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Gintaras Grajauskas (b. 1966) is a poet, playwright, prose writer, and musician. His poems are ironic and precise, re-thinking our everyday domestic lives and emphasizing certain clichés in our actions and thoughts. His experience as a musician can be felt in his poems, which are jazz-like and exhibit light-hearted attitudes. The poet is no stranger to pop-culture elements as well, though these are not the most important thing in his work. His is a rare Lithuanian poetic voice that doesn't put on airs, doesn't impose on you, doesn't suggest or elevate anything, doesn't have a national agenda, and doesn't moralize the reader. In the words of a policeman from one of his own poems, the goal behind Gintaras Grajauskas' poetry is to “write down exactly what happened.”

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Eglė Vertelkaitė, D. Arbus, From series "Boy Girl Death", 2011. Etching, ink, painting with carbon paper, print, 18 x 22 cm. From the MO museum collection.

by Elžbieta Banytė

About Gintaras Grajauskas's poetry

Gintaras Grajauskas (b. 1966) is one of those poets who, in my subjective opinion, people of various ages and interests may find difficult not to love. He belongs to a generation of writers born in the '70s who finished work begun by an earlier generation—they rescued literature from excessive literariness and contrivance, and from the burden of dense (and for this reason not necessarily effective) metaphors and other ornamentation. Returning to the mundane provides not just different poetry and vocabulary; it also changes the reader's expectations. Poetry becomes interesting for its sharp, concentrated, and frequently ironic view on everyday life and its attempts to reveal the devil in the details. On one hand, the world of poetry is very domestic and recognizable—there are no grander landscapes than those that we see every day. There is nothing exotic to take our breath away or to inspire romantic curiosity. On the other hand, it searches for existential revelations in ordinary details: everyday life is the layer that we all formally participate in and that, in a certain sense, obfuscates our existential content. This content, however, always manages to break through to the surface—if, of course, we don't close our eyes to it and avoid becoming thoughtless machines that simply do. Poetry works as a form of sight: though it rejects romantic clichés and ironizes them, this function—of the poem as a way to look at the same thing in a different way—still lives on.

Grajauskas is involved in various art forms: he studied at the Klaipėda faculty of the Lithuanian State Conservatory, he created a band called Kontrabanda, he works at the Klaipėda theater, he writes poetry and dramas, and he has published a book of essays with a curious name (that I found very interesting) called Iš klausos (From Hearing) (2002) and a novel called Erezija (Heresy) (2004). He is capable of rhythmically displaying or imaginatively jazzing up his poems, and this is exactly why, in my opinion, it is so wonderful to discuss him as one of the most important poets of the Independence era, rather than as a musician or dramaturge, though his value and significance in both of these fields is also undeniable. It's no surprise that he was one of the first to introduce “non-poetic” or simple pop-cultural genres as structural textual elements to modern Lithuanian poetry. His second book of poetry, Atsiskyrelio atostogos (The Hermit's Vacation), is easy to read as a poetic comic book not just because of the narrative connections between the texts, but because of the comic-styled illustrations that complement them. His texts often include radio messages, snippets of TV shows, and even video game elements. He doubtlessly uses irony here as a double-edged sword: he takes stabs at both our literary canon, which continues to splash about in shallow puddles of romanticism, and at consumer society, in which people of poetry fight to maintain their identities and individuality and try not to let them be suffocated by the world's empty noise: “I can even / learn to approach someone like this: / smiling strangely, saying – good day, / how may I / be useless to you.”

It is no surprise that his poems take on a similar form: his speech, which is similar to prose, is broken up into strophes of different lengths, it isn't rhymed, and is often written in lower-case letters and without punctuation. His texts often end in aphoristic, paradoxical, occasionally funny but always revelatory statements in the last strophe or line, and they are often separated graphically as well. This makes Grajauskas's texts unique and easy to recognize. He is definitely a poet with his own voice. His voice makes no pretenses (though it is often heavily ironic), makes no attempts to adapt, doesn't moralize, doesn't complain, doesn't try to raise literature up as an institutional or even existential judge, and doesn't romanticize the mission of the Artist or the Poet. In other words, it doesn't engage in superficial self-construction or posturing, or in the creation of yet another simulacrum, which is something that is still regular among some “state-sanctioned” Lithuanian writers, who never miss an opportunity to talk about the great importance of literature in the survival of Society and the Nation. It is because of his unpretentious nature that Grajauskas's poetry is so accessible to many, be they those who can't help but reevaluate the Lithuanian literary canon, young readers looking for authenticity, or anyone tired of the mundanity that surrounds us every day.

It is probably because of his skeptical approach towards socially accepted norms, mass cultural (and other forms of) production, and pseudo-romantic intensity that his lyrical subject reminds us of a prose storyteller. He is a disconnected observer, and the direction of his glance is always easy to see in his texts, but that glance never becomes an analysis of his internal feelings or thoughts. He records reactions to his environment and the thoughts that they inspire rather than his feelings. Because of this, we sometimes want to refer to his lyrical subject as a “character.” Indeed, this sometimes seems to be the only fitting description. For example, Santaliučija (St. Lucy) is no doubt one of the boldest characters in poetry from the Independence era. However, there are other poetic characters, or masks: a journalist doing an interview, a girl with a unicorn, a de-personalized guest on his way to his grandfather's birthday, a dragon, etc. As we can tell by this incomplete and superficial list, he touches upon various cultural layers. However, all of the characters behave normally. They aren't lifeless symbols or culturally loaded metaphors. It doesn't matter how mythological the naked and fearless berserk warrior from Scandinavia is: from the poem, we can tell that he is a figurative representation of an emotion experienced by everyone—anger as an internal demon. Because the emotion here is “shown” as a character rather than “felt,” we naturally form a distant and ironic relationship with it. The figurative nature of Grajauskas's poetry is a conscious strategy that allows us to distance ourselves from the everyday actions that draw us in and see something in them that we may not have otherwise noticed. Therefore, while reading this poetry, it is unavoidable to also read about the everyday existence of yourself as a 21stcentury person, with all of your strengths and weaknesses.

It is clear, especially in Grajauskas's third collection, Katalogai (Catalogues), that the everyday details being named are so common to us that they go unnoticed—radio sounds, sights in the street, etc. We see all of this as a mock-up, under which something greater and more authentic is hidden (or at least should be). Otherwise, we naturally think: “And that’s it, there’s nothing else? / nothing. Then what, then what” (“Soft Snow Poem”). This is why we feel certain notes of weariness and an attempt to simply survive in his poetry, as playful as it may be: “and there’s me over there: / the fool without a dog, / just standing and smiling” (“Spring on Mažvydo Avenue”). These notes are also strong in his later collections, like Kaulinė dūdelė (Bone Flute), Naujausių laikų istorijos: vadovėlis pradedantiesiems (New-Age Stories: A Guide for Beginners),  and Eilėraščiai savo kailiu (Poems in Their Own Skin). However, his poetry doesn't seem hopeless or dark. Indeed, the opposite is true. It makes us smile because it tries to grab onto some sort of meaning, authenticity or essence, like the tail of the Hare in Alice in Wonderland—something that makes modern people who they are. The speech used, which is simple and, one might even say, anti-poetic in the traditional sense, helps us uncover and emphasize what's most important: “as a sign of contrition, every evening, I have to say / good evening, how are you, thank you – / hungry for myself, blind to myself, lonely for myself.” In other words, Grajauskas's poetry is honest, but only because it admits its own banality and is ironic about it. The mundane elements in Žemuoju registru (In the Lower Register) are deconstructed and also seem to be given a second dimension. They become symbols that something must be hiding behind: “oh for pete’s sake, and when will it end?” / “when God’s plan is done” (“Cinematographic Poem”).

We understand that poems often form an ironic relationship with our banal everyday surroundings and with other clichés, like templates of Lithuanian identity that form in literature and culture and are later internalized by the people themselves. For example, in “Poem about the Lithuanian Search for Identity,” which can be found in Grajauskas's new collection in English, he uses the narrative of searching for a national identity that is typical of Lithuanian culture, which was established when forming the modern nation in the beginning of the 20th century. As is typical of Grajauskas, he shows us the other side of the coin—he brings national myths into to everyday life and tests them there. Therefore, descriptions of the “warlike nation” described in ancient literature are replaced by questions: “why do they shout out warlike songs, threaten people and hoot / why do they fight, then cry in each other’s arms?” Instead of the traditional and spiritually sensitive melancholia that is allegedly typical of our nation, he presents common, everyday depression: “why are they now smoking on scaffolding, spitting down, while looking at the sky?” He also dethrones a traditionally elevated event—the reading of poetry—in a similar manner. In the poem “After a Reading,” he shows a situation in which a listener stands up to ask what the author meant, at which his quickly told something that could never be said in an official event: “well, everything the author was trying to say / was just said  / you deaf dumbarse!”

Therefore, Grajauskas's mundane but elegant poetic language is doubtlessly noteworthy. The artist's auto-ironic stance and habit of deconstructing himself goes against the typical Lithuanian cultural stereotype, in which poets were the “conscience of the nation” or the “bards of the nation” —or, in other words, public political and cultural figures. In his poetry, the artist removes the masks from society, himself, and even his wife (“Artist‘s Wife”): “the artist’s resistance / is the practical uselessness / of himself.” This “resistance,” which we feel at certain points in Grajauskas's very first collection of poetry and which is most beautifully explored in his three latest collections, is something that is difficult to discuss non-poetically. Therefore, I will quote him again: “his frescoes inhabit seven churches / but he won’t travel to heaven / like this carver of wooden spoons.”

 

 

 

 

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