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Vasyl Stus An Interview with
Yuri Laniuk

Yuri Laniuk answers Myrna Kostash's questions regarding his composition 'Palimpsesty' and the influence of poet Vasyl Stus on his work.
Myrna Kostash

Facilitated and Translated by Oksana Wynnyckyj

Interview with
Yuri Laniuk and Myrna Kostash (1 of 3)

MYRNA KOSTASH: You and I are "meeting" because we have both been inspired by the life and work of Vasyl Stus -- I as a writer in the English language in Canada, you as a musician and composer in Ukraine. Stus was your poet, not mine, yet, when I visited friends in Lviv in 1988, well-educated and of broad culture, it was I and not they who knew Stus' story.

Stus was named a "Prisoner of Conscience" by Amnesty International and was honoured at a PEN Congress in Canada in 1983. How did you come to know about Stus? When did you first read his poetry? Why, of all the writers who suffered in the camps, did you turn to the work of Stus for your composition?

YURI LANIUK: A great deal of time has passed since I first heard of Stus thus I don't remember the exact year. Although, it appears, that Stus was known in the world as a prisoner of conscience as early as 1983, when he was still alive; let us not forget, that in 1983 very few people could have known about this in Ukraine.

This isn't strange. And I don't think we will spend much time right now talking about the reasons for this.

When the democratization process began in the Soviet Union, the changes were not very apparent. It was probably at that time, that I first heard of Stus. When the members of the democratic forces began talking about the transfer of Stus' remains to Ukraine, it was impossible for me not to encounter his name. I knew him as a martyr.

But the incident which had a profound impact on me occurred when I was in Kyiv. I recall, I was attending some Ukrainian composers' conference soon after the re-interment and didn't attend some of the conference sessions, instead visiting the Bajko Cemetery. It was then that I first realised the tragedy of Stus' life. I understood that he and I are of the same people. Why? Because I saw the charred cross at the Bajko Cemetery.

I think at that time, the party hierarchy allowed the re-interment very grudgingly. There were many provocative acts. I don't know who organized them. But when I came, I witnessed one or even two charred crosses. There are three graves there -- Stus', Lytvyn's and Tykhyj's -- all three prisoners were re-interred in Ukraine at the same time. But it was the sight of a wreath that had a significant impact on me. A wreath with a very pointed and frightening text. A wreath of thorns. The text read: "To the martyred from the shackled." For me, this was like an initial emotional awakening. I was a witness to all these events.

I remember when the Soviet Union fell apart -- the bloody events that took place around this time in Tbilisi, Vilnius, Riga. How the war began in Karabakh. Today, this is all history. But at that time it was relevant, because we were prepared -- particularly in Western Ukraine -- for similar events to occur, that there might also be blood. Thank God, such events bypassed us. And I felt that this poet, was a kind of symbol for me.

Why of all of Stus' works, did you choose "Palimpsesty"?

When his collected works began coming out in 1993 I had a desire to read some of Stus' works. I got a copy of the anthology at home and began reading it. I admit that it wasn't easy coming to grips with Stus. A poet friend explained him to me.

Why this text in particular? I remember I was looking for a slightly different type of poetry. But, somehow, I became very involved with it. Then I set it aside, became caught up in other compositions, other musical ideas and returned to it later.

Stus' language is very difficult for someone like me who reads Ukrainian in a limited fashion. What was your approach to his linguistic "difficulty"? Did you work with a poet in order to set his text to music? Were his words of literal importance to you or did you use them as a kind of texture or mood?

This is not the first composition, in which I have used poetic texts. Before composing "Palimpsesty", I wrote two other works in which I used text. These were "The Thorns Lament", in which I used Antonych's poetry. A second composition used French poetry, written by the well-known, contemporary French poet Saint-John Perse. This poet is an example of an artist, who attempted to be aesthetic in everything -- in his choice of themes and poetic form. I've had the opportunity to work with poetry -- on the one hand, the very colourful, and, to a great extent, very Ukrainian poetry of Antonych, and, on the other hand, the poetry of Saint-John Perse, whose poetry can't always be referred to as poetry, in the traditional sense.

So, when I began work on "Palimpsesty" and decided to use Stus, I spent a great deal of time going through his poetry before I finally made the decision to use this particular text. I was searching for an artist whose poetry would have more play, movement, words... what Myron called "the roll of the dice". At that time, that was the kind of piece I wanted to compose.

Stus has, what I would call, an explosive poetry. It's as if every word is a cry of pain, a cry from the heart. I wasn't looking for this type of poetry -- poetry, which is so straight forward and blunt, poetry, which is so close to the surface. I wanted something different. Although I really liked this poetry, it isn't my type of poetry. But then I found that text, which was very close to my ideal in all its parameters. The text had the necessary dramatics. Yet structurally, it was so interesting in terms of the employed technology.

Just think, he writes "...the beat of hearts overgrown with fat is soft,..." What contrasts! He writes "the lightening sun" which is at once joyous and tragic. It was these contrasts that I desired. Why? Not for purposes of reading the text, but for the musical reading. Every word occupies space in time. And, in the musical sense, it was the most... I didn't want to play "the beat of hearts overgrown with fat" to a beat of the drum, which would have imitated the hollow beating of some fatty hearts. I was looking for a different concept, in the strictly musical sense. Therefore, for me, this poetry was interesting because, in the first place, it allowed me space for my musical fantasies. It is very important, when you are working with an orchestra, where there are many instruments and many orchestral possibilities, to show on the one hand, great intensity, and, on the other hand, a poetry constructed on very strong contrasts. This is what I really wanted for this piece. And this is how I chose this poem.

For me, this poem is the embodiment of Stus. All his other texts, I consider to be less interesting. I consider this to be an example of universal poetry of the highest calibre. This particular text, which I found and chose for my own. Here, I see Stus.

Later, I read a great deal about Stus. I really liked the fact that, according to Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska, a dear friend of his who was the editor-in-chief of his collected works, Stus wanted his poetry to be seen in the context of the quest of European world poetry -- conceptual poetry. He himself was a keen adherent of this. On the other hand, his poetry is very Ukrainian and I found this to my liking also. For me, Stus, particularly in this piece, is a kind of symbol of the suffering not only of the poet himself, not just a personal suffering but, probably of Ukraine, as a carrier of all that is Ukrainian.

I wouldn't like "Palimpsesty" to be seen as my using Stus' poetry because he is a great poet, like Shevchenko. I would like for people to concentrate on the musical quality of this composition. So, Stus' poetry inspired me to combine such contrasts. Its value for me, in particular, was that it drove me to search.

Interview with
Yuri Laniuk and Myrna Kostash (1 of 3)

© 1999 the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies
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Last updated: March 01, 1999