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Vytautas Stankus is one of the most interesting young Lithuanian poets, author of three poetry books. His newest, Skruzdžių skandinimas [Drowning of the Ants] was published at the end of 2016. Stankus’s poetry is intimate, personal, even painful. He experiments interestingly with language and poetic form. The poems in this collection are fragmentary and fracturing – with snatches of dialogue and poem-questionnaires. They are paradoxical, surreal, yet dynamic and refined. Surrealism mixes with details of everyday life and quotidian speech. The poems are musical, making use of repetitions and recitative. They are made to last.

One of the most well-known poets of the newest generation, Mantas Balakauskas debuted in 2016 with his poetry collection Roma [Rome]. The title was chosen for a reason – the book is an attempt to build on ruins, an attempt to write while understanding that these efforts are secondary, for everything happens now after all the battles have been fought. But this does not mean that we don’t need to fight or write. Mantas’ poetry is shot through with creative fury. It is, despite the title, very much contemporary. Social problems, our society, the individual’s place in a fragmented world – all fall into its range of vision. According to the critic Neringa Butnoriūtė, “cities are already built, ideologies already formed, so we can now play with the not always polite means of provoking them.” Balakauskas plays – seriously, passionately, ironically.

The poet Nerijus Cibulskas is an author of two poetry books: Nutrinami [Erasables] and Archeologija [Archeology]. His poetry is calm and thoughtful, yet full of internal tensions; it often conveys elements of landscape and images of our surroundings. His lyricism hews closely to the Scandinavian tradition. Archeologija, according to the publisher, deals with “contemporary experiences, hidden beneath a painterly layer of images.” It has a quiet surface whose figurative language hides depth and emotion. Cibulskas is a master of metaphor and simile, subtly conveying internal experience and the relationship between humans and nature.

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Photo by Ričardas Šileika "Blizgės"

Interview by Birutė Grašytė

Words come from the lump in the solar plexus. Then, assisted by the hand and a ball-point pen, they are laid down on paper. (Vytautas Stankus).

What inspires poetry today? What new qualities do poets observe in the writing of their contemporaries? These are questions I ask Vytautas Stankus, Nerijus Cibulskas, and Mantas Balakauskas, three young, unique, contemporary Lithuanian poets.  The poets also speak about why they find the demeanor of the art creators they are interested in so important.
Their names stand out in cultural publications, they are mentioned at literary events, and their work can be easily found in bookshops.

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Different generations feel various things in different ways and speak about them differently, too. You probably read or listen to a fair amount of the work of your colleagues at literary events.  What new qualities appear in the poetry of the younger generation that link them, first, to the context of the current period, and, second, to other periods?

Vytautas Stankus: I am not sure if different generations feel things differently. I think that just like people used to love fifty years ago, they love now. Just like they had trouble finding their place in the world, they do so now. I am not competent enough to undertake the definition of the qualities of my colleagues’ poetry. Also, I am not too observant by nature.

Nerijus Cibulskas: As you have mentioned, literary events are different and I am not able to attend all of them. The writers they attract are no less colorful. To define the poetic subtleties of each of them would be rather difficult and matter-of-fact, so maybe this task should be assigned to literary critics who put everything into little drawers and search for associations and unions. We all differ considerably in the expression of our texts: speaking, the form, experimentation, upholding tradition, the contexts that we deal with. Only the themes addressed remain the same. But this is common to all generations.

Mantas Balakauskas: We should probably speak about particular authors. You hear something new from some and nothing whatsoever from others. Yet I think it has always been like that. Some authors are working in the contexts and with ideas that are lesser known at present, while others are carrying on with the same tradition.  There is that clichéd saying that is quite apt here: everything has already been discussed to a greater or lesser extent, and we simply revive some things. In Lithuania, meanwhile, we are writing and talking about things that are old news in the rest of the world.
This word “new” is also highly conditional. There is nothing new. Simply, there emerge other contexts that affect us: other translations and an opportunity to read different literature. Finally, the environment as such is different, and it makes you think in a somewhat different way. I have probably said before that no other generation has ever had access to such an amount of information, and not only literary information.  Now in a matter of ten seconds you can find an author’s complete biography and everything that they have written. This opportunity did not exist before. It turns us into a different kind of author.
Basically we always speak about the same issues, and it is the speaking that is changing. Language is a living organism: we cannot speak in dead codes or those that no longer function.

 

What about your creative inspiration: is it triggered by tradition, by the past, or by what is happening here and now?

Vytautas Stankus: Probably by everything. By the past, tradition, and what is happening here and now. By impressions. By existence. By what you haven’t got. By melancholy. Sadness. Joy. By what you’ve eaten or haven’t eaten. By music. By the coffee you’ve drunk. By coffee grounds left in a cup. By January, February, March, and April. May, June, July, and August. September, October, and November. By the snow. By gravel. By salt. By the squeaking sand in the head. By longing. Laughter. Light.

Nerijus Cibulskas: Inspiration from the whole of time, through tradition. The past that is missing, the present in which I am, and the future that I can feel or foretell. When I write, all this time turns into a strange ball in my consciousness, and rolls and eventually evolves into some text or another.

Mantas Balakauskas: It depends on what a particular work demands, on the theme. That’s where it arises from.

 

Can you trace influences of the older generation of artists on the work of the young? Could there be an interaction between them?

Vytautas Stankus: I think that influences of one kind or another just happen and are probably hard to avoid. Things just happen as they do. Everything flows.

Nerijus Cibulskas: Nobody imposes influences on others intentionally or by some special method. Influences are here like existence, like the environment. We are a community with one sort of boundaries or another, in which natural synthesis and natural exchange is taking place.

 

How, in your opinion, are the very attitude, the significance of creative work, and the way in which it is seen changing with changing generations? Or maybe it isn’t changing?

Vytautas Stankus: I have no clue. I am not good at opinions. But if there still are those who create, probably nothing is changing.

Nerijus Cibulskas: The definition proposed by the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre—“the parts of the soul” —is beautiful. Admittedly, this definition doesn’t mention creative work. But I think its significance is a component of the human being, a certain part of the soul. The attitude to creative work today? I am still puzzled why so many people continue to write poetry in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

Mantas Balakauskas: I don’t think it’s changing. We are always ready to whimper that the attitude used to be better, but it was neither better nor worse. The problems are always the same, and the number of readers and non-readers does not change.
Simply: before, literature was better entertainment; the competition was less extreme just because the competitors were fewer. At present there is no end to this sort of entertainment and literature moves to where it should go; it retreats to where, in one way or another, it has always been. We shouldn’t even be talking about literature being as interesting as the internet, entertainment, music, or whatever else.


Poetry has always been closely associated with political or social events of particular periods. It has always been a way to speak about the unspeakable. What function does poetry have today?

Vytautas Stankus: The washing function.

Nerijus Cibulskas: Poetry is, and that’s its most important function. It is written, read, and listened to. I think it’s quite enough.

Mantas Balakauskas: Speaking in words that are not mine—one poet said that poetry is a way to straighten up. That pertains to me.  When I write and read, I straighten up. For me, it’s a way to be. I see things through literature, I feel them.

 

Where do your words come from? Are they the same in poetry and in everyday life?

Vytautas Stankus: Words come from the lump in the solar plexus. Then, assisted by the hand and a ball-point pen, they lay down on paper.

Nerijus Cibulskas: If you are asking if I browse through a dictionary of international words while writing poetry, the answer is “no.” I use the same words both at home when I write poetry and in a bar when conversing over a pint.

Mantas Balakauskas: When I write, I consciously and unconsciously try not to distance myself from how I speak and communicate every day. On the one hand, I try not to move away from poetry, and on the other I make efforts to discover poetry in spoken language and in what surrounds me. I would dare to say it surrounds others, too. In this way all sorts of lyrical elements get eliminated because I don’t talk like that unless there’s a particular situation and the work demands it.

 

Do you possibly see that metaphor itself is changing over time?

Vytautas Stankus: (answers in a paraphrase of a children’s party game about a sparrow showing a pigeon how a poppy grows. Stankus replaces the original words “this way, this way the poppy grows” with “this way, this way metaphor changes”).

Mantas Balakauskas: It seems to me that metaphor changes with the language; it is a deep-set phenomenon that records different registers. New meanings emerge and even earlier-construed metaphors acquire a second or a tenth breathe in the new time.

Nerijus Cibulskas: Metaphor is a mechanism. Each author assembles and customizes it to his or her own design and the drawings of their imagination. Each time when you write you lay out the words before you, like the components of IKEA furniture, and try to create a metaphor-coffee table or a metaphor-chair out of them. Meanwhile the user’s guide differs every time. I would even find it hard to describe how my own metaphors materialize.  Explaining how and why they change would be even more complicated.

 

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that each word was once a poem. However, according to him, the word becomes new in each new combination. Do you think a day might come when all those combinations will become depleted?

Nerijus Cibulskas: Language is in the process of constant renewal and creation and I can hardly imagine using up all the word combinations. Still, if that day comes, all the blame can be pinned on the virtual monkeys who are already writing Shakespeare’s works.

 

I am curious about foreign authors you find familiar and important.

Vytautas Stankus: There’s such a multitude. It’s impossible to name them all. There are authors to whose work I come back to year after year. Thomas Stearns Eliot, Viktor Pelevin, Zachary Schomburg, Lev Rubinshtein, Umberto Eco, and, of course, the ancient Chinese poet Donaldas Kajokas. Nothing would be here without the latter, I think.

Nerijus Cibulskas: The closest are those authors whose works you've read and feel like you've spent time with a good friend. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a foreign author: the important thing is that the conversation has taken place. It’s great to have that many friends and it’s good to know your circle is getting ever bigger.

Mantas Balakauskas: At first I was impressed by Allen Ginsberg’s poetic demeanor in the world, then by his poetry in general, and, to a greater or lesser extent, by the whole beat culture. Then there appeared Steven Jay Bernstein, a poet from Seattle whose work has always been very important to me, and Tadeusz Rozewicz. Right now I am quite impressed by Billy Childish. He is a dyslexic musician, artist, and poet.
The environment can also affect me. Art. Jean Michel Basquiat. I used to dislike Andy Warhol passionately, but now I’ve come to like him. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock. We must also bear it in mind that literature does not make literature just as art does not make art. It is life that produces literature and art. You can’t sit locked inside with paintings and books.  At least you shouldn’t.

 

Your lists of favorite authors include exceptional, bold, and curious personalities whose biographies are well known all over the world. What function, in your opinion, do the demeanors of art creators have today, and are they important?

Vytautas Stankus: The deportment of art creators is very important. Some of them can’t keep themselves up, some just manage it, while I am limping.

Nerijus Cibulskas: An art creator is a fragment of society. Each of us has a certain position because every day we must participate in public life in one way or another. Some of us lead calmer lives, others revolt against something. Yet the most important thing is that each person finds place, at least a small arena for their individual act, their own small show. So yes, it’s important to possess our own demeanor.

Mantas Balakauskas: When I can somehow feel their attitude, I find it easier to figure out why the author wrote this and not in another way. I then trust the author more. Obviously, somebody will say that there are authors about who information does not exist. Then I regard them as those for whom information is missing. To me it is the whole that matters and I want to see as much of it as possible. I realize that part of this is my own fantasy. I make things up, yet I need this. I’m curious about what impressed those authors and under what circumstances they wrote.
When you look into the environment in which, for instance, Allen Ginsberg wrote, then you realize how brave he must have been to be as he was, which intensifies his work. The same is the case with many other authors.

 

Recently book presentations and poetry soirees in new unusual formats that involve experiments with music and images have taken place. Why is this change necessary?

Vytautas Stankus: I am not sure if it's necessary. Maybe it isn’t. But since it’s here, let it be.

Nerijus Cibulskas: I do like such interdisciplinary games. These performances, although not a new phenomenon, let fresh air into stuffy and musty rooms. As I said before, poetry is. Yet how many of us can stay still in one place for a long time? Thus, poetry plays from time to time. It goes to the theatre, to bars, to free party spaces. I would say that all—creators, readers, and listeners—benefit from it.

Mantas Balakauskas: Today text is no longer enough; to be singled out by the spectator, it must be an event. Then it is interesting to the reader and to the art creator alike. Art is wide, and there is probably no need to set very rigid boundaries.

 

 

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