I first met Bohdan Boychuk at a huge literary celebration for Stanley Kunitz’s eightieth birthday, but I’d heard about him years earlier. My mother read his poems, and my godfather illustrated some of his books. In fact, my godfather, the painter Liuboslav Hutsaliuk, was his neighbor at their summer place in Glen Spey. Boychuk was one of the few émigré poets of his generation to penetrate through the thick skin that once sheathed the American literary world against incursions from non-Anglophone writers. He even had an American publisher for one of his books, which was unheard of for a Ukrainian of his generation. Among his translators were the poets Mark Rudman and David Ignatow. I translated and published versions of four of his prayer-poems in_ AGNI_. He himself was a prolific polyglot translator, from the Spanish to the Ukrainian, and from Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian into English. He published eleven books of poetry, including a two volume Collected Poems, eight plays, and nine novels. A cycle of his poems was set to music by Virko Baley. Boychuk also wrote the libretto for Baley’s seminal opera about the Ukrainian famine, Holodomor.
His poems were fully of their time, and their time spanned a good bit of some of the worst parts of the twentieth century. Born in the village of Bortnycky in Galicia in 1927, he endured a German work camp during World War II, followed by years as a refugee in a displaced persons camp before emigrating to the United States in 1949. Unlike so many writers and intellectuals forced into exile, Boychuk refused to fall silent or succumb to despair. Despite the hardships endured, many of Boychuk’s poems were playful and erotic. Others were philosophical. Trained as an engineer, he was an unusually reasonable man, for a poet.
A consummate man of letters, Boychuk was also an editor. He edited several literary journals, as well as anthologies of writing by the so-called “New York Group,” which he cofounded. That group is another story—in Ukrainian literary circles it is already legendary, the subject of many theses, and books, and even, last year, a rather wonderful film, _Aquarium in the Sea, _by the young filmmaker Oleksandr Fraze-Frazenko. Theirs is a story worth repeating because it can and ought to serve as an inspiration to the countless writers and intellectuals—I think of them as spirit-carriers—who have been hurled out of their homelands by those who fail to understand that not all regions of the imagination are worth colonizing. This group of poets—Boychuk, Bohdan Rubchak, Yuri Tarnawsky, and Patricia Kalyna formed the core, with two younger writers, Vasyl Makhno and Maria Rewakowicz, playing a major supporting role in extending the legacy—this group of friends, managed to find each other in exile in New York.
Writers displaced from their native tongues face several choices. They can choose to try writing in a new language; or they can continue working as they had in their mother tongue and accept the that their audience is bound to be miniscule, since only a small percentage of any population reads poetry and those who find themselves diasporans are forced to confront urgent demands which might make poetry feel like a distant luxury. The writers of the New York Group realized all this. Though they were soon fluent in English, they chose to continue writing in Ukrainian. But they refused to work as though nothing had changed. Neither did they revel in nostalgia. They entered the present and inhabited it with conviction. Above all, they supported each other’s projects, by meeting regularly, encouraging each other, reading each other’s work, writing about it, and publishing it. And the work they wound up producing eventually did something remarkable—half a century later, it found a new audience of readers back in the homeland they’d been forced to flee. Is there a precedent for this anywhere else in the world?
Boychuk himself returned to Kyiv to live sometime in the nineties, becoming a potent and revered presence in the city’s burgeoning literary scene.
I crossed paths with Bohdan no more than half a dozen times after that initial meeting in New York, but I always found him warm, genial, witty, and utterly unpretentious. He loved poetry and lived for it and by it. He closes out the Fraze-Frazenko film with a question he poses to himself—What is poetry?—which he quickly abandons because, he says, it’s simply too broad a phenomenon to bear definition. He then asks himself what poetry is to him, and for this he has a ready answer: “Poetry is what makes me happy. For a moment. It even makes me immortal. Also only for a moment.” But I suspect that that moment will last a very long time.
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, AGNI, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College and Arrowsmith Press in 2006. (updated 10/2022)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.