Interview with Lyuba Yakimchuk

Could you reflect on your relationship to the telephone, in the past or in the present, and say something about how this might have informed your poem?

In the mid to late nineties, when I was a schoolgirl, ordinary people couldn’t afford to buy a cellphone. Cellphones were used only by local gangsters or ‘tough guys’, as they were called back then. We used home landline phones. I grew up in a mining village in Donbas. Only a few households in our village had landline phones. My father worked as a foreman at the mine, so his employer provided him with the means of communication. Because there was only one landline phone for every dozen households, the neighbors regularly came to us asking to use it. Most of the time, they would call with some bad news. They’d call the ambulance, the police and other people to notify of someone’s death. When I was fifteen, there was one call that stuck in my mind for whatever reason. It happened the day after 9/11. My friend from the neighboring city of Pervomaisk, also a fifteen-year-old, called me for the first time and we discussed – with horror – the New York City terrorist attack. I’m telling you this because for me a landline phone has always been connected to some turbulent events. When I was thinking about the Dial-a-Poem project, its history and its relation to landline phones, my first associations were with unhappy stories. That’s why I decided to write a poem about a ‘phone situation’ prompted by the war in Donbas.

How did you go about producing the work for this project? Were there any materials, anecdotal, literary or otherwise, that proved generative for you?

The poem takes the form of a telephone conversation. I live in Kyiv, but I regularly get updates from my acquaintances about what’s happening on Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine. I am also writing a bookabout the war in Donbas, for which I am conducting interviews with participants and witnesses of war events. Hence those details about packs of dogs that one has to chase away with a stick when going to work or about drunks with guns – they come from everyday life. I know those people with guns; they lived close by, and I played with their daughter when I was a kid. The main character of the poem – the missing mother – does not take local propaganda seriously, she opposes the invaders. She is based on my friend’s mom and I know a lot about her. Unfortunately, in reality this person had died. The text contains only a few clues to the cause of her disappearance.

How much was the recording of the poem, and the format(s) through which the poem will be reproduced (i.e. a public phone booth and mobile app), a consideration in the composition?

Working with the form of a telephone conversation, I decided to trim away everything superfluous – to leave only the voice of the answering machine that redirects the caller to the missing person hotline, and the voice of a woman searching for her mother.

Operator’s questions can easily be guessed. This approach helped me establish the formal framework. The poem’s form called for a conversational manner of speech.

Do you have any thoughts on how the project might have affected the way that you think about the relationship between poetry and telephony, or between writing and technology more broadly?

I like the idea of telephone poetry, because I consider poetry an oral genre. We are now forced to use ink or pixels to disseminate it. But poetry emerged as an oral genre, out of seasonal rituals and liturgies. Speech, sound – these are poetry’s most natural modes of being. Today’s audio technology helps the poems exist in their most natural form. 

There are countless ways to develop the idea of telephony. I think that phone companies could play poetry recordings instead of beeps or background music that a person listens to when she is placed on hold. There could also be an automated phone system that you call when you want to listen to good poetry, it would play a randomly selected poem from a playlist.

Translated by Max Rosochinsk

May 2020