Alaskan poet Mary Kancewick (writing now as Mar Ka) spent the month of July in Vilnius, Lithuania, “trying to improve my knowledge of the Lithuanian language and pursuing research connected to a creative non-fiction project about the effects of political oppression.” Lithuania was, the first of the Eastern Bloc Republics to announce its secession from the USSR in 1990.
“Vilnius, Lithuania’s ancient and cosmopolitan capital,” she says, “has a labyrinthine medieval old town wonderfully studded with bookstore-coffee shop meeting places. It is at one of these that I met Lithuanian poet and translator, Marius Burokas.”
Here Mary shares the discussion of the two poets about the poetry and politics of place.
Mary: In the United States there are poets who write with a sense of America as a place, and others whose poetry arises distinctly from a state or region, such as Alaska, or the north. You describe yourself in a recent Asymptote Journal interview as writing mostly about Vilnius, and the cover of your fourth and most recent book of poems, entitled švaraus buvimo (which I would attempt to translate as pure being) features a map of Vilnius. Yet, the first poem of the newly published translated collection titled Now I Understand (which I have been avidly reading), the poem titled “Launderette,” ends with the identification “the Lithuanian poet.” Do you think of yourself first as a Lithuanian poet, or first as a Vilnius poet? Or do you think of yourself more broadly as a European poet?
Marius: I think I would say I think of myself as a Vilnius poet. I spent the first five years of my life living outside of Vilnius with my grandparents, near Adutiškis, a town of a few hundred people, at the border with Belarus, but then I entered kindergarten in Vilnius. I have lived here ever since. And Vilnius is not like the rest of Lithuania—it is a cosmopolitan city, and it always has been. The city was already mentioned in written sources early in the 14th century. It has been a Polish, a Jewish and a Russian city. And a German city and a Soviet city. It has changed hands a lot. Always different groups of people have lived together here. Since maybe the 17th century until WWII, Vilnius was one of the largest Jewish centers in Europe.
I do not bother myself with identification too much. If asked very insistently, I usually say that I am Vilnius poet, that’s all. I do not know to which extent I can be called a European poet (except I live in Europe). The themes and motives in my poems have a lot of ties with Eastern European poetry, and with United States poetry, which I translate and which influenced me a lot.
Mary: I read that according to the first census in the Russian Empire, in 1897, the largest linguistic group in Vilnius was made up of Yiddish speakers, with Polish speakers being the next largest group, then Russian, Belarusian, and only then Lithuanian. And there were also significant German, Tatar, Ukrainian, and Latvian speaking communities. According to the 2011 census, these days, sixty-some percent of the residents of Vilnius are Lithuanian. But it is still the most ethnically diverse city in the country, with 128 ethnicities represented, whereas rural Lithuania remains quite homogeneous.
Marius: Yes, this makes Vilnius different from the rest of the country, where people are for the most part all Lithuanian. Except, of course, the larger Vilnius district – which has a large Polish minority, and Klaipėda, which has a significant Russian minority. Although Vilnius now is largely Lithuanian, Jewish, Polish, Belorussian and other nationalities can claim it too, because Vilnius is a part of their culture. There are writers from each country, who wrote about the city, who lived in it. And we have to consider it. We’ve just started to understand that, but still do not know, how to use that fully. Especially in culture.
Mary: You have referred to Vilnius as “strange” and “mystical.” In what ways do you find it strange? In what ways is it mystical?
Marius: I think I maybe used the wrong word. Not strange, but different from the rest of the country. We’ve been talking about that. Vilnius is a palimpsest, a palimpsest of centuries and peoples. It is also a hidden gem city. It takes time to feel it. Vilnius sneaks upon you and stays with you forever. Anyway, it is really a maze-like city and it takes time to know all of its nooks and crannies well.
Mary: And how is it mystical?
Marius: I think it has a mystical pull on people—even visitors. It keeps pulling people into it. Maybe it is also mystical because it is a city now of absences. Most notably it is a city absent its great Jewish population. Just some facts: between the wars (1918-1939) Jews made up more than 36% of the city’s population. And during Holocaust around 95% of Lithuania’s Jews – 200,000 women, children and men – were murdered, the highest percentage in Europe, destroying centuries of Jewish existence in Lithuania. Vilnius lost the majority of it’s 80,000 Jewish residents. That is not mystical, it is horrible.
Mary: Yes, many of your poems seem haunted by the fate of Jews in Lithuania.
Marius: Yes. It is impossible to comprehend how it happened, why we, Lithuanians, participated in this madness. How the whole continent, the whole integral part of our country, of our people was just wiped out. And we still do not fully realize that.
Mary: Lithuania—although it has no mountains!—is known for its beautiful nature, and for the subsistence life-style of its rural peoples. Your poems seem to reflect this, too, maybe drawing from the first five years of your life? I’m thinking about your images of grain fields, your mentions of berries, fishing poles, apple and birch and linden and pine trees…
Marius: (Smiles.) It is inevitable, at least for me. I can not avoid nature in Lithuania. One can not avoid it. We are still to a significant degree a rural nation – almost everybody know how to behave in the forest, a lot of people still know which berries and mushrooms are edible, where and when they grow, many people pick herbs for tea and for cure. And I know all that too. My grandmother and my parents taught me this. My wife is a real medicine-woman; she makes different herbal mixes herself.
All this, including the rhythm of countryside work and living is ingrained deep in me. It doesn’t clash with present city-living mode, it is some kind of lining. This double living is still a common thing here, in Lithuania.
Mary: This year Parthian Baltics published selections from your four books in English translation, under the title Now I Understand, after the title of one of the included poems, “Only Now I Understand.”
Marius: Yes, in Lithuanian the title of the title poem is “tik dabar suprantu…” ‘only now I understand.’ They (the publishers) thought the full title would be too long.
Mary: You don’t seem happy about this decision.
Marius: There is a difference between ‘now,’ and ‘only now.’
Mary: Yes, the element of the duration of time, of process, of events having occurred to prompt this understanding…”
Marius: Yes. But it’s OK, I think. That’s too minor a problem to raise a serious shitstorm.
Mary: The key lines of that title poem seem to be: “how order is my desire/and how this horrifies me.” I could read that as simply a realization of the responsibilities of adulthood, parenthood… I know you are married, have two young daughters, are a family man, and all of us resist losing the spontaneity of our young lives, the wildness, the excesses, resist becoming our parents. But as Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union in March of 1990, when you were about to turn thirteen, you experienced your childhood within the constructs of the Soviet state. Is there some level on which your poem references the challenges of democratic states to balance individualism with social order? I’m thinking also of the final lines of your poem “Home Again:” “all of this horror/(this blessing),” and the line in “Visby,” “—the country is conquered/by prosperity.”
Marius: I used to say about my generation of writers as straddled on the border – a line between Soviet and Independence. We were the ones who still know what Soviet “order” means, and we saw all the changes, including “wild capitalism” years (they coincided with our teen and university years). My second book (which came out in 2005) is a lot about that – there is a cycle of poems called “Lithuanians,” where I ironically ponder on Lithuanian character and how it changes during those turmoil years. And yeah, those things surface from time to time in different poems of various periods. I still have to rethink some things–I was trying to write a poem about what happened near the TV tower on 13th of January (when Soviet forces tried to occupy it). During that Bloody Sunday, fourteen civilians were killed and 702 were injured. But I still can’t. Not yet.
Mary: For many people, religion orders their lives. Lithuania, the last European country to adopt Christianity, remains today at least nominally very Christian. Catholicism is almost a national religion. Close to eighty percent of the population identified as Catholic in the 2011 census, although this may be more a cultural identification than a religious belief. According to a 2010 Eurobarometer poll, less than fifty percent of the population actually believes there is a God (37% opting for a ‘life force’). Although you use Catholic imagery, referencing hagiography, baptism, “crumbling churches,” as I read them your poems reflect spirituality more than religiosity—I’m thinking now especially of your poem “Vocatives,” in which “God is dark water/carrying me/relaxed,” and which ends, “darkness/places there/a radiant/dot.” Do you want to comment on religion/God as a life-ordering construct, as a reflection of Lithuanian culture, and as a recurring theme in your poems?
Marius: For me Catholicism is also more a cultural identification than a religious belief. But, the theme of belief, of God is very important to me–I try to question myself and to seek answers about believing in God. And the best way to do so, at least for me, is poetry. It is some kind of push-and-pull relationship for me: to be afraid to fully believe, to crave that, and then, to be skeptical about it, about the whole Catholic church institution, and at the same time be fascinated by it. Looking for these answers is a very multilayered affair. On the other hand, I am fascinated with human power and human phenomena to believe, the phenomena of religion.
Mary: I’m thinking now of parenthood as a kind of place. I’m a mother, and so we live in the place of parenthood together. Among my favorite of those poems of yours to which I have access in this translation of selected works are those that reference your daughters, the girls you have told me are named after fire and water. “By Holy Lake” is a small classic, but I like even more “bumpy backs,” which ends, “I speak/to their blank/slates/hoping/I’m right.” That is a place that I have been. I hope you will continue to write about the place of parenthood, as you continue to be a poet of Vilnius. Will you comment on the directions you see your poetry going?
Marius: Well, my new book just came out and I am as my daughter in my poem–blank slate. I have some ideas about where I will turn next. I’d like to change my writing style a bit, try something new–flash fiction, short prose poems. I would like to write a cycle of poems based on old photographs of my grandparents and great-grandparents, about life in turmoil times. But we will see. The parenthood and Vilnius themes will stay in my writings, I think. The poems will come by themselves, when it is time. I’m not gonna force them on paper.
Mary: Because of your efforts to translate into Lithuanian the works of authors writing in English that you want to share with your fellow countrymen, you have been called a ‘Contemporary Book Smuggler.’ This is a reference to the book smugglers who distributed works in Lithuanian when it was forbidden to do so by the Russian Empire. I had a great uncle involved in that period of book smuggling, and have always been proud of that fact. Now I am proud to know you, and I applaud your efforts.
Marius: Too little foreign works are being translated into Lithuanian, and too little Lithuanian writing is being translated into English and promoted to foreign audiences.
Mary: I am thrilled to be able to recommend the translation of your selected poems, Now I Understand to Alaskan readers.
Marius Burokas is a poet, translator and editor of the online magazine of Lithuanian literature in English translation, Vilnius Review. He is the author of four books of poetry in Lithuanian, the most recent being švaraus buvimo, (Of Pure Being) published this year. A book of selected poetry in English, Now I Understand, was published by Parthian Books in April. His translations of American poetry into Lithuanian include the poetry of Charles Simic, Walter S. Merwin, William Carlos Williams, Charles Bukowski, Ted Hughes, and Alan Ginsberg.
Alaska poet Mary Kancewick writes as Mar Ka. Her first book of poetry, Behooved, will be released by University of Alaska Press in February 2019. She is of Lithuanian heritage, and towards a reading in Lithuania next year, is translating some of her poems into that language. One of her poems has three times been set to music. She has long been a judge for the annual statewide creative writing contest sponsored by the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Anchorage Daily News.