The new Baltic poetry.
Think of fish over-wintering under thick ice, wakening to cut graceful silvery strokes through fluid water in spring. Post-Soviet occupation, writers in the Baltic countries are moving about. They are free to celebrate the solstice in the ancient traditions once again, to write ironic and playful poetry about the state of their part of the world. There is translation and interchange among file European countries; unfortunately, not so much in the English-speaking part of the world.
The writers' unions remain important: one could adapt and join and be published, or write and be heard underground. In Latvia, it was a mark of honor to be a member, and conferred benefits. During the Soviet occupation, honest and talented writers continued to express nationalism despite political and economic difficulties whether they joined the writers' union or not.
Latvians in exile organized song festivals, held in different cities, to preserve the culture that had been passed down in folk songs before the language was written. These took place on the date of the centuries-old solstice festival in June, later dubbed St. John's Night: Latvians are now able to celebrate it in Latvia as the biggest holiday, with dancing in the countryside in national dress, making offerings to oak trees, and especially honoring anyone whose name is John.
The Latvian Literature Center was founded in 2002 to foster international recognition of and access to Latvian fiction, poetry, plays, and children's literature; it does this by representing writers and their books at book fairs internationally, supporting publishing of Latvian literature in translation by foreign publishers, and hosting contingents of visitors such as Literature Across Frontiers. The Culture Capital Fund awards grants to writers to pursue writing projects, residencies, and readings abroad. Now there is also the Writers House in Ventspils, where Latvian writers and translators as well as international guests are given residencies to create work. There is a winter Prose Festival, and the fall Poetry Days--though these are mostly internal, with little effort made to attract an international audience.
Lithuania has a beautiful baroque Writers' Union in Vilnius (with a great bar) and celebrates poetry with the Druskininkai Poetry Festival in the fall of each year, presenting Lithuanian writers and international guests, with an audience of both. The spring Druskininkai Poetry Festival serves Lithuanian writers; it is a more intimate version of the larger, fall one.
I see a great contrast between the two countries in terms of interactions. Latvia is mostly Lutheran, while Lithuania is Roman Catholic; Latvians tend not to work together, attributing this to the nature of the Latvian farmer, who has to stand on his own feet. They are formal and critical of one another. In Latvia there is a ridiculous, to my mind, debate about whether each writer should have only one translator; there was even discussion two years ago at the annual meeting of the American Literary Translators Association about whether a poem that had been published in translation could ever be published in another translator's version. Lithuanians seem much more passionate and volatile to me, and there is dialogue and friendship between writers and translators rather than judgmental competition--though, I've been told, they did go through a phase like that.
Books from Lithuania was established in 1998 to promote Lithuanian literature in the world, by informing and consulting publishing houses and translators abroad on questions connected to Lithuanian literature and translations. The agency publishes informational materials about Lithuanian literature and Lithuanian writers; compiles and continuously updates a bibliography of Lithuanian literature translated into other languages; organizes seminars for translators and publishers; and prepares presentations and readings of books and other works by Lithuanian writers abroad. A Lithuanian literature translation subsidy program began in 2001, resulting in the translation of 116 Lithuanian books into 22 languages thus far.
Estonia has remained a very pagan country, with no popular religion; the biggest festival in June also celebrates the solstice. The Estonian Writers' Union was founded in 1922 in Tallinn; when Estonia had been incorporated into the Soviet Union, an organizing committee of the Estonian Soviet Writers' Union began to operate in 1943, with a founding conference in Moscow, where the board, presidium, and the chairman of the new union were elected. This entity was called the Estonian Soviet Writers' Union until 1958, later becoming the Writers' Union of the Estonian SSR. But Estonian writers who had managed to escape to freedom in the war-autumn of 1944 organized so quickly that the Estonian Writers' Union Abroad was founded in 1945 in Stockholm. It was impossible to have official contact between the two until 1989, when a meeting of writers from both sides of the border took place in Helsinki.
The professional association of writers in Estonia began to call itself the Estonian Writers' Union again in 1991, and in 2000 the Estonian Writers' Union Abroad was disbanded, and former members joined the Estonian Writers' Union. The organization in Tallinn is vital and full of life, and there is a section in Tartu; both offer lodging to traveling writers.
Established by the Estonian Writers' Union and the Estonian Publishers' Association in 2001, and supported by the Estonian Ministry of Culture, the Estonian Literature Information Centre works to generate interest in Estonian literature abroad. Information on Estonian literature is published in several languages. As well as being closely involved with translators, writers and publishers, the ELIC also works in close partnership with book fairs and literary events, ministries, embassies, cultural and academic institutes, libraries, and universities both in Estonia and abroad. Literary events and translation seminars are scheduled worldwide--there is a translator-in-residence program and a database of translations of Estonian literature in other languages
In the Baltic countries, many communicate with their neighbors not in English, but in the neighboring tongue. I was told by someone in Nepal about neighboring India, "We have the same traditions; we understand each other." In the same way, natives of the region celebrate the same festivals, and there is a strong vein of poetry, historically, that demonstrates real love for the earth and the land.
One has to be a poet to translate poetry, after all. Poets translating poets, and meeting to read in festivals all over the world. With the Internet to speed communication, combining poetry with music, video, art. Shall we say these are the best of times?
Imagine fly casting, fishing for bass. Mouths coming up hungry for air.
Cerrillos, New Mexico
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|Title Annotation:||Special Section|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2008|
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