On a July afternoon, 14 women gathered around a table in the basement of a café in Krakow’s Old Town to write, read and discuss poetry.
Thirteen of them had recently fled Ukraine to neighboring Poland to escape the war at home. The 14th, poet and Colby-Sawyer College Associate Professor Ewa Chrusciel, served as facilitator. A native of Poland, Chrusciel conceived of the idea for a poetry workshop as a way to help her Ukrainian peers whose lives had been upended. She also hoped to use the workshop’s poetry to spark a more nuanced awareness of the concepts of exile, displacement and identity for her students in New Hampshire.
Each writer brought a unique vocabulary of personal experience to the workshop. Some were seasoned poets with an established literary reputation, while for others — a television scriptwriter, a children’s author, a researcher with a slate of scientific publications — poetry was a less familiar medium.
Language itself was an agent of contrast for the group.
“Some of them spoke Ukrainian, some of them spoke Polish and Ukrainian, some of them knew English,” Chrusciel said.
They wrote in different languages and translated for each other. Despite their differences, however, the Ukrainian writers were united by a common experience of loss and by the need to make some sort of meaning from their collective ordeal.
Poet Iryna Feofanova explained the personal power of the workshop.
“You take your pain out into the text,” she said, “and you feel relief.”
But the poetry that emerged from the workshop is rich with the potential to have an even broader impact. They are clear, resonant expressions of anger and pain, but they also reveal moments of humor, insight and resolve — a testament to the resilience of their authors.
“Literature is a medium of witness,” Chrusciel said. “Poetry is a way for them to contribute to liberating Ukraine — a tool to spread the word around the world. It's through this medium that they can do that, so they take it very, very seriously.”
Olesya Mamchych was born in Kyiv in 1981. In 2003, she graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, where she studied creative writing. Her first poem appeared in the Ukrainian children’s magazine Sonyashnik in 1992, and her first collection, Perekotybole, was published in 2004. Her other two collections, The Cover and The Sun on Maternity Leave were both published in 2014. She has also published her poetry translations from Polish, Byelorussian and Lithuanian. She was the recipient of the Blagovist Award in 2006 and the Urba-Crossing Award in 2014. She is currently living in a creative commune and working on an alternative school education project.
A few honorable men sowed this war
and then looked after it,
fertilized it, brought rainwater
in the palms of their hands
to prevent it from withering away
but the war still grew weak and wilted
and sunshine, water and fire couldn’t prop it up
the war didn’t turn out good – thought the men
of another year
let’s plant here, instead of the war,
Yulia Berezhko-Kaminska is a Ukrainian poet, journalist and editor, as well as the secretary of the National Union of Writers of Ukraine, focusing on the promotion of young writers. She is the author of eight volumes of original poetry and her work has been awarded a succession of literary prizes. She was born and grew up in the village of Chornobaivka in the Kherson region of Ukraine. More recently, her permanent residence has been in Bucha, in the Kyiv region. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which particularly affected Bucha and other settlements north of Kyiv, she relocated as a refugee to Krakow, Poland.
The scariest thing is the warm scarf of my evacuation,
That served me as a pillow on the mattress,
Thrown on the floor.
Dreams remained on it —
Dry, prickly wreaths of acacia,
Woven for the road.
Who should I ask —
When will the night become dawn, fade into memory,
Cut by sirens into a gray piece of insomnia?
I close my eyes and the scarf smells like home.
It smells so good that just the smell makes the temples turn gray.
Resting quietly, I think: what will the trophies brought from our settlements
Smell like to the women of the occupiers ––
Mountains of scarves of Ukrainian women, knitted for us, or by us,
Our earrings, necklaces, pearls, pendants, cameo brooches?
Do they taste the bitterness of the smoke of burnt homes?
Won't a chiffon scarf strangle their cherished necks?
I lay thinking, and the shadows of the fire flicker in the basement,
While shells hit the new residences.
Would you like to take my warm evacuation scarf?
I don't care. I left behind everything that was there,
Because every little thing of mine smells of my land.
The smell curdles the blood in my veins,
While the invaders plunder our homes
To please their loved ones.
Iryna Feofanova is a script and fiction writer. Born in 1985 in Kyiv, she obtained a degree in psychology, going on to work on TV as a journalist for documentaries and reality shows and as the author of 20+ scripts for TV films and series. Until February 24, 2022, Iryna lived in Irpin with her husband and young daughter. After Russia attacked Ukraine, Iryna and her daughter had to flee to Poland while her husband joined the military forces of Ukraine. He has been fighting the Russians since March 2022.
From the first days of the war, Iryna has been writing — first notes in her diary and then drama and prose pieces, most often raising the problems of displaced persons and refugees, the challenges the military wives face, and the way children adapt to wartime reality. The following poem, which was written in Ewa Chrusciel’s workshop, was her first.
And what I gotta do with the hatred?
Where to pour it?
Where to pile it, how to can it?
How I gotta live with the hatred?
Should I pour it to the river, ocean or sea?
It will blend there with waters and relieve my grief.
The Black Sea though is too small — could it hold all this,
All these pains and all these griefs?
And who will cure my poor heart when the war is gone?
Who will give me back the one I was in the times bygone?
And even if I find the place for hatred to discharge,
Then won’t it leave the blankness in my heart?
Nataliya Belchenko was born in 1973 in Kyiv. She is a Ukrainian poet and translator, working in Ukrainian, Polish, Belarusian and Russian. Nataliya graduated with honors from the Department of Philology at Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University. She has worked at the O. O. Potebnia Institute of Linguistics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and has scientific publications on mythopoetics. She is a member of the Ukrainian branch of PEN International.
And first what one needs to learn —
To walk the city flawlessly; you’re from here.
The myths should be dug out
To round each of pain’s corners.
The body needs to dissolve in walking
As an evanescent flower to forget your age.
Within love, concealed in shadow until now
Your childlike observer could hide.
Today no longer - need to play and pretend,
Tomorrow you won’t wake up here:
Your streets on the heaven’s map
Converge now from all sides.
Olena Zamoyska is a Ukrainian writer, local history researcher and translator from English and Polish into Ukrainian. Among many other fiction and nonfiction books, she has translated works by Ayn Rand, Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald. At present, as part of the residency program of the Institute of Literature in Krakow, she is working on a fictionalized documentary story under the working title “What the Monastery Chronicles Are Not Silent About,” based on the authentic documents of the Basilian monastery in Krystynopol (now Chervonohrad, Ukraine).
i’m a downed pilot
i’m a downed balloon
i’m a downed woman
both deaf and blinded
i’m still a mother
i have to be one
meanwhile the power
of love and rage
holds up the someone's
child of earth
i will be light
when i meet my death
Hałyna Tkaczuk is a poet and prose writer, as well as the author of over ten children’s books. She’s a graduate of the Kyiv Institute of Philology and has published a bilingual collection of poems, „Я та інші красуні/ Ja i inne piękności” (I and Other Beauties), translated by Aneta Kamińska. Her poems have been included in various anthologies and Ukrainian and Polish literary journals.
- Good morning — says one city.
- Good morning — I reply.
- I have a task for you — says the city.
- What task? I ask.
- Console my drowned ones.
- Console my drowned ones, what.
- How so?
- Come and see, how so.
I boarded the train and came.
At first it was hard to find the drowned ones.
They would hide in a river.
Only at night they would come out
Out of waters.
I have a keen eye for weirdos.
Who haven’t I met there?
Those who thought of themselves as eternal.
Those who thought the soul was mortal.
Those who had two, three lovers at once.
And those who never loved anyone.
Those who thought they were the wisest.
Those who did not think of themselves as human.
As in each city, the weirdos
Filled the rooms.
And the rooms — full flats.
And flats — full houses,
And houses — full streets.
And the streets long so long
Now, back to the floaters.
Somehow on Rajska street,
I did meet a floater.
Just like me he sat in a library
And read a few books at once.
Trying not to splash water on them
Which from time to time dripped from his collar.
If you want, I can drown you, he kindly offered.
No, I replied gently.
As you wish, but remember I would gladly drown you,
Just like the day I jumped from the pedestrian bridge
into green waves
with a stone at my neck.