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Maintenant #76 – Kārlis Vērdiņš

An interview with Kārlis Vērdiņš by SJ Fowler.

One of the most versatile young poets writing in the Baltic, Latvian Kārlis Vērdiņš is a renowned critic and a prize winning poet. Already included in two of the most important anthologies of young poets from Central and Eastern Europe in the English language ‘A Fine Line’ (Arc Publications, 2004) and ‘Six Latvian Poets’ (Arc Publications, 2011), Kārlis Vērdiņš has already begun to establish his legacy outside of Latvia. We are especially pleased that he is one of the five visiting poets to read at our largest event in London yet, Maintenant XI: Camarade. October 15th will see him read along side some of the finest poets in Europe, undoubtedly where he belongs.

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3:AM: Your initial studies seemed to be in cultural theory, what were your interests specifically?

Kārlis Vērdiņš:Actually my modest interests were to get some education in arts and not to learn “pure” philology that seemed to me not so interesting. In the Latvian Academy of Culture we studied arts in a quite general manner, so actually everyone was left to make his or her own choice on which field to specialize. For me it was literature. But finally I went to study for my PhD in Latvian University and got my degree in philology.

3:AM: Could you outline your book ‘The Social and Political Dimensions of the Latvian Prose Poem’?

KV: My PhD paper was written mostly about the formal aspects of Latvian prose poem and its history in Latvian literature, it was the first research to be undertaken on that theme. Participating in the international network CLIOHRES.net, I worked on a different aspect of the Latvian prose poem – on its connection with social and political issues. So I used a more Marxist approach to cover the ideologies that were important to Latvian writers during the last one hundred and fifty years.

3:AM: How much do you believe it is the responsibility of the poet to also be a critic, to foster a sense of exchange between poetry and its reception and people and its readers?

KV: Latvia is not a very big country and it means there are a limited number of people who can write poems, reviews, translate poems and after all buy books and read them. So it is quite natural for Latvian poets to do many things at the same time.

I started to write reviews some seven years ago partially out of feeling of indignation – there was such weak publicity for poetry books, even for some really good ones, and I wanted to remind to people – hey, ladies and gentlemen, there is some poetry around and would you be so goddamn kind and read it?!
In the last few years the situation was better, almost each interesting poetry book received at least two or three reviews but now it is worse again – there are very few places to publish reviews and number of copies that can be sold diminishes all the time.

3:AM: You seem to have been published from a young age, still in your teens, did you begin writing very young?

KV: I think since Soviet times it its quite normal to make one’s debut as a poet at a very young age. There are many poets who published their first books at 21, like I did. These books might be childish but at the same time they do some good – poets feel ashamed about them and try hard to write something better. However, the younger generation make surprisingly mature debuts at their tender age, and that’s acceleration.

3:AM: Your translations from English to Latvian seem to focus on English poets, often modernist poets. Is this a period that fascinates you especially?

KV: I was fascinated by English and American modernism during my studies – T.S. Eliot, imagists etc. Now I dare to be quite egoistic in my translation projects – I try to work with material I really like, the language and period is not the crucial thing. Together with other poets I made selections by Trakl and Brodsky, now we’re working with Whitman. There’re a lot of important authors that are not widely translated into Latvian. I like also Geoffrey Hill, I’d like to make his “Mercian Hymns” into Latvian.

3:AM: How does the process of translation affect your own work, if at all?

KV: It’s hard to say. I have learned that the biggest value in poetry is one’s authenticity. It’s possible to copy Eliot or Brodsky but it’s pointless. I might never be as good and important as them but I have my own things to say and I enjoy doing it. My work with translations show many possibilities of what can be said and how it can be said, but not all of them will be useful for me. And sometimes it’s better to translate a beautiful poem by somebody else than to write some crap by myself.

3:AM: What is the poetry scene like in Riga? There seems to be a vital strain of poets writing across the Baltic, is Riga a hub for contemporary work?

KV: Actually, the Baltic states are quite individualistic. We can’t understand each other’s languages without learning them and also the scene of poetry is different from country to country. However we have quite a few translations from Estonian and Lithuanian poets, so we know each other personally, and also poems. Ironically, we mostly meet somewhere outside Baltic states in poetry festivals.

3:AM: With the recent financial crisis, Latvia seems as hard hit as any northern European nation. Has this affected poetry and it’s funding in the country?

KV: Definitely. It becomes harder for young poets to publish their first books; they either do it without any fee or pay by themselves, because state funding has decreased for the last three years. Our literary market is quite small and it has become ridiculous even for prose writers to dream about a bestseller that would guarantee a good life. Work more, receive less – that’s the wisdom of these years.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is the author of three poetry collections, Red Museum (Knives Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Fights (Veer books 2011) and Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA 2011). He is the UK poetry editor of Lyrikline and 3:AM. He is a full time employee of the British Museum and a postgraduate student at the Contemporary Centre for Poetic Research, University of London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 9th, 2011.