Maintenant #33: Eugenijus Ališanka
‘you had to understand your place is under water‘ – an interview with Eugenijus Ališanka by SJ Fowler.
One of the commanding figures of the contemporary European poetry scene, Eugenijus Ališanka is a prolific and versatile poet, translator, essayist and editor. Having published dozens of collections, anthologies and articles over the last twenty years, along with being the editor of The Vilnius Review in English and Russian, he has carved out the reputation as a major figure in letters, one of a few who has been able to do so in our time without quite reaching the mandatory old age establishment. One of the very leading poets in the notable rise to prominence of Lithuanian poetry, in this extraordinary and generous interview he discusses his experiences of the defining moments in Lithuania’s recent and social political history – his birth in Siberia, the fall of Communism and the shedding of Russian shackles, how poetry has shaped his life and how it is has led him to be admired as one of the most cultured and eloquent poetic practitioners across the continent. For the 33rd edition of Maintenant, Eugenijus Ališanka,
3:AM: Let us speak about your birth in Russia and your status as a Lithuanian. Is this exiled beginning, in Barnaul, in Siberia, the beginning of your poetry, that is does your work somehow maintain an indelible relationship to the political reality of Lithuania, its proximity, its subjugation to Russia?
Eugenijus Ališanka: All stories have a beginning, but it‘s not always possible to tell the story from the beginning. Sometimes it is even better to start from the middle or even from the end. Siberia is the beginning of my physical biography, while the beginning of my creative biography lies much further along, and it is not clear to me where exactly. Maybe it might be in my student years, when I studied mathematics and wrote my first poems. Maybe later, when I started to treat writing as something more than a hobby or spiritual practice only. And maybe later, much later, one might say today, when I have the feeling I am poisoned by words; when poetry became an object of hatred and love at the same time, when I got the feeling that I can write without illusions, when I resolved to spend my life with poetry to the very end. It does not matter from which one point I start, I was moving from it forward as well as backward. In other words, in my creative biography Siberia was/is not so much the point of departure as the aim of the travel, maybe, more exactly – a direction. One of the directions.
And maybe the story of my family is more important to me even than the fact I was born in Siberia. The families (because there were two different families) of my grandparents were deported in 1941. Both grandfathers were separated from the families on the very early days and later imprisoned in the same prison in Russia. It was done with all men. Families without men continued their trip in livestock carriages further on, to Siberia, they were settled in barracks, where they had to suffer hunger and cold. In a short time both grandfathers died in the prison – one was shot down as a traitor of the motherland (of which one? of the occupants? It seems to me this statement is worthy of an ancient tragedy, if not at least the absurdity of Beckett or Kafka), and another one died in one year because of hunger. I do not think they had met each other – one can just guess about the prison –as well as their families before the exile. My father was eleven, mother – eight years old when they were deported. They grew up there, later, when the exiles were allowed to move around, but not back home, they moved to Barnaul, one of the bigger towns of Altai region. There they studied, there they met each other at one of the Lithuanian gatherings, there they got married and there I was born. This is short conspectus of their life story. Telling it I feel more and more cheap, and I tell it quite often, especially at literary readings abroad. Tragedies and dramas must be told in a different way. That’s why I feel I am in debt to my family – at least as a writer.
Returning back to Lithuania, my parents carried the exile as a stigma, maybe even as a shame, the detestation to those who destroyed their families and lives was deeply hidden. In Siberia they had learned to accept life as a survival in any conditions, so they did not educate us in an anti-soviet way. They even tried to speak less about Siberia, except my grandmother who kept telling Siberian stories from our childhood, not being afraid of anything anymore. Their concern was our future in this rock-like – as it seemed then – situation of the absurd. There was so much of the politics around us that the only way to survive was – we thought anyhow – to ignore the politics, to play with it, to pretend it does not exist. That’s why my early writing was nearly completely apolitical (with rare exceptions), and I did it not because of fear of censors, simply I had chosen another territory. I was interested in philosophy, sciences of soul, but at that time stoics, existentialists, Eastern philosophies were close to me, and it seems not by accident.
Now I am much more concerned about my Siberian past than then, but my interest shows up in sporadic, accidental images in my poetry, as if waiting for some more concrete action. I keep thinking about an essay, I had even prepared a dictophone to write stories of parents into, but they are just intentions. Anyway this irritant, this stimulus of memory and imagination, even today has no political undertone, no reckoning with Russia or anybody else. I am so fed up with politics that I am looking for another key toward the articulation of life.
3:AM: Your poetry debut was released in 1991, the year after Lithuania declared independence. Had you written much before this change, had it been a case waiting for what you might have thought would happen? Is there any connection at all between these events?
EA: I have already answered this question in part. I started writing poetry more intensely quite late, so the year of my book publishing coincided with my writing rhythm but not with political events. My creative points of departure were not history, not politics, not nation, but internal spiritual conversions and feelings. Now I would say it was quite an autistic (not to dare to call it metaphysical) style of writing. It‘s spiritual fathers were Rilke, Celan, Trakl; I was more pulled by Kobo Abe‘s “Woman in sand“ than by social theories. Indeed, it is hard to believe that I had lived so long with such a manicheistic mood, so separating life and art. Because in life I was not shut away from everything going on around me. Quite the opposite. I was taking an active part everywhere I could. In fact I was never involved in formal political activities – partly because I was too young, partly because it always seemed to me there were enough people to do it. And maybe partly because of my eternal childishness. I took part in the constitutive Sąjūdis meeting, I stood in the Baltic Way, I went to meetings where hundreds of thousands people participated, I was standing hand-in-hand with my brother and hundreds of other people at the TV tower enclosed by tanks, Soviet solders broke the chain just in a few meters from us and I kept a vigil through all night at the Parlament, I built barricades. That life sucked me up more than writing, it seems even I had lost the distance with what was happening around, I coincided with a mystical body – nation, I was breathing in the same rhythm. In fact, even now I get surprised when I come across a book of some famous author published in the years of the Second World War, as it seems to me, that at that time there was nothing – there could be nothing – but war. One good friend of mine during those days of the Independence movement shut away and nearly never left home while he was writing a book about the adventures of spirit; in his words, “those cannonades just want to distract me from my work“. I was living in different way, but my poetry was maybe more shut away from life than my fellow. Maybe not from life: it simply lived another life. And I was no less sure about it.
3:AM: Now Lithuania is one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, it has radically altered its profile, its role in Europe and you have been one of the nations most prominent poets during this period, very much on the forefront of bringing Lithuanian poetry to Europe in this time. How radical is the change?
EA: Living day after day you accept all changes as matter-of-course, everything seems consequent and logical. But when you cast a glance from outside, as if objectified from your own world, those changes of twenty (and this number seems unreal) years look hardly credible. When I think, let‘s say, about Switzerland where I am at the moment, when I am answering these questions, I think of a country which has maintained a continuous mode of life for hundreds of years, without ruptures, where it looks like nothing is happening. Lithuania seems in contrast like an earthsquake has struck, as a tectonic break. So many years Lithuania had fallen into an abyss, she was buried, no longer on the maps of the West, and nevertheless she returned back to Europe, where she always felt at home. The changes are so radical that it is difficult to compare them to anything. Of course, the return was slow and painful. The Berlin Wall was destroyed in a few days, but the walls inside heads were falling much slower. I keep returning to my soviet times‘ dream – I have a dream I am at the border, more exactly – at the wired fence, with Poland, somehow I manage to crawl under the fence and finally I find myself in Poland. There is nothing, any concrete thing or object which will awake any feeling. But I know I am there and I am embraced with an indescribable happiness. The wish to end up on the other side of the border I fulfilled with usury later. But I am not sure if I got rid of my feeling of inadequacy. When I appeared abroad for the first time in Vienna, together with the religious movement Taise in 1990, I did not dare to visit a supermarket. It seemed to me, that on my clothes and my face – first of all on my face – it was inscribed that I was a foreign body, that I had not a penny in my pockets, that I would be watched as a thief, that I was from another world. It took plenty of years and even more trips until I started feeling myself in Europe as a home. Nearly at home.
I was interested in getting to know Europe both physically and later, as a literary entity. For many years I was working at the Lithuanian Writers’ Union, my field was international affairs, so I was communicating a lot with foreign writers, at last I took part in different international events myself. International communication of writers was my profession, and with years it became the central part of my life. Because, in fact, I cannot imagine literary life otherwise anymore. The circle of poets in every country is too small for poetry to go beyond it. In this sense Lithuanian literary life overgrew provinciality, complexes, more and more writers take part in the international literary life, their books are being translated. Of course, writers are the most complex part of the society, so those complexes do not disappear easily, but more and more often they became creative problems.
3:AM: You have read across Europe over the last few decades, it seems you are invited regularly to international festivals. Is there a community of poets in Europe who meet regularly at these events and develop relationships across the continent from these readings and meetings?
EA: It seems to me that poets feel themselves very unsafe in this world. I mean not their financial situation but the curse of their art. They are like subspecies in contemporary culture, which needs to be inscribed in the Red Book, just not poets themselves disappear (surprisingly they still appear), but the role of their creative work. Poetry gets marginalized, like African tribes speaking rare languages, like dialects, like folksongs – there are plenty of examples of it. Without certain protection it is condemned to vanish. Festivals probably are one of those forms of protection, they help to keep an illusion that somebody still needs poets. It comes to me quite often – why there are much more poetry festivals than prose ones? Is it not because poets are more vulnerable, the number of copies of their books are not comparable to prosewriters‘, almost nobody reads their books (those couple of hundred copies distributed to friends and relatives?). Poets acquire (or recover) their confidence, they keep stuck to those mirageous games that give them prominence. They go everywhere, or almost everywhere, irregardless of their age, where they are invited. I am not talking here about stars which play different role even at the festivals. On the other hand, poets are closed in themselves enough, so festivals become also a communicative challenge. At best poets feel that here, at festivals, there is their milleu, their community, where they can find common speach, at least to get relaxed together from ghosts of incertitude. The community you are talking about which meets regularly at the international festivals does not exist. There are quite a few festivals, one meets new faces there every time. Of course poets sometimes knot friendships, quite often they endure, sometimes turning into creative collaboration. As an example I could mention my frendship with Slovenian poet Aleš Debeljak. More than a decade ago I met him in the Medana Festival, in Slovenia, and I was charmed by his personality and his poetry. Later on I invited him to Lithuania, to the international poetry festival Poezijos pavasaris, started translating his poetry, published a collection of his work. Last year the publishing house Thanhäuser proposed us to take part in their project and to write together a book of essays– as a dialogue between two poets. The book came out sometime ago. Of course communication of this kind of intensity is quite rare, but sometimes interesting projects are born, especially of translations. After many years of participation in different events and festivals I do not cherish illusions of a universal community of poets. I enjoy meeting old fellows, I enjoy when I get to know an interesting person (no lack of them amongst poets), when I come across a good author. And, no doubt, I am pleased and surprised by a mindful audience which listens and hears, if I have the pleasure to find one. Then even to me it seems that poetry is not so impotent and senseless.
3:AM: You are a considerable translator, it appears in numerous languages and in numerous fields -Sontag, Abse, Szymborska, Lyotard, Świetlicki, Rothenburg, Herbert. It’s quite a formidable list. How does the process of being a translator impact your own methodology, if at all, and do you conceive of translation as a profession, or are you seeking to bind yourself to work being written across the world, across languages? Is this central to your high volume of translations?
EA: I started translating many years ago, at the beginning I did translations of academic, essayistic texts for different anthologies, periodicals. I was interested in the work of translation itself, wrestling with another language, later wrestling with words and sentences of your own language. And it seemed to me that those texts are important to our culture. Everyone, especially young people, think in the same manner – what is intersting to me must be interesting to others. Later I moved to poetry. Sometimes I was asked to do a translation, and I used to make the business my own, I accepted it as a challenge – one more poem of mine though born not in me. Altogether I was inclined towards the model of the renaissance man, and it seemed to me, that – next to poems – essays, translations, compilation of anthologies, even organization of literary life is no less important, and so I put all my energy into them, sometimes forgetting about poetry. Maybe not forgetting, simply poems were standing in a queue next to other no less important things. It seemed to me that translation of poetry was a worthy occupation, because it was very close to writing poetry itself. Sometimes even substituting it successfully, especially in a time of drought. On the other hand the translation was (and is) the mode of reading interesting poets. I do not know those languages I translate from perfectly. In fact I read the poem through just having it translated into my language. So the translation is in fact the way of reading. And when an author is not only the guest of a festival or of some event (then you just do your job), I want to “read“ more of his poems. That‘s how books of Zbigniew Herbert, Aleš Debeljak, Kerry Shawn Keys, Marcin Swietlicki came out in Lithuania. They are interesting to me so they must be interesting to others as well.
No doubt, translations have impact on writing, like all books you have read in your life. I would not say that I take over elements of style or set-up directly, maybe it is more common to my first book where I felt a strong influence of Celan, Eliot. But my problem is I do not tend to create some single recognisible style, I am more interested in internal junctions, curves of meaning, at least influenced by the dictates of the language itself (to how many places it brought me), that‘s why external influences are not so important to me. Internal – yes, but they are melting like the glaciers – there is less and less of them, but the amount of water seems still the same…
3:AM: Your role as an anthologist is also considerable. Could you outline your recent editorship of the Six Lithuanian poets publications with Arc in the UK? Arc seem to have an excellent remit in publishing valuable European poetry, the Fine Line anthology comes to mind.
EA: For eight years I have been working as an editor-in-chief of The Vilnius Review, published in English. My task, to be more precise – the task of the magazine – is to present Lithuanian literature to foreign readers. Every year we publish two issues (by the way, we publish the magazine in Russian as well), where one can find the latest works of Lithuanian authors, there are excerpts from novels, poems, essays on authors, on tendencies in Lithuanian literature, book anotations, reviews of literature. So the work with the anthology Six Lithuanian Poets was like a extension of the work I‘ve done for many years.
This work was interesting and risky at the same time. I had a complete freedom to select five or six authors, and this was not easy at all. Lithuanian poetry has much more than five or six worthy poets, amongst older generation as well as amongst young authors. I had to make a painful cut, painful, because it is not every day or every year that Lithuanian authors apear in UK. In fact, they are nearly absent in UK. So my anthology threatened to be one-legged. After some difficulties I decided that any choice is limited, so I chose the bed of Procrustus, the authors who are not classically enshrined and yet they are no more “promising“. I narrowed my selection even more – I took six authors of my generation, in other words, born in 1960‘s. And kept to the attitude very strictly, for example, I wanted to include one poetess of whose poetry I like, but it appeared she was born in 1959, so one year too early. I selected solid poems of every poet, I was looking for translators, working with them, I spent a lot of time looking for a cover illustration in the catalogues of artists and talking to artists. Finally I wrote an introduction for the book. The work needed a lot of effort but finally it appeared to be worth it, I was satisfied with “my” book. It would be great if readers would be satisfied with it as well.
By the way, presently I am preparing a small anthology of Lithuanian literature for an Austrian magazine Lichtungen, and there you can find completely different authors. I do not say they are better, and in no case – worse. Simply different. Editorship is a kind of creative work also.
3:AM: Your poetry has an ease, a grace of image and a poise that represents your status. Has your methodology changed as your have grown as a poet? Do you write from images or from more structured ideas? Do you allow poems to form and edit them, or do you work at them directly, with industry?
EA: I am not sure that my methodology (what it is in poetry?) has been changing radically, but my attitude towards poetry has been changing, so my poetry underwent important alterations. There are people who write one poem all their life, but in my case it was different. It seems to me, my poems have been changing the form – not external, because external form never was my point of departure, I almost never rhymed, did not try to strain the content to the form. For me, writing was and is inseparable form of life. Years ago poetry seemed to me being almost a branch of metaphysics, because life itself (I mentioned this already) seemed worth of attention as much as it contained “spirituality“. For that reason, at that period poems were cleaned of the trivial everyday life as much as it was possible, in them I was looking for purity, almost abstraction. Lately my change focused on the details of “this world“, its roughness, concreteness, everyday speech became more important to me. Slowly I was moving from Apollo to Dionysus. In a direct and figurative way. At that time I was writing half-academic essays which I published later as a book under the title Return of Dionysus. In fact the book was about postmodernism, its signs in culture and literature. Now, though I cannot state flatly, maybe it is just my wish, I am looking again for a distance with Dionysus and cast glances on Apollo. You cannot step for the second time in the same river, as Heraclitus stated. I don‘t know, it is difficult indeed to talk about your own writing, there is a risk to slip into your own ideologies and mythologies.
Usually I do not violate the poems, I do not try to tuck them into some preconceived form or structure. Quite often, while starting the poem, I do not know how it will end up. Images, the internal logic of junctures offer the continuation and even the form. On the other hand, it is not only an association sticking together of images into a chain, there some logic exists as well, which restricts you, sometimes quite severely. The imagination is at work and it is not a logic at all, it has its own laws of logic. I remember when I was studying mathematics, I was strongly impressed by existence of different logics. It is enough to chose axioms and different rules of derivation – and here you are, you have another world of logic, just as valid. The laws of imagination between different authors differ, and this, it seems to me, creates the variety of poetry. Not words, not external forms. And quite often, when logic of the imagination starts crippling, I invoke the logic of the left hemisphere, in order to work, to repair, to rewrite. Spontaneity is good for the very start at best.
3:AM: Your new work Unwritten Histories includes work from the Lives of Saints, and seems specifically to utilise the concepts in the writing of Saint Augustine but with a fundamental reversal of the action, – that you justify the unity of your being with a modesty, a doubt, rather than the absolute nature of God. It seems a work of secular redemption, of justification through detail, and this is apt to represent the act of poetry and the poet, very much. How did this collection come to form?
EA: By the way, this book is not my most recent (it has been translated into English and should come out next year, published by Host Publications, USA). After this book I have published another called Exemplum – and at the moment I am looking for a publisher for my brand-new book. “From unwritten histories“ belongs to the “mature“ period of Dionysus, when I turned radically from metaphysiscs towards physics, from transcendence towards immanence, from metaphor towards metonymy, towards story-telling (talking in abstract terms). In fact I tell stories in that book. Stories which will be not told or written by anybody else (because they are mine, not universal), hence the title of the book. I tell my (not only my) stories of life, sometimes imagined (though perhaps what was thought about once already exists). And if I had to sum up the topic of this book, I would say it‘s the search for identity. Nuzzling in the scrapheaps of my childhood, destroying one mask and puting on a new one, peering in the mirror and the cosmos. But here I start a sketch of a poem. Maybe indeed I am looking for redemption through details, through small things, though I have not thought about it. More likely I am seeking justification. Maybe exactly here one can find connection between the beginning and the end of the story, connection between my writing and my childhood in Siberia. I am perhaps justifying myself before my own life. Let‘s say this time it is like that. Writing is constant rewriting of yourself.
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.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 24th, 2010.