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Northwest Passages: Lost Horse Press and the love of Ukrainian poetry

June 18, 2022 Updated Sat., June 18, 2022 at 4:42 p.m.

Christine Lysnewycz Holbert will be opening next week’s Northwest Passages event with a poetry reading from the latest collection from her publishing house: Lost Horse Press.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN)
Christine Lysnewycz Holbert will be opening next week’s Northwest Passages event with a poetry reading from the latest collection from her publishing house: Lost Horse Press. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN)

For Ukrainians, poetry is an integral aspect of daily life.

“Ukrainians love poetry,” Lost Horse Press founder Christine Lysnewycz Holbert said. “We’re inundated with poetry from the time we’re born.”

Holbert will open Tuesday’s Northwest Passages book club meeting with a poem by Boris and Ludmila Khersonsky titled, “Explosions Are The New Normal.”

Holbert remembers growing up memorizing and reciting poetry, encouraged and surrounded by her mother’s singing.

“Poetry is used in all meetings, gatherings of Ukrainians, people will start reciting poetry and then shortly after that, we’ll break into song,” Holbert said.

Passionate about making new voices heard, Holbert decided to pursue small-press publishing after finishing her graduate degree in publishing at Eastern Washington University.

Going through a divorce during the same time and not quite wanting to return to her roots in upstate New York, Holbert decided to make a new home for herself and her children in Sandpoint, taking the publishing business with her.

Holbert once thought she would have to move to New York to do anything meaningful in publishing. But the idea of university presses and small-press publishing changed her perspective.

“I decided to give it a shot,” she said. She founded Lost Horse Press in 1998 and began publishing a wide variety of written content, short-story collections and novels, but would eventually narrow her focus to poetry.

“I was very proud and happy to promote the work of emerging poets,” she said.

Getting a debut collection published is not easy, she explained. Oftentimes, “you need to have a book in order to get a book.”

But “there were a lot of very, very good manuscripts coming from people who didn’t have a book out,” she said. “So I thought that was a noble pursuit.”

More recently, Holbert has turned her focus back on her own history, on Ukraine and the culture in which her parents and ancestors were raised. She decided to start publishing and translating Ukrainian poetry.

This was significant, she explained, as very little poetry written in Ukrainian had been translated to English before.

In 2017, Holbert established the Lost Horse Press Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series. Edited by Grace Mahoney, the series now features 10 books including Natalka Bilotserkivets’ “Eccentric Days of Hope & Sorrow,” translated by Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky, which was recently shortlisted for the Griffin Prize for Poetry.

“We are one of the first presses that have come out with dual language editions of the most well known contemporary poets in Ukraine,” she said.

Doing this has been important to her for many reasons.

“In 2017, I had already been twice to Ukraine, so I was aware of the war and its effect on Ukrainians,” she said. “But when the war ramped up on the 24th of February … things for translators of Ukrainian books and publishers of Ukrainian books went crazy.”

The sudden attention was almost “unbelievable … laser-focused on publishers who were doing English translations of Ukrainian work.”

One of Holbert’s published poets, Lyuba Yakimchuk, who wrote “Apricots of Donbas,” was flown from Cuba to Las Vegas to perform a poem at the Grammy Awards with John Legend playing piano behind her. Legend introduced a new song of his, during the verses of which Yakimchuk was asked to read her poem.

“Apricots of Donbas” are flying off the shelves faster than Holbert can get them printed.

“A normal print run is 300 to 400 poetry books and I’m being asked to print thousands,” she said.

Holbert hopes the attention will continue to uplift the spirits of Ukrainians as well as their poetry.

“The thing that saves me from utter depression … is that I know I’m giving Ukrainian poets a voice, a bigger voice than they had before,” she said.

“This was a labor of love … in the beginning … I was thinking, ‘I don’t even care, I’ll support this.’ ”

She thought the collection might be discovered one day, but only long after her own death.

“But I didn’t really have to wait that long. And unfortunately, it took this war to make people recognize that these poems are truly wonderful. Poets in Ukraine are deserving of recognition.”

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