually all my life I have been multilingual, using two or more languages in my daily life. The first five years of my life I spent in Poland. There I spoke Ukrainian at home, and Polish outside. From the age of five till ten I lived in Ukraine and used Ukrainian only, except we studied German in school and I got to know it fairly well. Then, from the age of ten until eighteen, I lived in Germany, in a displaced persons camp. There we spoke Ukrainian, but German on the outside. In addition, part of the time, I attended German Grammar School, then High School. So German became an important language in my life.
In the US, it was Ukrainian and English, and when I worked on the Machine Translation project, I got to know Russian quite well. The years 1964–65 I spent in Spain, and I used English, Ukrainian, and Spanish. I became quite fluent in Spanish and actually wrote some poetry in it. At this time, I continue using these three languages much of the time. Recently, I occasionally also use Polish and German.
Because of living in this linguistic battleground, I developed a very relaxed and forgiving attitude toward language rules: “Speak and write as you like. As long as people understand you, you’re OK.” I hate linguistic Puritanism. In American English, that barely exists, but in Ukrainian it is all-pervasive. Ukrainian has been under oppression by Poland and especially Russia for centuries, and has fought back by strictly codifying itself. The problem is that the Ukrainian spoken in Ukraine and in the Diaspora differ quite a bit. The former has been heavily Russified, while in the Diaspora—as is typical of geographically isolated language enclaves—its speakers have tried to preserve the “pure” forms, which are now considered archaic by most speakers in Ukraine. So there is a war going on between the two languages.
I’ve heard that a similar situation exists here in Chicago, in the Polish Diaspora.
Yes, I am sure, but I presume that the rift between the Diaspora and “homeland” Ukrainian is much more drastic than in the case of the Polish. Polish wasn’t actively Russified as Ukrainian was. Personally, I try to adhere to the Diaspora Ukrainian, but I also want to preserve my freedom to write in a language that is natural to me, so I admit changes from the Ukrainian spoken in Ukraine, as well as other languages. Language works in an associative way. Once you use a word or a construction, it pushes you in a particular direction which is organic and should prove to be fertile. If you check yourself constantly—”Is this considered more correct or that? Is this more beautiful, or is it that?”—then you are no longer letting the creative mechanism in you function at its optimum.
That is one aspect. Another is that using language in a non-standard way gives you a means of influencing the reader’s reception. Essentially, language “mistakes” can be used to achieve an effect you cannot achieve with standard language. So, being linguistically creative is a technique that can be used in literature. But the most important thing is that to be effective, language does not have to be beautiful or well-crafted. The language in a literary work must be crafted specifically for that work and be rough if need be; or beautiful, if this is what is needed.
I wholeheartedly agree. The work creates its own logic; there isn’t any single correct way to write (or to make art).
Well, I think that my attitude toward language must have been impacted by the linguistic environments I have lived in. I saw that languages have different possibilities and are used in different contexts, and I have imported this attitude into my work.
What about the artistic environments that speaking so many languages have undoubtedly brought you into contact with? …We’ve already mentioned that more than half of Three Blondes and Death is spent recounting the characters’ dreams. What were your experiences with Surrealism?
During my spare time at the MOMA, Dalí’s pictures made an enormous impact on me. One of my early short prose pieces in Ukrainian (I called them “paramyths” after Eugene Jolas, whom I read in the journal transition) was called “A Dream.” In it, the narrator, “I,” undresses and proceeds to take off his skin, muscles, fat, and so on, and remains standing up as a skeleton. It ends with the phrase, spoken by a girl and directed at the narrator, “Your ribs are melodious like a harp and one can play on them, hitting them with a mallet as on a xylophone.” This came definitely from Dalí. I later began disliking him (“Avida dollars,” Breton called him), but still think he was one of the most creative and influential of the French Surrealists.
I find the rest of them largely dry and constipated. I read most of Breton’s major works, but was bored by them. He strikes me as a little Hitler with his insistence on strict discipline and severe punishment. His theories nowadays sound naive, stemming from a lack of understanding of the nature of the human mind. We know so much more about ourselves now that we can’t say that the subconscious is the more powerful part of the mind, or that behind random coincidences lies some other, “truer” reality.
I also strongly disagree with his criticism of the Greco-Roman logic current which has permeated Western culture. On the contrary, I love this current and want to work within it, even if I also want to bring it into contact with other currents, such as the irrational. Indeed, that conflict is the age-long tradition in Western art: the Apollonian vs. the Dyonisian. In my case, the rigidity of form, even if only invented on the fly for a particular case, is probably the Apollonian facet, and dreams, the Dyonisian.
I also liked a lot Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930) and Orphée (1950)…
…even if today Cocteau clearly appears to be an epigone and dilettante.
But more than that, I was influenced by the poetry of Pablo Neruda and other Spanish language poets such as Lorca, Aleixandre, Alberti, Huidobro, Vallejo, etc., whom I found much more convincing and organic than the French Surrealists. They tapped the inborn irrational powers of the human mind without restricting them by the straightjacket of an arbitrary dogma to produce powerful moving poetry—a poetic jungle in contrast with a bunch of fruit trees in a suburban garden trained to grow on espaliers.
I think that it is from this kind of Surrealism that my tendency to revert to dreams comes from. But there must have been an inclination in me for this mode of expression. Dreams give you much more room to use your imagination than “realism.” It was probably the same tendency that made me fight against traditional form that drove me to “nontraditional contents.”
First of all, putting yourself into a “dream” mode (telling yourself you are going to describe a dream) frees you from restrictions which you subconsciously bring to the table as you sit down to write. So, you are open to more possibilities. Then, in the dream itself, you are free from the restrictions of time and space, rules of physics, and so on. You can discard unimportant things and concentrate on the essential.
I used to run a lot when I was writing Meningitis and Three Blondes, up to two or three hours a day, and had a lot of time with only myself. Running is very much like meditation, and thoughts flow in your mind in an associative way. I remember when I had a problem with a scene in the books, I would gently channel my thinking toward it while running and after a while, usually within minutes, the solution would come to me in the form of a dream.
Eventually, as I said, the dream scenes in Three Blondes came to outnumber the “reality” scenes by one: 88 to 87. This slight edge may be viewed as my homage to Surrealism. But I am aware of the elements, the symbols, in the dream, and control them with my Greco-Roman logical mind. I think they not only can but are bound to coexist in the end. The rational and irrational are part of ourselves and should be part of what we do.
How about the Oulipo? Were they any influence on your work?
None, as far as I can tell. I remember hearing or reading the name somwhere, probably as I worked on Three Blondes, but I never really knew what they were about. That is, I may have heard that they worked in a restrictive way, but the concept never sunk in with me. I think I thought of them as a group of French writers who wrote books jointly under that pseudonym, undoubtedly because the name reminded me of Bourbaki—the group of French mathematicians who wrote those fantastic textbooks on mathematics. (I knew about them because of my technical background.)
The first time I really understood what the Oulipo did was when I was visiting Ron Sukenick at his place in New York City right after Three Blondes came out (that must have been the summer of 1993) and he brought them up. As I recall, we agreed then that every accomplished work of art, including literature, must have a well-defined form, but that the nature of the form has no relationship to quality—that is, that form doesn’t make a work better or worse. Yet strangely enough, I didn’t realize for a long time that I actually worked in the same mode as the Oulipo guys, even after I understood what they were doing. (This happened only in 2009, when I met Jacques Roubeau and Marcel Benabou when they were in New York.) I guess I viewed my restricted syntax as an “organic” restriction, a “natural” approach to writing, whereas I thought what Oulipo did was deliberately artificial, a game. And perhaps this is true, and my writing should not be viewed as having any relation to the Oulipo.
I do want to add though that, being intrigued by Oulipo, I have discovered with surprise that there is some similarity between my writing and that of Georges Perec—namely his interest in dreams and static description, in particular photographs. (I have a story, actually a moninovel, called Photographs, which consists of a description of a series of photographs, which I wrote in 1997.) I didn’t know anything about this until just recently, when I decided to study up on the group, and the only thing by Perec I have read so far is Life: A User’s Manual. I can’t explain this coincidence in any way except by it being due to the spirit of the times: certain ideas float in the air and different people pick up on them on their own.
Indeed. I myself started writing Language Poetry in the late 1990s, without knowing who the Language Poets were, or without having ever read them. I imagine I picked up on the concept through osmosis, through another part of the culture.
Yes. I think this happens frequently. I am sure, for instance, that the wheel was discovered by different people in different places at different times. It was discovered each time when it was a necessary thing to be discovered.