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Tomas S. Butkus (b. 1975) is a poet and publisher. He graduated from the Vilnius Gediminas Technical University with a degree in architecture. In 1992, he founded the “Copper Mouths” idea workshop where he continues to work on the art of ideas: connecting design, publication, literature, urban studies and other artistic and scholarly initiatives. In 2004, his poetry book, Generated Language Mutation, won the award for most creative Lithuanian book of the year. That same year, Butkus was recognized in London at the International Young Publishers Contest as one of the eight most creative young publishers in the world. Since 1996, he has published one poetry collection and nine chapbooks, as well as two children’s books. His poems have been translated into seven languages. Butkus is the author of more than two hundred art and publication initiatives.
His second poetry book "Lakeland" was published in 2020.

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Tomas S. Butkus, Ežerožemė, vario burnos, V.: 2020

 

Tomas S Butkus review 02

The poet, architect, and traveller Tomas S. Butkus (Slombas) rarely has work published, but when his books appear, they turn into an event.

Ežerožemė (Lakeland), written from 1997 to 2020, reveals that Butkus’s poetry has absorbed a fair dose of the sweeping spirit typical of the first ten years of Lithuania’s independence. In the early 1990s, it was in the work of the young that the sense of freedom was acutely felt because a multitude of undiscovered territories opened up with the collapse of the Soviet system and only very few writers were willing to identify themselves with official literature. At the time, poetic centrism and anarchy got on like a house on fire, and vociferous manifestos along with “poetic” theories hit the scene. Butkus joined such literary circles as Įžanga (Introduction) and Atolas (Atoll). Bohemian rage, open borders, and the concept of a postmodernism pregnant with the promise of “otherness” intoxicated many a poet. It was a time when many ideas unimaginable today were materialised (a performance with a rotten fish; Mantas Gimžauskas-Šamanas’s debut book of blank pages, complete with copyright and a pencil; the cult of Hokis, the invented god of nonsense; and the like).  Although the milieu of those days finds little reflection in Butkus’s poetry, we can presume that the spirit of those times contributed to how he sees his surroundings, what means he chooses for his creative work, and what he believes in.

Butkus is one of the few Lithuanian poets who attaches considerable significance to the phenomenon of representation. He has tried different ways of expression that connect the word with sound and image: he has written poetry in various genres and complemented it with experimental forms (concrete poetry) and styles (psychedelic poetry, for example); he also took part in the audio-visual poetry group Betoniniai triušiai (Concrete Rabbits).  To Butkus, poetry is more than just written text, and therefore he has been asking, in different ways, what poetic logic is capable of.  Where are the boundaries of the perception of poetry? How can they be expanded?

Butkus’s Vario burnos (Copper Mouths) creative workshops were a no less important part in his self-expression.  Initially, the workshops focused on familial self-publishing by producing translations of his own poetry and that by his peers and his favourite poets and became known for introducing the first chapbooks[1] onto the Lithuanian literary scene.  The books materialised text ideas for the implementation of which a variety of techniques and artifacts (for instance, hosiery tights from a market) were used; each copy was made unique by hand-crafted accents. Although eventually this non-commercial activity developed into mature book design, it did not reach mass scale.

“Book art” has too narrow a definition to describe the unique books that came out of Vario burnos. For example, in order to read Butkus’s Generuotos kalbos mutacija (2003; Mutation of a Generated Language), the reader had to tear the cover containing a tuft of the author’s hair open and thus seemingly perform a Caesarean section to find the hardly legible poems. The book encouraged the reader s to reflect on the nature of creation and the act of tearing open the cover was reminiscent of physiological childbirth. This case greatly reveals Butkus’s modernist attitude to a work: in order to read, the reader must take part in a symbolic act of creation. Not all conceptual ideas can be adapted to other content, and they do not have to please the consumer. Art can provide “specs” with which to see the world, and therefore artists make attempts to establish a world in a work of art.  A search for the independent poetic logic of a work is also observed in Butkus’s other projects.

Ežerožemė (Lakeland), Butkus’s latest book, comprises his very diverse work from 1997 to 2020.  Over the course of many years, Butkus crystallised a method for structuring his work and revealing its potential. The textual (poetry of various genres) and visual (photography, montages, and maps) parts are well balanced in the book. At first sight, this classic combination resembles an autobiographical atlas of poetry. However, the author’s suggestion is to read Ežerožemė as a narrative, “a novel of verses and narrative poems.” Therefore, we cannot overlook the fact that there exist relations between fiction and reality, between art and life.

As a rule, poetry collections are compiled chronologically and thus reveal the development of their authors and their work. In his book, Butkus complements this principle by accentuating space. First, such an impression is conveyed by the structure of the book that introduces the content like an atlas. The reader is given a table of contents that is also a map legend. In it, the texts are formally divided into thirteen main themes and genres that encompass the full diversity of the poetic activity: it points to the shifts from what is personal to social policy, from the miniature to the narrative poem. In addition, the reader can move along the symbolic Jungėnai-Skaidiškės[2] (two chapters in the collection are titled thus) route, which conveys poetic thinking and its intervals: it is not a real route but a metaphorical attempt at reflecting mental spaces and marking shifts from one existential experience to another (for instance, from love to loneliness). The concept of Ežerožemė unobtrusively proposes a way to present poetry as a world and to equate reading with a journey.  

The montages and photographs that appear alongside the texts also point to broad geography: they depict journeys, urban objects, various episodes of life, and the artist’s curriculum vitae[3]—drafts and pictures from performances and from family albums. The author took or edited them himself, that is, he did not present unaltered  images.  Quite often the poet appears in the shot: he is not only a recorder of the world but also a participant who shows the change in and the different roles of the individual. This “trickster-like” strategy intimates that the figure of the art creator that interprets the entirety of the world  and helps to populate the world of art by validating its existence is relevant in art.  

The scope of the book uncovers globality, a rather infrequent quality in Lithuanian poetry.  In Butkus’s poetry, it points to a positive way to search for correlations between distant objects (not incidentally ežerožemė, that is, “lakeland,” is an artificial word in Lithuanian, made of two words of contrasting meanings), to find order for objects lost in space and time, and to develop a consistent discourse on the classic unity of the individual and the world.  On the other hand, in the process of reading poetry, globality can be perceived as openness to different cultures, modes of style, and faiths.

In the tradition of Lithuanian poetry, landscape is a top-level category that assists in developing a multitude of national aspects (ethnographic nationalism, resistance, and social policy, as well as historical and cultural memory). This category often imparts meaning to the state’s and nation’s search for identity. It is clearly a value category that has not yet shaken off the influence of romanticism. Traditionalists and modernists alike poeticised the landscape during the period of the Soviet occupation. It is the influence of the modernists (for example, Sigitas Geda’s neo-avant-garde texts) that can be felt in some of the poetry (the mytho-poetic poem Jūrų valstybė [1996–2010; A Maritime State], Ežerožemė [1997–2020]) by Butkus, who debuted in independent Lithuania. He complements the archive of Lithuanian poetry with the motifs of the maritime landscape, the imagination, and the surrealist manner.  However, a look from the distance of time shows that for Butkus, speaking about the inherent relationship with a location is more a universal rather than a local theme.   Therefore it is interpreted in a significantly more flexible manner and may come as a surprise in its combination of the pagan feeling, criticism of consumerism, and ecological reasoning.

Although the concept of Ežerožemė is epical, the texts may appear to contradict it. The poet is most concerned with recording the semblance of the felt life and the expression of subconscious processes. This entails a constant need to open up to the world, to establish an authentic relationship with the field of vision, sometimes doubling the gaze into the internal and external (as though taking a sidelong look) within the text. Therefore, this poetry is intimate, lyrical, and surreal, mundane and metaphorical at the same time.

Yet the “openness” in Butkus’s texts is deceptive. We will often come across a differently “cultured” reality: a route compared to a book and a landscape to writing, an obvious word that is broken down and transformed into a neologism, and examples of concrete poetry. It hides the poetic centrism that invites us to constantly rethink the mission of poetry and the role of the poet. I would say that one of the aspects of the impact of Ežerožemė is Butkus’s talent to unfold these ideas in a diverse and collected manner. Very likely, the originality of the book will become open to those who will succumb to the temptation of a modern game.

 

1. In Lithuanian, a chapbook used to be called a čiabukas, which parallels with the word čiabuvis ‘an indigene’: the book was seen as alien, representative of a different culture. For more on this, see: http://varioburnos.com/home-page/

2. The poet employs existing names of places in Lithuania but they are not related to his biography. Both are interesting due to their “etymological” possibilities: Jungėnai derives from the word jungti “link, connect,” and Skaidiškės from the words skaidyti, atskirti “disperse, separate.”

3. Butkus has designed many collections by and reminiscences about Lithuanian nonconformists. Mention should be made of the poetry book ŠamanasTM by one of the most remarkable, tragically deceased, poets, Mantas Gimžauskas-Šamanas and his virtual museum; Negyvenimo fragmentai (Fragments of a Non-Life) by Rimas Burokas, a flâneur of the old towns of the Soviet period; reminiscences from Pasaulis pagal Barą (The World According to Baras) about Arnoldas Barysas-Baras, an avant-garde film-maker and a book collector; and others. These works are connected by the curriculum vitae style, when the texts are characterised by the documents, creative work, and drafts that reveal the culture of the period.

 

 

 

Translated by Diana Barnard

 

 

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