Maintenant #84 – Maarja Kangro
An interview with Maarja Kangro with SJ Fowler.
Over the last few decades it has become clear that the Baltic is one of the most prolific and energised sources of contemporary European poetry. Nor is this community of poets of a certain style or movement or form. The writers emerging from Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and the surrounding nations are radically individualistic, as innovative as they are classically powerful. Amongst them Maarja Kangro is quite clearly one of the most formidable voices of her generation – effortlessly intelligent, wry, considered, incisive, her relentless output of translations, librettos, prose, poetry and children’s stories have assured her place as a leading light in North Eastern Europe, with a reputation striking deep into Germany and Italy and we hope, as her brilliance continues unabated over the coming years, further into the UK and US. For our 84th edition, we welcome Estonia’s Maarja Kangro.
3:AM: Your conception of subjectivity in your poems is fascinating. It seems you often blur the lines between the ‘I’ in your work and an alter ego or invented persona that seems to speaking above or behind the scope of the poem itself. Is this a deliberate action?
Maarja Kangro: Sure. The “I” that speaks in my poems is often a persona, so I can observe her/him at a certain distance. Or I can at least indulge in the illusion of separating my own voice from that of a character and being thus more analytic. In this sense, I’m not a „master of the first person singular“, as Rita Dove said of Allen Ginsberg. When I write essays or reviews, it’s always me who speaks, so it is a relief to be someone else in poetry. Indeed, when speaking about my first-hand experience, my own reactions to a situation, I sometimes refer to the protagonist in the third person singular: at a distance it is easier to dissect my own attitudes and choices, to observe the paradoxes that most value systems finally tend to lead to.
Estonian, like Finno-Ugric languages in general, doesn’t have gender, so with translations into Indo-European languages it is often a problem for me to reveal the gender of the speaker. In some cases it seems to me an unnecessary and even misleading specification. It is sometimes just a human consciousness speaking or reflecting on itself, and that should be it, there is little gender-specific about it.
3:AM: Your work is beautifully structural, it seems to construct individual world’s around each poem, and it has the flowing gift of perhaps Francis Ponge or Rene Char, in its ability to make this seem a natural state of things…
MK: Thank you, I admire Ponge and Char very much. And “flowing gift” – what more could a poet desire!
Each of my poems is indeed meant to be an individual world, and sometimes every single poem is so definitely a separate entity that it hardly tolerates another entity beside it. So it is not always easy to arrange them into a collection. I do not tend to write texts that are fragments linked to each other and work best together in a cycle. Perhaps I like the old-fashioned (or Modernist, that for a while meant old-fashioned) idea of separate, finished artworks, rather than a constant open-ended process of retelling oneself or interactively recombining the material.
3:AM: There seems a remarkable level of intricacy and care in the construction of your poems. Are you someone who drafts often and continues to hone work before you deem it ready to be read?
MK: It depends on a poem, some of them are born with their eyes open and their legs ready to walk. But generally, yes, I do a lot of drafting. I might agree with Allen Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” to the extent that it’s the first thought that is often the best, but not always the first wording. Of course, it is a common truth that in poetry form is content and word is thought. You’ve hit the meaning, if you’ve hit the signifier: you cannot really separate them. However, I often first come to an idea, or a connection of ideas, or an analogy between phenomena from different realms, and then I carefully have to find a right mold for it, to avoid dressing it in wrong-sized clothes.
I admit that in the course of time I’ve become less and less spontaneous. I hope, though, that it is a U-turn-like route, so that after a while this conscientious drafting will reach its peak and will then be replaced by serene carelessness.
3:AM: I am interested in your work as a librettist. Have you always written for music alongside poetry?
MK: Actually I started as a librettist and as a writer and translator of lyrics of contemporary or classical music. I did that before I wrote “real” poetry. I have written librettos for Tõnu Kõrvits, my father Raimo Kangro, Tõnis Kaumann, Timo Steiner. Once also some texts for Gavin Bryars. While writing librettos or texts for, say, a cantata, I have enjoyed very much using the metre and rhyme which I do not use that often in my poetry. Even when some of my poems have a strict metre (usually a iambic or a trochaic foot), rhyme is something that I strictly reserve for translations or for the texts to be set to music. It’s a strangely schizoid situation, because in music and in translations of poetry I love combining and building rhymes, it is like solving mathematical puzzles. But my “real” poems are obviously afraid of sounding songlike, of being reduced to a verbal play. So they do not rhyme.
3:AM: You have written for children too, which seems to be the mark of many wonderful poets in Northern Europe (Martin Glaz Serup, Inger Christensen). Do you pursue similar concerns in this medium as in your poetry?
MK: So far I have written only one children’s book (perhaps I’ll write more if I finally succeed in having them), but in a way, yes. The book reflects the views of an ideal me who strongly supports democracy, even when it’s apparently inefficient and costly, and who is in favour of sustainable and non-violent solutions – for which you have to pay, of course. It’s a story about a huge dragon that eats only fruit, a rare and endangered species that in turn endangers the Earth’s food resources. Some world leaders decide to exterminate it, but then, all of a sudden a clever boy appears… On the last page, there is a check of dragon tax. Obviously I tried to create a good liberal citizen’s story for children, but couldn’t do it without irony.
3:AM: Your translation from the German are highly reputed. Are you drawn to German poets specifically and have the likes of Brecht, Celan, Enzensberger, Sachs, Trakl et al played an influence on your own work?
MK: In the recent years I have translated much more from Italian, but of the poets that you mention, Enzensberger is one of my “points of reference”, a source to turn to in the moments of poetic crises. I think every artist has some such strongholds in their field, and he is one of mine. I liked translating Brecht’s poetry, although it’s more difficult to trace down an influence. But in this line – from Brecht to Enzensberger – there is certainly something that I’m mentally attracted to. Irony, a certain terseness and sachlichkeit, and seriousness in concerns. I admire Enzensberger’s analytic distance to the poetic material which does not exclude compassion at all.
I have enjoyed translating the Austrian experimentalists and the Wiener Gruppe: Jandl, Rühm, Artmann. And I like to think that I share some black humour with them. However, on another level, I lack the lightness they have in some of their non-chalantly formal concerns. So in that sense some Germans might be closer. But in any case I usually choose to translate someone’s poetry when I sense a certain mental affinity with him/her. So there is always a predisposition to be influenced, because one already shares or imagines to share something with the author to be translated. Some have described translating other poet’s texts as a love affair, and I quite agree with that analogy. You have to be both respectful and bold enough.
3:AM: Estonia has a rich contemporary tradition of poetry, certainly it seems this way on the outside, its remarkable how many poets have come to the fore in the last ten to twenty years. Do you think this is directly connected to the independence of 91?
MK: Certainly there is a connection. If we consider the number of poetry books published in a year now, it has multiplied nearly ten times in comparison to the “annual production” in the Soviet times. This proliferation is undoubtedly linked to a general situation of liberal democracy and market economy: there is no censorship, no long-term central planning of a limited number of publishing houses, and the printing costs are not too high. As everywhere, a number of books are published at the authors’ expense, but leaving vanity publishing aside, poets with more field-conscious ambitions are to a significant extent supported by the Estonian Cultural Endowment (Kultuurkapital). This foundation was (re)founded in 1994 and it receives its money from taxes on alcohol, tobacco and gambling. It is definitely one of our culture’s financial motors or power supply units. Among other things, Kultuurkapital pays “tax-free” fees to Estonian poets and authors. It also pays a monthly grant to approximately 45 writers (including translators and literary critics).
Then, there is also a grain of truth in the claim that the smaller the nation, the greater the percentage of those who write poetry and get it published. It is easier to gain nationwide significance as a poet in smaller countries, but of course, in these days, no one hardly has anymore the role of what the Italians call poeta vate.
3:AM: To close, on a promise, I must ask you about the poem Carrot Christ?
MK: It’s a poem about the tragicomic dialectics of compassion and violence.
I wrote this poem in a writers’ retreat in Hald Hovedgaard, Denmark. We were living in a biological farming area, and close to our house was a huge field of carrots. I saw schoolchildren thinning the carrots: pulling out and killing healthy young plants, just occasionally, as it is. So, the pathetic protagonist of my poem imagines how these plants imagined growing big and having roots, just like peoples and nations imagine their origins (and link their value or raison d’être to these „roots“). Then, some of these plants die, because the chance, a human hand, has decided so. Without any justice, as is often the case with the fatal and contingent, casual, innate differences between us. The character in my poem wants to become a Christ, a redeemer for these poor carrots. While imagining him/herself as an omnipotent Pantocrator, s/he is at the same time trying to kill the feeling of compassion, evoking Nietzsche’s idea that compassion is a virtue for the slaves and the weak (although Nietzsche himself was a sensitive person). Finally, the protagonist imagines him/herself as Death that brings about final equality: with this simple fantasy s/he tries to calm apparently the unfortunate ones, but it’s actually him/herself that the s/he is speaking to. You see how many words I needed to explain a poem!
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, January 1st, 2012.