Maintenant #59: Gabriele Labanauskaite
An interview with Gabriele Labanauskaite by SJ Fowler.
Whether acknowledged by institutions who traditionally align themselves with poetry (that is poetry as a grave, monolithic form of art), poetry is remarkably pliant, elastic and apt for innovation. As a sonic artform, poetry, in it‘s truest sense, grows as each individual practitioner allows themselves to explore their own culture, from certain artists there arrives unique and memorable experiments within the medium of poetry. Within the Lithuanian scene, it is Gabriele Labanauskaite who leads the way. Assured, intelligent and engaging, her sonic art is poetry, song & performance. Though a versatile poet, playwright & singer, she is renowned for her fusion of spoken poetry, music and sound, often as part of the collective AVaspo. Her work is explosive as well as satirical, wise as well as energetic and she embraces technological innovation while absorbing a myriad of aesthetics. She is the final poet representing the Maintenant Lithuania events held in London during 2011 and we are delighted to welcome her as our 59th interviewee and poet.
3:AM: You have an extremely interesting relationship with the potential of poetry as a sonic art, as well as words on a page. How did your relationship with writing poetry begin?
Gabriele Labanauskaite: It was simply singing in my childhood while doing everything – playing, making my bed and so on. My uncle was asking, where I learnt so many poems (as I was humming all the time new ones) – I‘m creating it – that was my answer and nobody believed it. Perhaps it was some kind of game to speak in some kind of rhythm. I‘ve never thought about it so much, but now, considering myself as a text performer, I can find some roots for how it did start.
Writing poetry (as we mean it – writing on paper or somewhere else) began quite late – firstly I was writing tales, then some kind of humorous stories. Every kind of prose, in other words. And now everything is connected. Critics consider my plays poetic. Hopefully my poetry is playful too.
3:AM: So how did your work evolve into what it is today? Were you exposed to new and exciting forms quite suddenly? Or did it happen slowly.
GL: Many things in my life, which from the first glimpse seemed like an accident, in fact appeared as a quite systematical way to reach the same goal. For example, I wanted to study theatre direction, but I failed at the entrance exam. Then I wanted to go volunteering to Africa, but it scared my parents a lot and they suggested to enter (just for one year, in order to see if I like it or not) Lithuanian Philology and Finnish Language studies, because I was good at languages. Of course when I entered, I made a lot of friends, I could travel a lot and through exchange student programmes study in different European universities, so I finished it. Then I studied World Literature for my masters degree and finally I‘m teaching at the Theatre Academy where I‘m studying a drama PhD as well. So it took me almost 10 years to reach this goal – to work in the theatre with artists. And there is no need to tell you that language and literature studies are useful for both – poetry and play writing. But you never know – maybe I would have had a great and creative life in Africa.
3:AM: Does your work as a playwright affect your other poetic writing?
GL: Yes and no. My poetry has a lot of prose in it. But sometimes I really hate narrative and believe that the stories we understand are just badly told.
3:AM: Do you think poetry, as you conceive it, is two separate entities, one for the page and one for the performance?
GL: It depends how you put it. On one hand I believe that good poetry fits everywhere and it has one unity. On the other hand, it‘s natural to write a special kind of poetry for special readings – for example slam poetry for slam readings, sound poetry for sound performances etc. It doesn‘t mean that you can‘t read different poetry on different occasions, just that writing poetry with some aim in your mind helps you reach the goal better.
Talking about AVaspo and the texts I create, not all of them are possible to perform in the way I imagined, connecting with music. I‘m always avoiding a correct versification, because that reminds me of simple songs. Clipped, tricky, strange rhythms are my favorite, but it‘s not always possible to unite them with mathematically precise music.
3:AM: How did AVaspo begin and how does the process of performing and creating new work change being in a collective?
GL: I started different interdisciplinary poetry projects from 2003. Most of these projects involved visuals, installations, interactive screenings and different musicians or composers, depending on the project and poems. That‘s how from noise and electronic work I‘ve ended uniting musicians. I had been working before towards a cd/dvd called There‘s no Ocean, where trip hop, indie rock, afro punk and many other music styles were mixed together. We thought it was gonna be a brief experiment, but then different kinds of contemporary art festivals and later – music fests, started inviting us to play at their venues. That‘s how we became an AudioVisual Asp of Poetry (AVaspo).
After that we had a lot of changes. First of all, I switched from very different projects to a live band where everything is created together – the texts inspiring the music and vice versa. We rehearse together and that‘s how we create things. Then video artists add their interpretation on what is created and this audiovisual mixture is always changing during the performance. So it‘s not me alone, carrying all the responsibility and joy of inspiration, but the whole band, five people together.
Secondly, I‘m more and more involved in live performance – before I was mostly reading my poems, now I‘m half-singing, half-screaming my text and dancing/freaking on the stage. Maybe we are creating a planet of poetry where I‘m inviting people to feel wild and free.
3:AM: You use the spoken word very interestingly with music, it seems to grow with the sounds that accompany it. Do you think poetry can have a natural relationship with sound, as traditionally it has been seen as an extremely difficult marriage of mediums?
GL: It depends on the understanding between the musicians and the poet or performer. If the same person can create poems and music, maybe it is the easiest. I like that AVaspo consists of totally different people – a lawyer, a political student, a few professional musicians and me, a literary girl. So people who maybe would have nothing in common in everyday life give a lot of inspiration to each other through creating together.
GL: More experimental, more naive, more ironic, more sincere. I like all colors and their unexpected combinations.
3:AM: Is there a tension between more innovative work and what has been the tradition in Lithuania? Is there elements of the way poetry is treated that you would change?
GL: That‘s a very tricky question. I could say there is a tension, but if you do something of high quality, there are not so many obstacles. For example, AVaspo don’t often perform at literary or poetry festivals in Lithuania (there are many reasons – we need more equipment than just a microphone, we are noisy and not always “suitable” for the programme), but we do get financial support from the Ministry of Culture for releasing our cds and dvds and so on. So I could say that I feel like a strange conspicuous flower in the Lithuanian poetry desert – not so common or understandable for everybody, but not so bad that you would need to tear it out.
3:AM: Could you detail your efforts in organising your poetry festival in Lithuania?
GL: That‘s the topic about creating your own desert. Five years ago I launched an international audiovisual and experimental poetry festival called TARP (In Between). The festival programme involves poetry exhibitions, movies, poetry jams, concerts and performances. This year we added educational and creative workshops, which were organised a few months ago as an reminder of the festival. TARP is a very fringe, low budget festival, the only one in the Baltic States and it always attracts different poets and poetic artists every October to four Lithuanian cities. Mostly happening in different underground and alternative places, this festival could be split at least into three – experimental music, cinema and poetry festivals. TARP is made up of all of these.
3:AM: And what were your impressions of the reading weekend over April 8th and 9th when performing at Europe House and the Rich Mix in London for the Maintenant readings?
GL: Oh, the readings were so different, but both of them left the best memories. The Europe House evening was more official, but it gave me the opportunity to meet more British poets. I‘m happy about everything.
Steven, just let me be a poet and from time to time come back to London.
3:AM: You read in both English and Lithuanian. Did this present challenges? Do you enjoy experimenting with languages outside of Lithuanian?
GL: Mostly I believe, that poetry is untranslatable. Translating you can try (and succeed) to catch the thin tale of semantics, the main idea, style, to find adequate rhythm, expression etc. But it will be another poem – created or recreated by the translator. Every translation is a new, less or more precise, image of the original. But anyway these interpretations are worthy challenges – otherwise the rest of the world wouldn‘t discover a lot of genius poets.
Talking about my own poems, I prefer to write in the same language, where you have the readings. Sometimes I read translation, but it is always distant and hardly understandable even for me myself.
I have a poetry project I feel like words in which I read my favorite poetry in the original languages – Italian, Greek, Finnish, Latvian, English, Russian etc. That opens totally new discoveries of the texts and because of its different native sounding and articulation – new forms of expression.
3:AM: What was it like reading alone?
GL: You miss the things you are not doing anymore. But, of course, reading alone with a loopstation and effects blocks is not so safe as performing with the band. I often have nothing to do with technique – everything is done by the AVaspo sound engineer. But these are lessons I need to learn. I can easily imagine myself performing solo in the future.
3:AM: Did you begin to make some lasting ties with the poetry happening in London?
GL:And seriously – some of the poets I‘ve met during the readings, I‘d be really glad inviting to TARP festival. We‘ll look for possibilities and possibilities will look for us!
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: Monday, May 2nd, 2011.