Volodymyr Bilyk is a Poet from Ukraine who writes in English. I first encountered his works online and been fascinated with it ever since. He works in a variety of styles all aimed to pushing aesthetic boundaries as far as possible. I find his work to be compelling at that. Over the years we have collaborated on a numerous recordings including the Scott Telles collaboration.
A few weeks ago I caught up with him to figure it all out.
# 1 ) Describe the area around you
The word that best describes an area around me is "drab". In a bad way. Kyiv is like Adam Sandler trying to pull off Kafka.
In other words - rather disjointed and displaced affair with conflicting tones, everstumbling pacing and mishmash of dissonant styles. The whole thing is missing the point of itself. It is a architectural equivalent of pink noise. Terrible place to live in unless you like killing yourself as slow as possible.
# 2 ) When did you first become interested in poetry?
The answer is twofold. On one hand, my first real encounter with poetry started a chain reaction that led to me rediscovering my real cultural identity. On the other hand, it took me quite a while to start writing poetry on my own.
The thing is - Ukraine is heavily damaged by the years of russian occupation. The toll of it is felt to this day and it makes really hard to express your cultural identity without being judged as a phoney neanderthal. I lived in an intensely russified community that dismissed all things ukrainian because that was the state of things for generations. I felt numb, almost catatonic for the majority of my early life, i couldn't really express my thoughts the way i want - it was all contorted and bland on the way out. I was meandering.
Then i've stumbled upon an old issue of YI magazine and there was a selection of modern ukrainian poetry. I have never seen modern ukrainian poetry before that - all i saw was some stuff from school which was unrepresentative of the real ukrainian literature and often ukrainian culture in general. Because of that - reading those poems was like encountering an alien life.
One poem in particular struck me the most. It was Oleh Lysheha's Song 551. It went like this: "Bang your head against the ice before it is too late" and "You're human - no one will ever catch you". That was it. Song 551 caused a seismic shift in my mind. There was a notion that i’ve just entered another world and it was just right for me. I felt at home and things were never the same again. It shattered my mind - literally. The shackles of the russian language had fallen off me and was free to go where i belonged.
However, this interest in poetry never really went beyond reading. I didn't felt like i was ready to do something of my own. I was reading like crazy - but it never really went further. My language skills left a lot to be desired and it took almost a decade to gain confidence in my writing skills.
# 3 ) Does your Hair hang low ? Do you tie it in a Bow ?
“Answer”: Not at all. However, there is a chance for it to be so, but there is no reason for it to be that way. In fact, there is no point for it at all. But so-and-so is definitely so-so regarding that matter. But who cares? This doesn’t even address the question.
In a way, this is a loop of perplexion.
Real answer: Nothing to talk about. It is short.
# 4 ) At what point did you know you were a poet?
As I've mentioned before - it took me a while to really start writing my own stuff. Three reasons for that. 1 - i needed to get a better grasp on language; 2 - i needed to expand my frame of reference; 3 - there was no one to help.
The thing is - Ukrainian literary community is not the place where you can really learn the ropes and get any constructive lessons. It actively neuters any form of expression that is not conventional or acceptable by the silent majority.
I've tried to fit in for some time but it wasn't working so i became an exile pretty fast. I had nowhere to go but into the depths of internet hoping to break through some day. For years i was floundering without much of a purpose before the fateful acquaintance.
In late 2011, early 2012 i was introduced to Andriy Antonovskiy (the greatest living poet) who was doing all things experimental in Barcelona with occasional crusades to Ukraine. It was he who really gave me the confidence to find my own way and never look back.
Andriy was a force of nature that was coming out of nowhere just because - a visceral representation of the concept known as "My Way". He could turn anything into a piece of art by sheer force of will without even breaking a sweat. I adopted this attitude from him and it really helped me to stand on my own over the years.
When it came to making a decision to write poetry in english - it was Yuriy Tarnawsky who showed me how to make it. He combined ukrainian language mindset with the flexibility of english language and forged something completely different out of it.
# 5 ) I think of you as being a poet foremost, but you have other areas of interest as well what are some other things you are into that I might not know about ?
I started out as a "musician". Zhytomyr had a big extreme metal scene back in mid-00s with a particular emphasis on black metal aesthetics. I was part of several of such bands. It was part ridiculous and part pathetic "kids are taking things too serious".
One of them, titled Aba Wartus was especially stupid. We've tried to play long, drawned out monotonous stomps but our drummer was low on endurance so our songs were rearranged into ultra-short grindcore-like blasts. The lyrics were mostly scary-scary-spooky word salad. I even had a devilock once - until it failed to caught fire.
Then i've tried my hand in book illustration. I was doing all sorts of stuff here and there - caricatures, abstracts, commentary pieces... but it didn't end well because it turned out that some book and magazine publishers don't really like to pay for what they have commissioned. It left me demotivated
# 6 ) What are some of your favorite artworks?
I really like Ernest Hemingway's Blank Verse because of what it represents. It is a phoney poem made by a very young and immature man who was just poking fun at pretentious folks over the sea. Nothing really special but that is what makes it special.
On the other hand, there is nothing better than John Cage's "4'33" because it is always a chance to discover something new
# 7 ) You are a very prolific artist - Can you tell us about your latest project ?
To be honest, I don't think i can be considered prolific. Sure, I do a lot of stuff but the majority of it is not actually a piece of work itself but rather an exploration of some methods or concepts for it. Sometimes it works, sometimes - don't. The actual projects are few and far between.
For the last three years the only thing i really did was the book of poems "Roadrage". In one way or another, every piece of writing i did over this period of time was an exploration of possibilities for this book. Some of it can stand on its own, most of it - not. Some of it spawned other kinds of developments but it is too soon to say whether anything of it will come into fruition in any way.
As for the latest project - at the moment, i'm developing a closet sitcom (i.e. reading only) for one of website. It is a hack job but a great exercise in throwing things against the wall and analyzing the results.
# 8 ) What is your average day like ?
I get up at 7 and spent the next hour meditating. I’m a night person and even though i’ve spent the most of my life getting up early - i have troubles getting a decent sleep. After a meditation, i take a shot of coffee and go to work where i spend the majority of the day. I try not to think about anything artistic during my working hours. Not that it really distracts me from work, I just really enjoy to put "not thinking about it" constraint and then unleash it as if it was a dam bust after hours. Not the greatest technique, but the best i’ve came up with.
Usually, i take a walk during a lunchtime. Sometimes i improvise a piece or two, sometimes - not. It is too noisy on the streets to really concentrate.
Upon returning home i take a nap and then proceed to do some creative stuff. I start with writing gibberish and getting used to keyboard. It is something of a transitional technique. After a couple of minutes i’m in the right mindset and ready to work. Then i go to sleep and the whole thing repeats.
# 9 ) How to you see poetry , or perhaps even the word itself, faring in the tech world ahead ?
I think poetry and written word in general is doing better than ever in the digital domain. I don’t think we should oppose technology, especially in case if one doesn’t get how it contributes to the craft. Technology is a tool and as such it should be used. Merged with creative intuition - it is capable of incredible things. That’s an obvious fact. There are many possibilities to explore. The adoption of various technologies can really push the boundaries of writing in a new direction and make some truly unique things.
There are many tools that make the writing process more focused and efficient. There are many dictionaries at hand, automatic editing/formatting tools and so on. All that provides writer with opportunities.
For instance, cryptography is really exciting - both classical and modern. It shows the text as a completely different entity and it is something really worth exploring.
Then there are passwords. The whole idea of a password contains so much artistic potential.
I'm really excited about conversational technologies and voice synthesis. I think that it can be a great opportunity for theater and video-art.
On the other hand, natural language processing had reached a level when an algorithm is capable of producing semi-coherent text out of large corpuses that require significantly less editing than it was before.
Then there are generative and manipulative tools for all sorts of things that can give you an unexpected idea or two and show something from a very different perspective.
With that being said, it doesn't mean that technology can substitute writing skills itself.
# 10 ) I don’t really remember how we came to collaborate, I know it just sort of happened - I love the organic nature of collaborations, and appreciate ours. If you could collaborate with any artist, living or dead, who would that be & why ?
The whole point of artistic collaboration is to make something out of the ordinary for both artists. It gives a different perspective.
As for which artists i would like to collaborate with - I tend to be realistic about the possibilities of collaborating with this or that artist and not to fantasize about it.
# 11 ) How would you describe what you do ?
(cue Pinhead voice) Exploration of the further regions of comprehension.
To be honest, i’m a phoney, so it doesn’t really matter how i describe what i do - it is always a con.
# 12 ) How do you feel about traveling ?
Due to budget constraints and dayjob i don't have much mobility, but i really like travelling elsewhere just to hang out in a different environment and feel different kinds of vibes.
In fact, i would like to move out from Ukraine to a greener pastures but i don't think it would happen anytime soon due to all the issues connected with immigration.
# 13 ) What is the biggest influence on your creative work ?
My primary writing training came while working as a journalist and trying out ever possible topic in every imaginable form. It was disposable, throwaway stuff no one really cared about. Not really inspiring creatively, but good for developing discipline and mastering a variety of technique.
This state of things taught me to use everything at my disposal to do something else, something new or inappropriate. Since no one cared about it, i had a lot of space to poke fun at the establishment and conventions.
For example, I did a sonnet about police corruption based on an official press-release. It was back and forth - comparing statements with reality. When belated decommunization came around - i did a series of eulogy limericks for the removed communist monuments. It was scathing cognitive dissonance melodrama aimed at no one. My favorite victim were court hearings and legal language. I’ve spent hundred of hours composing word salads out of legal terms to cover bunch of stuff that made zero sense from any perspective.
Overall, the thing with influences depends on a particular piece of work. For example, "Roadrage" was sparked out of a notion of a wreckage, a carcrash i was experiencing at that point of time. On the other hand, "Lisa Simpson Poems" were driven by "let's mess with the dictionary" method. "Eellogofusciouhipoppokunurious" was influenced by wingding font and dada collages. Codex Abyssus was inspired by the concept of Horror Vacui and maze-like structures.
# 14 ) Can you give us an example of something really weird that happened to you ?
I’ve met an apparition of William Faulkner once. It was back when i was in the university. The year was probably 2010 or 2011. I was coming back from lunch - going through the yard before the university campus and there was an old gentlemen sitting on a bench in a middle of the yard. I only had a side glance on him but it struck me that something was wrong about him. He looked too different from anybody else and for some reason i felt i knew him.
But i’d shrugged it off and went to the classroom. But while i was going there - the notion was growing and by the time i’d reached the door it was unbearable. It hit me - it was William Faulkner! William Faulkner!
But why? He was dead for a long time and didn’t even cared much about his stuff. But it was definitely Faulkner.
And so i ran back to the yard and there was this man sitting on a bench, definitely enjoying himself. I’ve looked at him and greeted and he did the same and then there was this prolonged awkward pause and he asked me “anything i can help?”. I asked him “Are you William Faulkner?” and he looked at me as if i have pointed out something eerily apparent and said “yeah, so what?” and i felt really lost.
This was William Faulkner. He was sitting on a bench near the university campus for some reason. And i was talking to him.
After another overstretched awkward pause i said “well, i gotta go” and went back to the campus feeling really confused.
# 15 ) Why Poetry ? Why not more conventional writing methods ?
I don’t think it is correct to differentiate writing methods as conventional and unconventional. It all depends on what goals you are pursuing in a particular piece. The fact that some of them are more accepted than the others doesn’t really matter in the end.
Why poetry? Poetry is a the purest expression of language. It can bend whatever way you need it. As a form of artistic exploration - it is as good as it gets.
# 16 ) What do you think the state of the world of poetry is ?
No idea. Don't really care about it.
# 17 ) Do you think that your art is political ?
For sure. Anything is political in one way or another.
The whole establishment over what can be and cannot be done in certain artistic forms and mediums is political.
Thus my work is political because i'm doing something different and that opposes general status quo by the very fact of its existence.
In more conventional terms - i don’t really care about it.
# 18 ) You had a post about giving a word & you providing an adventure - Could you provide an adventure here for the word - Opulence ?
The whole "give me the word and i'll give you an adventure" is an exercise in what can be described as "shooting from the hip".
You want a piece on “Opulence”, here it is:
Pallid dew of nothing
Never-Ending Black Torrent
Turns into Olive and Gray Vortex .
# 19 ) Do you consider yourself a spiritual person ?
Making art is a form of mysticism. It is about going beyond, into the parts unknown. That makes me a spiritual person by default.
As for other spiritual stuff - I'm trying to be open-minded regarding anything but i don't like believing in something abstract just because it might be something worthwhile to believe in.
# 20 ) What is the factor that most slows your artistic output ?
I don't think there is anything that slows me down really. I'm naturally slow person. In fact, i'm so slow sometimes i feel like a starfish - to the point people would think i'm doing nothing while i'm actually slowly but surely moving forward. (That's why i dig Van Sant's "Gerry" and Bela Tarr stuff).
Sure, i can list many obvious things that can be considered as slowdown factors. Dayjob, procrastination, relationships, physical exhaustion, mental burnout, lack of interest, and so on - but these are the things i have to deal with regardless of what whether i want it or not.
While it seems like i'm doing a lot of stuff - most of it are just studies for something bigger and that is usually the thing that grows very slowly. As i've mentioned before - writing "Roadrage" took me three years and I don't think things will get faster over time.
On the other hand, i think it is good that things are going slow as it makes every next step matter more.
# 21 ) Any projects / groups you are involved with you’d like folks to know about ?
One of my longest running projects is a TUMBLR blog that collects various abstract black panels from the comic books. It creates a unique found and appropriated narrative full of vacuoussness and opacity.
Black panels blog can be found here:
Then there is another TUMBLR blog titled Cut’n’Splash that makes similar kind of narrative with all sorts of panels from comic books. It is a kind of neverending appropriated exquisite corpse.
Cut’n’Splash can be found here: https://cut-n-splash.tumblr.com
# 22 ) What are your plans for the future ?
I live by the rule of "Don't think about it - do it".
Because of that, i'm not really planning anything ahead. Aside from, probably, writing a song based on JG Ballard's short story "Concentration City" for ST37.
# 23 ) Why Resist ?
Because The Beatles "Because".
Neal D. Retke