Monday, 6 October 2014

Lithuania Letter 3: Back in Vilnius

Autumn in Druskininskai

I am writing this from the Hotel Congress in Vilnius where we first arrived and to which we have returned in order to depart again.

It is always hard to know what to make of festivals in terms of the art but this much is certain: you meet new poems that make an impression, you meet their makers, and you make friends, that being the chief good. The rest is ambience, new scenery, a little craziness, snatches of conversation, music, drinking. After the first few hours of apprehension (what is this place? who are these people? are they utterly different from me? how to talk to them? how much is expected of me? is my work going to make contact at all?) it all merges into a kind of conviviality where moments of idiosyncracy or monstrous egotism become charming for the duration.

Much is down to the hosts of course and in this case the president and founder of the festival, Kornelijus Pletatis, carried it all with an amiable tolerance and seen-it-all kindness. He is above all a major Lithuanian poet in the grand European tradition of both personal lyric and elements of epic - I mean a voice recognizably in the humane family of Milosz and Herbert but utterly itself -  a selection of whose work I managed to find on Kindle and more than warmly recommend. I will find a suitable poem of his and put it up on the blog once I am home.

We knew Ludwig Steinherr from before. We had met at StAnza a couple of years ago and immediately took to each other. We exchanged books and he exists in excellent English translation. He is a marvellous philosophical poet, the poems clear, warm, beautifully balanced. I will put up something by him too.

I have mentioned Donna Stonecipher already, I think. An American poet living in Berlin, it was her poems that most suprised me, partly because I hadn't read her before but chiefly because of her originality. The poems are in prose and in series, so ideally one needs a run of them for full effect, but they are so delicately positioned in terms of development of voice, imagery and emotion that they fell on me like unexpected light.

I can't be quite fair to the other poets bcause some of them were available only in Lithuanian translation or because the English  translation was not quite enough to judge them by but in terms of performance the young Swedish poet, Laura Wihlborg was very impressive and clearly much appreciated by the younger poets at the festival. She was also making a radio programme for Swedish radio so moved around with a microphone.

I noticed how Veno Taufer's poems in the anthology were formal and firmly rhymed sonnets in the original. They sounded beautiful to my ear but the translations were in Lithuanian, as was the case with Suzana Lovric, Artis Ostups, and the Japanese poets Keijiro Suga and Koichi Yakushigawa.

Lidija Simkute's poems were written in English but also translated by her as she is a Lithuanian long resident in Australia. Short, deeply spiritual poems, drawing on, it seemed to me, Japanese traditions of haiku and tanka but without the strict form, it was not surprising to me that her poems had in fact been translated into Japanese, indeed by Koichi Yakushigawa.

Alfredo Costa Moneiro works with sound and performed a single long poem, Soliloquio Vazio, a play on the idea of nothing and emptiness, with the backing of his own voice speaking in the background. I don't see or hear much of this work in the UK (though I am sure it exists) so it was a fascinating experience.

I myself had the great good fortune of being translated by Sonata Paliulyte, a fine poet herself and married to the American poet Kerry Shawn Keys .

Oh, but so much more and I haven't mentioned the Lithuanian poets such as Erika Drungtyé,  Bendiktas Janusevivius or Vytautas Rubavicius who were in English translation and sounded very good in their different ways, particularly Rubavicius, or the Estonian poet, Jürgen Rooste who gave a powerful performance, occasionally in English.

But that's the poetry and I can't do justice to them all, nor is there time now to link to the work, but I will.

One should avoid pieties, of course one should, but there is no way of accounting for all without the pieties.


We are Babel and our tongues are confused but at least we are in the same wing of Babel, or maybe not a wing at all, but at the very foundations of Babel where tongues spring into words. And later we try to talk over music and over each other, passing each other wine or vodka or potent local herbal brews, or sneak out for cigarettes. Babel is in the noise, but the foundations are articulate and shaped to hold the structure together. Even when you knock Babel down and destroy it, the foundations remain.

Yesterday on returning to Vilnius we met with Kerry and walked around Vilnius a little longer ending up in that part of the ghetto where Kerry and Sonata live. The street still shows the signs of ghetto life and is partly crumbling. It is like a photograph of itself reanimated. The building opposite their flat was where there was some attempt at Jewish resistance. The attempt failed of course but at least photographs of some of those of who resisted are roughly displayed on the wall (see above). In order to get to K and S's flat you walk through a courtyard with woodsheds and some fairly ramshackle improvised building and mending. Nothing has been renovated here. The stairs up to the apartment are steep and dark. When we walk up, a complex space opens up on the top floor with a narrow balcony overlooking the yard and a little beyond. Chimneys. Bricks. The rooms are full of books and art and souvenirs of travel. It would be good to feature a poem of Kerry's too, since he is a very fine poet indeed, resident here now for many years. I recognise both the feelings and the sense of the space too, that cave of making for both Kerry and Sonata (whose work I don't know in English translation but must try to find).

Europe has been both garden and charnelhouse but we recognise it and shrug and are glad to be here if only because it is our essential cave of making. And remaking of course, a constant remaking you see in the houses, streets, squares and parks.

Hello Europe. We are not divorced. Not from this.

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