This article is sponsored by StAnza Festival.
StAnza 2021: 'As long as we are reading, we are never apart'
- Deborah Chu
- 14 February 2021
As StAnza's latest edition heads online, we speak to some participating poets about finding comfort in the written word, and the vital work of translation in cultivating empathy beyond borders
Every year around this time, the coastal town of St Andrews thrums to a different rhythm, as poets and poetry-lovers from all over the world come together to celebrate the importance of verse in all its forms at StAnza, Scotland's international poetry festival. Unfortunately this year, as is the case almost everywhere, St Andrews will be a much quieter place, while the pandemic continues to curtail our ability to physically gather.
Yet for many, recent events – lockdown being just one of them – have highlighted the importance of the written word, and the connections it facilitates, more than ever. Therefore StAnza's online iteration this year comes at just the perfect time, as we reckon with a year living under the shadow of a global pandemic. 2021 also marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and StAnza's thematic strand 'Beyond the Iron Curtain' brings together poets and translators working in languages from the former Eastern bloc to reflect upon what has changed – and what has not – in the intervening decades. We speak to them here on their experiences of the pandemic, their thoughts on the legacy of the Soviet Union, and the importance of language and translation in understanding one another.
How have you been coping during the pandemic?
Jayde Will: From March to December I was able to finish several projects, one of them being the Latgalian anthology that is part of the StAnza festival this year; however, the last few months have been ones of reflection – the exhaustion of continual restrictions has taken a toll on society in general. This exhaustion has been a frequent topic of conversation among friends. It's a time where we all have had to dig deep in order to get through the everyday.
Valzhyna Mort: For me, the Covid-19 pandemic has been overshadowed by the violence in my home country, Belarus. This violence is ongoing, tragic, and healing will take a long time.
Stephan Delbos: I have been doing a great deal of reading and writing, pacing the house, staring at screens, night sweats and irritability, days sweats and uncertainty – in short, the usual.
Writing and reading have always been coping mechanisms for me as well as forms of leisure and enjoyment. Fortunately, I've been busy during the pandemic with ongoing writing and translation projects that have kept me busy, as well as some online readings and events like StAnza that have helped the time pass more quickly and with greater interest and a growing awareness of and gratitude for the international network of writers, readers and translators.
2020 was also my first year as Poet Laureate of Plymouth, Massachusetts, so there have been many civic and community poetic projects that I've been lucky to commence and take part in despite the difficulties of the pandemic. The laureateship has, above all, provided a focus for my thinking this year about poetry and literature and the public role of artful writing.
Marina Kazakova: Working from home as a writer is nothing new. I can still walk to the seaside (I live on the Belgian coast, by the North Sea) to my favourite tiger-shaped dune, where I realise day by day that my muses are not social distancing. The hardest thing for human beings as social species in our present day circumstances is the experience of being isolated and apart. Here comes poetry as an art form that connects the said and unsaid, that combines the uncombinable, and that is true not just of the internal features of the poem, but also of all the people from various backgrounds who read my poetry in social media and are left with a smile in various parts of the worlds.
Ligija Purinaša: I am going well. At least, I hope so. Of course, there are a lot of restrictions in Latvia. I continue to work as a head of the MARTA Center branch in Rezekne. This is a non-governmental organisation, which provides help and support to the victims of domestic violence in Riga, Liepaja and Rezekne. The pandemic has heightened this so much, but we try to do the best. Epidemics and Society by Frank M Snowden has helped me understand that, yes, we are living during very unclear and difficult times, but it is not something new in history. We just need to stay home, live through it and try to take care of ourselves.
Have there been any works of poetry in particular that you've turned to during this time? And for what reason?
Volha Hapeyeva: I remember when all this started, I was desperately seeking for the opinions of contemporary philosophers. Philosophy is a form of poetry for me, one which maybe can react faster to current events. Poetry itself needs more time and distance from the situation.
With some of my friends who are also poets, we have a game – while talking via Messenger, we take a book, name a random page and read a poem from that page.
Bela Chekurishvili: I started to read Thomas Wolfe. I haven't read his large volumes before. They weren't translated into Georgian and I didn't know English [before I started learning at the start of the pandemic]. I would say, I am very happy to make a journey into the universe of Thomas Wolfe. He is an extraordinary narrator. The first novel of his I read was Look Homeward, Angel. I found the title very symbolic. Every household needs the help of the good forces of the universe in order to cope with this treacherous virus.
Indrė Valantinaitė: Even in this time artists found out new ways to reach people's hearts. I had some really extraordinary projects I am so grateful for. For example, I did poetry readings in the empty hall of the Lithuanian Writers Union. The chairs were taken away, and it was such an extraordinary experience to stand there in the middle of the hall while reading alone, hearing the echo of my voice, but knowing that at the same time my friends and listeners were together watching it online. Such a reminder that sometimes you can be together without being physically in the same place.
Stephan Delbos: I've been lucky to be busy with current projects, so I am reading and editing several manuscripts at the moment and finding inspiration there. I've recently translated Paris Notebook, a collection of poems by contemporary Czech poet Tereza Riedlbauchová that has just been published by The Visible Spectrum. I didn't plan it this way, but it's actually an ideal lockdown read because Tereza's poems in this book are animated in part by a natural transnationalism and a breezy approach to travel that is both satisfying right now and also fills me with longing. Grounded in the great cities of Europe yet universal in emotional scope, the poems of Paris Notebook are central works in the oeuvre of one of the Czech Republic's significant contemporary poets. Riedlbauchová is steeped in French and Czech literature as well as art, and these diverse inspirations make her unique among her Czech contemporaries. The seemingly spontaneous nature of these notebook poems increases the resonance and wonder of their artistic and emotional perceptions.
Marina Kazakova: During the pandemic, I've discovered the poetry of Malcolm Guite, a priest, poet, songwriter, and chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge. The way he puts words on the page, trusting the language will lead into seeing something he hadn't anticipated, opens up new ways of thinking about what it means to be an artist of faith. He discerns and allows hope. His words give my own faith a kiss of life.
Ligija Purinaša: The last book I read was a work of prose – Beyond Sing the Woods by Trygve Gulbranssen. I also enjoy contemporary Scandinavian literature – Herbjørg Wassmo, Katja Kettu, Sofi Oksanen are absolutely stunning writers. Now I am reading a non-fictional biography about Susan Sontag titled Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser. I try to balance up fiction and non-fiction in my intellectual life.
What has your creative process been like during this strange period?
Indrė Valantinaitė: It was even more calm than usual, and learning to accept the things as they are. The whole world is learning the art of obedience.
Valzhyna Mort: I have a great need to keep speaking about Belarus, so that people do not avert their eyes from the great injustice happening there. So I've been writing essays and translating non-stop.
Marina Kazakova: Historic Belgian architecture, in particular churches and coastal lighthouses, reinforce my sense of hope and boost inspiration: their distinct identity, their long history of memories, promises and fears, and the sense of stability they still breathe out.
Due to confinement measures, I keep getting energy from walking along the seaside, entering churches on my daily strolls, having my seconds of serenity inside a chapel or by a lighthouse. That's how my creative process starts off, it is relatively free form and fluid and I'm just trying to get to the core of what I feel at the moment. The best analogy is again with architecture. You start with an esquisser, a draft of a feeling inside you. Then, you build it up into detailed plans – words. You then go into the actual construction of the thing – a poem. You put down the main bones and supporting pillars, and then at the very end, you're brushing up the little details. So it's very similar to putting up a church, except you're putting up a new stanza rather than a wall.
Ligija Purinaša: Honestly, I feel like I'm on the decline or on pause. I started to realise some new ideas, but this pandemic's social oppression, fears and uncertainty impacts my creative processes. It is very understandable, and I believe that there will be a fresh start for me. Most writers and artists, in my opinion, are at this turning point.
One of the thematic strands for this year's StAnza programme is 'Beyond the Iron Curtain', as 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union. What are some thoughts or lessons you think we can carry from that period of time to the present day?
Jayde Will: In talking about the Iron Curtain and post-1990 period, I think one thing that comes through in The Last Model [a collection of Latgalian poetry, translated by Will] is a changing of the generations, and a conscious understanding of how things used to be done, how things are still being done (largely based on the old Soviet-era way of thinking) and how the new generation wants things done. I have spent more than 20 years in the Baltic in all three Baltic countries, and I have seen how the prevailing way of thinking has changed; however, change can often be quite slow.
Bela Chekurishvili: The Soviet Union has fallen and the Iron Curtain has lifted, but the countries which were once part of it and the people who lived and grew up there, still have problems. These problems are political, as well as mental, which reveal themselves in the little details and these details are very important for development. Unfortunately we've failed to develop in a democratic way. We are humans who were raised in fear. You probably can't even imagine how many things were not allowed in my childhood and so much hasn't been analysed yet. The most delicate lesson that the Soviet Union has left to us is probably that we mustn't force an idea onto a society, as if for their betterment or benefit, so that they're left without a choice or free will.
Indrė Valantinaitė: I was six when Lithuania became independent, so I don't remember much. My mother and my country became independent at the same time: my parents divorced while the whole political upheaval was taking place. I remember a hard time after that, but it's more like a dream. I think we, Lithuanians, are all influenced by these events because we know how dear freedom is and how grateful we have to be for this miracle. So we have the task not to forget it. Especially as we see how other countries around us suffer because of their political regimes.
Valzhyna Mort: I don't know who 'we' is in this question. I grew up in the Soviet Belarus and the current events in the region clearly show that the Soviet Union is still collapsing. Many people on the other side of the former iron curtain have overestimated the entertainment value of our authoritarian system and underestimated its danger. As a result, they have very little empathy for people who remain true to their humanity in inhuman circumstances.
Stephan Delbos: I was seven years old in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1989, when the Velvet Revolution helped kick off the domino-fall of communism. Of course, I was blissfully ignorant of international socio-politics back then, so I can only speak to this subject in terms of conjecture. But it is fascinating to see the gradual acceptance of transnational thinking about literature and culture in the last 30 years, both in the East and the West. This happened in part because of the opening and shifting of borders, but the internet and digital media have also been massively influential in terms of the way that we think about where we live, how location and identity interact, and especially how literature can transcend borders and language. Looking back on the anti-communist revolutions of the late 1980s and early 1990s is also a powerful reminder that the masses can influence the course of events and can influence the power structure. It's also a good reminder of how fragile these institutions are, despite their claims to historic power and permanence.
When it comes to poetry in translation, what do you think is lost and/or gained? What can we learn when we read translated works, either poetry or prose?
Jayde Will: I would like to think, depending on the work that is chosen, more is gained by translation, as you find authors that either increase your understanding, or those whose philosophy or view of the world is akin to yours, which I also think is important. You realise you are not alone. For me, translations have given me a way of looking at the world around me. Without them I would be much less of a person.
Volha Hapeyeva: If one, like me, works closely with translations of her own works as well, one sees the language as if through an x-ray – it reveals some of its secrets and you start to notice the hidden things in your own language. The most amazing thing for me is how much language is loaded with cultural context and how easy it is to lose it during the translation. From reading translations we can learn to be scrupulous and not lazy, attentive to details and to be open to otherness.
Bela Chekurishvili: Each language has its own forms of expression and reacts differently even to the same word, adjective or adverb. A writer's tools are the words. He is influencing the reader by the sound of the words as well as context – that is, where and how he uses them. A translator tries to draw the content from the original work and somehow adopt it to another language. Where he can, he tries to take into account the peculiarities of the new language, otherwise the fictional work won't be able to impress the reader. All in all, we are able to understand the content of the original work, what the author wanted to say, but how he managed to express them in their own language, that stays inconceivable.
Indrė Valantinaitė: Translations in any language gives the poem a new chance to be found, read and loved. I always say that the poem has as many lives as the many languages it is translated into.
Valzhyna Mort: We learn that we are not surrounded by silence. The world outside of the one language you speak is full of stories. The benefit of translation is the expanded conversation [it brings]. Any language that doesn't expand its possibilities with the help of translation, is bound to grow more and more provincial.
Stephan Delbos: A greater awareness and empathy for lives, experiences and viewpoints that are not our own and yet are our own, as humans: these are the greatest values of translated literature – and they are values we need now more than ever.
Poetry and prose in translation can give the reader a different perception of the world and even a different perception of language, expression and storytelling than the literature of one's first land and language. That's not to say, precisely, that every work of literature is equally valuable or should necessarily be translated. But if reading books expands your worldview, your awareness and empathy (which it does), translated literature has an even greater capacity and possibility to do that.
Marina Kazakova: Translation is the art of understanding. What is important here is the sacred moment of merging with the speech of the translated author, when his life, feelings and thoughts, reflected in the artistic world, are comprehended by the translator as his own life experience.
By its nature, translation is complex: it is an endless process of cognition and re-creation of meaning, since language is a living, open system that constantly moves and changes, filling the art work, born in a different flora and fauna, with its own blood and breath. [...] In addition to literary experience, translation carries with it an important lesson in tolerance, which is especially necessary today, when the world is extremely fragmented and hostile. In fact, translation is an attempt to prove that people living at different times and in different spaces, having different cultural traditions and speaking different languages, are able to find a common language and exist in the world in unity and consonance.
Ligija Purinaša: I think it depends on the translator. Jayde Will is a really great translator – he was very responsible and gentle to my texts. He gave me a new voice. As you may read in our book introduction, which was written by Jayde, Latgalian language is very complicated and archaic. Beyond native Latgalians (of which there are approximately 150,000), there are only maybe 50-90 excellent spellers who have a good knowledge of standard (written) Latgalian. Most Latgalians are fluent users. It is a paradox, but Jayde has gone through it. He first learned Latvian, and then he turned to Latgalian – for me as a native Latgalian, it is really something amazing. I enjoyed working with Jayde.
This year's StAnza festival has had to move online due to Covid-19 restrictions – can you tell us a bit about why you feel such gatherings remain important, even while we must remain apart?
Jayde Will: I think we have come to realise through the pandemic that almost all of us resolutely, without question, need others. At least that is what I have realised (among a host of other revelations). And we need stories. I am really thankful to StAnza for putting together such an amazing festival despite all of the difficulties. It's a lifesaver in a rather bleak landscape at the moment.
Bela Chekurishvili: I think that the existence of the internet is a luxury which helps us cope with the stress and hardships caused by the pandemic. The fact that we are able to hold the poetry festival online helps us realise the undeniable benefits of technological progress. Maybe the COVID-19 pandemic was the first time we truly saw the difference between our reality of 2021 and the past reality of, say, 20 years ago. I would love to visit Scotland, since I have never been there before, nor St Andrews, but still – albeit remotely – I am happy to be part of this international festival. This makes me feel like I'm a part of the poetry world and that is very, very important for me, as someone who was born and grew up in the closed space of the Soviet Union.
Valzhyna Mort: The reading experience is by its nature a small virtual gathering between at least two people, an author and a reader. If there's a translator involved, it's a small virtual gathering of three. As long as we are reading, we are never apart.
StAnza runs from 6-14 March. Find out more about the full programme at stanzapoetry.org.