Maintenant # 12 – Jürgen Rooste
– an interview with Jürgen Rooste by SJ Fowler
when I was younger
I understood no art
it wasn’t even possible
for I grew up inside it
was a part of it
I was born in the soviet union
from The Dadaist State trans. Eric Dickens
Jürgen Rooste is the enfant terrible of one of the most underrated poetic national traditions in Europe, and one would be pushed to find a more distinct voice in what is a remarkable poetic landscape. Slangy, colloquial, experimental and wholly free, he has bridged the gap between the flourishing of Estonian modernism, coming not long after the Estonian language, unique in and of itself, was allowed voice in any official capacity, and the rampant postmodernism of the conceptual art and high poetry circles. His work remains urbane despite this freedom, his is a grounded voice, at one with the city, intense, immediate and rich. He is a poet with a considerable and ever growing reputation in Northern and Baltic Europe and he has the talent for this to grow far beyond those boundaries. For 3:AM he speaks to SJ Fowler.
3:AM: There appears in your work a dichotomy of the Beckettian concept of the necessary attempt at the unattainable in language, that is to aim to capture concepts like love, undefinable ideas, and paradoxes, essential contradictions. Is this the case?
Jürgen Rooste: As I’m answering your questions I’m mainly thinking about work, which is organizing all kinds of literary events, a rather large international festival among others (though my favourite is an monthly underground jazz and literature show called Cabaret Interruptus, but I don’t earn anything from it, it’s not even the point, but we always have a full house and we hardly ever advertise it) and so I can hardly remember what it was like to be a writer. For me it seems more like Kafka’s world. It has always felt as though Beckett enjoyed himself, it was a game through and through. To answer your question actually I consider myself to be a realist. Although I sometimes head into nightmares and fantasies, but my aim is to capture something what one might call “real”. At least an attempt towards reality. They have called me a critic, a drunk, a wanna-be. I’m all that. My purpose is to capture some language and some faith, some trouble… I often let the language speak for me, I often tend to tell these stories no-one should hear about me. I never get too far from the truth. I tend to leave marks on the snow in the shape of a stupid rabbit. So, one could actually follow me to my real life, hunt me down. But no-one really cares, because I seem to be such a… stupid beast.
3:AM: The ecstatic, free, sometimes aggressive, nature of your verse seems to reflect a frustration at this necessary failure at the root of all poetry. IIs this tangible to you, a frustration at the failure to grasp the ungraspable?
JR: I don’t hate what I can’t capture inside literature. Poetry has always meant more freedom to me than anything else in my life. I’m much more afraid of the fact that whatever I write, it might never change the world, not even in a bourgeois way, not even by making anybody angry… I tend to believe I have a purpose, a meaning in this life, but it’s only connected to a message I’m meant to be delivering. So my biggest failure would be that what I write doesn’t work at all, that it doesn’t get anybody thinking or wondering about their life in general. If it’s like that, I am a total failure… I couldn’t find another way to go on. I don’t have a second plan. That’s my weakness.
3:AM: An essential contradiction in your work seems to be the vehement repulsion and attraction to the ideas of home, city, country. The city especially, I know you have an awareness of the limits and falsity of the concept of the urban poet, but could you speak of your feeling to the city in your work?
JR: Although I like some other cities in Europa, it’s always been about Tallinn and Helsinki for me actually. In those two cities I feel like at home. Like most modern people in the western room of culture, I’ve never lived in the countryside for more than a few weeks. The city is weak, but it maintains a lifestyle, a possibility to see a lot and never to learn anything. Tallinn, as it used to be, in the end of the Soviet era — a fighting town, a city on the edge, and as it was in my teens – a free town where you could hang around, a punk, a screwball, a no-where-man, and no-one could care less about you, but there was never anything to be afraid of, but yourrself. I was never a real punk, I used to wear a suit, I used to read Salinger and Kerouac and Hemingway in the Old Town where we were. So, I come from the “city”, in that narrow meaning of Eastern Europe becoming free in the end of the nineties.
3:AM: Could you explain the term Taanilinn as it relates to your poetry and your city?
JR: Taanilinn is the Danish Town. So, the Danes conquered an old Estonian castle in the 13th century, it was a hard battle (or hardly a battle) and they have the legend that God gave them their flag that day, threw it down from heavens. Tallinn probably got it’s name from that story. Danish town — Taanilinn — Tallinn. So, it has never actually been our city, maybe at the beginning of the 20th century. But right now, as we speak, there are a bit more than 50 % foreigners in Tallinn, counting, of course, russian speaking immigrants from the Soviet Era. So I was born into a strange town, was thrown into a small city which seemed like a world to me. You see, I had a very strict mother. For me, breaking free in my late teens, that little town meant everything, it was the place I learned how to love and fight, how to drink… While I seem to have forgotten all about the first two, I still tend to drink, at least it makes me happy.
3:AM: And Estonia in general, are you conflicted in your sentiments to your nation?
JR: We are a narrow-minded nation, guided by idiots. But you really can’t blame us. 50 years of Soviet Union brainwashing utopian bullshit, led by fear and terror, would change anybody. As I always say to the western asshole-communists: sorry, there was no communism in the Soviet Union, in my childhood, it was a military-dadaist project, an experiment on several smaller nations, some of which didn’t survive, we can’t see them on the map of the world today. So, yeah, I live among idiots, I’m one of them, but who isn’t? Estonians, being absent in the process of building up personal freedom in the modern Western Culture, picked it up much faster than they should have. We came from an invalid state and we were interested in all the wrong things which we never had: money, wealth, position. What can you expect? But I hope, it’s turning out better in the future. If we, as mankind, have any…
3:AM: Stylistically, your poetry is absorbed in action, in immediacy it appears colloquial and conversational. How do you view your style?
JR: I hope I’m always changing. Right now I’m headed toward classical forms, I try to mix them with some expressionist views I have. So I hope, like a child, I’m never ready to be finished. I’d like to try out something new, just before I die. As Allen Ginsberg did, in my opinion. But I’m more known for my expressive, socialist, critical surrealist style.
3:AM: Does it maintain a certain methodology? Is free verse central to your output?
JR: Not any more. I just know better, and I still believe it to be better for expressing yourself in our society, especially while most of Estonian readers still consider rhyme and rhythm to be essential for the poetry. I’m mainly aiming to create stories, so I’d not write a poem if I don’t have need for it, if I haven’t got a story to tell.
3:AM: Is it in someway a reaction to previously established poetic trends, for example are you reacting against the limitations of lyric poetry or formally technical poetry?
JR: When I was younger, I guess, I did. At least, I was quite angry about what “they” considered poetry to be. I started out reading totally different poetry… I didn’t know, at the time, it was not “officially” considered to be “good poetry”. Later on, I found out, it was rather the other way arround. By that time I was lost already.
3:AM: I have read that it is though that Tallinna Noored Tegijad, the grouping you were associated with early in your output was an inheritance of the movements of the Hirohall and Siuru groups that appeared earlier in the twenieth century. What is your feeling towards this, the history of modern Estonian poetry movements and groups?
JR: I like “intellectual gangs”, but I have never found my place there. While I’m active, everybody thinks I’m among the leaders and I enjoy myself, I always tend to run things and make stuff happen. But I actually I feel better as a loner. So the Künnap-Rooste-Sinijärv combo (the three poets have published a few books together and they’ve been thought of as a real gang) works only cause we are three loners, we’d be okay by ourselves just as well. That is what makes us such good friends.
3:AM: You seem to enjoy a fluid relationship to wider cultural movements, punk especially…
JR: Not any more. Mainly I listen to jazz (thank’s to one of my best friends: Siim Aimla, an Estonian jazz-hero today), blues, some old rock’n’roll, some country, triphop, some indie-rock, contemporary Estonian rap… Some really deep-dark rooted estonian folk-shit. It just has to make me curious. I don’t belong to any movement or subculture, but I continue to be interested.
3:AM: You seem to reflect this in your readings, using music aside your performances. Is this central to your work, this freedom of poetic expression?
JR: Yeah, I am a performing poet, I need to be on stage. With or without music. Estonian poetry has been written down on the paper only for the last two centuries, until that time it used to be oral. For me it is about singing it out aloud, about telling stories and finding new expressive ways. Theatre is not far from what I expect from modern literature.
3:AM: You assisted in translating Ginsberg into Estonian, was this a project conceived of by your own appreciation of his works or by a publisher? Do you feel a kinship with Beat methodology and poetry?
JR: Allen Ginsberg was one of the heroes of my youth. There among Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Tom Waits, Ernest Hemingway and all the other guys I’d fall for sexually or intellectually or emotionally. Ginsberg wrote poetry that would deflower you. So he was important, but he was not alone there.
3:AM: What are your feelings toward the Estonian poetry landscape, it’s culture? Do you receive public support, and recognition?
JR: I’m a fan. And a missionary. And a believer. Support? I’ve been fighting for the room we have. For instance, I guess Estonia is the only state in Europe which has a poem on the air each night on the national TV just after the main news. Can you imagine that? We have a couple of literature festivals, even underground events, jazz-poetry clubs. Yeah, the book-sales aren’t the greatest. But considering the less than one million possible readers (ca 960 000 Estonians altogether) and about 100 new poetry books being published annually (!!!), at least for the last few years… What more could one expect? It’s the edges of Europe — we always have more poetry inside us. Estonia stands on the border of Europe, and I’m not speaking of European Union, but something deeper inside. So being an Estonian poet, it’s always something political also, even if you try to write about the sunset in the Western Gulf. But that would be a bit east from your beautiful islands.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum. In addition to interviewing leading European poets, he is curating the forthcoming Maintenant reading series.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 3rd, 2010.