And Milda gave birth to poet. Ingmāra Balode in dialogue
These big awards purporting to be the highest recognition in their branch of activity always provoke discussion. There are always people who challenge their significance. Then, what is the meaning of Latvia Year in Literature Award for those who write?
This Award is definitely a touchstone precisely because of its yearly range of estimate. You cannot relax, there is not many of those who produce a collection per year, which is why it is impossible, in Latvia, to be awarded it every year.
‘The Award is definitely the highest credit in Latvian literature, which I still have not entirely caught up with or…What is the right way to put it? …But quite confusing, nevertheless.’
It is a pleasure to take home this prize, especially, when the competition is so strong. I would be hard pressed in the shoes of jury. In the category of poetry, quite equal powers were nominated, however, starkly different in tone.
The crises has had its side-effect, in a sense, many of the weak collections no longer appear. Only quality work is published – result of a lot of work invested. And the publishing houses are more selective. It is no longer as simple as before, which aligns only the best work for appraisal.
However, the last years have seen an increase in literary publications of non-literary people. Would you say it degrades the standards of what is literature?
What you mean is whether Silova [fashion reviewer Maija Silova – ed.] is certified to publish poetry?
Yes, for example…
Of course, she can publish, why not? All the genres are equal. The art will not suffer from such a thing. What is self-evident is that we all use language therefore everyone is able to write, to express himself, everyone has a blog now, many even think they have their own authorial style and that results in everyone wanting to write and to publish, and that is what happens. I think of it as a form of singing in the shower. Everyone sings there, but it is no easy feat to ascend to the stage of National Opera.
Photo: Kaspars Garda, Riga 2014
For that, you have to graduate from the Academy of Music, at least, but can you study to be a poet in Latvia today?
Some of the poets in Latvia’s XX century canon such as Vizma Belševica, Knuts Skujenieks, Uldis Bērziņš have studied in Moscow Gorky Institute of Literature and in the Higher Literary Courses. Today, the only one of the poets who I know is specifically trained in this respect is “Orbīta” author Artūrs Punte who studied in the Gorky Institute. But, in essence, nobody has a literary education.
Your work is translated in several languages, and you are translator yourself and now you are in the process of writing doctoral thesis on poetic translation. What would you say poetry loses and wins transcribed in another language?
It is a complicated matter. There must be trust in translator. There are poets who think that poetry cannot be turned into other languages. However, as conscientious and as polyglot we may be, there will always be a language less known to us and we will not be able to perceive its density. Thus, reading in original we will sooner will looses something in the text than – win. Translator who has dedicated part of her life to a language becomes a kind of an intermediary, a filter. Her talent is one, which decides when we are convinced of translated work as an art work and when we only read it as a form of interlinear translation.
‘A vivid example of this is collection of Turkish poetry ‘Courtyards full of pigeons’, which I hold so dear and which has seeped into Latvian cultural environment so deeply. This line of Orhan Velik’s poem ‘Istanbul, yes!’ has taken on a different weight of meaning here, for those are Riga’s courtyards we see within as we read it.’
And if we perceive this picture and believe it, we can pass it along. The translator cannot swear that every tiniest detail will be precise and that the Latvian will perceive the work the way it is seen by a Turk, but it will be a poem with the same images, pigeons, the same listening to Istanbul, if it will be inscribed in a text devotedly serving the original.
Receiving the Latvia Literary Lifetime Award a few years ago, Knuts Skujenieks mentioned in press conference that Latvian literature is in a good shape, except translation of poetry leaves more to be desired.
I know why he said it. When Skujenieks was still in the labor camp, he wrote in a letter just before his return that ‘possibly, there will be even less freedom further ahead.’
He had started to translate poetry and leading his correspondence partners – Imants Auziņš, Vizma Belševica etc. to think that we have to translate poetry, consciously choosing what we ourselves are the shortest of. He wrote to Imants Auziņš: ‘Buy vocabularies, buy even the foreign poetry, which doesn’t interest you personally.’ Skujenieks said: ‘Brain trust must be created. Learn languages purposefully! Learn as many languages as possible and coordinate it – if one of you learns Polish, let another one learn the Czech and so on!’
‘They tried, as they called it, ‘to cover the map of the world,’ for as many outside influences as possible to flow in. It was like a vaccine against stupefying of people, the single linguistic intonation and slogans.’
Today, it is no longer as purposeful as it was. Partly, you can say it is because of the low prestige of self-education. The education possibilities are wider today and the professional restrictions – far weaker, and yet if someone would claim to have acquired one of the smaller languages as an autodidact, with vocabulary and he tries to translate, he would hardly be taken seriously. If you have no paper to show with at least five international examination results allowing you to compete in the job market, you are not taken seriously; which is why poets of younger generation who may have interest in text and translation chose to learn English and German, but impulse to learn, say, Buryat language if you have happened to meet and get to know a Buryat poet is no longer there.
Photo: Kaspars Garda, Riga 2014
How do Latvian poetry and Latvian poets look in the context of contemporary European poetry?
It seems there is no shortage of shared themes and concerns. I perceive a peculiar balancing between hope bestowed by a historic time no longer burdened by so many authoritarian regimes and being able to enjoy more freedom, many more technological possibilities and a great insecurity at the same time about the thinness of the ice we are actually standing on. If you listen to poets of roughly one generation in festivals, this theme is pervasive, as well as inability to perceive things in perspective. Everyone inhabits their small spot in the present. ‘I am here and now, but what’s to come next, I don’t know.’
What could be the contribution of Latvian poetry to the year of European Capital of Culture?
There are several paths to go. First, the poetry with the motives of Riga, the sense of Riga, the contrasts of Riga will come to the forefront; Riga as the center and all the rest as periphery, a kind of Riga ego-centrism.
‘And purely informatively, both, Russians and Latvians will learn more about the place they inhabit. I think, for this reason, it will be a significant year and more in the sense of self-awakening than that of presenting things to outside. It is a chance to perceive Riga in its essence instead as by name, as we have the value and the weight.’
I saw a documentary a while ago about Vizma Belševica, and I have to quote what Imants Auziņš said there, and it pertains essentially to the image of Riga as cultural capital. He said while others were submerged by their inferiority complex, although as pressed by the burdens of daily life as any human being is, Vizma Belševica as poet of Riga living in Riga was never ashamed of her town. She had said that Riga is the center of the world for Latvian poet; Riga is the point from which you take in the world. It has no obligation to be Paris or London. She could not stand this kind of comparison. Riga has to be Riga – no matter how large or small, but full of the sense of value and meaning. She was able to read the town in layers; she could talk at length about its every corner, street and park.
Which Latvian authors you would suggest to your foreign friends to pick up this sense of Riga and what it means to be Latvian?
If I can chose from several periods, I would try to compose a chamber orchestra. However general knowledge it may seem, I would start with Alexander Chaks – in all the fullness and beauty of his poetry, accentuating the outskirts. Already historically, Riga is not a town to lead out into suburbs, it actually borders on fields and countryside. It explains the romanticism of old wooden architecture, the over-grown meadows of Jugla and Torņakalns…
‘The glamorous Riga would be Jānis Sudrabkalns in the image of Oliveretto – the ironic poet who perfectly relates the sense of young and trying-hard intellectual in this town. It empties out in summer and he walks it chasing the few that have stayed and he knows because all that exists is the social and pub life, and he cannot find a place for himself when it evaporates all of a sudden in summer.’
Then, I would make a leap to out Juris Kunnoss. Many accents in his poetry come from his work in the Ethnographic Open-air Museum. The end of his life belonged to Matīsa street, and its surroundings and Old Town are reflected in extremely warm poetry, over-flowing with feeling. I have not heard of the attempts to translate him in English, but Sergei Moreino has certainly attempted to do it in Russian.
I would definitely add also Klāvs Elsbergs with his view of Riga. And if I mention Vizma Belševica in the same sentence, it will be a rich bouquet. Riga has been let through the mincing machine of young poets as well. We seem to be like that – planted in the city.
Then, you should also plus the exile poets who perceive Riga from afar and sometimes – from within, but have not turned sentimental. I would certainly include Gunārs Saliņš and Olafs Stumbrs. They have had the chance to see the whole spectrum – New York as well as Riga and – known how not to end up in the cul-de-sac of comparison. They lived in New York and kept longing for Riga as their only genuine life.
Gunārs Saliņš has a poem where Milda of our Statue of freedom has to deliver a child, and what will be her move in this case? She must do it up there – in full view of everyone… She gives birth to a poet, of course.