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Vaiva Grainytė (b. 1984) is a writer, playwright, and poet. Her creative practice tends to cross the confines of desk work and be manifested in interdisciplinary practices: radio plays, site specific/dance performances, and musicals. Her solo works – the book of essays Beijing Diaries (2012) and the poetry collection Gorilla’s Archives (2019) were nominated for the Book of the Year awards and included in the top twelve listings of the most creative books in Lithuania. In her writing, documentary and social issues are exhibited in a poetic and paradoxical manner. Grainytė is also the librettist of the opera Have a Good Day (2013), which earned 6 international awards in Europe. Her second work in arts – a collaboration with Lina Lapelytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė Sun & Sea (Marina) (2019) was chosen to represent Lithuania at the 58th Contemporary Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, where it was awarded the Golden Lion for Best National Participation. The author and her colleagues’ work also received National Prize for Culture and Arts (2019).

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Graphic Novels

Photo by Dainius Dirgėla

Interview by Saulius Vasiliauskas

 

We’re having this virtual chat during a worldwide lockdownpeople are urged to stay inside, wear masks in public places, practice social distancing, and take any other necessary precautions. So I’d like to begin by asking you this: how do you spend your time in the midst of a slower world? Did all of this have any impact on your habits and day-to-day life?

In early March, when the news on the coronavirus seemed like a media exaggeration, I was getting ready for my trip to the Leipzig Book Fair and to the USA. When two major events that our trio was supposed to participate in got cancelled, it turned out to be only a prelude to the collapse that shortly followed: our Sun & Sea tours, which had been in talks with various art institutions and festivals from Iceland to Australia, had to be moved to the next year. The Have a Good Day! opera performances were cancelled in Vilnius, South Korea, and Germany. Our rich fall and winter tour plans are still uncertain. My partner was meaning to come from Canada for this Easter, but the strict curtain of the quarantine isolated our continents even further. This may sound odd, and a little insensitive given the present circumstances, but I felt an intoxicating curiosity as this avalanche of cancelled hit us. “Wow, we’re all becoming characters of some dystopian reality, now that’s interesting”—that’s what I thought. During the pre-quarantine times, the constant buzzing of my phone was a source of neurotic flinching, and the luggage idly standing in the middle of my room would give me insomnia. There was just a little too much of everything. It looks like that hurricane of success was already carrying a little seed of destruction inside of it, but I never thought that the coronavirus would take such a stab with its crown and not just ruin our ambitious tour plans but also put the whole world at a halt. Despite the financial losses and the energy invested, I feel like the quarantine made me return to my “inner roots” and helped me establish a more creative workflow—the time spent in solitude, with no people, events, or publicity is put to good use and spent without the slightest bit of torment. I have the opportunity to focus and take up other projects. When I need a distraction, I go for a walk or a bicycle tour. I am currently answering your questions from an attic in Kaunas—I’m spending a week’s residency at my mother’s place. She does volunteering work, drives to the forests and does 10-kilometer hikes on a regular basis; I occasionally join her, and we pick up trash left behind by others on our way, too. I don’t feel as if I’m imprisoned or oppressed by a singular space.

And, while I feel really well, I also feel bad—I’m anxious and sad about the social exclusion, the economic collapse, and the tragedies in the sectors of physical and emotional health, all provoked by the virus. The pandemic has only solidified my previously held suspicions and desires—that I must seek alternative ways of existing and relocate to the fringes of the capitalist whirlpool.

Since the beginning of the quarantine, all sorts of artistic happenings have sprung up around the worldvarious acts expressing gratitude to medical employees, art performances, published diaries of writers, etc. In your opinion, can art help overcome the psychological and emotional issues of a “closed world”? Do you yourself spend these days writing?

Perhaps it is not art itself that helps people overcome mental obstacles during these times, but the communication that happens through art—movie discussions on social media, domestic tableau vivant recreations of famous paintings, Skype concerts, poetry readings, exhibitions on balconies, dance performances in the courtyards of apartment buildings, etc. However, it is not true that we all suddenly have so much time to bask in streaming services, to read books, or to attend virtual lectures.  For many people, the challenges posed by the quarantine and their schedules only became more intense, while those who happen to be raising kids at home have even less time to begin with. And in such countries like Lithuania, where the lockdown is not as severe (the police do not pursue those going outside, while the green spaces can be reached on foot, by bicycle, or the empty public transport), emotional and mental health can be improved by moving and spending time in the outdoor spaces. The expanses of digital art, suddenly open to everybody, may have an opposite effect. For example, the lack of time one has to cover them all may induce anxiety or provoke the FOMO syndrome, previously suppressed by the quarantine. Countless hours spent in front of a computer screen, even if they’re spent looking at masterpieces, are just not healthy.

In terms of writing, it just so happens that I’m working on a year-long project of considerable scale, which requires the devotion of my efforts and thoughts and which entails a lot of reading and writing. The current sedentary and tacit circumstances are very fit for this job. The job helps me structure my day, divide it into periods of work and rest, so I, too, use my time to enjoy the cultural supply of the quarantine sparingly.

When people speak about global issues, their conversations are usually heated and banal for how repetitive and imploring they become. But in your worksboth in the Sun & Sea Marina, which earned you the Golden Lion at Venice’s Biennale, and in your poemssocial criticism acquires different tones, forgoing the imploring speech and emotional intensity. It seems that nowadays such a mode of speech may influence the audience more than emotional shouting. What are your thoughts on this?

I get to think and speak on these things during artist talks that happen within the context of our operas Have a Good Day! and Sun & Sea. For example, the German theater scene is very activist and politically engaged, so if I happen to find myself within the context of a German theater festival, I want to argue that the cashiers’ monologues come from a poetic perspective and not from an interview format or pure documentation or as a result of “sticking it to the man.” But if I’m around an exalted bunch of friends, I’ll get the urge to discuss the Sun & Sea libretto as a result of research on climate change. What I want to say is that I also have a tense relationship with both direct and strident activism and dense and self-centered poetry, and spluttering, whimpering shows of emotion. Let’s just say that a performance on domestic abuse against women is not necessarily a good one just because of the fact that its built around such an important topic. We must draw our attention to social issues. But the transferring of topical issues to art does not necessarily make the piece a good one. The piece can revolve around an obscure chemical compound like potassium permanganate and be an excellent work. So, I would say, what matters is not what we speak of, but how we do it. Regarding what you said about influence—global topics are very macrocosmic, abstract, and anonymous; and they, being the servants of the 24-hour news cycle, are aggressively exploited in intimidating headlines and eventually lose their power. Our receptors go numb after having to constantly process a strident flow of information. So, when we change our mode of speech, or if we manage to find a more personal, routine, micro-perspective for a global topic, we imbue it with a new quality. Tones, half-tones, shadows, variations between humor and (self-)irony—these are very important tools for me both in life and in my creative pursuits.

I want to discern the characteristics of your poetry: the ironic mode of speech that is paradoxical in natureat once “expressively modest” and “surreally real”; the (ostensible) disinterest in aesthetics, your novel variations in language (using cases, gender, and vocabulary); the personifications of everyday domestic objects and elements of nature, revealing an unexpected poetic world that does not draw any easy likeness to anything currently found in contemporary Lithuanian literature, and which bears more semblance to the interwar avant-garde or the works of the Four Winds movement (Giedrė Kazlauskaitė states the same in her review[1]. I do not wish tonor think that I could manage todraw any connections between you and any “literary parents,” so I’d rather ask bluntly: what does your library look like? How do you choose your books? What poetry books have a lasting place in your reading list?

I choose what to read based on my circumstances, demands, based on coincidences, reviews, news, or, on the contrary, I dive into the timeless classics. There is no permanent list or center. For example, I’m currently reading specific works on sociology and neurology because my job demands that of me; I may have some fiction as a treat only in the evenings. Regarding “literary parents” —perhaps it is in the power of literary critics to conduct such genealogical surveys?

Although I don’t remember any conscious attempts to follow the Four Winds, what Kazlauskaitė said was accurate. I do remember that while I was still in school, during my literature lesson, I first heard Binkis’s poem about an old idiot Moon, tamed by electricity wires, and it resonated with me. I thought: what a remarkable phrase. I really liked how the moon was settled into an industrial landscape. So perhaps we should speak not of “literary parents” but of works and more general phenomena that when encountered would evoke a deep sense of propinquity. Like the poems by the Dadaist Jean Hans Arpo, which I found translated by Kęstutis Navakas and published in Nemunas during my university years—I cut those poems out and glued them with chewing gum above my dorm bed, and I felt a little less lonely then. I probably carried a copy of F. G. Lorca’s poetry book everywhere I went for about four years. German expressionism and the surrealists, who later influenced the consolidation of the cut-up and collage techniques in art, had a lasting effect on me. Paradoxes, the juxtapositions of unexpected opposites, the personifications of inanimate objects—all these are found in myths, folklore, and primal rituals, which were all a source for the avant-garde classics. I believe that the folk tales of various cultures, medical encyclopedias, various reference books on nature and distant lands, which I had read up until my late teenage years, finally caught up to me in the form of yet another close “brother” of mine—which is twentieth-century modernism. But even though I feel a kindred spirit with this mental relative of mine, I keep a distance between us—as important as dreams or the subconscious world are, I began to focus equally enough on the domestic environment, political context, and reality. And reality is replete with bizarre and phantasmagoric features—a ready-made surrealism.

In one of your conversations[2] you mentioned that it took you an almost complete year to prepare your book’s manuscriptthat is, to arrange its structure from works written in 2002 and 2018. What were the biggest challenges posed by this process?

The biggest challenge was, I suppose, in concentrating and reconciling outer and inner action—the inventorying of the Gorilla’s Archives manuscript took place during my participation at the Venice Biennale. But as I think back on the process of preparing the book, I remember pleasure, not hardship. Perhaps I did have a headache or two as I dwelled on the book’s structure and the arrangement of its chapters: I found myself dealing with a heap of texts that had no concept or backbone to hold them together. Some poems appeared emotionally dated to me—I sought to reactivate them and hear them anew. Every poem was regarded as a cell that makes up a uniform whole. I felt like some entomologist tidying up an old insect collection: I separated the texts into topics and sub-topics, groups and sub-groups, I distinguished them into even smaller units and classes – a, b, c, d, d1, d2, etc. When I grasped the content of a chapter, I would then contemplate the order of the texts within it, and after that, the harmony between the chapters themselves, which are but larger units of the whole. Meanwhile, I also read various materials and sought assistance in them. I looked for epigraphs that could help me in establishing the book’s dramaturgy and forging its vertebrae. All of the following were good for this task—a geography atlas left behind by my grandfather in the early twentieth century, the Dadaistic tales of Karelia, Salinger, Barthes, Suckever, and some literature of a wholly different caliber as well as hunting trip memories written by Brazauskas’s hunting guru. I am thankful to the book’s editor, Janina Riškutė, for providing outside input. We met only once, but afterward I saw things in a new light. I realized the potential dynamics of my manuscript, and I eventually dropped a chapter or two from the book. The Writers’ Union Publishing House was especially cooperative during the whole process and did not oppose the book designer Jurgis Griškevičius’s vision that the covers of the second print run have to be painted in a different color. The whole process of publishing the poetry book, which had stalled for about seven years, came to a neat end.

The Sun is a frequent “character” in your poems. In your most recent book, the sun is a “burning roll” (p. 6), a “vile duke” (p. 7), a “a sage chemist” (p. 10), a “charming demon” (p. 62)... It is not hard and quite entertaining for the reader to visually imagine these images of the sun brought to poetry. Do you “see” your texts as visual representations when you work on them? How do you evaluate visuality in performance art, theater, or music?

When I say that the sun is “mustached” or “vile” I do not really see it as having a moustache, as if it were some character from a Soviet cartoon. And besides, to answer your previous comment on how I operate linguistically, the mythological and grammatical gender of the sun is usually male, so turning it into a duke is not really a novel thing. I “see” these epithets and tropes more through the words I use, I hear the linguistic paradox that they create, which comes to my mind, I’d say, in the form of a thought or an idea. Using my linguistic arsenal, I create that which I may be able to see.

Visuality in art is a very broad topic. I view it in good terms. Though I’m more interested in the instances when the visual aspect is something more than an effect, that is, when content is derived from it. Bearing in mind the surplus of visual noise in our daily life, to experience images in a literary or musical work, to engage one’s inner eye of imagination, leaving the anatomical sight to rest, is a breath of fresh air.

I remember attending a premiere of the opera Have A Good Day! in 2011. I was greatly impressed by the musical confessions, biographies, and chords of the intimate moods of the anonymous cashiers. Back then I already took note of not only the musical compositions or the acting, but the text as well, perfectly handled as it was. I’m curious to know how you variate the specifics of how you writebetween plays, poetry, essays, and interdisciplinary art. Is it easy for you to switch genres? Do you have a system for that or perhaps some artistic habits?

Switching genres is not that hard, because you’re still working with the same tools—language and imagination—only that you employ different muscles of the brain when you do it. I’ve noticed that when I’m writing for the stage or cooperating with other artists, I use my mental energy up much faster. Writing poetry brings the most pleasure because those texts come around unexpectedly, they sneak up on you in the form of a phrase, an image, an emotion, or an idea. You just feel something tugging at your line; you can then guess that the big catch will either appear all at once or layer itself into the poems little by little, with a gentle touch of editing. I really enjoy the essay genre as well because each time you defeat the horror of the empty page and the helplessness that emerges just as you begin writing, intersectional realities—personal experience, the surrounding context, other works, social issues—all become transported into language. Compared to poetry, there’s more hard labor here, more action in the left side of the brain, and more solitude, but essentially it is the same synthesis of documentation and fiction. Interdisciplinary works occur according to the same principle, but as you write you bear in mind much more components, like the space where the work will take place in or the people who’ll perform the text (their voices, bodies, personalities, and hobbies may ignite the primary spark of the characters they play). The kitchen of such writing, although it requires self-isolation, is frequently visited by my co-authors, and I too exit that same kitchen into the common living room to share some scraps of my draft; it is here, too, that we do tryouts with the singers and the musical sketches. In short, writing is either an absolutely intimate, solo experience, or a more public element of a polylogic whole. I don’t have a system, but I’ve discovered that I function best in the morning and that spending too much time sitting kills productivity, so I move and take walks. Discipline, time planning, putting my phone on flight mode, and a ban on social media help as well.

Paulius Jevsejevas, who is by far perhaps the most ardent analyst of your poetry, and who has sent both praise and criticism in your direction, counts many figures of eating and nutrition in your book: “the world here bites, swallows, digests, eats, drinks, tastes, burps, decays, and so on.”[3] As I scoured your biography for any interesting facts, I found out that you once worked as a cook in Rhodes. Taking a step away from the kitchen of writing, would you tell me more about your experience working in an actual kitchen and just how much of a nutrition freak you are? (I was always fascinated by your ironic experiences dealing with Chinese cuisine that you’ve laid out in Beijing Diaries.)

A cook—this fact from my biography is neither fact nor fiction. It is a pure trope, a hyperbole. I was pretty good at it, though, because I was a fast worker who could wash dishes, make milkshakes, press juice, and grill sandwiches of several varieties all at the same time for the steady stream of the Horus Café clientele (who were, regrettably, not Egyptologists).

Nutrition and food are important to me in the culinary, sensatory, political, natural-scientific, and poetic senses. Digestion and fermentation are semantically linked to transformation and change (energy, calories, health, disease, a new being). The ingestion of another animal or plant is the purest cosmic mystery there is. For example, when you process a chicken, you not only acquire its energy, but you also absorb the grains that the chicken ate and the broadleaf coursing through its cells, which, in turn, grew out of photosynthesis and under the influence of sunlight. When you think about it that way, we all eat, pick, gnaw, ruminate, and likewise ingest the sun and the life forms that have come about from the sun’s energy.

I associate nutrition with the preservation of my environment, as well as my health and pleasure, the “Me” being one of nature’s organisms. I was into all sorts of theories and diets during my teen years, but now I just value quality produce that is preserved in an ethical and clean manner. I really enjoy both cooking and dining. And when the time comes, I will gladly use my own body to feed the soil’s microorganisms.

I keep thinking that it is harder for an individual to retain their own peculiar style when creating in a small community of artiststhey need to be bold and patient to be recognized officiallythan it is in a larger one. A larger community has more tolerance to variety, a naturally greater degree of subverting the dominant tradition and the “poetic mean,” and the competition is not as intimate. Would you agree with that? Could you draw any comparisons between working here and your experiences abroad?

I could probably agree with the idea about “intimate competition”—we’re all associated with one another here in a way, and we’re all acquaintances, at least to some degree. But there’s some charm in such knots of relations; for example, a considerable part of people from my generation, those I graduated school with, operate in the field of culture or are from the same city as I, so there’s always this class reunion vibe every time I work in Lithuania. But there’s a flip side to this cozy phenomenon—spending too much time with the family at the dinner table, you begin to lose breath and bruise sides. The international arena, of course, offers much more oxygen, but you eventually notice that residencies, festivals, art institutions, curators, and creators all move in similar trajectories, bypassing one another. Since we’re speaking in writing, I’m unable to ask you to specify what exactly do you mean by being “recognized officially.” I’d ask whether being recognized matters at all. And who does that community consist of? Even if we operate independently from one another, we unintentionally become part of a cultural landscape. Anyhow, we could always create alternative communities, especially now that we have emancipated ourselves from behind the Iron Curtain and gained access to a global network. The most important thing is to never try and cater to anybody’s expectations and to just speak in one’s natural voice—if that voice is talented and interesting, it will be heard, sooner or later, in one place or another.

Since we’re forced to forget our travel plans for a while, to conclude our conversation, could you please recount one of the more memorable or riskier of your adventures?

I have no wish to boast of my riskier adventures, because that would cast me back to the Beijing Diaries period. My recent trips have all been “work related,” and most recently they’ve been multiplied only through the necessity of my personal circumstances (I speak in ignorance of the COVID-19 context).

Last summer, I took a trip to North America to see my partner. It was exactly at that time that the eastern shores of Canada were hit by Dorian, the Category 5 hurricane which had previously devastated The Bahamas and raged across the southwestern part of the USA. And those 24 hours of apocalypse that even senior Canadians had had never experienced before in their lives, for some reason, took place on the day of my 35th birthday. The wind raced at the speed of 130 km/h, heaving hundred-year-old maple trees out of the ground (I could hardly comprehend the view outside the window), so we hid in the basement. We were stranded without electricity or water for a week; the nearby houses were burning because their generators had caught fire. After that, we traveled to Prince Edward Island, the birthplace of the writer Lucy Maud Montgomery and her cult character Anne of Green Gables. The camping areas were out of order on the island because Dorian had previously punished that plot of land even more harshly. We eventually found a working campsite, set up our tent there, and gazed at the two-meter stacks of seaweed thrown onto the shores of the Atlantic (with some aid by the hurricane).

 

1. http://pdr.lt/lt/tekstai/apie-poetus-ir-knygas/item/146-keturvejininke

2. https://www.15min.lt/kultura/naujiena/literatura/vaiva-grainyte-apie-savo-poezijos-knyga-sis-rinkinys-yra-labiau-dramaturgija-negu-terapija-286-1166064

3. https://literaturairmenas.lt/literatura/paulius-jevsejevas-knebinejant-gorilos-archyvus

 

 

 

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

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