There’s a Poem for That: Svetlana Ischenko + Nucleus

Ukrainian-Canadian poet Svetlana Ischenko walks us through her collection Nucleus (Ronsdale Press), a poetic representation of her physical journey to Canada and her linguistic one of coming to write poems in English.

A graphic reading "There's a poem for...getting lost in translation" with the cover of Nucleus by Svetlana Ischenko and an inset photo of the poet.


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There's a poem for that... NPM on All Lit Up.

An interview with poet Svetlana Ischenko

All Lit Up: Can you tell us a bit about Nucleus and how it came to be?

The cover of Nucleus by Svetlana Ischenko.

Svetlana Ischenko: I put together this collection to explore my experience as an immigrant to Canada from Ukraine and what that has meant to me in terms of individual identity. I went from writing poems in my native Ukrainian to translating my poems from Ukrainian into English and finally to writing poems in English. The four sections of this collection enact that process: the first section is a translation of a sonnet sequence I originally wrote in Ukrainian; the final section consists of poems I wrote in English. When I first came to Canada, I wrote from an entirely Ukrainian sensibility. After a while, I found my imagination began to operate from the perspective of being both Ukrainian and Canadian. At the same time, my poems changed; they took on a Canadian feel.  

As readers go through the collection, they’ll get to know a little of the history of Ukraine, particularly the region of the southern steppes of Ukraine’s Wild Field, where I come from; they’ll get to know Canada through a Ukrainian immigrant’s eyes; they’ll get a sense of what it’s been like for me to become a Canadian and look back at the land and traditions of Ukraine; and they’ll be offered a view of identity beyond being Ukrainian or Canadian.

ALU: What sparked your initial love of poetry?

Svetlana Ischenko: My mother and my aunt read to me a lot when I was quite young – mostly rhymed poetry for children and fairy tales. Also, I was deeply affected by my maternal grandmother. She had a way with words, a habit of stringing rhymes through her sentences as she spoke in a sort of folkloric Ukrainian speech. Everything she said seemed to turn into a quotation, anecdote, or proverb. It gave me great pleasure. I suppose these experiences made me love making up rhymes beginning when I was around four years of age. I still have a love of rhyme, rhythm, and classical form in poetry.

ALU: Has your idea of poetry changed since you began writing?

Svetlana Ischenko: My idea of poetry hasn’t changed since I first began writing; it has only affirmed itself more intensely in me over time. Whether I’m writing a poem in a strict form or free verse, or whether it’s in Ukrainian or English, I’ll try to concentrate “a universe” into a poem. I think that when a poet succeeds in gathering images, metaphors, rhythmic patterns of sounds, and so on into a single piece where they work together to convey something of human experience, then a poet creates a universe. That universe is so concentrated that when it connects with a reader, it explodes, giving birth to the reader’s universe of experience and feeling. This continues to be my idea of poetry.    

ALU: If you were to set your collection to a soundtrack, what song is at the top of the listing?

Svetlana Ischenko: I’ve been fortunate to have had several of my Ukrainian-language poems set to music and performed as songs, hymns, and ballads. If I could have a poem in Nucleus put to music, I’d probably choose “There are a gull’s feathers…”; it’s a short poem that I think summarizes the collection. As for a song as a soundtrack to this collection, I’d have to say “Two Colours”, a song performed by Kvitka Cisyk (1953-1998), who was a Ukrainian-American singer. She became famous for singing commercial jingles like “Have You Driven a Ford Lately”, but her real achievement was giving a magical, deep-felt voice to popular songs, classical opera, and Ukrainian folk music.

There’s a poem for getting lost in translation…
“Clinging to Their Sails” from Nucleus

Clinging to their sails of words,
the ships go out of your tongue’s harbour,
unwinding the heavy snakes of their ropes.
They make a globe journey around our desire.
They enter the labyrinths of my ears,
lower an anchor into a bottomlessness.
The travellers open doors in my heart
and pulsate along bloody gangways,
leave old luggage
on their road, kindle fires.
The waves of fire run and fall back
into my breast.
Then the words lose their sense,
and the ships transform into your palms,
which rush at random
to the raised reefs.

* * *

A photo of Svetlana Ischenko. She is a light skin-toned woman with straight, reddish-brown hair, standing before a body of water on a sunny day with city buildings visible on the far shore.

Svetlana Ischenko is a poet, translator, former actress, and teacher. She was born in Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine, where she worked as a stage actress for the Ukrainian National Theatre and acted in lead roles in several classic Ukrainian and European plays in the mid- to late 1990s before she immigrated to Canada in 2001.

In Ukraine, she was also a successful poet. Her poetry appeared in Хорали неба і землі (Chorals of the Earth and Sky) in 1995 and Сі-дієз (B-Sharp) in 1998. She won The New Names of Ukraine and The Golden Harp awards in 1995. While a Canadian for more than two decades, Ischenko has always kept close ties to her original homeland. Her poetry collection Дерева злетіли парами (The Trees Have Flown Up in Couples) was published in Ukraine in 2019 and won the Mykolaiv Book of the Year for 2019 in the poetry category.

In Canada, her poems in English have been published in Canadian literary journals and in a chapbook, In the Mornings I Find a Crane’s Feathers in My Damp Braids (Leaf Press, 2005). She is also the co-translator of a book of English translations from the Ukrainian of the poetry of Dmytro Kremin, Poems from the Scythian Wild Field (Ekstasis Editions, 2016).

Ischenko lives with her family in North Vancouver, British Columbia, where she teaches children’s and adults’ programs in visual arts, ballet, creative dance, and musical theatre.

* * *

Thanks to Svetlana Ischenko for answering our questions, and to Ronsdale Press for the text of “Clinging to Their Sails” from Nucleus, which is available to order now (and get 15% off with the code THERESAPROMO4THAT until April 30!).

For more poetry month, catch up on our “there’s a poem for that” series here, and visit our poetry shop here.